The Governor of the Bank of England’s eyebrows were the proverbial means of preventing unwise schemes in the City. He raised them, and rash financiers withdrew, chastened. Things have now come to such a pass that the Governor has to raise them — publicly — to discourage rash Prime Ministers. Mervyn King’s direct warning on Tuesday against ‘another significant round of fiscal expansion’ is born of a desperation which all involved in the ‘tripartite’ (Bank, Treasury, FSA) system feel about Gordon Brown. They admire his abilities. They mostly agree with his big ideas about how to stave off global financial collapse, but they worry about his judgment, and his belief that, simply by proposing an initiative, he has achieved something. They find it hard to make him pay attention to reality. Looking back over the years leading up to the present crisis, Mr King thinks that his analysis of the problems was correct, but he reproaches himself for not warning about them more loudly. He is determined not to make that mistake again. The success of his ‘quantitative easing’ depends on government finances which are credible. Only by shouting his message from the rooftops can he get the election-fixated Prime Minister to listen.
The row about Kenneth Clarke and inheritance tax is as predicted in this column (Notes, 17 January). Despite having been on his party’s front bench longer almost than all the others put together, Mr Clarke does not understand the concept of ‘the line to take’. He just says what he thinks. Many admire this as showing splendid independence, but it is actually selfish. He gets air-time because he is the party’s spokesman, but then speaks not for the party, but for himself. So on Sunday he casually undermined the single most politically successful pledge of the Cameron/Osborne era — the abolition of inheritance tax for all estates under £1 million. It showed an uncharacteristic lack of self-confidence in David Cameron to have brought back Ken Clarke in the first place. He was the first Tory leader since 16 September 1992 to have managed to restore discipline to his party, but then he gave in to the dimwit idea that ‘big beasts’ were needed. Mr Clarke perfectly illustrates why ‘big beasts’ are a nuisance. As Churchill said of John Foster Dulles, he is the only bull one knows who takes his own china shop with him wherever he goes. Now the Tories have to run round sticking the fragments together again.
Do you remember when, in the first flush of its youth, the Blair government used to produce an ‘annual report’ in which it ticked its amazing achievements in the past year? What fun it would be to reintroduce that custom today, and see what the government found to say.
Mark Thompson, the Director-General of the BBC, wants to save £400 million from the Corporation’s annual budget. ‘Painful cuts’, he admits. He could find 1.5 per cent of that by sacking Jonathan Ross, to whom he pays £6 million a year, but of course he won’t. To do so would be to concede that the most expensive signing in the BBC’s entire history was a mistake, and that concession might make Mr Thompson’s own job (at £800,000 p.a.) insecure. I understand, too, that the BBC does not dare to challenge Ross because his contract could be used against it. If the BBC tried to get rid of him because, in order to find entertainment for his guest radio appearance with Russell Brand, he rang up the actor Andrew Sachs to tell him that Brand had ‘f***ed your granddaughter’, Ross might sue the BBC, saying that although he had indeed behaved in this way, it was not his fault, but the Corporation’s, for broadcasting it. He was only doing what he thought would please, is the Ross argument. It did please: the programme bosses thought the show was terrific, and no one in the BBC noticed anything wrong until the complaints began to pour in. So, by behaving disgustingly, Ross has more of a hold over his bosses than presenters who never did anything wrong in the first place.
A reader writes to remind me of how things have changed. Professor C.E.M. Joad, he recalls, was a very early BBC celebrity. He appeared on the radio programme The Brains Trust during the war, and became loved for his ability to present philosophy clearly and his catchphrase, ‘It all depends what you mean by...’. In 1948, however, Joad was caught for evading a train fare and fined £2. He was expelled from the programme and died, a few years later, his reputation in ruins.
Many correspondents say that they want to do what I shall do and refuse to renew their television licence (while keeping their televisions) unless Jonathan Ross is sacked. But they naturally worry about exactly what will happen to them. I am encouraged by the example of Niall Warry, of Cheltenham. Mr Warry tells me that he refused to renew his licence because of the BBC’s inveterate bias in favour of the European Union. He argued that the BBC was in breach of its Charter, and therefore he had no obligation to pay the licence fee. He informed TV Licensing of what he was up to, and was eventually charged with failure to pay the fee. In court, he told the magistrates that he was ready to pay if the BBC would keep its side of the bargain. He was given a conditional discharge, and ordered to pay £50 costs. When subsequently threatened again about not having a licence, he pointed out that the matter had already been dealt with by the court. Eventually, the threats ceased.
Last week, the Times ran a cartoon of Pope Benedict wearing a condom with a pin in it in place of the papal crown. Apart from a protest from the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, nothing happened, though offence was undoubtedly caused and, presumably, intended. Three years ago, an obscure Danish newspaper published a cartoon of Mohammed with his turban converted into a bomb, and there were Muslim riots in several countries. The whole of Fleet Street refused to reprint it because, the editors said, they did not wish to cause offence. Offence has nothing to do with it; it is purely a matter of fear.
The reaction to the death of Jade Goody (‘Brown leads tributes to Jade Goody’ was the solemn headline with which Channel 4 proclaimed the news) shows how strongly people dislike the meritocracy in which we live. It is, when you think about it, a very dispiriting and unChristian idea that only people who are talented should succeed. Lord Melbourne praised the Order of the Garter because ‘there’s no damned merit about it’. For the same reason, we must praise Jade.