The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

3 December 2016

9:00 AM

It seems perplexing that François Fillon, now the Republican candidate for the French presidency, should be a declared admirer of Margaret Thatcher. Although she certainly has her fans in France, it is an absolutely standard political line — even on the right — that her ‘Anglo-Saxon’ economic liberalism is un-French. Yet M. Fillon, dismissed by Nicholas Sarkozy, whose prime minister he was, as no more than ‘my collaborator’, has invoked her and won through, while Sarko is gone. In this time of populism, M. Fillon has moved the opposite way to other politicians. He says his failures under Sarkozy taught him that France needs the Iron Lady economic reforms which it has never really tried. Against Marine Le Pen’s mixture of left-wing economics and right-wing racial attitudes, M. Fillon’s stance looks both respectable and brave, a rare combination just now.

The Article 50 case has at last woken people up to the power of the Supreme Court. On Monday, at Policy Exchange, I appeared on a panel which included the former Supreme Court judge Lord Hope. He seems a dear and distinguished man, so I felt for him when he complained that current ‘vicious’ press attacks on the judges had gone ‘far too far’. When judges gave lectures these days, their words were ‘picked over’, their sentences ‘taken out of context’. Although he is right that judges should be treated courteously, I was stunned by Lord Hope’s failure to realise that the rudeness they have recently encountered is the inevitable result of their new activist stance as opponents of the executive. By departing from their traditional respect for Parliament and government they enter the thieves’ kitchen of politics and then find they can’t stand the heat. The logic of their conduct is that all their views will be scrutinised and all their appointments challenged by elected representatives, as in the United States. It is a dreadful development, but they should have thought of that earlier.

In all the arguments surging about Fidel Castro, I have noticed the lack of simple, even tourist-level observation, of what his country has been like in recent years. This can tell you more than disquisitions on land reform or geopolitics. A friend who went there this year reports that the level of goods available to citizens is even more limited than he remembers from visiting communist Romania in the 1970s. He entered one local-currency government food shop in Havana. Three staff sat at the counter, but there was literally no food to buy. There was a Havana-wide shortage of eggs at the time, and when a box of eggs appeared at one end of the town, mobile phones brought crowds rushing with the news. As always in communist countries, people with capitalist money are relatively well treated. Tourists use euros etc to buy ‘CUCs’ (Cuban Units of Currency) which can procure a limited number of things at western-style prices. (January’s visitors had a glut of lobster, but little else.) The official currency, the peso, is worthless and sharp traders often pass it off on tourists as change for the CUCs they have handed over. The immensely grand state-run Hotel Nacional served ‘the worst food I’ve had since prep school’. You may have heard it said that Cubans are so hospitable that they invite you into their homes to cook for you. The reason is that private-enterprise restaurants are allowed only if they are classified as people’s houses. My friend hired a guide round Havana. She turned out to be a doctor. The allegedly first-rate healthcare system pays doctors about $45 a month, she told him (hence her guide work). The consequence is that patients who have CUCs ‘help’ doctors in addition to their salaries — another way of saying that the system goes private in order to work.

On the few occasions when something I have written has directly affected a person, I have usually regretted it. During the row about the hunting ban, I got furious with Rod Liddle, then the editor of the Today programme, because he wrote an article attacking people who hunt. I composed a thunderous leader in the Daily Telegraph about his shocking lack of impartiality and called for his sacking. Amazingly, the BBC obliged. I was dismayed, because Rod (though indeed preposterous on that particular subject) was one of the few subversive spirits ever to rise to an important editorial position in the corporation. My guilt was only partially assuaged by his finding his metier as a columnist on this paper instead. This Monday, I attacked the current editor of Today, Jamie Angus, for running a hagiographical interview about Castro with Richard Gott, without mentioning that Gott had been forced to resign from the Guardian in the 1990s after he admitted being paid by the KGB. Only after publishing did I discover that poor Mr Angus is, quite coincidentally, standing down this week to become deputy director of the World Service. The Gott blot was not his doing. So if anyone thinks he has been sacked, and that I caused it, he hasn’t, and I didn’t.

Thanks to Simon Courtauld, in his new book Footsteps in Spain, for the most interesting fact I have yet heard about Castro. When Spain’s right-wing caudillo, General Franco, died in 1975, the leftist Castro ordered a week of mourning for him in Cuba. This was chiefly because Castro’s father, like Franco, came from Galicia. He left Spain to fight in the Cuban war of independence (against the revolutionaries), and stayed on, but he passed on his proud galleguismo to his son.

Long ago, the name Maria in Britain — as in Anna-Maria, the wife of Beatrix Potter’s rat, Mr Samuel Whiskers — was always spoken to rhyme with ‘briar’. Today, I know only one woman with the name so pronounced. Maria now rhymes with ‘rear’, as in The Sound of Music. A similar shift is taking place with Sarah. Until recently, the first ‘a’ was almost always short, but now more and more Sarahs (or Saras) rhyme with ‘Mara’. Why? Is it an Islamic influence?

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