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The Spectator's Notes

The EU should go the way of the British Empire

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

To understand how the European Union works, and how it doesn’t, it helps to think of it as an empire. Empires are not fashionable just now, but they have their uses. At their best — Rome, Britain — they are capable of upholding common standards, preserving peace and prosperity, and helping civilisation flourish. The EU has often achieved some of these things. But when empires are challenged by significant numbers of their inhabitants, their fundamental lack of legitimacy is exposed. The EU has now reached this stage because of imperial overstretch and imperialist doctrines — the euro and mass immigration being the most important. Anti-imperial independence movements take many forms. Brexit is one. The Italian revolt — a financial version of Spartacus’ rebellion — is another. The determination of the Visegrad 4 to control their borders is a third. In the short term, empires can squash these uprisings — look how brutally Brussels and Berlin put down the Greeks — but they lose in the end. Their more intelligent leaders recognise this. Britain eventually saw the writing on the wall and invented the Commonwealth as a decorous retreat. The EU should do likewise, and re-form as a friendly association of free countries, trading freely. Perhaps a nice name for it would be the Common Market.

Starbucks will close all its outlets for four working hours to train its staff out of ‘unconscious bias’, a decision which surely shows unconscious bias against all customers who might want a cup of coffee that day. The training was ordered after a member of staff called the police when two black customers came in and one asked to use the lavatory without buying anything. I wonder if the BBC might try such a shutdown on a grander scale. It would take at least four weeks — possibly four years — to train its staff out of unconscious bias on Brexit, Christianity, the sex war, paedophile accusations, immigration, Israel, Trump, abortion, global warming and so on. They have to learn not to call the thought police as soon as any person or topic they suspect of being right-wing enters the studio.


Since its first shocking error of accusing the late George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, of child abuse without proper process nearly three years ago, the Church of England has waded deeper in. Even when the Carlile report it had itself commissioned showed how worthless its processes had been, it refused to back down. On 31 January this year, it suddenly produced ‘fresh’ allegations against Bell. It would not say what they were, but handed them to the police, who eventually admitted, under pressure, that they were not investigating, since Bishop Bell had died in 1958 (a fact widely known since 1958). The church then promised an inquiry into the new claims which would follow Carlile-compliant methods. It tried to insist, however, that the ‘decision-maker’ in the inquiry would be the present Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner. Since Dr Warner had effectively staked his reputation on the proposition that the first accusation against Bell was true, and was himself part of the unjust investigation, there could scarcely be anyone less impartial to preside over round two. At last, defenders of Bell’s cause have forced Dr Warner to step aside. He is to be replaced by Timothy Briden, who has led a quiet life as a church lawyer, and editor, since 1989, of Macmorran’s Handbook for Churchwardens and Parochial Church Councillors. Since Mr Briden is vice-chancellor of the Province of Canterbury, one hopes he will find the courage to be independent of his Archbishop, who made such a bad mistake by rushing to judgment against Bell. On Tuesday, the inquiry’s investigator, a retired North Yorkshire detective superintendent, Ray Galloway, began work. Please can the world be told the inquiry’s terms of reference and whether any of the ‘core group’ that got it so wrong last time will be involved?

Such is the power of drama that people usually forget that it is not factually true. This applies to the BBC’s Jeremy Thorpe series, A Very English Scandal, which I praised last week. Critics therefore berate the programme for making light of the terrible history of an attempted murder carried out on behalf of a party leader. To which the answer is not only that horrible things can also be highly comic, but also that the claim that Thorpe ordered the murder of Norman Scott rests heavily on the testimony of Peter Bessell, who is dead, and was a liar with a financial motive for talking the story up (he was offered double the money for his story by, I am sorry to say, the Sunday Telegraph, in the event of a conviction). For some reason, I share the general hunch that Thorpe probably did ask for Scott to be murdered, but it has never been proved. In a case in which almost everyone involved had trouble with the truth, the jury were surely right to acquit. The story makes great fiction, but we are not much further forward with the facts than they were in the Old Bailey in 1979.

Westminster Abbey is about to open its new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. They will display many treasures previously hidden. I am sure they will be lovely; but I feel a little sad that the east triforium, in which I once got the chance to wander, dangerously exposed to the floor of the Abbey 70 feet below, will now be safely enclosed. Unimproved, the galleries were a reminder of the days of risk and chaos which were such an attractive feature of pre-Victorian English life. As a boy at Westminster, William Hickey, the great memoirist, went with his family to a box up there to watch the coronation of George III and Queen Charlotte in 1761: ‘Their Majesties being crowned, the Archbishop of Canterbury mounted the pulpit to deliver the sermon; and as thousands were out of the possibility of hearing a single syllable, they took that opportunity to eat their meal when the general clattering of knives, forks, plates, and glasses that ensued, produced a most ridiculous effect, and a universal burst of laughter followed.’


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