Even before the ECHR injunction, the bishops had issued their anathema. All 25 of them in the House of Lords told the Times that flying asylum-seekers to accommodation in Rwanda ‘should shame us a nation’. I can see reasonable objections to the policy, but is it really a source of shame? Most countries try to check the flow of refugees and most voters agree. They pay other countries to help them do this. In 2020, Turkey contained about four million refugees from Syria. It is still being paid by the EU to keep most of them out of the EU. The housing Britain is funding in Rwanda looks (though one must lay off for propaganda) like proper permanent buildings, much more pleasant than refugee camps. If we had called it development aid, the bishops might even have praised it. Although their letter speaks of Rwanda as a ‘brave country’, they seem to think sending people to Africa is automatically a dreadful thing to do. If I were a Rwandan Anglican (a much higher proportion of the church-going population there than here), I might feel insulted that such a stay in my country is considered wicked. Episcopal hyperbole leaves little verbal power for something which is truly appalling, such as repeated Islamist murders of Christians in Nigeria, or the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Putin’s violence against Ukraine. On the Russian invasion, the Archbishop of Canterbury did express his ‘grave concern’ to Putin’s toady, Patriarch Kirill; but he and his colleagues reserve really big, bad words like ‘shameful’ or ‘immoral’ for the British government.
Andrew Neil recently interviewed me for Tortoise. I was pre-announced as someone ‘at the apex of the establishment’. In Andrew’s view, I have a record as long as my arm – Eton, Trinity, Spectator, Telegraph, House of Lords. But I think Andrew misunderstands what the modern British establishment is. As a bright boy observing the high road to England from Paisley, the young Andrew may have thought that the people in charge down there were all snobby Oxbridge public schoolboys hogging the good jobs and supporting a social pyramid at whose pinnacle stood the royal family. Later, as a young editor of the Sunday Times, Andrew replaced Frank Giles who, he wrote, had ‘a patrician air’. As he memorably describes in his memoirs, Andrew showed what a thrusting, non-establishment sort of chap he was by emerging ‘one sunny Sunday in shorts and an open-necked shirt from a black convertible BMW with a pretty American girlfriend on one arm and a six-pack of Budweiser under the other’. That was nearly 40 years ago. But today’s establishment consists neither of the snooty bogeymen of his youth, nor of iconoclastic meritocrats doing tough executive jobs while skilfully balancing BMWs, beer and beautiful women. Much more than in the past, it is a public-sector affair (no landowners, for example), populated by people who, while lauding ‘diversity’, are uniform in opinion. They are entranced by concepts which scarcely existed when Andrew first stormed the citadels of power – ‘governance’, ‘inclusion’, ‘sustainability’, ‘leaning in’, net zero, ‘activism’, ‘stakeholding’, ‘gender fluidity’, ‘LGBT+’, BLM, CSR. They run almost everything which the state controls and most semi-state offshoots and dependents, such as quangos, big charities, universities, museums, regulators, the judiciary and the BBC. They run very few things for which people pay voluntarily from their wallets rather than compulsorily through their taxes. True, many are barons or baronesses, but none is aristocratic. To qualify, they must hold certain opinions – anti-Brexit, pro-abortion, anti-grammar schools, pro-mass immigration, anti-fossil fuels, anti-Boris. In our different ways, neither Andrew Neil nor I are part of this charmed circle. We can only press our noses against the windows of their eco-offices and stare resentfully at the establishment privilege displayed.
Ten years ago, a candidate in the American presidential election described Russia as America’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’. Goodness, how he was mocked. He was Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee. He duly lost in November to the incumbent, Barack Obama. Even before that election, however, Putin (always ‘Vladimir’ when addressed by Obama) was helping arm Assad’s regime in Syria, angrily denying it as he did so. The Russian ship Alaed was detected in British waters, carrying reconditioned Mi-25 attack helicopters to Syria. I am not sure Romney was right about the ‘number one’ foe. Then and now, that title should probably go to China; but in terms of overtly violent threat to the world order which the United States tries to defend, Russia took then, and takes now, the biscuit. Suppose Romney had won the 2012 election. Would the West have concerted, causing Assad to fall? Would a foiled Putin, seeing this western unity, have decided against invading Crimea and attacking the Donbas in 2014? Would we therefore have been spared, in 2022, the worst war in Europe since 1945?
On a magnificent Rectory Society tour in Oxfordshire last week, we visited All Saints church, Spelsbury, famous for its funerary monuments. The inscription on the tomb of Robert, Earl of Litchfield (ob.1776), struck me, because many of its words of praise for this ‘true ENGLISH NOBLEMAN’ now mean something else to a modern ear. He is praised for his ‘condescension’, and for being a ‘liberal and disinterested benefactor’. ‘Condescension’ now means looking down on people. Then it meant almost the opposite: ‘voluntary submission to equality with inferiours’ (Dr Johnson’s definition). ‘Disinterested’ now means ‘not interested’, even ‘bored’. Then it meant ‘superiour to regard of private advantage’ (Johnson again). These linguistic shifts surely betoken a shift in values too. The change in the meaning of ‘disinterested’ suggests that the concept itself is being lost.