By Peter Hoskin. Follow Peter on Twitter.
During my time at The Spectator, where I edited the Coffee House blog, there were few things I enjoyed more than a trip to the basement. There, spread across two rooms and collected in doorstop leather books, was every single back issue of the magazine. 185 years-worth of fine thought, and even finer prose, to dip into when the blogging became less urgent.
But now, as befits the openness of the Internet Age, this is a privilege available to all. The Spectator has just made its entire archive available online, and for free. There are still some gaps and technical snags – which is why it’s presented as a ‘Beta’ – but it’s already wonderful overall. As my former colleague Sebastian Payne puts it in his blog post introducing the whole endeavour, “The archive is a treasure trove”.
So, to mark the release of The Spectator’s archive, a change of pace for this week’s Culture Column. Here are some of the pieces I discovered during my forays to the print archives, and which overlap politics and culture, and which can now be read online. The excerpts below are just that: excerpts. You can click on the links for the full version.
Clouds swell against the Welsh hills, projecting rain on to the trees, tents and bookshops below. But the thunderstorms – the really furious, electric thunderstorms – they’re not so much breaking over this year’s Hay Festival as around it. You’ve probably seen the stories already. David Goodhart, previously angry at not being invited to discuss his book on immigration, The British Dream, has accused the festival’s director of denying Charles Moore a chance to speak about his Thatcher biography. In response, Peter Florence has sighed, “It’s getting a little tedious wasting time on David’s PR campaign”. There’s a full-blown literary spat a-brewing.
For those of us stuck under the dour skies of Westminster, it’s all too familiar – and not just because this row involves members of our extended family. Spats are something that set the political media drooling with ink and excitement. And so, too, are questions about platforms and whom they should be extended too. Were Newsnight and Channel 4 News right to spread Anjem Choudary across the airwaves last week? Were there too many trade unionists on teevee after Margaret Thatcher’s death? Allegations of bias, and of editorial impropriety, hover around every corner.
By Peter Hoskin. Follow Peter on Twitter.
There’s one particular reason why, of all the Best Picture candidates, I want Zero Dark Thirty to do well at Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony – and it’s got little to do with the film itself. The reason is that Zero Dark Thirty was funded by Megan Ellison, a billionaire’s daughter who is wiring her familial wealth to filmmakers so that they can operate outside the usual strictures of the studio system. She also backed the best American picture of last year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.
Ellison isn’t acting entirely charitably – her production company, Annapurna Pictures, presumably seeks a return on her investments, which now include the rights to the Terminator series – but there is still something charitable about her approach. She’s giving artists a chance, allowing them both financial and creative freedom. Or as Joaquin Phoenix, the star of The Master, tells the latest issue of Vanity Fair, Ms Ellison is “the Han Solo of filmmaking – you think it’s all over and she comes to save the day.” And, like Han Solo, she deserves a medal around her neck for that.
This is the first entry in a new ConservativeHome column focusing on culture. It will be edited by Peter Hoskin, and generally appear on Fridays.
As they say, January is a time for looking back as well as forwards — so I hope you’ll forgive a bit of accountancy that’s hanging over from 2012. It’s this list of last year’s highest grossing films:
Spot anything, other than the abiding popularity of superhero movies? How about the upwards impetus of films that, while not explicitly political, are broadly conservative in outlook? To my eyes, three of the top five films belong in that category.
Meet Gordon Brown, the pre-1997 model. You might have preferred him back then, and for a very simple reason: he was not a politician who saw more public spending as the solution to everything. This was evident in his commitment to Ken Clarke’s spending plans, but it was there, too, in his opposition to universal benefits. As Tom Bower’s biography of the man explains, he had been heavily influenced by Bill Clinton’s election campaign and particularly by one of its central maxims, “We want to offer a hand-up, not a hand-out.” Mr Bower writes, “Brown was leaning towards ‘incentives’ and the cessation of universal benefits. In short, he was becoming attracted to means tests, which he had formerly vociferously opposed.”
Just wonder what the country would look like now if this model of Brown had persisted into Government. But, sadly, it didn’t. The reach of the benefits system wasn’t merely maintained under his rule from the Treasury and then Number 10, it was extended. New benefits, such as the Winter Fuel Payment, ended up going towards the well-off. Tax credits were pumped into the bank accounts of the middle-classes, a transaction that created more and more disincentives to work. And social security spending increased by a fifth, even before The Great Crash took hold. Universalism had truly gone universal.
Yet what’s even sadder is that this second, post-1997 model of Gordon Brown lours over our politics still. Indeed, over the past week, Labour have made it their primary cause to defend in-work benefits from cuts. And while the Tories are the ones implementing those cuts, they are also protecting other sectors of the Brown universe, such as the free bus passes and TV licences for pensioners. Even during the austerity years, hand-outs for the have-lots remain in fashion.
When the political obituaries of 2012 are published — as they soon will be — they will probably devote several lines to Parliamentary power. This has, after all, been a year of backbench ascendancy. Prominent rebellions, such as that over Lords reform, have slowed the course of Government policy. Parliamentary committees, such as the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, have had their exploits and exegeses sprayed across the front pages. Names such as Carswell, Farron and Hodge have punctuated the airwaves.
The forces behind this tidal swell in backbench activism have been discussed before and predate this year: thanks to collapsing trust in politics, and to the restrictions on political patronage imposed by coalition government, MPs are increasingly looking to their constituents rather than to their party leaderships, etc, etc. But there’s still one combined cause-and-effect that the reviews of the year might neglect. And that’s the proper emergence of the Multi Mass Media MP.
Whether it’s Nadine Dorries’ appearance on I’m A Celebrity…, Robert Halfon’s smart, Internet-led campaigns on fuel duty and now the 10p tax rate, or the rise and rise of Michael Fabricant on Twitter, backbenchers are increasingly using new methods to communicate with voters. And even the most front-placed of frontbenchers is at it, too. When David Cameron joined Twitter in October it was another indication of this new symbiosis. The spreading reach of the media, and particularly of the social media, has been latched on to by politicians who are keen to spread their own reach as well.
Even from this distance of two-and-a-half years, David Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats stands out as a totemic speech. It was fresh: a sincere effort to overcome the tribalism that so often defines British politics. It was strategically brilliant: helping ensure that the gains of election night actually counted for something come the morning after. But most of all it was startlingly clear: here was a Conservative leader setting out, point-by-point, those areas where he disagreed with the Lib Dems, those where he sympathised and those where he would compromise. Mr Cameron offered a simple, unvarnished basis for discussion.
Things have, of course, become messier since then. The Coalition Agreement sprayed gloss paint over contentious policy areas such as Europe, and Coalition Government has meant a splattering of blood, too. But, despite that, some of the clarity of Mr Cameron’s original offer has remained. The updated Coalition Agreement, set to be published in January, is meant to spell out what the Tories and Lib Dems have achieved together so far, and what they plan to achieve in the rest of this Parliament. Both party leaderships are currently working out the areas of compromise and cooperation.
“They now need us more than we need them” — so sayeth one adviser about the relationship between the press (“they”) and the politicians (“we”). It’s a dramatic claim, perhaps even one exaggerated for effect, but the thinking behind it is understandable enough. With the hacking scandal blending into the Savile scandal blending into the current mayhem at the Beeb, there’s a sense that the journalistic media are gazing over a precipice. Some politicians want to help pull them back from the edge. Others want to kick them, and send them tumbling down, down and down. Who needs whom, indeed?
In truth, this is a question that some advisers were asking during the run-up to the last election. This was, you’ll remember, a period dripping with incident and with newsprint. There were the allegations of bullying surrounding Gordon Brown and his team; a major brouhaha about party funding; the whole Gillian Duffy episode; and numerous other stories to set the press corps’ typewriters ablaze. And yet did any of it move the polls? Rarely in any way that stood out from more general trends, and certainly not by as much as the excitement would have suggested. In the year up until the election, the only real shocks to the opinion polling data came from the expenses scandal, which hit Conservative and Labour ratings equally hard, and the first televised debate, which gave a short-lived boost to Liberal Democrat hopes. This was considered, by some, as evidence that the press holds an increasingly limited sway over hearts and minds.
It’s 6th November and everyone is talking about America. So what else to do but wish “Happy Birthday” to an American man who was born on this day in 1851? That man, who died 110 years ago, is Charles Dow, the co-founder of the Wall Street Journal and the brain behind the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a stock market index that is still among the most significant in the world. In both enterprises, he was guided by a belief that “pride of opinion has been responsible for the downfall of more men on Wall Street than any other factor.” Facts, honesty and objectivity were his lodestars.
These were important sentiments then, and they remain important sentiments now. It’s not without reason that we implore our politicians to look beyond the preoccupations of Westminster’s chattering class (which, as an opinion writer for hire, I guess I’m a member of) and to the facts that actually matter. Forget what Andrew Mitchell did or didn’t say to a policeman, and look at the growth figures. Forget Ed Miliband’s scattergun use of the phrase “one nation”, and look at how he polls with the public. Forget Twitter’s reaction to the latest session of PMQs, and look to 2015. Look, look, look.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here, for I’m about to talk about two very dull things: computers and my Sunday evening. Specifically, I spent a portion of the latter dealing with the former, as I updated my laptop to Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8. Yes — I used the words “very dull” for a reason.
What struck me about the process was just how fluid and easy it was. If you’ve done it yourself, you may have experienced the same: just pop a disc into the side of your computer, click a few times, leave the processors and motherboards to it for a while, and twenty minutes later you have the eighth incarnation of Windows smiling from your screen. None of my files were harmed in the making of this upgrade. There was no fuss or frustration. Computers really are fool-proof nowadays.
