The Spectator's Notes

In defence of Angela Rayner

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

On the one occasion when I spent any time with Angela Rayner, she was funny, direct and friendly. We were both on the BBC’s Any Questions? in Alan Partridge territory and dined together beforehand with Sir Vince Cable. She got through a whole evening without identifying me, either privately or on air, as one of ‘a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute pile of banana republic, Etonian piece of scum’ (her chosen words at this week’s party conference fringe meeting). True, I am neither a government minister nor a Conservative (in the Lords I sit as ‘non-affiliated’), but she probably felt I was that sort of person. So, now I know how she sometimes talks, I feel grateful for her restraint. It is interesting she feels the need to speak as she did among the party faithful in order to improve her political chances. There is an asymmetry here. When Tories get together, they take just as much pleasure in remarks against their opponents as do Labour activists, but I honestly think that if a person of equivalent stature to Ms Rayner in his/her party — Michael Gove, say — were to describe the shadow cabinet as ‘a rainbow sisterhood of screeching republican comprehensive-school revolutionary filth’, or some equivalent right-wing choice of insults, he would not be cheered to the rafters. Someone would slip out a recording of his words and he would immediately have to resign. Why this difference? It is not a question of moral superiority, but of whether you want to win. The party Angela Rayner was courting is still not serious about being able to govern.

By the way, was she wise to use the phrase ‘banana republic’? It is dangerous, in Rayner circles, to use the word ‘banana’ unfavourably. It is considered racist, perhaps rightly so. After all, why is a republic to be mocked, just because it has bananas?

One is told that the National Trust has learned lessons from its ill-fated ‘interim’ report on its properties’ links with slavery and ‘colonialism’. It is rumoured that the ‘interim’ will be final and the Colonial Countryside Project which takes schoolchildren round Trust properties and incites them to write poems attacking the former owners is being wound down. Perhaps the Trust’s management has become more circumspect. But I see no change in its endorsement of the highly political ideology behind the report and the Colonial Countryside project. A recent NT job advertisement for two cataloguers for its Collections Management System speaks of its ‘world collections’ which are ‘an emerging area of focus’. For these you must ‘ensure collections can readily support the diverse ways we communicate history publicly’ (‘diverse’ here being a code-word for ‘uniform’) and get rid of ‘outdated language’. The dreary work of improving actual information will be leavened: ‘There will also be opportunities to address narratives of under-represented histories in relation to historic slavery, colonialism, provenance, and representation (or lack thereof) within collections.’ The Trust continues not to recognise that the word ‘colonialism’ is not objective, but loaded. And its wish to abstract its collections from their actual locations and put them in a ‘thematic’ context suggests that the sense of place so vital to the Trust’s members is being supplanted by a centralised concept of a didactic museum. Please could the NT provide examples of the language it considers ‘outdated’? Presumably lots of its pictures, furniture and houses are outdated too.

Grey Gowrie, who has died, was one of only two poets close to Margaret Thatcher, the other being Robert Conquest. (Philip Larkin greatly admired her, and she could quote his verse, but he barely knew her.) As Willie Whitelaw could smooth her path with the more liberal end of the Tory squirearchy, so Grey could do the same for the arts. She admired high art and sought the high prestige it might bring Britain: it was ‘the Arts’ as a left-wing, begging-bowl lobby that she disliked. It was to Grey she turned. During her bold, but unsuccessful attempt to win the Thyssen collection for Britain, she noted that Baron Heini Thyssen’s fifth wife, Tita, was trying to place the collection in her native Spain. ‘Can’t you find the Baron a nice English girl?’ she asked Grey ruthlessly. Nothing came of it. But Grey, as arts minister, scored a most notable win when he advised Mrs Thatcher that his friend, the reclusive billionaire John Paul Getty, might be persuaded to an act of arts-loving philanthropy and might like a knighthood as thanks. Mrs Thatcher entered into the seduction most enthusiastically. Getty, Grey told me, was living in the London Clinic, trying to overcome his heroin addiction and ‘drinking 18 cans of lager a day’. He received Mrs Thatcher there in his dressing-gown, and, as Grey had predicted to him, she ‘took over his case’. ‘Oh, Mr Getty, we must get you out of here,’ she exclaimed, and delivered the implied promise of an honour. Not much later, Getty produced £50 million for the National Gallery (more than £150 million in today’s money). ‘It sort of made Paul,’ Grey recalled, ‘He remade his marriage and became a pillar of society.’

Grey was also unusual in having someone else’s heart, and even more unusual in meeting that person after the operation. For years, he had waited stoically for a transplant. I remember how yellow he looked as his illness worsened and the right heart still did not appear. Eventually, a patient also under the care of Harefield Hospital needed a new lung. His heart was sound, but the surgeons thought a new heart and lungs, by this time available, were best transplanted together. This ‘freed up’ the young man’s original heart for Grey. The operation worked. He wrote a fine poem of gratitude about it, ‘The Domino Hymn’, which ends: ‘A Domino. A man/ died and his heart and lung/ helicoptered to shelter inside/ the cavity of this young/ man who lent me his heart/ in turn that January/ night of the operation/ in two thousand ad’.

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