The election has brought out the tension between Scotland and England (see last week’s Notes). The Conservatives won more votes than Labour in England and, as before, managed only one seat in Scotland. Labour has 41 seats in Scotland, without which it would lack an overall majority. England heavily subsidises Scotland, allowing, for instance, state-funded long-term care of the elderly north of the border which cannot be afforded south of it. Scottish MPs can and do vote on English matters (the ban on hunting, top-up fees for English students) whereas, because of devolution, neither they nor English MPs can vote on similar Scottish matters. And there is the likelihood that our next prime minister will be a man who sits for a Scottish seat. There is justified English resentment about all of this which it is legitimate for politicians to exploit. Tony Blair should find ways of insinuating that this situation is too unstable to allow Gordon Brown to succeed him. As for the Tories, who have nothing to lose, they should call for the end of Scottish power over the English, campaign to reduce the number of Scottish seats further in recognition of the effect of devolution, and call for all public spending in devolved matters to be paid for by Scottish taxpayers alone.
The more I ponder it, the more I think that the overwhelming merit of the current system for electing the Conservative leader is that it is so stupid that it forces MPs to be sensible. Changes will be controversial, and bitterly resented by the party rank-and-file. Because they are being proposed just before a contest, they will be interpreted as favouring one candidate rather than another. Under the current rules, the only guaranteed way to avoid a situation in which the final two candidates are presented to the membership, each with only a third of MPs backing him or her, is to make sure that the MPs offer only one candidate. This is what happened when Michael Howard replaced Iain Duncan Smith, and it brought about unity and consequently the beginnings of recovery. It should be institutionalised. Just as cardinals are shut up in the Sistine Chapel until they produce a Pope, so Tory MPs should be imprisoned somewhere small in central London (how about the former Vitello d’Oro restaurant in Church House?), relieved of their mobile phones, and made to choose someone before they are let out. In order to present the anointed candidate urbi et orbi, they should have four ceremonial grey suits ready for the winner — one small, one medium-sized, one large, and one for Nicholas Soames.
Mr Soames, in fact, has left the shadow Cabinet, in order to stand as chairman of the 1922 Committee. He sees himself as the candidate of modernisation. Tim Yeo has also resigned. He says he wants to talk more about the work/life balance. Both these things make me laugh.
Last week’s result proves that there is only one unambiguously successful party leader in modern British political history — the Revd Ian Paisley. Now in his 80th year, he invented his own party in the 1960s, and has led it ever since. At this latest general election, the Democratic Unionist party has at last fulfilled Dr Paisley’s dream of becoming the unambiguous voice of Protestant Ulster. Of the ten Unionist seats in the province, the Big Man’s boys now hold nine. For 40 years he has been unremittingly sectarian and his message has been extremely simple — the British government wants to betray Ulster Unionism. The tragedy is that he has been right. All those decent Unionists, like Brian Faulkner and David Trimble, who tried to come to terms with Westminster governments, have been let down by the ministers of the Crown with whom they dealt, and punished by the voters for their gullibility. The cunning old bigot has survived. I look forward to him chewing up the sanctimonious Peter Hain, who sees the Northern Ireland question literally in black and white terms, as if it were South Africa under apartheid. On the other side of the divide, the same process of polarisation has been repeated, in far more extreme terms. There was a slight ‘McCartney effect’ in this election, holding back Sinn Fein to less than a 1 per cent increase in vote, but Gerry Adams has proved that the threat of violence is the way to win concessions from No. 10 Downing Street, and the voters have rewarded him accordingly. How long before mainland voters learn the grim effectiveness of extremism and apply it here? The success of Respect is a straw in this bitter wind.
Some ex-servicemen were upset by the low-key VE Day celebrations this week, but wasn’t it quite a good idea to play things down? The 50th anniversary celebrations ten years ago were unrepeatably good. They happened at a time when enormous numbers of veterans were still young enough to take an active part in them, and when three of the four members of the royal family who appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in May 1945 were still alive. Those ceremonies cheerfully and respectfully closed a chapter of history. It would have been annoying to have had a grandiose show last weekend in which Tony Blair played any prominent part, and for once he seems to have had the tact to realise this. It is true that President Putin made a great to-do about the 60th anniversary in Moscow, but I am not sure that this is reassuring. He has been speaking recently about the tragic effect on the Russian peoples of the break-up of the Soviet Union. When he makes much of their (undeniable) heroism in the second world war, one starts to feel nervous. And Margot Wallstrom, the European commissioner for institutional relations and communications (!), went to the Theresienstadt concentration camp for VE Day to tell us that a Yes vote in the European constitutional referendum is necessary to prevent the return of Nazism. Enough.
It is difficult to talk about some plants without sounding like a member of the BNP. For the fact is that plant immigration can do appalling things. Walking through the bluebell woods, which have been in their annual glory for the past ten days, we keep an eye out for the creeping advance of the Spanish bluebell. Although it looks well enough as a garden plant, the Spanish bluebell is not a patch on its wild English cousin. It is too fat, too pale and too fussy in the shape of its flower, and its stalk is too chunky to sway enchantingly in the breeze. Peaceful co-existence, unfortunately, is not possible, because the Spanish bluebell is invasive, and hybridises with our own, polluting the stock. Some will argue a moderate course of separate development, but I fear the only rational policy is extermination.