CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Drugs, royals and the lousy laws being rushed through

Johann Hari sets out two law changes that will harm Britain: illegalising mephedrone, which will drive the drug on to the black market, and exempting communications between Charles Windsor and goverment ministers from the Freedom of Information Act.

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2. Only drug dealers will benefit from this absurd ban on mephedrone (Guardian)

Simon Jenkins agrees that prohibition of mephedrone will only serve to drive supply underground, endanger users and make it tougher to wean addicts off harder drugs.

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3. Twelve good men no longer guarantee truth (Times)

As crime gets more sophisticated, sometimes the jury system will not be able to cope. Andy Hayman argues that it would be a good thing if trials by judge alone were more common.

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4. Honesty is the first casualty when there's an election to win (Daily Telegraph)

Jeff Randall bemoans how today's politicians are prepared to say almost anything but the truth. Substance is irrelevant; the goal is simply to nail a rival's "mistake".

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5. The battle for libel reform has only begun (Guardian)

Fresh from yesterday's ruling, Simon Singh writes in the Guardian. While he welcomes the ruling on his article, he calls for further libel reform: the law remains a huge hazard for journalists.

6. Get ready for Vince in No 11 (Independent)

There is a misconception that Nick Clegg will find it difficult to extract concessions from Gordon Brown in a hung parliament, says Sean O'Grady. In fact, a Lib-Lab coalition has the air of inevitability about it.

7. The profit motive has a place in the classroom (Times)

If businesses can help more children to learn, we should let them make money -- and hire and fire teachers, says Philip Collins.

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8. Cameron's big society is bound to become mean (Guardian)

Martin Kettle says that Blair is right to ask where the Tories are centred. Even Cameron's bold, warm vision of localism will of necessity be squeezed into something meaner because of the economic climate.

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9. Hamid Karzai is making some pretty unpleasant friends (Daily Telegraph)

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has an increasingly hostile attitude towards his western backers, writes Con Coughlin. His links to Iran and the Taliban are causing concern.

10. The Pope should reconsider his state visit to Britain (Independent)

The Pope may not be guilty of any crime, but regardless of this, he has failed in his role as pontiff. The leading article calls for him to reconsider his forthcoming visit to the UK. It is the wrong occassion, at the wrong time.

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Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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. 

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