Show Hide image

The mutating terror threat: what do the Charlie Hebdo attacks mean for Britain?

Jihadis increasingly favour less sophisticated attacks on western soil. The danger to Britain is real and significant.

Blasphemy in the UK. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Among the more than 2,000 European jihadis fighting in Syria and Iraq, approval of the Paris terror attacks was universal and emphatic. “The people in the west learned an important lesson,” tweeted a Dutch fighter, Abu Saeed AlHalabi. “Your government can’t protect you when al-Qaeda puts you on their hit-list.”

A British militant with the nom de guerre Hudheyfa Al Britani warned that Muslims should not express sympathy with any of the 17 people murdered at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Montrouge or the Parisian kosher supermarket. “Any Muslim who attends the JeSuisCharlie solidarity march in Paris is a murtad [apostate],” he wrote on Twitter. A second Dutch jihadi, Abou Shaheed, urged people to follow the example of Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the brothers who attacked the French magazine, and to “terrorise the enemies of Allah”. Shaheed also called for strikes against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (which, like Charlie Hebdo, published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad) and against the anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

The three European fighters quoted above are all members of Islamic State (IS), yet the attack against Charlie Hebdo has been linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap). There is a necessary backstory here. The two terror groups have been engaged in a fratricidal war ever since IS declared its independence from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda (of which Aqap is a regional division). Leaders of both organisations have frequently condemned each other while their members have fought it out on the ground.

IS has made no official statement about the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But the views of two more of its British fighters offer insight into the thinking of the group’s foot soldiers. Abu Qaqa, originally from Manches­ter, tweeted that what mattered was not who murdered the Char_lie Hebdo cartoonists, only that they had been killed.

Talking to me on Kik, a chat application for smartphones, Omar Hussain, 27, a former Morrisons security guard from High Wycombe, said: “I’m not fussed whether it’s done under the banner of Aqap or Isis. As long as the kafir [infidel] has been killed, that’s what counts. Killing a kafir who insults the Prophet is a praiseworthy deed.”

In this context the importance of avenging perceived insults against the Prophet Muhammad transcends even the most bitter institutional rivalries. That much seems clear from the twin attacks in Paris. When the Kouachi brothers fled to the outskirts of the French capital on 9 January, Amedy Coulibaly stormed a supermarket and killed four Jewish people.

It remains unclear how co-ordinated the two events were, but at the least Coulibaly was acting in support of the Kouachis. While the brothers told staff at Charlie Hebdo that they were acting on behalf of Aqap, Coulibaly separately declared his allegiance to IS in a video statement. Rather than this being a joint attack between the two groups, it is worth noting that Coulibaly was a long-standing friend of both the Kouachi brothers, underscoring the importance in terrorist activity of social bonds over self-identified institutional links.

Coulibaly’s common-law wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, is believed to have travelled in early January to Syria, where foreign fighters often punish those deemed to be insulting Muhammad or dishonouring Islam in other ways. “Today we lashed a guy for cursing God, 80 lashes but if he do [sic] it again a bullet!” as Shaheed, the Dutch militant in Syria, wrote on Twitter shortly before the Kouachis and Coulibaly were killed by French police.

In 2014, a British jihadi who calls himself Mujahid Sayyad, who previously attended Queen Mary, University of London, uploaded a video to Facebook that appeared to show several members of his group torturing a member of the Free Syrian Army. The man is bound in a car tyre and turned over to expose the soles of his feet, which are then beaten with a pole. He protests his innocence throughout but is kicked in the head and hit with the baton so hard that it eventually breaks.

Sayyad explained that the man “swore at Allah”, so “there was no stopping us”. He claims their leader had ordered them to teach the man “a lesson”.

For Hussain, the fighter from High Wycombe, it is not just blasphemers who need to be targeted. Settling scores is equally important. He told me he would urge “all Muslims in the west to follow suit” following the Paris attacks and that it is obligatory “to kill the British soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan”.

This chimes with his previous public statements. Last October, Hussain featured in an IS propaganda video calling on British Muslims to “rise up” and “cause terror in the hearts of infidel communities”.

