Bruce Anderson

Diary - 14 July 2012

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It is never a good idea for a government to look stupid: least of all now. Yet that is what is happening over Lords reform. Nick Clegg wanted to wreck our currency. He failed. Then he wanted to wreck the voting system: another failure. He has now transferred his wrecking petulance to the House of Lords. He must not be indulged. Damage has already been done. Back in 1997, with heredity constantly reinvigorated by experience and expertise, the Lords worked well. A skilful revising chamber, it could force the Commons to think again, without challenging the supremacy of the elected house. The upper house could defy the government, but only when public opinion was firmly on its side. The hereditaries ensured that land and history had a voice, which lefties hated. So what: this is an old country, and land matters. The pre-1997 Lords went about its business with wit, grace, charm and professionalism, plus occasional spikes of eccentricity. One day, after lunch, the Viscount Massereene and Ferrard arrived in the Chamber, sat down, and fell asleep. Their lordships were discussing the problems created by what we are now supposed to call the travelling community. Michael Onslow was vehement, so much so that Jock Massereene woke up. ‘Wha…what’s goin’ on?’ ‘Don’t worry, Jock,’ said Charles, Baron Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton: the Premier Baron of England. ‘It’s just Onslow’s got tinkers.’ ‘Dear God: hope they’re not catchin’ .’ If that does not endear you to the old house, you are a chippy, thin-lipped New Labour peeress with a radical humourectomy. Or you are Nick Clegg.

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Chippiness leads on to Rupert Murdoch. News International behaved surprisingly well during the Jubilee celebrations, partly because Rupert still fears his mother’s wrath and she is an indomitable monarchist. But the Murdoch press has made up for it since, with a slug’s-slime trail of snidery and bitchiness about the royal family. There was an especially vile piece a couple of weeks ago, about the Cambridges, by Robert Crampton. Whatever the proprietor’s other alleged improprieties, that alone would justify transporting him, plus James Murdoch, the family’s Saif-al-Islam. There is a tale which provides some insight into the pathology of chippiness. In the early Eighties, the Financial Times decided to sell a house in Lord North Street formerely used by its chairmen. The asking price was £165,000. Jonathan Aitken thought that was reasonable; offered it; the deal was clinched. Then the fun started. Jonathan wanted to raise some money by mortgage, so sent round a surveyor. He was chased away by Australians, who claimed that they had bought the place, for £160,000. Jonathan phoned Gordon Newton, the FT’s then chairman. ‘I suppose you want to know why you’ve been… is there a word for the opposite of gazumped? It might help if I told you that the successful under-bidder is Rupert Murdoch.’ That seemed to be the end of the matter, until Jonathan’s solicitor pointed out that Westminster City Council owned a quarter of the freehold, and was prohibited from selling at below the market price. So a meeting ensued. Jonathan went along solely in the hope of free theatre. He was not disappointed. He brought the one solicitor. Rupert turned up with a billabong-ful of lawyers. But the magister ludi was the council official. There was a sound like a sussuration of dead moths’ wings. ‘Whereas I, Josiah Jobsworth, am required, under the Local Government Act of…’ In plain words, Jobsworth wanted Westminster’s money’s worth. Jonathan, who had no intention of provoking an auction, was waiting for Rupert to bid £165,001, or whatever. Instead, the great Cobber picked up his papers, banged them down again, snarled ‘This is a stitch-up by the British establishment’ and stalked off, leaving Jonathan in possession of the field — and of the house, which was useful later on. You can take the boy out of Australia. You cannot take Australia out of the boy.

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There is a further reason for pleasure at Lord Guthrie’s promotion to Field Marshal (Notes, 30 June) En route to his baton, Charles Guthrie served in two regiments, the Welsh Guards and the SAS. Of modern creation, neither had yet produced a Field Marshal. Now, they both have. There will be rejoicing, by men who have the right to rejoice and who know how to do so. Wherever the Welsh Guards are currently stationed, sheep may not safely graze.

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Other animals are more robust. The other night, a terrible yowling had the Downing St doorkeepers rushing to action stations. There was Larry, the No. 10 moggy, tail up, back arched, girt for combat. His foe: an urban fox, already in full retreat. Memo to the PM: 1) crack on with repealing the hunting ban. Why should Larry be the only No.10 inmate who chases foxes? 2) Learn from that feline’s fortitude. Larry would not be truckling to the Liberals on Lords reform.