Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 7 March 2009

Charles Moore's reflections on the week

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There is talk once again of Tony Blair becoming ‘President of Europe’. This grand title is unofficial. The job in question is formally called President of the European Council, and it will be created if the Lisbon Treaty ever comes into force. More Europhiles now see Mr Blair as having the fame and political clout to make the collective EU presence on the world stage a greater reality. The fact that they are thinking this way indicates something which we Eurosceptics are too slow to understand, which is that crisis in the EU tends to be used to strengthen integration. To us, it is obvious that a country like, say, Spain, which now has 3.5 million unemployed in a country of 40.5 million, would be in a much better economic condition if it had its own currency and therefore its own competitive exchange rate. We tend to think, like Marxists about capitalism, that the euro will ‘collapse under the weight of its own contradictions’. And we may eventually turn out to be right that angry European citizens will sweep the existing institutions away. But for the powers that be, the credit crunch cries out for a stronger European central authority to direct economic policy and prevent member countries running up their own huge debts. In the current panic, the eurozone exercises a centripetal pull for those already in it, or linked to it. ‘Europe’ will get worse before it gets better.

As George Galloway said to Saddam Hussein, I say to Sir Fred Goodwin: ‘Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability’. Most of us, when caught out in receipt of a pension specially increased to gargantuan size in response to us leading our company to the greatest loss in British corporate history, would be embarrassed. Finding that we had failed to escape unnoticed, we would try some feint, like giving some of it to charity for a bit, or offering to pay a proportion back. But, so far at least, Sir Fred stands firm. Confident of his contractual rights, aware that, after a few days, the press always turns its anger on to somebody else, conscious that this government does not have much longer to live, he coolly calculates that he would rather be very rich and very unpopular than less rich and slightly less unpopular. One can see the steel which made him, until recent events, the darling of Scottish business.

Lobby journalists say that Harriet Harman wants to be the leader of the Labour party. She is a more formidable politician than many recognise, and, if the party is reduced to its redoubts after the next election, she must be in with a chance. But she does have a problem. Twenty-five years ago, Ms Harman and Edwina Currie were considered to be the most attractive female Members of Parliament. Seeking a sort of judgment of Paris, I asked the late Alan Clark which of the two he preferred. He did not hesitate: ‘Oh Harriet, of course. It’s simply a matter of class.’ The Labour party may make the same analysis as Alan, but with a less favourable conclusion.

The distressing cancellation of Corpus Christi, Oxford’s victory in University Challenge has brought reproof from the founding quizmaster, Bamber Gascoigne. This sort of thing would never have happened in his day, he implies. No doubt this is true, but it was on his University Challenge that I first experienced a tiny example of how television pretends things. In about 1977, I was in the team of Trinity College, Cambridge (unusually, judging by subsequent examples, I was an undergraduate at that college while competing for it). We were the least successful in the college’s history, but, filming in the studio in Manchester, we did win the first round. As a result, we were told that we must film round two straight away. Bamber immediately went off to change his shirt and tie so that he could pretend to the viewers that it was next week. We undergraduates were given no such opportunity, and so were broadcast two weeks running, unchanged, confirming viewers’ prejudices about the scruffiness of students.

How long, by the way, before the Access Regulator gets to grips with University Challenge? Isn’t it a disgusting piece of privilege that Oxford and Cambridge can enter individual colleges — and so be vastly over-represented on the show — while other universities can field only one team? Corpus has 240 undergraduates, whereas Manchester University which, before the row, it beat, has 26,160. How long before Gordon Brown finds a televisual version of Laura Spence (the girl from a Northern comprehensive whose cause he took up when she failed to win a place at Magdalen College, Oxford), and draws attention to the fact that she or he was denied a place on the programme because the selectors concluded that she/he knew fewer answers than candidates from more privileged backgrounds? Elitists might argue that the colleges have to be allowed to enter, because if Oxford and Cambridge could field only one team each, one or the other would win every time, and the programme would become like the Boat Race. But that is an outdated argument. A modernised version of the programme would get rid of the idea that there are questions which have ‘answers’, and that there is a competition which anyone can ‘win’.

At the beginning of Lent, the hymn ‘Forty days and forty nights’ is sung. Singing it this Sunday, I noticed that the words were different. In the original, the third and fourth stanzas go:

‘Shall not we thy sorrows share/ And from earthly joys abstain,/ Fasting with unceasing prayer/ Glad with thee to suffer pain?

And if Satan, vexing sore, / Flesh or spirit should assail,/ Thou his vanquisher before,/ Grant we may not faint nor fail.’

The Celebration Hymnal in front of me said:

‘Let us thy endurance share/ And from earthly greed abstain/ With thee watching unto prayer,/With thee strong to suffer pain.

Then if evil on us press/ Flesh or spirit to assail,/Victor in the wilderness,/ Help us not to swerve or fail!’

The changes are an almost perfect example of bowdlerising. Necessary antitheses vanish — ‘Sorrows’ are the opposite of ‘joys’ but ‘endurance’ is not the opposite of ‘greed’ . You are ‘glad’ to suffer pain because that is the opposite of what is normally expected: being ‘strong’ to suffer pain is what one would generally hope to be. ‘Flesh’, being weak, ‘faints’: why would it ‘swerve’? Fasting is removed, as are Satan and the temptation he offers. In short, Lent is excised.