Category Archives: The Spectator

The Speccie loses any vision

One has to weep.

Once upon a time there was the epitome of Silver Age essay writing. Then came the start of the slide,.

Back in 1828, Stephen Rintoul (in those day, the law winked at “passing off”) re-deployed the title from the 1711-12 original, 555 issues written by Joseph Addison and Richard Addison (blessings on Irish Leaving Cert English, which was was where many of us learned any notion of style). If ever I come into possession of a Time Machine or a Tardis, I want to be  Sir Roger de Coverley,

That may be because a distant ancestor, allowing for an inconvenient illegitimacy, was a close parallel for Sir Roger —  Sir Granado Pigott, M.P., of Abington Pigotts, (just) in the County of Cambridgeshire. A rank Tory who did little harm.

Were I transported back, I promise not to invest in the slave trade.

Since then the title of The Spectator has fallen on harder and harder times. For a while it was where post-War Tory thinkers hung out: the likes of Iain MacleodIan Gilmour and Nigel Lawson. That segued neatly into the house-journal of the Thatcherite young-fogies. This was a phase when there was enough loose cash floating around to inveigle decent writers: however it came to  reflect (1999-2005) the louche nature of its editor, one Boris Johnson, and gained the reputation of a high-class knocking-shop.

Après moi, le déluge

I still read The Spectator, but more as one has, in natural micturation, to scan a low-grade urinal wall.

So: your starters for ten:

The irresponsibility of Andy Burnham

Nothing matters more in British politics right now than keeping the country together. The polls in Scotland show that no one can be complacent about the result on the 18th of September.

Burnham had dared — dared, I tell ‘ee — to observe that the present Tory government is in the business of privatising the National Health Service, and:

should shut up until after the 18th of September.

But here’s the real killer:

Do you want Scots to stay in the UK? Say why – and be published in the Spectator

… write a letter for us to publish then you’d be doing something. The campaign to save Britain really does need all the help it can get.

Yeah. Err, right. 

Not even that loyal Tory subject of Queen Anne would have risen to that bait, unbribed.


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Filed under Fraser Nelson, History, James Forsyth, Scotland, The Spectator

Lies, damn lies, and an extra layer

Mallett: extra layer

The University of York’s Department of Mathematics suggests the quotation wasn’t Disraeli, but may have been Sir Charles Dilke in 1891 — though they find analogues going further back.

Even so, there are things more deceitful, more lying than statistics: graphs. We had fine examples appended to Isabel Hardman’s piece, Jobs figures: good news on employment, bad news on wages. Significantly she saw the issue entirely in terms of  “the political debate”.  If there’s anything deliberately more misleading than a statistical graph, it is a political-statistical graph.

Speccy graphs

The upper one, allegedly on job creation, is as specious as it gets. As the next line down says, we are not talking of jobs being created, we are looking at “cumulative change in employment level”. When that is decoded, it’s not the same thing.

On Tuesday of this week, we had this:

Figures from the IPPR thinktank show that the growth in self-employment in the UK has been the fastest of all western European countries over the past year, a trend that is expected to continue when official labour market figures are published on Wednesday.

The number of self-employed has grown by more than 1.5 million in the past 13 years to 4.5 million and now accounts for more than 15% of the labour force.

 When Sarah O”Connor of the Financial Times got her sharp little teeth into that, she was less than impressed:

An average 7,700 people in the UK became self-employed each week over the past year. If these trends continue, the UK will soon look more like southern and eastern European countries, which tend to have much higher rates of self-employment, the think-tank said.

About 17 per cent of the Spanish and Portuguese workforces are self-employed, while the proportions in Italy and Greece are 23 and 32 per cent respectively.

… economists disagree about why this shift has happened and whether or not it will persist after the economy fully recovers.

Some argue that many of the newly self-employed are in fact barely working at all, which would suggest there is more slack, or untapped potential, in the economy than the 6.5 per cent unemployment rate would suggest.

Put that another way: for many, self-employment is just a waiting-room, either for a delayed retirement or for a properly-paid permanent job. It is certainly not a sign of a healthy, properly-functioning, industrially-based economy.

Elsewhere, courtesy of the Resolution Foundation, the FT blows the gaff:

Where the jobs aren't

That shows the further one travels from London, the less likely one finds a permanent job; and therefore one has to turn one’s hand to other ways of staying ahead of Iain Duncan Smith’s “reforms”.

Which brings me to my second observation.

sdMy first proper teaching job was in the North-East. I was told by a colleague that the book to read was Sid Chaplin’s The Day of the Sardine. My original copy has long gone AWOL, and a re-read is well overdue.

More to the point, Alan Plater took the outline from Chaplin, added songs by Alex Glasgow, and came up with the superb Close the Coalhouse Door. Productions still tour, and still pack ’em in. Several fine songs came out of that: the one making my current ear-worm is Ours! Ours! Ours! Ours! Ours!. And, yes, I have been here before. The point of the lyric (which recites the progress to the 1947 nationalisation of the pits) is that the miners, like the rest of us cogs in the machine, are doomed to perpetual disappointment:

— When its ours, Geordie lad, when its ours:
There’ll changes bonny lad, when its ours!”

— Are you sure we’ll be all right? Is the future really bright?”

— (Oh, for God’s sake, man) We’ve won this bloody fight!
An’ its ours, all ours!

By the time I was in the North-East all those nationalised pits were being closed. The Wilson government was thrashing round to provide alternative employments — the running jokes in the back end of Coalhouse involve the Great Teesside Conurbation and par-foom factories.

What goes around, comes around.

Where that second graph above is so corrupt, so weaselly, so misleading is the sure-fire assumption that we are now at the bottom of any wages cutting. From here on, it’s all onwards and upwards.

As if.

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Filed under Britain, economy, Financial Times, folk music, Guardian, History, Isabel Hardman, The Spectator, Tories.

Warsi, Cameron and realities

A minor Tory name resigns her non-ministerial position (Whip in the un-Whippable Lords?). No earthquake. This is the week of the old August Bank Holiday: the silliest point in the silly season. Therefore Barnoness Warsi, for all her unworthiness, gets her headlines.

The Spectator had to have a holding piece while the Great BoJo Revelation came through — and the evidence suggests they had prior warning to get that cover ready for this week’s edition:


Presumably, that diminutive figure under BoJo’s approaching arse is “Gids” Osborne, the heir presumptive. From whom (or from those ever-present “sources close to the Chancellor”) we shall soon be hearing more. It”ll be worth watching if Johnson’s parachuting into the safest of seats is trouble-free. My guess is not: he has too many undeclared enemies, and too many fair-weather friends.

In patient expectation of the new Caesar coming in triumph over Pompey’s blood, the holding job on the Spectator blog’s was Rod Liddle’s: Baroness Warsi – commendable but stunningly wrong.

I couldn’t give a toss whether Baroness Warsi is right (well, most of her views are), wrong, or “stunningly” so. What matters more is whether David Cameron is.

Let’s backtrack to 21st July and Hansard on the Ukraine (Flight MH17) and Gaza exchange.

I thought at the time that David Cameron’s line was inadequate, even one-sided. I wondered how long could this official line be held:

What is happening in Gaza is absolutely heartbreaking. We have to be clear, though, about how this could most quickly be brought to an end: that is for Hamas to stop the rocket attacks on Israel. If they stop those, all the other things that we need—the end of the Israeli operation, and the ceasefire—would be in place.

It didn’t ring true. It wasn’t the authentic bell metal.

Still, Cameron repeated that at least six times in answering questions. Each iteration suffered serial elision until the essential message became:

… we believe in Israel’s right to defend itself, we believe that it needs to exercise restraint, to avoid civilian casualties and to find ways of bringing this to a close. But the best way to bring this to a close is the fastest way, and that is for the rocket attacks to stop.

I didn’t see then, and don’t see now that the IDF’s actions are entirely limited to “defending itself”. The Gazan death toll alone, now approaching 2,000, underlines that is is a campaign of aggression, not “defence”.

If I read Netanyahu’s statements correctly, that isn’t his position either:

What is about to end is the IDF’s treatment of the tunnels, but this operation will end only when quiet and security are restored for Israeli citizens for a prolonged period… We don’t have any intention of hurting the residents of Gaza. It’s Hamas who is actually hurting them by preventing humanitarian aid. I think the international community needs to condemn Hamas. [That’s lifted from Monday’s WSJ].

