The Spectator's Notes

The politics of email sign-offs

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

I think Anne Applebaum is a friend of mine. I certainly hope so, since I have always admired her writing, her dignified charm and her un-English readiness to be serious. Her new book Twilight of Democracy is subtitled ‘The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends’. Quite a large number of friends, several associated (as was she) with this paper, she now names as ex-friends, so I feel relieved not to have been so identified. As a matter of historical fact, Anne is right: lots of friends havefallen out about issues relating to globalisation, identity, ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’, Brexit, Trump etc. Anne seems to see this as inevitable, once people understand how much they differ. But is it? The phrase ‘the parting of friends’ was used to describe the break between those Catholic Anglicans, led by John Henry Newman, who left the Church of England for Rome, and those who stayed. Despite being one of the few who still see that argument of 150 years ago as important, I do not see why it had to break friendships. People can conscientiously differ. Surely you are not friends with people solely (or even mainly) because you agree with them. There are limits, perhaps. For example, I find it hard to respect any Westerner who thinks well of Vladimir Putin. But on the whole, friends deserve the benefit of the doubt. If they are fiercely against mass immigration, it is probably not because they hate foreigners. If they are against Brexit, it is usually not because they hate Britain. Anne frames her book between two parties she and her husband Radek Sikorski gave — one in 1999 and one in 2019 — pointing out how the guest list has changed. I hope they are both around in 2039, and will feel able to give a very jolly one in which Somewheres and Anywheres, Brexiteers and Remainers, will drink a lot and laugh about their past quarrels. I hereby angle for an invitation.

Anne’s book contains good analyses of bad trends among those she opposes — their pumped-up anger, their ‘restorative nostalgia’ (a vice from which I am not free) and their cultural despair. What her book largely misses, however, is the context. This is that the post-Cold War international order, which — except on the issue of Europe — I favour just as much as she does, has gone badly awry. The people under whom it went awry do not admit this, but have floated off in Blofeld-like bubbles — rich, pleased with themselves, leaving us ‘basket of deplorables’ behind. Without their failings, all these Trumps, Farages, Putins, Orbans, Borises whom they hate would not have got far. Wanted: a really good book by a Remainer/Anywhere/globalist which asks: ‘Where did we go wrong?’

Even with the money it will soon extract from the over-75s, the BBC feels it faces a bleak financial future. It has therefore cut its regional coverage. In our area — East Sussex — our local news now covers London and the south-east, whereas previously it was just the latter. This combination does not work. The two are physically close, but worlds apart. A dispute about a housing development near Lewes attracts a completely different audience from, say, a murder in Lewisham. The very concept of local news disappears if, for those watching, it ceases to be local.

Near the local town of Heathfield, a typical south-east England housing development row is taking place, made more bitter because the battleground is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The London Borough of Croydon has bought the land and proposes to decant residents there. As usual, my own feelings are torn between the near-certainty that the new houses will be ugly and destructive and the strong belief that, without more housing, young people will have much worse futures than did their parents. But what is striking is that the opponents have been deprived of their rights by Covid. They are denied the usual public meetings, and are completely without representation on the local council. One councillor in their area has died and another has resigned. The local elections are postponed until May 2021, and no by-elections are permitted. The people are voiceless.

Last week, Victor de Waal, the former Dean of Canterbury, told the Daily Telegraph that he had to leave his post in 1986 because of an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Rosalind Runcie, wife of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert. I have to say that I do not believe him. I do not mean he is lying — after all, the definition of an ‘inappropriate relationship’ is inexact. But people who were around in Canterbury at the time think his departure had other causes. Besides, the claim is unfair on Lady Runcie who, being dead, cannot answer back. She should not go down in history as the Church’s scarlet woman, but as an independent-minded and talented person who chafed against the rather boring expectations imposed on clergy wives in those days. When I interviewed her husband for my biography of Mrs Thatcher, he was old and ill with cancer. I was struck by her loving solicitude towards him. The whole story is also odd, because Lindy Runcie was emphatically not one of those women who are naturally attracted to clergymen.

In writing emails to friends of both sexes, I quite often sign off with an ‘x’, or two. I am beginning to wonder whether I should. My first doubt arises from our accusatory culture. Might an emailed ‘x’ appear to someone — or to that person’s ‘no win: no fee’ lawyer — as ‘inappropriate’? Americans, I notice, never seem to use ‘x’s in their correspondence, and no country is more aware of litigation risk than theirs. My second doubt arises from Covid-19. In an era when real kisses are forbidden by the sharia of health to all but one’s most intimate family, does an ‘x’ in an email become some sort of tediously defiant political statement instead of an expression of affection?

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