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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Max Hastings, Conrad Black and repenting sinners

Over the past few years, Standpoint Magazine has established itself as a serious publication. Every issue is guaranteed to contain articles which stimulate, and articles which infuriate.

Although Standpoint is of the right, it would be wrong to describe it as Conservative. Conservatism ought to express a tough-minded and sceptical engagement with events: an endless dialectic between principles and opportunities: a belief in original sin, harmonised by an enjoyment of life: a eupeptic pessimism. Above all, there should be an aversion to facile moral judgements. Leave those to the Guardian. But Standpoint's writers, many of them inveterate moralisers, are rarely interested in complexity. There is  a flavour of the millenarian Left moved Right. It often reads like a drawing-room Peter Hitchens.

This can be dangerous. In every issue, the magazine devotes several pages to encouraging the most self-destructive elements in Israeli politics: those Israelis who will never offer a workable compromise on the West Bank; who almost seem to embrace the prospect of conflict without end.

But the cultural coverage is always interesting, including Simon Heffer's contributions. When he is not venting his bile-duct on British politics, Mr Heffer can remind us that he is not stupid and is capable of a light touch: even, occasionally, of euphonious prose.

Apropos of light touch, there is a piquant piece in the latest issue. Recently, Max Hastings recanted: not an action which comes easily to him. For years, Max had been a Euro-fanatic. It was never clear that this stance was based on a deep study of the question. There was a suspicion that Max was only a federast because he liked shooting with Michael Heseltine. Anyway, the sinner has repented. Joy in Heaven, followed by teasing in Standpoint, administered by a writer who is not a natural teaser: Conrad Black. Unusually for Standpoint, the tone is serene. This is encouraging. It suggests that Milord Black has in no way been broken by imprisonment, even though he had to serve his sentence in two sections: a cruel up-dating of the Cat and Mouse Act.

In his teasing way, Conrad suggests that there could be further scope for Sir Max to repent and cites other matters. Hold on, wait a second: what about motes and beams? From 1992 onwards, Conrad presided over the Blackest period in the history of British Conservative journalism. The Major government was embattled. John Major himself had failed to develop an authoritative political persona and Margaret Thatcher was making trouble, inflaming back-benchers who already felt guilty about her defenestration. This was a time for hard-edged Tory realism. Instead, the Black press was full of snobbery and sniggering: of a constant preference for fantasy solutions: a constant refusal to address the difficulties of the real world.

At Maastricht, John Major won vital opt-outs. Charles Powell has always insisted that Mrs T would have signed something like Maastricht, if she had negotiated it. Post-Maastricht, Mr Major presided over an economic recovery. It even seemed as if inflation had been permanently defeated. Yet the Tory party mutinied and meandered its way to electoral disaster, because a lot of MPs had lost their heads, incited by the Black press. 

So it is not just Max who has grounds for repentence. But what is this? At one stage in his piece, Lord Black breaks off from tweaking Sir Max's tail to slip through the following. "Next to Lady Thatcher... John Major now seems, in policy terms, Britain's best peacetime Prime Minister since Salisbury, and a good war Premier too". Well, well. That "now" has been a long time coming. Even so, let us salute the sinner that repenteth, who is now, thank goodness, on the very final lap of his time in gaol.


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