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Must we politicise the Proms? Or life expectancy? Or advertising?

We went to the first night of the Proms last week. Thinking it was all over, we left the auditorium just before Igor Levit came back on for a delayed encore in which he played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (transcribed by Liszt) as an anti-Brexit gesture. We loved Levit’s earlier rendering of a Beethoven piano concerto, but were spared his political views, so it was a perfect evening. Two nights later, Daniel Barenboim took advantage of the Proms conductor’s podium to make an unscheduled speech in which he deplored ‘isolation tendencies’. All good Brexiteers deplore isolation tendencies, which is one of the reasons we don’t like a European Union with a tariff wall, but of course Brexit was the great conductor’s target. Leaving aside the right and wrongs of the Brexit debate, why do so many people just now feel entitled to use their non-political position to try to effect political change?

The disease is everywhere. On Tuesday, Sir Michael Marmot, a health don, reported that the rate at which life expectancy was improving in this country had ‘just about halved’ since 2010 — a story which quickly slipped into the media suggestion that life expectancy is actually falling. Sir Michael’s non- medical explanation was ‘austerity’ (guess who came into power in 2010) and ‘miserly’ increases in health spending. Possible non-political explanations like the poor health effects of more old people living alone, or some of the special health problems associated with higher immigration, did not feature.

On the same day, the Advertising Standards Authority decided that it will ban advertisements which ‘reinforce harmful gender stereotypes’, such as women using soft soap or little girls dreaming of being ballerinas. Again, the question is not whether gender stereotypes are harmful — a good subject for debate — but, by what right does a regulatory body annex this political space? The ASA used to apply a simple (though not always easy) test: was an advertisement ‘legal, decent and truthful’? Now it seeks to turn the industry into a tool for promoting its version of a just society. Does it have this power? If so, who let it grab it?

In theory, it is open to conservative-minded people to hijack some public position to unburden themselves of their views. A right-wing health panjandrum (if there were such a person) could pronounce that we are all getting too fat because we don’t sit round a table for meals and say grace before them. The weather presenter could break off from talking about ‘spits and spots of rain’ to say how much sunnier it will be after Brexit. A patriotic Supreme Court judge could diverge from the case before him to enthuse about the prospect of the English law becoming, once again, supreme. In practice, though, it doesn’t happen, partly because the public space is being deliberately made a cold house for anyone who does not share a certain set of views, but also because the conservative approach to life holds that there is ‘a time and a place for everything’. The left thinks it is always the time and always the place for the same thing.

This is an extract from Charles Moore’s Notes. The full article is available in tomorrow’s issue of The Spectator. 

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