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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 7: Charles Moore

Episode 7: Charles Moore

Andrew Neil talks to the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and member of the House of Lords about Boris Johnson, the character of the Conservative Party, and his own role at the apex of journalism and the Establishment


Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello I’m Andrew Neil and this is the Backstory. A series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events and to influence our understanding of them. In this episode, I’m joined by a man at the apex of journalism and the establishment educated at Eton and Cambridge. Charles Moore was editor of the Daily Telegraph and is Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer.

He now sits in the House of Lords as Baron Moore of Etchingham. During the interview, we talk about his relationship with Boris Johnson, the prime minister’s character and beliefs, and those of the Conservative party he leads. We also discuss the role journalists play in our democracy and some of his own deeply held conservative views.

This is the Backstory from Tortoise. 

Andrew Neil: So Charles Moore, Boris Johnson as prime minister. Good, bad or indifferent?

Charles Moore: Could it be both of the first two?

Andrew Neil: You tell me.

Charles Moore: That would be my hunch, I sense.

Andrew Neil: In what way good?

Charles Moore: Well I think Boris was the only person who could bring about the necessary change and he did a series of phenomenal things.

He became the leader, he achieved Brexit, and he won the election with something close to a landslide. I don’t think anybody else could have done that. I also think that the cliche about making the right major decisions is true to some extent. So, for example, I think obviously about the vaccine, and to a lesser extent about how to get out of Covid, and I also think right now very much in the right on Ukraine.

Andrew Neil: And in what way bad?

Charles Moore: Well he can be very indecisive and hopping around about an issue and sort of backing and filling about it so that he inspires a lack of confidence sometimes.

Andrew Neil: Mr Johnson worked for you when you were editor of the Daily Telegraph, did you ever imagine him then to be prime minister?

Charles Moore: Well it did cross my mind because he was already interested in politics and he stood for a hopeless Welsh seat in 1997 for which I gave him permission to stand. And then when he’d gone on to the Spectator, I had a sort of funny conversation with him because in order to become editor of the Spectator, he’d assured Conrad Black that he would not try to become a parliamentary candidate and then he rang me up and said, I want to become, see if I can become the parliamentary candidate for I think Henley, Michael Heseltine’s seat, and you know, Conrad won’t like this, what do you think?

And it was a lot of sort of Boris and hedging around and moving back and forth and things. And I said well, come on Boris, please tell me what you want so that I can understand why you’re making this call and how I can be helpful or not helpful. And he said, well, I want to have my cake and eat it, which was of course the classic exposition of… and so he did. So I did know, Andrew yes, that he… I didn’t always know that he would end up in politics, you know, he had a very good journalistic career and it was always possible that he would stay in that but I did I think know that his greatest ambitions were in politics.

Andrew Neil: Right, ambitions and politics one thing but did you see him as prime minister material?

Charles Moore: To be honest I can’t remember exactly what I thought about that but my overall sort of theory of Johnson from the very first time I met him until the present day is that he’s both a bit of a nightmare and a bit of a genius. And therefore it was never impossible for him to attain, you know, very high positions or do very amazing things.

And that’s why I’ve tended to go against the trend when people say, oh, he’s had it, he’s finished, all that sort of thing. His capacity to see how to do things in a different way from other people and succeed in that is very remarkable and though he’s very sort of sensitive and touchy in a way, he’s also got the hide of a rhinoceros and a great sort of physical and mental energy, so he has all those qualities.

Andrew Neil: When he worked for you, could you trust him?

Charles Moore: This sounds a bit casuistical but I would say that I could trust him to do his job very well. I couldn’t rely on him in the sense of, you know, would his copy be on time? Would every fact be accurate? No I certainly couldn’t rely on him but I felt that I had, working for me, someone who I was very glad to have working for me.

Andrew Neil: When he was considering running for Mayor of London, you joked that he’d be more suited to being Mayor of Henley.

Charles Moore: [Laughs] I’d forgotten that.

Andrew Neil: You’d forgotten that? You backed him nevertheless as Tory leader and as prime minister, what changed from Henley to Downing Street?

Charles Moore: Well I can’t remember why I made that joke but…

Andrew Neil: It’s a good joke.

