The Spectator 15 February 2017
Modern British history is largely a history of Tory rule and misrule. The Tories governed Britain from 1886 until 1905 with only the Gladstone/Rosebery minority administration of 1892 to 1895 breaking their dominance. They were in power every year from 1916 until 1945, either on their own or in coalition, except for 11 months in 1924 and from 1929 to 1931, when minority Labour governments clung to office. The Tories governed on their own from 1951 to 1964, and from 1979 to 1997. They governed first in coalition and then on their own from 2010 until…
Well, think of a number then double it. Continue reading
The Observer 5 February 2017
Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you. They can harm no one, if no one listens to them. Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you. Believers are the liars’ enablers. Their votes give the demagogue his power. Their trust turns the charlatan into the president. Their credulity ensures that the propaganda of half-calculating and half-mad fanatics has the power to change the world.
Standpoint December/January 2016/17
In Cold War Manhattan, there appeared to be no greater enmity than the hatred between Victor Navasky, editor of left-wing magazine The Nation, and William F. Buckley Jr, editor of National Review.
The Nation was, if not pro-Communist, then at the very least anti-Nato. Buckley’s aim, by contrast, was to destroy the liberalism of the Republican party and build a red-blooded conservative movement in its place. (Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice.) They argued about everything. Navasky was right to condemn conservatives’ support for McCarthyism and their opposition to the civil rights movement. But history has vindicated Buckley’s attacks on the Left’s myth that Soviet agents in America were innocent victims of the state.
In 2008, after Buckley had died, Navasky confessed to getting on well with his old foe. They both edited ideological magazines that had an influence far beyond their small circulations. They both despised the profitable mainstream media, which stuck to the daily news schedule. They wanted to find new ideas and stories the big news organisations chose to ignore or simply did not see. They challenged rather than informed their readers. Above all, “whenever we found ourselves within drinking distance”, they shared a bottle and despaired of their backers, who in their innocence expected small intellectual magazines to make a profit.
Buckley’s commitment to free enterprise would have led to his magazine closing. But, Navasky explained, he would excuse his appeals for charitable donations by saying, “You don’t expect the church to make a profit, do you?”
Their world is dead. I don’t know if there are intellectuals left in Manhattan. Certainly, here in London, when cliché-ridden hacks throw around the insult “Hampstead intellectual” they show only that they do not realise that no intellectual has been able to afford to buy a home in Hampstead since Michael Foot’s day. Where there were once second-hand bookshops for inquiring minds, there are now boutiques for second wives.
Standpoint November 2016
“Are you not entertained?” boomed Alec Baldwin as he played Donald Trump on the US comedy show Saturday Night Live. We ought to have been. Baldwin’s Trump was a puffy-eyed pervert. He loomed over the actress playing Hillary Clinton like a rapist stalking a victim. He was entitled, bigoted and stupid. Baldwin’s satire appeared so good that the real Donald Trump tweeted: “Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”
It seemed the ultimate compliment at a time when comedians appear to have replaced poets to become Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators of the world. No novelist, let alone a mere poet, can fill stadiums as he or she delivers a take on current affairs. After a scandal breaks no one thinks, “I must hear what Zadie Smith has to say.” Not the way they think, “I can’t wait to see how John Oliver or Have I Got News for You exposes these bastards.”
The Trump candidacy ought to have been political comedy’s apotheosis. Yet rather than affirm the power of satire, Trump has demonstrated its limits. Continue reading
The Observer 22 January, 2017
Hard questions for democracies have piled up with a speed we have yet to take in. After the cold war, westerners asked how to stand up to autocrats. Should we intervene to stop genocide in Bosnia? Or demand sanctions and boycotts to protect the rights of Tibetans? The rise of communist China, Putin’s Russia and Erdoğan’s Turkey changed the terms of debate. The question was no longer should we intervene, but could we intervene against powers more than able to resist pressure?
Now that the Trump administration has slouched towards Washington to be born and strongmen have muscled their way into the chancelleries of eastern Europe, the question is more basic: how are supposed democracies different from actual dictatorships? Continue reading
Observer 14 January 2017
Post-truth politics isn’t a coherent description of the world but a cry of despair. Propositions have not stopped being right or wrong just because of the invention of Facebook. Whatever the authoritarian cults who rage across Twitter say to the contrary, the Earth still goes round the sun and two plus two still equals four.
“Everything is relative. Stories are being made up all the time. There is no such thing as the truth,” cried Anthony Grayling. But unless the professor has abandoned every philosophical principle he has held, what Grayling and millions like him mean is something like this. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and other liars the like of which they cannot remember, have made fantastical promises to their electorates. They said they could build a wall and make Mexico pay for it or make Britain richer by crashing her out of the EU.