If you are a journalist covering politics this year, every moment is a bad moment to take a holiday. I took a short one last week in search of grouse and arrived at Hunthill, the proud Scottish fastness of our host Henry Keswick, to find that Boris Johnson had promised to prorogue parliament. Since the party included a cabinet minister, another Member of Parliament etc, it all felt a bit like a John Buchan novel. As I watched the beaters approach us across the moor, I imagined it as the sort of scene Buchan describes so well in which the appearance of seemingly innocent sport on the hill is in fact the approach of something dangerous to the safety of the realm. The MP who, though of impeccable lineage, has unsound views on Brexit, had quietly slipped away. Was foul play afoot?
It was. Each faction in this contest daily accuses the other of ‘constitutional outrage’. Most of the time, in our flexible system, these claims are false. But when one important person breaks the deepest conventions, it is a case of ‘untune that string and hark what discord follows’. The great untuner in all this is not Boris Johnson by proroguing to a timetable to suit his political convenience (as other prime ministers have done in tight spots). It is Mr Speaker Bercow — in general because the Speaker must be impartial, and he isn’t; in particular because he keeps trashing the rule by which the government controls the business of the House. This really has upset the balance of the system. The British tradition, eloquently expounded by Jacob Rees-Mogg in his speech in parliament on Tuesday night, is that we are governed through the House of Commons, not that the House of Commons is the government. Once the Commons tries to become the government, no one can function as prime minister, so a general election becomes necessary. Which is where, thanks to Mr Bercow’s collusion with the extremism of Tory ‘moderates’, we are (unless prevented by the madness of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which allows parliament, having stymied itself, to stymy an election too). One such extremist moderate, sad to relate, was our companion in the heather, Sir Nicholas Soames.
In that Tuesday debate, the standard of speaking was high. As well as the Mogg, Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Nick Boles, Liam Fox and David Cameron’s replacement in Witney, Robert Courts, were all excellent. On the whole, the rebels were the more eloquent, as rebels usually are. Their one false note, however, was that of self-pity. There was too much — from Boles, Soubry and (though humorous) Clarke — about how they had suffered for their faith. This exemplified one of the main reasons millions feel alienated from parliament: so many MPs are ‘up themselves’ about a decision made by the people.
Poor Rees-Mogg was much abused for lying prone on the government benches, as if this were a mark of disrespect. Not so. Drawings of the House of Commons in the days before cameras show that MPs did this a great deal. Elongated ones used to put up their feet on the despatch table. If you sit in the Chamber, as the Leader of the House must, for many hours on end, you may well need to shift your position. This is particularly true if you are tall — Rees-Mogg is well over six foot. If there is noise, it helps a tall MP to lie down because then his ear is close to the speakers which are in the back of each bench.
Driving south from the moors, I had all too much time to think my own thoughts. One is that, with the exception of the famous Westmorland Services at Tebay (and, I am told, a good one near Gloucester), motorway service stations are astonishing examples of badly run franchise systems. If I ever write a satirical novel about modern Britain, its two villains will be a monopolist businessman and quangocrat, called Sir Norton Canes, and a devious minister who tries to be on both sides of every argument, the Rt Hon. Charnock Richard MP.
Another thought was prompted by listening to Radio 3 for several hours as I drove. Long-standing readers may remember this column’s complaint about those presenters who treat classical music not as an educated pleasure, but as a form of therapy. In my long drive, I heard two full, consecutive programmes. The first illustrated the problem. In This Classical Life, two amiable, inarticulate people, Jess Gillam and Callum Smart, talked about how such-and-such piece of music was ‘really great’ and how much they ‘really liked it’. Both laughed all the time, but neither was funny. Like disc jockeys on Radio 1, they interrupted the chosen passages (12 in the 29 minutes) to insert their own comments, which meant the music lost all shape. The Siegfried Idyll was subjected to this treatment. ‘That’s quite a long piece,’ said Jess apologetically, so they jumped to the end. Their rigid doctrine was that the great thing about music is that ‘you can take what you want to take away from it’; so no train of thought was pursued. Although I am a musical ignoramus, I learnt nothing.
This was immediately followed by Inside Music, presented by the countertenor Iestyn Davies, beautifully done and beautifully spoken. The autobiographical elements, rather than wandering off into tedious subjectivity, were all pressed into the service of the music which Davies came to understand so well as a choral scholar at St John’s, Cambridge (he is now 40). Almost everything he said was interesting — about the difference between being a singer and a musician, for example, or approaching Beethoven from what came before him (‘at the bottom of this great hill’) rather than looking back at him as a great Romantic. Instead of learning nothing, I learnt almost too much to take in, so I am listening again. Davies was completely serious and therefore deeply entertaining.