A headline in the Times last week gave me a rude jolt: “The Prince of Darkness is now a national treasure.” Written by Magnus Linklater, it suggested that Peter Mandelson’s political antics over the last 20 years have provided us with so much entertainment value that he now qualifies for this honour. It made me think: what on earth do we mean by the term “national treasure”? Can it possibly include someone like Mandelson, antics or not?
I have come up with this definition – which I readily admit is a personal one:
1. You have to be very old to become a national treasure. Probably at least 90, although I will make an exception for the Queen (and for the late Sir John Betjeman).
2. You have to have an appeal that transcends party politics and the class system.
3. You have to embody wisdom about life, usually gained from experience.
4. You have to have contributed to “our island story”.
5. If you are a curmudgeon or a character, it has to be on a grand scale.
You will see at a glance that Peter Mandelson is almost certain never to attain “national treasure” status according to my definition. He is not old enough, wise enough, curmudgeonly enough – and he is a politician. Enough said.
Churchill, of course, was a national treasure – and also a politician. But he transcended politics (point two) as well as fulfilling all the other criteria magnificently.
The Duke of Edinburgh is a national treasure, and not because he is married to the Queen. (You can’t become a national treasure through marriage to one – though I am almost inclined to make an exception for the late Sir Denis Thatcher.) Prince Philip’s special strength has been point five; did he not, according to Tony Blair’s memoirs, once tell the MP for Stoke that it was “an awful place”? There is also the “slitty eyes” remark and countless other gaffes. But he does tick all the other boxes as well.
I think Michael Foot was almost a national treasure by the time of his death but I can’t quite work out the reason why. (That is another thing about this title: you might have a “gut” feeling about it which instinctively confers it on some people but not others.)
Bill Deedes was definitely a national treasure by the time of his death: his antiquity, humour, breadth of experience, his terrific despatches right up to the end, etc. So also was PG Wodehouse, though he was forced to be a national-treasure-in-exile.
I see that apart from the Queen I haven’t yet included any women. I will rectify this instantly. On the whole women don’t seem to tick box five; this suggests that only men can be curmudgeons. Two great women present themselves: the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and the crime writer PD James. I hardly need to justify their inclusion; they are wise, articulate, courageous (just think of PD James’s recent interrogation of the director-general of the BBC on the radio); they both believe in a standard of public behaviour that has quite vanished and they have contributed hugely to our national life.
As a final remark, you cannot be a national treasure just because the metropolitariat says so. I have read that Stephen Fry is supposedly a national treasure, as well as Jonathan Miller. Neither, in my view, ticks any of the above boxes (though if Jonathan Miller lives to 90 he might wriggle in via number five). Being an alleged polymath is not the same as being a national treasure; it only means you have a Big Brain. I know of several celebrity “Big Brains”, strutting about in the media and beloved of the commentariat. But brains and wisdom are not always bedfellows. Enough said.