Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s main Brexit negotiator, tweeted on Monday: ‘Any #Brexit deal requires a strong & stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking — it’s time to get real.’ This was on the same day as media reports — allegedly leaked by associates of Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president — criticised Theresa May for her naivety about Brexit talks at the dinner she gave Mr Juncker last week. These tactics are intended to affect our general election. By throwing Mrs May’s campaign slogan adjectives ‘strong and stable’ back in her face, Mr Verhofstadt was goading her at the decisive moment of her political career. So were the friends of Mr Juncker. It is not clear why. Are they so ignorant of the British electorate that they think they can make Mrs May reverse her policy, or even lose on 8 June? Are they just ill-disciplined in their anger? Or am I missing something? I find it hard to tell whether they understand their own best interests. The history of the EU suggests that its leaders are good at defending bureaucratic power, but get a bit flummoxed by democracy.
Because it is 20 years this week since the new dawn broke and Tony and Gordon took over, it is also 20 years since Bank of England independence. Announced on 6 May 1997, it was New Labour’s key signal of financial virtue, of starting as they meant to go on. The change was widely supported, especially by non-socialists. The only prominent conservative who opposed it was Margaret Thatcher. How does it look now? I still wouldn’t dare argue that it shouldn’t have happened — it was the last battle in the Thirty Years War against inflation, and it had to be won. But it has had two bad effects. The first is that central bankers have become too important. Their entrenched power, which outlasts that of the merely elected, has increased the public’s sense of impotence which has been such a feature of life in the West since 2008. It has led some central bankers — Mark Carney during the EU referendum, for example — to assume a political role, barely understanding that this is what they are doing. The other effect has been to set a wider trend in which governments escape their responsibilities. The public sphere is now dripping with ‘independent’ bodies — the Office for Budget Responsibility, for example, or the systems for honours and public appointments, or IPSA in Parliament — which extend the control of the permanent machine and take public life even further away from the citizen than if politicians call the shots. In a way that Orwell would satirise if he were alive today, the word ‘independent’ is becoming almost interchangeable with ‘unelected’.
During the election campaign which he won so triumphantly in 1997, Tony Blair, challenged about the fissiparous threat of his plans for Scottish devolution, said: ‘Sovereignty rests with me as an English MP and that’s the way it will stay.’ As so often in constitutional matters, Mr Blair was skating, with blithe ignorance, on very thin ice. Today his party has well and truly fallen through it. In 1997, Labour won 45.6 per cent of the vote in Scotland. A recent opinion poll there put it on 13 per cent.
Pierre Poujade was a French shopkeeper who, in the mid-1950s, led quite a powerful right-wing revolt in favour of the little man against the elites. The leader of his party’s youth branch was Jean-Marie Le Pen. The word ‘Poujadiste’ is not usually intended as a compliment in France or here, and the late Christopher Soames did not intend it as such — though he served in her cabinet — when he privately described Mrs Thatcher as ‘Poujade with tits’. But if, as seems quite likely, Marine Le Pen wins 40 per cent of the votes in the French presidential election on Sunday (let alone if she wins a majority), something like Poujadism will have gained a strength way beyond that of its founder. I wonder if this change is to do with the characteristic to which Soames indelicately referred. A female champion of the excluded has wider appeal in modern Europe than shouty men.
I genuinely admire the Guardian books section on a Saturday, which is not often shrilly ideological, but it does sometimes, without meaning to, make me laugh. A couple of weeks ago, its headline read ‘Will Self: British American Jewish Londoner — just don’t call me patriotic’. Who would have dreamt of doing so? Last Saturday, the front page said, ‘Ken Loach Howard Jacobson Jeanette Winterson Shami Chakrabati How To Make The World A Better Place.’ I cackled. If it had said, ‘Mary Berry Prue Leith Paul Hollywood Lorraine Pascale How To Make Better Cakes’, that would have been serious stuff.
As the media chase various Tory MPs and Liberal Democrat leaders round the country and force them to say that gay sex is not a sin, why do they not do the same to Muslims in elected office? A glance at Muslim websites suggests a hard line. According to JustAskIslam, for example, homosexuality is ‘a corruption of a man’s sexuality [no space is given to a woman’s sexuality or homosexuality] and a crime against the opposite sex’. Homosexual acts are therefore to be punished: ‘Most Muslim scholars have ruled’ that the punishment should be ‘one hundred whiplashes for the man who has never married and death by stoning for the married’. The real toughies, it adds, say that the punishment should be ‘death for both partners’. In the Parliament just dissolved there were reportedly 13 Muslim MPs. Presumably there will be similar or higher numbers after 8 June. What’s holding back the fearless foes of homophobia from smoking out these people’s opinions?
The memorial service for Alexander Chancellor, former editor of The Spectator, will take place at noon on 23 May at St Paul’s, Covent Garden. No tickets are required.
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