Nigella’s media marriage, staying out of the Middle East, and a future “Sir” Andy Murray

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Ed Miliband may be right to propose that union members should opt in to paying fees to Labour, rather than be affiliated automatically unless they opt out. If nothing else, it would give Labour access to the names and addresses of those who are nominally its supporters.

Yet what applies to union members surely should also apply to company shareholders and even customers, whose money finds its way indirectly to political parties – usually the Conservatives – without their consent. If state funding of parties goes ahead, perhaps this should apply to taxpayers, too. Ask all taxpayers, on their annual return, if theywish to donate £5 to a political party and, if so, to tick from a list of parties that won at least 5 per cent of votes at the previous election. HMRC would then forward the money. Has anyone thought of this idea before?

Fawlty logic

It’s not just trade unions that sign up Labour members to seize control of candidate selection. Nor is the practice new. When I was a member of the Brighton Kemptown party in the 1960s, two proprietors of boarding houses on opposite sides of a street off the seafront were rivals for the council nomination in our local ward. In those days, Sussex University parked its students in Brighton hotels, which eagerly accepted the off-season custom.

Early in the autumn term, one hotelier signed up several of his resident students and brought them to ward meetings. At the selection meeting, his rival, who owned a slightly larger hotel, appeared with at least twice as many. The first hotelier flew into a Basil Fawlty-style rage and challenged the validity of their membership. Amid what newspapers call “angry scenes”, the meeting was adjourned. After a constituency party inquiry, both hoteliers were expelled. I hope Miliband can bring the troubles in Falkirk to an equally neat conclusion.

Minding our own business

No matter how much westerners dislike Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian former president, he and the Muslim Brotherhood won free and fair democratic elections. Moreover, he commanded overwhelming support from the poor, as Islamists do throughout the Middle East. The liberal, secular, “modernis - ing” politicians preferred by Britain and the US are seen by poor people, many of them scraping a rural subsistence, as a threat. They want governments that will maintain a stable social and economic order on traditional lines.

Our frustration with the Arab masses who back illiberal, reactionary parties echoes the frustration of Lenin and Trotsky with the Russian peasantry, mired in a world of icons and cockroaches. To echo Brecht, we wish to dissolve the Arab people and choose another, designed to please our enlightened, metropolitan sensibilities. Which is why, whether it’s Libya, Syria or Egypt, we should mind our own business and stay out.

Image problems

When spouses disagree, they usually have a row and then forget about it. With celebrities, it’s different. The argument between Charles Saatchi and his wife, Nigella Lawson, at Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair, London – apparently over whether a child should go to Oxford or take up a permanent role at the Economistmagazine (if only we all had such troubles) –occurred on 9 June. It culminated, as photographs show, with Lawson leaving in tears after Saatchi gripped her throat. According to the Mail on Sunday, the couple then carried on as normal, planning summer holidays and returning to Scott’s for another meal. Only when pictures were published on 16 June did their marriage fall apart.

Lawson consulted her PRs. They probably ruled – here I speculate – that images of her as an abused wife would damage the “brand” of a domestic goddess. Saatchi, I imagine they said, must confess publicly his “shame and humiliation” (or so the Mail reported). He refused, perhaps fearful for his own image. Now, he announces he will divorce Lawson.

You could accuse wicked newspapers of wrecking a marriage. However, Saatchi and Lawson live in a media-driven world: they first met at the Ivy, another celebrity restaurant in London, at a dinner organised for Tina Brown, then the editor of the New Yorker. In Jane Austen’s novels, relationships are mediated by property. Today, to borrow from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, celebrity relationships are mediated by images.

Sports knights

Can David Cameron seriously intend to recommend a knighthood for Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion since 1936? Until recently, sporting heroes were rarely knighted. W G Grace was never honoured, nor was Fred Perry. Harold Larwood got a belated MBE at 88 when the cricket-mad John Major was PM. Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton also received gongs after their careers were over. Ian Botham got his for services to charity, not cricket. Stanley Matthews was the first to be knighted for services to football while still playing but, by then, he was nearly 50 and appearing for Stoke City reserves.

The rot set in under New Labour, with Olympic gold medallists receiving instant knighthoods and the entire England cricket team awarded MBEs (and one OBE) for winning back the Ashes in 2005. Unlike their predecessors, many of whom played for nothing, today’s sportsmen receive handsome financial rewards. At least until they retire, that should be enough.

Arise Sir Andy? 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 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.