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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.