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Monday
May062019

Ten reasons to feel at home in Ireland

I was in Ireland last week.

I flew out on Wednesday and spent two nights in Malahide to the north of Dublin with an evening in Greystones to the south.

For the most part Brexit wasn’t a topic of conversation, for which I was grateful because on my two previous visits, toward the end of last year, it rather soured the mood.

Thankfully there’s more that unites our two countries and as a regular visitor to Ireland I always feel at home.

Here are ten things (in addition to our shared use of the English language) that Britain and Ireland have in common. In no particular order:

1. Breakfast
The difference between a full Irish and a full English (or Scottish) breakfast is minimal. Asked to choose I’d pick a full Scottish because you get the option of haggis but a freshly cooked full Irish is not a bad way to start the day. ‘Continental’? No thanks.

2. Driving on the left
Having replaced miles in favour of kilometres on road signs in the Seventies, and done the same with speed limits in 2005, it’s perhaps surprising that Ireland didn’t follow Sweden’s example and switch to driving on the right. Long may our two countries continue to drive on the side that God (not Napoleon) intended.

3. Imperial pint
One measurement EU-loving Ireland still shares with Britain is the imperial pint. Which leads me to ...

4. The pub
Our shared pub culture may be taken for granted but it defines how Britain and Ireland differ from the rest of Europe if not the world. Enjoy it while it lasts.

5. Landscape
Parts of Ireland are unquestionably beautiful but they’re not so different from parts of Britain. The west of Ireland, for example, will remind anyone who has been there of the west of Scotland. The lush green fields of Wicklow remind me of Pembrokeshire, and elsewhere there are many similarities with the more rural areas of Scotland and Wales in particular.

6. Architecture
This may be a sensitive area given how many buildings in Ireland pre-date independence, but Dublin’s famous Georgian terraces, for example, should be a matter of shared pride not division. Either way, most towns and cities in Ireland feel familiar in a way that can’t be said of any town or city on the continent.

7. Football
On Saturday morning, on the return flight to Stansted, I sat next to two young Irishmen wearing West Ham shirts who were on their way to London to see West Ham play Southampton. Meanwhile a Dublin-based Irishman of my acquaintance was in Newcastle to watch the match with Liverpool. Each week thousands of people from Ireland make similar journeys to football matches all over England (and Scotland). Sport can divide nations but it can unite us as well. Which brings me to ...

8. Cricket
I’ve yet to meet an Irishman who likes cricket but they do exist. On Friday Malahide hosted a one day international between Ireland and England and as I walked to the station to catch a train I passed scores of Irishmen on their way to the match. A wet outfield delayed the start of play and supporters huddled together to keep warm. Sound familiar? Talking of which ...

9. The weather
No-one visits Ireland for the weather but if you’re British that’s another reason you’ll feel at home.

10. The Royals
Following a hugely successful visit to Dublin and Cork a few years ago, the Queen would appear to be as popular in Ireland as she is in Britain. Last week, while having dinner in Malahide, my companions (both local) were greeted by another group of diners. A conversation ensued and one of them caught my accent. “Oh,” she said, “I do love the Royals!” In my experience she’s not alone.

Below: view from a restaurant overlooking the estuary at Malahide, Dublin

Thursday
May022019

Required reading 

Currently in Dublin.

Too busy to write anything at the moment so I’ll post this picture instead.

Sunday
Apr282019

Notes on a scandal

The New Statesman/Roger Scruton ‘scandal’ rumbles on.

The Mail on Sunday devoted a double-page spread to the subject, including an article by Scruton himself.

If you haven’t been following the story, a quick recap.

A few weeks ago conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton gave an interview to George Eaton, deputy editor of the New Statesman.

As the magazine’s former wine critic Scruton didn’t expect to be shafted but that’s what happened.

The published article took some of his comments out of context and allegedly made him appear racist and antisemitic.

Within hours he had been sacked from his unpaid role as housing adviser to the government with one opposition MP suggesting he had used ‘the language of white supremacists’.

Eaton’s response was to post a photo of himself on Instagram drinking a bottle of champagne. Alongside it he wrote:

The feeling when you get right wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government minister.

