Do think-tanks make any difference to anything? I ask because I stepped down this week after six years as chairman of the centreright think-tank Policy Exchange. In a moving ceremony in the garden of Nick Clegg’s old school (Westminster), David Cameron marked the handing over of the reins from myself to the brilliant and witty Daniel Finkelstein of the Times. He spoke about the importance of the battle of ideas. He is right. Many of the nicest English people deplore ideology in politics, but the problem is that, if nice people have no ideology, others do not follow their example. Nasty ideology has the field to itself. This is very marked in the sphere of Islamism, in which Policy Exchange does excellent work. One reason that extremists can, almost literally, get away with murder, is that moderates do not have the facts and the contacts with officialdom to counter. Another value of think-tanks is that very few people are any good at policies. There are people who are good at ideas, and there are people who are good at administration, but you need to translate the ideas into forms that can be implemented. For instance, you encourage the idea of ‘free schools’, but, in order for them not to have perverse effects, you need to give them an incentive to include pupils from poor or bad backgrounds in their number. In this spirit, Policy Exchange invented the ‘pupil premium’. The knack is to be practical while at the same time being faithful to the original idea. Only thinktanks seem to manage this. They are tiny, but they matter. The few, not the many!
The question was about assisted suicide. ‘Charles’, said Jonathan Dimbleby, ‘You’re a Catholic. What’s your view?’ As soon as I was introduced in this way, I knew I hadn’t a chance. I am indeed a Catholic, but if one is described thus in the media (this was Any Questions? last week), one is immediately confined to the status of spokesman. Listeners react according to whether or not they like Catholics, not according to what one actually says. Besides, although the Catholic Church’s position is certainly strong, I do not think it is distinctive. It can be held by anyone who does not believe that personal preference is the last word in morality. The argument that because your life has become painful and unhappy, you are therefore justified in ending it, and that others should help you do so, is a nonsequitur unless choice is always considered the trump card. But what strikes me strongly — and struck me again with the audience in Any Questions? — is that this ‘Catholic’ argument has already been rejected by most people. The majority wishes to be persuaded that old people are really better off if they can do away with themselves in Swiss clinics, and wants them to be able to do the same here, thus saving the oneway airfare, and the return ticket for their relations. The word ‘dignity’ is constantly used, because underneath lies a guilty awareness that this is not, in fact, dignified at all. But it is — to misappropriate Bagehot’s famous distinction — efficient. Why have we come to think this way? Utilitarianism, no doubt, and a misunderstanding of what freedom means. But I think the biggest single spur is house prices. Old people in Britain are sitting on capital values which are unprecedentedly huge. The prospect of inheritance is just too exciting for their ‘loved ones’, and it is too boring to wait.
In the last month, I have had to write several condolence letters. When someone is widowed, it is inspiring to be able to recognise the care the surviving spouse — more commonly the wife — gave to the person who has died. Often that attention and love prolonged life; always it increased happiness. What sort of condolence letter, I wonder, does one write to a widow/widower who has helped her husband/wife kill himself/herself? Does one congratulate the relict? Is it a condolence letter at all, or a jolly ‘job well done’ missive? Perhaps Mary
Killen can answer this question: I doubt our leading moralists can.
Irecently met a man who had been invited to a dinner party in Washington DC. Having asked him, however, his hosts then wanted to know if he was a smoker, explaining that they did not allow smokers in their house. He does not smoke, so no problem arose, but he discovered that they do not merely ban smoking in their house — a reasonable, if severe requirement — they ban smokers even when they are not smoking. They believe that molecules of pollution might somehow creep out of the smoker’s body, damaging their lovely home and endangering their children’s health.
Arecent Note mentioned how, in my London flat, I receive threats from debt collectors for a phantom lodger. Old friends, Simon and Lydia Lebus, who live in Cambridge, have had a more distressing experience along the same lines. A steady trickle of foreigners turned up at their house saying that they had rented their flat. The Lebuses explained that they had no flat to rent. But the foreigners had found the flat on offer (at £600 per calendar month) on the website Gumtree, and were angry at being turned away. One poor Turk had actually paid the deposit sight unseen. Foreigners probably did not detect the oddities of expression in the ad. It explains the flat’s availability by saying ‘i have just secured a new job here in Scotland so… im renting it out for a long term as long as you intend to stay’. Gumtree, being an ‘online community’, denies any liability, and the police are not interested in pursuing the matter. All my friends can do is hand out a police letter to the disappointed wouldbe tenants explaining that they are not, themselves, involved in the scam.
D id you know that if you search for any word in Wikipedia, then hit the first highlighted word not in brackets or italics, and then the next first highlighted word, and so on, you always, and quickly, get to the word ‘philosophy’? It is not clear if this is a design feature, or proof that philosophy is the key to everything.
the spectator | 25 June 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk