The Spectator's Notes

Labour thinks that its trump card is Trump

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

On Wednesday morning, I was hoisted into the air of Whitehall on a cherry-picker. A century ago the proto-Cenotaph appeared in time for the London Peace Parade in July 1919, which followed the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In that first year, the Cenotaph was only a timber and canvas structure, built to last a week; but Edwin Lutyens’s design seemed so right that the present structure, more precisely designed, was built in Portland stone for Remembrance Day 1920. English Heritage, now a charity rather than a government body, cares for the monument — as it does for 400 monuments in England, including 46 in London. The chairman, Vice-Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, husband of the Princess Royal, wanted me to see its annual clean before this Sunday’s Remembrance Day parade. We went up in the cage and watched the power-spray (just water, not abrasives) attack the dirt of London pollution and the algae from nearby trees. As we rose above the Cenotaph, I could see how simple and yet how subtle the 36ft monument is. The main body is a pylon of the sort which the ancient Egyptians built at the entrance to their temples. On it rests the representation of an empty tomb (empty because the bodies of almost half of the imperial war dead were never found). On top of the tomb, invisible from the street, lies a stone wreath, copying the living laurel which was placed there in 1919. Before our eyes, the water-jet effaced the stains of time, and made this great tribute to a great sacrifice clean and new. Then the cherry-picker pulled slowly back from the solitary words the glorious dead as might a camera in a film.

Labour thinks that the Trump card is its trump card. For this election, as always when in opposition, it wishes to convince voters that the Conservatives are about to destroy the National Health Service. According to Jeremy Corbyn, they will allow ‘maggots in orange juice’ and rat hairs in paprika as a price for a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States. The worst of that deal, he goes on, is that Donald Trump, abetted by his ‘friend’ Boris Johnson, will force the NHS to pay two and a half times more for its drugs, thus spending an extra £500 million per week. It is almost otiose to point out that we know almost nothing of any trade deal yet. All that needs saying is that the purpose of Mr Corbyn’s attack is to produce a big, horrifying figure in an election campaign. The £500 million a week is analogous to the famous £350 million a week which the Leave campaign struck on the side of a bus in 2016. The £350 million was supposed to be the extra money we would be able to spend on the NHS if we left the European Union. Critics claim that the £350 million a week gain was such an appalling lie that it invalidates the entire result and justifies a ‘People’s Vote’ to set things right. No one is getting similarly aerated about Labour’s warning of a £500 million a week loss. The truth, surely, is that neither figure is an atrocious lie but both are fanciful, tendentious over-simplifications, and therefore bog-standard examples of electoral campaigning. Not very shocking, just low-grade.

Before dissolution on Wednesday, the House of Commons had already dissolved in tears. In weepy speeches, MPs lamented the loss to the body politic caused by their departure. This was an unwelcome innovation. Past parliaments have been given unflattering names — Useless, Rump, Barebones. This one has been the Navel-gazing Parliament.

Appearing on the platform of a recent Spectator event with John Humphrys, I was confronted by an unusual question. A member of the audience noted that I was interested in country sports, but uninterested in team ball games. The latter point seemed to annoy him. What did I have to say for myself? Not much really, since I am guilty as charged. Although I can see how astonishingly skilful many professional sportsmen and women are, and although I enjoyed playing such sports, particularly football, at school, I cannot throw myself into the culture of professional sport. Partly it is — even today — its unmitigated maleness; partly it is boredom at the idea of supporting a particular team, although I don’t begrudge anyone his fun. Anyway, last Saturday was the Rugby World Cup final and also the day of our hunt’s opening Meet. Since most of the field wanted to watch the match and hunt afterwards, I decided I would watch too, taking advantage of the longer morning to polish my boots and buttons in front of the television. I last saw a whole rugby match on television in the early 1970s. My memory may be false, but I recall a game of movement. Except for a very few moments of astonishing speed, notably the South African try, the Tokyo game seemed a contest about how best to exploit quite obscure rules in one’s favour. It was the sporting equivalent of arcane disputes by brilliant lawyers about how their clients can legally get round taxes. It was all about what constitutes a penalty. If you did not share the intense emotion invested in the result, you would conclude that it was quite poor sport.

Our granddaughter, who is 15 months old, loves cows. She ransacks books that have cows in them and makes appreciative mooing noises when she finds their pictures. It occurs to me that if Greta Thunberg and co have their way, the cow will go the way of the dodo and the great auk. Animal rights activists seem unaware that cows exist in any numbers only because people wish to drink their milk, eat their flesh or wear their hides. Even their shape is the result of breeding for these human purposes. Get rid of the purposes and you get rid of the creature itself. Perhaps when young Elizabeth is an old lady, her descendants will question her closely about these fabulous beasts which once, in the imaginations of children, jumped over the moon.

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