Douglas Murray, an author and political commentator who writes for the Spectator, asked the New Statesman to release a tape of the interview. The magazine refused.

No matter. On Wednesday Murray announced he had a copy of the tape. Intriguingly he didn’t say how he had obtained it.

In this week’s Spectator, published on Thursday, Murray revealed how Scruton’s views had been misrepresented.

The Scruton tapes: an anatomy of a modern hit job is a must read. Far from being a ‘racist rant’, Murray noted that Scruton’s words were ‘measured and careful’.

The full recorded interview was also posted online. Belatedly the New Statesman then issued a transcript of the recording.

But wait. An eagle-eyed Murray noticed an error and late on Friday night the editor of the New Statesman was forced to add an embarrassing note to the transcript:

An error in the transcription was corrected on 26 April at 23:09pm. Roger Scruton said of gang membership, “I don’t say that it is something special to black people”, rather than “I know it’s something that is special”.

In other words, what Scruton had said about gang membership was the complete opposite of what was in the transcript.

The deputy editor isn’t the only one to come out of this badly. His editor may wish to consider his position too.

Worst of all perhaps - because of his spineless, knee-jerk reaction - was the behaviour of Communities Secretary James Brokenshire who sacked Scruton without checking to see if Eaton’s claim that Scruton had ‘made a series of outrageous remarks’ was actually true.

That’s the real scandal.

You may be wondering why this story interests me. Well, many years ago I visited Scruton at his London home.

It’s so long ago I can’t remember why I was there or who I was with but I know that a few of us were invited round for afternoon tea and a chat.

It was probably when I was editing a national student magazine and the Salisbury Review, which Scruton edited, was an advertiser.

I was struck by his quiet modesty and the thoughtfulness with which he spoke. He wasn’t bombastic or a showman like some self-styled intellectuals.

And it wasn’t all about him. He had time for other people’s views too.

Another reason the story interests me is because in 2002, three years after I joined Forest, Scruton found himself at the centre of another ‘scandal’ when the Guardian revealed he had been doing some work for a tobacco company.

The paper got hold of an email Scruton had sent to the company asking for an increase in his monthly fee and, naturally, put their own spin on it - Scruton in media plot to push the sale of cigarettes:

Professor Roger Scruton, darling of the moral right, asked one of the world's biggest tobacco companies for £5,500 a month to help place pro-smoking articles in some of Britain's most influential newspapers and magazines.

The controversial conservative academic offered to use his Fleet Street contacts to get pieces published in his own name and those of others on "major topics of current concern" to the tobacco industry.

Within days it was reported that Scruton had been ‘sacked’ by two newspapers, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, for whom he previously wrote.

He quickly acknowledged his error - Pro-tobacco writer admits he should have declared an interest - but if he was guilty of anything it was probably naivety.

Others however weren’t so charitable:

Clive Bates, the director of the anti-tobacco group ASH, said: "Japan Tobacco should follow the FT and Wall Street Journal and dump Roger Scruton. Anything he says on tobacco now will immediately be discredited."

If that argument sounds familiar it’s because it’s used repeatedly to try and discredit anyone who accepts money from industry. (Taking money from government is of course OK.)

Personally I believe in transparency but ‘who funds you?’ is designed, quite simply, to silence debate.

Ideas and beliefs sincerely held are trashed simply because money changes hands - money that pays for wages and other legitimate expenses.

Would most tobacco control campaigners work for nothing? Of course not.

Anyway, ten years after that controversy I bumped into Scruton when I spoke at a conference in Windsor called 'A Renewal of Conservatism – How to secure a Conservative majority in 2015'.

I was one of three speakers invited to respond to the question, ‘Is the Conservative party still the party of freedom?'. (See ‘The Conservatives and the f-word’.)

In the evening, before dinner, there was a drinks reception at the Guildhall. As I wrote at the time:

My son and I enjoyed a long chat with Professor Roger Scruton who later gave a charming, entertaining yet thoughtful after dinner speech.

