Friends and family at a memorial mass for James Foley in Rochester, New Hampshire. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.