Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 11 June 2005

Today's continental papers mirror the British press of 1975

Text settings

It is proverbial that the British press is disgusting and contemptible, but would we ever have got ourselves into the extraordinary situation of our Continental counterparts? In France, no national newspaper, except for the Communist L’Humanité, called for a ‘No’ vote in the referendum on the European constitution. The nearest any major Dutch paper came was the Telegraaf (no relation), which asked its readers what they thought and featured their strong ‘No’ on its front page. All the others said ‘Yes’. We hear a great deal about political parties getting out of touch with voters, but doesn’t the same apply to newspapers and their readers? Is no penalty ever paid? In Britain, our newspapers reflect fairly accurately the division of the population on Europe — Sun, Telegraph, Times, Mail, Express, sceptic; Guardian, Financial Times, Independent and Mirror, Europhile. Yet the strict answer to my first question above is ‘Yes’. We did get ourselves into a situation of creepy press unanimity over Europe in our only referendum ever held on the subject, in 1975. The red Morning Star was for a ‘No’ vote and so, I think, was the Daily Express, but the only intellectually distinguished nay-sayer was this magazine. An entertaining programme by Michael Cockerell about the 1975 referendum reminded us of all of this last week (all of it, except — the programme was on the BBC — for the BBC’s even more propagandist role then than today). Times, Telegraph, Mail, Sun (Murdoch then as now) were all for ‘Yes’. Somehow, the wind was in the ‘Yes’ sails — money and glamour and youth; secret, large breakfasts arranged by Alistair McAlpine at the Dorchester where Douglas Hurd could plot with Roy Jenkins; brilliant columns by Bernard Levin laughing at the poor, dingy No-men. Even Margaret Thatcher wore a jersey bearing the flags of all the European nations with which we were voting to stay (though not the T-shirt, then considered quite daring, which said ‘Europe or bust’). Oddly, given the lack of journalistic backing, it was journalists, not politicians, who presented the final broadcast of the ‘No’ campaign. So the message was conveyed to the nation by the late Patrick Cosgrave, then of this paper, and Paul Johnson, then of the Left. When you look at the difference 30 years make — so many newspapers, one of the two main political parties, roughly half of business, all Eurosceptic — you understand why Mr Blair must feel so relieved that he can now get out of his solemn promise (to the Sun, of course) that we would have a referendum even if the French voted ‘No’.

Some people resent Mr Blair’s tendency to break his promises, suggesting that he lies. I think we should be more understanding. There is a precise and predictable relationship between Mr Blair and his promises: he does the opposite. Thus, when he announced before the last election that he would certainly step down before the next one, I made the mistake of believing him. I therefore concluded that he had made the strategic error of bringing forward his own demise by announcing it. I now see that he never meant to go in this Parliament at all. He said what he did only to get Gordon Brown to back off. Now Mr Blair, advised by Peter Mandelson that he has ‘a fresh calling’, has found the way to annex Euroscepticism without ever having to say ‘No’ directly. Goodness how Chirac and Schröder must hate him.

A man who believed Tony Blair and who, as a result, is out of a job, is David Trimble, Nobel Prize winner and former first minister of Northern Ireland. He deserves to get some pretty good compensation. There is talk of a grand international post dealing with the rights of minorities. No doubt this would suit his talents and expertise, but I still hanker after the idea that Mr Trimble should return to Parliament, this time as a mainland Conservative. Why can’t one of those Tory bed-blockers do a public service and step down to make room for him?

Good news that two men have now been charged in connection with the murder of Robert McCartney. But what about the 14 or so others who played a part in what happened and covered it up? Sinn Fein has offered up only two: it could easily produce all the rest tomorrow if it wanted to.

One reason, we were told, why the Dutch voted ‘No’ last week was their attachment to their own ‘liberal’ customs. These include the right of homosexuals to marry and of people to kill their elderly parents. These causes are presented as enlightened. Try transposing them — the right of people to kill homosexuals and to marry their elderly parents. Would that be more or less enlightened?

Last week the Guardian books section ended the run of a fascinating series called ‘Common ground’, by the young writer and mountaineer Robert Macfarlane. He has been discussing landscape and literature. His tone is excellent — attentive, literary but not over-literary, exact. I hope a book results from his columns. But even Macfarlane illustrates the problem that besets environmentalists — a belief that what is ‘commercial’ in our encounter with nature must be bad. Much of his last column was devoted to an attack on 4 x 4 vehicles (‘the gargoyle of a rampant and acrid form of individualism’). I share the dislike of these machines swooshing pointlessly round cities and suburbs, and of course it is true that they are sometimes abused off-road. But isn’t the Land-Rover, in essence, an impressive example of man’s relationship with the natural world? Farmers, sportsmen, aid workers, quarrymen, Third World doctors, explorers need these strong, adaptable vehicles. If we come to believe that anything technological man does with nature is a violation, bad things will happen. Rural communities will die, so will human knowledge of nature, and so will most of the landscape which we love. The gash cut by the plough — or even by a 4 x 4 — is not necessarily a wound in the earth: it can be the source of its renewal. The ecowarriors’ belief seems to be that no human being should be allowed near the wonders of nature — except, funnily enough, themselves. Yet the reason we have a love of nature inside us is because, from our earliest origins, we have made our living out of it: it is modern anti-commercialism that marks our true alienation from the landscape.

I am looking at a Conservative party membership card. It sets out ‘The benefits of membership’. Top of the list is ‘One member, one vote in the election of the Leader of the party’. Now it looks like the old joke about newly independent African colonies: ‘One man, one vote, once.’