Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 22 January 2005

Will Robert Jackson prove a rare example of a rat who has joined a sinking ship?

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Having been brought up in a family of active Liberals, I am well acquainted with the category of ‘civilised Tory’. He was easily recognised. He was anti-hanging, pro-Europe, anti-Enoch, anti-Rhodesia. At his zenith (roughly 1972), he tended to wear his hair quite long and swept back, curling over the collar of a shirt which had very wide blue stripes. He was usually fond of good food and wine and preferred the company of non-Tories, attracting friendly profiles in the Observer. He liked it to be known that he read books. He was very public-schooly, though quite often he had not been to a public school. He had charm, but his main vice was vanity, both physical and intellectual. He was an object of admiration in our household — because of his ‘courage’ in opposing his ‘bigoted’ colleagues — but also of puzzlement, because Conservatives were, by definition, morally defective, so why would a decent and intelligent person get mixed up with them? The category of civilised Tory included Nigel Fisher, Nick Scott and Anthony Meyer (both of whom have died in the last month), and, more recently, Chris Patten. It also included Robert Jackson, until last week Conservative and now Labour Member for Wantage, on the more cerebral, less louche wing of the movement. I have always felt sorry for Robert because his political career began just as the glory days of Tory goody-goodyism were ending. So this defection, I suppose, is the revenge for his disappointment. I fear, though, that he has picked the wrong moment once again. He is right, unfortunately, that Tony Blair (despite having introduced the most divisive law of modern times) is a more effective embodiment of moderate politics than Michael Howard, but is this what the next election will really be about? Robert has clearly expressed his preference for Mr Blair, not for the Labour party. But we know — because Mr Blair has explicitly and specifically told us — that he will not lead his party into the election after this one. From the day of his victory, therefore, power will start to desert him. Will Robert Jackson prove a rare example of a rat who has joined a sinking ship?

Commentators often say — I’m sure I’ve said it myself — that when an opposition party launches an attack on ‘waste’ as a way of reducing government spending, this is a cop-out. Perhaps it is. But when you think about it, any large private enterprise, even if well run, has an element of waste, so this must be ten times (100 times?) more true of government. Gordon Brown will spend £485 billion in the coming year. The Tories say that they can cut 2 per cent of that. It would be incredible if they could not, and strange that anyone should object to their trying.

Last week I turned on the radio and was struck by the harsh, self-righteous tone of the voice I heard. The speaker was denouncing someone who, he said, was 20 years old. I did not know what the story was, but since you are not allowed to attack young people nowadays, I guessed that the victim of the verbal assault must be a member of the one permitted exemption from this rule — the royal family. So it proved. The radio denouncer was the aptly named Dickie Arbiter, a former royal press spokesman, but it could equally well have been any of the hundred others who have stepped forward in recent days full of pomposity, class hatred, bullying and pretended outrage, and hurled insults at the poor, muddled head of Prince Harry. At first, I accepted the general view — though disliking the virulence of the condemnation — that Harry had done wrong. But on reflection, I’m not even sure that this is true. Obviously it was idiotic, given the press we have, to take the risk he did, but what was the serious moral fault? By wearing the armband, he was not being pro-Nazi, nor trying to offend anyone. Why shouldn’t people dress up as Nazis — or Osama bin Laden or Stalin or Dracula or John Prescott or Janet Street-Porter — so long as it’s in private between consenting adults (preferably young adults)? It is a question of good taste, some might say, but since when have rules of good taste been applied to fancy dress parties given by 20-year-olds?

At the same time as the leaders of society were pouring contempt on someone who is little more than a boy for his moral insensitivity, we are all being invited to admire the film Vera Drake for its depiction of a warm-hearted, lovable backstreet abortionist. I genuinely do not understand what moral code it is we are all being asked to observe.

Last week I mentioned that the Brownies were having a difficult time because of the rules which restricted their dealings with the children in their care. This week I read that there is a waiting list of 50,000 girls to join the Brownies, because not enough adults are coming forward as leaders. When will people realise that the obsessive protection of children actually damages the children themselves?

The news that you can score 17 per cent in your maths GCSE and still get a B grade is depressing, certainly, but such dumbing down is not new. When my grandfather was at Trinity, Cambridge, more than a century ago, there was still an oral test of religious knowledge which you had to pass, but which it was difficult to fail. Sitting and waiting for his turn, my grandfather could hear the dons interviewing his predecessor in the queue, a very dim young peer. They tried to get him to name one of the Ten Commandments and one of the Twelve Apostles, but without success. Eventually, the fluting voice of the senior don could be heard very clearly from the examination room: ‘Tell me, Lord X, how did Our Blessed Lord meet his end?’ ‘Well,’ said the stammering peer, ‘dash it, the fellow was crucified, wasn’t he?’ ‘The examiners are gratified with the extent of your knowledge.’

In the last weeks of legal hunting, an unusual contribution to the rule of law should be recorded. A friend of mine was out with his pack the other day when, as too often happens, the vehicles of the foot-followers were more or less blocking the road. Round the corner shot a car at appalling speed. The driver slammed on his brakes just in time, and then started to push aggressively through the m