Charles Moore: But actually he was well-suited to being Mayor of London. I think in some ways he has real leadership qualities because in some ways he clearly doesn’t and I’ll come onto that but in some ways he really does because he has great communicative gifts and imaginative gifts and a way of making people feel good about things rather than bad about things. These are all actually very rare gifts and they’re essential gifts of leadership at all times in history and particularly in modern times because of modern communications.

So it’s a sort of transformative thing and it’s an act. I’m very interested by the whole business in modern life about how a sort of actor person can be a real leader. Ronald Reagan would be an early example, Boris is another, and of course Zelensky is a third. And I think there’s a really, they’re not ridiculous discreditable gifts, they’re real gifts and I think Boris has them and a certain eloquence that goes with it.

Andrew Neil: In your magisterial biography of Margaret Thatcher, you write about her occupying quote, “the moral high ground” in her policies and her actions. When we look at what happened in Downing Street during the lockdown and look at Mrs Thatcher claiming the moral high ground, wasn’t it typical of the prime minister’s cavalier approach to many matters that in the depths of the lockdown he allowed Downing Street to be turned into party central?

Charles Moore: I think it was typical of him in a way and it was a sort of, to do with the sort of sloppiness or carelessness which he has about rules and processes and that sort of thing.

But I don’t think it was as serious a wrong as many people have said and I think it goes with something which is good, which is in my view, all successful prime ministers, I’m not saying this in itself was good it wasn’t it was bad… but all successful prime ministers have the capacity to reach out over the heads of bureaucracy, government, officialdom, and have a direct community communicative power with people in general.

And I think that was true of Mrs Thatcher in a very different way, true of Tony Blair, and true of Boris and you know, and not true for example of Gordon Brown or Theresa May. So I think that’s, you sort of, if you’re going to accept Boris which I readily understand why a lot of people don’t, you have to sort of take both sides of this coin.

Andrew Neil: It would never have happened under Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street though would it?

Charles Moore: I’m sure it wouldn’t not least because there was incredibly few people working in Downing Street in those days. What you have now is a sort of slum of spads and so forth. Hundreds of them literally, you know, all overexcited and crowding around and working on 24 hour news cycles. I think it’s four times bigger than her Number 10.

Mind you, Mrs Thatcher had very nice parties in Number 10. Formal ones but also sort of, you know, working all night on a speech, come and have a drink with me and she’d even cook simple Marks and Spencer meals for her unlucky speech writers.

Andrew Neil: When do you trace the decline and the prime minister’s recent fortunes? Is it partygate or is it more than that?

Charles Moore: Oh, I think it’s definitely more than that. I think all these disputes about the parties just sort of crystallise some sort of anger. I don’t think they’re at the bottom of it at all. I think it’s the sense that we’ve had a terrible time with Covid and we’re not out of the woods and it’s not clear where we’re going.

And of course in particular, though perhaps 90 per cent even or 80 per cent of this is not Boris’ fault in any way, you know, the cost of living is exploding, real inflation is returning, and there’s a very uncertain global situation. So everybody’s nervous, you know upset, uneasy.

Andrew Neil: Some, indeed more than some, many trace the beginning of the slide to his efforts to stop your friend Owen Paterson MP, then MP, being sanctioned for breaking parliamentary rules. Did you play a part in that? Did you urge the prime minister to step in? Support the prime minister to step in and try and help Mr Paterson?

Charles Moore: I certainly did and I wrote a column about it in the Telegraph advocating this because I felt that, and I feel still, that the process by which MPs are judged in this situation is highly unjust and that Owen Paterson was a victim of that. I don’t think, however that it had anything much to do with Boris’ fortunes except for one important point, which is that it really annoyed a lot of his back benchers because of the mishandling of the sort of management of parliamentary opinion.

Andrew Neil: But it resulted in Mr Paterson having to step down as MP, not just be sanctioned but essentially to leave parliament. It resulted in a by-election in a safe Tory seat which the Tories lost in retrospect. Was it not bad advice?

