Not afraid to tackle the great moral questions: The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold

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The Independent Online
WHOEVER said we Britons have no intellectual life? If, like me, you find yourself pouring a half-way decent glass of claret, tuning your wireless to the Home Service and sitting back to enjoy 40 minutes of hearty intellectual cut-and-thrust on The Moral Maze, you will know how wrong that presumption is.

'Should one kill foreigners, even if one has never met them personally?'; 'In a market economy, is it permissible to have sexual intercourse without paying for it?' and 'Is it morally defensible to smoke marijuana while hunting foxes?' Big issues all, but those of us who are regular on the panel are not ones to shirk the larger questions. This week, the presenter, Mr Buerk (dread wuerd) issued us with the following moral puzzler: 'In these days of increasing republicanism, how much should one tip Prince and Princess Michael of Kent?' He then turned to me: 'Wallace?'

'This is certainly something to chew on, Michael,' I replied, thoughtfully. 'Frankly, I'd say that in the case of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, a tip of - whoooh] - two or three thousand should suffice, though obviously rather more if he agrees not to bring her.'

This ruffled a few feathers, I can tell you] It emerged that Edward Pearce, that most gritty of Orientals, is a fierce supporter of the Princess ('a very warm lady'), preferring her to the Princess of Wales, who, he complained, 'is always taking her kiddies on fancy foreign holidays - most unsuitable in the current climate'. At this, everyone clamoured to speak, so that Buerk was forced to place his hand over Marina Warner's mouth in order to let my old friend and quacking partner Paul Johnson get a word in.

'I am a loyal subject of Her Majesty] I support the Prince of Wales]' fumed the well-known iconoclast. 'The sooner he leaves Diana and marries Fergie, the better.'

'Fergie]? Fergie]? I simply cannot believe you have thought this through,' chipped in Sir Isaiah Berlin, banging a fist on the studio table. 'What you are proposing has no basis whatsoever in logic. Next you'll be saying that the Queen should be replaced by Margaret, I suppose.'

'Not a bad idea,' smirked Johnson, and by this time half the table was up in arms, ignited by intellectual debate. Indeed, poor old Buerk was forced to restrain Dame Mary Warnock with a half-nelson so as to let Professor Roger Scruton have his say. 'I'm worried this debate is becoming too, shall we say, parochial,' ventured Scruton, 'so I would like to broaden it out to a slightly larger question concerning personal ethics, which is this: 'Is Prince Edward doing a reasonable job under difficult conditions or is he, on the other hand, a bit of a poof?' '

Silence followed. One could almost feel the sense of contemplation in the air. Eventually, Janet Daley came up with a provocative ethical formulation. 'On the one hand, I feel very strongly that he should get himself a girlfriend,' she said. 'But on the other, I think he might be happier with Princess Anne's husband, what's-his-name.'

'Commander Tim Laurence]?' interjected Marina Warner. 'You can't be serious] Are you seriously suggesting that Edward and Tim should set up house together? Even on a quasi-mythical basis, that proposition has a number of logical holes. What if they had a baby, for instance? Where would it stand in the line of succession?' 'They're men,' chipped in Paul Johnson. 'Men can't have babies - surely even you know that, Marina.'

Lively debate erupted, during which Ed Pearce said he was sure he'd read something, somewhere, about how scientists would soon be able to let men have babies, and then Rabbi Hugo Gryn said that Prince Philip would probably be too old to have a baby without special treatment. Both were countered by Professor Norman Stone who said he'd heard from a reliable source that Diana was pregnant by Major Ron.

'I'm afraid time's run out on us,' said Buerk, kicking Marina Warner in the shins to silence her chirruping. 'Thank you all for listening.' And highly convivial listening it is, too - a worthy counterblast to those who whine so incessantly of intellectual poverty in this country. Next week: 'The choice ahead: is Indian food tastier than Chinese?' with Hugo Young, Enoch Powell, Roger Scruton and, of course, yours truly.