Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Diary - 10 January 2004

Michael Howard is my Aunt Maude

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Six months can be an awfully long time in politics. When I wrote here only last July that the Tories knew in their hearts they could never win an election under Iain Duncan Smith, few of them cared to admit that publicly. Even now, when the Tory coup has an eerie inevitability about it with hindsight, how many people can honestly say they guessed a year ago that Michael Howard would become leader by the year’s end? He has been compared with Disraeli; I don’t suppose many Tories remember John Bright’s words at the time of Dizzy’s accession to the Tory leadership. It was ‘a triumph of intellect and courage and patience and unscrupulousness in the service of a party full of prejudices and selfishness and wanting in brains’. A brilliantly apt description in 1868 — and now?

But the defenestration of IDS presented me with what my friend Michael Kinsley, the Washington Post columnist, calls an Aunt Maude dilemma. ‘Dear, rich old Aunt Maude’ has staged a remarkable recovery, and the doctors say she could live another 30 years. ‘You are delighted, of course. And yet you can’t help thinking about the money.’ Mike had in mind Howard Dean, who had to cheer through gritted teeth when Saddam Hussein was found in his burrow, although he knew it was bad news for him politically. Michael Howard is my own Aunt Maude (as it were). The Tory party seemed to rise from its deathbed, showing something like its old ruthlessness, just as I had agreed to write a book with the not wholly original but at least self-explanatory title The Strange Death of Tory England. Anyone who merely wants parliamentary government to survive must long for a revived opposition, and yet, if the Tories win a landslide at the next election, my book might look a little forlorn. Then again, in this week’s polls the Tories have finally — after ten years — clawed their way up to 35 per cent, while Labour, at the end of Tony Blair’s annus horribilis, are bouncing back to 40 per cent. In this case, Aunt Maude could well cough up.

Never miss an opportunity to have sex or appear on television, Gore Vidal says, but I disagree. Though not quite a broadcasting virgin or airwave eunuch, I say no more often than yes, and tend to regret it when I do occasionally bestow my favours on the BBC. I politely declined to discuss events in Afghanistan with Martin Amis on Newsnight, partly because I can’t claim Martin’s knowledge of Pashtun politics, and partly, to be honest, because I couldn’t be bothered. But before Christmas I reluctantly agreed to speak on the Radio Four programme The Moral Maze. The subject was anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, how far the latter should be equated with the former, and how far hostility to Israel is a renewed form of bigotry. Having written a book about Zionism, I felt something like a sense of duty, and so I gave it some thought and prepared to talk about traditional Jewish opposition — religious, political or social — to Zionism, and the degree to which the Jew-hatred of Mohammedan youths in France differs from the old Jew-baiting of the anti-Dreyfusards. Instead of which I found myself answering vulgar and ignorant questions about why Israel is criticised more than China, or about silly newspaper cartoons. Quite apart from the splendid World Service, the BBC is very good at things like comedy, whether intentional (The Fast Show and The Office) or otherwise (last Monday, when Jeremy Paxman asked the nation’s finest young minds, from Magdalen and Sussex, the name of the woman ‘born in 1922 who wrote Sex and the Single Girl’, one team went for Anna Wintour and one chose Tina Brown). But there is almost less serious, informed debate on air today than ever before.

This is the season for press awards, and the Diary should be allowed to name a few of its own. Pointing out the Dud Prophecies of 2003 has been all too easy: ‘In Baghdad the coalition forces confront a city apparently determined on resistance’ and ‘IDS will lead the Tories into the general election’ have already been gloated over elsewhere. Bravest Column of the Year was in the BBC Music Magazine, where my great old friend Rodney Milnes, our sometime opera critic, took Hector Berlioz apart, and in the composer’s bicentenary year at that. It’s Berlioz and not Wagner of whom Rossini should have said ‘des beaux moments mais des mauvais quarts d’heure’: for all those intermittent moments, he is unbearably long-winded, utterly humourless, devoid of any sense of stage time, and incapable of sustaining a melodic argument. I call this brave, because the vociferous and powerful Berlioz Brigade don’t like it up ’em. Rodney took his life in his hands, and will have to attend the forthcoming performances of Les Troyens in a false beard.

Needless to say, the award for Politically Correct Locution goes to the Guardian. That paper has long been striving to purge any taint of sexism or gender bias from its pages: ‘sex worker’ has arrived (as in ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the sex worker throughout the ages’) just as ‘actress’ has been banished, so that Mrs Patrick Campbell and Dame Edith Evans learn to their surprise that they are ‘actors’ (although doesn’t it rather miss the point to say, ‘She’s a little too actory for my taste’?). But the clear winner is George Monbiot, who floored all rivals in masterly fashion: ‘Suggest to an Ethiopian economist that her nation should have a computing industry of its own, serving only its own market, and she would laugh in your face.’ This gloriously correct sentence puts the rest of us to shame, but one can’t just leave it at economists. We are all guilty, and we must fight gender exclusiveness on every front. I write a column on sport for the Financial Times and will tell David Owen, the FT’s esteemed sports editor, that I’ll be doing my own bit: ‘Each of the Australian loose forwards has her own reasons for ruefully admiring Jonny Wilkinson... If you doubt whether van Nistelrooy is still the most dangerous striker at large, ask any of the Arsenal back four and she will tell you....’