What David Starkey can learn from Rastamouse

The historian's comments were wrong, insulting, crude and disingenuous. He could learn a lot from th

David Starkey has a lot to learn from Rastamouse. We've all got a lot to learn from Rastamouse, but Starkey in particular. After his comments on Newsnight last week about white people having become black, and his horror at the sound of patois, he might learn something at the Thames Festival, when he's due to share a boat with the rasta rodent's creators Genevieve Webster and Michael De Souza.

It's probably too much to hope that Starkey greets the pair with a cheery "wa'gwan?" and pleads to be made an honorary member of Da Easy Crew as penance for his shameful statements. He should: he'd probably get an insight into the things he's spoken about from the tales of Rastamouse and Da Easy Crew, a community-spirited bunch who always want "to make a bad ting good". Perhaps in the case of Starkey's numbskull views, that might be an assignment too far even for Rastamouse. President Wensley Dale might regard Starkey as a lost cause, but we can always hope.

What Starkey said last week was wrong, insulting, crude and disingenuous. You don't even have to use the R-bomb, and it's probably best that those who disagree with him choose not to use it. No -- perhaps words like pathetic, ill-judged, crude, daft, idiotic, embarrassing, disgraceful and witless are better than the R-bomb. It's true, I suppose, that people do occasionally wheel out terms like racist (and misogynist, and so on) when they aren't merited, as a way of going nuclear in an argument. But there are equally many times when people do say and write things which are offensive, and need to be called out.

I know there are many who have leapt to his defence. "Oh no no, it wasn't racist because it wasn't racist, therefore it wasn't," goes the argument, and who am I to argue against that? How can you? There's no point. It's one of those odd things about the way we argue things nowadays that if you say someone's said something racist for saying something racist, it gives them an immediate "out". Aha, they turn around and say, you're calling me a racist, it's the Politically Correct Stasi gone mad, it's the new McCarthyism, you're not even allowed to be racist anymore without someone going and calling you racist. And that opens up a huge, distracting and tedious debate which deflects you from what people actually said.

What Starkey actually said was wrong. He got it hopelessly, ridiculously wrong. But these things happen when you wheel on entertaining experts like Starkey, controversialists who "make good TV" rather than necessarily provide the most accurate answers to the questions at hand. Television is forever in fear of the remote control, and aims to keep us interested; it knows we're not too keen on dry debates, so it aims to stir the pot a little.

Starkey is, after all, not put on television because of his skill as a historian. He's put on television as an entertainer, a controversialist, a pompous-sounding gasbag who comes out with stuff that makes you sit up and take notice. There should be a caption on screen whenever he starts his Professor Yaffle needling: "This historian is for entertainment purposes only."

In the meantime, Starkey could do worse than read a few Rastamouse books to gen up on his new friends. He might even learn some of the patois that scares him so much, so he can sound culturally aware for his next TV appearance. Irie.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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