Charles Moore: No because I wasn’t advising the prime minister on how to handle the House of Commons on the matter, I was arguing for the injustice of the process to which Owen Paterson was subjected and to which people are still subjected. I think that the way the House of Commons has handed over many of its affairs to bureaucrats instead of making decisions for itself is anti-democratic and threatens the independence of parliament and it’s not right and it’s not fair.

Andrew Neil: You’ve known Boris Johnson for many years, do you know what he stands for?

Charles Moore: Well, it’s an interesting question Andrew and of course they are jolly vague. However, I do think I would characterise them in, I do think they have a character. And I would say essentially, he’s in favour of freedom and he’s in favour of individualism, and he is against bureaucracy and officialdom, and he is patriotic in a sort of rather vague but real sense so that he has a sense of what it is to be British, and a pride in that and a sort of pleasure in it. One of the things I like about him very much is how he takes pleasure in all sorts of British things and one of the great qualities of British life of course is humour, and he possesses that and most of his opponents most dismally don’t.

Andrew Neil: Would it not be fair to describe him, unlike Mrs Thatcher, as a big government conservative?

Charles Moore: Well ideologically I would say not. I would say Boris has used big government opportunistically rather than ideologically. He has seen that big government would help in certain situations and by the way, I suspect he’s right broadly speaking, in relation to handling the economy during Covid. I think that you had to have the sort of interventions that Rishi Sunak introduced in which Boris warmly supported. And if you had had a sort of usual small sequence liberal conservative standing back from all of that bi-government, people would have become very angry and frightened. I mean they became angry and frightened anyway but I think they would have been even more so, so I don’t criticise Boris for that.

What I do criticise him for on all of this is a sort of to do with his sloppy mindedness. He thinks public money can buy a way out of all sorts of situations and it’s part of having your cake and eating it and all that. So he’s very, very bad at rigour and that includes financial rigour.

Andrew Neil: I understand the point that like war, the pandemic produced big government and that it needed a big government response.

Charles Moore: That’s right.

Andrew Neil: But if you… but there is a kind of halo effect that is continuing for big government. That’s happened after the Second World War too. And if you look at, even under this Tory government, if you look at what they’re planning for the future, we’re heading towards the highest tax burden since the post-war labour government of Clement Attlee, we’ve got the government intervening in all manner of things, and we’ve got record inflation. I mean it’s very different from the Thatcherite formula of low taxes, limited government, and low inflation.

Charles Moore: It certainly is and on the whole it’s worse but I do think the situation is different and worse and so it’s harder to apply pure Thatcherite remedies, and I would say about Mrs Thatcher that she wasn’t ideologically rigid to anything like the extent that people think or indeed to the extent that she liked to project because she wanted always to be shown as a politician of conviction that they’re so-called.

But she was in fact pragmatic, you know, famously she did introduce a windfall tax for example, early on…

Andrew Neil: She did… 

Charles Moore: Early on in her career…

Andrew Neil: On the banks.

Charles Moore: On the banks yeah. And so… but in relation to Boris, I would say that he hasn’t got, my criticism would not automatically be that he’s been spending big but that he hasn’t really got a sense of direction about this and a sort of a sense of a way through it.

I think Mrs Thatcher was a genius at the popularisation of certain economic ideas and a sense of direction about them, and direction in economics is very important because it has a huge effect on market confidence. It’s all about what’s going to happen next as well as what’s happening right now, and we haven’t got that from this government collectively and that must be in part at least, a defective leadership.

Andrew Neil: One of the things she popularised, indeed promoted, was owning your own home, particularly for social groups that had never been able to own, afford to own their own homes before. And this is not just a problem for Boris Johnson, it has been a problem for Theresa May and David Cameron before her, that after 12 years of Tory government, home ownership is in decline and even quite affluent young folk can’t afford to own their own homes. I mean isn’t that a time bomb underneath the Tories electoral opportunities?

Charles Moore: It certainly is and it has been as you’re suggesting for many many years actually. Part of it is that many of the Tory hardcore supporters have a massive interest in the existing equity of their houses and therefore are Nimbys, which is very understandable in personal terms but is socially very bad. 

And so it’s very very difficult to build houses and therefore it’s very expensive to buy them because there aren’t enough of them. And that’s a sort of, while at the same time it’s been curiously easy, dangerously easy to borrow the money, it’s been absurdly expensive to buy the house. And so it’s a very bad combination and nobody’s been able to, no party has been able to answer this question. 

