Seen from almost any point of view, the government’s decision to increase spending on the NHS is disgusting. It is cynical in its timing to coincide with the Health Service’s 70th birthday in England; weak in its refusal to tie the increase to any improvements; mendacious in its claimed link between the increase and a Brexit dividend; evasive in its refusal to present this as a straightforward tax rise; constitutionally improper in its efforts to ‘take the issue out of politics’ by trying to agree it for many years ahead; and, as always, for those who still think the NHS is ‘the envy of the world’ (have they actually asked the world?), ‘too little, too late’. Not a week goes by without my meeting someone who has suffered from a hospital-acquired infection, a confusion or cancellation of appointment dates, or a five-hour wait in A&E; or an old person who has been misunderstood, misinformed or otherwise neglected. I would say that old people in particular now fear the NHS more than they love it. On its website, the NHS itself invites us to ‘recognise and thank the extraordinary NHS staff — the everyday heroes — who are there to guide, support and care for us, day in, day out’. Of course, since the Health Service employs 1.4 million, it has a great many staff who deserve thanking. But their kindness and professionalism exist despite the NHS, not because of it. In Britain, we still think the alternative to the NHS is a private-sector free-for-all, with the weakest losing out. Actually, no Western country, not even the United States, has such a thing; but nor does any Western country have our over-centralised, producer-driven, demoralised and anti-innovative mess. You would not put your dog through what people go through in the NHS and, indeed, nobody does. When our dog got hit by a train a couple of years ago, the vet ambulance came to rescue her with incredible speed, and a different vet gave her a seven-hour operation which saved her life. If she had had to go and wait in A&E, she would have died.
Upskirting is such a pretty word: it sounds like a charming village in Yorkshire, or an olde worlde custom, like swan-upping. Actually, it is nasty, and not as new as people claim. Fragonard depicts it in ‘The Swing’ (though obviously the young man had no camera). Margaret Thatcher, who was most reluctant to wear trousers, nevertheless did so when she knew she would have to climb a ladder, because she did not trust the photographers. Upskirting has been the raison d’etre of the Sunday Sport ever since it was founded in 1986. In 1993, the Mirror published close-up pictures, taken by a concealed camera, of Diana, Princess of Wales, when working out in a gym. It paid the gym-owner, who had set up the camera, more than £100,000. Mail Online has for many years been pretty much an upskirter’s paradise, except that it usually dispenses with the skirts. The problem has spread, however, because of technology. Upskirting is the pervert’s equivalent of the selfie — easily executed, easily disseminated and half-assumed by its perpetrators to be their human right. I don’t think poor Sir Christopher Chope understood all these things when he made his lone objection to the Voyeurism (Offences) Bill in Parliament last Friday. He was merely doing the backbencher’s job of trying to stop the government taking control of private members’ bills for its own political or presentational purposes. There is a question here for my own trade. A great many social media activities — including trolling and upskirting — are democratisations of habits which used to be Fleet Street’s exclusive property. Does our outrage at them reflect our anger at losing our monopoly?
The issue in the Chope case is the readiness of parliamentary colleagues on his own benches going public to condemn him. None, he says, consulted him first to hear his side of the story. The supposed justification for their behaviour is the ‘optics’ of Sir Christopher’s line on upskirting. But what about the optics of a party whose MPs’ first instinct is to condemn one another?
The departure of David Dimbleby from Question Time is certainly sad from the point of view of the panellist. He was, in recent years, one’s sole protector. Calm, humorous, very slightly bored (but too polite to show it), David reminded one by his mere presence that there is a world of sane and civilised people outside the studio. He cheered me in adversity, rather as I once felt when I discovered Château Latour for £12 in an otherwise unremarkable hotel in Blackpool during a party conference. I also got no sense of his politics. Because he is rich, successful and on the BBC, I assume he must be mildly left-wing; but he has never given me any evidence to confirm or refute this theory. In the entire time I have done the programme — more than 30 years, starting under the great Robin Day — the left in the studio has been noisier, and usually more numerous, than the right. The difference between then and now lies in the left’s degree of organisation. Nowadays, you can tell as soon as you go on if there is a coordinated left-wing claque in the room (about 50 per cent of the time, there is). They tend to sit together, have common points ready and make the same sound of righteous shock at anything ‘unacceptable’. It would be interesting to see whether this planned intimidation would still work if the BBC made everyone present give up all mobile devices at the door. A programme called Question Time does need an audience which wants to listen to the answers.
Obviously, one mocks little President Macron for telling a teenager to call him ‘Monsieur le Président’. How long before the French will have to say ‘Vive l’Empereur!’? But I do have a sneaking sympathy for the man one must not call ‘Manu’. The presumption of modern culture that everyone is on first-name terms makes people confused because they come to believe they really are friends with ‘Harry and Meghan’, or whoever it may be. The famous people thus addressed are also unhappy, because they cannot remember who they do and don’t know, and because they feel that people are trying to own them. Full, formal modes of address provide a ‘Noli me tangere’ which preserves sanity on both sides. Look at the Queen. Who dares call her Lilibet?