To that extent, Lady Warsi has a valid point — and the Prime Minister has mislaid any he had.

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Filed under Boris Johnson, Conservative family values, David Cameron, politics, The Spectator, Tories.

After hubris, nemesis

One moment the Tory agitprop-pedlars are telling us how it’s all fine-and-dandy — a day or so ago there was a hysterical screech that “only the collapse of the housing market can save Labour”. Note, there, that houses are not homes where real people live, but exist primarily to be a marketable commodity.

Then a faint whiff of reality (accompanied by a shiver of fear) intrudes. One such is found in Isabel Hardman’s Speccie piece:

Government borrowing is up – the economic picture isn’t as rosy as the Tories say

It’s tempting given the optimistic mood on the Conservative benches at the moment to think that everything is just great with the economy. Not so, according to today’s borrowing figures from the ONS, which show that government borrowing was higher than expected: George Osborne borrowed £13.3bn in May, up £0.7bn from the same month last year, and much higher than the £9.35bn forecast. Tax receipts have been weaker than expected, which has contributed to higher net borrowing.

This is accompanied by a neat graph, which is superbly interactive in the original (but not so in this clip):


Ms Hardman, to her credit, may work for a scandal sheet of dubious pedigree; but she has a sharp nose to go with her appropriate surname.

Now, as I have been saying too frequently, and most recently in connexion with the unemployment numbers, I am profoundly suspicious of how we are being fed this Osborne Wirtschaftswunder. Below the encrusted gilding, there’s an awful lot of brass neck. John Rentoul makes just that point, borrowing graphs from  and this one from


This, as the original makes clear, is a typical “bad graph”— which is why, as indicated by the “close-up” there, it is the way the Department of Work and Pensions likes to present and mis-represent it.

HuffThose of us of a certain length-in-the-tooth remember Darrell Huff exposed just this kind of fraud, as far back as 1954. Amazingly, with updating, How to Lie with Statistics is still in print.

For it is a fraud. Since this particular example comes from the Department headed by Iain Duncan Smith, we should not be surprised by the sleight of hand. The only question about IDS’ handling of his Department is whether he is plain ignorant or malevolently deceptive.

The Treasury is up to the same tricks. When Martin Rowson borrowed Méret Oppenheim’s fur cup (it’s a pun, geddit?), he was being unduly generous:

Martin Rowson 07.07.2012

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., crime, economy, George Osborne, Isabel Hardman, The Spectator, Tories.

Home, sweet home …

The lapse in posting this last week can be attributed to:

  • Being down in London for the Borough Elections, and seeing Labour sweep Haringey. Nearly 7 a.m. on Friday before the last ward, Muswell Hill, was declared. Worth the wait.
  • Coming back to a major effort by the plasterer, taking down a Victorian ceiling which some clown had stippled with masonry paint (I took it to be Artex).
  • Cupboards being installed in the kitchen alcoves.
  • Keeping the workers in a constant supply of tea and coffee.
  • Foul wet weather, and general lethargy.

SpeccyAnd then!

One of those Joycean epiphanies, when a near coincidence brought illumination.

First it involved catching up with a week-old Spectator.

The joy therein is all the political excreta are well out-of-date, and one can skip straight to the real meat in the reviews and articles. Page 45 was where I found:


Oh, c’mon now, guys! The Spectator? Flashman? They were made for each other. Probably most Speccie readers regard Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE as a trifle pinko, but at least he saw off Horningtoft’s best.

In the midst thereof a couple of sentences:

41dPjFldwqL._SL500_AA300_I was happy to discover that the research for The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers was done with [Fraser’s wife] Kathy in libraries in Dublin. It too has a cover by Barbosa and the two revers are portraits of Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles — a homage typical of Fraser.

Sadly not on my shelf. Mine is the 1989 paperback reprint, not the 1971 original. So I’d have to hope what I’ve dug up (see right) is the original dust-cover.