I think Mrs Thatcher was able to do a lot with it because she had to be sort of politically very bold but nevertheless they were low-hanging fruit council houses. There they were, they were being poorly run, you could quite easily see a way of doing this which was not financially disastrous for anyone, indeed it was beneficial for the Treasury and off you go.

I don’t quite see how that could be replicated in modern times but we’re certainly getting into a worse situation about this, progressively worse, and we have done for a long time now.

Andrew Neil: Are you comfortable with a conservative party that’s becoming less middle class south and more working class north?

Charles Moore: No, I think that’s a good thing broadly speaking. And I think it’s a really… related to the Brexit effect.

I think the conservative party is in a very bad place if it is the party of only the people who’ve succeeded. I think the genius, the historic genius of the conservative party, is for the people who succeeded the people who want to succeed, and the people who seek security because then they’re not necessarily all that likely to gain great prosperity, it’s a strange coalition. 

And of course it pulls in different directions because one loss is more protectionist than another and so on but I think it’s very powerful as a national force and somehow at its best, the conservative party has kept these different forces in balance.

I think it was a great problem with David Cameron who did produce some useful modernisation to the conservative party but I think it was a great problem that he was too much the voice of the sophisticated south and people began to feel highly disconnected with that sort of government and it contributed to why they voted for Brexit.

And I think that the sense of disempowerment was very dangerous and to some extent is remedied by Brexit but of course then you have to work out what the next steps are and that is quite confused.

Andrew Neil: Well it will make I would suggest, for a very different sort of party, a party less wedded to the interests of the home counties, of the middle-class, of the upper middle-class in the south. The party keener on social and welfare spending because the red wall likes government spending and perhaps even more taxes on the rich?

Charles Moore: It might do that and I think there are dangers there certainly but I think you do need to think about the relationship between most voters and the country in which they live and the people who govern them. And I think a dangerous separation has emerged which, it’s good for the conservatives to try to prevent and they’ve outmanoeuvred labour on that though, you know, right now it’s not looking very good for them but it’s still not looking very good for labour interestingly.

And I think one aspect of this which has been under thought about is the whole aspect of what’s sometimes called workery because there’s a danger which even the tories suffer from of being woke. This is very foolish of them if they wish to reach the citizens in general.

I think that on the whole, the best policy for the conservatives would be to be economically liberal and socially conservative. When I say socially conservative, I mean conservative with a small c obviously and I also do not mean authoritarian. I do not mean endless laws trying to lock up people who say the wrong things or, you know, being persecuted for private habits or anything like that.

But I mean a certain care about social habits, social institutions, the family and so on, rather than libertarianism on the one hand or authoritarianism on the other and I think this hasn’t been conceptualised properly by the conservative party.


Andrew Neil: We’re talking about how a party more dependent on the red wall, less dependent on the blue wall of the south might change. One way, another way it might change is it might also become less old Etonian. Would that be a bad thing?

Charles Moore: It wouldn’t be a bad thing or a good thing. It would depend on who the Etonians were. I mean, you know, we’ve had a very wide range historically of old Etonians who ran the country and you know, some of them were very great radicals like Gladstone, and some of them were sort of traditional middle of the road conservatives like Macmillan or Cameron, and some of them were sort of scallywags like Boris so I’m not sure you can make a generalisation. 

Andrew Neil: Well you’re an old Etonian, why do you think they still, in the 21st century, dominate public life so much? Much more than the products of any other public school?

Charles Moore: Well, I don’t know that they really dominate public life to a very great extent. To the extent they do, I would put forward a proposition which is very very obvious but nobody seems to notice because everyone’s easy singing class terms is that it’s a very good school.

Andrew Neil: But it’s not alone in being a very good school, even just among public schools that are very good public schools. 

Charles Moore: No it’s not, it’s certainly not but it is the best and it’s the biggest and traditions feed on themselves. So if you… it was very noticeable when I was at Eton and I imagine, I think, I’d keep up with it a bit I think it’s the same, what tremendous emphasis was given not in any formal training way but as a sort of approach to life about being able to argue and speak in public and present things and expound things. In classes, in the recital of poems by heart when you were a little boy which you had to do, sometimes reciting poems in Latin, in debating societies, political societies, it’s very much sort of in the blood.

