Gordon Brown sat next to poor, trembling Alistair Darling on the government front bench on Tuesday for the Chancellor’s statement on the loss of 25 million people’s personal details. He had failed to do the same the day before, when Mr Darling made a statement about Northern Rock. The contrast between his absence one day and his presence the next emphasised the scale of the disaster on Tuesday. Despite his protestations when he came into office, Mr Brown has little respect for the Commons, or for Cabinet government. He is very keen on power, but not very good at leadership. In our system, the Prime Minister shouldn’t aspire to run everything. What he can do is to inspire his colleagues and to back them in difficulty. Mr Brown wants everything in his grasp — hence his amalgamation of Revenue with Customs when he was Chancellor, and his incorporation of both within the Treasury — and colleagues with no independent existence. Poor Mr Darling is highly unusual in modern history in being a Chancellor who has no political importance at all. Denis Healey, Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Ken Clarke and, of course, Mr Brown himself, all mattered in their own right. Even John Major and Norman Lamont had some independent standing. You have to go back to Tony Barber under Ted Heath to find the unauspicious analogue for Mr Darling.
David West is 80 years old. Last month he was travelling on a train, carrying the axe he uses to chop wood. At Carlisle station he was surrounded by four policemen who escorted him off the train. On the platform, they asked him whether the axe was his and what it was for. ‘It’s for splitting logs,’ he said. Didn’t he realise, they went on, that it was a dangerous weapon? ‘But it’s a heavy axe,’ he replied, ‘and there is no room to swing it between the seats.’ The police became angry: ‘You should not be flippant. You could spend the night in the cells. You could be debarred for life from the British railways system. What is your occupation?’ ‘Retired.’ ‘What was your job?’ ‘Professor of Latin at Newcastle University.’ At this point, the police gave each other sidelong glances and asked Prof. West whether he had any dangerous implements in his haversack. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘a small axe.’ Then the police emptied the professor’s haversack on the platform, and separated from his pyjamas, spongebag etc. his hand-axe: ‘What is this for?’ ‘The big heavy axe is for splitting logs and this one is for chopping kindling.’ The police confiscated both axes and left Prof. West on the platform at ten at night, too late to get another train. He was stranded, but got hold of an old friend and fellow classicist in the neighbourhood, who put him up for the night. They cheered themselves up by talking about humour in Virgil’s Second Eclogue into the early hours. In a recent column in the Daily Telegraph I quoted the excellent policy of the railway companies on travelling with dangerous objects, ‘It’s not the item: it’s the behaviour.’ The police seem to have another policy. By the way, Prof. West, the un-mad axeman, has just produced his latest book, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published by Duckworth.
This column continues to draw attention to the curious incident of the hen harriers on the Sandringham estate. The papers were full of reports that a pair had been shot. Natural England, a quango, claimed that one of its employees had witnessed the shooting, but refused to name him. The police solemnly interviewed Prince Harry and two others, but since there was no body, or other actual evidence (e.g. a photograph), charges were not pressed. A reader writes to suggest that the birds seen were not hen harriers at all: ‘People think of hen harriers as the male bird, which is light-grey. Wood pigeons look like that in bright light.’ One observes that ‘wasting police time’, which was traditionally a criminal offence, now seems to be the chief occupation of the police themselves.
An EU-wide census proposed by the European Parliament wants to ask people whether they are, or ever have been, in a ‘consensual union’, meaning sexual cohabitation. It is a funny question for a body which refuses to ask us whether we consent to the Union which pays its wages.
Ian Smith, who has just died, was ‘overthrown by Robert Mugabe in 1979’, said the BBC News. No. He stepped down after the more or less free and fair multi-racial elections which he held in 1979. Mugabe refused to take part in them, and came to power in different elections the following year, arranged by the British. I met Smith in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, where he lived bravely (he was always brave) in an unguarded house next to the Cuban Embassy in Harare. There was, by then, a pathos in his situation because he was in his heart a citizen of a country that no longer existed. He was not really British, not really Zimbabwean. He was Rhodesian, and Rhodesia was no more.
One of the troubles about modern marriage is that people constantly worry whether they are happy in it. By being married for 60 years, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh remind us that it is possible to outlive this wearying question. I am sure they are happy, but the passage of time makes the precise state of a couple’s feelings less important than the grand and beautiful fact that they have endured. A single choice, long, long ago, has made them almost permanent, like part of a landscape. We should wish them the fate of Ovid’s old couple, Philemon and Baucis, who, when they died, were turned into trees whose boughs intertwined.