10 FEBRUARY 2001, Page 10

Why I am beginning to fall for Polly Toynbee


The importance of not being earnest is, among the Right, hard to overstate. Of all the thought-crimes a politically sound Conservative columnist can commit, the loss of a sense of humour is regarded as the least forgivable. With the arguable exception of the 'sovereignty' issue in Europe, the correct attitude for a chap to exhibit when discussing the political and social issues of his day is that in the end it's all a bit of a game.

Nothing matters as much as being good company: a good sport and a wry and sparky columnar companion. No criticism is as calculated to deflate a well-regarded right-wing journalist as to accuse him of 'banging on' about something. Excess of zeal is worse than ideological error, for it is a kind of social blunder. To be tedious is the ultimate sin.

The roots of this attitude lie in gender, class and intellectual insecurity. British politics, and in particular Tory politics, remains a male preserve. Women are admitted, even welcomed, but on male terms. The women who prosper are those who learn best to play the boys' games.

They must agree to keep seeing the funny side. Many balk at this, for women tend to be less disposed than men to treat everything as a laugh. The moment I try to characterise the female approach, I find myself reaching for the mockery that comes so easily to us when we want to deflate a woman: we say that she is getting 'all steamed up', that she should 'calm down and keep her hair on', that she should stop 'getting her knickers in a twist'.

To this day. when Ann Widdecombe (on the Tory side) or any number of Blair babes on the Labour side let indignation lift their voice a register, dozens of male MPs on the other side start making squeaking noises. All through Margaret Thatcher's leadership of the opposition, the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, would best her at PM's Questions by lowering his voice to the level of an indulgent chuckle and telling her that she was becoming disagreeably worked up and really must calm herself: these were, after all, exceedingly complicated matters, which perhaps the Rt Hon. Lady didn't entirely understand. The implication was clear: female passion was the enemy of reason. Chaps who take decisions learn to be cool.

A male slant, this is at its most distinct among the upper crust. 'Crusading' is not something a gentleman does. Among Britain's social elite it is smart not to care too much. The correct approach for a sound fellow is a faintly amused disinterestedness. With whatever vigour you play the game, when the referee's whistle blows you are happy to join your opponents at the bar, jollity undimmed, hostilities laid aside. You never, never carry your anger into personal life.

Even I remember, as a Tory MP, being adroitly put down by a gentleman whip in the Members' smoking room, not for my argument, but for getting steamed up about it. Thus was my argument moved deftly on to the question of whether or not one should get steamed up; one should not, of course.

Which brings us to the third reason underlying right-wing distaste for intensity in debate. It is the occasional suspicion that the Right's side of the argument is at best weak, at worst disgraceful. This is particularly true of what we might call 'social' issues: on poverty, on discrimination and on the oppression of the weak, we are (if we are honest with ourselves) on tricky ground. Here we would rather giggle than answer.

Those who have campaigned (for instance) for women's rights or racial justice have often met from us only mocking laughter, accusations of 'political correctness', or lampoonery. When they fail to find this funny, they are informed that, unlike us, they lack a sense of humour. To this they too often react by sulking, allowing us to call them ill-natured and petulant.

To reinforce our sense of superiority and to show how terrifically relaxed we are, we like to put on a show of 'tolerance' — even openness. Being well bred, we are never personally rude to those whose ideas we wish to crush; rather the opposite: a great display of madness and jollity is mounted, we are socially solicitous of our enemies in argument, we answer their anger with baffled amiability, we invite them to receptions, if not to dinner. So let it not be said that we are against debate — oh no, it is the Left who want to suppress and censor. For our part we take nothing so much to heart that we would stifle dissent, nothing so much to heart that we would ever be personally rude to one whose persuasions we described in print as poisonous.

If we are (as I am) part of The Spectator crowd, then in our defence I think it can be said that to give comfort to nasty people would cause us genuine dismay, and sometimes does. I wish that were more widely true.

I say 'we' because I have habitually found

myself in the 'here have a drink, old boy, nothing personal' camp. I do, though, remember chancing to sit opposite Tom Utley on the Docldands Light Railway after he had just written one of those Daily Telegraph columns calculated to win approval from the 'whatever's-wrong-with-that-good-old-fashionedword-"queer"?' brigade; finding him, as ever, the soul of inoffensiveness, and wondering whether it was really appropriate that we should be chaffing in so friendly a way if he genuinely believed that I and my type were a pitiable tribe towards whose affliction forbearance should never be confused with respect.

But it was only a passing doubt, for these people are not cloaking their dislike beneath good manners; they do honestly persuade themselves that an argument can be made in general terms without being carried forward towards its conclusions in the particular. In the same way as my Nana disliked Jews but loved her Jewish friends, your modern reactionary is perfectly capable of saying, 'Hello, Bob, you old nigger/bugger/commie/Yid! Doing anything for lunch?' and really intending the goodwill.

I can never decide how to react. My head says that they must not be allowed to separate me, whom they know and have no wish to hurt, from those like me whom they do not know and do hurt. My heart says that if this chap likes me, then I like him. In the end I usually go with my heart.

Polly Toynbee, in her magnificent Guardian attack on a man of (to me) dear memory, the late Auberon Waugh, went with her head. Her attack on The Spectator chose the easiest but not the best target, for beneath the superficial tolerance and jollity in Doughty Street there's real tolerance and jollity (scratch others on the Right, and you'll find sourness just beneath the jokes); but at least Polly had read what Bron had written, done him the honour of supposing he might have believed some of it, and reacted just as she did when he was alive: in the measure merited by the natural meaning of his words. Her essay was sincere and brave, and contained an awful truth. It was one of the finest pieces of journalism I have read, and if she thinks that, had it been read on these pages, it would have been laughed off, she is wrong. Polly made me momentarily ashamed of my affability.

Matthew Parris is parliamentary sketchwriter and a columnist of the Times.