Ten stories I spotted while on hols

From Obama and health care to Rod Liddle and multiculturalism.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I've been away on holiday, visiting the in-laws in the United States.

But I thought I'd do a quick run-through of the top ten stories I spotted -- and wanted to blog about but couldn't -- while I was on vacation.

In no particular order:

1) Health care: Barack Obama persuaded a recalcitrant, divided and dysfunctional Congress to pass his historic health-care reform bill. This was no small achievement, in a nation where one American woman I bumped into compared buying health insurance to buying car insurance: it should be each person's individual responsibility. Writing on our letters page in this week's double-issue of the magazine, LabourList's Alex Smith takes us to task for Andrew Stephen's "tepid and more than a little begrudging" praise of Obama's legislative achievement. But here's the problem. While I agree with Vice-President Joe Biden that the reform was a "big f--king deal", as it will ultimately provide coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, it will still leave at least 15 million Americans uninsured in the long run. Nor does the law introduce a single-payer system, or even the much-discussed, centrist and popular "public option". It is a bad law. But I do support the (bad) law because anything -- anything! -- is better than the current, awful US health-care system.

2) Israeli-US relations: Talking of Biden, it was amusing and amazing to see the self-destructive Israeli right embarrass and insult one of America's most pro-Israeli politicians during his visit to the Jewish state by announcing a new planning and expansion phase for 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem. Binyamin Netanyahu apologised -- but only for the timing. Or, in the words of Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Ehud Barak and now Middle East analyst at the New America Foundation: "I'm sorry I slapped you on Monday: next time, I promise, it won't be on a Monday." But it wasn't just Biden who was insulted. Here is Prime Minister Netanyahu's brother-in-law, commenting on the "anti-Semitic" Barack Obama: "It needs to be said clearly and simply: There is an anti-Semitic president in the US. It's not that Obama doesn't sympathise with [Netanyahu]. He doesn't sympathise with the people of Israel." Hilarious.

3) BNP divisions: The Sunday Times reported at the weekend how "Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, has told police that a senior colleague threatened to kill him after an investigation into a political 'conspiracy'. Mark Collett, the BNP's head of publicity, has been arrested and suspended from the party after the discovery of an alleged plot by a 'small clique' of officials to overthrow its leadership." Is this the behaviour one would expect from the officials of a mainstream political party? Will the BBC and others now get the message that the British National Party is a collection of loons and thugs, and not a normal party? Can you imagine Tony Blair reporting Alastair Campbell to the police, claiming Ali C was trying to kill him?

4) MPs for hire: My reaction to the secretly filmed footage of Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers prostituting themselves to a fictional US public relations firm, courtesy of Channel 4's Dispatches? Disgust. But not surprise. I'm proud to point out that I skewered this trio of venal Blairite ultras in two separate blog posts in recent months. I despise their money-grubbing antics, which have further undermined trust in our political classes. These three former cabinet ministers were, in the words of Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's Guardian, "soliciting work more like whores than taxi drivers". Hats off to my former Channel 4 colleagues Dorothy Byrne and Kevin Sutcliffe for commissioning this excellent sting operation, and to my friend Antony Barnett for reporting it.

5) Paedophiles and the Catholic Church: In the wake of revelations that the Church covered up decades of sexual abuse and beatings by priests and nuns, I find it difficult to disagree with the verdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that the Catholic Church has "lost all credibility".Given the current Pope's alleged involvement, I also wonder whether it isn't time for Catholic cardinals and theologians to re-evaluate the 140-year-old doctrine of "papal infallibility". Meanwhile, Geoffrey Robertson, QC is calling for the Pope to be tried at the International Criminal Court.

6) Tories, big business and National Insurance: Shock! Horror! Right-wing business leaders support Tory tax cut. Shock! Horror! The business leaders backing the Tory proposal to stop the rise in National Insurance include a number who've given close to half a million pounds in personal donations to the Tory party. Hold the press!

7) Afghanistan deaths: In under-reported remarks, the near-deified commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." Meanwhile, Afghan officials have stated that Nato jets killed four civilians, including a child, during a firefight with Taliban militants in Helmand Province this week. Fantastic. Winning hearts and minds, I guess . . .

8) Iraq elections (and deaths): Did you know that Iraq's much-awaited and much-praised parliamentary elections last month, in the words of National Public Radio, "left no clear winner, promising months of horse-trading among the Shia, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish blocs"? You might not, given the meagre coverage Iraq gets in our newspapers these days. Did you know that the top Shia bad boy, Moqtada al-Sadr, is now the Nick Clegg of Iraqi politics? With some 40 seats, the Sadrists are the new kingmakers in Baghdad. What an irony. Oh, and have you seen the disturbing and graphic Wikileaks video (dated 12 July 2007) of two US helicopter gunships opening fire on, and killing, 12 unarmed Iraqis, including two journalists who worked for the Reuters news agency? "Look at those dead b******s," one crew member says. "Nice," another responds.

9) Blair's return: I'm sorry to have missed Tony Blair's speech to Trimdon Labour Club in his former constituency, Sedgefield. The perma-tanned ex-premier praised Gordon Brown's "experience, judgement and boldness" and rightly described the Tories' claim that it was Time for Change as "the most vacuous slogan in politics". But did the multimillionaire consultant to JPMorgan and Louis Vuitton, who arrived in a BMW 7-Series, make any contribution to the cash-strapped and struggling Labour Club? From the Times: "Keith Thompson, 50, vice-chairman of the club and a parish councillor who has voted Labour all his life, said: 'We have written to Blair four times since last August and not even received a reply. He has come and used and abused it. There are a lot of people who think that. That is the talk in the club.' " Lovely . . .

10) Rod Liddle and the Press Complaints Commission: I can't say I wasn't pleased to see the toothless PCC censure the Spectator journalist for crass and inaccurate remarks last year, on his blog, about the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London being perpetrated by young African-Caribbean men. I'm just astonished it had nothing to say about his concluding remarks: "The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks." What were you thinking, Rod?

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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