The Spectator's Notes

Philip Pullman is right about the Oxford comma

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

It was with regret that I read that Albert, retired King of the Belgians, has finally had to admit, following litigation and then a DNA test, that an artist called Delphine Boël is his natural daughter. It is not that I wish to take sides in the dispute; it is simply that there is a soft spot in my heart for Albert, King of the Belgians. I am always interested in the drafting of constitutions, including their very first words. The US Constitution famously begins with the words ‘We, the people’. When the draft constitution of the European Union — later transmuted into the Lisbon treaty — was first published in 2004, I noticed that its first words were ‘Albert, King of the Belgians’. The reason for this is that the constitution, like other European treaties, required the endorsement of the heads of state of all the contracting parties, and Albert came first alphabetically. The fact that the constitution of a project for the United States of virtually an entire continent kicked off with the Belgian blood royal made me laugh and somehow confirmed my impression that it might be a silly idea. This Brexit day, I think fondly of Albert, father of Delphine, but not, I am glad to say, father of the free polity in which, from now on, I shall live.

Sir Philip Pullman objects to the new Brexit 50p coin on the grounds that its slogan on the obverse, ‘Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’, lacks the Oxford comma. I suspect he is right, since the word ‘prosperity’ is not intended to link to the phrase ‘with all nations’; but there is a more fundamental, non-grammatical objection to the words. They could be written on any coin at any time, and they have no special application to Brexit. When, except in war, have we ever not wished ‘peace, prosperity and friendship to all nations’ — at least in theory? And why should it be necessary for us to strike such sentiments on our coins? The present, normal 50 pence piece shows the Queen on one side, and declares that she is D.G.REG and F.D. On the other is the figure of Britannia. It has been a source of pleasure for 500 years that our monarchs have continued to style themselves F.D. despite almost immediately repudiating the temporal jurisdiction of the Pope, who bestowed the title. What need of more?


The creation of the National Security Council under David Cameron was supposed to join up parts of British government which had not previously had the right forum. We would now be able to survey all functions of security right across government. How odd it is that this coordination was not applied to the issue of Huawei years ago. Whatever may be said against great powers, they do have in their political bloodstream a constant sense of security threat, both external and internal, which helps them develop strategy. The United States and China both devote huge amounts of money and brainpower to the subject. Despite September 11 2001, and despite the emergence of the NSC, Britain seems to have lost some of this sense, or at least allowed one real threat — Islamist terrorism — to distract it from another, that of China. The complete picture still seems to be missing, and to lack political direction.

British softness towards China partly reflects our officials’ love of the setup there. ‘China hands’ love to feel part of a priesthood of experts working with a country unsullied by democracy. Not for nothing do we speak of a ‘mandarinate’ when referring to Whitehall. Our most expert China hand was the late Sir Percy Cradock. No one knew more about the Chinese regime and its culture. He was a great public servant. But he also felt that China was a delicate vase which only people like him could handle. This made him too tender to Chinese leaders and too reluctant to help our ministers confront some of the most ruthless people on earth. His spirit lives on in our approach to Huawei.

Jeremy Corbyn plans to make a visit to Iraq when he steps down as Labour leader in April. He wishes to preach the gospel of anti-imperialism in the land of Nebuchadnezzar and Saddam Hussein. I hope he takes time to visit the reopened Basrah Museum. In April 2003, when the first phase of the Iraq war was just dying down, I visited Basrah and one of the many abandoned palaces of Saddam, by then occupied by British troops, which commanded a fine view of the Shatt-al-Arab. Little good came out of the aftermath, and one ill effect was the looting of antiquities. Major-General Barney White-Spunner, through whose good offices I reached the place, and who was later to command British troops in southern Iraq, was distressed by the destruction. He set to work to put things right. At my suggestion, we lunched with Neil MacGregor, then the director of the British Museum, who brought along John Curtis, the superbly learned Keeper of the BM’s Middle East department. So began a long process, strongly supported by the British Council, Shell and others, with John Curtis providing the expertise. Barney made sure that the army gave security protection to the academics who visited the place, and his military assistant (and, by chance, nephew) Major Hugo Clarke became the treasurer of the Friends of Basrah Museum. Saddam’s Ozymandias-style palace was requisitioned and a beautiful modern museum and library were constructed within it. After many difficulties, the Basrah Museum reopened last year, although the books for the library have even now not been moved from Baghdad because of continuing security risk. Many of the missing artefacts had been secretly cared for by Basrah residents after the old museum was sacked and grabbed by local militias. These have now been returned. Looted objects have been recovered from elsewhere, including a surprising number which had ended up in Germany. The reopening was celebrated at the British Academy in London last week, in the presence of the luminaries mentioned above. I felt touched that both Iraqi people and British veterans could take pride in some good that has come out of the chaos.

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