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The Spectator's Notes

Theresa May’s Twelve Steps programme for national recovery

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: Mr Trump’s EU pronouncements; the origins of ‘snob’

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

21 January 2017

9:00 AM

It is hard to be shocked by anything in these tumultuous times, but I was brought up short by the ‘attic’ headline of Tuesday’s Times, advertising the paper’s T2 section: ‘Up close and personal with Donald Trump — Michael Gove’ , it said, and continued, ‘Sex after 50: it’s fabulous’.

The earliest members of Alcoholics Anonymous offered their famous Twelve Steps, which the drunkard must take in order to recover, born of their own experience. The Twelve Steps are still the foundation of AA. They work because they are taken by people who have hit rock bottom and realise it. The first step says, ‘We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Theresa May’s Twelve Objectives, announced in her outstanding speech at Lancaster House of Tuesday, play a similar role for national recovery, substituting the words ‘European Union’ for ‘alcohol’. Until the June referendum, Mrs May, like millions of others, barely even admitted there was a problem. Between the result of that referendum and this week, she acknowledged that things had to change, but was attracted to half-measures — the political equivalent of trying to drink wine, not spirits, or only after lunch. It did not work. Gradually she understood the meaning of Step Two, coming ‘to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity’. That Power, in the Brexit context, is the independence of a parliamentary democracy. She has now, with speed and courage, reached Step Twelve: ‘Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practise these principles in all our affairs.’


Her speech is the more remarkable, because, except for the final tweakings, she cannot have known exactly what Mr Trump would say up close and personally to Mr Gove. His endorsement of Brexit makes her position look much less lonely. Even more extraordinary, he seems to be making the first break with the orthodoxy of all US administrations that the EU is Europe’s manifest destiny. Not only does he criticise its shortcomings: he predicts its break-up. And he says this: ‘You look at the European Union and it’s Germany. Basically a vehicle for Germany. That’s why I thought the UK was so smart to get out.’ In 1990, Mrs Thatcher’s favourite minister, Nicholas Ridley, famously expressed similar sentiments in an interview with this paper and was forced to resign. Truly, everything is different now.

In these Notes (7 January), I revealed that the Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, was up for membership of the Garrick Club. Some members were unhappy about his potential election. They felt that he had unfairly condemned his illustrious, long-dead forerunner, Bishop George Bell, because of unproved accusations of child abuse. Now Bishop Warner has, I understand, withdrawn his candidacy, feeling that he does not want to embarrass the club. Those who want him elected are hoping that, rather than being dropped, it can be held over until the result of the review of the Bell case by Lord Carlile of Berriew, which the Church has ordered. Supporters of Bell’s cause would probably welcome this too: it reminds people that injustice done to the dead affects the reputation of the living.

My thanks to D.J. Butterfield for a magnificently learned response to this column’s request last week to establish the link between the word ‘snob’ meaning a cobbler and its much better-known modern meaning as a person who overvalues social class. Mr Butterfield says, ‘The link is provided by Cambridge University. From the late 18th century, “snob” became regular varsity parlance for any townsperson. This arose from the notoriety of a particular episode. In 1780, a couple of undergraduates in a state of heavy inebriation decided to seek out the house of a local cobbler (Mr Banks) in the early hours and abused him and his daughters, presumably because of some unfortunate run-in with the latter. Banks allegedly cudgelled them for their insolence and they made their retreat. Having been hauled before the vice-chancellor, the pair were subsequently gated. The case prompted the young Josiah Thomas (under the curious synonym Christopher Climax) to pen and publish a mock-heroic poem called “Riot” about the event. In this poem the cobbler, who is not named but acts as the supposedly ignorant voice of the townspeople, is called “Snob”. He plays the anti-hero throughout. I presume that this squib, and the notoriety of this event, established the broader term among Cambridge men: for by the turn of the 19th century “snob” was used of any non-University man in the city.’ People began to speak of the ‘difference ’twixt Gown and Snob’. In 1829, Mr Butterfield continues, ‘a Cambridge weekly was founded by undergraduates: The Snob: A Literary and Scientific Journal, NOT Conducted by Members of the University. W.M. Thackeray, who arrived at Trinity in February 1829, soon began contributing anonymously to the journal. This laid the foundations for Thackeray’s series of 52 weekly instalments on “The Snobs of England” in Punch for 1847. Once collected in the Book of Snobs (1848), these spread throughout Britain the modern sense of “snob”. Thackeray offers the casual definition of a snob as “He who meanly admires mean things”, but more revealingly elsewhere characterises the real snob as one “in a position of debasement”. Its crucial elements seem to be the fawning admiration of those of superior rank and the willingness to fix upon trivial and vulgar matters in aspiring to the status of such superiors.’

The editor kindly permits me to advertise the AGM of the Rectory Society, which I chair. Our guest speaker is Jeremy Paxman, and, in an unusual role reversal, the audience may ask him questions (though not the same one 14 times) after he has addressed us. The meeting will take place at 6.30 p.m. on Thursday 16 February at the Temple Church in London. Tickets from Alison Everington: ali@everington.net.


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