Charles Moore

The Spectator’s notes | 17 September 2015

Plus: the origins of Corbynite leftism; a study of manhole covers; Malcolm Turnbull; and Sir Walter Scott

The Spectator's notes | 17 September 2015
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When the Labour party began, its purpose was the representation of labour (i.e. workers) in the House of Commons. Indeed, its name was the Labour Representation Committee. Its goal was gradually achieved, and then, from the 1980s, gradually annihilated. With the victory of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader is supported by only 10 per cent of the party’s MPs, and yet it is imagined, at least by his backers, that he will eventually be able to get into government with them. It is an impossible situation. What is needed today is the opposite of how it all started — a Parliamentary Representation Committee in the Labour party.

When the history of Corbynism comes to be written, many will assume that his form of leftism arose as a protest against the Thatcher era. This is not so. It predated her. There really was a belief in the 1970s that capitalism would ‘collapse under the weight of its own contradictions’. The formative experience of the Corbyn generation was not Thatcher but the crisis of 1976, when a Labour government was forced to bring in the IMF. It was then that the campaigns against ‘the cuts’, which have been going on ever since — and the hard-left infiltration connected with them — really took off. (Indeed the Jim Callaghan/Denis Healey cuts were much more severe than any imposed by Mrs Thatcher.) The left, supported, in some cases, by the Soviet Union, thought revolution was nigh. When the revolutionary turned out to be Mrs Thatcher, they half-admired her — or at least hated her only in a bogey-woman sort of way. The bitterest disputes are internecine, so the figures of true loathing were Callaghan, or Roy Jenkins, or right-wing trade unionists, who had cheated them, they thought, of power. The emotional appeal of Mr Corbyn in the left today is that he is the apostolic successor of the man they wanted most — the late Tony Benn.

Mr Corbyn’s hobby is manhole covers, on which he is an expert. I was about thoughtlessly to mock this leisure activity when I was prevented by the learned Christopher Howse. He speaks as a connoisseur of a distinct, but related genre — coal plates, which cover coalholes, and are often neglected. In the 19th century, a man called Shephard Taylor sketched 150 coal plates, and these were published as a book called Opercula: London Coal Plates, in 1929. Christopher has now photographed 1,019 coal plates on his mobile phone and tweeted them (#opercula). Despite his preference for coal plates, Christopher is generous about students of manhole covers or (with which they must not be confused) drain covers. ‘Such interest,’ he says, ‘is fundamentally conservative’, so there ‘may be hope for Mr Corbyn’. I wonder if Mr Corbyn would like the manhole covers commissioned by my friend Greville Howard (Lord Howard of Rising) for his village in Norfolk. All of them bear his coat of arms. Probably Mr Corbyn would prefer to impose new ‘people’s’ manholes. In fact, I wonder if he is happy with the word ‘manhole’, which lacks gender neutrality.

Perhaps Mr Corbyn’s Labour detractors in Parliament will learn a touch of Australian brutality. This week a coup among the Liberals turned out the prime minister Tony Abbott and put in Malcolm Turnbull (who had himself been similarly thrown out of the leadership in 2009). I feel conflicted by this. Mr Turnbull is a bit of a green nut, and an anti-monarchist, but I have fond memories of him (see also Notes, 3 October 2009). Returning to the editor’s office at The Spectator one dark afternoon in 1984, I found Mr Turnbull, whom I didn’t know, sitting on my sofa with a proprietorial air. He told me that his boss, Kerry Packer, would buy the magazine the next week, a fact which the then proprietor, Algy Cluff, had somehow failed to mention. ‘Why does Mr Packer want it?’ I asked forlornly. ‘Well,’ said Turnbull, ‘Kerry’s not only motivated by greed.’ Then he paused, clearly thinking he had done his boss an injustice, and added, ‘Well, not all the time anyway.’ Luckily, Mr Packer was embroiled in a scandal that very week and the deal did not go through. The next time I heard of Turnbull, a couple of years later, he was trying not to buy The Spectator but to sell it. Rupert Murdoch rang me up and told me he had been offered it by Turnbull when the owners, Fairfax, were wanting to sell. I was a bit confused about what standing Turnbull had in the matter, but that sale, too, did not happen. Then, in the 21st century, I met Malcolm once more, and his charming wife Lucy, and took them out to dinner. I found him brilliant and delightful. I suppose he could now buy The Spectator with Australian taxpayers’ money, but I don’t think it is for sale.

It was politic that the Queen celebrated her record-breaking reign by getting on the reopened Borders Railway, doing her bit for the future of her kingdom. She got off at Tweedbank. The reinvention of this line should help the nearby wonder of Abbotsford, the house that Sir Walter Scott built (or rather, rebuilt and magnified). It is an inspiring place, especially for anyone who tries to live by the pen. As a poet and a novelist, Scott was a global phenomenon, and his house became a place of pilgrimage in his own lifetime. Despite his appalling debts (paid off honourably and industriously), he was able to construct an edifice out of his own romantic imagination and practical inclinations, where every interesting person came and every curiosity accumulated. The place is comically grand, and yet also the true home of a great writer — more interesting than the English equivalents such as Kipling’s Bateman’s. When we first visited years ago, it was sadly run-down. We went back this summer and found it marvellously restored by a grant from Scottish Heritage. But it struggles for enough visitors because the cult of Scott has long since waned. If only his ability to revive Scottish pride in British form could be rediscovered, a great many problems would go away.