In the Tintin books, there are Thompson and Thomson (‘without a p, as in Venezuela’). So it is with the BBC. Mark Thompson is the Director-General, and Caroline Thomson is the Chief Operating Officer. The latter now seeks the former’s job. It is impossible not to laugh at the perfection of Miss Thomson’s BBC pedigree. Her father, Lord Thomson of Monifeith, was a Labour minister, a European Commissioner and a television duopoly mogul. Her husband, Lord (Roger) Liddle, was a special adviser to the Labour minister and founder of the SDP, Bill Rodgers, and was later a special adviser on European Affairs to Tony Blair, and then a member of Peter Mandelson’s cabinet at the European Commission. Miss Thomson herself was political adviser to Roy Jenkins when he led the Social Democrats in 1983. The chief selector for the post of Director-general is Lord Patten of Barnes, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, the most pro-European of all senior Tories and himself a former EU Commissioner. It must be almost irresistible for this ancient regime to go on appointing its own members, like the Soviet Politburo in the late 1970s.
Roger Liddle writes a plucky little pro-European blog for Policy Network. I kept the one he filed in July last year entitled ‘Europe confounds its Anglo-Saxon doubters’. Writing about the Greek ‘rescue’ at that time, he said ‘We have witnessed once again an absolutely classic British underestimation of the underlying dynamic of European integration’. ‘I am confident,’ said Roger, ‘that Europe will now do whatever it takes.’ The really frightening thing is that, even now, he might still be right.
Alexander Surtees Chancellor has been made a Commander of the British Empire. The title does not fit the personality — Alexander has never shown the slightest inclination to command the British Empire — but the honour is certainly due. It was he who saved The Spectator in the mid-1970s when it was all but extinct, and made it the most readable, intelligent, funny and independent-minded magazine of the last 30 years. He is the best editor I have ever worked for because of his unusual mixture of courage, honesty, humour, laziness, humility and perfect verbal pitch. He also combines cheerfulness and unhappiness in a way which makes one love working with him. At the end of a dinner to celebrate Taki’s return from prison, I remember Alexander standing up against the restaurant wall saying, ‘I’m 45, and I’ve had enough.’ He then slid slowly to the ground. Luckily, now in his seventies, he has not had enough. He nearly did not get his honour at all because the letter offering it went to him at the Guardian, which had just sacked him, and was never forwarded. But the Guardian’s loss is The Spectator’s gain, since he is now back, and writing Long Life.
Last week, I took my mother to Istanbul as an 80th birthday present. She is registered disabled, which means that she is entitled to wheelchairs at airports. For the carer accompanying (i.e. me), this is bliss. You jump the queues and fast-track the security checks with impeccable moral justification. My advice is, never travel without a disabled companion. It was perhaps less fun for my mother. Gatwick and Heathrow were pretty good, but in Turkey, the people pushing her behaved the same as Istanbul taxi drivers, speeding up when obstacles approached and swerving furiously at the last minute. Since I had never before gone through these processes, I learnt a lot from the experience. It brought home to me the force of the disabled lobby’s point that people in wheelchairs become invisible. It is astonishing how much difference it makes if people are 18 inches below your normal line of vision. Almost all the problems arise not from callousness, but from the simple fact that, in crowded places, people act according to normal expectations. Normal expectations do not include human beings in machines at your chest level. The problem can only get bigger, since there are more and more disabled people in the world with the ability to travel. On the evening we reached Heathrow, staff apologised for the delay in finding a wheelchair for my mother. This was because flights from Pakistan had forwarded requests for 15 wheelchairs. When the planes arrived, the Pakistanis demanded 62. It occurred to me that not all these demands might have been bona fide: the wheelchair is, as I say, the only civilised means of getting through a modern airport.
Being purely tourists, we did not investigate Turkey’s interesting political situation. But I noticed a huge change since my last visit in the 1990s. Perhaps 30 per cent of women now cover their heads. The rooms in the Topkapi Palace which contain the mantle of the Prophet and other relics now have a man in a turban sitting there chanting the scriptures through a very loud PA system (to understand the effect, imagine the Revd Ian Paisley bellowing from the Old Testament in a Christian art section of the British Museum). Last month, a demonstration took place demanding that Haghia Sophia cease to be a largely Christian museum and become a full working mosque. In Ottoman days, there was a great British diplomatic expertise on Turkey. No longer, alas. But we need it once more. Neo-Ottomanism is on the move, and the Islamist version of the Sublime Porte urgently requires our wary attention.
This column is written from St Andrews, where we have just attended our son’s graduation. It is a splendid ceremony, much more serious than those offered by Oxford and Cambridge. Every graduate is tapped on the head by an object rumoured to be John Knox’s breeks, but actually the cap of Dr Arbuthnot (as in Pope’s ‘Epistle to…’). People’s names nowadays are amazing. The Principal’s Medal was shared between a man wearing a kilt, who was called Aria Danesh, and someone called Lorcan Maximus Tin-Tin Morgan, who did not appear.