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The Spectator's Notes

Charles Moore’s Notes: Why the V&A needs Thatcher’s clothes

Plus: the house that Jacques built; ministers cannot comply with international law; more on Prof Sir Geoff Palmer; and cosmetic surgery

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

It is good to learn that the current management of the V&A want to reverse their predecessors’ lack of interest in Margaret Thatcher’s clothes. The museum’s original refusal showed a lack of imagination about how women have tried to gain greater power in a man’s world, and how clothes tell this story. Museums love to have suits of medieval armour. They reveal the amazing combination of defensive utility and elegant display which the age required. Even better if the armour was worn by a great warrior on a great occasion, like the Black Prince at Crecy. Mrs Thatcher’s clothes were her armour on her fields of battle — in Parliament, on television, in Moscow, at her party conference after the Brighton bomb. They helped her win. I hope a generous donor will step forward to buy them for the nation at this late stage. If the V&A doesn’t take them, the clothes would look well in the Imperial War Museum.

In political reality, George Osborne must be right that member states not in the eurozone cannot prevent those who are from integrating further. But the trouble with his ‘We want to help you do what you want, so long as you protect our position outside the zone’ offer is that the further integration will be a disaster across the entire Continent. It sounds logical to say that the travails of Greece etc. have proved the need for banking union, fiscal integration and so on, but in fact the development of a de facto central government for the zone would pile Pelion on Ossa, forcing Germany, who would have to pay, to create a form of imperium over it. Obviously Britain is better out than in, but the greater need is to stop trying to repair and extend the house that Jacques Delors built, and arrange for its orderly demolition.


In last week’s Notes, I wrote about the controversy caused by the government’s revision of the ministerial code which guides ministers’ conduct. In its Blair-era version, the code said that ministers had an overarching duty ‘to comply with the law including international law and treaty obligations’. The Cameron-era version has deleted the last six words, leaving simply ‘…to comply with the law’. This has outraged lawyers who work in this field, but what the change exposes is that international law and treaties should never have been slipped into the rubric in the first place. According to the great legal philosopher Professor John Finnis, in a blog for Policy Exchange’s Judicial Power project, ‘The most fundamental principle of our constitutional law … is that ministers can neither claim any immunity … from the rules of common law, nor … impose a legal duty … except to the extent that an Act of Parliament authorises them to do so.’ So it is wrong to say that, simply by entering into an international treaty, ministers can change the legal rights and obligations of citizens or of future ministers. International law is defective, compared with national law, because it has no accepted final court. It derives from no state and is therefore, in a certain sense, a fiction — though often a useful one. It is positively bad for ministers to follow international law and treaties if they conflict with their constitutional duties in the country which they govern. In modern culture, where the rule of law has been subjected to ‘producer capture’ by lawyers, it is brave of the government to clear this up.

Elsewhere in this paper this week, Peter Hitchens defends the once-famous, once-sainted Bishop Bell of Chichester from the Church of England’s claim that he was guilty of child abuse. I do not know the facts of this case, but if Hitchens is right, the Bell case is yet another example of people’s readiness to say untrue things about the dead, secure in the knowledge that the libel law cannot go after them. Naturally, I am not arguing for the law to extend to the dead (think of the furious suits in support of the prophet Mohammed which would ensue), but all the more reason for the living to defend the reputation of the departed. This is why I am pursuing the claim by Professor Sir Geoff Palmer that in 1964, at an interview for a MSc course subsidised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Sir Keith Joseph told him to go home and grow bananas. The Centre for Policy Studies, which Joseph founded, has now complained to the BBC about the programme — The Life Scientific — on which Sir Geoff made the claim unchallenged. Sir Geoff might reflect that his account of what Joseph said would, if Sir Keith were alive, require the legal defence of ‘justification’ (i.e. provable truth) to avoid losing a libel action. As a learned scientist with a regard for evidence, Sir Geoff surely feels a moral though not a legal duty to produce his. He might also consider the view of Sir Michael Franklin, at that time private secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and later the ministry’s permanent secretary. Sir Michael describes the story about Joseph as ‘extraordinary’, and says succinctly, ‘Palmer must have got the wrong man’.

It is well known that, as years pass, one fails to recognise people because they look so much older than when one last saw them. Nowadays, however, the opposite is often true. Several times recently, I have stared blankly when greeted warmly by elegant-looking women (and, occasionally, men) because they now look so much younger. Closer inspection usually reveals evidence of the work done to achieve this, and the effect then becomes less convincing; but it can only be a matter of time before surgical and other procedures are so accomplished that the illusion will be complete. Eventually people will realise that if cosmetics can achieve virtually anything, it is vanity to try to reproduce one’s young self as one ages, and one might as well get a new face altogether. The danger, of course, would be that more than one person would decide to be reworked as Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant (or whoever). The effect at parties would then be the same as the problem when two women turn up wearing the same dress.


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