The Spectator's Notes

Let’s hear more of Parliament and less of pundits

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

18 November 2017

9:00 AM

Although we all see rather too much of the present Mr Speaker, it was a good innovation that he and Lord Fowler, the Speaker of the House of Lords, laid wreaths at the Cenotaph on Sunday. It seems odd this never happened before: a parliamentary tribute is fitting. Since we shall soon, God willing, recover our parliamentary sovereignty, it is right to start paying more attention to the sovereign institution. I was amazed, listening to the PM programme on Tuesday, that the BBC led with an unadorned report of the latest Commons debate on Brexit. It was such a broadcasting novelty. For years, the media have given the most perfunctory attention to what the people we elect actually say in the chamber to which we elect them. Instead, we constantly have to listen to Norman Smith (or whoever) over-analysing what they won’t let us see or hear. It will be fun to take back control from the people who interpose themselves between us and our elected representatives.

Radio 4, as usual, marked the Prince of Wales’s (69th) birthday on Tuesday with the National Anthem. Quite right too; but why still no official recognition for HRH’s exact twin, Paul Dacre? Paul has now reigned at the Daily Mail for 25 years, whereas Prince Charles has yet to take up his full role. True, the grateful tenants of ‘Dacre’s acres’ in Scotland and Sussex are lighting bonfires and waving their pitchforks, but the celebrations should be national. Paul’s Silver Jubilee deserves street parties. Disloyal elements in the court of Associated Newspapers sometimes whisper that their king should abdicate. Surely they know that it is unconstitutional to suggest such a thing, and certainly unpatriotic. With Brexit not yet accomplished, the last thing we need is a succession struggle.

In the argument about tax avoidance, people feel very strongly, yet it is hard to define wrong behaviour. We all know that tax evasion, being illegal, is wrong. But what tax behaviour is legal, yet wrong? Take a deliberately trivial example. Safety riding hats carry no VAT if they are sold as children’s hats. No law says that only children may buy or wear them, and no law limits their size. So it is commonplace for adults, without any dishonesty, to buy children’s riding hats for themselves to avoid the VAT. I struggle to see this as immoral. Is it just a matter of scale, then? Is it all right to avoid 20 per cent of the cost of a riding hat but all wrong to avoid 40 per cent of the cost of dying by passing wealth on early or through trusts? If so, why? On the other hand, one doesn’t like rich people ‘getting away with it’. Is that really a moral point, or just envy because one is not rich? Some reconciliation is needed between two opposing truths — that citizens and corporations have a duty to pay tax, and that it cannot be said that citizens and corporations have a duty to pay more tax than they truly owe.

‘Mild threat’ is the description used by the British Board of Film Classification certificate for Paddington 2. The phrase — a standard BBFC usage — is almost an oxymoron, but in this case exactly appropriate. Paddington Bear’s threat to the rude, selfish human order lies in his mildness. His famous hard stare is effective because he is so soft. He is a walking, ursine ‘Thought for the Day’, particularly for the harsh present day. His creator, Michael Bond, well deserved his memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday; but anyone who has seen the charming film will recognise the venue as a risky choice. Something terrifying happens, involving a nun and the Whispering Gallery.

Pam Powell, who has just died, was the ultimate exemplar of the Tory MP’s wife, as that role was once understood. This required unusual courage, because her husband ceased to be a Tory MP more than 40 years ago and advised his supporters to vote Labour. She sacrificed everything for Enoch, for his career, and for their children — everything except her integrity and strength of character. For all his egotism, Enoch understood this, and recognised and loved Pam as the stronger partner. Every year on their wedding anniversary, he wrote her a poem. Here is the one of 1992, when he was getting old: ‘In that far land/Outside the realm of hope/Through which I wend/I wonder that your hand/ Still stretches from the past/To hold me fast/And guide me down the slope/That reaches to the end.’ Her hand did guide him, not least in human relations, which were not always his strong suit. When my wife had twins, we received a card, jokily illustrated, which said, on the front, ‘Twins, wonderful twins –/Double the pleasures and double the joys’, and within, ‘Double the nappies/And double the noise!’ It made us smile to see this was signed ‘Enoch’, in his elegant italic, and to know that only Pam (who also signed) could have lured him into such an incongruous setting.

Few MPs of any party will have wives like Pam Powell these days, and this reflects the welcome fact that women are far more likely to have their own careers. But the absence of such wives may help explain why more and more MPs seem quite incapable of managing the strange lives their role forces upon them. The only youngish wife of an MP I know who is recognisably a chip off the old block is Helena Rees-Mogg. Her presence is the key to Jacob’s easy mastery of whatever political life throws at him.

Reading Edward Stourton’s new history of the BBC in the war (Auntie’s War), I find Cecil Graves, joint-director-general, denouncing a programme called Sincerely Yours: ‘The BBC… could not avoid some responsibility for making this lady popular and so for depreciating the morale of fighting men. Besides, the theme of these songs was sentimental sex, and this mood is never to be encouraged at the best of times.’ The object of his anathema was Vera Lynn (happily, still with us). ‘Never such innocence again.’

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