And it’s a bit… so saying why is Eton so important in public life? Why does it produce people who do a lot of things in public? It’s a bit like saying, why does New Market produce good jockeys? It’s because it’s already done it and because it continues very strongly to develop the traditions.

If it were as sort of snobbish and exclusive as people imagine, why would it continue to do well? I think it would fade and rightly fade. So that though it has, though it has a reputation for being aristocratic, it’s actually, it must be in such a competitive world, and I mean world, not just Britain, it’s actually rather meritocratic.

Andrew Neil: There was a time when it did fade, I mean when Alec Douglas-Home, an old Etonian who had taken over from Harold MacMillan, and old Etonian, prime minister, who himself had taken over from another old Etonian Anthony Eden, when Alec Douglas-Home lost to Harold Wilson’s labour party in 1964, there followed 33 years in which not only had no prime minister gone to Eton, not one had gone to public school. And yet here we are in the 21st century where the old Etonians have made this amazing comeback. Why do you think that’s happened?

Charles Moore: Well I do have part of an explanation for that which is the abolition of the grammar schools. When I was at university in the late seventies, we were just switching over to having pupils from comprehensive schools rather than grammar schools.

And we were also switching over to having more women at the university which was grossly in favour of men at the time in terms of the balance. And these two things meant because obviously more working class women were even less likely than working class men to go to university at that time, these two changes meant that you re-empowered the upper middle-classes and you cut off the incredibly good opportunities for people from working class backgrounds rising through grammar schools. This was a great social educational disaster from which the country has not recovered. 

And so the schools that were sort of what you might call continuously good, which were the main public schools to a large extent and some of the grammar schools became independent, were at an enormous advantage and the comprehensives were at an enormous disadvantage, and to a large extent that’s remained and that is the fault of, in my view, largely the fault of comprehensivisation.

It just set lower educational standards, much lower educational standards and you know, you’re not allowed to say this really because it causes so much upset and it’s a very difficult subject for political parties because obviously since most people have children who have to go through the comprehensive system, they don’t wish to think very understandably, that’ it’s bad but as a system it is bad though. Of course there are many good comprehensives.

I think this has improved with time, I think Michael Gove did some good work in improving state schools and I think the future might be better but we’ve had an absolutely dismal period which has offered advantages, unfortunately a very good education has become a rarity and that helps to explain why Etonians who have had a good education, may do disproportionately well. 


Andrew Neil: Now you were appointed to the House of Lords, it makes you a politician now as well as a journalist.

Charles Moore: Well I would dispute that actually. I’m a legislator but I don’t think that makes me a politician.

Andrew Neil: Well you make laws for us…

Charles Moore: Yes but no but I don’t think that’s the right… I don’t think that’s the right description.

Andrew Neil: That’s what politicians do.

Charles Moore: No but you don’t have to be, that is what politicians do but you don’t have to be a politician to be a legislator. So for example, you know, the former Lord, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, or the former head of the foreign office, or the former head of the police whatever, they’re not politicians, they sit in the House of Lords but they’re not politicians. 

Andrew Neil: Well these days the Archbishop of Canterbury or Archbishops of Canterbury seem to be more politicians than religious leaders?

Charles Moore: [Laughs] Well I would rather sorrowfully agree with you. 

Andrew Neil: Anyway my point was that one of the important purposes of journalism is to hold those in power to account. So how can it be right to accept the honours handed out by those that we’re paid to scrutinise? 

Charles Moore: Well I think each person who accepts them sort of needs to answer for themselves on this point. My answer is in my case that I didn’t want a peerage which linked me to a political party because then people think, though actually this isn’t really true but they do tend to think that you’re only saying something because your party wants you to say it. It’s not really true in the House of Lords because the whipping system doesn’t really work but that’s an understandable thing that people think.

So when I looked into this and found I could become what’s called non-affiliated, I thought that would be a reasonable way to deal with the problem.

