10 OCTOBER 1987, Page 7


ALEXANDRA ARTLEY Earlier this week we found ourselves in the St Stephen's Club (formerly the Consti- tutional Club) in Queen Anne's Gate for a seminar on Miss Gertrude Himmelfarb's famous pamphlet Bombay Values. I think this means stepping over families sleeping in the street as you enter an expensive restaurant. The political purpose of the exercise was to beat the bushes for intellec- tual birds willing to support Mrs T's Mr Moore in the next round of not distributing Welfare State seed-corn. As usual (hooray) most thinking and artistic birds had flown. Among those who, in their various ways, spoke against the constant harrying of the poor which so disfigures English national life, were young Gervase Huxley and Lord Annan. I had never heard Lord Annan speak before. His rich mind and generosity of spirit compelled all in the room. Queen Anne's Gate means a lot to me. It was here I spent (apart from The Spectator) the happiest years of my working life. I also met my husband, Gavin Stamp, at No. 9 and recently, at No. 36, wrote a guide to the Blewcoat School for the National Trust. As we left, I could not help thinking again about Queen Anne, always the most underestimated and perso- nally tragic of our queens. At the moment everyone is talking in terms of queens. At a recent legal dinner Queen Elizabeth I was evoked (`This Government is merely trying to criminalise poverty. The poor are being whipped from parish to parish like sturdy rogues'); Queen Victoria (y-a-w-n); and suddenly, Queen Anne under whose au- spices the respectable middle classes accepted social responsibility for the hum- ble and suffering. In the horrid struggle for the leadership which is about to begin within the Conservative Party my hopes are with Queen Anne rather than VR.

Much as I loathe and fear violence, Norman Tebbit brings out the Charlotte Corday in me (`Don't give them bains they'll only keep blood in them'). Nowa- days I can bear to watch the televised Con- servative Party conference only through closed fingers because the sight is tres horrible. No one emphasises enough how much, in the past few years, the Conserva- tive Party has changed. Once it was the party of The Family. Now there seems to be apparent indifference to what ordinary people with children need in terms of affordable housing, reliable health provi- sion and modest financial support. I can quite clearly see that in a few years' time Labour will emerge again as the party which enables the family to stay together and survive. With all this 'market' non- sense (Granny Goblin Goes-a-Shopping as the dear demented Victorian artist Richard Dadd would say) the Conservatives now seem to stand for young hedonistic singles, the child-free and middle-aged people whose children are off their hands.

Nice Miss Mary Kenny of the Sunday Telegraph belongs to a rather traditional school of female reactive journalism — put Adler in gear but have second thoughts later. Her remarks last Sunday supporting the Government's designs on Child Benefit very much annoyed me because this is a subject which requires the utmost caution and responsibility. There is some cloddish notion about that suddenly we all divide neatly into 'rich' and 'poor'. As I pointed out in my own piece on Child Benefit for the Daily Telegraph, life is much more complicated than that. For example, is the wife of a very mean rich man 'rich' or 'poor'? The idea that `owning your own home' suddenly makes you 'rich' is another Thatcherite economic fallacy. Recently, the totally fragrant Building Societies' Association produced figures showing that since 1979 the number of homes reposses- sed by banks and building societies has increased ten-fold. There are many more wretched ex-'home-owners' in the pipe- line. As I write this, 13,720 families are now more than one year in mortgage arrears and, behind them, 50,000 more families now owe more than six months. Child Benefit is such an important buffer against disaster for first-time owner- occupiers that the Child Poverty Action Group (hooray) has just had to issue a Rights Guide for Home Owners (£3.50). Out this week.

Marcus Binney is the Houdini of conservation. Lock him in a box (prefer- ably Georgian), serve him with a Danger- ous Structures Notice, zonk him with a Compulsory Purchase Order and with one fund-raising bound he is free. On Wednes- day we arrived at the ever-welcoming Ritz (as Jennifer's Diary would say) to celebrate the launch of the new Binney conservation- ist glossy, Landscape. That morning, Mar- cus had appeared on breakfast television talking about saving country houses over Chopinesque background music. Land- scape is a curiously powerful hybrid. Its cover looks like A La Carte and inside there is a hint of Interiors, The Field, Departures and even, in Celia de la Hey's softly patrician fashion pages, a hint of our old romantic pre-Americanised Vogue. Some of the blazing conservationist radic- als of my generation stood about at the party but overall there was a slight feeling that our cause was won. Conservation societies themselves now need conserving. The Victorian Society (Vixoc) is in mild disarray, the Georgian Group plugs on in deficit and SAVE is becoming repetitive. Only the Thirties Society (prop: G. Stamp) seems to be going somewhere. When conservation becomes a subject for con- sumerist glossies and estate agents cannot get buildings listed fast enough, radicals need something else to go for. As I pointed out to Paul Barker on BBC Radio 4's News Stand this week, the new mood in my generation is that it's time to stop saving buildings and start saving our country.

In the next street No. 26 Argyle Square is a near-derelict Georgian terrace house in sharp contrast to the neatly painted (and largely unsold) Fifties' council flats beside it. The basement plaster is peeling, the decaying woodwork is filthy, grimy net curtains are slung at the windows and the front is a rats' nest of ancient amateur wiring. Is this the sordid bed-and-breakfast home, I wondered, of those 'dependent on Welfare', or 'the idle' or the 'unenterpris- ing'? It is in fact the office of the Holborn and St Pancras South Conservative Asso- ciation. Remember, Mrs Thatcher, here in the inner cities we are waiting.