I was going to write this blog last Sunday: but, after Saturday night’s terrorist outrage in London, it didn’t seem appropriate immediately to comment on the foibles and half-truths of politicians, even those unconnected with terrorism, security or policing. This piece is not about any of those, but concerns lies, fake news and alternative truths.
I spent last week in Oxford, that city of dreaming spires in which we plan to spend a proportion of our retirement. Showing friends around, after walking through the beautiful Christchurch Meadows we found ourselves at the bottom of the High Street and in need of a cup of tea.
There was a clear choice of establishments, one on each side of the road. One was the Queen’s Lane Coffee House, an old haunt of mine when an undergraduate 40 years ago: opposite sat the so-called Grand Café in a fine old building which, in my student days, had been reduced to a Co-op and post office but is now gloriously restored. We opted for the latter – partly from curiosity and partly because I reckoned there was a better chance of getting tea served in a proper teapot.
As we examined each from the outside, we were surprised to find two alternative claims. The Queen’s Lane Coffee House claims to be the oldest coffee house in England, in continuous use since 1654. I seem to have always remembered that statistic.
By contrast, the Grand Café makes almost the same boast – except that it claims not continuous use but foundation in 1650.
Like opposing armies separated only by the no-man’s land of the High Street, traversed by a seemingly endless stream of buses, the rivals stare at one another, their signs announcing their ancient histories silently defying one another.
They don’t need to worry. Oxford is so full of tourists that there is plenty of custom for both. Nonetheless, as the dismally negative General Election campaign continues, I couldn’t help thinking that there was a potent symbol in front of us of the way that alternative truths, or versions of the truth, exist side by side. We learn to live with them and, one hopes, we’ll manage to make a sensible decision – whatever that is – on Thursday.
Only this morning, we’ve heard accusations from Labour that Tory policies are slashing police numbers: the clear implication, not yet quite articulated so soon after this most recent terrorist outrage, is that it might have been prevented but for police cuts. The accusation appears unfounded, yet is clearly irresistible in the febrile atmosphere of the last few days of campaigning.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson, behaving like a cross between a bulldozer and a rhinoceros when interviewed by the Today programme’s Mishal Husain, insisted (not that she asked him) that Jeremy Corbyn opposed the “shoot to kill” policy which had allowed armed officers to put an end to the three knife-wielding fanatics running amok in Borough Market. Boris constantly talked over his interviewer as she cited statements from Jeremy Corbyn that he absolutely approved of the actions taken by police so swiftly and firmly on Saturday. Moreover, I suspect they weren’t following a specific “shoot to kill” policy, merely acting as one hopes any armed officer would in order to protect life and limb.
As Keith Hann writes, also here on Voice of the North, while wondering where we’ll ever find another Churchill, we need some strong leadership (not the sour, preachy sort that Theresa May offers) and some optimism. That call was echoed yesterday by the North’s great Times columnist, Matt Ridley. A Tory to his roots, he’s nonetheless critical of May’s campaign: he comments on “what a law-abiding and free people can achieve and do for each other through enterprise, innovation and exchange. The reason that Theresa May has stumbled so badly in this campaign is because she has failed to set out an optimistic vision of mutual prosperity creation in a liberal society, and has instead allowed herself to be drawn into a mean-spirited, zero-sum bidding war funded by taxation”.
Drawn in? I disagree with Matt in that alone: it seems to me that, as children complain in a playground spat, “She started it!”
We have only a couple more days’ campaigning to suffer and then, as Keith Hann complains, we’ll get someone leading us, even if we wish for a box on the voting-slip that says “none of the above”.
By contrast, I was cheered by another sight in Oxford. Professionally an establishment figure, I guess I shouldn’t encourage this, but I loved the picture below.
It’s an uplifting minor act of rebellion to see a bicycle chained to a sign that forbids it. After all, it’s only a kind of parallel truth: one guy says you mustn’t chain a bike, but another one says he will. Somehow, such a sight suggests to me that there is still hope for humanity!
Amen to that.