Rachel Johnson

A land unfit for heroes

We live in an age in which great men have been replaced by celebrities, and respect is a word used only in irony. Rachel Johnson blames feminism and the feral scepticism of the press

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Things have to come a pretty pass, eh, when an institution as self-consciously august as the University of Oxford has to headhunt a perjuring philanderer to be its next chancellor; even if the felon happens to be the President of the United States (there are no former presidents, of course, just as alumnae of St Paul's girls' school are Paulinas till their dying day). Not since the Albanians asked C.B. Fry, the English cricketer, to be their king has there been so dismal an admission of the lack of home-grown talent.

So whom do we have so far? Are any of them going to set the world on fire? The in-house candidate is the distinguished lawyer Lord Neill of Bladen, a former warden of All Souls, former vice-chancellor of Oxford, and former sleaze watchdog. He lists 'Administrative Justice, Some Necessary Reforms' as his sole publication in Who's Who, and his recreations as music and forestry.

Baroness Williams opposed top-up fees and refused to run. And Clinton, the undergraduate's choice, is still undeclared. So the biggest name and assumed front-runner is Chris Patten, the former Tory Cabinet minister and last governor of Hong Kong. Once called 'the next prime minister but three', Mr Patten is serving out his term as a commissioner for external affairs in Brussels. A man of no small charisma or appetite, Fat Pang's stamina at the trough and presumed ability to shake the money-tree of Great George Street are being toasted in vintage port at high tables throughout the university.

Last but by no means least is Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the only Englishman ever to have served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and senior law lord in succession. As well as being an intellectual jurist of the highest calibre (so says Lord Falconer and every other lawyer in the land), Tom Bingham combines a pedigree of unprecedented distinction with a studenty grooviness. At home in Wales and Notting Hill, he ditches his wigs and ermine for jeans and hiking boots, swears blue in interviews and thinks the government should legalise cannabis.

But even Lord Bingham is mystified by the unstarry lack of statesmanship in the line-up to succeed the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, president of the Royal Society of Literature, founder leader of the SDP, chancellor of the exchequer, president of the European Commission, inventor of the European Monetary System, bon viveur, coureur, author, and so on and so on.

'It's all a little bit surprising,' he told me, apropos his decision to throw his hat in the ring, upon the coaxing by yet another Balliol man, his sponsor, Sir Anthony Kenny. 'The great figures of yesteryear - Gladstone, Curzon, Halifax and the Duke of Wellington were chancellors - don't seem to be around. All these past chancellors - I include Jenkins among them - were great world statesmen and proconsuls, and men like them seem to have vanished.'

The men Bingham mentioned were men of parts, not just career politicians or lawyers; they had vast sweeping tundras of hinterland, they performed with distinction not merely on the green benches of the House of Commons, but on foreign fields and in great capitals, and their names resounded in foreign chancelleries. But if you went to the inner sanctums of Berlin or Washington or Rome or Moscow now and shouted the name 'Shirley Williams' or 'Pat Neill' or 'Tom Bingham' or even 'Chris Patten' (and I should announce that The Spectator is backing Bingham), would anyone know of whom you spoke? I'm sorry, Shirl, Pat, Tom and Chris, but they wouldn't have a clue.

So where have all the great men gone? (To be sung to the tune of 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone?') Well, as the song goes, long time passing. You have only to look at the ghastly BBC list of Great Britons to see that anyone halfway great in the sense that Churchill and Brunel were great is ...well, dead, and there are few suitable candidates with a pulse to merit the highest honours in the land. Apart from John Peel, disc jockey, Tony Blair, Prime Minister, and J.K. Rowling, children's author, the only living Great Britons on the list are popstars: Robbie Williams, Sir Cliff Richard, Johnny Rotten, Bono and Boy George - and no, I don't expect you've heard of all of them.

Not a lot of people know this, but there are now four vacancies apiece for both the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the highest chivalric order, and for the Order of Merit, founded by Edward VII in 1902 for 'exceptionally meritorious service' or for those who have significantly furthered the advancement of 'Arts, Learning, Literature or Science'. Both orders are restricted to 24 members and are in the sole gift of the sovereign, unlike the less-exalted Companion of Honour - an order that was fatally debauched by Harold Macmillan during the Night of the Long Knives in 1962, when he appointed seven in one go.

Black Rod tells me that there is a slim chance that the Queen will be just as prodigal and appoint four Knights Companion in June, at the next Ceremony of the Garter, but he is not hopeful. 'She didn't appoint any in her Jubilee year,' he says, and of course there is speculation that the reason the order is looking ragged is that, with the changes in the House of Lords, it is hard to fill the gaps. There just aren't enough good men and women to go round, especially now that the hereditaries have been deemed more worthy of ridicule - Honi soit qui mal y pense! - than public esteem.

Sir Edward Ford, KCB, KCVO, was until Christmas the secretary and registrar of the Order of Merit, and has, he tells me, passed the baton in the preferment of the great and the good to Lord Fellowes, the Queen's former private secretary. Sir Edward and I go through the list together: Sir Denis Rooke ...the Prince of Wales ...Lord Foster of Thamesbank ...Lucian Freud ...Sir Thomas Stoppard ...Sir James Black ...Lord May of Oxford ...Sir Anthony Caro ...Lady Thatcher ...Sir Andrew Huxley ...Sir George Edwards ...Frederick Sanger ...Dame Joan Sutherland ...Prof. Francis Crick ...Sir Michael Atiyah ...Sir Roger Penrose ...Sir Aaron Krug ...Lord Rothschild ...Prof. Owen Chadwick.

