Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

When the 14th Earl of Home became prime minister in October 1963, the still fairly young William Rees-Mogg told readers of the Sunday Times that the Tories were `turning aside from progress'. Will his reaction be the same, I wonder, if another Borders aristocrat, Michael Ancram, heir to the 12th Marquess of Lothian, is chosen as the next Tory leader? Perhaps not - and not only because he himself is now Lord Rees-Mogg. Things are very different today. Alec Home, descending from the Lords, was chosen, as lain Macleod wrote in a famous (well, once famous) Spectator article, by a Magic Circle, made up almost entirely of Etonians. But this was the last kick of upper-class Toryism. Far from turning the party away from progress, it persuaded Tories of the need to modernise. It was indeed Sir Alec himself who set in motion the reform which ensured that future leaders would be elected and no longer `emerge by customary processes'. So the Tories have had a succession of leaders drawn from beyond the old governing class; men (and a woman) who, in Harold Macmillan's day, might have thought themselves fortunate if permitted to rise to the dizzy heights of the Ministry of Transport or Pensions. Soon even constituency parties got the message, and looked suspiciously on the sort of would-be candidate whom they would previously have welcomed with all deference. A title, once an asset, had become a liability. A few years ago, Michael Ancram's brother-inlaw, the Earl of Dalkeith, son of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry (himself formerly MP for Edinburgh North), was turned down by the Tories of Dumfries. (What had been a safe Tory seat was then promptly lost.) So, if Ancram wins, he will do so in spite of his background, not because of it; it will be a victory for meritocracy. Mind you, Walter Bagehot would have approved of him: `Sensible men of substantial means are what we wish to be governed by, he wrote in the introduction to the second edition of The English Constitution. Ancram is just that: a sensible man of substantial means, and indeed proportions.

There was only one liberal measure in the Queen's Speech, if, that is, you can call something that wasn't there a measure. Probably you shouldn't. So let me say that the absence of a threatened Bill to ban the advertising of a legal product, namely tobacco, was the only evidence of a liberal attitude. Not that I care a hoot about advertising; my own smokes, unfiltered Gitanes and Antico Toscano cigars, are never advertised. But, looking forward in a few years' time to notching up a half-century of smoking, I am weary of the dismal propaganda directed at my habit. The consolation is that the propaganda has been a failure. The young mostly seem to smoke with the zest of Bogart and Bacall. But, compared with drink, which really does damage lives and provoke much criminal activity, smoking is almost as harmless an addiction as tea or coffee. All it does is knock some time off the worst years of life. Meanwhile the anti-smoking Puritans continue to persecute the poor who smoke more than the rich, and so grip them tight in their poverty. Any Chancellor of the Exchequer who really wanted to close the gap between rich and poor would cut the tax on tobacco sharply. As it is, Gordon Brown is the smuggler's best friend since Sir Robert Walpole introduced an excise tax in the 18th century: `Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk', as Kipling put it.

Francis King published his first novel in 1946. His new one, Prodigies, appears next week. …

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