Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 21 March 2009

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

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Nicko Henderson, who died this week, wrote a famous dispatch when he retired as Ambassador to Paris in March 1979. It summed up how Britain’s precipitous economic decline had undermined her foreign policy, and looked for a solution in being ‘fully and inevitably committed to Europe’. We needed ‘something to stimulate a national sense of purpose’, he said. In the dispatch, Henderson recognised that he had gone ‘beyond the limits of an Ambassador’s normal responsibilities’, but thought it was his duty to do so: ‘The tailored reporting from Berlin in the late ’30s and the encouragement it gave to the policy of appeasement is a study in scarlet for every postwar diplomat.’ The dispatch was leaked to the Economist and caused a furore, but the tradition that ambassadors wrote dispatches when they arrived in and when they left a posting survived until 2006. Then Sir Ivor Roberts, retiring from Rome, used his dispatch to lash out at the ‘bullshit bingo’ management culture of Tony Blair’s Foreign Office. As if to prove Sir Ivor’s point, the dispatches were then abolished. This is a loss. They were considered documents. They were often wrong, of course, but they performed the necessary function of achieving perspective, were instructive for successors, and make fascinating historical documents. One reason we are so badly governed now is that the institutions of government have abolished their own memory and independence of mind.

Although she never agreed with him about Europe, Margaret Thatcher rewarded Henderson despite — or because of — his frankness, and brought him out of retirement to become Ambassador in Washington. In that post he became part of the recovery of ‘a national sense of purpose’ which he sought, but in a way he could never have foreseen, by his genuinely brilliant diplomacy during the Falklands war. He was excellent both behind the scenes and on the public stage. Partly because of a tubercular shoulder, and partly because of his slightly Bohemian style, Nicko could not quite keep the collars of his shirts from straying beyond the bounds of his suit lapels, and his ties flopped about. During the Falklands war, someone described him on US television as ‘looking like a broken-down old country house’: it was the compliment of an Anglophiliac, and it was true. He had great charm, and although he was steely and exact in the details of diplomatic negotiations, he also brought to the job a whiff of something romantic, something to do with Bloomsbury and books. He wouldn’t have a chance in today’s Foreign Office.

One of the great gifts of the satirist is to invent as preposterous fantasy what then becomes hard reality. The late Peter Simple (Michael Wharton) of the Daily Telegraph conjured up the phrase ‘the Race Relations Industry’, and it quickly came to be used without irony. He also, well before Rod Liddle (see page 20), came up with ‘passive drinking’. This week his joke became bureaucratic fact. The government’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, announced that the price of all alcohol should rise to discourage binge drinking: ‘just as passive smoking damages others, passive drinking inflicts untold damage’ on the victims of drink drivers and drink-related sexual assaults. Sir Liam does not deploy this usage idly. The health police know that the concept of ‘passive smoking’ gave them the breakthrough in attacking the freedom to smoke, so they wish to replicate it for drink. I bet that in a couple of years ‘passive drinking’ will be an accepted, indeed a compulsory concept in public policy.

Our government is taking direct control of the colony of the Turks and Caicos Islands because, according to the BBC, ‘a report found a climate of political amorality and incompetence’. How does that distinguish Turks and Caicos from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

A man has been charged with murder in the terrible case of Trevor Morse, the Warwickshire hunt supporter who was decapitated by the back-propeller of a gyrocopter last week, so the case is sub judice. But the horror does draw attention to the activities of groups such as Protect Our Wild Animals (POWA), the fanatical organisation which persecutes hunts in that part of England, some of whose supporters were present on the day the death occurred. The gyrocopter was one of the means used by anti-hunt activists to disrupt the hunts. These people call themselves ‘monitors’, as if they had some official role. But in fact they are no more official than would be, say, militant vegetarians who entered every butcher’s shop and aggressively filmed the customers. The police should have long ago curtailed their tactics of harassment. Mr Morse, by the way, was very fond of wild creatures, in a way that POWA could never understand. He had the special care of the hunt’s eagle owl, one of the ingenious devices used to get round the ban, which prevents hunting by ‘dogs’, but not by birds.

Our own hunt has just ended the season with its traditional scurry — a sort of steeplechase. Here is an extract from the email reporting the event, from our lady Master: ‘The Scurry was a great success with plenty of drama and casualties. The weather was perfect... Poor Peter Webb, Master of the Mid-Surrey Draghounds, came to grief in a pile-up at fence 4. He was airlifted to hospital and found to have fractured 8 ribs and has 4 broken bits off the spine — very painful but he managed to go home today and he will be fine.’ You will understand why I have always avoided taking part in this jolly occasion.

This week, I had the honour to address a huge fund-raising dinner for Hasmonean, the north London school which is the most successful comprehensive in the country. ‘Why is it the most successful?’ a friend asked. ‘Because it is Jewish,’ I replied, and she accepted this as a sufficient explanation without demur. I have been to comparable occasions for many Christian and some secular schools. The most striking difference is to do with a lack of embarrassment. Jews absolutely accept that they must cough up large amounts of money to supplement state funds, whereas most Gentiles, even when they do this, grumble about it. And the Jewish pupils, I noticed, praised and almost hero-worshipped their teachers. Not for nothing does the word ‘rabbi’ mean ‘teacher’. If the whole population thought this way, there would hardly be a bad school in the country.

I have been thinking about the phrase — used of banks and insurance companies — ‘too big to fail’. It has shifted its meaning. When conceived, it meant that these organisations were so big that they were incapable of failing. Now it means that they are so big that we dare not let them fail, even when they have.