These are precisely the sentiments that worry Andrew Parker, director general of the Security Service (MI5). In a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London on 8 January, Parker outlined the tangible and significant threat that Islamist terrorists continue to pose.

Syria is the global crucible of jihad today, the arena from which international attacks are both directed and inspired. The crisis there has almost certainly extended the terrorist threat to our shores for a generation – if not two. That might seem alarmist, but consider the scale. Since October 2013, “There have been more than 20 terrorist plots either directed or provoked by extremist groups in Syria,” Parker says. That is more than one a month over the past 15 months. Prosecutors have secured on average three convictions a month for terrorism-related offences in the UK since 2010. Three terrorist plots have been disrupted in the past few months alone.

And while the terrorist threat is intensifying once again, it is also mutating. Jihadi groups are now favouring less sophisticated attacks than before: these are harder to detect and require fewer participants. The most significant strikes on western soil in recent months – in Canada, France and Australia – have all involved gunmen operating either alone or in small groups.

It is almost impossible to stop such attacks. They do not require much preparation and demand little reconnaissance. Guns are also unnecessary; so the relative difficulty of acquiring them in Britain, compared to some other western countries, is no guarantee of security.

As the brutal murder in 2013 of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south-east London, demonstrated, everyday items – knives, a meat cleaver – can be used as instruments of war. Nor was this the first time such an attack was carried out on British soil. Three years earlier, in May 2010, Roshonara Choudhry, a university dropout from New­ham, east London, attempted to kill her local member of parliament, Stephen Timms.

Choudhry stabbed Timms because of his support for the Iraq war. He was fortunate to survive but the symbolic repercussions of the attack reverberated: here was a British MP being targeted because of the way he had voted in the Commons.

This is the mercurial threat with which MI5 and its partners must now contend. There is no shortage of ungoverned spaces abroad where young British men might receive the training they need to orchestrate a successful attack here. Syria and Iraq naturally seem like the most likely origins of such a threat, but one must also consider Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

What can we learn from the Paris attacks? To start with, we need to analyse the nature and origin of the jihadis’ beliefs. Much has been written of the supposedly “offensive” and “provocative” nature of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. “Don’t lampoon the Prophet of Islam,” its detractors seem to suggest, “and you won’t be harmed.” This echoes the argument that led to western disengagement from the Middle East and to our relegation to the position of spectators who can only observe impotently while the region implodes at the hands of robed rogues. “Don’t interfere in the Middle East and the jihadis will leave us alone,” went the conventional wisdom as IS began to overrun large parts of Iraq and Syria. Subsequent events have disproved this.

It is true that Saïd and Chérif Kouachi may have taken offence at the cartoons of Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo but that is not what inspired their attack. The best indication of what actually motivated them comes from their own words during their murder spree: “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.”

That process of vengeance explains what the Kouachi brothers were attempting to do. They were seeking not to register a protest, nor to vent their anger at pictures they believed to be offensive, but to impose on the Parisian cartoonists their understanding of the Islamic punishment for blasphemy. Viewed this way, it was an act in pursuit of utopia – of the “idyllic” Islamist society to which the Kouachis aspired – where blasphemers are punished with death.

The attacks in Paris perfectly capture the Islamist impulse to push against the normative values of European society. We have been here before. More than a decade ago Theo van Gogh was killed in the streets of Amsterdam for producing a film that questioned the status of women in Islam. In 2010, Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist with Jyllands-Posten who drew the most contested of the Muhammad caricatures, narrowly escaped murder after an axe-wielding intruder burst into his house. Months after that attack failed, the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was assaulted at Uppsala University as he tried to show scenes from a feature film showing Muhammad at a gay bar.

Such reactionary attitudes are not limited to the European mainland but also run deep in many parts of British Muslim life. Almost exactly a year before the Paris attacks, Maajid Nawaz, a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats and counter-extremism campaigner, tweeted the most innocuous of cartoons depicting Muhammad. The image, from a popular cartoon strip known as Jesus and Mo, featured a stick-figure Jesus saying “Hey” to Muhammad, who replies: “How ya doin?”

