Home Flexcit Impact Assessments Monographs Contact

Brexit: a champion brought down

2019-07-12 06:40:50

I don't do posh and even the best of suits sits on me like a sack. And when animated, my North London accent still shows through, the antithesis of poshness that betrays my lower-middle class origins that I've never bothered to conceal.

Booker's funeral, therefore, was always going to be a trial. Primarily, it was an event for family, close friends and villagers and at that level it worked superbly well as a moving ceremony with the Order of Service crafted by Booker himself. But, at another entirely different level, it was a gathering of posh people - outsiders -  to send off their man, the "above-the-line" Booker. 

That's the man these people came to bury yesterday – their Booker, the man who lived with toffs and who could talk with them, and be them. This wasn't the Booker I worked with for 27 years – a third of his life and thousands of hours of conversation, deep into every night as we shared our experiences and perceptions of life.

Helen Szamuely, sadly deceased, put her finger on it. She likened Booker to Hudson, the butler of Upstairs, Downstairs, able to talk freely with the nobs but equally at home with the lower orders. He spanned the divide and, as his career developed, that's what made him different.

For me, Booker was a revelation. I'd started out my first career with a short-service commission in the RAF, leaning how to fly. That is all I had wanted to do since I was four, when I'd seen a Westland Dragonfly helicopter fly over our flats, asked my mum what it was. At that age, the shape remembered to this day, I learned that it was a machine that men flew, and resolved that one day I would be the man to take charge of this wondrous creation.

Sadly, it was not to be. The RAF could never make up its mind whether I was more dangerous to myself or the public at large, but one of the more correct decisions they ever made in the post-war period was to deny me the opportunity of wreaking mayhem in one of their precious machines.

That the decision totally shattered me is not an understatement and I sought solace by spending nearly a year on an Israeli kibbutz, with my wife to be – met in the Air Force. We both worked in the fields, myself alongside an Israeli parachute colonel, who had fought in the Six-Day war. Over the period, we were bombed, grenaded, shot-at and Katyusha'd, but it was great fun and an experience not to be missed.

By the time we got back to England, I was ready to start out with a new career – and it was a career I was after, not just a job. But we had returned with only ten pence between us and with no qualifications, a new start was hard to come by. Yet, oddly, it was the Job Centre which came up with the idea of my becoming a public health inspector, for which local authorities were prepared to offer salaried positions for the three years' training required.

From steely-eyed killer to sanitary man was something of a leap, but I took to my new role with the enthusiasm of a convert and found in the work challenge, enjoyment and a degree of self-respect that enabled me to re-start my broken life.

A core part of the training syllabus was the history of public health in England, which really took off in the early nineteenth century, establishing a home in local authorities where two key figures, the Medical Officer of Health (MoH) and the public health inspector (later to become Environmental Health Officers) ran the service.

This strong medical base made the UK system almost unique and entirely different from continental practice, where different traditions led to a veterinary-based, largely centralised service – especially in food control and related matters.

By this time, however, we had joined the EEC and, with the continental system established in EEC law, we were obliged progressively to abandon our way of doing things and adopt the veterinary system that had been adopted by the EU.

There are many ignorant people in this game, who aver that the EEC (and then the EU) don't threaten our culture and traditions but here, right from the start, we found we were having to abandon long-established public health traditions to accommodate the EEC's ways.

Furthermore, it wasn't just a question of differences – I felt (and still do) – that the EEC system was inferior and less flexible, while at the same time being more bureaucratic, intrusive and expensive. And, from a personal point of view, my hard-won qualification was not recognised by the EEC and I was required to become a subordinate "veterinary assistant", to people with a fraction of my knowledge and skills.

This is where Booker came in. The onslaught of the vets had turned me into a dedicated anti-EU campaigner and in our "Mr Hudson" we found a man who was not only interested in the story – he actually cared. And it was together we mounted a spirited campaign highlighting the way public health was being damaged by the EU influence, with the meat inspection service all but destroyed.

I know of no other journalist who could have taken on this task, who could have got to grips with the arcane details and then, week after week, turned events into a fascinating narrative that put EU law on the agenda in a way that it had never been before or since.

By contrast, the pathetic make-believe inventions of the Telegraph's Brussels correspondent – the infamous Boris Johnson – were an embarrassment. They missed the point and interfered with our carefully structured pieces which showed how the EU was changing the very nature of how we were governed.

