On Winterval and the Mail

Politicians like Eric Pickles have bought into this bogus mythology. No longer.

All my Christmases have come at once with an early gift from the Daily Mail's new Corrections and Clarifications column. "We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas," the newspaper writes today, in response to reader complaints about a Melanie Phillips article.

For media blogging nerds like me, frantically typing this post in a slightly darkened spare bedroom to get rid of the sense of ennui and despair, this is a truly amazing day. For years we've been banging on about media myths and stuff having been made up; for years, we've been patronised or ignored, while politicians like Eric Pickles have happily bought into the bogus mythology as it suits their agenda.

My fellow media blogger Kevin Arscott should take a bow for his stellar essay on Winterval, its origins and its development as a fable that apparently showed the PC Brigade had gone well and truly mad, rather than the throwaway marketing exercise from Birmingham City Council it actually was. Many other bloggers have been pushing the issue for years now. No, Winterval didn't replace Christmas, we said. No, Christmas wasn't renamed Winterval, we said; that wasn't it at all.

The more noise we made, the more it seemed that the stories would return. Winterval was the politically correct way of referring to Christmas; it was taking Christ out of Christmas; it was part of the PC killjoys' attempts to de-Christianise Britain and bring us all into an Iron Curtain world of secularist misery. The myth kept on coming back -- every year, at Christmas time, or before.

These "X is being banned" stories are all essentially the same, when you boil them down. Whether it's poppies being banned by troop-hating fast food franchises, England shirts being banned by immigrant bus drivers or Christmas being banned by killjoy councils scared of offending minorities, the tale follows a standard pattern. The totemic object -- the poppy, the England shirt, the baby Jesus -- is being rejected because of a prevailing spectral force of injustice -- political correctness, jobsworths, The Left and so on -- and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Get angry now!

People do get angry. Facebook campaigns begin. Statements in CAPITAL LETTERS reverberate around Twitter. A little later down the line, when the anger has subsided and the truth is revealed to be not quite as terrible as it was at first made out to be, it doesn't get put right, and so sits around to be woken up again at the next Remembrance Day, or Christmas season, or England appearance in an international tournament.

Now, thanks to the Mail's sensible and ethical new policy of correcting and clarifying where possible, there's the chance to see these things rectified. There it is, in black and white: Christmas was not renamed Winterval. Whenever someone tells you it was, you can point out that the Mail admitted it wasn't. You can even link to the original piece, where a correction has been made underneath the article.

Amid the praise that should be given to the Mail for correcting the Phillips article, there is a slight note of caution. This may well be seen, as Phillips said herself in the original piece, as "the Left" (capital L essential) "muzzling rational debate". Why, it's even got to the stage nowadays where you can't even say something that isn't true in a national newspaper without having to correct it, thanks to the Left! The forces of political correctness and the Thought Police have become so insidious, they've managed to make Paul Dacre willingly clarify Daily Mail articles in the Daily Mail.

Well, I don't think anyone on The Left (I might capitalise the T as well, to make us sound even more SINISTER) wants to see "rational debate" muzzled. It's the "saying things that aren't true" bit; for some reason -- we're just awful people essentially, and hate freedom -- that winds us up a bit. By all means let's have a rational debate about how THE LEFT (it's nicer all in capitals, I think) are shutting down debate by only allowing handsomely paid right-wing columnists to say the same things repeatedly all the time.

But saying things that aren't accurate in a mass-circulation newspaper isn't a very good thing to do, morally or journalistically. Get the facts right and we'll have a debate about the rest.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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