Wealthy strikers, kissing in public and half-built conservatories

The talk at the TUC conference was of a winter of strikes, even of a general strike. It may be unwise of the unions to provoke press and politicians in this manner, particularly since anything they organise cannot be on the scale of 1926 when the general strike lasted nine days and involved miners, rail workers, road haul­iers, bus drivers, printers, builders and power workers. But when the boss class goes on strike, why shouldn’t the workers?

I am not referring just to bankers and company executives who leave the country, or threaten to do so, if bonuses are restricted or tax rates increased. Just about the whole corporate sector has, in effect, been on strike for several years, sitting on mountains of cash and refusing to invest because the returns aren’t high enough. If there were a prolonged labour strike, the government would act to break it by bringing in the army to maintain essential services and supplies. But it declines to use state power to break the investment strike by using its resources to get the economy moving again.

Barber’s paradox

Nevertheless, the TUC general secretary,
Brendan Barber, goes too far when he calls
on the government to link investment to an “Olympic-style national crusade”. Tories will interpret this as an invitation to give corporate interests more powers and tax concessions; to dress workers in purple uniforms, pay them nothing and call them “volunteers”; to find sponsors for everything; to hand over disabled welfare entirely to Atos; and, worst of all, to elect Boris Johnson as their leader. No doubt the “Olympic spirit” will now be called upon whenever we face difficult challenges, just as people once called on the Blitz spirit. But we should remember that, just as the Second World War had its downsides, so did the Olympics.

Stoppard the press

Tabloid newspapers have published pictures of the BBC’s Andrew Marr and the Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan canoodling (I think that is the word) with women not their wives. “Here’s a newsflash for Murnaghan’s wife” was the Mail’s strapline. Tom Stoppard once referred to the “casual cruelty” of newspapers. That seems too weak a term here; “calculated” and “pitiless” may be better adjectives.
But since both men did their groping in public places, the newspapers do not need to concoct a “public interest” defence. Marr, admittedly, “fondled mystery woman”, as the Mirror put it, in a dark street in the early hours but Murnaghan shared his “passionate kiss” (and more) beside the Serpentine in Hyde Park in broad daylight. Any passer-by could snap these embraces on their mobiles and post them on the internet. No regulatory system could, or should, prevent newspaper publication. If we are to be spared such tawdry sights as Marr putting a hand down a woman’s jeans and Murnaghan fiddling with the zip of a red dress, TV presenters will have to establish their own self-regulatory mechanisms, backed by sanctions from their wives.

It’s my party

Andreas Whittam Smith – like Marr, an ex-
editor of the Independent – seems unlikely (to quote the Mirror again) to get “frisky with brunette” during a “drink-fuelled night-out”. But I wonder if my esteemed former colleague has lingered a little too long over the whisky bottle. Writing in his old paper, he launches “Democracy 2015” and invites “like-minded citizens” who have pursued “demanding careers” to join him in starting a group to contest every constituency at the next election. These folk would stand for a single term, intending to form a government that would implement “a manifesto constructed to the highest standards with the best possible advice”. It would have “easy-to-understand policies” for unemployment, crime, immigration, the NHS and so on.

This sounds like a government of business executives, diluted by a few managers from charities, public services and unions, which, as Andreas is old enough to know, is what people always propose at difficult times. It wouldn’t work because successful executives are used to getting their own way, while democracy involves constant negotiation and compromise.

My fear, though, is that Whittam Smith – who launched the Independent in 1986 against impossible odds – may just bring it off. I am
reminded of when the Irish tycoon Tony O’Reilly launched a takeover bid for the paper. “I’d rather run a south coast boarding house than work for him,” Whittam Smith declared. “That’s one boarding house I certainly won’t be staying in,” commented Alexander Chancellor, then the Independent’s magazine editor. In the same spirit, I am resolved that, if Andreas takes over the UK government, that’s one country
I won’t be staying in.


The government, hoping to win votes from grateful householders, proposes a temporary suspension of planning laws on home extensions. I see disaster looming. First, for every happy householder, there will be at least one disgruntled neighbour. Second, the building industry, true to form, will leave thousands of extensions half-finished while they start new ones. Third, the suppliers of conservatories, also true to form, will deliver hundreds of the wrong-sized windows with the wrong type of glazing to the wrong addresses. David Cam­eron’s conservatories strike me as more in the league of John Major’s cones hotline than of Margaret Thatcher’s council house sales.

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 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?