It was nearly 40 years ago, over college port and toasted crumpets, that I got my deepest insight into the thinking of what is now Britain’s ruling party.
A newly arrived undergraduate, I had been invited by one of my fellow freshers to partake of those refreshments in his rooms.
His suite (or “set” in Cambridge jargon) was as different from my own accommodation as his suave self-confidence was from my long-haired naïvety.
His windows looked out on the historic grandeur of Trinity’s Great Court. My one window was too high to look out of directly but in any case only gave onto a blank wall a few feet away.
My room, tucked under the bend of a staircase and surely once a cupboard – or perhaps servant’s quarters – would almost have fitted in one of his armchairs.Unlike him, I had only my local authority grant to live on, and that meant the cheapest room in college.
He had been at Eton – I believe he was head boy. Three other Etonians were also among the 18 of us studying English at Trinity in our year.
I was the first pupil from my school to go to any university. I was the only one of the 18 to have come through the state system.
It was, I can only assume, curiosity that prompted his invitation. He’d probably never met a comprehensive-school boy before. I had certainly never met anyone like him, or his room-mate (we’ll get to him later).
The conversation was polite, but I became increasingly incredulous. After all these years I forget most of it, but I know we came to a disagreement about the National Health Service, of which I approved (and still do). He was arguing for its abolition, along with that of all welfare benefits.
“So what you’re saying,” I suggested to him, “is that anyone who can’t afford treatment doesn’t deserve treatment.”
“Precisely,” he said.
So there it is, laid out plain, the core of Conservative philosophy (although at that time he still called himself a Liberal). The pretence, that they care for ordinary people, stripped bare.
Within three years I had my second-class honours degree (he spent a year longer getting his). Within another six, he was editor of The Spectator, while I was still a junior member of a provincial paper’s sports department.
About the time I joined this company as a sub-editor at the Ipswich Evening Star, he was appointed editor of the Daily Telegraph, having already run the Sunday edition for three years.
These days he’s probably better known as Margaret Thatcher’s biographer. And as the man who told a national radio audience on the day of her funeral that those places where she wasn’t popular – basically Scotland, Wales and the north of England – were “relatively less important” than those wealthier, southern parts where she was loved.
If this comparison of Charles Moore’s career with mine sounds like sour grapes, it really isn’t. I wouldn’t trade my life for his – though there have been times, I’ll admit, when I have envied his worldly success.
I recall it here only as an illustration of the way class and privilege continue to pervade our allegedly democratic society.
I don’t believe the differences in our careers have anything to do with ability or hard work – though it may well be that his elbows are sharper than mine (which are, frankly, on the soft side).
The difference is between money and the lack of it. Between my old school and his, which also happens to be that of the mayor of London and 19 British prime ministers, including the present one. Oh, and Oliver Letwin – Moore’s best chum at school, Cambridge and probably still.
That’s the same Letwin who devised the Poll Tax, thereby inadvertently contributing to Thatcher’s downfall. And who is now, as Minister of State for Policy, probably more responsible than anyone else for deciding what the government gets up to next.
Would you trust the NHS – or anything else that really matters – to these people? I wouldn’t.