Like everyone, especially his old friends and colleagues, I can think of unkind things to say about Boris Johnson. He is a lazy workaholic — too busy doing things to do them thoroughly. He can be exasperating. But as the mayoral election campaign reaches its climax, I must dispute the central current criticism of Boris — that he does not really stand for anything. He may not have yards of clear policies, but his essential message is important and genuine. He believes in freedom, and has a strong preference for letting people get on with their lives without official molestation. He is equally genuine in seeing his voters as Londoners, rather than blacks, whites, Muslims, gays etc. In all this he remains the opposite of Ken Livingstone, who sees politics wholly in terms of groups who can be made his clients with public money and then enlisted for his relentless assault on this country’s liberty, identity and tradition. It is actually more important now that Boris should win than it was four years ago.
I s the Public Administration Committee right to demand a ‘national strategy’ which the government should lay before Parliament every year? Given the uncertainties of the trade, ‘strategy’ does not suit politics. It merely introduces rigidity. What a government does need is a sense of purpose. It is interesting to compare the present problems with those of the Conservative government in the same stage of the parliament in 1981. In many ways, the plight was much worse then — the gilt markets did not believe the government, and the Prime Minister was much less secure with her senior colleagues than David Cameron is today. But in one respect, her position was stronger. Everyone knew what she was trying to do. She therefore set the agenda. She did this partly by force of character and belief, but also by the simple device of answering Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament twice a week, thus constantly preaching the message and picking up MPs’ anxieties. This running commentary on events was much more effective than any annual national strategy review, with its inevitable verbiage, could be. Tony Blair reduced the session to once a week,
and so began to lose touch. Mr Cameron mistakenly continued the Blair innovation. To a bureaucrat, PMQs twice a week must seem an insane waste of time, but it is the best way of maintaining direction.
As this week’s Murdoch sessions have shown yet again, the Leveson inquiry is a wonderful, long-running, unstoppable revue in which the British power elites — press, police, proprietors and, next to come, politicians — insult and expose one another for the delectation of the public. It reminds me of the poster for Hair which ran for years with the tribute ‘The nudity is stunning. Daily Sketch’. One wishes it could go on for ever, not least because the harm will be done only when it finishes. The inquiry will feel then obliged to recommend legislation, and all the fun, and much of our freedom, will come to an end.
O ne thing which emerges from the strange case of Theresa May and the time limit for the Abu Qatada appeal is her self-imposed ministerial isolation. Apparently her junior ministers never know what she is doing: she never tells them. So when things go wrong, she is all alone.
Staying with friends in Norfolk at the weekend, we visited Holkham Hall. In the park stands the 120 ft column, crowned with a wheatsheaf and decorated with turnip leaves and mangel-wurzels, commemorating Coke of Holkham. At the base are friezes of Coke’s benevolence and industry, and a large inscription which ends thus: ‘The Arts lament in him a liberal and fostering Patron: AND AGRICULTURE to which from early Manhood to the close of his life He dedicated Time, Energy, Science and Wealth — Crowning His Cenotaph with her Emblems — Cherishes the Precedent and Commends the Practice of her Great Promoter and Benefactor.’ How I admire this sentence for daring to go on so long, dramatically delaying the verbs of its second part until the last possible minute. And how right it is to celebrate a man whose ingenuity found ways of producing more food, more quickly and more cheaply. Will the next age have the decency to erect a column to whoever invented GM foods?
S ometimes I feel envious of women. Watch the recent film made by Lady Lyall Grant, the wife of the British ambassador to the United Nations and Huberta von Voss Wittig, wife of the German ambassador to same. ‘Dear Asma’ is an appeal to/attack on the wife of Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator. It says things like ‘Some people care for style. Some women care for their people,’ and juxtaposes images of Mrs Assad looking chic with pictures of wounded children and grieving mothers in Syria. It urges Mrs Assad, ‘Don’t be a bystander.’ It is impossible to imagine men daring to claim, on grounds of their sex, such high moral ground. Suppose that husbands of prominent women opposed to the Falklands war had made a ‘Dear Denis’ video urging the Prime Minister’s husband to intervene. ‘Be a man, Denis. Get off that golf course. You are a father: when you kiss your children goodnight, think how you could save the lives of young men. Don’t let her push you around: give peace a chance.’ I rest my case.
Have you ever met anyone, in any course of treatment on the NHS, who has always got his or her test results back at the time promised? I gather from friends and relations who have recently suffered that it is customary to be told that results have been lost. They seldom have been but, NHS insiders explain, it is a convention of our health service to pretend that they have. Etiquette demands that you then get the doctor to ask again, more persistently. After another month or so, the results will appear. Obviously, some people will get seriously ill, or even die, while they wait. But remember, our health service is ‘the envy of the world’.
the spectator | 28 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk