The renewed interest in Our Island Story on its centenary takes me back to the first history book I read. It is called A Nursery History of England, by one Elizabeth O’Neill who was, I now see but did not notice at the time, covertly sympathetic to Catholicism (Mary, Queen of Scots was ‘not vain like Elizabeth, and she was very kind’, Guy Fawkes was ‘brave in his way’). The book has two colour illustrations filling each left page and two corresponding stories on the right. We used to pore over the nastier scenes like the burning of Cranmer and people clamping handkerchiefs to their faces during the Great Plague, and these remain my dominant mental impression of these events. Indeed, horrible incidents are never shirked, though the information that the Romans were ‘very rough with [Boadicea’s] two daughters’ underplays the rape of the Iceni. In the manner that perhaps inspired the authors of 1066 and All That, the book is always very anxious to establish whether or not a famous figure was good, kind and brave, which is what children want to know (poor Edward II’s only mention is that he was ‘lazy and cowardly’). Lord Nelson rightly gets a whole page, a picture of him refusing to see the signal at Copenhagen and another of his death at Trafalgar. Nelson was ‘very brave and very lively. He was a little thin man, and was often very ill, but when he was telling his soldiers how to fight he forgot everything else.’ And here is why the fighting happened: ‘...there was a great French soldier called Napoleon, who wanted to make all the other countries do what the French people told them. He won many great battles, but the English people made up their minds to fight him, and keep England and the other countries free.’ A pity that this summary was not handed out to the crowds in Portsmouth this week. A Nursery History of England is undated, but closes with the coronation of King George V — ‘People felt happy again because they knew that they had a good and clever king, and a kind queen’ — so it must have appeared round about 1914. ‘Never such innocence again,’ says Philip Larkin in a poem named after that year.
Who said, ‘It is time to reassert the right to privacy’? If government could store on computer a ‘personal dossier’, the speaker went on, ‘this would place far too much power in the hands of the state over the individual’. It was Margaret Thatcher, then shadow minister for fuel and power, at the Conservative party conference of 1968. The Conservative Political Centre lecture of which those words were part is generally considered to be the first full public statement of her political beliefs. Interesting that, from the start, she rejected the principle of state omniscience which lies behind identity cards.
A huge queue has now built up in the computers of all editors of serious conservative papers, not least this one. It consists of thoughtful articles by people who want to lead the Conservative party. The editors are in a quandary: if they run one, do they have to run all 27 of them? There is a view that there is only so much about ‘listening to voters’ and ‘reconnecting with the British people’ that the British people, in the form of readers, can stand. How about dispensing with the pieces and running a competition: ‘I want to be leader of the Conservative party because ...’ allowing a maximum of 12 words for each entrant?
As Tories continue to debate the merits of tax cuts, they might consider the birth of the Daily Telegraph, which took place 150 years ago this week. The paper was able to come into existence because the previously punitive tax on newspapers had been abolished, and it was only able to thrive once the punitive tax on newsprint went the same way. Taxes stop new things happening.
David Hockney, I gather, spends more and more time in Britain because of the oppression of smokers in California. But of course it is happening here. Hockney has devised a sort of flag attached to his cigarette packet which pops up and says ‘Non-smokers die too’.
Having read, seen and listened to a good deal of reporting of the Iranian presidential election, I feel that I have learnt nothing at all, except that the new President is called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was mayor of Tehran, and is considered a hardliner. Until the result, most of the British media were pushing very hard for the rival Rafsanjani, described as a ‘pragmatist’ and interviewed on the BBC in a way designed to make him look moderate about Iran’s nuclear programme. Analysts on the Right argued that Rafsanjani was a bogus moderate, and that the election result would probably be rigged in his favour, so now they, too, are somewhat perplexed. Analysts on the Left treated the election as if it were as fair and free as our own, so now they can use the ‘conservative’ victory as a stick with which to beat President Bush for his ‘provocative’ stance against the nuclear programme. Very soon the Foreign Office, supported by these analysts, will be putting it about that Mr Ahmadinejad is proving surprisingly flexible in his approach to the nuclear negotiations with Britain, Germany and France. But was the poll free? Why did
Mr Ahmadinejad win? Who really runs Iran? I feel absolutely none the wiser and I do not believe that the Western media know what is happening. The only certain thing seems to be that Iran will continue to develop its nuclear bomb.
The world waits for Luxembourg’s referendum on the European constitution on 10 July. One socialist Luxembourgeois MP is in no doubt about the chance presented: ‘Even if the treaty is probably dead,’ he has told the press, ‘we have ...the opportunity to impose our own idea of European integration.’ His name is (Robert) Goebbels.
No sooner had The Spectator gone to press with me asking readers what a whistlejacket is, than one of the brains behind the Stubbs and the Horse exhibition at the National Gallery told me. It is, apparently, a Yorkshire drink which mixes gin and treacle (which may explain why it has not spread beyond Yorkshire). It makes perfect sense, since the colour of Stubbs’ great sitter (not the right word) of that name is exactly what I imagine such a combination would look like. Very Yorkshire that so noble a beast should have so workaday a name: it makes it more exciting, somehow, than if he were called Bellerophon or Achilles.