Stuart Reid Charterhouse
On Saturday afternoon, at 2.30, Will Hutton, the distinguished Observer and Guardian journalist and author of The State We’re In, was on the fifth floor of John Lewis in Oxford Street checking out the highend television sets. I know this because I was there at the same time doing exactly the same thing.
The choice, readers, is just stunning! You can buy sets that are “3D ready” and come loaded with Skype, iPlayer, YouTube, I Love Film and Freeview. If you bought one of those things, you’d never have to leave the house again. You could get them to send your giro straight to your Post Office account and have pizzas and curries delivered to your door, and life would become an endless round of junk food and porno sitcoms. Bliss.
One day no doubt televisions will be able to prepare milkshakes and chicken nuggets and feed them to you and wipe the dribble from your chin. What a boon they will be in a country with a rapidly ageing population; what a boon they will be in a country with mass unemployment and violent class resentment. The television set coshes people more effectively than chemicals, which anyway cost the NHS a lot of money.
For serious people like me and Will Hutton, however, television is not a means of escape but a necessary socio-political tool. We have to keep up to speed with the shifting moods of the chattering classes. If the world is to end soon, moreover, we must be able to watch it on widescreen television sets with playback facilities and freeze-frame options.
I like Will Hutton. He is an agnostic, of course, but has sympathies with Catholic social teaching. In the summer of 2008, ahead of the publication of the encyclical Caritas in Veritate, he went to Rome as one of the “men and women of goodwill” who’d been invited to speak at a conference on socioeconomic matters. He was impressed by what he saw and heard. This is how he summed up the experience in the Guardian: “It has been a surreal weekend. What was I doing standing in the beautiful Vatican gardens at an open-air morning Mass watching the green parrots swoop overhead? But there are a billion Catholics worldwide, not a trivial force for change if they can be mobilised. Gordon Brown would rather lose a finger than argue for this [stakeholder] stuff as an overarching, interconnected doctrine. We stakeholders, believers in social justice and good work, make common cause with anybody we can find. And I’m delighted the Pope is one of them.” (Pity that more Catholics aren’t equally delighted.) At the moment Will Hutton is one of then most politically incorrect voices in the public square. He makes Jeremy Clarkson’s laboured outbursts sound dainty. For Hutton has the courage, the temerity, to stand up and, with no regard at all for public decency, say that the EU and the euro are going to pull through and that one day Britain will apply for membership of the single currency; and not only apply but bang on the door to be admitted. I love it.
Elsewhere, of course, responsible people cast doubt on the future of the EU and talk endlessly of the uniquely dangerous times in which we live. The consensus is that we are in the last chance saloon and may soon be thrown out. The BBC’s Robert Peston and Channel 4’s Faisal Islam are on a roll, and have been for some time now. Do they enjoy spreading doom and gloom? Whatever the answer, they are luxuriating in the top news slots. What a revolution there has been, not just in television but in newspapers. Since the collapse of Lehman’s in 2008, financial stories have migrated from inside the newspapers (usually not far from Sport, Court and Social and lewd lonely hearts ads) to page one. The other day Matthew Parris observed that ordinary people are now reading financial news, and understanding it.
I am not sure about understanding it. After all, even people who can add up and subtract, and know what leverage is, don’t have a clue. No one can agree even on first principles. Last week someone said on Channel 4 News that “£15 billion sounds like a lot of money”. Does it? It will sound like peanuts to many. A billion is the new million. We live in a world where trillions of pounds-worth of bad debt is apparently zooming around in cyberspace. Why don’t they just switch off the computers and close the stock exchanges? Why don’t people just stop yapping? The answer is that they can’t. They are possessed, we are all possessed.
This is being written on Tuesday, so I do not know the outcome of Friday’s meeting of the EU leaders in Brussels. I am pretty sure, however, that they will reach an agreement. The hardline Eurosceptics have other hopes, however. Let me say here that some of my best and wisest friends are Eurosceptics, but they are not well-served by their tribunes, who see Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy as the enemy and trade in chippy nationalism. These people are willing Europe – the EUSSR – to fail. If there is to be any tinkering at all with the Lisbon Treaty, they are going to demand a referendum, so that the British people can say what they think about it. Well, fiddlesticks to that. If times are really as serious as they are made out to be, then the last thing we need to hear is the narrow, untutored voice of the people.
At the moment the 17 euro nations of the EU are heading for fiscal union. Good. But it will mean a two-speed Europe, and unless we discard our ancient resentments and try to find a place at the heart of Europe we will be in the slow lane. The choice we face is between being United Europeans or Little Englanders – a pale, angry and paranoid people ruled over by the likes of Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips, Nigel Farage and the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party and the BNP. There’s really no contest, is there?
We should just shut up and do as the Germans say. Simples.