Andrew Neil: But I guess my point is that we know government, not just this government, all governments, use the honour system to buy people off, reward people, deal with politicians whose main political career is now over. Surely it’s our job to monitor, scrutinise, critique all that and not be part of it?

Charles Moore: Well I agree with the first part, I don’t particularly agree with the second part, depending on certain qualifications. There’s a long tradition in this country, even in the House of Commons, let alone in the House of Lords, of people being active writers and journalists while they’re in it and I think that’s on the whole good because I think it helps the conversation and it sort of widens the thing out. I’ve felt under no pressure whatever to alter any views because I’m a peer.

Andrew Neil: But does it make you now a member of the establishment rather than a journalist? Is being in the establishment more important than being an independent journalist?

Charles Moore: I think not because I am an independent peer. I’ve not, I don’t see myself under any constraints. I would see it more as an extension of, you know, the capacity to debate issues and play a part in things and meet people who are important to making decisions and all that sort of thing. So I don’t find it difficult. I see this in theory, it can be criticised but I don’t find it difficult. And I think it’s quite a good thing so long as we have this system, I mean there are very strong arguments against the House of Lords but it exists, and I think that while it does, it’s perfectly reasonable to do what I’m doing. 

Andrew Neil: You’ve sometimes though seemed keener to protect the establishment then expose it. At the height of the Diana Charles troubles in the 1990s, the early nineties, you argued that journalists should deploy, your words, hypocrisy and concealment when it came to the Royal family. Is that still your view?

Charles Moore: You have a better knowledge of my previous thoughts than me, Andrew, I can’t remember what I said at the time of the many millions of words that I’ve written but I think that…

Andrew Neil: You said it live on television.

Charles Moore: [Laughs] Very good. And probably arguing with you actually but…

Andrew Neil: I was there… 

Charles Moore: But… 

Andrew Neil: Hypocrisy, we should be hypocritical, we shouldn’t expose what’s going on…

Charles Moore: Well the point…

Andrew Neil: … be involved in concealment you said. 

Charles Moore: The point that I would maintain as I don’t remember fully the context but the point I would maintain is we should, in certain circumstances, respect privacy.

Privacy is a very important part of every human life and journalists do violate it. Sometimes they violate it rightly because it’s really in the public interest and other times wrongly. And there are some areas where these things are highly disputable and Royal matters are one of them.


Andrew Neil: You believe in civilised discourse and debate, you said that’s what was taught at Eton but you can be pretty acerbic and personal in your writing. You said, for example, Olivia Coleman, the actor, had caught a left wing face. What does that even mean?

Charles Moore: I was surprised that this caused such upset. It seems to me demonstrably the case that some people have faces which reflect their opinions. I mean, I think there’s such a thing as a conservative face and a right-wing face and a goody-goody face and a scoundrel face and so on. And I didn’t mean very much by it accept that I thought it was observable and I think I can usually detect it in real life as it were. Very good actress by the way as I said when I also made that remark. But I was arguing about why I thought she was unsuitable to act the queen and I thought that actually I was right about that. I think good actress though she is, she was less good at the queen than Claire Foy.

Andrew Neil: You seem to have a thing about faces though, you said that Yvette Cooper, the labour politician was so boring, you’d rather just look at her than listen to her?

Charles Moore: Well that might be true mighten it? 

Andrew Neil: Well you wrote it.

Charles Moore: But I mean, why are you objecting?

Andrew Neil: I’m not, I’m just wondering why you would write that about someone rather than analyse what they were saying?

Charles Moore: I think in, I mean, obviously first of all I should say that you know, one is allowed, sometimes one gets it wrong but one is allowed to be humorous, this is, these are light hearted little points in Spectator diaries or something like that. They’re not deeply serious points but I think all of us in encounters with the human race very much notice how other people look and behave and what their manners are and their mannerisms and their voices and so on, their hair or whatever it may be. And these are, one can be very unfair about that and I’m sorry if I have been but I think that this is something in real human life that people observe and talk about and laugh about and I think on that basis, it’s in principle legitimate.

Andrew Neil: Well were you being humorous or serious?

Charles Moore: I mean look at Boris. Look at Boris’… you know, how could you not write about Boris without writing about his hair and his disorder and his sort of rather beefy appearance? I mean it would be ridiculous not to write about.

