Gimson’s Prime Ministers, out this week, is a crisp and stylish account of every one of them. I happened to be reading Andrew Gimson’s admiring essay on George Canning (PM for 119 days in 1827) just after Jeremy Corbyn’s parliamentary remarks about the Salisbury poisoning. The way Mr Corbyn talked, one got the impression that it was Britain which had caused Mr and Miss Skripal to be poisoned. Canning had a gift for light verse. He satirised the sort of Englishman who adored the French Revolution: ‘A steady patriot of the world alone,/ The friend of every country but his own.’ That Phrygian cap fits Mr Corbyn perfectly. It is constantly, patronisingly said that young people don’t care about Mr Corbyn’s consistent support for terrorists, dictators and revolutionaries over 40 years, and it may be true that some of them have been so badly educated that they do not know much about the West’s struggles against totalitarianism. But this story is the key to understanding Mr Corbyn, and therefore it needs to be told as urgently as possible — to prevent him featuring in later editions of Gimson’s work.
Salisbury is the model for Barchester in Anthony Trollope’s novels. They, of course, are ecclesiastical. The Russian attempted murders are political. If they had happened in his time, what a bravura novel Trollope could have written, combining Barchester with the Pallisers.
On Sunday, my sister Charlotte came to lunch. Just before she arrived, one of her family rang to say that an unknown woman had just knocked at the door, having come all the way from Russia and walked three miles from the nearest town to see Charlotte. We made slightly nervous jokes about wearing protective suits before contact. When Charlotte met the woman the next day, she turned out to be a marine biologist from the expedition which recently salvaged Eira, the lost boat of my great-great-great uncle Benjamin Leigh Smith’s Arctic expedition in 1881. She had brought vodka and chocolates from Russia with her, and chosen Ben’s 195th birthday to share them with my sister. She particularly loves Ben for his discovery of an important colony of ivory gulls. It was a touching encounter at this time of mistrust.
I am watching the controversial Civilisations series. Much has been made of the plural in the title, the point being that Kenneth Clark’s great original, Civilisation, had the cultural confidence to use the singular. In fact, as is explained in James Stourton’s biography, Clark at first wanted to call the programme What Is Civilisation?, but realised he could not answer his own question. He reflected afterwards that ‘Civilisation is not a state but a process; and what I must look for was not civilisation, but civilisations.’ The actual reason for the programme was that the controller of BBC2 in 1966, David Attenborough (yes, the David Attenborough), was about to introduce colour on the channel, and needed to persuade people to buy the very expensive television sets required. He thought that opinion-formers would back colour if there were a series which ‘would look at all the most beautiful pictures and buildings that human beings in western Europe created in the last two thousand years.’ It worked.
Saturday’s Guardian carried a long interview with Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He came across as a well-informed, public-spirited man. He did not come across as impartial. He seemed a typical social democrat. He thinks more public spending is better than less, doesn’t like first-past-the-post politics because it weakens the middle ground, and wants tax penalties for second homes. Above all, he is anti-Brexit: ‘The economics are obvious. If you make trade with your richest trading partner more expensive, you will make yourself worse off.’ He says there is no economic case for Brexit, just a ‘controlling-immigration case’ (no mention of the key sovereignty/democracy case). Mr Johnson is entitled to all these opinions, but he and his IFS are given lots of BBC airtime as unbiased experts. Yet they are just as viewy as the IEA or the Centre for Policy Studies. The difference is a) that they don’t declare it and b) that their ‘objective’ beliefs chime with those of the BBC. To think that the case for Remain is an objective one and the case for Leave isn’t is the most out-and-out Remainer view of them all. Neither case is objective, nor should it be. On its website, the IFS describes itself as having, during the referendum, provided ‘a vital impartial voice in the debate’. It is bad for our public culture that such flat untruths can be smugly asserted by people earning their livings as ‘experts’.
The state of Israel is the same age as the Prince of Wales and yet has never received an official visit from a member of the British royal family. This cannot be true of any other country in the world which is democratic, a valuable intelligence and trade partner and has so many human links with Britain. It has been a deliberate, shaming omission. Now, at last, the attitude is changing. The Duke of Cambridge will visit Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories later this year. I wonder if this alteration is related to the impact of the young Saudi crown prince, who visited last week. The threat of Iran in the region has helped remove the long-standing illusion that the Israel/Palestine question is the greatest problem in the Middle East. Israel and Saudi Arabia are now, objectively if not officially, allies. It is good that Prince William is going; not so good if HRH can travel there only on the say-so of MBS.
This column hereby launches a competition for the silliest headline claim about Brexit. This week’s example comes from a press release by Geraint Davies MP, a member of Parliament’s Joint Air Quality Committee: ‘Joint Air Quality Report — half a million early deaths risked by Brexit.’ The prize, by the way, can be awarded for idiotic headlines on both sides of the argument.