The Spectator's Notes

How to beat cancel culture

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

19 September 2020

9:00 AM

One of the most extraordinary features of the ‘cancel culture’ is how well it works. All decent people hate it, but it happens. Why? The key is speed. The bosses of big businesses, universities, quangoes, museums etc. are absurdly frightened by the sudden ambush. Some once-exalted alumnus or benefactor is ‘revealed’ on Twitter as having got money from slavery or worked for the British Empire or used a rude word in 1895. Out comes a petition against him, accompanied by a bit of spray-painting and a shouty demo, and he’s done for. In 99 per cent of the cases, the ‘revelation’ is not new, the alleged evil has been known and publicly discussed for years, sometimes for centuries. Almost every single time, the authorities are not ready, so they give in. Instead, they should have a rule by which they never agree to any demand at once. As soon as you ‘temporarily’ remove the name or face of some supposed monster who has hitherto inhabited the pantheon of the greats — David Hume, Gladstone, Hans Sloane and scores of others — you have already been beaten, because you have accepted a libel without challenge. The previous reputation will not be restored. The great power of rage and frenzy is to destroy something fast. Never allow it. Play for time, and you will find time is on your side.

On their Twitter account, Cumbria police have put up a sort of poster headed ‘Rural Crime Prevention’. The ill-drawn picture depicts a mounted, red-coated huntsman with three hounds. ‘FOX HUNTING’, it announces — though no fox is depicted — ‘If you think it is suspicious, it probably is!’ Giving numbers to ring, it says: ‘See it. Think it. Report it.’ As soon as this image was posted on Monday, objections poured in. These pointed out that trail-hunting is totally legal, so the police were effectively inviting floods of calls from people who had spotted a non-crime. Besides, said others, encouraging such reporting was a ridiculous waste of police time when rural burglaries are so rarely investigated. But the even more fundamental objection is the poster’s presumption of guilt: ‘If you think it is suspicious, it probably is!’ Our legal system is founded on the presumption of innocence. Cumbrian Police are simply expressing prejudice: it is as if the Met had put out a picture of a black youth running down a Brixton street and invited everyone to shop his like for theft. They may also be infected by the Covid-era love of neighbourly snooping. I hope that if any Cumbrian hunt is prosecuted, the defence produces that tweet. It suggests the police do not pursue the facts impartially.

Our own modest little early morning trail-hunting, whose season has started, was recently disrupted by 15 or more masked saboteurs, accompanied by a drone. They broke the law, as usual, by mass-trespassing and using a drone on private land. Also as usual, the police were present but did nothing to prevent these things.

As from this Thursday, I am a peer, although I must wait until next month before I can take my seat in the House of Lords. My letters patent confirm that I am Lord Moore of Etchingham. As do all new boys and girls, I went to see the Garter King of Arms, and he gave helpful advice. Very occasionally, new life peers jettison their surname when taking a title, thus assuming a new identity. The former John Selwyn Gummer, for instance, took the name of his local river and became Lord Deben. This is understandable in his case, because the Green Gummer is almost single-handedly saving the planet. It is also understandable that Michael Lord became Lord Framlingham, to avoid being Lord Lord. But I picked up a slight sense that Garter (as he is correctly addressed) would, in most cases, prefer it otherwise. I could not, he also explained, be Lord Moore tout court, because you cannot take a title previously held by anyone else. So I must, in the actual title (the nomen dignitatis, as opposed to the ‘territorial designation’ which all peers have), be ‘of’ something. I naturally picked our dear village. Etchingham’s village sign depicts incised lines — i.e. an etching — but the name may not refer to that. In his dictionary, Dr Johnson honestly defines the noun ‘etch’ as ‘A country word of which I know not the meaning’.

I believe I am Etchingham’s third peer, though the first to take its name. One, who lived in what is now our house, was Lord Eustace Percy, sometimes known as ‘the Minister for Thought’ (actually he was ‘without portfolio’) in the 1930s. He was created Lord Percy of Newcastle. The other was Lord Killearn who, as Miles Lampson, was our imposing plenipotentiary in Egypt during the war. He is said to originated the phrase ‘Get your tanks off my lawn’, addressing King Farouk. According to the not always reliable Evelyn Waugh, Lampson sent a telegram to Winston Churchill after Randolph Churchill had dined with him in the embassy in Cairo in 1941. It said: ‘Your son is at my house. He has the light of battle in his eye.’ Waugh claimed that ‘Unhappily the cypher group got it wrong & it arrived “light of BOTTLE”. All too true.’

There have been some hurtful complaints about unworthy choices among the rather large contingent of 36 new peers. I am sorry if my presence lowers the tone for other freshers, such as Evgeny Lebedev and Tony Woodley of Unite the Union, but such problems are not new. A century ago, my great-grandfather, Norman Moore, a leading doctor and man of letters, was made a baronet. His son (my grandfather) wrote in his diary: ‘There has been a great shower of honours of late & indeed for years past, & many ignoble men have received them, but it is an old custom so to distinguish physicians of note who I think may accept such titles as worthily as soldiers & feel no contamination from those that hold them basely.’

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