Scruton had a quiet charisma that was deeply impressive. He held his audience’s attention not by raising his voice but by articulating a clear, considered message.

That brings me to the final reason I’m interested in the New Statesman story.

Having read several of Scruton’s books, my son later interviewed him for a student newspaper. The article was published in January 2016 and you can read it here.

It’s worth reading, I think, not because it’s by my son but because it’s clear how carefully Scruton chooses his words. His commitment to free speech despite the impact it’s had on his career is pretty impressive too.

Here are two passages that illustrate what I mean:

When writer and philosopher Roger Scruton first published Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 it was, in his words, “greeted with derision and outrage” and “marked the beginning of the end of my university career”. His critique of such leftist icons as Marx, Foucault, Derrida and Gramsci led to “reviewers falling over themselves to spit on the corpse” while “raising doubts about my intellectual competence as well as my moral character.”

Since then he has written books on a variety of subjects including The Aesthetics of Architecture, How to be a Conservative, On Hunting, a memoir (Gentle Regrets), and two novels. Now, 30 years on from his mauling at the pens of the academic establishment, Scruton has renewed his assault with an updated and revised version of that original book, Fools Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.

Does he expect the reception to be better this time around? “Of course, since I no longer have an academic career to lose. Also, when I published the book in 1985, people in the academic world actually believed things, usually silly things of a vaguely socialist complexion. Now they merely repeat things – whole paragraphs of Deleuze applied to the obsession of the day, but impossible to believe since meaningless.” 

And this:

In recent months the very ability to freely and openly discuss and debate ideas has been the subject of intense controversy. Calls for universities to be ‘safe spaces’ and the no platforming of various groups have created an atmosphere that many fear will have damaging consequences for freedom of expression. Scruton has written extensively in defence of free speech so I asked him about the difficulties of reconciling freedom of speech with the supposed need to avoid offending ideas that others hold sacred.

“You should not knowingly and disrespectfully trample on what others hold to be sacred,” he tells me. “But you should also remember that you have the right to do so, and that ‘holding something sacred’ is not a blanket excuse for whatever a person should choose to think or do. Think of what was held sacred by the Nazis, the fascists and the Bolsheviks, and what is held sacred by the Islamists today.” Above all, “the university should be the kind of ‘safe space’ to which you refer, but a space where offence can be safely given, in the cause of rational argument.”

What I particularly like is the sense of gravitas (not to be confused with a lack of humour) that is rare these days.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Peter Hitchens calls Scruton ‘guileless’ (ie devoid of guile; innocent and without deception). I think that’s a good description of a man who doesn’t seek trouble but, like an innocent abroad, tends to attract it.

The idea that an honest thinker like Scruton could be driven from public life because of the actions and reactions of journalists and politicians who aren’t fit to lick his boots is genuinely depressing.

Credit then to Douglas Murray and the Spectator for attempting to put the record straight. The question is, will James Brokenshire have the guts to admit he acted in haste and give Scruton his job back?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Update: Top Tories call for sacked aide Roger Scruton to get his job back after he was ‘stitched up by the left’ (The Sun).

Saturday
Apr272019

Life of Brian takes an unexpected twist

This seems to have gone under the radar but the number one candidate for the Brexit party in the North East is my old friend Brian Monteith (above).

I’ve known Brian since we were students in Scotland 40 years ago. I was at Aberdeen, he was at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, but we had a mutual friend, Peter Young, who introduced us.

Peter and Brian went on to become chairmen of the Federation of Conservative Students.

In London Brian and I both worked for Michael Forsyth (now Lord Forsyth of Drumlean) and after moving back to Scotland in 1992 I later shared an office with Brian in Leith.

Brian was Forest’s spokesman in Scotland and I remember him organising the PR launch of the Forest Guide to Smoking in Scotland. If memory serves it involved an open top bus, which is a brave move at the best of times but even more so in Scotland.

Brian also ran the spirited ‘No’ campaign that fought - against all odds - Labour’s plan for devolution. In 1999, having lost that battle, he became a Conservative MSP representing Mid-Scotland and Fife.

