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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.