It is worth fixing for posterity the feelings which, on polling day, swirled in the breasts of many who wanted a Boris victory. Being a journalist, I normally enjoy the electoral scene with some detachment. I cannot claim to be neutral, since I have never, even in Tony Blair’s pinkish dawn of 1997, wanted a Labour government; but I can take it in my stride. This time, however, millions, including myself, were knotted with fear that anything other than a clear Tory victory would destroy Brexit and make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister. The risks were actually frightening.
We sought distractions. Listening to the Radio 4 Today programme that morning, I heard the sports presenter admitting he did not know how to pronounce his tipster’s selection for the 2.30 at Newcastle, Calliope. ‘Call-EYE-ope!’ I shouted at the radio, remembering my schoolroom acquaintance with the muse of epic poetry. No, said Mishal Husain, backed up by Professor Mary Beard, whose opinion was sought, it is ‘Callee-Ope’. Hoping that our classically educated Prime Minister might be at a loose end, I texted him for an opinion. ‘Call-EYE-ope,’ he replied at once. It relieved my feelings to have his support, and, at that tense moment, his attention.
Even in classical pronunciation, politics intrudes. Ms Husain and Prof Beard spoke the muse’s name as they did because it is more politically correct to pronounce ancient Greek words with noises similar to modern Greek. It is more conservative to use the pronunciation favoured by Boris and me, since that is the tradition of English classicism. Same sort of difference as saying ‘Porto’ rather than ‘Oporto’, or ‘Firenze’ rather than ‘Florence’. Calliope finished second, by the way.
By good chance, long before the election was called, I had accepted a kind invitation to hunt away from home last Saturday. How I wished I could summon the muse of epic poetry to record our great joy as I joined the South and West Wilts for its meet. The squalls of the night had passed. The bright sun lit the vale, the distant downs and a mounted, partly plum-coated field of about 70 happy people aged between eight and 80. Away hounds went, at a cracking pace rare at the start of a day, and we splashed excitedly behind them, as the keen wind blew all the Corbyn cobwebs away. One of the mysteries of the Corbyn world-view, nourished in his youth as a hunt saboteur, is that he sees any killing of any animal as atrociously cruel, but seems content when the IRA blows up Conservatives or Hamas kills Jews. Between him and us lies an unbridgeable cultural and moral chasm. We hunted within the law, of course — the law which Corbynites did so much to push — but all the same, we suddenly felt free.
My Wiltshire visit unfortunately prevented me from attending the sole performance of our village play, The Blanket of the Dark, composed by our local amateur dramatist, Philip Hinde. It was, I gather, a great success, being a mash-up of the Norman Conquest (which happened about seven miles away from us), Macbeth (recast as Ronald McDonald) and songs by Abba. My daughter-in-law was on percussion and my wife was William’s Duchess, Matilda. The drama contained elements of revisionist history, introducing a character called Boris, Chancellor to King Harold, who has lines like ‘Methought Uxbridge would be a safe seat, but I fear we have come too far south’ and ‘Ooh, cake’. The conclusion, following the Conquest, and spoken by the 3rd Witch, is: ‘England’s course is set for yet a thousand years, till Boris shall like great King Arthur rise again in the cause of ancient right.’
The details of a sub-plot in which, as a ‘cunning ruse’, Boris tries to contrive Sussex’s exit from the rest of the island need not detain us here. But it gave great pleasure to the audience packed into the village hall by forcing our popular rector, who took the part of Harold’s Queen, Edith Swan-neck, to utter the word ‘Sexit’. She gave even greater pleasure when, meaning to address Boris, she accidentally called him ‘Doris’.
The moment of victory makes me stop and look back. In the referendum of 1975 — my first vote — I voted ‘Yes’ (i.e. Remain), but I remember feeling a twinge of admiration for Orkney and Shetland, the only area to vote ‘No’. At Cambridge afterwards, I learnt and liked sovereignty arguments from people like John Casey and (when he paid a private visit to avoid the riots which attended him in those days) Enoch Powell. In the early 1980s, I cheered on Mrs Thatcher’s European budget battle. In 1984, attending my first European Council as a reporter, I was shocked by the way of doing business — running a continent as a diplomatic game. In 1985-86, I felt dismay that Mrs Thatcher was all out for the Single European Act which abolished whole areas of national veto. At the end of the 1980s, I started belatedly to understand why her battle against ERM entry was so important. But throughout this gradual disillusionment with the EEC, it did not occur to me, except as an impossible dream, that we would leave. It was only with the Maastricht Treaty, the threat of the single currency and the creation of the European Union that I began to think exit might one day happen. In the Daily Telegraph (which I was editing) in November 1996, I wrote my first piece explicitly raising the idea, under the headline ‘Tell us why we should stay’. It felt naughty to write this. Nearly a quarter of a century later, I have the curious and, for a journalist, uneasy feeling of being mainstream.
I read in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix that Boris’s victory is ‘bluffante’, which means something like ‘stunning’, but carries the etymology of the English ‘bluffing’. The word fits this great bet that has paid off.
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