The humorist Auberon Waugh was a regular contributor to the magazine and in 1974 he turned his wry gaze on the disconnect between the public and politicians. In order to get inflation under control, the public was being told to work more and consume less. Nothing wrong with that, thought Waugh, except that politicians weren’t showing the way. Public life, he riffed, was a round of junkets and dinners and he saw no appetite among politicians for a little self-restraint on that front. Waugh could, he supposed, cut back on his own consumption of food and drink but what would be the point? “The effect of individual self-denial is merely to prolong the agony and make the final reckoning even ghastlier.”
One of the great comforts of public life – and the only consideration which would ever tempt me into it – must be the luncheons. Last month, for instance, Mr Fred Peart who, as everyone knows, is our much loved Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, gave a luncheon at Lancaster House for Mr CJ Moyle, New Zealand Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (but not Food). The other guests were the High Commissioner for New Zealand, Mr E Bishop MP, Mr M Jopling MP and Mr G Grant MP.
Of course, I don’t hold it against Mr Peart that he never thought of inviting me. It was I who invented the amusing nickname “Foot-and-Mouth Fred” for him many years ago, and although he always claimed to be delighted by it, I suppose he is only human.
My purpose in drawing attention to this neglected side of public life is not to excite envy or urge revolutionary change, although I think it would be more interesting if newspapers printed the menus rather than the list of guests, which never seems to change much. Public eating is in fact a very large part of public life and I suppose some would find it scandalous if they knew how many senior politicians and civil servants spend their afternoons and evenings in a state of stupor at the public expense. (Not Fred Peart, of course. I have never known him take a drop more than was prudent. His early career as a PT instructor probably taught him the dangers.) No, my purpose in mentioning the matter is certainly not to erode still further the respect and admiration for political leaders which, as everyone agrees, is more essential than ever at the present time. But I do feel that before people stridently demand a solution to inflation they should glance at the list of official receptions on the Times court page and see what else our politicians have to contend with.
Throughout on the only political issue in which I have ever involved myself, it simply escaped my notice for 18 months that one of the politicians most involved was almost permanently drunk. I saw him as red-faced and overemphatic, speaking with greater deliberation than seemed necessary, but the most obvious explanation for the whole of British government policy in that field never once crossed my mind until one of his colleagues pointed it out afterwards. These wistful jottings must not be seen as being prompted by envy. I am sure I eat better and drink more than any of them. My only point is that it is unreasonable to expect our politicians to produce a solution to inflation, any more than I would expect to do so myself. We must all look within ourselves.
Lying like an immense mountain of lard on the Mediterranean shore after the sort of bouillabaisse which I honestly believe would have killed half the front bench, I feel that I am beginning to come to grips with the problem. In the newspaper over my face Dr Stephen Haseler has written: “Unless inflation is soon controlled by courageous and responsible men then the very institutions that national, democratic, vote-seeking politicians rely upon to sustain them in power will simply no longer exist.” Poor old Fred Peart. No more luncheons in Lancaster House with his genial opposite number from New Zealand?
But what can we courageous and responsible men do to sustain the democratic, vote-seeking politicians we love so much? No politician dares suggest anything, but Dr HR Pitt FRS, vice-chancellor of Reading University, thinks we should consume less, or work more productively, or both. Well, burp, that’s certainly worth thinking about. I wonder why nobody ever thought of it before. Dr Pitt FRS regards it as potty, O-level stuff. What really interests him is “why the British people and their political leaders in all parties hold each other in such profound mutual contempt”.
I should have thought the answer to that question was equally potty, but perhaps we may return to it later. Let us first examine the proposal that as a courageous and responsible man I should either work harder or consume less or do both. Probably not many people now remember Captain Robert Maxwell’s “Back Britain” campaign of a few years ago. It was in response to one or other of the phoney crises generated by politicians to encourage the Dunkirk Spirit in the good old days of Stop-Go. A couple of rather plain typists in Surbiton announced they would work extra hours without pay, and the Daily Express had an orgasm. But the idea never caught on because of an awareness that the secretaries’ loss was the bosses’ gain.
Well, I am self-employed. I have never owned a stock or a share and have no savings to contribute to the Fred Peart Preservation Fund. I could not possibly work harder or more efficiently than I do at present, burp, but I could certainly consume less. Just at this moment in time, as mangled pieces of Mediterranean fish slowly work their way to my mega-colon, the thought of the new life of austerity awaiting me on my return to England has a certain material appeal, on top of the obvious spiritual advantages.
An uneasy thought strikes me. Last year, on my return to England at the end of the summer, I found a pile of demands for an income tax payment which had fallen due in my absence. They grew progressively more strident, culminating in a demented letter from the Taunton tax-collector threatening to seize all the furniture in my house. Obviously he was not aware that none of it belongs to me, or that he will find himself in prison if he seizes so much as a broken teapot before my return this year. But that is not the point. My point is that even if I buy myself a Union Jack waistcoat and eat nothing but kippers and milk for the rest of the year, how can I be sure that I will really be helping the li’l ol’ country? It seems more likely that the extra resources created by my self-denial will immediately be seized by our lovely vote-seeking democratic politicians and awarded to whichever sector of the community is least prepared to exercise self-denial in any form. In other words, the effect of individual self-denial is merely to prolong the agony and make the final reckoning even ghastlier.
Where politicians and fellow citizens are concerned, the attitude of the courageous and responsible man in present circumstances should surely be one of Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child. He should try to produce less and consume more. I think I will make a start by cutting down on my American earnings. Most of them go in tax, and neither the British people nor the politicians have done anything to deserve them for a long time. The answer to Dr Pitt’s question about why the British people and their political leaders hold each other in such profound contempt is surely, burp, that at the present moment in their history they are both quite right.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).