The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

28 May 2015

1:00 PM

28 May 2015

1:00 PM

Amnesty International and others have placed a large newspaper advertisement telling Michael Gove ‘Don’t Scrap Our Human Rights’. The ad asserts that ‘A government cannot give human rights or take them away’, which, if true, makes one wonder how it can scrap them. Human rights are philosophically a confused idea; but their political power consists in the fact that anyone questioning them can be made to look nasty. People who love making new laws — particularly new laws that cost money — therefore like to present these laws as human rights. Article 29 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, for example, says ‘Everyone has the right of access to a free placement service’. Such access may well be a good thing (though I confess to being vague about what a free placement service exactly is), but in what sense is it a human right? Whatever it is, it can only exist because governments legislate for it and pay for it. There is no state of nature in which people have the right to a free placement service. Rights, surely, have practical meaning only if they are justiciable. If they are justiciable, it is important under which jurisdiction justice should be done. Mr Gove, I think, would prefer British jurisdiction to a court in Strasbourg. No human right is ‘scrapped’ by taking this view.

Now that Ireland has voted Yes to same-sex marriage, it will be widely believed that this trend is unstoppable and those who oppose it will end up looking like people who supported the slave trade. It is possible. But in fact history has many examples of admired ideas which look like the future for a bit and then run out of steam — high-rise housing, nationalisation, asbestos, Esperanto, communism. The obsession with gay rights and identity, and especially with homosexual marriage, seems to be characteristic of societies with low birth rates and declining global importance. Rising societies with growing populations see marriage as the key to the future of humanity, so they think it must be between a man and a woman. Only when countries like India, Nigeria or Egypt introduce same-sex marriage will I retract the above.

Leon Brittan’s memorial service on Tuesday packed the West London Synagogue, but there were some notable absentees. We in the congregation were informed that the government was represented by Lord Howe (the Earl Howe, not Geoffrey). He is an estimable man, but well below Cabinet level. Since Brittan had been Home Secretary, it would normally be customary for the present holder of the office, Theresa May, to attend. Was she absent because of the accusations against Brittan, among others, about ‘establishment’ cover-ups of child abuse in the 1980s? If so, it was cowardly. Absolutely nothing has been proved. Unless it is, ministers should stand up for those who have served government in the past instead of running before the wind.

Against my will, I have read a great many British political memoirs. It is a pretty grim genre. The only important ones of the past 30 years are Nigel Lawson’s and — in an odd way — Tony Blair’s. Most of them should be subtitled ‘Why I was right’. So one about ‘Why I was wrong’ is very cheering. This could be the subtitle for William Waldegrave’s memoir, A Different Kind of Weather (Constable). The book is not a mea culpa about particular policies (though his chapter on the poll tax is very good). It is about the difference between the romantic idea of something and the reality. When Waldegrave was 15, his Eton division was asked to write out their ambitions. He wanted to be: Foreign Secretary in Iain Macleod’s administration, ‘swept to power as prime minister after touring the country in a red, white and blue Rolls-Royce’, a hero for saving Trafalgar Square from demolition, ‘And finally, after many years of triumph, a graceful retirement from politics to produce the definitive translation of Thucydides’. None accomplished (though I wouldn’t be surprised if he is secretly working on the last). In his Elegy, Thomas Gray wrote about unrealised potential — ‘hands that the rod of empire might have swayed’. Waldegrave does something similar, but whereas Gray was describing dead rustics, William is examining someone (himself) who longed to sway that rod and nearly did so, and yet, because of temperament and being born at the wrong time, did not. This sense of failure makes a far better book than those which boast.

The National Trust has bought Great Orme, above Llandudno. Much has been made of its bronze-age settlements and 18th-century copper mines, but many will remember it as the backdrop for ‘Kinnock: the Movie’, the celebrated 1987 party political broadcast in which the then Labour leader and his wife Glenys walked hand in hand on the cliff there as seagulls swooped overhead and Welsh voices acclaimed the man they hoped would soon become Prime Minister. The film was made by Hugh Hudson, of Chariots of Fire fame, and it left the poor Tories open-mouthed with admiration for its glamour. In the general election three weeks later, Mr Kinnock won his party 10,029,778 votes. Mrs Thatcher, who had never been filmed holding hands with Denis in Wales or anywhere else, won 13,763,066 votes — her largest total ever.

‘The British ambassador’s armour-plated Jaguar had just turned out of the residency in a quiet Dublin suburb…when a 200lb IRA bomb hidden in the road exploded.’ Thus began the Times’s obituary this week of Sir Brian Cubbon, the former permanent under secretary at the Home Office (who was injured in the explosion). In last week’s Notes, I pointed out how Times obituaries are forgetting their purpose. They don’t benefit from aping Frederick Forsyth. The pleasure in them comes from their good judgment and accuracy — a context which makes flashes of wit effective but melodrama ridiculous. I knew Brian Cubbon, the most kindly and commonsensical of mandarins: the only consolation in reading this nonsense is thinking how he would have laughed if he had seen it.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments