Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Are you a hedger or a ditcher?

The distinction was invented to describe the opposition to Asquith's threat to the House of Lords in 1911, and it applies today to Euroscepticism. It is not a coincidence that Lord Willoughby de Broke, one of the two Conservative peers who have just joined Ukip, is the grandson of the 19th Lord Willoughby de Broke, who was perhaps the greatest of the ditchers. The 19th baron wrote: 'There is nothing so wicked as a compromise about a principle.' For Willoughby de Broke 19 (as Americans might call him) the principle was the power of the hereditary peerage; for Willoughby de Broke 21 it is opposition to Britain's membership of the European Union. Unlike many Conservatives, I do not think the defectors to Ukip are evil or treacherous.

Tories easily forget how often their leadership has promised something definite to Eurosceptics -- the latest is David Cameron's pledge to withdraw from the European People's Party in the European Parliament -- and then let the promise slide.

But what ditchers too seldom think through, in their pride in sticking to their beliefs, is the actual effect of their actions. The other defecting peer, Lord Pearson, has pointed out that Ukip may be able to deny the Tories victory at the next election. I struggle to understand how this helps the cause. It is not like Samson bravely destroying himself in order to destroy his enemies: it is as if Samson had aimed the pillars of the temple neatly at his own head and let the majority of the Philistines (the Labour party) escape.

The retirement of Lord Browne as chief executive of BP illustrates the conundrum that famously besets people in important jobs -- when to leave. Unfixed terms are a problem (as we see with Tony Blair), but so are fixed terms, because critics sense power draining away and foreclose.

Lord Browne had a fixed term, based on age.

Knowing his departure date, the institution naturally became itchy for him to go and ready to blame him for any failures. And so this extraordinarily successful businessman leaves on a rather unhappy note. How can this be avoided? I suggest that within days of taking an important job, the new occupant should decide when he or she intends to leave it. He should tell no one, except perhaps his spouse, but he should fix a specific date in his mind. Obviously he does not have to hold himself to the letter of his own decision, but the date will enable him to plan. Since no executive job can be well done by the same person for more than ten years, and since the rest of the world intuits this, the time available to do the job unimpeded is more like eight or nine years, if you are lucky. Lord Browne took up his post in 1995, so it would have been perfect if he had left of his own accord in 2003 or 2004. 'Saddest of all sad sounds: too late.'

There are certain phrases which real people, in real life, never use, but which politicians and the like do. One is to start a sentence with the words, 'In my judgment . . . '. Another is to say, of one's opponent's views or behaviour, 'It beggars belief.'

There was great surprise last week that the Bank of England increased interest rates. But the surprise was itself surprising if one notes something about Mervyn King, the Governor. …

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