Boris Johnson is expected to explain his partygate ends to Parliament tomorrow, in what some are calling a “constitutional crisis”. Strangely, I just don’t care. Not a hoot, nor a fig, nor a tuppenny damn (don’t know what that is, but if I had one, I wouldn’t give it).
I care so little, I haven’t the energy to figure out why, so was grateful to happen to watch an old interview with William F Buckley, the great American conservative, from 1973, when he was asked why he was standing by Richard Nixon during Watergate – or at least wouldn’t call for him to quit. I’ll let Bill (who at that point didn’t know the extent of Tricky Dick’s crimes) speak for me.
The interviewer said: Conservatives are supposed to believe in small and clean government, yet Nixon (like Boris) first grew the government then broke its rules. Isn’t it hypocritical for a conservative to put up with him?
Buckley replied: I’d like our leaders to be pure, but nobody is. Believing in original sin, most conservatives are the very opposite of naive. At the same time, they are practical, and it’s precisely because presidents or PMs are so powerful that one has to weigh up the consequences of forcing them from office. If Winston Churchill had run a red light in 1942, would it have been proportional or sensible to compel him to resign?
Prime ministers have been asked to step down even during a war, but Neville Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill: the loss was slight, the replacement was an improvement. If Boris quit tomorrow, in the middle of the Ukraine crisis, the Conservative parliamentary party cannot be certain who would replace him.
Rishi Sunak, perhaps, but he’s been fined as well. Liz Truss or Ben Wallace, maybe. But what do they actually stand for? Boris hasn’t changed the Conservative Party so much as he’s shaken it about, leaving it uncertain of what it exists to do besides keeping Labor out of office. In the absence of an obvious vote-getter to fill his shoes, the party no longer has a clear philosophy to fall back on in emergencies – and much of the old establishment machinery has been compromised or broken (often by Boris himself). The Tories are stuck with this charming devil because he’s the one they know best.
Then Buckley confessed to a cynic’s delight at Watergate confirming what conservatives have always warned, namely that most politicians are crooks and the government is a criminal enterprise. What is tax but legalized theft?
The Left venerates the state as an engine of social change; it needs to believe politicians have the best motives. But if the Right is correct that human beings are flawed, it is better to keep the state small so that our leaders can do as little damage as possible.
The Left tends to dismiss Boris because he broke the rules, whereas many on the Right are annoyed with him because they don’t think he should have written those wretched laws in the first place, and the fact that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t ‘t, adhere to them proves they were stupid.
Are we seriously supposed to believe that in the middle of a pandemic, if you sat in your office and never spoke to anyone, you were safe – but the moment you turned to a colleague and said “happy birthday”, you became a danger to life and limb?
In an odd way I’m grateful to Boris for inadvertently making such a mockery of lockdown that I trust we will never run this experiment again. That said, I’d rather not think about it at all. Covid and lockdown were a trauma, and my therapist says it’s unhealthy to dwell on things that upset me, like disease, death or the exorbitant cost of therapy. So let’s please declare a general lockdown amnesty – and move on.
Easter had a deeper meaning for me this year as we got the call to say my aunt is close to death. I traveled down to the south coast to sit with her for a couple of hours. With Classic FM burbling in the background, I pulled a chair up close to her bed and read some poetry aloud. A A Milne, Lewis Carroll; John Betjeman seemed to go down well. He is, like my aunt, thoroughly English: light and amusing to the ear of him, but sadness runs through him like Brighton rock. We have all loved Joan Hunter Dunn, “furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot Sun.” We have all lost one, too.
Why does God let us suffer? I read silently to myself, because he’s far too gloomy to share with the dying, R S Thomas’s “In Church”. It’s one of the best articulations of a particularly Anglican, anguished point of view.
Thomas, a vicar, sits in an empty church and listens to the silence. “Is this where God hides from my searching?” he asks. No answers come forth. “The bats summarize their business.”
When I was younger, faith was idealistic; loud and clear. Now, I regard doubt as a sign of maturity – after all the horrid things I’ve seen, who couldn’t doubt? – and belief can feel like unrewarding work. Thomas describes the stones of his church as “the hard ribs/ Of a body that our prayers have failed/ To animate”, yearning for resurrection, for proof that all this is true, that we have been heard and understood and loved.
My aunt’s ribs lifted gently. She looked mostly out the window, where the sky was cloudless and blue. We heard children playing in the street.