An eventful period in the Scottish Parliament came to an end when he stepped down in 2006 but if there was one thing Brian was known for it was his willingness to take the fight to his opponents, unlike his supine colleagues.

Since then he’s reinvented himself as a columnist for the Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening News and, more recently, City AM.

He was also actively involved in the EU referendum campaign.

Apart from his euroscepticism, one constant in all the years I’ve known him is his opposition to the nanny state. In 2009 Forest published his book The Bully State and last year we published The McNanny State which he also wrote.

I would much prefer it if the UK had already left the EU but if Brian is elected next month I look forward to our first post-election drink in Brussels which will neatly bookend our recent dinner at his favourite French (!) restaurant in Edinburgh.

Go, Brian!

Thursday
Apr252019

In conversation with ...

I’ll just leave this here.

Registered guests only so if you’d like to join us RSVP to VIPEvents@iea.org.uk.

Wednesday
Apr242019

Is vaping a comparable substitute for smoking?

The Martin McKee story (see earlier post) ran in several newspapers yesterday.

Here are three headlines: Health officials turning a blind eye to teenage vaping, experts claim (Telegraph), Stop ignoring the dangers of e-cigarettes, top scientist tells Public Health England (Sun), and Dangers of ‘vaping are being ignored’ as evidence of harm mounts (Metro).

As I mentioned I was invited to discuss McKee’s comments on LBC. Afterwards a hugely influential global vaping advocate messaged me to say, ‘Heard you on LBC this morning - very good!!’

Despite this and many other media appearances in which I have consistently defended e-cigarettes and opposed vaping bans I am still waiting for an invitation to speak at a single vaping conference.

(Correction: not true. I’ve just remembered that in 2016 I was a panellist at the Next Generation Nicotine Delivery event in London.)

Next month the UKVIA Forum includes a session entitled ‘Is the UK becoming vape unfriendly?’. That would be right up my street (last month for example Forest published a report about vaping policies on NHS hospital sites that was widely reported by the media) but perhaps the fact that I also oppose smoking bans and defend the rights of adults who prefer to smoke disqualifies me from consideration.

Likewise, two and a half years after Forest funded an independent study that led to a peer-reviewed paper that explored the reasons why many committed smokers won’t switch to e-cigarettes, I still haven’t been asked to address the E-Cigarette Summit or the Global Nicotine Forum on the subject.

Perhaps that’s another message vaping advocates don’t want to hear. Fancy that!

On a related issue I was asked by a journalist last week 'whether vaping is a comparable smoking substitute'. The article hasn't been published yet but here's my reply:

"E-cigarettes have helped 1.5 million smokers quit smoking completely and for many of them vaping is a more than adequate substitute for smoking. Some actually prefer vaping to smoking.

"The problem is that for many smokers e-cigarettes may be safer but they are not as pleasurable as traditional cigarettes. That is the challenge the vaping companies have to address and to their credit they are working hard to do so.

"Ultimately it's a question of choice. It's great that less harmful products are available to smokers but if adults make an informed decision to smoke instead of vaping that choice must be respected by government and the vaping industry."

No further comment, m'lud.

Update: Bizarrely, one of the panellists at the UKVIA Forum next month represents a pro-vaping campaign that has been inactive for over a year and gave its last media interview in December 2017.

Go figure.

Wednesday
Apr242019

Brexit just got exciting again

Woke up to the news that Anne Widdecombe is standing as a candidate for the Brexit party in the European elections.

Leaving aside my own pro-Brexit bias, this is pretty big news.

In fact, everything from the party logo to the staged announcements of some impressive candidates has been extremely professional so far.

I don’t know what it’s like behind the scenes but, publicly at least, everyone seems to be playing a blinder.

Huge credit to Nigel Farage, a force of nature, and possibly even more so to chairman Richard Tice.

The focus will inevitably be on Farage. It’s essential however that the media chores are shared by a number of spokesmen so the party cannot be dismissed as the Farage show.

I remember attending, out of curiosity, a Ukip meeting in Cambridgeshire ahead of the 2014 European elections.

There were several reasonably eminent speakers on stage including Patrick O’Flynn, former political editor of the Daily Express, and journalist Simon Heffer.

