Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 21 March 2019

The Spectator's Notes | 21 March 2019
Text settings

Angela Merkel says disdainfully, ‘I admit I was not on top of the British parliament’s 17th-century procedural rules.’ Her implication is that they are absurdly out of date. Yet the old rule invoked by Mr Speaker Bercow is surely one that can hold up its head in the 21st century. It is that the executive should not keep putting the same question to parliament until it gets its way. Therefore Mrs May cannot just keep reheating her terrible withdrawal deal. If there were no such rule, there would be no end to the bullying. Isn’t there something quite impressive about the fact that we have an elected assembly which had already thought of this more than 400 years ago? Habeas corpus is a pretty old idea too, and jury trial is even older. Does Mrs Merkel mock them? In 1604, the date of the rule on which Mr Bercow drew, the area we now call Germany was a chaotic collection of duchies and princely states just gearing up for the Thirty Years’ War which wiped out more than a quarter of the population, whereas England was England. Since then, Germany has had some rough patches, notably between 1933 and 1945, when a tradition of strong parliamentary rules against the executive might have come in useful.

So it is depressing that our fate now lies in the hands of Mrs Merkel and her like. By abandoning the option of ‘no deal’ for which Article 50 provides by law, Mrs May has put us at their mercy. What could the short extension she wants gain? Our Prime Minister’s approach is the Euro equivalent of the maverick Danish politician of the 1970s, Mogens Glistrup, whose party’s defence policy was to replace the ministries of defence and foreign affairs with an answering machine which said, in Russian, ‘We surrender.’ Except that Glistrup said this as a joke, whereas Mrs May is in deadly earnest and calls herself a patriot.

Mr Bercow’s intervention has also made it less likely that the DUP will succumb to blandishments. Over the weekend, it looked as if, tempted by yet more stupefying offers of public money and a ‘Stormont backstop’ which would purport to give Northern Ireland a say in the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, the Paisleyites would fold. But the Bercow pause has made time for a new thought to sink in, which is that no promise given by Mrs May can be cashed. She is so confused that she no longer knows the difference between a promise kept and a promise broken. Besides, she now lacks the power to keep a promise even if she wanted to. The favourite Protestant slogan ‘Ulster says No’ still has some force. If Ulster says Yes, it loses all purchase on events.

The trouble with Mr Speaker, even when he makes the right decision, is his motives. Fame is the spur and so is his love of hurting the Conservative party which nurtured him. However natural these feelings, they are completely wrong for the Speakership. The occupant of the chair is supposed to be a pillar of the constitution, not its talking gargoyle. A sad feature of the Brexit story has been how so many people with important official roles have not seemed to understand or, in some cases, even to care, what those roles entail. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England are supposed to assist the British economy, not invest in its collapse. Five cabinet ministers, all supposedly bound by collective responsibility, abstain despite a whip, thereby allowing a vote to prevent ‘no deal’ to pass. The Attorney General is supposed to speak soberly: this one is a music-hall act. The Archbishop of Canterbury says he wants to help us ‘disagree well’, but then alleges that a no-deal Brexit will make lorry queues extend from Dover to Leicester. It is a struggle to think of anyone with an official position who has understood the limits of his role. This column’s candidate would be Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee. While frankly a Brexit supporter, he has done his best to maintain the interests of all his party’s backbenchers, speak irenically and find some way to square the government’s timidity with the need to implement the referendum result. His amendment was carried. Mrs May immediately said she would implement it in full and then, within a day, wriggled out.

After the atrocious massacres in New Zealand, Islamists the world over have managed to blame Chelsea Clinton, Rod Liddle and so on, instead of the man who wielded the gun. They know that frightened white western media and politicians will swallow the concept of Islamophobia and allow them to police it. This will license an unprecedented assault on free speech. The result could even be deadly: remember that the staff of Charlie Hebdo were murdered for being ‘Islamophobic’. How long before wearing a T-shirt saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ sends you to prison? Here in Britain, there is a more parochial aspect. When I attended Labour conferences in the early 1980s, the greatest Bennite/Militant hatred was directed against the ‘Tory press’, especially the Murdoch papers, and their ‘disgustingandvicioussmearcampaigns’ (always spat out as one word). Corbyn’s leadership is their long-meditated revenge. Fighting Islamophobia will be their weapon of state control.

Tate Britain opens a new exhibition next week called Van Gogh and Britain. I hope it will examine his career as a prep-school master, teaching literature, first in Ramsgate and then in Isleworth. There was literally no money in it and he left, but he seems to have liked the school life. If only he had stayed, perhaps he could have settled down to writing and illustrating school stories, like the Jennings books, instead of painting all those sunflowers, cutting off his ear and dying in poverty. By the way, the Tate’s quick introduction to the show starts thus: ‘Before the foundation of the European Union enabled free movement across its borders, Van Gogh travelled to Britain as an immigrant.’ No doubt the Tate wants us to put Vincent down as a Remain voter.