LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
The postbag has been bulging with Toynbee letters - for, against, and above all those from the people who have clearly read every syllable of the controversy before settling down to write several pages about how it doesn't interest them at all. I think the simple messages are exactly as they were. The Daily Mail, followed by the Times, were keen to give Polly a kicking. The Mail indulged in dirty-raincoat journalism. She hit first, expecting the retaliation to follow.

And follow it did. As a new editor, I was perhaps naive. I'd expected the Mail to defend its style of journalism, attack Polly's views and perhaps attack me, too. In fact, the Mail went to the ex-wife of Polly Toynbee's partner. This was the ``punishment'' that those family men deemed fit for a liberal who went into print about how they behave.

They had pretended, albeit very briefly, to second thoughts about this story because it would hurt a child. And they wouldn't want to hurt a child, would they? This exercise in decent self-restraint was, by Mail standards, heroic. It lasted two days. A day later, the Times, holding its nose, decided that the sad story of a breaking marriage was, if you please, a ``debate'', and therefore deserved two full pages.

Privately, lots of people on both papers have expressed their disgust about this sort of stuff. But nobody came to her defence. Had a right- wing columnist from another paper been attacked in this way for their views, Polly would have been defending them with ferocity from day one. But from the moralists and thunderers, there has come silence, broken only by the faint sound of feet shuffling.

Now here is a story for John Major after what has been, yet again, a bloody week for him. The Conservative Party cheers itself up in private with ``Willie-isms'' - those priceless, world-weary murmurings of the former deputy leader Viscount Whitelaw, of which the most famous was his general election strategy of ``going about the country, stirring up apathy''. Well, here is another, new to me, which is appropriate for the week in which the Lady sent cash to Cash: ``You may not laugh at her. [heavy pause] But you take her seriously at your peril.''

The other great old predator swimming through British politics this week has, of course, been Sir James Goldsmith. I had dinner with him and various others not so long ago in London and was mesmerised by his darting ice-blue eyes and his sibilant, insistent, fact-packed conversation. There was a fierce argument round the table about protectionism and free trade which ranged from 19th-century American history to the condition of the poor in cities in southern China today. Here, I thought, was a potential successor to the great protectionist of Edwardian England, Joseph Chamberlain - someone with the same flashy tastes, vivid style and outsider's eye view of declining British power. But Goldsmith is getting on, and shunned entirely by the establishment, and has no locus in our political system - no MPs, no wider manifesto.

So what's his game? Is he trying to draw over a section of the Conservative right to his own protectionist agenda by way of the referendum campaign? Is he planning a wider shift in nationalist politics, with himself as a player? He denies it; they deny it. But if he isn't trying to do that, he can be no more than a troublemaker. In the end, I think that's what he wants to be. He is having fun. Where small children upturn bowls of breakfast cereal and teenagers smash windows, certain billionaires kick over a political party and watch all the little people run.

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