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The Spectator's Notes

Meghan Markle ticks almost every modern box. Let’s not pretend she’s a tough sell

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: ‘Industrial strategy’, the new Bridge Theatre and Engels and foxhunting

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

We are congratulating ourselves and the royal family on overcoming prejudice by welcoming Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry. But in fact this welcome is cost-free: Ms Markle’s combination of Hollywood, mixed ethnicity, divorced parents, being divorced herself and being older than her fiancé ticks almost every modern box. It was harder, surely, for Kate Middleton. She was simply middle-class, Home Counties, white, and with no marital past — all media negatives. Her mother was a former flight assistant. People made snobby jokes about ‘cabin doors to manual’. There was nothing ‘edgy’ about Kate that could be romanticised. Luckily, she is also beautiful, sensible and cheerful, and politely concealed her successful struggle to gain the respect due to the bourgeoisie. This must have required quiet courage. For similar reasons, Malia Obama’s reported love for Rory Farquharson, despite his crippling disadvantage of having been head boy of Rugby, is a bolder assault on the barriers of prejudice than is our acceptance of the future Princess Meghan.

‘Industrial strategy’ must be added to this column’s collection of phrases which automatically lower the spirits. Others include ‘replacement bus service’, ‘all the toys’ and ‘smart casual’. There is literally no need for any government to have one — what industrial strategy built Silicon Valley? — and it is literally impossible to remember, when one has been announced, what it is. (If you doubt me, try reading Greg Clark’s ‘Our vision to make Britain fit for the future’ in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph.) Its sole raison d’être is presentational: it is (sadly) considered better to claim you have a plan than to explain why you don’t. So the highest true praise for any industrial strategy is that it will make no difference. On that basis, this latest one is quite good.


Like most people, we loved the new Bridge Theatre set up by Nick Hytner, but were a bit puzzled by its opening play Young Marx. It is uncertain in tone. Some is good satire — the theorising of emigré intellectuals contrasted with their ropey practices. Some is slapstick — an extraneous scene when everyone, including Charles Darwin, starts punching one another in the Reading Room of the British Museum. Some is tragic — the death of Marx’s son Fawkesy. Only the satire works. Marx’s revolutionary thinking and drinking were supported by the profits of Engels’s father’s cotton mill in Manchester, so the facts are comic in themselves. Marx once said that the people would hang the last capitalist with the rope he had sold them; but Engels, the reluctant capitalist, worked for 20 years in the family business to give Marx the rope gratis. In the play, Engels (Oliver Chris) is slightly two-dimensional, but manly and generous. He also looks perfectly Victorian, like a ‘swell’ depicted by John Leech. This is appropriate, because Engels’s main expense apart from working for the dictatorship of the proletariat, was foxhunting. As Tristram Hunt recounts in his biography, Engels was a bold leaper in the front field of the Cheshire Hunt under the Mastership of the future Duke of Westminster. In the House of Lords debate in 2004, Ian Gilmour, former editor of this paper, cited Engels’s love of venery as a socialist argument against a hunting ban: ‘old communism was much more sensible than New Labour’.

Another man who hunted with a Duke of Westminster (jackal hunting with the Cape Hunt in 1900, boar hounds in France in the 1920s) was Winston Churchill. I strongly recommend Brough Scott’s new book Churchill at the Gallop. Churchill rode for about 70 years, from his first outing, aged four, on a donkey in Emo Park, Co. Laois, to his last hunt, on Geronimo, with the Old Surrey and Burstow, when he was leader of the opposition and protesting against a potential hunting ban in 1948. His adventures on horseback included taking part in the cavalry charge at Omdurman in 1898, being part of the team that won the inter-regimental polo championship in Meerut in 1899, and riding forward to relieve Ladysmith. In 1901, he managed 13 days’ hunting with shire packs in November and December, despite being a Member of Parliament. His cavalry training saved his life after Spion Kop, when the Boers ambushed his party. His saddle slipped and he fell, but he called out to a scout ‘Give me a stirrup’ and leapt up behind him — a real-life, grown-up version of ‘Two Little Boys’ by the now disgraced Rolf Harris.

There are two fascinations in the story. The first is how horses tested and shaped Churchill’s character. Sometimes he was so bumptious that one sympathises with Lord North, who saw him fall into a brook while hunting with the Warwickshire and wrote in his diary, ‘If he had been drowned, it would have saved England from the disgrace of having such a SKUNK for a minister.’ But on the whole, the zest and courage excuse the rest. Scott quotes a contemporary description of WSC playing polo aged 50: ‘Abruptly he sees his chance, and he gathers his pony and charges in, neither deft nor graceful but full of tearing physical energy — and skilful with it too.’ The second, which Scott conveys so well, is the central importance of the horse in what we now call ‘networking’ in the years before the first world war. Churchill’s ambition needed horses to help him vault high. Scott says Churchill ‘rode more extensively than any British Prime Minister before or since’. This is contestable — what about Wellington? — but none used the horse more effectively as part of what revolutionaries call ‘the propaganda of the deed’.

By the way, Churchill at least once paid a highly controversial visit to a foreign leader while on holiday. When he was chancellor of the exchequer in 1927, he met Mussolini in Rome, and congratulated him on his ‘triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism’. The Liberal and Labour press was furious, but WSC did not suffer the fate of Priti Patel.


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