Blair’s comeback, the Guardian’s woes and what I found in Corsica

The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is patting himself on the back. Of the 56,000 households affected by the £26,000 cap on benefits, 1,700 have already moved back into work, after receiving threatening letters, though the cap doesn’t take effect until 2013. According to my maths, this is just 3 per cent, which is roughly the proportion of the unemployed who get jobs each month even during a recession. Another 5,000 – nearly 9 per cent – are “seeking out the targeted support available to move into employment”, IDS says. Good for them. What about the other 88 per cent? Will the minister also provide figures for suicides, mental illness, marital break-ups and malnourished children?

Rusbridger of sighs
To anybody who follows the fortunes of the Guardian, the Observer and their digital operations, news that their losses increased for the fourth year in a row and are now above £40m will come as no surprise. As I explained in the NS last month, the company has so ordered its affairs that the Scott Trust, which kept the Guardian alive for 75 years by transferring profits from other assets, can no longer cover all the losses. Like other newspapers, the Guardian is suffering steep falls in print revenues but, so far, its expanding digital operations don’t make enough to replace them. Meanwhile, its sugar daddy – the trust being its equivalent of the Independent’s Evgeny Lebedev or the Times’s Rupert Murdoch – is short of sugar.

By now, most papers would already be slashing staff costs. The Guardian, however, critical of bosses who reach for P45s at the first sign of trouble, sticks for now to the unfashionable policy of politely requesting voluntary redundancies, to the fury of its many enemies who would love to see its King’s Cross building swimming in blood. If, like me, you have spent nearly all your working life on precariously positioned left-liberal publications – though when I was a young reporter on the Observer, the paper enjoyed brief prosperity after it accidentally made a killing during a London property boom – you have seen it all before.

People ask if the Guardian will survive. Answer: I don’t know. I gave the same answer to the same question in each of the past five decades.

Here’s . . . Tony!

What is Tony Blair up to? His biographer Anthony Seldon, asked by the Guardian if we should rule out a Blair return to Downing Street, replies “absolutely not”.

How could it happen?

Here is my scenario. The coalition breaks up next year and, simultaneously, Moody’s and other agencies downgrade Britain’s credit rating, as they have recently threatened. To reassure the markets, Blair forms a “government of national unity”, supported by the Cameroons (who frequently profess admiration for him), Labour’s Blairite rump and the Lib Dems. This alliance might just a command a Commons majority until the 2015 election, assisted by an opposition of Tory diehards and Labour loyalists who cannot agree on anything. Would Blair even need a parliamentary seat? Italy’s Mario Monti and Greece’s Lucas Papademos hadn’t been elected to anything. Is that Blair’s game plan? Stranger things have happened.

Young and wasted

The trouble with the rich is that, even when they wish to be public-spirited, they don’t know how to give their money away properly. The venture capitalist Michael Moritz and his wife have pledged £75m to pay Oxford University fees for students from poor backgrounds. As there is little evidence that, if disadvantaged 18-year-olds don’t get to Oxford, it is because of the fees – they are perfectly capable of understanding that the government pays upfront and, as graduates, their repayments will be income-contingent – this is what economists call “deadweight spending”. It subsidises students who would probably go to Oxford or another elite university in any case. Worse, the Moritz donation, offset by tax relief, has to be matched by £225m of Oxford money that might otherwise be used for more effective schemes to widen access. Besides, why do the rich give so much to Oxford and Cambridge, already among the country’s wealthiest institutions? To them that hath shall be given . . .  even in charity.

But of Corse
Depressed by the British weather, I escaped for a week to French-ruled Corsica. Everywhere I went I saw statues of Pascal Paoli. Who he? Inquiries revealed that he ruled during a brief period of Corsican independence and introduced representative democracy with a vote for every man over 25. This was in 1755, 21 years before the American Revolution and 34 years before the French. Paoli also built schools and a university, and attracted so much admiration from Rousseau that the philosopher considered moving to the island. Why is Corsica not a place
of pilgrimage for democrats and socialists? My view of Mediterranean islands (possibly excepting Crete) is that one is much like another. But Corsica is different and I shall return.

Winnie-ing formula
Winston Churchill observed that if you brought two economists together you got two opinions, unless one was Keynes, in which case you got three. A variant on this joke is needed for German economists. Two hundred of them recently signed an appeal against a euro banking union; 200 signed another appeal supporting one. Eleven economists signed both.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future