The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

13 July 2013

9:00 AM

Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign as the Tory Chief Whip last autumn because he called policemen at the Downing Street gates ‘plebs’. Then it turned out, as this column suggested at the time, that he had not done so. It emerged that there was a conspiracy — quite how deep has not yet been made public — by police and accomplices to attribute to Mr Mitchell words which he did not speak. People pretending to be by-standing members of the public said how shocked they were by Mr Mitchell’s remarks, and then it turned out that no bystanders had been within earshot of whatever it was that Mr Mitchell had said. Eventually, there was an investigation. Last week, two more people were arrested, bringing the total to eight (five police officers and three members of the public). The investigation will produce disciplinary action within the police and probably criminal charges as well, but it is ludicrously slow. No one now denies Mr Mitchell’s innocence of all the accusations, but he remains in political limbo. Surely David Cameron should put him back in the cabinet in his next reshuffle, possibly in the International Development job which he loved so much. Not only would his reinstatement be personally deserved: it would also demonstrate that false accusations cannot destroy careers, and will therefore make future ones less likely.

It is well known that there are lots of idiotic and expensive Green measures, such as the subsidies for wind farms. What is less considered are measures which work unnecessarily against the environment. A classic one is the fact that it costs more to eat inside a café than to take the food away in cartons. This is because of differential VAT rates. As a result, one often sees people buying food and drinks at takeaway prices, taking the plastic and cardboard cups, plates and cutlery, and then sitting down to eat in the sandwich bar all the same, unmolested by the staff, who have no financial interest in stopping them. So you actually pay less if you buy a pile of polluting litter to go with your meal than if you eat off a decent reusable plate. How about taking VAT off restaurant and café meals and putting it on takeaways? The state of the streets would transform overnight.


Another great advance for the environment is shale gas, though for some reason Greens do not see it that way. It will make us — and has already made America — far less dependent on high carbon-emitting sources of energy. It is lucky for those trying to extract it in this country that it is in places like Ellesmere Port and Blackpool where there are not many spoilt, rich people to complain about damage to the landscape. The problem is that successful extraction requires quite a lot of ‘frack pads’ each covering an area larger than a football pitch. These attract little attention in enormous, dull, empty areas of the United States, and will probably be accepted in our impoverished north-west. But there is alleged to be lots more of the stuff under the Sussex Weald, which is where, as it happens, I live. So I face the unpleasant prospect of having to be true to my beliefs.

Despite the credit crunch and the decline of the West, especially Europe, the conditions of civilisation have never been more luxurious. We may be sliding into Ottoman inertia, but where extravagant pleasures are concerned, we bestir ourselves. At the weekend, friends took my wife and me to Garsington opera. The place (not nowadays actually in Garsington, but in Wormsley) is completely beautiful. Only 40 minutes from London, it sits in a wooded bowl entirely owned by the Getty family. No lights of other human habitation are visible; no motorway can be heard. The world-famous cricket pitch laid and adorned by the late John-Paul Getty seems clipped with nail scissors. The Getty red kites wheel and swoop above the trees. There is a lake, and dimly glowing picnic tents looking like those among which Harry wandered before Agincourt, but populated by dinner jackets and long dresses rather than armour and the longbow. And there is a light, airy, modern opera-house, with artists of international quality. As we approach the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, we shall surely hear once again the evocations of the golden Edwardian afternoon of elegance and plenty before the world went smash. I wonder if, a century hence, historians will write about our era in similar tones.

Another feature of our age which the next world conflagration will presumably sweep away are the large areas of central and west London in which almost everyone is stupendously rich (and largely foreign). I do not go to them very often, and so when I do, I study them anthropologically. During a couple of recent walks in Mayfair and Belgravia, I noticed something odd which I could not immediately identify. Eventually I realised what it was: virtually every other woman I passed seemed to have had cosmetic surgery. They are thus marked out as members of their tribe just as surely as Burmese women with giraffe necks or 19th-century Prussian officers with duelling scars. One day, perhaps, people will make documentaries about them, interviewing the few survivors, and inviting us to marvel at the strange ideas of beauty that prevailed in the past.

According to a report in the Times, the BBC Economics Editor Stephanie Flanders pulled off what it unkindly calls the ‘unenviable feat’ of dating both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband (not at the same time) when in her twenties. What I like about the story is the way it fits with our media culture. It is unimaginable that any ambitious young woman seeking a career in the BBC would have dated, say, Iain Duncan Smith and Eric Pickles. I am not suggesting for a moment that Miss Flanders deliberately targeted two rising Labour stars, or that the rising Labour stars — looking for future favourable coverage — deliberately targeted Miss Flanders. All I am saying is that her choices were a good preparation for a life of impartiality as the BBC understands it.

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