Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

In their New Year newspaper advertisement in the Sunday Telegraph, the Conservatives say, 'The right test for our policies is how they help the least well-off in society, not the rich.' That is a good approach, but will it be invariably applied? For example, the clearest way that the rich are privileged in modern Britain is not through the tax system, which even now penalises them more than the poor, but through the planning acts.

Because it is extremely hard to build new houses anywhere, particularly in beautiful places, the price of existing houses rises all the time, particularly the price of large and beautiful houses. This gives a vast advantage to those who bought their houses a long time ago, or who inherited them, or who are rich for other reasons, and it makes life extremely difficult for the least well-off. But there is nothing more sacred to Tory constituency associations, particularly in the south, than the idea that no new house-building should take place. David Cameron is pushing a green agenda, and we can all agree that we would like a cleaner, healthier, more beautiful environment. But most green policies -- e. g. , Prince Charles's attacks on what he calls our 'obsession with cheap food' -- hit the poor much harder than the rich. If David Cameron can find a way through this, he will be a great prime minister.

Max Egremont's interesting new biography of Siegfried Sassoon (Picador), the first to have had full access to Sassoon's private papers, brings one up against the strange fact that the impulse of poets who attack war is very similar to that of those who glorify it. Both are very excited by war, both see it as a heightened reality which inspires their imaginations; they differ only in the opinion that they finally give about it. But opinion is not very important in poetry, not even in vehement poetry, and so the anti-war Sassoon is really very similar to the pro-war Sassoon who enlisted in 1914. Sassoon more or less said this himself when he later wrote, of his public statement of protest against the war in 1917, that 'the impulse which caused me to perform the protest exploit was identical with that which led me to behave with reckless daring in the front line'. And so it was that the darling of the pacifists liked always to be known in his village as 'the captain'.

As selection in state schools is debated yet again, horror stories about the 11-plus get recirculated. Although wholly in favour of selection, I do see that a final decision about a child's educational future based on a single exam at 11 was a bad idea. But support for the 11-plus starts to well up within me whenever I hear the sob stories of famous people who failed it and say they feel scarred as a result. John Prescott is the most vocal of these, but would one honestly respect any exam which the Deputy Prime Minister was capable of passing? On the other side of the argument must be weighed the possibility that if young John had lived in the present age when everyone passes everything, he would not have been quite such a crosspatch.

Or possibly it was 11-plus failure that gave Mr Prescott his astonishing persistence.

He just won't leave people alone. John King, of British Airways fame, received a Christmas card from Mr Prescott last month, even though he died six months earlier.

AtChristmas, a relation gave me a secondhand copy of Everyone's Gone to the Moon, Philip Norman's famous novel about journalism. …

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