Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

On Monday I attended a party at the Carlton Club for a new book about the Conservative Research Department, now 80 years old. Traditionally, this would have been a dusty occasion: the Research Department has almost prided itself on its separation from the vulgar worlds of media and power. But it was all rather glamorous. The fact is that, for the first time ever, its alumni have taken control of the Tory high command. George Osborne and Oliver Letwin began political life there; so did Cameron's closest assistants, Steve Hilton, Ed Llewellyn and Kate Fall; and so did David Cameron himself. As Andrew Gimson discusses on page 19, Mr Cameron is the first CRD product ever to have led the Tory party. He spoke, revealing that when he worked there in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he conducted espionage on Labour extremism, joining groups like Militant Tendency and Red Wedge under the pseudonym of Robin Norse (or North, I couldn't quite hear). What does this CRD takeover signify? Not, surely, a return of Heathites and Wets, which is what Mrs Thatcher thought the Research Department represented in her early days as leader. Not, in fact, an ideology at all, more the attitudes which stem from such a background. The bad things include: too much interest in politics, a lack of adventurousness, an absence of visceral feeling. The good things include: knowing policy very well, knowing one another very well, being highly intelligent.

In short, the advantages and disadvantages of professionalisation. I do not think professionalisation is the answer to our ills, but it is undoubtedly better than amateurism.

One reason to be uneasy about the habit of governmental apology for past wrongs - the transporting of British orphans and poor children to Australia is the latest - is that the apology is only made when it is considered easy. And it is only considered easy when the politicians making it feel confident that they cannot themselves be blamed for the wrongs for which they apologise. They are not, therefore, truly apologising, but blaming their predecessors from a safe distance. When you say sorry about the Irish potato famine, the slave trade, or whatever, you create a useful gap between yourself and the past. Nothing like that could happen today, you imply: we are much more enlightened. Yet we can be certain that our grandchildren will arraign us for evils we have committed, and will express amazement that we barely noticed them at the time. Abortion is a possible example, so is our desire to kill old people, so is our obsession with farming out our children to creches at ever-younger ages. But I suspect that the biggest example of all will be something in which we tend to take positive moral pride. When you look at the waiting lists, the squalor of Accident and Emergency, the neglect of basic nursing in favour of pseudo-academic training, the fact that hospital food is not served to elderly patients in a way in which it can be eaten, and the killing of hundreds of patients by diseases incubated in slovenly hospitals, we shall at last come to see that the worst public enterprise over which government in our time presided was known as the National Health Service.

This moral blindness which allows us to look down our noses at the past is what has irritated me so much about Andrew Marr's BBC series on the history of modern Britain from 1900 to 1945 (still in progress). …

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