The Spectator's Notes

Those who want a clear Brexit will need to make sure it is in the manifesto

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: Mrs May’s iron discipline; women in politics; the princes’ grief; robots

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

22 April 2017

9:00 AM

The fact that nothing leaked about Mrs May’s snap election tells you much of what you need to know about her. It shows how iron is her discipline and how close her inner circle (so close, in fact, that it is a triangle rather than a circle). It suggests that she takes neither her cabinet nor her party into her confidence. It shows that if she wins the general election, her control of her administration will be much tighter than that of Margaret Thatcher (which was surprisingly loose) and even than that of David Cameron (which was surprisingly tight). Finally, it shows that if she loses, or gets a result no better than the present parliamentary arithmetic, she will find herself friendless.

Mrs May’s decision is not very welcome, and I had thought she would think it too risky, but it makes sense — obviously because of Jeremy Corbyn and, a bit less obviously, because of public attitudes to her. She has brilliantly convinced people that she is a straightforward, unpolitical person who doesn’t descend to political games. This is untrue. She is, however, a person without childish vanity, celebrity hunger or media obsession. She benefits from a big cultural change, which descends from Mrs Thatcher, via all sorts of others — Angela Merkel, Ruth Davidson, Nicola Sturgeon. Women are now seen as stronger, more real and less silly than men. This is an old folk wisdom, but it only recently became the orthodoxy in politics. It is hard to beat.

I suppose opposition parties feel they must say that Mrs May is trying to get a majority for ‘hard’ Brexit. The opposite is the truth, however. One of the problems she has with her existing small majority is that it gives leverage to out-and-out Brexiteers (or, as some prefer to call them, the head-bangers). If she gets the large majority which she seeks and which the polls imply, she will feel free to ditch the full English Brexit if need be. Those who want a clear Brexit will have to make sure it is stated in the manifesto. Otherwise victory will permit Mrs May to choose whichever Continental option she prefers.


It is cheering that Mrs May has felt able to make a mockery of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. Contrary to the stated purpose of those who framed it, the Act operates against the public interest. Each Parliament needs a cut-off point, not a legislative life-support machine, and the discretion about when to call a general election is an excellent test of a leader’s decisiveness and political skill. It is doubly brave (rash?) of Mrs May to call one not only when she doesn’t have to but also when, in theory, she can’t.

At the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, Prince William and Prince Harry were in Balmoral. Somebody who claimed to know told me shortly afterwards that what the boys had most wanted to do, in reaction to the terrible news, was to go out and shoot a stag. They were not allowed to. I do not know if the story was true, but if it was, the boys’ desire seemed understandable. How could anyone — much less a teenager and a 12-year-old — ‘process’ such an event? The best immediate solace would be something strenuous, physical and wild. Twenty years later, Prince Harry has told us how it has taken him all this time — including ‘two years of total chaos’ — to deal with his shocking loss. Now he says — applying his own experience to wider questions of mental health — ‘I know there is huge merit in talking about your issues and the only thing about keeping it quiet is that it’s only ever going to make it worse.’ He is surely right that it is important to feel that you can talk about painful things if you need to. It is particularly helpful that a young man says it, because young men find it hardest to navigate these shoals. In the royal case, it serves the added purpose of acting as a sort of advance party to prepare the ground for anything that Prince William may want to reveal on the same subject. But does it follow that not talking is ‘only ever going to make it worse’? Prince Harry speaks now because he feels ready to do so. It is not to his discredit that he, or his elder brother, did not feel ready before. Indeed, it might even have been a bad thing if he had spoken when still very young, because it might have been impossible for his adolescent sense of himself to have coped.

With anything serious — like love or grief, or the relation between the two — being silent can be just as valuable as talking. That is why Cordelia says ‘love and be silent’ and the insincere Goneril and Regan babble on. In the last 20 years or so, people who fought in the second world war or survived concentration camps have tended, in old age, to talk about what they have previously not wanted to discuss. Partly this is because the fashion for such discussion has altered, but I suspect it is more to do with the passage of time. It takes a very long time to understand traumatic or important things that happen to one, and to speak about them prematurely is to risk glibness, or harm to oneself or others. Prince William, following Harry’s remarks, said that the stiff upper lip is not always the best thing. He carefully did not say that it is never the best thing. Prince Harry’s words have been described as ‘a tribute to his mother’, and so they are. But the capacity to endure great difficulties privately in your heart for many years, as he has done with outward cheerfulness until now, is also impressive and sometimes necessary. That is a tribute to his grandmother.

There is much anxiety that artificial intelligence will enable robots to replace human beings in millions of office jobs. But anyone who has ever worked in an office knows that intelligence alone cannot replicate mankind in work mode. For people to be truly superseded in the workplace, robots will also need to be programmed to exhibit artificial stupidity.

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