Or are they? As if guided by the e-Fates, one of the first things I did on my freshly updated computer was to read a news report about recent data losses in the NHS. You’ll be familiar with the story even if you don’t know the specifics. Thousands and thousands of patient records have been lost in the past year. Some of the losses were directly linked to computers: records being uploaded to the Internet, that sort of thing. Whereas others could be attributed to the absence of computers: anachronistic paper records dumped in public bins. Yet the moral is the same in both cases. The public sector so often comes skidding off the infobahn.
This article first appeared in the Tuesday edition of ConHome's Party Conference Daily.
You probably know the story about the blind men and the elephant. It’s the one where a group of the former touch a specimen of the latter to find out what it is like. One blind man touches a tusk, and concludes that the elephant is like a spear. Another touches the ears, and concludes that it’s like a fan. For yet another, it’s the tail, which feels like a piece of rope. And so on and so on. As John Godfrey Saxe’s verse telling of the story finishes:
“…each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!”
I mention this because something similar is happening in the case of Margaret Thatcher. People — many of them Conservatives — have reached back to her years of government, grabbed on to a single part of them, and emerged with a very firm idea about what they were like. Spending cuts! The Falklands! Facing down the unions! Standing up for business! No turning! But while all of these ideas are partly in the right, they are also in the wrong. The Thatcher governments must be looked at in the whole for the right lessons to be drawn from them.
If you go down to the Labour website today, you’re sure of a minor surprise. The party has put up a special page, before you get to their main site, highlighting the ‘Rebuilding Britain’ theme of their conference in Manchester. The background is a punkishly off-kilter Union Jack, in magenta and azure instead of simple red and blue. The foreground is the image of a house with two paragraphs of text beside it. The words “building 100,000 more affordable homes” and “stamp duty holiday” have been picked out in bold. Look, look — these are our policies!
Yet, as trivial as it seems, it is this web-page that sums up the most important aspect of the Labour conference so far: how Ed Miliband’s party is straying on to territory usually occupied by the Conservatives. And I don’t just have the upbeat, post-Olympics patriotism in mind, either. It’s more the fact that two of their main policies revolve around property ownership. The presentation of the conference itself also revolves around property ownership. The message that Labour wants to spread is that they will help shunt you onto the housing ladder.
British politics? Right now? It’s just the disquiet before the storm. I mean, the froth and fury currently whirling around the party conferences and Andrew Mitchell is but a prelude to the main event: George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on 5th December. That is when we shall discover whether the Chancellor has any more ideas for encouraging growth. That is when it might be confirmed that he’s set to break one of his two fiscal rules. That is when we will experience hurricane-force turbulence.
The fiscal rule under question is, as we know, Mr Osborne’s “supplementary” one, to have our national debt growing no faster than the economy by 2015. And last week provided more evidence that it will eventually tumble. The latest official figures had public borrowing in August this year as high as it was in August last year, at £14.4 billion. Overall borrowing for this fiscal year (when distortive effects to do with Royal Mail pensions are discounted) could even surpass last year’s total. As Robert Burns didn’t quite put it, things gang aft agley when the economy stops growing.
There was, admittedly, some encouraging news woven into those official numbers. The borrowing total for the last fiscal year has been revised downwards, such that the Coalition managed to cut the deficit by around a quarter in its first two years of existence, and … so on and so on. But although we can pore over the numbers until our minds bleed, there is increasingly only one lesson to be learnt from them: that there are few certainties when it comes to the public finances. They are, in significant part, a hash of revisions, counter-revisions, overshoots and undershoots. We need only look at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s fluctuating forecasts to realise that.
Have you got a five-year diary to hand? And, perchance, a pen? Lovely, I thought you would. Now please flick forward to 2017 and draw a big circle around the whole of that year. Then add some stars, smiley faces, arrows; anything that will help it to stand out. You see, 2017 is something of landmark year for education. As we discovered yesterday, it will be the year when Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate examinations are first taken and marked. It will, we hope, be a year that slams another stake into the unholy monster that is grade inflation.
But 2017 doesn’t just… actually, wait, have you got a highlighter instead? That might be better than a normal pen. After all, as I was saying, 2017 doesn’t just feature landmarks in education. It is currently expected to be the year when our structural deficit is finally whittled down to zero and turned into a fiscal surplus. It is also expected to be the year when all working-age benefit claimants will have moved onto Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit. We may as well just pattern our diaries with fluorescent yellow ink now.
For the Green Party, last week must have felt like all the leaves falling off a tree at once. They don’t usually get much media coverage, those Greens; but here, thanks to the election of their new party leader Natalie Bennett, they faced a relative deluge. Ms Bennett’s own speech to her party conference came complete with television cameras and autocue gizmos, and garnered some attention for how it ploughed into Labour. And, before that too, there had been her appearance on the Daily Politics show, which was attention of a less forgiving sort, but it was attention nevertheless. Would it ever stop?
Yes, actually. Only a few days later, that short autumnal burst is already settling into an early winter for the Greens. They may — and should, given the performance of their candidate in the London Mayoral elections — aspire to third party status, but that remains a gruelling task for an outfit that currently polls at 3 per cent nationally. It is truly a cold and harsh existence in that “Others” bracket.