First Thoughts: The charm of the right, the party of phwoar and order, and our current Blitz

The lewd character of a Tory MP never changes, despite what a spin doctor might say.

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The government’s 10pm curfew on pubs is mild compared with the restrictions of the past. In the 1950s pubs could not open before late morning, they were then required to close after lunch and, having readmitted customers at 6pm (5.30pm in London), had to throw them out again by 10.30pm or, on Sundays, 10pm. The rules were rigid. If you ordered a pint of beer at 10.29pm, you had to down it in a minute. “Drinking-up time” came later.

Though gradually liberalised, such rules, also affecting alcohol served in restaurants, survived until the Licensing Act of 1988. Thirsty hacks hung around Fleet Street pubs from around 5.25pm, knocking impatiently on the doors if they were still shut at 5.31pm. Needless to say, these early experiences of deferred gratification did us no harm.

Nice leanings

Are right-wingers nicer than left-wingers? The cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry told an interviewer, after he travelled across the US for a Channel 4 series on the culture wars, that he found the right “friendlier and more open”. The left showed “more antipathy to the opposition”. I don’t doubt this is true. Charm is the right’s secret weapon. If you wish to curtail women’s rights to abortion or gays’ rights to marriage or blacks’ rights to walk the streets without fear of being strangled by police, you must sound polite and reasonable lest anyone get the mistaken impression that you are a misogynist, homophobe or racist. If you own a gun ­­– Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to do so – it would be wise to give the impression that you are tolerant and peace-loving. And if you are a lefty who would rather your children went to school without fear of being shot, you have good reason for antipathy to those who hold contrary opinions.

The Tories’ bottom line

British Tories profess nicer opinions than US Republicans but as portrayed in the diaries of Sasha Swire – a Tory writer, married to a former Tory minister – they don’t seem terribly nice people. I read extracts with a shudder of recognition. Years ago, when I was an editor, I attended the Conservatives’ annual conferences. Next to the delegates’ orgasmic enthusiasm when speakers mentioned locking criminals up and throwing away the key, I remember the parties. Nearly always, I would hear a Tory MP or minister make some lewd comment about a nearby woman: “What about that bum?”, “I’d like to give her one”, that kind of thing. Spin doctors insisted David Cameron was a new kind of Tory. Swire’s account suggests he was the same kind as those to which this left-winger developed an antipathy nearly 30 years ago.

Moore sceptics?

The former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore, however, is a right-winger with impeccable manners. But if you work for the BBC – to which he once refused to pay his licence fee because it didn’t sack an errant presenter – you may feel antipathetic to him. You would feel downright alarmed if he became, as widely predicted, BBC chairman.

Moore is a global warming denier. If appointed, he may insist on “balanced” coverage of the subject, giving arts-educated sceptics equal airtime to scientists who have spent their careers studying the climate. Ideologues such as Moore were once content with their newspaper columns. Now, as newspapers’ circulation and influence decline, they strive mightily to ensure their views get an airing in other media.

Death from the air

As I write, it is 207 days since the first of 41,877 recorded UK deaths from Covid-19. The 1940 London Blitz lasted 246 days, killing 43,500 – a number that would have been far greater without black-outs, air-raid shelters, sirens and other government precautions. If deaths from Covid-19 during the next 45 days average 38 a day, the total of victims will exactly match those killed by the Blitz in exactly the same length of time. Opponents of pub curfews, compulsory masks, limits on social gatherings and so on should reflect on this grim coincidence. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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