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The Spectator's Notes

Corbyn, anti-Semitism and the righteous vanity of Tony Benn

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

What is it, psychologically, that makes it so hard for Jeremy Corbyn to recognise that some of his supporters are horrible people with horrible views (in this case, raving anti-Semites)? I remember asking myself the same question, in the early 1980s, about Tony Benn. I used to attend Labour party conferences and their numerous left-wing fringe meetings (often addressed by Benn’s no. 1 fan, J. Corbyn). Benn was always there, always courteous, genially smoking his pipe. Often, however, his supporters would say extremist things, and sometimes they would yell foul abuse — either at party and trade union moderates or at the media. Never once was Benn vile himself, but never once did he rebuke those who were. I watched him closely when rabble-rousers like Arthur Scargill or Derek Hatton stirred up hatred or when people like Eric Hammond of the Electricians Union were shouted down. He would just sit there smiling. I concluded that Benn, for all his personal niceness, craved power and he thought these people would win it for him. In 1981, they nearly did. I also noticed that he was tremendously vain, in the way that only people who think they are righteous can be. He was Saved, so his followers must be too. Mr Corbyn seems to be a chip off the old block.

Rachel Sylvester of the Times is a brilliant journalist. I am proud to have given her her first Lobby job. But I cannot help smiling at her columns as she searches desperately for signs that a party which she thinks virtuous — centre-left, pro-European, with ‘open’ values — could rise from the dead (this, literally, is her metaphor in Easter week). Rachel’s current candidate for Messiah is David Miliband, who lives in New York. She quotes ‘one friend’ of his as saying, ‘David is still attracted to Britain.’ That is big-hearted of him, but the bigger question is, ‘Is Britain still attracted to David?’One must recognise how deeply Blairism lies in ashes before one can find a phoenix to rise from them. The first step, I suggest, is to forget about stopping Brexit. It is as futile as trying to stop black majority rule in Rhodesia in the 1960s: there may be some difficult consequences, but the change has to happen. A Unilateral Declaration of Dependence (UDD), trying to arrest Brexit and maintain Brussels rule would be no use. Rachel dimly perceives this. ‘Opposing Brexit would be part of the new movement’s agenda, but not its whole identity,’ she writes. The Remainer politician with first-mover advantage will be the one who declares that Brexit cannot be stopped, and proposes a lovely, moderate future all the same, instead of claiming the country has none. He/she has been amazingly slow to come forward.


When Algy Cluff, the former proprietor of this paper, published his memoirs two years ago, I wrote that it was one of the few books I’d read which I wished longer. Unfortunately, his new work Unsung Heroes is even shorter, but I warmly recommend it all the same. Although Algy’s own life has been extremely active and successful, his greatest gift is for describing, affectionately, lives of which this could not be said. Here, in full, is one such: ‘One of the more extraordinary ornaments of clubland in the 1950s and ’60s was H. “Loopy” Whitbread. Of fairly repulsive appearance, with pendulous jowls and a large paunch, he appeared to have had two eggs for breakfast — one of which he had eaten and the other he had smeared over his Old Etonian tie. He was a member of the Whitbread brewing family but, because of the danger he represented to the lift boys and an endearing tendency to ask what the employees he chanced upon were paid and then promptly responding “Ridiculous — that should be doubled!”, he was quietly removed. Living alone in Englefield Green, he would take a bus every day to London, going first to the St James’s Club where he would enquire whether there were any letters for him, which indeed there were as he had written them himself in Englefield Green the previous day. His only subject was Eton College, about which he knew everything, and he carried a list of all Etonians in his pocket. “Did you go to Eton?” was his sole form of greeting. If the answer was yes, he would consult his Etonian list to verify the answer. If no, you were of no interest and he would immediately move on. In the afternoons he became something of a menace to younger members of the Royal Automobile Club swimming pool and by the mid-1960s poor Loopy was heard of no more.’ A complete life — so short, so funny, so sad.

All proceeds from Algy’s book will go to the Remembrance Trust, a charity he is establishing. When he was chairman of the UK War Memorials Trust, Algy discovered that most believe the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission deals with all war graves. Not so. It starts from 1914. His trust will be dedicated to ‘the restoration and preservation of those older graves and memorials around the world’ (I have seen many myself in India) where British servicemen died. The book may be bought for £20 from Sandoe, Heywood Hill, or Algy himself.

Drue Heinz is dead, at the reputed age of 103, though some believed her older still. She was much the greatest patron of writers in our time. Most philanthropists find books too undramatic for their patronage and lavish it on opera. Drue really loved books (which is not odd) and writers (which is). We loved her back. Her kindness was so imaginative, and so enduring. It would be futile to deny, however, that though she was endlessly understanding to her friends, she could be demanding of her staff. One of her maids left her service and wrote her a letter thanking her because, she said, having worked for Mrs Heinz, she felt prepared for every difficulty a life in service might throw up. Since she was working for Princess Michael of Kent, one gasps. Drue was very proud of this letter and would show it to friends.


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