Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 28 March 2019

The Spectator's Notes | 28 March 2019
Text settings

There is an obvious solution to the Brexit problem. It is based on a recognition that we want out and that the EU leaders want the moral high ground. Give it to them. Get them to expel us from the European Union. It cannot be too hard for them to persuade the ECJ, or some new body invented for the purpose, to declare the United Kingdom in breach of ‘European values’, and kick us out. Then we would leave with nothing at all, except our liberty. We might even bribe them for the privilege. As it is, we are committed by Mrs May to paying £39 billion, but that is over several years, and involves much ‘doubt, hesitation and pain’. Why not offer them, say, £10 billion on the nail, in return for them punishing us? It would be a bargain for both sides. If only I’d thought of it sooner.

This column has, in the past, accused Mrs May of a lack of imagination. Now I take it all back. On Monday, in cabinet, she said she had to rule out the no-deal option because it posed ‘a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom’. This makes her the most dangerously imaginative person ever to have held the office of prime minister.

On Tuesday night, Boris Johnson was ‘in conversation’ with me at a Daily Telegraph event at Methodist Central Hall. As soon as he stood up to make an introductory speech, a trick of the sound system meant that I — alone in the hall — could not hear what he was saying. So it was only when I opened the next morning’s paper that I found his plangent passage about how this week, ‘Charles Moore’s retainers were meant to be weaving through the moonlit lanes of Sussex, half blind with scrumpy, singing Brexit shanties… and beating the hedgerows with staves,’ but now would be doing none of these things because Brexit was postponed. He was right, but in fact I had already stood these good people down, since I could see what was coming. Little is certain, but to the Conservative party over Europe, I apply the words of David Niven on Errol Flynn: ‘You know where you are with him: he always lets you down.’

Latest Brexit casualty revealed on the BBC’s Farming Today: there’s a shortage of daffodil-pickers. ‘Will some [daffodils] just die there [in the field]?’ wails a reporter, as if they were stranded refugees.

It is worth rejoicing at Robert Mueller’s exoneration of the President, even if you do not like Donald Trump. Wherever possible, politics should not be pursued via legal processes and investigations. This sounds an odd thing to say, since democracies depend upon the rule of law. The trouble is that the rule of law quickly gets hijacked when one political grouping tries to arraign another. Motives become suspect. I learnt this myself at the time of the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton. I was editing the Telegraph, and, thanks to the great Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, we had actually been ahead of the US media in revealing the murky stories of Clinton which had originated in the great state of Arkansas. So when Monica Lewinsky came along, we pressed hard for Clinton to be investigated. Our proprietor, Conrad Black, rang me. Although he was a staunch supporter of the Republicans, he argued that impeachment of Clinton would be a great mistake. People were always trying to destroy US presidents, and quite often did uncover scandals. But to invoke the mighty machinery of the constitution to pursue these grievances was bad for the office of the presidency, and therefore the United States. Conrad’s intervention irritated me at the time, as proprietors usually do when they make political suggestions to their editors, but I came to think he was right. In 99 per cent of cases, the best way to bring down a political leader is at the ballot box. Did Watergate really help anything much, except by making it much more likely that Ronald Reagan would ultimately become president? Would we feel better as a nation if Tony Blair had been tried for war crimes against Iraq? Just now, I’d like to arrest Philip Hammond and his gang for treason over Brexit, but these are base impulses which one should try to restrain. As a result of Mueller, the Democrats are looking the wrong way for the next election, and Donald Trump is more secure than if the investigation had never started.

Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, says that the success of a gallery should not be judged by its number of visitors. He is defensive because the visitor figures at the NPG have fallen (by nearly 120,000 from 2016-17). Dr Cullinan is right. Anyone who likes going to galleries would always say, ‘The smaller the visitor numbers, the merrier for those who want to see the pictures.’ But what he says now would seem to go against his vision for the gallery’s future. It is currently trying to raise £35.5 million for its new ‘Inspiring People’ project. Launching the appeal in January, Dr Cullinan enthused about how the NPG wants to be ‘the nation’s family album’. He seeks room for more 20th-century and contemporary work and more ‘diversity’, thus parroting the utterly un-diverse uniformity of virtually everyone in the arts world. Dr Cullinan claims that modernisation and expansion are needed because the most common thing people say when entering the building is ‘Why does nobody here look like me?’ To which the obvious answer, is ‘Why should it? If you want a gallery to look like you, fill it with mirrors.’ Surely the arts involve encounter with the other, not merely with oneself. A national portrait gallery ought to have a collection of pictures of individual people who have mattered in the life of the nation — not of you, me and anybody who happens to be alive today. I suspect that the public feels this, and is less attracted by the latest daubs that now clutter the place, which I noticed recently when I emerged from its ravishing exhibition of Elizabethan miniatures. If the NPG persists in its unpopular populism, it will have real difficulty raising the £35.5 million.