Theresa May: The new Prime Minister is now safely installed (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Well, things have improved since we last spoke. In Britain we now have a government and a Prime Minister, having appeared to lose both for a period. Mercifully, we were spared the prospect of another nine weeks of anarchy solely in order to discover the innermost thoughts of Andrea Leadsom. There were those of us who thought it all a very costly way to install Theresa May in Downing Street, but a safe pair of hands seems a great blessing after the vacuum George Osborne and David Cameron rather petulantly left us in.
Predictably, the US presidential race has degenerated into a competition over who is worse, with both sides hoping to exploit their rival’s considerable negatives. Hillary Clinton’s first summer salvo was an attack ad showing various Donald Trump infelicities being observed by wide-eyed infants, culminating in the warning, “Our children are watching.” Which would carry a lot more weight if Mrs Clinton’s husband had not been responsible for children in the 1990s asking their parents what oral sex might be. It takes a lot of people to coarsen a culture, and no one can do it alone.
In any case, all the negativity the US will experience in the coming months will convert no one but merely deter the other side’s base from going to the polls, meaning that whoever wins will have a worse mandate than George W. Bush. Among friends in Washington and New York I can find no one who even intends to vote in November — not a great advertisement for the world’s leading democracy.
Back in Britain it seems we must now fear Christopher Biggins. In August the camp pantomime star fell foul of Britain’s ever-curiouser decency debate. Appearing on the not notoriously decent celebrity version of Big Brother (which carries a warning of potentially shocking behaviour) he made a rude comment about bisexuals. This earned him a warning, but shortly afterwards he made a “joke” to a Jewish housemate which got him expelled from the show. The broadcasters claimed the last of these was un-broadcastable. Which raises the question of precisely what they feared. Were fascism to come to Britain it is hard to imagine a more unlikely guise than that of Christopher Biggins. It is our national oddity at present that we are expected to need protection from the words of people like Biggins while the allies of Hamas run the main party of opposition — and those who cover for actual anti-Semitism (Shami Chakrabarti) are ennobled for doing so.
David Cameron’s parting honours list received justifiable criticism for its cronyism, yet a sense of historical proportion was lacking. You do not have to go back to Lloyd George or Harold Wilson but simply to Tony Blair to remember honours awarded to those equally unworthy. Yet there is a particular problem in the Cameron list. I wonder whether it isn’t a result of the fact that our political class seems to have become transparent in recent years. The public appears not just to disagree with their representatives or dislike them, but rather to have seen through them, the MPs’ expenses scandal being the obvious catalyst. Now when a Prime Minister gives his chums a potential job for life in the Lords there is a sense that there is nothing else such people could do and that a peerage has become a sinecure. Was this always the case? In the past many people sat in the Lords to quell boredom, but how many did so merely to get the daily allowance? The place now seems packed with them, from disgraced expenses fiddlers like Baroness Uddin and Lord Hanningfield to former Lib Dem councillors bewildered by their luck. The public are right not to like this.
Newspapers around the world noted the recent death of Bishop Edward Daly, made famous by images of him waving a bloodstained handkerchief while escorting the body of a young man in Londonderry on “Bloody Sunday”. Few noted one of the most telling facts about him: his unwillingness to compromise on telling the truth. During the seconds before the army opened fire Father Daly (as he then was) saw one man with a handgun among the civilians. Since the army’s justification for their shooting dead of 14 people would in part become the presence of civilian gunmen, many people would have refused to concede the presence of such a person among the crowd, fearing that they would be giving ammunition to the army’s unjustifiable case. Daly never had any such trouble, always acknowledging the presence of the person he saw even while being adamant that the army had no justification for shooting where and when they did. There are many reasons to honour Bishop Daly’s memory, but in our present culture such a commitment to truth seems especially praiseworthy.