Nelson Mandela’s last days, paying for boar stew in Corsica, and the Tories of Generation Y

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

One can see why MPs think they ought to have the pay rise – from £66,396 to more than £70,000 –proposed by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The new wage would still leave them well behind many doctors, lawyers, bankers, consultants and other London-based professionals with whom MPs most often mix.

Yet that is precisely why they shouldn’t get an increase. Far too many enter the Commons from metropolitan, middle-class backgrounds and have little feel for how most of the country lives even when they represent provincial constituencies.

Failure to increase MPs’ wages would deter “able” professional folk from seeking election, we are told. Let’s hope it does. We may then have more MPs from humble, non-metropolitan backgrounds. Able or not, they could hardly do a worse job of running the country.

New kids on the right

Why is the so-called Generation Y, born after 1980 and therefore aged under 34, so Tory? According to Ipsos MORI, over 20 per cent of this group supports the Conservatives, double the proportion in 2005. Members of Generation Y also take much harsher attitudes towards benefits and are far less proud of the welfare state than their parents and particularly their grandparents.

The most obvious reason for Generation Y’s Toryism is that it has little memory of the effects of Thatcherism. On the night of the 1991 census, 2,703 people in England and Wales were counted as sleeping rough. The figure was almost certainly an underestimate; a year earlier, the Old Etonian minister George Young (who is now the Chief Whip in the coalition government) had observed, “The homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera.”

In the 2001 census, the figure was down to 938. Any big-city-dweller knows that the sleeping bags have started to reappear on our streets – according to some estimates, they have doubled in five years –and they will grow in number more noticeably, along with media stories of hungry children, as the benefit cuts bite. Young people’s opinions are volatile and I suspect they may yet swing violently against David Cameron and his government.

Wedded to the cause

On the subject of the Prime Minister, I am baffled by his eagerness to reward marriage with tax breaks. Presumably the idea is to encourage behaviour that is statistically associated with higher educational achievement, better health and lower levels of delinquency among children. Similar associations could probably be demonstrated for all sorts of other behaviours: sitting at tables for proper meals, serving greens, visiting National Trust properties, turning off the television, learning the violin.

Why doesn’t the government simply bug our homes to check we are all conducting ourselves as ministers would wish? Recent disclosures about GCHQ suggest it is more than equal to the task.

The art of a good death

By the time you read this, Nelson Mandela, who was described as being in a “critical but stable condition”, may at last, sadly, have succumbed to the inevitable. In the meantime, I don’t envy his large extended family making decisions about how long to keep him alive. Not only are they divided among themselves, as families often are, they must also contend with a divided nation that clings to Mandela as an icon of the national liberation struggle and unity.

Though obituary writers may praise a courageous fight to the end, nobody really wants to die in hospital, connected to tubes and machines. At nearly 95, Mandela can make at best only a temporary recovery, giving him minimal quality of life. If he is unable to express an opinion about his treatment (as I assume he isn’t), his family will be asked to make one on his behalf.

Prospective parents have no shortage of advice about childbirth, as Sophie Elmhirst wrote in this magazine last week. Yet I know of no equivalents of parenting classes for those struggling to cope with elderly relatives at the end of life.

When my 84-year-old mother neared her end 18 years ago, the hospital asked if, in the event of her heart stopping, I wished them to attempt to revive her. I had no idea what to say. Only later, when a team of black-clad paramedics burst in as she passed peacefully away, did I realise that the answer should have been “no”.

In addition to good food . . .

On a recent holiday in Corsica, I reflected, not for the first time, on the peculiarities of French restaurants. Most of the food was excellent – I particularly recommend the local wild boar stew, provided you make sure they haven’t substituted pork – and it usually arrived in reasonable time. The difficulty was with the bill. At one restaurant, we received, before we had been given our bill, someone else’s change, amounting to about €40. Next, we received someone else’s bill, which was roughly twice the size of ours. Then we got our own bill but minus the wine we had drunk. We pointed this out (generously, I thought) and the correct bill finally arrived, 30 minutes after we had first asked for it.

The staff then seemed bemused that we objected to waiting more than 15 minutes for our change.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

A red geranium pictured against the Three Sisters rock formation in the mountains of Corsica. Photograph: Getty Images

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 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle