The Spectator's Notes

It turns out I sound much cleverer in French

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

On Tuesday, Le Monde published a piece it had commissioned from me to explain why, from a British point of view, Brexit is not mad. (I was told that all the paper’s readers think it is.) I enjoyed doing this for two reasons. The first was seeing how my English came out in French. Le Monde sent me its translation. I was delighted to sound so much brainier and statelier, though French feels less flexible than English. The second was that writing for an intelligent audience which knows little of the background is an interesting exercise. It forces one to distil. I no longer had to analyse, say, the intricacies of the Northern Ireland backstop or the merits of the Malthouse compromise. I had to work out what this is all about. When you do that, you realise it is almost entirely about history. Humiliated in the second world war, France almost had to sign up for a new European order. Victorious, though much weakened, Britain did not. Our independence as a parliamentary nation had been vindicated. It followed that, although European integration might have practical advantages for Britain, it could not be an existential necessity. It follows to this day, more insistently as the EU centralises further. If continental Europeans understand this, they may still think us mistaken, but will surely see we are not insane.

The sad announcement of John Humphrys’s departure from Today has provoked once again the suggestion that the programme has dumbed down. There is supposed to be too much showbiz. The implication is that news people who, in their own phrase, ‘know their onions’ (almost always, perhaps not coincidentally, men) are being pushed aside by others (usually, perhaps not coincidentally, women), who are fluffier. Despite my own lack of interest in showbiz, I think this criticism is wrong. Today is a news magazine programme in an age in which public debate is less about pure politics and more cultural/philosophical/religious/technological/environmental/economic/sexual/social etc. It is not supposed to be a three-hour Westminster programme with endless stories of party rows and boring pressure-group reports calling for ‘more resources’ for pet causes, with one ringmaster. If it were, it would be called the Nick Robinson Show, and would require only 40 minutes each day. It is much, much wider — more from abroad, more humanity, more light and shade, more voices. Although I shout at the programme almost every morning, I also sense it rising to these challenges imaginatively. A paradoxical result of its policy is that it breaks more news than it would if run by the onion experts.

My father, who is 87 and diabetic, recently had a few falls, and agreed to go for respite in a nursing home without delay. Our local home had no suitable room available except in its dementia wing. It is well appointed, and my father, who is 100 per cent undemented, does not mind sharing the corridors with somewhat confused residents. The building is entitled ‘Memory Lane’. Until now, one guesses, the traffic down the lane has been light, but my father’s memory is elephantine — every Derby winner, the date of the battle of Navarino, Portuguese election results from the 1970s. So Memory Lane is now threatened with jams and tailbacks.

It is 30 years since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, and 40 since the triumph of the Iranian Revolution. The two are related, since the Ayatollah Khomeini, driven to rage by illness and military failure, wanted to mark the tenth anniversary of his glory days by doing something nasty. I have reminded myself of how The Spectator covered the Rushdie story at the time. We captured two contradictory feelings. One was straightforward disgust that a foreign power could order the death of one of our citizens on our soil and try to get his book banned. The other was the dark farce of the situation — Rushdie, the salon leftie, used to attacking whitey with impunity, suddenly seeking whitey’s help. Auberon Waugh quoted in these pages Rushdie’s denunciation of ‘the Augean filth of imperialism… breeding lice and vermin… For the citizens of the new, imported Empire, for the colonised Asians and blacks of Britain, the police force represents the colonising army.’ After the fatwa, Mrs Thatcher ensured that Rushdie had full-time, taxpayer-funded police protection. Waugh commented, ‘Perhaps the real debate is not so much whether Rushdie should be executed for having insulted the prophet Mahomed, but just how much we should exert ourselves, as deeply stained white imperialists, to protect him from his own people.’ What we did not see was how the concept of blasphemy would be manipulated by extreme Muslims into the concept of offence against believers, and thus into claims of racism and the invention of the word ‘Islamophobia’. Since then, the attack on free speech has been unrelenting. Sayeeda Warsi’s all-party parliamentary group’s current attempt to get Islamophobia defined in legal terms is only the latest in the line of descent from that ghastly old tyrant’s fatwa.

I mentioned last week that so many had attacked my refusal to take my NHS bowel tests that I backed down and said sorry. I should add that it was the quality, as well as the quantity of the complaints which did the work. There were many harrowing yet heartening stories of people saved just in time, but perhaps the most effective rebuke came from the Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher, Francis John McDowell. He ended thus: ‘I turn to your Notes first when I receive the magazine on a Friday and disagree with most of what you say about Ireland, North & South, so I would feel guilty not to have made a plea for you to reconsider your objections. I know it is a little selfish of me to couch my plea in such terms but I would genuinely feel reduced if I lost your usually mordant observations earlier than is absolutely necessary in the hands of a higher Providence.’ I found this impossible to resist.

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