Skip to Content

The Spectator's Notes

An object lesson in PR from David Cameron and Justin Welby

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: Obama’s policy on the Middle East; behaviour of banks; titles for spouses

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

I don’t think there is a Royal College of Public Relations, but if there were, it should teach a course based on a comparison between two stories last week. One concerned the Prime Minister and the other the Archbishop of Canterbury. Both arose from the paternity of the principals and, in both cases, the principals had not done anything wrong. Yet there the similarities end. David Cameron, and those working for him, spent the best part of a week fending off and then changing a story they found embarrassing. Justin Welby, and his much smaller staff, confirmed the truth of a potentially much more painful story in one go, bravely and clearly. Mr Cameron emerged from fundamentally minor questions about what money his father might have passed him (and by what means) with what looked like — though it isn’t — a stain on his character. Mr Welby came through a revelation of the sort that can provoke a nervous breakdown — that the man you thought was your father was not — with his character enhanced. Prime Minister looked cross and shifty; archbishop looked strong and honest. Why the difference? It is not as if Mr Cameron is a bad man. He is moderate, patriotic, decent, family-minded, sane and humorous. Could it be something to do with the power of conviction? What seems to nag at the Prime Minister is a sense of his inauthenticity. He condemns tax avoidance not because he really thinks it automatically wrong, but because he is frightened about being thought posh and rich. Then he gets hoist by his own petard, so people laugh at him. The Archbishop of Canterbury, on the other hand, found his unshakeable faith through the extreme difficulties of his early life. When it turns out even more difficult, he knows instinctively how to deal with this. People respect him the more.

It feels strange to write ‘Mr Welby’ when previous Archbishops have been Dr. But it is correct. Because he was an oil executive, not a theologian, Justin Welby was not in line for a doctorate. It is a tiny indicator that he is different from the normal run.


After I had confirmed for certain that the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne was the father of the archbishop, and reported it in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, I reflected on the potency of his pair of ivory-backed, monogrammed hairbrushes. It was they — or rather, his hair on them — that provided his DNA. Not only did they therefore play a key role in the investigation, rather like the lead piping in a game of Cluedo; they also spoke so clearly of the period and milieu of their owner. I do not know any men under the age of 80 who have a pair of such hairbrushes, unless inherited. They are redolent of an age where men had special dressing-rooms for such things — stiff collars, stud-boxes, shoe trees, clothes brushes, cut-throat razors. Sir Anthony’s widow, Shelagh, tells me he was most possessive of these hairbrushes and refused to let her wash them. He may have feared that washing would make the bristles part from the ivory. But it was this decision that incriminated him.

A Middle Eastern friend put to me the other day a point so big that I felt silly for not having thought of it. Why are so many people fleeing from Syria and Iraq, and other parts of the region, beyond the huge, obvious reason that they fear for their lives? Because they believe that the Shias have gained the whip hand over the Sunnis. George Bush’s mishandling of Iraq after he conquered it opened the way for Iranian power. Barack Obama’s abandonment of Saudi Arabia, his refusal to restore order in Syria and his nuclear deal with Iran have erected this mistake into a policy. So one of this policy’s victims is the EU.

A more fortunate group of refugees, I am told, are now to be seen in London. They are rich people who banked at Coutts, but are now hurrying down the Strand to Fleet Street, carrying their money to the more robust offices of the family-owned Hoare’s there. Because some banks were, in the past, so lax about whose money they accepted, they have now leant so far the other way that they start harassing and, in some cases, dropping long-standing customers. It was recently announced, for example, that Barclays, without explanation, was closing the account of the businessman and philanthropist Wafic Said, and that of his charitable foundation, although he has been with them for 40 years. He is suing them because they won’t tell him why. It may be a good thing that banks are more vigilant, but one cannot have much faith that their methods are fair or intelligent: they are driven more by fear than ethics. One powerful concept, nowadays, for example, is what the banks call a politically exposed person (PEP). This is taken to mean not only someone like Vladimir Putin but also every member of the House of Commons or of the Lords, some of whom now find their accounts shut down. I recently heard of a man who has had two bank accounts removed, one because his father is a PEP, the other because his uncle is. Both the father and the uncle, however, keep their accounts. Like all tick-box cultures, this one is stupid.

For some reason, possibly homophobic, the media just now is refusing to give any coverage to David Furnish, the spouse of Sir Elton John. I think they are trying to suppress an important argument that Mr Furnish made recently. He pointed out how discriminatory it was that, unlike the wife of a titled man, he derives no title from his knighted spouse. He was too modest to say what title he should be given — and I must say I cannot think of a solution, since ‘Lady John’ would make him sound like the wife of the younger son of a duke — but it is the principle of the thing which matters. Actually, Mr Furnish’s point goes wider than he recognises: the problem also afflicts the male spouses of titled women, such as Prince Philip. If he were a woman married to the King, the Prince would be the Queen.


Show comments
Close