How much longer can it go on? Deaths caused by terrorism are always followed now by candlelit vigils, a minute’s silence, victims’ families/ government ministers/emergency services/clergy/imams all clustered together, walls of messages and flowers, flags at half-mast. Instinctively, I feel uneasy because the meaning of it all gradually suffers attrition, and also, perhaps, because it asserts a solidarity which isn’t quite there. Yet the fundamental cause of mourning is true and deep enough — it is first for the dead, then for a civilisation which may be dying.
In these pages, on 4 February, Matthew Parris wrote that Brexiteers seemed very anxious, despite having won. He thought this was because they were ‘secretly, usually unconsciously, terrified that they’ve done the wrong thing’. The following week (Notes, 11 February), I suggested that our undoubted anxiety was more likely attributable to fear that ‘having come so far, we might be cheated of what we thought we had achieved’. Exactly a year after the referendum, this fear of being cheated is even stronger. Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, came within an ace of saying in public that Britain must not leave the customs union, thereby undermining the negotiating position of the government in which he serves. Even when restrained by cabinet colleagues at the last moment, he still said that leaving without a deal would be ‘a very, very bad outcome for Britain’. The people who lost a year ago now tend to say that, while respecting the result, they wish to find some ‘middle’, ‘incremental’ solution, ideally presided over by some cross-party commission thingy. This is an ancient Establishment skill, which is not explicitly to prevent something, but to find a way of quietly making it impossible. As Enoch Powell liked imagining himself saying to the people who usually run this country, ‘I admire your gift for humbug. I worship it. But I reserve the right to point it out.’
Mr Hammond’s customs union bombshell was to have been detonated at his annual speech at the Mansion House. The horror of Grenfell Tower provided a reason for him to withdraw from the dinner at the last minute. The banquet shrivelled to a breakfast. This summer is proving a thin time for stately occasions. Having called her snap election, Mrs May decreed that the Queen’s Speech should take place on the day of the Garter ceremony at Windsor. Then, finding herself struggling to stay in government, she postponed the date of the Queen’s Speech (her people pleading some piffle about ink having to dry on parchment), but by that time the Garter do had been cancelled. Now the new date for the State Opening of Parliament has interfered with one of the Queen’s days at Ascot and the occasion has skimped on ceremony. No complaint has been heard from Buckingham Palace, of course, but if you have reigned for 65 years, it must be quite irritating when the person who runs your government cannot sort out her diary. Now it is announced that there will be no Queen’s Speech at all in 2018. Her Majesty herself could be forgiven if she felt not displeased at avoiding the ordeal, but is it a good thing that the government is excusing itself from the usual debate on its record next year? The stated reason is that more time is needed to get through Brexit. But one of the virtues of Brexit is the return of parliamentary sovereignty. That traditionally involves the chance for Parliament to arraign the government.
Last week, a few miles from where we live in Sussex, a man was trampled to death by his own cows. He was the distinguished scientist Professor Brian Bellhouse, who made a large fortune by inventing an injection-free method of vaccination. He bought a good deal of land in the area near Winchelsea, where he was brought up, and to which he returned. He was walking near his herd of Sussex cattle with his dogs and a friend. The cows charged, and he seems to have died because he was trying to save the elder dog, a 12-year-old Labrador, by holding it tight on its lead. The friend was concussed, but survived to raise the alarm. The dog later had to be put down. Professor Bellhouse was a warm and generous man, universally liked. One thing that endeared him to local people was that he insisted on 20-foot headlands in all his fields and let anyone walk on them. It seems that his cows had been chased and — in the case of one cow and calf, bitten — by a loose dog earlier that day, and so were angry and frightened. Professor Bellhouse’s hospitable access had been abused: it was literally the death of him.
I have noticed a rise in attacks by cows in recent years, and have experienced them, in mild form. There seem to be two main factors. The first is that a dog is almost always involved. Cows are more alarmed by them than by people because they see them as predators. More and more people nowadays walk their dogs in fields. The second is the collapse of dairy farming and the corresponding increase in the number of suckler herds for beef. Dairy cows are parted from their calves within 24 hours of birth and so are docile. Beef cattle stay with theirs and protect them with maternal vigilance and, occasionally, aggression. When you walk on footpaths through fields, you should generally keep your dog on a lead. But if you are being charged, the danger is greatly increased if you do this, because the cows will trample you. If you let your dog off the lead, it will almost certainly escape alive; so will you, because the cows will lose interest. Is there a solution to this conundrum? Not really, apart from banning cows from any field containing a footpath, or banning footpaths through fields, both of which would be idiotic. My tactic is to follow Teddy Roosevelt’s advice on foreign policy: ‘Speak softly, and carry a big stick.’ Slowly but firmly spread your arms and your stick, and the cattle (almost) always stop.