Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 22 November 2018

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It will be interesting to see whether the about-face of the Daily Mail on Brexit makes the slightest difference to anything. Paul Dacre was admirably consistent when he was editor and the paper did well. But on the whole, the history of the Mail is that it is happy dramatically changing sides on major issues. Under David English, for instance, it suddenly switched to Europe and Heseltine away from his earlier Thatcher-worship, and few seemed to notice. Thus, after attacking the High Court judges as enemies of the people in 2016, under Dacre, it can move effortlessly to attacking the Brexiteers as ‘preening peacocks’ etc, under Geordie Greig. So long as it can find people to incite its readers to hate, and leaders whom it can hero-worship (often erroneously: think of Dacre’s praise for Gordon Brown or, indeed, Mrs May) as strong, the paper feels secure. My guess is that Mail readers will find it less fun hating the European Research Group than the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, but the traditional key to tabloid success is the Glenda Slagg principle of kicking someone, then praising them, then kicking them all over again. My only concern for the Mail’s future lies in the fact that Geordie Greig comes from the officer class. This violates ancient Mail rules by which the Harmsworth family are remote, regal figures beloved by their serfs, and the actual dirty work is done by foul-mouthed NCOs who never leave the office. Geordie goes out to dinner, has many friends, enjoys life, and wishes to win the respect of peers (in both senses of that word). He is a talented journalist, but these are severe handicaps to running Associated’s charnel-house.

The BBC’s ‘Reality Check’ device is a piece of hubris, which this week met its nemesis. It effectively says: ‘We report untrustworthy politicians who disagree with one another. You, the stupid viewer/listener, obviously cannot be expected to work out where the truth lies. Our expert correspondents will tell you.’ The main man who does this on Brexit is called Chris Morris. His version of ‘reality’ is strongly pro-Remain. If you read his online summary of the withdrawal agreement, for example, he says that ‘the Brexit process has caused an enormous amount of anxiety and uncertainty’ in relation to immigration. That is a defensible proposition, but one depending on a point of view. A Leave supporter would blame most of the anxiety and uncertainty on deliberate obstruction by the European Commission. When he explains the Irish backstop, Morris manages not to mention the constitutional issue which is the key to the whole thing — that the EU would acquire special powers over Northern Ireland, thus fragmenting the United Kingdom. On Tuesday on Today, Peter Lilley was invited into the studio. As he is a prominent Leaver, he had first to be roughed up by John Humphrys and then tried without a jury by Lord Justice Chris Morris, who pronounced him guilty. Luckily, Lord Lilley knows a lot more about trade rules than the Reality Checker, who thus found his own reality checked, and was temporarily lost for words. It was a beautiful moment.

Article 129 (3) of the withdrawal agreement provides that ‘the United Kingdom shall refrain, during the transition period, from any action or initiative which is likely to be prejudicial to the Union’s interests, in particular in the framework of any international organisation, agency, conference or forum of which the United Kingdom is a party in its own right.’ What does that mean? That we are not free at the UN Security Council to oppose any item of EU foreign policy? That we cannot cut our rate of VAT? That we must not make jokes about Jean-Claude Juncker? Needless to say, there is no reciprocal obligation on the EU to do nothing prejudicial to the interests of the United Kingdom.

The BBC also ran a Radio 4 programme this week called How to be a Muslim Woman (in Britain today). It is a good subject, but how about one called How to be a Christian Woman? That too is not always easy in modern Britain. It may partly explain the reluctance of our government to receive Asia Bibi, the Christian Pakistani freed at last by her country’s Supreme Court but still in fear for her life because of her alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him, oh my goodness yes), and for those of her family — as her 18-year-old daughter Eisham points out in a video released by Aid to the Church in Need. It is widely believed that the government is frightened that the Bibi family might be attacked if they were granted asylum here, and does not want the bother of protecting them. For the first time in more than 1,400 years, do women in Britain face persecution just for being Christian?

Last week, in the Locarno Room, we gathered to celebrate the centenary of historians in the Foreign Office. Across Whitehall in general, institutional history was despised in Tony Blair’s New Dawn and has still not been fully rehabilitated. So all praise to Patrick Salmon and his team for keeping the collective memory alive. Institutions cannot succeed without one. In the commemorative booklet, I was pleased to find a story of my wife’s cousin, Margaret Lambert, who was one of the historians. In the mid-1970s, an ex-naval officer, Adrian Pelly, rang her up at work and asked her to marry him. In those days, all the telephone lines in the Historical Branch office were pulled out at 5.15 by Mrs Hastings, the switchboard operator. It was 5.15, so the line went dead. Gill Bennett, who was working in the next room, heard a great scream and rushed in. ‘He asked me to marry him, and I didn’t get the chance to say yes!’ Margaret wailed. Luckily, the connection was re-established and the rest, for the happy marriage of Mr and Mrs Pelly, is history. This tale is a small reminder of how the old technology set limits, both infuriating and reassuring, upon the world of work, now almost impossible to imagine.