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Jumping off cliffs, bankers in our schools and cricket’s apartheid years

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

As we looked at the US and breathed a sigh of relief as it inched away from its fiscal cliff, the Americans looked at us and marvelled. As they see it, we’ve already jumped. “Britain has . . . crashed over its own economic preci - pice,” gasped the Washington Post, which visited Newport, a “Welsh city in western Britain”, and, using the tone it might adopt for a dysfunctional African state, reported “a bleak mix of liquidation sales, pop-up thrift shops and pessimistic merchants mounting meagre Christmas displays”.

The New York Times was astonished that our GDP is still below its 2007 level. “Historically, it’s almost unimaginable for a major economy to be poorer than it was half a decade ago.” It puzzled over why, with our economy stagnant, unemployment has stopped rising, a situation for which there is no precedent. It scratched its head over how more workers can produce less, which seems impossible unless factories have been bombed or workers lobotomised. It decided the government must be basing its policies on “a projection so dark that it’s almost never uttered out loud” – the financial crash caused such economic dislocation that the entire nation, even if everyone went back to work and businesses operated at maximum capacity, could not possibly produce as much as it used to. “Throughout the economy, people had to shift from highly profitable fields . . . into much less lucrative ones.”

What they are trying to tell us, I think, is that, while Americans struggle to stop fringe Republican loonies from derailing their economy, our loonies are in charge.

Every lesson counts

Banks, it is reported, are to be invited in to schools to help with financial education. Will emissaries from, say, NatWest be handing out invitations to apply for credit cards or payment protection insurance? We are assured not. But it seems doubtful that they will explain how one should always treat banks offering “products” rather as one treats emails from “friends” stranded penniless and requiring urgent funds in Tenerife.

Intelligence squared

The Guardian’s excellent John Harris has visited several of Michael Gove’s exciting free schools and reports from Tiger primary in Maidstone. Here, explains Emma Bryant, the headteacher, pupils get “deep, memorable learning” that is “about linking all the curri - culum areas – history, geography, art – into one subject”. There is lots of “collaborative learning” in “plazas”, which Harris describes as “huge spaces shared by at least two classes”.

There was a lot of this sort of thing around in the 1970s: “the integrated day”, “the openplan school”, “learning by discovery”, no stuffy old subjects. Then it was denounced as sloppy and trendy and more or less banned by Tory ministers, who blamed lefty local authorities for allowing such nonsense. But now it’s happening in a Gove-approved free school. So that’s all right.

Charter barter

Negotiations over what to do about the Leveson report seem stuck over who controls the regulator who will regulate the regulator. Or something like that. Perhaps I can help. Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister, favours a royal charter. But royal charters can be amended by the Privy Council, which, editors and publishers point out, is for all practical purposes the same thing as the government. There is, however, a judicial committee of the Privy Council –happily comprising ten judges, all Oxbridge graduates, nine of them men – which acts as the highest court of appeal for many current and former Commonwealth countries. This seems the ideal body. Newspapers cannot object to being treated as if they were sovereign nations. Can they?

He’s out

Neil Adcock, the former South African cricketer who has died at 81, formed, with the late Peter Heine, a fast bowling duo that rivalled England’s Trueman and Statham in the late 1950s. They played when their country’s white-only teams were allowed to compete internationally almost without protest. Like most cricketers, they accepted, and largely supported, segregated sport. But in the 1970s, when South Africa faced expulsion from international cricket, white players decided that, even though they weren’t exactly antiapartheid, they were happy to have a couple of black players in the national team.

To illustrate the changed mood, Wisden Cricket Monthly ran a “conversation” between Adcock and Heine. Here is an extract:

Adcock What would you have done if a black traffic warden had booked you 20 years ago?
Heine I would have murdered him.
Adcock And what about today, Pete? What would your reaction be today?
Heine Today, Addie, it would be OK.

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 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers