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Diary

Why don't the EU's pensioners in the Lords have to declare their interest?

Also in Matt Ridley's diary: Alexander Chancellor, humanist marriage, snus, climate change, protests and portents of spring

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

4 February 2017

9:00 AM

‘A Bill to confer power on the prime minister to notify, under Article 50(2)…’. When it comes to the House of Lords, some of those trying to amend or delay the bill will be paid pensioners of the European Commission. Peers are obliged to declare any interest that ‘might be thought by a reasonable member of the public’ to influence the way they discharge their parliamentary duties — unless it is an EU pension. In 2007, a Lords subcommittee said that because their contracts oblige them to support the EU, an EC pensioner who made ‘intemperate criticism of the commission’ would have contravened their obligations under the Treaty of Rome ‘and therefore could in theory damage his pension’. Nonetheless, the subcommittee concluded, in a magnificent non sequitur, ‘There was no doubt of the integrity of the members of the House who had served as EU commissioners and it would be distasteful to call on them to declare their interest when speaking.’ Distasteful!

From the time I worked in Washington in the 1980s, five good friends have now died far too young — Stephen Milligan of accidental suffocation, David Blundy shot by a sniper in El Salvador, David Hatendi of a heart attack, Christopher Hitchens of cancer, and now the incomparable Alexander Chancellor of a stroke. Alexander was once prosecuted for driving while many times over the limit in (I think) Alabama. His lawyer tried the long-shot argument that as a naive Brit, he felt unable to refuse his hosts’ hospitality. It worked. The judge promptly halted the trial and apologised profusely on behalf of America.


Along with Baroness Meacher, I am pressing the case for humanist marriage. It is a bizarre anomaly that religious people can be married by a civil registrar or by a representative of their religion, however obscure that faith — whereas, except in Scotland, non-religious people have no other option but a civil registrar. They can have a humanist ceremony, but it is not official marriage. In another obscure campaign, last week I led a delegation of two MPs and two peers to see the excellent health minister, Nicola Blackwood, to point out the absurdity of the ban on ‘snus’, the popular Swedish alternative to smoking. A sort of miniature nicotine teabag you press against your gum, snus is the reason that only 5 per cent of Swedish middle-aged men smoke compared with 22 per cent in Britain, and that Sweden has the lowest lung, oral and oesophageal cancer and heart disease rates in Europe among men. (Swedish women are less keen on snus for some reason.) Snus is banned in the EU except in Sweden — presumably lest it save non-Swedish lives. This is known as the precautionary principle.

Every day brings a new shock from the White House. The wall, torture, refugees. What next? I worry that Trump may discredit the one thing I agree with him on: that the threat from climate change is exaggerated. Before he implodes, I hope we find out what’s been going on at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies to create ‘alternative facts’ that support the climate-industrial complex. Frustratingly for the alarmists, global warming over 30 years is about half as fast as the models predicted. NOAA tries to ignore the satellite data sets, which show even less warming, and focus on the surface temperature data sets, which are ‘adjusted’ in poorly explained ways. The supposed global temperature in 1910 has been mysteriously cooling over the past eight years, while that of 2000 has been mysteriously warming — which creates a steeper curve, though still not steep enough. This is known as fake news.

The bicoastal elite might be more effective in opposing Mr Trump if it weren’t obsessed with the persecution of anybody who says the wrong thing. ‘While you self-involved fools were policing the language at the Kids’ Choice Awards,’ raged the broadcaster Bill Maher last week, ‘a madman talked his way into the White House.’ This new puritanism must explain why some feminists make common cause with Islam. One of the Women’s March organisers was Linda Sarsour, a defender of sharia law, which is misogynism incarnate. She said on Twitter of Brigitte Gabriel, a feminist critic of Islam, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a victim of female genital mutilation and of death threats for apostasy, ‘I wish I could take their vaginas away — they don’t deserve to be women.’ So she’s a pussy-grabber too. She has since deleted the tweet.

The mistle thrushes are in song in Northumberland, always the first harbingers of spring. For much of January it has been warmer than in London, as sometimes happens in winter; never in summer. A reminder, if we needed one, that London is closer to the Continent.

Matt Ridley is a Conservative peer and a Times columnist. His books include Genome and The Rational Optimist.


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