By tweeting the image, Nawaz was saying that he did not find it offensive and that “God is greater than to be threatened by it”. God may well have risen above it but his self-appointed British vicegerents certainly did not. Mohammed Shafiq, who leads the Ramadhan Foundation in Manchester, initiated a torrent of abuse against Nawaz. “Tweeting the J&M [Jesus and Mo] cartoons is abysmal,” he declared. “Just appalling.”

An intense campaign of intimidation followed. Petitions and emails directed at the Liberal Democrats urged them to drop Nawaz as a PPC. Shafiq also threatened to “notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his [Nawaz’s] despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries”. Nawaz lost count of the subsequent death threats, although Shafiq has always insisted that he never intended to incite any physical harm against him.

The reference to “notifying” Islamic countries in the context of that episode is particularly important to consider here, not least because both Nawaz and the creator of the Jesus and Mo cartoon strip live in Britain. What concern should it be of any foreign power what free citizens do in their own country?

Blasphemy has long been the concern of foreign despots seeking to project legitimacy. This was memorably highlighted in 1989 when the Iranians issued their fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, but it was not an isolated incident of religious establishments seeking to silence creative expression.

Laws against blasphemy exist across large parts of the Muslim world, often with draconian punishments for offenders. A report published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union in 2013 found that apostates or blasphemers can receive the death penalty in 13 countries, all of them Muslim: Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Even while the Paris manhunt was still under way, Saudi Arabia began punishing a liberal blogger, Raif Badawi, with a sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years’ imprisonment plus a fine of £175,000, supposedly for insulting Islam. Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, told the Guardian, “The Saudi government is behaving like Daesh [a pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State].”

This is where the distinction between our allies – such as the Saudis – and our opponents such as IS breaks down. Both operate a policy of strict liability towards any perceived insult against Islam or the Prophet. They are not the only ones.

For 16 years the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, now the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), has repeatedly attempted to pass resolutions at the United Nations prohibiting the “defamation” of religion. It is hard to see how this amounts to anything more than an international anti-blasphemy law.

In Pakistan in 2011, when the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, dared to suggest reform of the blasphemy laws, he was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Perhaps most depressing is the realisation that it was Qadri, not Taseer, who was hailed as a national hero after the incident. “The killer of my father,” Aatish Taseer recalled in an article for the Telegraph, “was showered with rose petals.”

Some British Muslim communities are deeply invested in such cases. At the time of his murder, Taseer had been campaigning on behalf of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who had been accused of blasphemy. The case was very polarising in Pakistan and when the complainant suggested he might not pursue charges against Bibi, it was a British organisation, the Khatm-e-Nubuw­wat Academy (the phrase means “finality of the Prophet”), which convinced him otherwise. Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported that some Khatm-e-Nubuwwat members flew to Pakistan to ensure that Bibi would be “chased through hell” and they helped pay for the prosecution lawyers.

That kind of attitude has persisted for decades. When the original fatwa on Rushdie’s life was issued, almost all the leading British Muslim organisations of the time endorsed the sentiment. Iqbal Sacranie, who later became the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain and was knighted in 2005, said: “Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him . . .” In more recent interviews Sacranie has said he has since recanted that view. There is no reason to doubt him but the damage is already done.

In both cases previously mentioned, in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, religious groups or leaders played a role but the source of persecution was the state. Indeed, it is principally Muslim states that heat the febrile international climate surrounding Islamic attitudes towards apostasy. This is why they have tried to introduce legislation to censure and stifle all forms of debate regarding Islam. Even though those attempts have failed, at home they routinely crush satirists, reformers, dissenters­ and apostates.

So, it comes as little surprise that satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have repeatedly occasioned global convulsions of splenetic fury. In such an atmosphere, who from within the Muslim world could legitimately tell terrorists not to kill the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo?

Shiraz Maher is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

CLIVE BARDA
Show Hide image

The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle