The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, is offering to meet Jeremy Corbyn about the Times story last week which reported that senior civil servants were worried Mr Corbyn was ‘too frail and is losing his memory’. As usual with such stories, one cannot know their exact truth, but there is a general trend in the civil service to be looser-tongued. A recent column by Rachel Sylvester, also in the Times, contained a long string of insults of Boris Johnson from unnamed officials. Sir Mark did not offer to meet Mr Johnson about that. Before and after the Brexit referendum, government officials, especially at the Treasury, repeatedly briefed views hostile to Brexit. A Remainer, Olly Robbins, took charge of the Brexit negotiations. Recently, in a row about leaking, Sir Mark is said to have insisted on the sacking of the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, and indicated that he would not work for a government which contained him. I do feel sorry for civil servants because, from the era of Tony Blair onwards, a bad habit has grown up of ministers blaming them in public. Nevertheless, mandarins can no longer be fully defended by the claim that ‘They can’t answer back.’ They can, and they often do. Quite wrongly in a system in which ministers are supposed to be responsible for policy, senior officials often appear before parliamentary select committees expressing a departmental view which may differ from that of their minister or give their own opinions in public at the Institute for Government. One reason, I suspect, why they are so hostile to Brexit is that they have gradually introduced a more continental system in which the bureaucrat is allowed political leanings and runs everything pretty much regardless of those whom the people have actually elected. If we ever get Brexit, it should be a great benefit that the civil servants become more restrained and ministers cease to slough off responsibility on to them.
The fact that ‘England’ (explained as the women’s team only at second mention) lost the World Cup semi-final led the BBC Radio 4 News on Wednesday morning. It is, of course, nice that they got so far and sad that they did not win, but by what possible news criterion is this the lead item? None: it was pure propaganda to make all of us laud women’s football. I don’t mind a bit if people do so.
I do mind being told to.
Wonderful news that John Henry Newman is to be made a saint. It is amusing to hear him praised today only as a moderniser. He was an adamant opponent of liberalism. I hope his sanctification will be an occasion to read his work once more. His is an outstanding example of how an immensely clear intellect can combine with an intensely religious spirit. His expression was elevated yet exact. Take this verse from the hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’: ‘O generous love! that He who smote/ In man for man the foe,/ The double agony in man/ For man should undergo.’ So much doctrine so passionately expounded in so few words.
The words to the 1974 hymn of ‘Sing Alleluia to the Lord’ are less interesting, but it is good to hear them sung by the protestors in Hong Kong just now. It has become almost their anthem. This is in part a device, because the Hong Kong agreement, which is supposed to guarantee the nature of government and the rule of law in Hong Kong until 2047, protects religious freedom and thus makes it harder for the authorities to smash up demonstrations of a religious character. It is not only a device, however. We tend to think of China as a country which has successfully replaced the religious instinct with utter materialism, but in fact it has only suppressed it. China may already contain more Christians than any other country on earth, the great majority of them persecuted by the ruling Communist party. In Hong Kong, they are still allowed more open expression, and they can hope to exert some influence in high places. It is interesting that Carrie Lam, the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive of the territory and the object of the protestors’ justified ire over the attempted extradition law, is a practising Catholic. If only Beijing was less paranoid, it would see that ‘one country: two systems’ can work if it is allowed to. Thanks to various factors — Trump’s trade challenges, the Huawei affair, the outrageous treatment of the Uighurs (also for religious reasons), the imperialism of the Belt and Road Initiative and now the attempt to crush Hong Kong — the wider world is waking up to China’s truly global threat to free societies. It is more dangerous than anything offered by Vladimir Putin, because much more carefully organised, well-financed and subtle.
In a cheap restaurant in Coimbra, the oldest university city of Portugal, last week, I ate chanfana, a stew-cum-roast in which the meat is cooked in red wine for four hours. The result was richly delicious, and so full of taste as to be almost overwhelming, calling up the inner depths of what meat can do. The dish is supposed to come from the time when Napoleon’s troops in the Peninsular War were laying waste to the rebellious district around Coimbra. Nuns, deprived of water by the French and refusing to give up their livestock, killed their goats and cooked them in wine. I suppose the goat original (the recipe can be applied to lamb) will never catch on in Britain because we do not like the idea of eating goat. I do not have this inhibition myself, and I have also eaten and enjoyed donkey (in another ancient university city, Bologna), but I must admit to qualms about eating horse. Such feelings are irrational, because one does not dishonour an animal by eating it. I first learnt this important lesson as a child when we had three geese called Faith, Hope and Charity. Faith lived on into ill-tempered old age, hissing at us and sometimes charging with alarmingly powerful wings. Poor Hope was taken by a fox. Charity we ate for Christmas. Of the three, she had the best fate.