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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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.