Have you been following Mitt Romney’s ‘gaffes’? In Britain, he said that there were some concerns about security before the Olympics. In Israel, he said that the ‘economic vitality’ of Israel compared favourably with its neighbours and attributed this in part to ‘the power of culture’. He said that Iran should be confronted, not appeased. In Poland, he met Lech Walesa and praised those who stood out against the ‘all-powerful state’. One of his aides said something moderately rude to reporters who were trying to goad his boss. To the unprejudiced mind, all of this sounds wholly unremarkable, even vaguely positive, but we are talking not about the unprejudiced mind but about the main media, notably the BBC. They have told us every day what a mess Mr Romney is making of everything. Meanwhile, in the United States, where he wants to be President, he is now only 1.8 per cent behind Barack Obama in the polls. The tour reports give a good, small example of how media bias works: it is all to do with how you frame your reporting (‘Mitt Romney has offended again’ was how the BBC’s Mark Mardell began his blog.) Compare, for instance, how we cover Mr Romney’s Mormonism — invariably a source of derision — with how, four years ago, we played down Mr Obama’s personal pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who delivered his inflammatory sermon shouting ‘God damn America!’
Since Mormonism began in America, it is a thing, in European minds, to throw at Mr Romney. But in fact he is a Mormon because of his English ancestors (though not his kinsman, the leading 18th-century artist, George). In 1837, Miles and Elizabeth Romney listened to a Mormon preacher in an outdoor meeting in Lower Penwortham, near Preston. They were so stirred that they converted and, four years later, set off with their five children for a Mormon life in Illinois. England made them.
We in the Anti-Olympic Family can take it easy. The Olympic Family are doing our work for us. It is reported that there are 200,000 ‘accredited individuals’ who can go where they want, when they want, in the Olympics. Many of them, it turns out, don’t bother. So a peripatetic group larger than the population of Norwich hogs the tickets and then leaves the seats empty. And it is literally the law of the land that this is allowed.
The settled verdict on the Olympic opening ceremony seems to be that it was ‘marvellously bonkers’. Actually, its great virtue was its beauty and imagination. It established its core notion of ‘Isles of Wonder’. But I, at least, enjoyed the ‘bonkers’ bits — ‘Isles of Silly’? — much less. Foreigners often speak of ‘your amazing British sense of humour’, but really they are just being polite, as we might be when offered sheep’s eyes in Saudi Arabia. Usually, they are simply baffled, occasionally repelled. If we are funnier than most other countries (itself a questionable proposition), it is surely because we use humour to subvert our own stuffiness. Since we are now obsessively anxious never to be stuffy in any way, all the humour-making tension has dissipated. The alleged fact that we are funny has become part of our official, self-congratulatory doctrine about ourselves. We therefore grow unfunnier by the year. We have a public culture, to re-quote my sister Charlotte’s dictum, in which everyone is always laughing but no one has a sense of humour. Humour is like charm — if you say you have it, you don’t. So when the Queen was forced to take part in the James Bond stunt, I felt almost as uneasy as when she was made to hold hands with the Blairs at the Millennium Dome. It would have been a far funnier, more British joke, if Bond had been received at the palace without the film ever letting us see the Queen’s face or hear her voice. ‘It proves the Queen has a sense of humour,’ I heard someone saying, approvingly. In 1997, with the death of Diana, she was bullied to ‘show us you care’. Why should our head of state have to prove, aged 86, that she has a lorralorra laffs?
Thinking of the Blairs, I had the pleasure last week of interviewing Tony one day and debating with him the next. He, the Archbishop of Canterbury and I were asked to round off a series called the Westminster Faith Debates at Methodist Central Hall with a discussion about religion and society. What a strange man Mr Blair is. Sometimes he seems perfectly to fit the ‘Deep down, he’s shallow’ joke: he really does appear to believe that all the great problems of twenty centuries of faith and politics could be solved if only the world’s main religions abandoned their ‘core vote strategy’ and remodelled themselves on New Labour. It is beyond parody that he combines his Faith Foundation with working for JPMorgan and advising various dictatorships on how to improve their image. And yet, I reflected after our public conversation, what other modern British political leader would so readily and amiably stride out into the deep waters of religion and have these arguments? The unkind riposte would be that he thinks he can walk on water. That is unfair. He has vanity certainly, but not arrogance. There is a genuine openness in him, a questing spirit rather than a complacent one. Almost all ex-prime ministers live in the past, fight old battles, repeat old stories. This one has adventurously moved on to the next thing, without, perhaps, being absolutely sure what the next thing should be.
In my Daily Telegraph interview with him, I teased Mr Blair for wearing brown shoes with a blue suit, traditionally the mark of being ‘not quite a gentleman’. When I saw him before our debate, he laughed about this, and claimed he had had no idea of this sartorial convention. ‘Why do I like the combination?’ he mused. ‘I think it must be a European thing.’ Perhaps that is what he is — a man of no fixed abode, no nationality, a ‘European’, in the very particular sense that the word has acquired since the Treaty of Rome.