Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 28 May 2005

Michael Howard may be a vampire, but it is Mr Clarke who will not lie down and die

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Turning on what I thought was the Today programme on Monday, I heard the voice of Kenneth Clarke, talking about Dizzy Gillespie. Another shameless plug by the BBC, I thought, for the man they are always trying to make Tory leader. Perhaps I was right, but the immediate cause was that there was no Today programme, due to a 24-hour strike, so Ken was, in effect, a scab. Although it is Michael Howard who has often been compared to a vampire, it is the older Mr Clarke who will not lie down and die. If he stands in the coming contest, it will be his third attempt. The possibly unintended effect of the proposed Conservative leadership rule changes will be to benefit Mr Clarke, by returning the main power of selection to MPs. They tend not to understand the depth of the cultural problem which their party still faces and so they favour what they irritatingly call ‘big beasts’, and Mr Clarke, of course, is the biggest. If a French ‘No’ vote on Sunday kills off our own referendum on the European constitution, many will argue (mistakenly) that the European issue is dead and so Mr Clarke will no longer divide his own party. My suspicion is that Mr Clarke is more well known by potential Conservative voters than he is liked. People nowadays do not like fat politicians; they don’t like MPs taking money from tobacco companies; he displays a certain jovial discourtesy and indiscipline which MPs enjoy, but which many voters regard as part of an obsolete, 20th-century political arrogance. If Mr Clarke became leader, even under the existing rules, he would drive thousands of voters in key marginals into the arms of Ukip. If he were foisted on the membership by a coup in the party’s constitution, he would provoke a full-blown crisis.

The party activist most involved in the changes is the party’s deputy chairman, Raymond Monbiot, father of the environmentalist thinker and activist George. Strange that George is not concerned by the ecological threat to the Conservative party. He could draw up a very moving map, like those produced by the RSPB about the lesser spotted woodpecker, to show how ruthlessly the Tory habitat has been destroyed since 1992 — 14 million votes then, fewer than 9 million today, huge areas of blue disappearing. Thanks to political climate change, George should protest, hardly any Conservatives remain in the North of England or Scotland. But not a word. So much for Monbiot-diversity.

David Cameron is a possible candidate for the Tory leadership, but he has the disadvantage that he went to Eton. Strange, you might think, that being well educated is considered a bad thing — rather as if a jockey trained at Lambourn were ruled ineligible for the Derby — but Etonians ought, perhaps, to admit that the widespread suspicion of them is understandable. It is to do with their almost ineradicable belief, subliminally inculcated from the moment they arrive (often, indeed, from birth) that their school is the best in the world: it is polite to conceal this fact, but fact it is, they are taught. Many non-Etonians, naturally, do not believe that Eton is the best school in the world, but they are not the ones with the greatest resentment of Etonians, for they can simply laugh at them. The really angry ones are those who think that it is indeed the best, and therefore hate it, either because they wish they had been there, or because, for ideological reasons, they loathe the idea of good schools. A tricky one for Mr Cameron. For my own part, I stand aside from this controversy: I simply feel sorry for Oppidans.

In these pages last week, writing about Lord Rosebery, Jane Ridley described his teacher William Johnson (often known as William Cory) as ‘a sinister homosexual’. It would be a pity if he were so dismissed. Johnson wrote the Eton Boating Song (‘Swing, swing together/ With your body between your knees’) and ‘They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead’. He also wrote very well on what a great school is: ‘you are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can ...with average faculties acquire ...But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming, at a moment’s notice, a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. And above all you go to a great school for self-knowledge.’ But not, it would seem, to prepare to lead a modern political party.

Alastair Forbes died last week. Many Spectator readers will remember his long, involved, gossipy reviews. They will not have seen the correspondence with which he bombarded his editors. ‘How characteristically odious of you not to print my very apt and amusing reply...’, said one card he sent me. On the back of an envelope, he wrote: ‘Facetiousness which is the Friend of snotty schoolboys is the Enemy of Wit and Humour.’ Often he would scrawl comments (‘I have many more friends than you have...’) over my own letters replying to his and send them back. Ali had a great gift for cramming huge amounts of information into a single sentence. Here he is complaining that we had misspelt the name of Lord Queensberry: ‘It isn’t necessary to have been abjectly in love with Bosie’s great-niece, Patricia Douglas — daughter of the 11th Marquess — as I was for years (longer than Isaiah Berlin, Freddie Ayer and others) — to know how to spell a word written up on so many signposts near Edinburgh.’ It would be idle to pretend that Ali was a nice man, but he was funny and surprisingly kind to children, and, as he explained, he ‘knew everyone’. I wonder if there are Forbes diaries left behind.

As the McCartney sisters seek justice for their murdered brother, compare and contrast the US and British administrations. America has refused entry to Rita O’Hare, Sinn Fein’s usual envoy to the US, and Mitchell Reiss, of the State Department, has met the sisters in Belfast. Tony Blair saw Gerry Adams the other day, but did not even ask him about how the ‘internal debate’ within the IRA which Adams had called for was getting along. When taxed with this, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said that it would not have been appropriate for Mr Blair to discuss the IRA with Adams ‘because he is the President of Sinn Fein’.