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The Spectator's Notes

Barack Obama is obsessed with signalling his virtue

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: Bishop Bell; Hezza’s war on grey squirrels; call me Mr Moore

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

29 October 2016

9:00 AM

World leaders are preoccupied nowadays with what is known as their ‘legacy’. In practice, this means being linked with moral-sounding projects, rather than embedding clear achievements. Barack Obama is even more obsessed with legacy than his predecessors. What might be his final way of showing this? Some suggest he will order the United States to abstain if France brings forward its planned UN Security Council resolution calling for a Palestinian state, thus permitting the resolution to pass. If so, he will bring no peace, but who cares? He will have signalled his virtue.

My invitation to the Pink News dinner (where David Cameron won an award) on Wednesday night promised ‘an inspirational evening’ which would be a ‘celebration of the contritions of politicians, businesses, and community groups’ after ‘another historic year for LGBT equality’. I assumed, at first, that ‘contritions’ was a misprint for ‘contributions’, but maybe not. Contrition for any deed committed or word spoken against gay people in the past is now compulsory for all who wish to take part in public life, rather as Catholics must be absolved before taking communion. I agree that the criminalisation of consenting, adult, private, homosexual acts was cruel madness. But I am suspicious of all this breast-beating. It privileges concern about one past injustice over many others, and it is displacement activity. We would do better to address current injustice than grovel for things we did not personally do. In every age, the relation between sexual acts and the criminal law is fraught, because of rows about mores, consent, policing and evidence. The biggest recent injustice in this area is the effective shift of the burden of proof from innocent to guilty against all those accused of child abuse. Instead of saying how sorry we are, 60 years later, about Alan Turing, we need to right whatever is wrong now.


Which reminds me that the new guidebook to Chichester Cathedral says the following about George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester famous for helping German Christians who resisted Hitler and for condemning Allied carpet bombing of German cities: ‘Since October 2015, however, some aspects of the way he is remembered have been called into question. An investigation into a claim of child abuse concluded that the allegations, whilst not tested in a court of law, are nonetheless plausible. His considerable achievements and their legacy remain, but it now seems entirely possible that the same man who showed moral courage in opposing saturation bombing was also responsible for the devastating abuse of a child. As Bell himself recognised, few people are either wholly good, or wholly evil, and supporting victims is always the right thing to do.’ It is rather creepy for the cathedral authorities to invoke the long-dead Bell’s own views to condemn his supposed actions. No doubt he did believe in supporting victims. The question is whether the one person who accused him of abusing her (nearly 70 years ago) actually was his victim. The process followed by the church authorities to establish this was perfunctory and unbalanced, and therefore unjust. I don’t think the guidebook’s phrase ‘entirely possible’ will do. Did he abuse her, or didn’t he? If it cannot be shown that he did, it must be assumed, in Christian charity and in law, that he didn’t. On its own logic, the guidebook should include a qualifying clause about Jesus of Nazareth. He, after all, was convicted by a court after serious allegations, which cannot be said of Bell.

Lord and Lady Heseltine have just published a book about their amazing garden at Thenford. His bold revelation (Diary, 22 October) that his keepers shot or trapped more than 400 grey squirrels to protect the garden’s trees and nesting birds has attracted media attention. What has not been followed up, however, is his report that the newsletter of the RSPB refused to publish a letter from him which deployed these facts to argue for more grey squirrel culling to save birds and red squirrels. Is there any other publication in the land which would not print correspondence from the former deputy prime minister on a subject relevant to its readers? Lord Heseltine says that elderly RSPB supporters have ‘a Walt Disney view of the countryside’, but this might not be so. The fault may lie with the RSPB itself, which assumes that its supporters are too babyish to be informed that some wild animals and birds have to be killed in the wider interests of other ones. Does it have any proper evidence to support this assumption? It is rather as if the Ministry of Defence thought that the families of servicemen were so sentimental that it must not tell them that soldiering sometimes involves dying. A charity should level with its members, rather than simply helping itself to their money. Don’t gag Hezza.

Would you like to be called Charles or Mr Moore?’ my bank asked me when I rang with a query. In the past I have always responded ‘Charles’, because it sounds pompous to insist on one’s surname. But the truth is that I would much rather be called ‘Mr Moore’, or ‘sir’, or ‘mate’, than be addressed by my Christian name by people I have never met. So this time I plucked up courage and said, ‘Mr Moore, please.’ There was an intake of breath at the other end. I got the impression that no one says what I had just said: the only correct answers are ‘Charles’ or ‘I don’t mind’. My interlocutor could not bring herself to name me at all for the rest of the conversation. In Heaven, your given name is the only one that the authorities will recognise, but on Earth surnames are needed to maintain the psychologically important difference between friends, family and colleagues on the one hand, and the billions whom one does not know from Adam on the other. One reason people go crazy about celebrities is that internet use of their first names assists their delusion that they know them.


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