W hen Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment over the Monica
Lewinsky affair, I was keen that the Daily Telegraph, which I was editing at the time, should add fuel to the flames. A little earlier, I had edited the Sunday Telegraph and our Washington correspondent, Ambrose EvansPritchard, had done brilliant work — better than anyone even in America itself — in exposing the shadiness of Clinton’s Arkansas connections. I thought (and I still think) that Clinton was a bad man. It seemed right that he should get his come-uppance. To my surprise, though, our then proprietor, Conrad Black, sounded a warning note. Would it really be a good thing for the presidency, he asked, if its occupant could easily be thrown out because of such allegations? Wouldn’t the partisan temptations be just too great? How could an American president, who governs more by prestige than by untrammelled power, do his job if he can too readily be subject to judicial investigation? Now that Conrad himself faces charges, some might question his motives in taking the line he did, but I think he meant what he said, and that he was right. Although political leaders in democracies should not have immunity from prosecution, there should be a strong presumption against fighting what are really political power battles in the courts. Today there may be a momentary frisson of pleasure at the idea that Tony Blair could do time (see Peter Oborne’s interesting investigation opposite) for selling honours, but it is very hard to imagine that such an issue could be fairly decided by judge and jury. (The Prime Minister is also being pursued, by the way, under the Race Relations Act because he may have exclaimed, ‘F–—ing Welsh’ after their devolution referendum in 1997.) In a free society, the best punishment for a politician is electoral defeat, not handcuffs.
Ihope I shall not be thought selfcontradictory, however, if I ask once again about the Blairs’ multiple mortgages, amounting to nearly £4 million. As with donations to parties, loans do not have to be declared in the register of MPs’ interests if they are arranged on normal commercial terms. But how could such a vast sum have been lent to the Blairs on such terms, with their combined income? I don’t know, as the late Sir John Junor used slyly to say, but I think we should be told.
At the end of last week, 50 independent schools accepted a deal offered by the Office of Fair Trading. This should bring to an end a story which began when two sneaky, enterprising boys at Winchester hacked into a school computer and discovered that schools were exchanging information about next year’s fees. The resulting OFT investigation found that such collusion had indeed taken place. The deal makes all the schools involved admit infringement (without having to admit that the collusion had any effect on fee levels) and, collectively, pay £3 million into a charitable trust to benefit pupils who were at the schools in the years concerned. Although I am a governor of an independent school, I do not share the prevailing view among these schools that the OFT should never have bothered with all of this. It is quite true that the 50 schools, themselves charitable institutions, were not trying to make profits: every penny raised goes to the welfare of the school, not into the pockets of a business. But the information-swapping clearly had the potential to restrict the fair competition which parents should be offered. The story exposes the fact that independent school fees go up ever faster than inflation, with remarkably little variety between one school and another. This has a bad social effect because lots of ordinary middle-class families who, a generation ago, on much lower incomes, could scrape the money together, now can’t. There seems to be no shortage of the super-rich at present, but the gulf is worrying, and will ultimately make independent schools more vulnerable to political attack. There is surely a gap in the market for the scholastic equivalent of easyJet and Ryanair — cheap, cheerful, overcrowded. Even better might be a sort of franchise of the good name of the great schools — more the relationship which Go once had with British Airways. (Dulwich already does this, by the way, in Thailand.) No-frills Etons could be planted in the Rother Valley, Harrows on less exclusive hills than at present. Independent education is a great part of British civilisation. Its duty is to try to spread itself, and politicians should help it do so.
It is often said that being leader of the opposition is the worst job in politics. But if Gordon Brown becomes prime minister, that prize will surely pass to being his chancellor of the exchequer.
The following letter in the Family section of the Guardian has been preying on my mind: ‘How can we help my 13-year-old daughter? We have discovered that she is having penetrative sex (sometimes without protection). She self-harms on occasion, and also is at risk of anorexia and bulimia. My husband and I have discussed the issues with our supportive GP and, in consequence, have tried to raise them with her (without judging her) and given her details of a confidential youth-counselling service. So far, she has not made use of this, as far as we know... ’. This poor girl seems to me to be just as oppressed by her culture as is her Muslim coeval who is in a forced marriage by hers. How bewildered she must be not to be ‘judged’. How sad it is, again as with forced marriages, to see parents acting hatefully in what they sincerely believe to be her best interests.
This column has noted before that the Women’s Institute is tremendously keen to emphasise that it does more than jammaking. Now it has a touring exhibition called ‘Action Women: the Real Story of the Women’s Institutes’. The exhibition’s curator says, ‘We want to show people that the WI is a lot more than jam-making and flower arrangements.’ This is a perverse form of marketing. Every time you repeat what you are not, you remind people of the thing you are trying to avoid. If you really want to get away from jam-making and flower arrangement (which seems to me a great pity), then shut up about it.
We were by a river, spring was showing itself at last, and all was right with the world. Suddenly I heard a terrible screeching and a jay and a sparrowhawk burst out from the bank, locked in combat, and tumbled, still fighting, into the stream. The sparrowhawk then held the jay under water until it ceased to struggle. Then the victor flew away, leaving the corpse turning and turning in the current. It showed no interest in eating its prey, only in violence for its own sake.