What Booker had done for me, therefore, was to give me a voice. The lowly sanitary inspector found himself able to address ministers and senior civil servants. And, if they didn't listen, there was always another Booker column which could take them apart.

But what Booker did for me, he did for hundreds of others. People who had been directly affected by all manner of bureaucratic imposts found in him a man prepared to listen and master the detail, and then to craft a story in that unique way of his, which made the dull interesting and the complex simple. He gave them voices as well, and access to the legacy media which had hitherto been denied to them.

Those of us who were below the line knew exactly what a treasure we had, but the "above-the-liners" never did. They saw his popularity in the paper, but never really understood the appeal. They pretended to endorse his work, but often didn't even bother to read it – still less take the trouble to understand what he was trying to do.

Then you had the smarmy pseuds such as Daniel Hannan, who tried to emulate the Booker style, and would rip-off our work and call it his own. In the latter days, the pretenders gathered like vultures to take his crown, yet never managing to produce anything of interest, and never anything close to the depth.

Latterly, some of that story is emerging, ironically in a Europhile tract, where Booker's concerns about the Telegraph are aired.

A year after the referendum, Booker was writing private e-mails to friends, in despair at the way his paper was treating him. In November 2017, he was thus writing that, four times in the past three weeks, he had been told that "the editor" (with whom he was never allowed to have contact of any kind), had ruled that items he had suggested or written for his column could not be allowed. 

That week, as he was preparing yet another comment, he found that one "entirely suitable item" had been prohibited in advance. A second in his column as submitted was also vetoed.

Yet, he complained, the reasons why he had to keep off these subjects had never been explained. But he was to surmise that he was being blocked from writing about anything to do with social workers, the family courts and children being removed from their parents – an issue he had almost made his own.

The other "veto trigger", he discovered, was anything to do with the increasing madness of any form of "political correctness". He'd had worrying noises when he'd touched on this before, but now it was apparently wholly verboten.

Interestingly, Booker observed, he was still allowed to write about the EU, on which as an "ultra-Brexiteer", the editor held views very different from his own. But this was the reason, he suspected, why he had been so severely downgraded in his column in the summer. To have included the EU in the list of subjects ruled off-limits, he surmised, might have been a bit too obvious, and prompted questions from readers.

With the column a fraction of its former size, an insider gave a clue as to the thinking behind his demotion. "The feeling on the paper was it would be too awkward to sack such a big name", he said, "so at first we tried to persuade him to give up writing about politics and try doing a countryside column". When that didn't work, "we pushed him as far out of sight as possible. The editor couldn't face doing it himself, so it was all done by minions".

To add insult to injury, his old slot was given to Daniel Hannan, for whom he had utter contempt – a man who would touch him up for free copies of The Great Deception to auction for party funds, but who neither spoke favourably of the book in his column, nor ever reviewed it.

In short, for as long as our "Mr Hudson" was a champion of us "below-the-liners", he was tolerated by the toffs because of that popularity – but never really accepted. And when they could, they did their best to bring him down.

Now he is safely in the ground, they're moving in to repossess their favourite son. "Booker never minced his words", writes Delingpole, applauding his "safe" efforts on climate change. But with the rest of his ugly pack, he was unrestrained in bitterly criticising and belittling Booker's stance on Brexit, regretting "his decline from former soundness into senescence".

Yet, this man, like the rest of the pack, knows nine-tenths of fuck-all about the EU (and even less about international trade), not that it stops him parading his ignorance. But the most astounding thing about these people is their total lack of self-awareness. Delingpole writes of Booker:
Booker wasn’t happy that he got ill — he felt that he still had much work to do. But he did feel a measure of relief that he'd no longer have to put up with a world where everyone gets their lessons on global warming from a 16-year-old kid in pigtails who can see 'carbon' in the air and a doddery old Malthusian whose TV crews drive walruses off cliffs and then blame it on climate change, all courtesy of a propaganda institution so shamelessly left-biased it makes Central Television of the USSR look like Fox News.
But I'd had that same conversation with Booker, only we included the ineffable, lightweight fools such as Delingpole, for whom Booker had an amused, if affectionate contempt – a man who was so comprehensively wrong about Brexit that he strove each time he wrote to prove himself even more ignorant than in his earlier attempts.  

Delingpole was at the funeral, together with Rees-Mogg and others like him. Maybe they should not have been there, but then it was their Booker they were seeing off, not ours. Having lost our champion, we don't get closure. We'll not see it this side of Brexit, if at all. Yesterday, the nobs re-asserted their authority and sought to reclaim their son.