Magazine article The Spectator

At Last, Arguments against Mr Blair with Which People in the Pub Might Agree

Magazine article The Spectator

At Last, Arguments against Mr Blair with Which People in the Pub Might Agree

Article excerpt

Any writer will tell you, one can check and recheck a finished article, confident that mistakes have been ironed out. Then one relaxes. A cup of coffee calls, a chat to a friend on the telephone. . .

. . And, while chatting, an eye cast idly over a copy of the piece still lying on the desk - starting, perhaps, in the middle. Typographical errors, infelicities of style, howlers and non-sequiturs leap from the page. Any reader must spot them. Where were they hiding 20 minutes ago?

The mystery is almost certainly explained by the observer's changed frame of mind. It is because we stand back from the work that we are able for the first time to come to it as the casual reader will come.

So it is with arguments. You may burn the midnight oil making out a very cogent case. You lay head to pillow convinced the case is unanswerable. The following evening, over a drink with a friend, you rehearse it. The car is noisy, some of your words are lost, your friend's attention-span is limited . . . and you hear the argument dying on your lips. The reasoning is the same, but your filly doesn't look half so impressive on this canter out into the real world as when you put her through her paces in the paddock.

Something like this happened to all of us in the Parliamentary Conservative party during the ghastly campaign to market the Community Charge. We had pressed for reform, discussing what shape it might take obsessively and for years. We had read the briefs on the Community Charge. The argument was impeccable; the status quo (domestic rates) untenable; the philosophical case unimpeachable; the objections surmountable.

In came the Community Charge, and immediately began to sink. For a start, nobody called it the Community Charge. `Poll Tax' fitted the tabloid headlines, and stuck. And all the principled arguments we had assembled for making those who used council services pay for them seemed to fall limply to the floor as, from the platform, we faced the anger of the army of losers from the scheme - while the gainers, who had urged us forward, somehow melted away.

A facile phrase masquerading as an argument - 'a duke pays the same as a dustman!' - caught the press and public imagination. Practical objections, which we had dismissed as teething problems, swelled.

Soon everyone was saying it `had always been obvious' that the idea was a nonstarter. Few could be found who remembered ever having supported it in the first place.

Every governing party meets their share of ideas whose wheels come off on the open road. Watching the debate on Lords reform open in the Upper Chamber last week, I had the strongest of presentiments that this will be one of them. The wheels began to wobble from the moment that Baroness Jay of Paddington, opening the debate, said it was unacceptable that people could join a legislature on account of an accident of birth. Quentin Letts, the Telegraph's sketch writer, leaned across to me and hissed, `But she's Jim Callaghan's daughter!' and we both giggled.

I shall not try either to defend the status quo with the Lords, or defend Mr Blair's reforms, or any other reforms - but report to you as an anthropologist watching tribal behaviour from a small rise set back from the battlefield, behind a mosquito net. I detect confusion. The argument for making a 'transitional' step (by removing the hereditary peers) without deciding what the step is a transition to, is struggling. …

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