Raymond Seitz, the former US Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, once wrote that the two things he missed most when he was back in the US were McVitie’s dark-chocolate digestive biscuits and the BBC. He then revealed that he began all his English days with black coffee, a digestive biscuit and Radio 4’s Today programme. I can never eat just one chocolate digestive, so I begin the day with a porridge of organic oats and chopped apple, but the soundtrack to my virtuous breakfast is always the Today programme. You could say that I am hooked on radio.
The kitchen has a sleek Tivoli radio, and every bedroom at Wyken has its own Roberts radio. A small Sony nestles beside my slippers whenever I go away, as beginning the day without the Today programme leaves me feeling as stranded as Tom Hanks in Castaway. And it’s not only the Today programme. I’ve recently revived an old iPod because I discovered a little attachment called a Roberts Robi that converts the iPod into a portable FM radio. I now prune the vines and listen to Desert Island Discs.
I began the Bacchus vines with Ian Bostridge, the great Lieder singer who started out as a historian and for years led two parallel lives. His choice of music was wonderful. It’s hard to beat pruning frosty vines with the Contessa’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro. A week later, I tackled the young Pinot Noir vines with Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty and the country’s most intelligible and loveable civil libertarian. Her music wasn’t quite in the Bostridge camp, but her first choice Nina Simone singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, has stuck in my head as if I’d pressed the ‘repeat’ button.
As it turned out, the timing was perfect. What better anthem for a week when all civil libertarians and citizens of conscience and common sense should be singing the words of Nina Simone. I don’t know anything about the Damian Green case that you don’t know. I know that the MP was arrested last Thursday and interrogated for nine hours as the counter-terror police raided his home and his office in the House of Commons, seizing computers, laptops, and boxes of files for the supposed crime of ‘aiding and abetting’ a Home Office leaker.
William Rees-Mogg, with his sense of history and parliamentary tradition, has written in The Times of the background of parliamentary privilege, dating back to 1523 and reinforced in 1642. Miss Chakrabarti, a Home Office civil servant and lawyer before she joined Liberty, has spoken about the rollercoaster ride of protecting civil liberties yet recognising the enormous burden of policing open societies in the face of bloodthirsty terrorists. But historians, journalists and politicians all agree: this is not a case of national security, and the Government, the police, the House of Commons, democracy and British liberty have all been damaged.
It would be tempting to write this episode off as a farce, a kind of messy Noises Off, especially as everyone the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Speaker, the Serjeant at Arms, the Cabinet Secretary is rolling their eyes and denying everything. But burying this episode in gloomy economics or holly-and-ivy distraction is not a good idea. Nor should it be left to the prosecutorial questioning of John Humphrys on the Today programme. My sense of history doesn’t automatically hark back to Charles I’s attempt to arrest the five MPs. Mine is of a more recent hijacking of democracy.
Last week was the anniversary of the Senate’s vote in 1954 to condemn Senator Joseph McCarthy for ‘conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonour and disrepute’. The House of Commons needs to come up with their version of that Senate vote, and condemn everyone involved in Mr Green’s arrest for conduct that has brought the oldest democracy into dishonour and disrepute. At least, that’s how it looks here on the Cromwellian plains of Suffolk.