‘Corruption’ is a subtle word, because it describes a process rather than an event. It does not merely mean bad behaviour: it means behaviour that becomes rotten out of something which was once good. That is why it often afflicts high-minded organisations more than ordinary businesses. People who think they are collectively moral are more self-deceiving than the average market trader. Hence the current embarrassments of the BBC about huge pay-offs. The reason that the Trust and executives are now publicly blaming each other over the issue is not because one side was in the wrong and the other in the right, but because, at the time, no one involved could see any serious problem with paying the equivalent of literally hundreds of thousands of annual television licence fees to top staff to go away. The BBC was good; the executives were good; the departure of some of these good people was unfortunately necessary, and so they were paid good money in compensation. That is how it looked from the inside. Now they realise, too late, that it looks completely different from the outside. That difference of perception is how corruption starts.
A week ago next Thursday marks the first anniversary of the Curious Incident of the Chief Whip in the Night-time. The chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, did nothing — or very little — in the night-time. That was the curious incident. There is not the slightest evidence that he called the policemen on the gates of Downing Street ‘plebs’; and this has now been admitted. It is clear, with plenty of evidence on Channel 4 News, that some police, with some accomplices, spread a story against Mr Mitchell, possibly to protect themselves against an expected complaint from him after they refused to let him through the gates on his bicycle. As a result of what he did not say, Mr Mitchell was forced to resign. A year on, he is still out of office, still waiting for the result of a police investigation into the police’s own behaviour. In January, the Met Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, said that charges would be laid before the end of the month, but still nothing has happened. Justice delayed, of course, is justice denied, which may be why the police are being so slow.
It is strange how these stories about bad security protection get turned into attacks on the people being protected. It happened this week to the Duke of York. Prince Andrew was allegedly rude to the policemen who challenged him in the garden of Buckingham Palace and asked him who he was. The Daily Mail devoted its leader page article to his wicked behaviour. The implication is that important people should not mind being challenged because, in doing so, the police are ‘only doing their job’. But good security involves knowing the faces of those you guard. In the case of Buckingham Palace, that means, at minimum, recognising the Queen’s children. The police account of the incident says that ‘two uniformed officers approached a man’ in the palace garden: ‘The man was satisfactorily identified. No weapons were drawn and no force was used. We can confirm that the man spoken to by officers was the Duke of York.’ Isn’t this all moronic, and therefore bad security? Surely the Duke of York might be allowed to get a tiny bit sweary.
It is 500 years ago since the horrifyingly bloody battle of Flodden, in which the English defeated the Scots. Humphry Wakefield, of Chillingham Castle, close to the battlefield, once showed me the scene and explained how it all happened. Last week, I got in touch with him for his views of the consequences, now that half a millennium has elapsed. He reminded me that the Scots and their uncertain allies, the Border Rievers, lost because, like modern Afghans, one tribe would not take orders from another’s leaders. They were fooled by the English commander, Surrey, into thinking that there weren’t many English left (the rest were hiding). The Home tribe charged forward, killed the decoy English, and rushed off home with their loot. The other tribes, anxious not to miss out, plunged forward too. So eventually did the Scottish king, James IV. Thus were they trapped and slaughtered. Humphry feels that the English victory led to an eventual modus vivendi between the two nations, which culminated in 1963 with the 14th Earl of Home (thinly disguised as Sir Alec Douglas-Home) becoming prime minister of the entire United Kingdom. An authentic Scot was yet anglicised enough to run the country. In the ensuing 50 years, everything has got tenser again. Now Alex Salmond has been allowed to choose the anniversary of Bannockburn for the referendum on Scottish independence, and the lessons of Flodden are suppressed.
Last week, I was one of 23 recipients of awards from GQ magazine, which were handed out at the Royal Opera House. Winners included Michael Douglas, Noel Gallagher, Lou Reed, Russell Brand, Justin Timberlake, Arctic Monkeys and Sir Bobby Charlton. I was Writer of the Year, an honour conferred on me by William Hague. The following day a huge cardboard box arrived for me at home. It might interest Spectator readers to know the current essential accoutrements of what used to be called the Man About Town. My box contained: one bottle of Remy Martin; one BaByliss electric razor designed for ‘precision stubble’; one Coolpix camera; a satchel from the Cambridge Satchel Company; a Hugo Boss watch (very fat), Hugo Boss sunglasses; a Luther box-set (the black detective, not the Reformation divine); Skycig (a non-smoking cigarette); a rap CD (‘explicit content’); a pair of Pearl ‘second skin tights’; vouchers for a night in the Langham Hotel, a Virgin flight to Edinburgh, Aberdeen or Glasgow and a ‘signature massage’; a GQ penknife; 17 personal grooming and beauty products, including Max ‘age-less face cream’ and Fudge Matte Hed Gas — and several books, including The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (the autobiography of Russell Brand?) and Margaret Thatcher: Volume One, Not for Turning, by Charles Moore.
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