When the migrant crisis started, about three years ago, it was seen as a mainly Syrian affair. Caught in the crossfire between Bashar al-Assad and sundry jihadist groups, ordinary Syrians were heading for Europe, part of the largest mass movement of people since the second world war. But as we now know, that analysis was wrong. Or rather, it was only one facet of the historical migration phenomenon that was unfolding then and still is today.
The ‘yellow vest’ protests against President Emmanuel Macron that swept through Paris and other French cities last month have evoked overwhelming sympathy: 77 per cent considered them justified, according to a poll for Le Figaro.
Even after Macron offered a budget-busting package of concessions to appease his critics, it was hard to silence the lacerating self-examination one undergoes after a soured romance: God, what was I thinking? Today, France’s café-goers wonder aloud how they could have voted so overwhelmingly two years ago for a president whom they disliked and disagreed with even at the time.
There is a strange pre-revolutionary atmosphere in Brussels. At the various receptions and dinners before we broke up for Christmas, it felt a bit like the Last Supper. Elections to the European Parliament are usually predictable affairs, but this time Europhiles (like myself) fear it will be different. We have grown used to populists doing well in national elections over the years, from Sweden to Italy.
‘The Spectator, having quite recently been a very bad magazine, is at present a very good one.’ Those gratifying words began a full-dress leading article in the Times on 22 September 1978, headed ‘On the Side of Liberty’. Its occasion was this magazine’s sesquicentenary, which we celebrated with a grand ball at the Lyceum Theatre, and much else besides. Although I can’t possibly be objective, I think that the praise was deserved.
‘I try to interpret the most generous version of somebody’s actions,’ says the dramatist James Graham. This rare ability to create open and sympathetic characters has turned the 36-year-old into our foremost political playwright. His breakthrough work, This House, chronicled the terminal decline of James Callaghan’s premiership between 1976 and 1979. Rather than focusing on Callaghan and his destroyer, Margaret Thatcher, the play looked at the backbenchers and party whips who laboured behind the scenes to keep Callaghan’s government afloat.
The centenaries of the Great War came to a close in November with commemorations of the 1918 Armistice. But one final British centenary associated with that conflict has just passed. Few people on the mainland will be aware of it, though it has certainly been marked in the Outer Hebrides. It is the commemoration of the worst peacetime naval disaster since the sinking of the Titanic. And one of the most terrible, poignant and final tragedies to have come from the Great War.
Talking to someone in her mid-twenties recently, I mentioned someone else of the same age. ‘She’s a really talented girl,’ I said. Then I checked myself. ‘Sorry… er… woman.’ Sara smiled. ‘It’s OK,’ she replied. ‘That’s what I call myself. I’m a self-identifying “girl”.’
Fair enough. But the exchange stayed with me. It brought back the episode of Have I Got News For You which featured the ‘Michael Fallon touched Julia Hartley--Brewer’s knee’ story.
It always amuses me at this time of year to observe the fuss people make about quitting booze for a month. Because three years ago, after three decades of taking cocaine on a daily basis, I gave it up overnight. Over-eating, gambling, shopping, pornography — there’s no cheap thrill that can’t be mastered with a little self-control.
I first took cocaine as a teenager working at the New Musical Express.