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The Spectator's Notes

Mrs May is repeating Cameron's mistakes in dealing with the EU

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: the good that was done by the Con-Lib Dem coalition

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

Theresa May’s style of negotiating with the European Union is coming spookily to resemble David Cameron’s. She is in the mindset where the important thing is to get a deal, rather than working out what sort of a deal is worth getting. The EU understands this, and therefore delays, making Cameron/May more desperate to settle, even on bad terms. Eventually, there is an inadequate deal which the British government then has to sell to a doubting electorate. Mr Cameron was punished for this at the referendum he had called. Mrs May is inviting punishment at a general election.

It is interesting how moderate politics cannot get a hearing just now. I do not mean that it is banned — after all, the moderate establishment is still, just, in control — rather that few seem to want to listen. This must explain why Oliver Letwin’s new book Hearts and Minds has so far been pretty much drowned out by endless discussion about whether Mrs May must go. Is it too reasonable in tone for people to want to discuss it? A pity if so, since it is excellent. The book is mercifully short, very clear, and an engaging mixture of memoir and argument. There is a thought-provoking exposition of how the youngish Oliver, who worked for Mrs Thatcher, maintained allegiance to her view about markets, but came to believe she had missed the vital importance of helping those trapped in the chaos of drugs, poverty, welfare and family breakdown which markets can do little to touch. There is also a convincing defence of the Con-Lib Dem coalition, which did much more good than people realise. And there is Oliver’s touching ability to find some plus point in others which no one has previously spotted: he must be the only person ever to have referred to Mrs May acting ‘jovially’. If you read this book, you will be reminded why Butskellism — refreshed by Thatcherite economic clarity, and modernised by Blairish/Cameronian social liberalism — is quite a respectable way to run a modern country. If we abandon it, we may become nostalgic for it. Then Hearts and Minds will be read with the attention it deserves.


It also deserves, however, to be challenged. Letwin the Remainer describes gloomily crossing Lambeth Bridge early in the summer morning after the referendum vote to leave: ‘Nadezhda Krupskaya’s description of the beauty of the torch-lit processions of the Russian Revolution comes strangely to my mind…These are, in their own way, revolutionary circumstances.’ Funnily enough, I crossed the same bridge at much the same time travelling the other way, towards the Vote Leave headquarters, with a song in my heart, and thinking more of Wordsworth (writing one bridge downstream) than Mrs Lenin. Although Letwin feels the sense of change, I don’t think he fully grasps why people seek it. In part at least, they do so because of a failure of the sort of politics he advocates. The subject matter and tone of that politics — the ‘proceeds of growth’, letting sunshine win the day — jar with the reality of life for most people after the astonishing events of September 2001 and October 2008. They seem to evade the question of what makes a truly free and independent country. There is resentment too, because so many of the advocates of that politics extrapolate from their own very comfortable circumstances to assume that things are all right really. They aren’t, and none of our leadership elites, from Tony Blair’s onwards, has ‘kitchen-sinked’ their role in what has gone wrong.

On Monday morning, I was about to leave for London to join my friend Theodore Agnew, who was to be introduced into the House of Lords. As I shut my study door to go and put on a suit, a picture fell down flat and wedged itself between the door and the chimney breast — so neatly that it might have been measured for the job. My mobile phone, wallet and holdall were inside, and I was outside. I could not get the door open. So I could not go to London or, cut off from my technology, warn Theodore. Eventually, I got his contact details on my landline from a friend whose number I knew by heart. Then our resourceful local carpenter, Raymond, arrived, burgled the study on my behalf and released the fallen picture. But by then it was too late for Theodore’s celebrations.

I was sorry that this silent-film-style farce kept me away from the ceremony, because Theodore Agnew’s peerage is an example of the little-known fact that the House of Lords does sometimes actually work. Having made a good amount of money, Agnew wanted to ‘give something back’. He was preoccupied with poor educational opportunities, and he donated to the Tories, because he admired Michael Gove’s policies on the subject. When I was chairman, he came on the board of the think-tank Policy Exchange, energetically advancing better schools and starting a multi-academy trust in his native East Anglia. Now he has been ennobled so that he can be an education minister. In modern times, it is highly unlikely that a public-spirited person like Lord Agnew would become an MP and climb for years up the ministerial pole. The Lords allows him to come into public life and do more good.

A cousin recently travelled round Ireland with the help of the AA Road Atlas of 1965. Inspiringly and amazingly, it contains, among much else, information about all the staghounds and foxhounds in Ireland (‘The Ward Union … hunts over the rolling plains and open ditches of County Meath and has given brilliant sport to a hard-riding field’). So full is the coverage that it lists how many couple of hounds every single hunt in the island possesses. Now that the motion to ban trail-hunting has been defeated, why doesn’t the National Trust publish learned and celebratory material (but not — because of saboteurs — the details of meets) about the 67 packs which hunt on its land, and which are so much part of the heritage it exists to defend?

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