In passing, the “libraries in Dublin” are acknowledged by Fraser as “the Librarians and library staff at Trinity College, Dublin“, though Glasgow, Carlisle and Douglas, IoM, also get in on the act.

As I recall posting here, the opening paragraph of The Border Reivers tells many a story:

graham-praying-nixon-5At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To anyone familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debateable Land, the threads came together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes — families who lived and fought within a few miles of each other on the West Marches in Queen Elizabeth’s time — were standing side by side, and it took very little effort of the imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or backs-and-breasts. Only a political commentator would be tactless enough to pursue the resemblance to Border reivers beyond the physical, but there the similarity is strong. 

 Next to the New York Times Sunday book reviews and an interview with Alan Furst.

I suppose my tastes are defined by tracing along the (alphabetic order, it’s an anal thing) fiction shelf beside me here. Fraser and Furst are almost cheek-by-jowl. It’s good to see, then, one nodding to the other:

Whom do you consider your literary heroes?

I was raised on John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Something about this genre — hard-boiled-private-eye-with-heart-of-gold — never failed to take me away from whatever difficulties haunted my daily world to a wonderful land where I was no more than an enthralled spectator. The hero went through hell, but by the last paragraph the bad guy got what was coming to him. Well, good. As a kid I knew it wasn’t always so, but the justice fantasy was addictive.

Skipping ahead some years, my present-day favorite is Harry Flashman, a regimental officer involved in every campaign during the days of the 19th-century British Empire. These are historical novels, and their author, George MacDonald Fraser, with all the rogerings of royal ladies and chases through snow or desert, was a serious historian. I guess the link between Travis McGee and Harry Flashman is that like many readers, I am drawn to extravagant characters who live flamboyant lives — at least in novels.

Indeed. When the house is covered in a pelt of plaster dust, infused by the scent of fresh wood, and dinned by hammering and electric saws, there are a few remaining resorts. The obvious involves several pints of Yorkshire Terrier. Even that can be improved by simultaneous vicarious indulgence in fiction.

Now, what’s this one here …

Barry, Temp Gent

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Filed under Flashman, Literature, New York Times, The Spectator

Helmer: one who directs a film, tv programme, etc

Definition above is from the ever-present (at least in this blog) OED. It looks, from the citation, like another of those neat coinages by Variety, most famously the 1935 headline:


The only match for that, despite desperate efforts by Murdoch’s Sun, has to be 1983 and the New York Post‘s:



Worth 30 cents of anyone’s money.

Anyway, to Newark, the by-election and Roger Helmer

Isabel Hardman, for The Spectator blog, reckons — rather ambiguously, I feel:

Roger Helmer is a gift to CCHQ, so the Tories need to do really well in Newark

Well, the Ukip constituency association in Newark has certainly considered Nigel Farage’s musings on the success of appointing an unknown local candidate in a pivotal by-election… and completely ignored it. They’ve picked Roger Helmer, who, as Seb says, is not known for his mollifying centre-ground views.

His selection as the party’s candidate for the Newark by-election is a gift for CCHQ, which now needs a teaspoon rather than a spade to dig out awkward comments the MEP has made. Perhaps it also suggests that Ukip have decided there’s not much hope of winning so why bother to field a good candidate who the party’s opponents would lay into.

The usual Hardman perspicacity, there.

Except …

Roger Helmer is no patsy I suspect he may, indeed, be the director — the “helmer”, indeed — of much of what occurs at Newark. He may not, ought not, should not win; but we shall hear much of him and his opinions. Not all of those opinions will do UKIP any great damage.

He was a Tory MEP from 1999 to just two years ago, re-selected and re-elected twice. Despite his usual excesses — statements on rape, homosexuality, what even the Daily Telegraph considered “bigotry“, scorn for traffic laws, and general far-Right noodlery — Helmer was quite at home, even fêted by some, in the Tory circles for most of that time. He left the Tories — the Tories didn’t leave him — for reasons “operational”, not “ideological”.

If Helmer is the snipee in the by-election campaign, any sniper’s shots may come dangerously close to the Tory foot.

Anyone is welcome to adopt, adapt and improve that thought for future use.

