To Edinburgh, that most gracious and civilised of cities, for what promises to be a less than altogether agreeable experience. I have to confess that, when BBC1’s Question Time rang to ask whether I might be available to take part in last week’s show from that city, the words ‘hole’ and ‘head’ sprang to mind. Scottish audiences tend not to be — how to put this — entirely sympathetic to my general take on the world. And since the likely topics for this encounter are global warming and the Iraq war inquiry, the chances of this audience responding with enthusiasm to a right-wing warmongering certifiable neocon Zionist climate-change denier with a posh London accent are about as high as Al Gore becoming a cheerleader for the Republican party. So it proves. To the propositions that man-made global warming is a scam and the Iraq war was justified, there is not merely hostility but open-mouthed incredulity. How could anyone sit there and say what all right-minded people know is totally unsayable? Afterwards, I am deluged with emails running at around 70–30 in my favour. The editor tells me that the programme’s online public response has doubled on the strength of my comments on global warming alone. A number of viewers are outraged that I was ‘bullied’ on the show. Was I? It all seems sadly par for the course to me.
Speaking of which, I am upbraided by a couple of viewers for being too direct and uncompromising rather than trying to persuade people more gently to my opinion. I’m afraid I have come to the view, however, that on certain topics the irrationality is now so profound that there is simply nothing that will dissuade those gripped by the frightening group-think that has its thumb on the public windpipe. What’s important now is to speak up as clearly as possible for all those — and there are very many — who are in despair that what is patently and demonstrably the case is now so often unsayable. They are simply desperate to have a voice in a world whose collective mind seems to have become terrifyingly closed. Sometimes people wonder whether I am not simply ‘preaching to the choir’. But I now realise that it is terribly important to shore up and protect the choir from becoming demoralised and simply giving up the fight to defend what is decent and true.
If there is one thing more stressful than doing Question Time in Scotland, it is doing it on the very day that you move house. At breakfast time, I take possession of the keys to our new London residence and watch as the removal men hump boxes from the enormous van into which some three decades of possessions have been piled. My other half is rushing back from a speaking engagement in the Midlands to relieve me; at lunchtime I wrench myself away from cardboard chaos to board the train for Edinburgh, catching a dawn flight back to London the following morning to continue the Sisyphean task of unpacking. This is definitely not to be recommended as the most sensible way to make a serious life change. ‘You probably didn’t even have time to shed a tear as you bade farewell to your old home,’ sympathises a friend. Well, strange to say, although we had lived in that house for 28 years, we left it without a qualm. The real angst was over what to take with us. Every few minutes we were being required to decide what to throw or give away. How on earth had we managed to accumulate quite so much junk? I discover that if the world is divided into hoarders and chuckers, I am a chucker. The instinct to make a fresh start, I find to my surprise, is irresistible.
Being a removal man, it appears, is a dangerous business. Pausing for a cuppa from lugging furniture into the van, one of the team tells us how he had once been shifting the possessions of a Middle Eastern diplomat who was being expelled from Britain when terrorists launched an attack; he dropped his box and ran but was hit by shrapnel in the leg. He proudly shows us his scars. How strange it is, he muses, that although as a Dubliner he grew up with the spectre of Irish terrorism, it was the politics of the Middle East which had put him in hospital. He just can’t understand, he goes on, why people aren’t more worried about Iran getting the bomb. As for Israel, well he has nothing but the greatest sympathy and respect for the Jewish people and it’s really terrible all the things they have been through and how important it is to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again. Truly, this man should have been on Question Time.
Talking of Britain’s residual decency, it is noticeable how bigotry rises sharply the higher up the social and educational scale you go — especially when it comes to the Prejudice That Can No Longer Be Named. Take for instance the disgusting comments of Oliver Miles, the former ambassador to Libya, who questioned the presence on the Iraq war inquiry of the distinguished academics Sir Martin Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman since ‘both Gilbert and Freedman are Jewish, and Gilbert at least has a record of active support for Zionism’. Or the recent and equally disgusting Channel 4 Dispatches programme, which claimed that a cabal of wealthy Jews had bought up the political and media establishment to serve the interests of Israel. There is now a distinct inverse correlation between bigotry and social class. Maybe the Commission for Equality and Human Rights might fund a study.