Friends and family at a memorial mass for James Foley in Rochester, New Hampshire. Photo: Getty
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An ally’s brutality, the “thought crimes” of the Cardiff Two, and how fat became the new normal

Inhumane executions are not unique to the Islamist fanatics in Iraq and Syria.

The beheading of the US journalist James Foley by the group calling itself Islamic State (previously Isis) was a monstrous crime. To listen to western politicians and read British newspapers, however, you would think such atrocities were unprecedented. Yet our ally Saudi Arabia beheads people publicly in what is known as “Chop-Chop Square” in Riyadh. Victims include foreign workers. In the past month, at least 19 people have been executed in this way. The offences punishable by death include blasphemy, drug smuggling, sedition and “sorcery”.

Beheading causes particular revulsion, perhaps because it is thought to be a peculiarly agonising way to die, since, even with a skilled executioner (which the man who killed Foley almost certainly wasn’t), consciousness may remain for a few seconds after the head is severed. Again, such inhumane executions are not unique to the Islamist fanatics in Iraq and Syria. In January, it took the state of Ohio 26 minutes to kill a man sentenced to die by lethal injection.

All this, without lessening our outrage at Foley’s murder, should remind us that our friends can sometimes be as savage as those we see as our enemies. We should also remind ourselves that many civilian victims of western bombing and drone attacks must experience deaths no less prolonged and horrible than Foley’s.

 

Closing ranks

According to Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work, police and social care staff failed to protect 1,400 sexually abused children in Rotherham. This was clearly gross dereliction of duty. But Jay found no evidence of anyone being “influenced by concerns about the ethnic origins of suspected perpetrators” when dealing with individual cases. Rather, their attitude seemed to be that girls from poor and often broken homes were unreliable witnesses and not worth protecting anyway. So why do newspapers – and, to some degree, Jay herself – think it so important that the racial aspect of the abuse, which involved mainly Asian men and white girls, should have been highlighted? Why is it so important to “discuss” ethnicity and the “culture” of “the Pakistani-heritage community”? Wouldn’t racialising the issue make the community more likely to close ranks? Most abusers nationwide are white men. Moreover, apparently, most of the Rotherham abusers were taxi drivers. Should we not consider the “culture” of the taxi-driving community?

 

Text offences

Normally, I support “political correctness”, which seems to me just a matter of obser­ving good manners in public discourse – particularly towards groups that, at least in the past, have suffered disadvantage and discrimination. But as I understand it, the alleged exchange of racist, sexist and homophobic text messages between two colleagues who formerly worked at Cardiff City was intended only for each other’s consumption. It was a private conversation in the same way as if they had talked on the phone or chatted together at home. So why is it any business of ours and why should it be the subject of an FA investigation?

Using such language within hearing of those who might be offended would be unforgivable. So would examples of either man discriminating against women, gay people or non-whites. But denouncing the two of them for texts alone comes perilously close to denouncing them for thought crime.

 

Watching the nation grow

Almost every week, a new example of the effects of the nation’s increased weight emerges. Deckchairs are being made an inch wider. Shops are stocking school uniform trousers with 46-inch waists. The other day, the Daily Mail featured a 29-year-old man who complained that the post-operative hospital meals he received wouldn’t be big enough for his two-year-old daughter. The pictures showed meals that, though not generous, seemed perfectly adequate to me, while a mugshot of the patient strongly suggested that he was rather on the porky side.

Fat is the new normal. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of Britons are overweight and a quarter obese. When I travel outside London, particularly to seaside towns, observation suggests far higher numbers. It is sometimes impossible to walk down the street without being obstructed by people who seem to have expanded to the front, side and rear in a re-engineering of the human body. Although I drink wine and beer, eat vast quantities of cheese and love cream teas, my weight is what would have been thought normal 50, even 20, years ago. I now often receive anxious inquiries about whether I am “quite well”.

It used to be said that the planet’s entire population could stand on the Isle of Wight (or was it Zanzibar?). On present trends, soon even Australia won’t be big enough. 

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 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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