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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How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

Yet with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.