Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 4 December 2004

It is depressing that the Conservatives are putting up a feeble resistance to identity cards

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On the whole, one sympathises with those sections of the media that do not rush to reveal the sex lives of public figures, rather than the tabloids which bellow about the public’s ‘right to know’. But there does come a point when those of us who say things like, ‘A politician’s private life is just that — private’, and jut our jaws righteously, do look a bit silly. It happened, for example, when it turned out that Diana had passed her secrets to Andrew Morton. A similar point has surely been reached in the case of David Blunkett. Even if it is proved that Mr Blunkett did no wrong in the business of Kimberly Quinn’s nanny’s visa, there are other questions. When the story of his affair, told in an oddly polite way, broke in the News of the World in August, why did it appear at that time, in that form and in a newspaper from the Murdoch stable? Did Mr Blunkett have nothing whatever to do with any of this? And why would a man determined to avoid public attention in these matters file court papers detailing his meetings with Mrs Quinn in order to establish his paternity of the children, particularly when it now appears he probably knew the paternity anyway? Privacy, here, has become a tool, not a principle.

It is so depressing that the Conservatives are putting up only a feeble resistance to the introduction of identity cards, one of the six pieces of legislation which Mr Blunkett has to handle in his brief moments when not fighting with his ex-lover. Common sense tells us that the cards won’t catch the real villains and they will tangle up the lives of the rest of us. But there is an additional objection to them. If identity cards, as some want, will contain our DNA, home secretaries who think they may have fathered a child thought to be somebody else’s will be tempted to abuse the system to find out. I suppose we shall still be told that ‘the innocent have nothing to fear’.

Another repressive law promised in the Queen’s Speech, without Conservative protest, threatens to make religious hatred illegal. No doubt it will pass easily because politicians are afraid of being painted as being ‘in favour’ of religious hatred if they oppose it. But the judgment of hatred is much too subjective, and the danger of the law trespassing deep into religious faith and undermining freedom is too great. Take the horrifying case of the Dutch film director, Theo van Gogh, who made a controversial film about what he saw as Islam’s ill-treatment of women, projecting texts from the Koran across their semi-naked bodies. He was subsequently murdered by a Muslim extremist. Van Gogh’s colleague in making the film, a Muslim apostate female politician called Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has to live in hiding and with police protection. A law against religious hatred would surely have been used to try to prosecute such people for making such a film, for religious hatred was, indeed, provoked. But even if van Gogh’s film was unpleasant and offensive (I don’t know; I haven’t seen it), surely it is his murderers, not he, who deserve the punishment of the law. And the problem lies the other way round also. The Koran contains the famous Sword Verse, which says that unless Pagans repent and pray, Muslims should ‘fight them and slay [them] wherever ye find them’. Suppose some Pagan tries to bring a prosecution for the propagation of these words — would that really be fair to Islam, or helpful to the peaceful co-existence of religions? The motive behind the law is the pressure from Muslims, who are even more sensitive to slights than are the adherents of other faiths. Look out for prosecutions of those considered ‘Islamophobic’ for warning against some dangerous trends in modern Islam, rather than the dawn of a new age of ecumenical good will.

Watching The Incredibles, the wonderful new computer-animated film at the weekend, I was interested by the scene in which Mr Incredible, pretending to lead a normal life as Bob Parr, is castigated by his wife Helen, who is really Elastigirl. Mr Incredible is sneaking off to perform more Superhero deeds of courage and altruism while pretending to Helen that he is going to a conference about insurance. She chides him for missing their son’s ‘graduation’. He says it’s not a graduation at all, merely a move from fourth grade to fifth grade, but ‘they keep on thinking up new ways to celebrate mediocrity’, whereas Superheroes get no recognition. Towards the end of the film, the villain, Syndrome, whose motive is disappointment at not having been a Superhero in childhood, declares his philosophy of life. It is that ‘everyone can be a Superhero. And when everyone is, no one will be.’ Syndrome’s view, in short, is that attacked by the Prince of Wales in his famous leaked memo — the idea that everyone can come top without any genuine attainment. Why hasn’t Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, denounced the attitude of Mr Incredible as ‘old-fashioned and out-of-time’ and ordered schools not to let their pupils see the film?

Suppose that the people of Northern Ireland had been told, 35 years ago, that the result of hundreds of murders and a subsequent peace process would be that the province would be controlled by a combination of Sinn Fein/IRA and the Revd Ian Paisley. Would they have marched towards that future with their heads held high? And would any of the British politicians who committed themselves to resolving the conflict have considered this the result for which they were struggling? The people who have been destroyed in this process are the moderates, on both sides.

Sometimes a single name tells you what you need to know. The Chechen capital, Grozny, for example, simply means ‘terrible’ or ‘stormy’. Ukraine means ‘edge’: it is along the psychological and geographical boundary between east and west that the country is now splitting.

No great admirer of John Major as prime minister, I must admit that I miss his modesty in his successor’s grandiose, presidential age. The other day I learnt that when he stayed in the British embassy in Washington, Mr Major used to write his address in the visitors’ book as ‘10 Downing Street, London SW1A 2AA’. At the time, I fear, I would have laughed at this Adrian Mole-style nerdishness. Today it makes me feel nostalgic.