Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 11 December 2004

It is funny what sorts of insults you can get away with in our culture

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Muriel Cullen, who died last week, aged 83, was the elder and only sister of Margaret Thatcher. Living happily with her husband on his well-run farm in Essex, she showed not the slightest desire to be famous. I found her fascinating, though. In the course of my work on the life of Lady Thatcher, I visited Mrs Cullen and interviewed her. Although by then in poor health, she was every inch the daughter of Alderman Roberts, grocer and Mayor of Grantham. Like her sister, she would listen half-intently, half-impatiently to any question with her head held high and slightly on one side, in the fashion of a bird. She had good bones and was carefully dressed, a very strong woman and, I should think, a brave one. Her answers were, to put it mildly, crisp. Sometimes, she would suddenly say things like, ‘That’s enough of that. Let’s change the subject.’ The relation between the sisters reminded me of those bits in the Sherlock Holmes stories in which Sherlock’s brother Mycroft appears. Mycroft, it turns out, is even more brilliant than the famous detective, but has no inclination to pursue the thing full-time. He is occasionally enlisted to solve a really knotty problem. ‘Oh, my mother’s a good deal bossier than Margaret,’ Jane Cullen told me with amusement, and her brother Andrew said, ‘Of course, we love Aunty Margaret to bits; but we’re more right-wing than she is.’ I enjoyed finding another iron lady, but one who chose to live quietly under the broad East Anglian sky. For Margaret, it means the loss of her last real link with her childhood.

It is funny what sorts of insults you can get away with in our culture. George Galloway, who won his libel action against the Daily Telegraph last week, said that we were ‘sniggering public schoolboys’, and nobody reprimanded him; but if we had attacked him for his childhood in a Dundee tenement we would, quite rightly, have been excoriated. Children pretty much go to the schools their parents choose for them: it’s not their fault; so if public schools are so appalling, their pupils are to be pitied, not criticised. In fact, of the top five Telegraph editorial staff at the time of the publication of the ‘words complained of’, only one (myself) was a public schoolboy. But what is interesting is how anti-toff class prejudice is allowed free rein whereas racial or religious or sexual prejudice is often a criminal offence. I suppose it was the same set of assumptions which has led some to report that I was hunting on the day the story about Mr Galloway and documents in Baghdad went to press. This was physically impossible, as late April is about a month after the fox-hunting season ends. I read, also, that the judgment last week ‘proved’ that the Iraqi documents about Mr Galloway which the Telegraph published were forged. It did not: the authenticity of the documents was not at issue in the case.

The BBC is getting rid of 3,000 jobs. Most of them are going to be in things like personnel and finance. Organisations always like to present job cuts as not affecting the ‘front line’. You have only to say that you are getting rid of the back office for the public to relax. Isn’t it time for someone to stand up for the despised ‘pen-pushers’ and ‘bean-counters’ who seem to make up such a large percentage of our working population? By the same token, I long for a Hollywood film which has as its hero the CEO of a multinational corporation battling bravely, against the lies of well-funded, politically motivated environmentalists, to bring new jobs to Third World peasants through the introduction of GM foods.

A little considered public-order problem which the government will now face because of its hunting ban will be caused by the ‘antis’, the hunt saboteurs. These people are obviously distraught that their fun is being taken away and so, judging by their websites, and reports I hear from the field, they are becoming more violent. In the past, hunting people have mostly endured the antis quietly, hoping, usually in vain, that the police will enforce the law against them. Now that they are about to be criminalised they will defend themselves, and sometimes it will be rough. Once the ban comes into force, one can expect the antis to try to act as its vigilantes, chasing round where the police will not have the time, the men or the will. Their biased evidence will be almost valueless in court, but their presence will cause trouble. The police will find themselves facing both ways, unpopular with every single person on the field of battle.

There have been many reports of the deteriorating postal service. I have noticed the strange fact that, on Monday mornings, we receive very few letters, and all of them second class, whereas every other day brings quite a large pile. Is this a fluke, or is it part of an unspoken policy?

It has been enjoyable hearing Sir Stephen Wall, until recently the head of the European secretariat at the Cabinet Office, lambasting the government for what he sees as its failure to plunge in at the deep end of European integration, but how do his frequent public pronouncements fit with the fact that he now works for the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor? Is closer European integration commanded of the faithful? Would Sir Stephen be allowed to hold his new job if he were a Eurosceptic and, if not, why not?

Back to class. When I did Any Questions? the other day in Yorkshire, I realised with a shock that it was 20 years since my first appearance. It remains a friendly programme to take part in, not least because it normally takes place in a small provincial town with an audience of people who actually want to listen. My first outing, back in 1984, was at Uppingham, the public school. At the dinner beforehand, my fellow panellist, Esther Rantzen, asked me if I had been to Eton and what it was like. She wanted to know because she had put her son down for it. I said I thought it was a good school, and she seemed enthusiastic. On air, there was a question from the floor about boarding schools. Oh, said Esther, she wouldn’t have any truck with them: she didn’t believe in ‘delegated parenthood’. I was only 27 at the time, nervous and inhibited by the vestiges of the courtesy which my education had taught me, so I did no more than gaze open-mouthed (not an effective tactic on radio). Today, I hope, my Fleet Street education would triumph, and I would shop her.