Andrew Neil: Well you sometimes feel that he’s doing that so you will write about it.

Charles Moore: [Laughs] Well that in itself is interesting of course.

Andrew Neil: Were you being humorous or serious when you wrote of someone, “His face is that strange characteristic, quite common in Scotsman, of being composed of features out of scale with each other”?

Charles Moore: [Laughs] Well I know what you’re referring to, Andrew, and you’re referring to a description of you that I put in writing so if that upsets you, I’m very sorry.

Andrew Neil: It was a long time ago.

Charles Moore: Yes, it is a very long time ago. I wonder why you bring it up?

Andrew Neil: Well I just, well only because you haven’t had a tendency in your writings to, what they would say in football, play the man rather than the ball. 

Charles Moore: I think on the whole I go to some links to be fair to argument but sometimes I lighten it by a bit of, you know, something else and this is not necessarily justifiable but it’s not always wrong.

Andrew Neil: You’re a social conservative, informed as I understand it by your Catholic faith, have you changed your mind in a more progressive way on any of the great social issues of our time?

Charles Moore: Not really but I think I’ve come to see the importance of some things more. So for example, at the time, I was less alert to when it was more of a customery thing in society, I was less alert to the danger of making off-colour jokes about homosexuals let’s say, something like that. 

I think one of the good things about modern culture is it has made people more alert to how it might feel to be a minority of any description. So to be disabled, to be gay, to be black in Britain or something like that. I’m not at all favour of group rights and identity politics but I’m very very much in favour of considering the feelings of people who may tend to be oppressed, or feel uneasy in a society and I think we’ve got better at that on the whole.

Andrew Neil: I mean you once wrote in reaction to labour’s plans to increase income tax that you quote, “you have to be very altruistic, or stupid, or homosexual, not to object to these higher taxes.”

Charles Moore: I of course can’t remember what you’re talking about and one of the things, Andrew, you know, is that columnists do and are supposed to do actually is to create controversy, and I suppose the point I was making at the time was that if you’re homosexual, which by the way, isn’t so true now, you didn’t then have children, normally, and therefore you didn’t have the worry about the expense of bringing up children. I think probably that was the point I was making but to be honest I can’t remember.

Andrew Neil: What about gay marriage? I mean, you said David Cameron would be haunted by his endorsement of gay marriage but he wasn’t was he? And it’s just an accepted part of the firmament now.

Charles Moore: Well I think that these… the way people react to these issues is very interesting. And I think people will accept all sorts of things they thought they wouldn’t accept if it’s handled in the right way and on the whole, I think Cameron did handle it in a good way.

Andrew Neil: You wouldn’t roll it back now would you?

Charles Moore: No no, certainly I wouldn’t. But I think it does go to the wider point, which I think Cameron did suffer from and maybe did help to bring him down, though certainly not on this particular issue, that as a certain sort of social liberalism which is sort of privileged and is to do with being rich and being able to go all over the world and, you know, that you can do what the hell you like sort of thing, which is very nice if you’re in that situation but annoying for people who are not in that situation and that’s one of the reasons that I’m quite a social conservative. 

So for example, in the old Tony Blair phrase about being tough on crime, it does matter more to people who are poorer than to people who are richer because they can’t buy their way out of trouble on the streets. Those sorts of issues are actually very very important and there’s a certain sort of, look at me aren’t I a good person liberalism, which is incredibly annoying for people if they’re being mugged and robbed and, you know, have to wait in enormous shabby hospitals and so on.

Andrew Neil: So Charles Moore you’ve had a long career, Eton, Cambridge, the Spectator, the Telegraph, now the House of Lords, is your trajectory as establishment man now complete?

Charles Moore: What I am really, Andrew, is a journalist and I suppose in recent years a historian because I spent many many years writing the biography of Mrs Thatcher. Those are my prime interests, they always have been and so they remain, and I’m very privileged to be free to express myself in numerous forums including this one.

Andrew Neil: Charles Moore thank you for being with us.

Charles Moore: Thank you, Andrew.

Next in this file

Inside the interview: Charles Moore

Inside the interview: Charles Moore

In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and member of the House of Lords

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