Farage’s entrance was delayed - deliberately, I imagine - for maximum impact.

After his stage-managed arrival I was struck by how the other speakers seemed diminished by his presence. O’Flynn, the local candidate, was rendered almost anonymous because all the questions from the audience were directed to Farage.

I can’t imagine the likes of Claire Fox, Anne Widdecombe or Annunziata Rees-Mogg taking such a back seat. The question is, will Farage be willing to step back on occasion when requests for interviews with Marr, Neil and Peston come rolling in?

Ditto Question Time and other political programmes.

Can the Brexit party also avoid some of the spectacular misjudgements that occasionally undermined Ukip and led to accusations of racism and xenophobia?

Again, with the sort of people who are being brought on board, one would hope so.

There also seems to be a degree of competence and professionalism about the Brexit party that belies its fledgling status.

Comparisons with Change UK (The Independent Group) are too easy perhaps but let’s take one small but important issue - the logo.

The Brexit party logo is simple but eye-catching. The forward-facing arrow offers a clear visual message.

The Change UK logo is simple but it’s also a mess. A ten-year-old using Letraset could have done a better job.

As for the name, is it Change UK or Change UK The Independent Group? Make up your minds! This is basic stuff.

But back to the Brexit party because even an old cynic like me is getting excited.

As I wrote yesterday, I was minded until the weekend not to vote in the European elections. Now I can’t wait to join the millions of other people who believe Parliament has let us down and destroyed our faith in democracy.

Update: I’ve just read this - Shambolic Change UK made to look like amateurs by slick Brexit party (Reaction).

Tuesday
Apr232019

Heroes of Brexit

I couldn't be more delighted that Claire Fox, director of the Academy of Ideas, is standing on behalf of the Brexit party in the forthcoming European elections.

Of course I would prefer it had the UK left on reasonable terms (or no deal) and was not having to participate in another European election, but at least I can now look forward to it.

In fact I was discussing over the weekend whether I'd abstain or vote for the Brexit party and I hadn't made up my mind.

Claire's candidature has made that a very easy decision, even if she's not standing in my region.

The other Brexit candidates announced today seem pretty impressive too. They include a former marine, a millionaire businessman, an ex-NHS worker and a charity boss (Daily Mail).

One person I would love to see stand is Sir Christopher Meyer, if he could be persuaded.

The former British ambassador to the US voted Remain but unlike many Establishment figures he accepted the result and has been a font of wisdom and common sense ever since. He is now a fully committed Leaver.

Sir Socks, as he's known on Twitter, has become one of my heroes of Brexit because it would be so easy, as a retired diplomat, to say and do nothing that might offend his Remainer peers.

It takes a certain type of bravery to do that.

Claire is a hero of Brexit too. Week after week she's appeared on the BBC or Sky News arguing the Brexit cause.

I didn't hear her discuss Brexit on Any Questions last week but I understand she stood her ground in the face of a pretty hostile London audience.

Brendan O'Neil, editor of the online magazine Spiked, is another who has stuck his head above the parapet time after time after time.

Occasionally Brendan can come across as a professional contrarian but his insistence that Parliament must commit to the result of the referendum has been unwavering and genuine.

Yet another hero of Brexit is Lucy Harris. I don't know and have never met her, but she's the founder of Leavers of Britain that describes itself as a 'nationwide community of Leave voters'.

From a modest beginning (Leavers of London) the group now hosts meetings all over the country. That's quite an achievement.

Compare people like that with some of the egotistical, high profile Leave campaigners. They may have helped win the referendum but after that they walked away, job half done.

Heroes of Brexit? I don't think so.

If and when the time comes to acknowledge the real heroes the medals should go to those who (mostly) put their egos to one side, didn't rest on their laurels and kept fighting.

PS. We haven't announced it but I can tell you that Claire agreed several weeks ago to be one of the speakers at Forest's 40th anniversary dinner in London on June 25.

Full details to follow next month.

Below: Claire Fox addresses a Forest EU meeting in Brussels (where else?!) in November 2017

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