Now, these men and women are indeed illustrious. We are not suggesting that any of them is all gong and no dinner. But in the past, holders of the Order have included Florence Nightingale; artists Alma Tadema, Holman Hunt, Augustus John and Graham Sutherland; composers Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten; writers Thomas Hardy, J.M. Barrie, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene and Ted Hughes; Bertrand Russell; Sir Winston Churchill and Earl Attlee; and so on. Why have I not heard of a quarter of our OMs, and why are there four vacancies? Sir Edward denies it is because there is a paucity of candidates.

'It's the Queen's choice entirely,' Sir Edward says. 'Playwrights, musicians, doctors, physicists, any Nobel prizewinner is almost always papabile. And I have a long list of candidates who are suitable for CH but not OM.' When I ask him who is suitable, though, for one of our sovereign's supreme accolades, Sir Edward slightly undercuts his argument by admitting he can only think of half a dozen.

It is traditional to attribute the absence of greatness and heroism to the absence of war. The last of the men who fought in the first world war are dying. This generation of leaders - Blair, Bush, to name but two - has been born since the end of the second. From Achilles to Churchill, a necessary adjunct to glory (kleos) and honour (time) has been the proximity of death, and in the Iliad the heroes that enthral us are the ones that are doomed - Sarpedon, Patroclus, Hector and Achilles. As Jasper Griffin points out in his book Homer on Life and Death, 'Zeus loves them because they are doomed.' The heroes are more virtuous than the gods because the pressure of mortality compels them to have the supreme virtue of courage.

Both Mrs Thatcher - during the Falklands - and Tony Blair - in Kosovo and now Iraq - have seen the high-risk, high-reward political capital to be made in the supposed act of bravery and sacrifice of sending young men to war. But while it is true that it is difficult to perform acts of heroism in times of peace, this does not fully explain the feeling we have that all our great men are dead, that the current cohort are pygmies on the shoulders of giants. As Kenneth Rose says, 'You can't keep saying that our best men were wiped out in the first world war, and only the duds are left - as Macmillan lachrymosely used to - because it's too late for that now, although both wars did kill a disproportionate number of officers.' And the 'absence of war' does not explain the intellectualism and discovery of the Victorian age - a long era of peace, and yet one that spawned a legion of true greats (Gladstone, Disraeli, Gordon of Khartoum, Peel, J.S. Mill, William Morris, Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens, Darwin, etc.).

A.N. Wilson's recent book on the Victorians partly argues that the era was intellectually productive because it was a 'ruthless, grabbing, competitive, male-dominated society, stamping on its victims and discarding its weaker members with all the devastating relentlessness of Darwin's vision of Nature itself'. And that, perhaps, is getting near to the heart of the mystery. We now live in an age when those qualities have been specifically legislated against. The world is supposed to be non-judgmental, caring and feminised. Whatever there is to be said in favour of male nappy-changing, and mandatory paternity leave, it hasn't done much to encourage the Great Man.

It is simply not on any more, that vehement Victorian spirit of emulation and competition. Children are taught in school that everyone (from W.B. Yeats to Paula Yates) is just as special as everyone else. I'm OK, you're OK, but no one is actually any good, apart from the celebrities of the moment, but then they can slip down the list from A to D with one indiscretion or bad boob job. The obsession with celebrity has been accompanied by unthinking disrespect for the institutions that used to command reverence - the Church, the royal family, the Civil Service and, above all, the political class.

As Nicholas Soames, MP, told the film-maker Michael Cockerell in his recent programme, Trust Me, I'm a Politician, 'The way people see politicians now is so awful ...you have to pretend you're not a politician and move around at night in camouflage.' Soames told Cockerell he'd do better if he called himself a 'political services operative' rather than an MP. Apparently, the boards of some charities now prefer to have Posh and Becks rather than the royals on their boards, which just goes to show that the twin British hierarchies of distinction and breeding have collapsed. The Hello!-reading public want to be able to control who is up and who is down, who is 'in' and who is 'out', on the basis of the wattage of their celebrity rather than the standard of their achievements.

So we can say, I think, in conclusion, that the feral scepticism of the press and spiky tone of the media prevent almost anyone rising to greatness. Greatness implies independence of mind and a spirit of risk - qualities that neither the quango- and tsar-led government of the day nor the media appear to cherish. Tall-poppy syndrome, or the determination to cut down to size anybody of any prominence in the end, is the order of the day. Even Sir Robin Day, says Ken Clarke, would have been shocked by the 'hostile, bantering, sneering, cynical, performing, celebrity interviewers that followed on from him'.

Jasper Griffin agrees. 'If people aren't willing to be impressed, people can't be impressive,' he says. 'We like film stars and celebrities to be famous only because we feel we have made them so; it's in our control.' Yet the great classicist ends on a cheery note: 'But you must remember what Brecht said,' he told me. 'Unhappy the land that needs heroes.'