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Filed under Britain, Conservative Party policy., Elections, Isabel Hardman, reading, The Spectator, Tories., UKIP

Farrage (from Latin: farrago — mixed fodder for cattle)

I see that Farage (according to James Forsyth) is coming over all wimpy over a Newark by-election:

Nigel Farage told me on Monday how closely he was watching the situation in Newark. He introduced the subject by saying, “there’s one other thing that could change everything”.

But Farage’s comments to me yesterday make me think that he’s unlikely to stand in Newark. He said that he’d ‘been looking at candidates’ and mused on how just one MP would make such a difference.

There then follows a convoluted comparison of the UK (2014-15) with Canada (1989—).

So, two observations:

  1. The Canadian parallel is guff to a factor of Xⁿ. History, especially political history, doesn’t replicate itself, even less so across national and temporal barriers.
  2. What is not surprising is that Farage, as he did at Eastleigh last year, looks like bottling it — he must be acutely aware he has only the single shot: fire it at Newark, and fail …

The bottom of the whole matter is that UKIP, and Farage in particular, are one-trick ponies. Once the public becomes bored with over-exposure of that trick, the circus moves on, and Farage is left diminished. On the other hand, it may well be the case that when UKIP folds (as in the medium term it must — and probably back into the Tory libertarian wing, where it properly belongs), something far nastier may emerge to take its populist, nihilist place.

Wednesday morning afterthought:

I enjoyed reading Benedict Brogan’s Morningbriefing, and comparing his views and word-choice with mine:

Good morning. He’s bottled it. That will be the snap verdict of Nigel Farage’s decision not to stand in Newark. “I’m a fighter, I’m a warrior,” he laughs on Today, dismissing the charge. Arguably, the Ukip leader has made the right calculation. As he says he is not local, and he can read the numbers as well as any of us. He also acknowledges that if he lost, “the bubble would burst”. Too right. The Tories are well entrenched in Newark, even after the harm done to the image of politics by Patrick Mercer. Ukip’s prospects, even in a by-election, are not great. It’s not really their turf. Mr Farage says that the best tactic is to select someone local who stands a chance. As Nottinghamshire man Ken Clarke said on Today, “whatever else Nigel is, he’s not an idiot”.

Meanwhile …

 The statutory Malcolmian literary analogy:

Now, a previous post introduced me to the character of “Nestor Ironside”. Captain Ironside, A Souldier, is also a character in Ben Jonson’s satire The Magnetic Lady, or Humours Reconciled.

In Act 1, scene vii of that largely-forgotten drama we have:

Sir Diaphanous Silkworm (a Courtier):

I ha’ seen him wait at Court, there, with his Maniples
Of papers, and petitions.

Mr. Practise (a lawyer):

He is one
That over-rules tho’, by his authority
Of living there; and cares for no man else:
Neglects the sacred letter of the Law;
And holds it but a dead heap,
Of civil institutions: the rest only
Of common men, and their causes, a farrago,
Or a dish made in Court; a thing of nothing …

They are speaking of Mr. Bias, a Vi-politique, or sub-secretary, soon to be lauded (ironically) by Sir Moath Interest, a Usurer, or Money-bawd, as:

Apply him to your side! or you may wear him
Here o’ your breast! Or hand him in your ear!
He’s a fit Pendant for a Ladies tip!
A Chrysolite, a Gem: the very Agate
Of State, and Politie: cut from the Quar
Of Macchiavel, a true Cornelian,
As Tacitus himself! and to be made
The brooch to any true State-cap in Europe.

The Vi-, by the way, is a shortening of “vice-“. It wasn’t only Bill Shagsper would/could coin neologisms.

Nice — if confusing — pun on Cornelian (the gemstone, the various Corneliuses of history) there. It works even better post-Jonson, because — in drama — there is the Cornelian dilemma, named after Pierre Corneille, which amounts to choosing the better of two weevils (another pun, much employed in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series).

Somewhere in all that nonsense I sense representations of the puffery and flummery that differently but alike infects

  • self-promoting, would-be Vi-politiques, such as Farage,


  • jobbing journos, such as the indefatigable and over-stretched James Forsyth, in search of an instant paragraph or two.

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Filed under Benedict Brogan, History, James Forsyth, Literature, politics, The Spectator, Theatre