Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 31 March 2016

Also in The Spectator’s Notes: Tata Steel; adult social care; farming; the Queen

The Spectator's Notes | 31 March 2016
Text settings

You might expect that the murder of Christians would excite particular horror in countries of Christian heritage. Yet almost the opposite seems to be true. Even amid the current slew of Islamist barbarities, the killing of 72 people, 29 of them children, on Easter Day in Lahore, stands out. So does the assault in Yemen in which nuns were murdered and a priest was kidnapped and then, apparently, crucified on Good Friday. But the coverage tends to downplay such stories — there has been much less about Lahore than Brussels, though more than twice as many died — or at least their religious element. The BBC correspondent in Lahore, Shahzheb Jillani, was at pains to emphasise that the victims were not solely Christians but ‘simply Pakistani citizens enjoying a day out in the park with their children’, as if that made it worse. Western European politicians rarely protest about the plight of Christians in Muslim lands or offer to help them. Such Christians are perhaps regarded as a bit of a nuisance in countries Islam dominates. The Jewish experience should warn us how insidious this way of turning the victims into the problem can be. Hatred of Christianity — as of Judaism — is central to the Islamist creed. In our secular societies in the West, we congratulate ourselves on our lack of zeal, and think that if we stay out of religious disputes, the angel of death will not select us. But the events in Brussels are a reminder that studied neutrality makes you weaker, and no safer.

Anna Soubry, the minister concerned, keeps pleading on air for Tata to give the government ‘more time’ before deciding to close its Port Talbot steelworks. I think she should specify the date more exactly: she means ‘not before 24 June’.

Our latest council tax bill states, without explanation, ‘The council tax attributable to East Sussex County Council includes a precept to fund adult social care.’ So do lots of other authorities’ council tax bills for 2016/2017. Behind this lies a tragi-comedy of modern government. In 2011, the Localism Act gave ‘communities’ the right to demand a referendum if their council tax rose beyond the limit central government had decided to impose. This is a near-absurdity, since voters have the power to eject councillors who have put up tax too much, in things called council elections: why would they need a referendum as well? After the Conservatives won the 2015 general election, George Osborne realised that he had to get more money somehow. He thought he could get it with fewer squeals of indignation if he made local government raise it. So he made an exception to his own referendum rule (and his own 2 per cent limit on council tax increases) to make councils find more money for adult social care. Even with the increase, so much money has been taken out of local government that a council like ours, where there is an ever-growing number of old people, has to reduce itself to providing only ‘severe’ and ‘critical’ adult social care, and will gain less than it needs. And this week, along comes Mr Osborne’s National Living Wage, which is brilliantly targeted to make adult social care even more unaffordable.

Last week, I had the honour to be installed as president of the South of England Agricultural Society at its famous showground in Ardingly. It is an unfamiliar and happy experience to be president of anything, but I feel unworthy of this role. Despite being brought up on a small, mixed farm of the type that no longer exists, and spending a lot of my boyhood ‘helping’ with milking, sitting on the combine harvester and piling up hay bales, I remain shockingly ignorant of what farming really is. The late Bill Deedes told me that when he first stood for Parliament in Kent in 1950, a man at a public meeting asked him, ‘Does candidate know whether cow’s horns come before or behind cow’s ears?’ Even now, I find I give the answer (behind) with imperfect confidence. I would be a useless member of the Pig, Sheep and Goat or the Bees and Honey Committees. My motive for accepting the post, apart from local patriotism, is to learn. It is surprisingly hard, in modern Britain, to answer the question ‘What is farming for?’ Related to that is the question ‘Why does anyone do it?’, given that the number of farmers roughly halves every decade and that, in our part of England at least, only a small percentage can expect to make a living out of farming alone. The industry is such an odd mixture of wealth and poverty (often lots of capital value, almost always tiny incomes), of tradition and innovation, of hardheadedness and romanticism and of subsidy dependence and sturdy entrepreneurism. Public ignorance is widespread, yet farming still shapes our idea of what our country is. Its internal differences are fascinating. The phrase ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ is supposed to come from my own county, where never the twain — downland farmers and Wealden ones — would meet. I hope to report further as my year in office continues. This year’s theme for the society, by the way, is sheep.

On Monday, on BBC Radio 4, I heard a business commentator being invited to ‘dimension’ a problem. This verb born from a noun was new to me. Someone should trace — dimension, indeed — how long it takes for a new usage, having been invented, to become general. I remember, in the 1980s, everyone laughing when the verbs to ‘nuance’ and to ‘impact’ were invented. Today the former is common and the latter virtually universal.

Watching Robert Hardman’s enjoyable documentary Our Queen at Ninety on ITV, I realised one of the more surprising facts about Elizabeth II is that she must be the longest-serving broadcaster in history. She has been at it since she addressed the Empire on Children’s Hour on 13 October 1940: ‘God will care for us, and give us victory and peace.’ She makes David Attenborough (who started more than ten years later) look a rank novice.