The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s Notes

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

By the time you read this, the campaign will have drawn fractiously to its close, so here is a strong overall impression drawn from it, which stands whatever the result. Watching a large number of debates and question and answer sessions with party leaders and the public, I noticed, even more insistent than in the past, the righteous tone of the recipient (or would-be recipient) of state money. Whether it was a teacher or health worker, a person on benefits, a young woman wanting her tuition fees paid, or an old man sitting on a house worth (say) £750,000 and demanding that the state bear his putative long-term care needs so that he will not have to sell it, the speaker almost always seemed to possess an impermeable sense of being a virtuous, wronged person. The idea that it is not always good for the state to pay for something, or that there just isn’t enough money to do it, or that the cost may bear heavily on taxpayers many of whom will be poorer than the recipient, seemed to make no impression at all. This is boosted by the dramatic convention, fostered by the broadcasters, that if someone — disabled, unemployed, mentally ill, immigrant, young or very old — complains of personal ill-treatment, he or she cannot be disagreed with. The ugly flip-side of this convention is that the politician who won’t promise them what they want is seen as a bad person — tight-fisted, uncaring, as if it were his own money he was refusing to dispense. I do realise that significant numbers of those complaining have genuine problems for which state help may be beneficial and right. But the way these matters are discussed — on television at least — suggests that the welfare state is extremely bad for the character.

Donald Trump was wrong about what Sadiq Khan said, as he so often is about other people’s words, since he seems not to take time to study them properly. Khan told Londoners there was ‘no reason to be alarmed’ about a higher police presence, not about murderous attacks. Yet Trump has another gift, barely recognised in this country, for detecting someone’s drift. He is right to suspect that Khan’s messages on terror are too acquiescent. Last September, the Mayor of London said after the bombing in New York (Trump’s home turf) that terror attacks are ‘part and parcel of living in a big city’. Half-hidden in Sadiq Khan’s rhetoric is the idea that terrorism cannot be defeated, so we had better turn to him, because he can appease the ‘communities’ whence it comes.


I spent the last weekend of the campaign staying with Michael Heseltine. I would never have predicted his invitation, since we have clashed frequently over the past 30 years. But he and his wife Anne could not have been kinder. On the first night, I walked with him for an hour and a half round his legendary arboretum. He did not utter a word about politics — not because of any constraint, or lack of interest (he is completely abreast of events) but because he was utterly absorbed in explaining his trees, shrubs, lakes, dams, herbaceous borders, parakeets and planting. His prodigious energies are still evident — though he is 84 — but are now applied chiefly to the natural world. He seems to like it that way, and is not complaining. But it does strike me as ridiculous that one of Theresa May’s early acts as Prime Minister was to dismiss Heseltine from his (unpaid) job as a sort of special adviser to the government. His ideas on regional industrial strategy precede and are better informed than her own. These mega-mayors derive from a Heseltine idea, and the victory by Andy Street, ex-John Lewis, in the West Midlands excites him greatly. Why was he chucked out? Just because George Osborne had put him in?

Something else amazed me even more. I asked Michael how he got on with Mrs May personally. He told me he had never met her. She sacked him by remote control (that phrase could have been invented to describe her style of government) via the amiable chief whip in the House of Lords. You might think that a new Tory Prime Minister could profit from the wisdom of the party’s greatest nearly man of the past half-century, but it seems not to have occurred to her. One of the points of great political parties is that they are big tribes, containing many skills and much experience. Use them or lose them. A major reason for the poor Conservative campaign has been the neglect of these deep resources — and I write this as someone who disagrees with Michael Heseltine about Europe, Mrs Thatcher, intervention and, come to that, regional industrial strategy.

My other escape from the election was to see the first night of Semele at Garsington. I had always loved this opera, but only by what the Old Testament calls ‘the hearing of the ear’, and had never seen it. Controversy rages about how to perform Handel operas. They were not composed as dramas, and so modern directors tend to ginger them up — in this case, on that night in that lovely place, doing so with wit and imagination. I found myself wondering how the audience was supposed to think of these works when they were first performed. They are such an odd mixture of the preposterous and the sublime. Dr Johnson attacked Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ because ‘The form is that of a pastoral; easy, vulgar and therefore disgusting’ and ‘with these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths’. But perhaps exactly that mixture (‘irreverent combinations’: Johnson again) is what opera can do, and what Handel did so well 250 years ago, and still does today.

At the Surrey Union Hound Show last Sunday, our dear local hunt carried away many prizes. Luminous and Lucifer won ‘Best couple unentered dog-hound’, and Dandelion, Bustle, Buttercup and Lustful won ‘Best 2 couple unentered bitches’. Luminous was Champion Hound. Good news at any time, but after the terrible events of the previous night, it somehow felt poignant as well.

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