First Thoughts: The culture wars reach the National Trust, Dacre and Ofcom, and lockdown longings

The Ofcom interview panel declared the former Daily Mail editor "not appointable", but that won't stop Boris Johnson. 

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Although it has been widely noted that Lord Liverpool was the last prime minister before Boris Johnson to marry while in office, the more apposite precedent is Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton. In even shorter time than Johnson – 253 days against 675 – he managed to combine the duties of high office with both divorce and marriage.

Grafton was a notorious gadabout who, before he entered Downing Street, was caught in flagrante delicto in his box at the opera with a tailor’s daughter and courtesan called Nancy Parsons. His brief premiership (October 1768 to January 1770) was undistinguished. He lost Corsica to the French, which wasn’t as disastrous as his successor Lord North’s loss of America, but still a blow to national pride.

A persistent critic, writing under the pseudonym Junius (probably Philip Francis, a Dublin-born MP), observed in a public letter to Grafton that the “genius of your life carried you through every possible change and contradiction of conduct, without the momentary imputation or colour of a virtue; and… the wildest spirit of inconsistency… never… once betrayed you into a wise or honourable action”. If only Keir Starmer were so eloquent.

[See also: How Boris Johnson escaped the blame for Tory austerity – and what Labour can do about it]

Panel beaters

Johnson has never made a secret of his wish to appoint the former Daily Mail editor and pro-Brexit warrior Paul Dacre as chair of the media regulator Ofcom. Now, after the interview panel declared Dacre “not appointable”, the Prime Minister has ordered a rerun of the contest.

The four-person panel was reportedly unanimous. It is headed by Paul Potts, a journalist who is a director of Rupert Murdoch’s Times Newspapers Holdings and a close associate of John Whittingdale, minister of state at the culture department, who, like Dacre, is a long-standing critic of the BBC.

The others comprise a former Tory minister (albeit a Remainer); a civil servant appointed under Johnson’s government to a senior role at the culture department; and a recent deputy chairman of the financial auditor KPMG. If even these people find Dacre not up to the job – possibly because about 90 per cent of Ofcom’s work involves smartphones, broadband and the internet, technologies with which Dacre has only a nodding acquaintance – it seems likely any sane group of men and women would reach a similar conclusion.

Johnson is entitled to overrule them and appoint Dacre anyway. But that isn’t enough apparently. He wants them to consider the error of their ways and repent. Will he also demand public confessions?

[See also: Can Matt Hancock survive? Here are two reasons why he might]

Issue of Trust

The resignation of the National Trust chairman, the business executive Tim Parker, is greeted as a victory for anti-woke campaigners. A group called Restore Trust, which wants a return to the Trust’s “apolitical ethos”, had circulated a motion for this autumn’s annual general meeting calling for Parker to go. Parker, who has already served more than six years in the unpaid post, planned to step down anyway, but readers of Tory newspapers are told he leaves because he presided over a report last year that detailed links to slavery and colonialism among the Trust’s properties.

Under Parker, no houses or gardens were shut (except temporarily due to the pandemic), no statues demolished, no paintings removed, no individuals “cancelled”. But with noisy commentary from self-styled libertarians such as the columnist Toby Young, Tim Parker himself has been well and truly cancelled.

[See also: Gordon Brown on vaccinations, poverty and the climate crisis]

Sporting lockdown

As the end of all measures against Covid-19 approaches (perhaps), I suddenly realise there will be a very large downside. No longer can I look forward to all Leicester City football and Leicester Tigers rugby matches being brought live to my home by Sky and BT Sport.

Once more, I shall have to explore dubious, malware-infested streaming services and join betting websites. I may even have to decipher impenetrable railway timetables and pay exorbitant ticket prices to attend matches in person. Come the autumn, I wonder how many of us will be crying “Can we have our lockdown back please?” 

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 02 June 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West

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