Michael White

Diary – 30 November 2002

The political editor of the Guardian reports from South Asia on an ingenious way to avoid Ken's tax

Within an hour of returning to the Commons after a sabbatical tour of ex-British South Asia I find myself plunged into the firefighters’ strike. The Blairites have long been envious of the glass-jawed opponents who queued up to be walloped by Mrs Thatcher. But during Monday’s Downing Street press conference the Prime Minister modestly disavowed the Sun’s belligerent claim that he wants to ‘do a Maggie’ on the FBU. There’s no need really; he is as evidently a conciliator as she was a warrior. It suits the milder temper of the times, despite the media’s frantic demands for victory by tea-time. Warrior Winston would not have lasted long enough to become the BBC’s Top Briton if today’s Daily Beast had been on his case in 1940-2.

We used the sabbatical and absurdly cheap tickets (£800 for 11,000 miles and back) to visit my wife’s family in New Zealand via Delhi, Singapore and Melbourne, all previously unseen by me. Estelle Morris resigned before we reached Heathrow. Never mind. Barely 24 hours later we are being videoed with the happy couple at a Catholic-Hindu wedding party under the friendly gaze of Ganesh, the elephant god of non-Catholic wisdom. I am uneasy because our friends at the High Commission have persuaded us to wear Indian dress for another party to which we are also going. Apart from me, my host and the groom, all the men are in lounge suits.

‘But did you actually like the Taj Mahal? Many people think it’s vulgar,’ an elegant Indian matriarch asked me after our foray to Agra. Yes, I certainly did, and was especially grateful to have first glimpsed it across the meadow from the Red Fort where Shah Jahan, the dodgy but romantic Moghul emperor who built it between 1631 and 1648, passed his declining years locked up.

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