The Spectator's Notes

Behind the story of Anna Soubry being called a Nazi lies a classic Brexit sequence of events

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

Behind the incident of Anna Soubry being called a Nazi by a small group of Leave yobs beside College Green lies a classic Brexit sequence of events. For many months now, Remain protestors have infested that area. Their numbers are small, but they are well trained to insert themselves and their banners into relevant live television interviews, and have been praised by the Guardian for doing so. Never have I seen the BBC trying to exclude them from its shots, even when the protestors’ interventions have made it quite difficult for those being interviewed. Sometimes BBC interviewers have gestured on air towards the protestors as evidence of strong pro-Remain public feeling. Often BBC cameras have used cutaways of them to punctuate news items, to make the same point. Not surprisingly, the BBC’s behaviour has in turn provoked Leave protests, because the indulgence of the Remain stunts has helped skew the news. As soon as this one looked nasty, the BBC turned it into a major story about hate crime, involving the police, fanned by Mr Speaker Bercow. It is certainly unpleasant and stupid to call almost anyone a Nazi, but the rudeness to Ms Soubry does not reach the threshold of a threat to public order or incitement to violence — not as bad, for example, as John McDonnell’s famous encouragement of those who said they wanted to lynch Esther McVey, or what happens in demonstrations by the Socialist Workers Party. The wider truth is that College Green interviews are a circus invented by television 30 years ago to make its broadcasts from Westminster seem less boring. Circuses need performing seals, clowns etc. The cause of Remain — via the BBC — is the ring-master.

Before Christmas, by the way, a friend of mine found the front door of his house in Westminster plastered all over with ‘Bin Brexit’ stickers — in some ways a more aggressive act than shouting abuse at Ms Soubry, since his door is his property and the stickers could be removed only by pulling the paint off. He thinks it happened because Remainer yobs followed Jacob Rees-Mogg as he left a meeting in Parliament and mistook my friend’s front door for his. Being a Leave supporter, my friend did not call in the police, let alone seek vainly for BBC interest in his victimhood. He simply had the door repainted.


This week, Universities UK and the Russell Group, seemingly speaking on behalf of the whole sector, produced an Open Letter from distinguished vice-chancellors. ‘It is no exaggeration to suggest,’ said the letter, ‘that this [leaving the EU without a deal] would be an academic, cultural and scientific setback from which it would take decades to recover.’ Actually, it would be as exaggerated as a Donald Trump tweet. The detail of this is brilliantly demonstrated by Noel Malcolm in an analysis for Briefings for Brexit. The bit that made me burst out laughing was Sir Noel’s comparison of a similar Open Letter, from 103 university vice-chancellors, just before the referendum vote in 2016, with this week’s effort. The 2016 version claimed that ‘Every year, universities generate over £73 billion for the UK economy … while supporting nearly 380,000 jobs’. The 2019 letter says: ‘As a sector which contributes over £21 billion to UK GDP every year and supports 944,000 jobs, it is critical to the national interest, to the economy, communities and the wider society.’ Can it really be that, in the two-and-a-half years between the first letter and the second, universities have contrived to contribute £52 billion less to the economy while creating over 250 per cent more jobs? Or is it that among the ‘more than 150 education providers’ which Universities UK and the Russell Group claim to represent, no one can be found who can do arithmetic?

I am catching up with Kenneth Rose’s Journals which were published by Weidenfeld late last year. The first volume runs from 1944 to 1979. I have seen them criticised in print for snobbery and pettiness, as if these were drawbacks in a diarist — think of Boswell, Chips Channon, Alan Clark. But in fact, if Rose has a fault in the diary form, it is his restraint. There is very little bitching, snubbing, scheming — very little, in fact, about his own life or feelings at all. What is so good — and is so well brought out in D.R. Thorpe’s edition — is that he was master of his material. This was the British establishment, especially in the form it took when Henry Fairlie invented that word, in that sense, in the 1950s. It meant senior royals, politicians, generals, Whitehall mandarins, bishops and heads of public schools and Oxbridge colleges. It met in clubs, or at dining clubs, or at high table. Kenneth was there, and noted very carefully what he heard. He had an outsider’s eye for minor detail (such as that John Betjeman had a special key in his typewriter which could put a cross before a bishop’s name, or that Mount Vernon’s slave quarters were renamed ‘service area’); but he also understood politics very well, so he is just as confident talking about Ben Gurion’s Israel as who is going to be the next Knight of the Garter. Overall, his diaries compose accurate, fair-minded history, almost as surely as Gilbert White’s observations of Selborne offer natural history. As Kenneth’s editor in the later years of his Albany column, I was irritated by his fault (quite the opposite of most of us journalists) of putting into his articles less than he knew. This is corrected in his Journals. He knew a lot and he put it in; and now we can read it.

On the radio, an eyewitness describes the New Year’s Eve knife attack at Manchester Victoria station: ‘Part of the sentence he shouted was “Allah!” I thought, “Hmmm, it doesn’t sound good.”’ This innocent remark illustrates the extent of the catastrophe that Muslim fanaticism has brought upon the faith it purports to uphold. You hear the name of its deity called out, and you think you are about to die.

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