Socially useless activity by socially useless people

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column: the day I dined with David Frost, why we should stay out of Syria, and who will really benefit from Vodafone selling its stake in Verizon Wireless.

New Statesman
Broadcaster Sir David Frost at BBC studios. Image: Getty
The phrase “He rose without a trace” – now commonly used – was coined by Kitty Muggeridge (wife of Malcolm) for David Frost, who has just died. She chose her words precisely. Frost became the best-known face and voice of That Was the Week That Wasand even then was clearly destined for TV megastardom. He wasn’t a singer, a dancer, an actor or a comedian. He was just good at what he did, which was delivering punchlines, written by (some said stolen from) other people, with perfect timing and a nasal, anti-establishment sneer.
 
It isn’t quite fair to say that Frost lacked talent; after all, he almost became a professional footballer with Nottingham Forest and edited Granta literary magazine when he was at Cambridge University. But nobody thought that he was likely to write even a mildly interesting book or that he harboured great passions (except to make lots of money) or strong opinions.
 
My personal memories illustrate the point perfectly. As far as I recall, I met him just once, sitting next to him at a dinner. He was friendly and polite (all the obits agree he was fundamentally nice) and I think we talked, as men will, about football and cricket. Otherwise, he left such a blank in my mind that I now wonder if I ever met him at all or perhaps imagined the encounter.
 

Don’t mention the war

 
If opinion polls are correct, the overwhelming majority of Britons are comfortable with their MPs’ decision to stay out of the Syrian conflict. Yet the politicians are uneasy, even if they were among those who opposed intervention, and are looking for ways of reopening the question. “We can’t just appeal to national self-interest,” an unnamed minister tells the Times.
 
Why not? There are difficulties in identifying self-interest but an appeal to it would save an awful lot of agonising and handwringing. Unleashing missiles and dropping bombs are serious and potentially lethal acts. Most people would say that they are immoral acts unless you face threats to your security, as Tony Blair tacitly acknowledged when he invented weapons of mass destruction, allegedly threatening British troops in Cyprus (with the faintest hint of a threat to London left hanging in the air), to justify the Iraq invasion. Who are we to decide that the lives of Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Serbs and Syrians should be sacrificed to higher moral imperatives?
 
There is plenty of good we can do in the world – development aid, provision of cheap medicines, fair-trade agreements, an open door for refugees, a generous attitude to economic migrants, a refusal to sell military equipment to dictators – without resorting to force. To those who cite the Second World War, I would point out that we fought to prevent Hitler dominating Europe and thus threatening our security, not to stop concentration camps and gas chambers.
 

Gove doesn’t fit

 
Michael Gove’s decision that pupils who miss grade C in GCSE English and maths should continue studying those subjects after 16 is only half right. Proficiency tests in English and maths – virtually essential to mere survival in the 21st century, never mind getting a job – should be like the driving test, which you can take until you pass. Yet the GCSE, with its elaborate syllabuses and grading structures, is not the right vehicle for them. Nor is it right to let pupils drop these subjects once they achieve minimum competence. Everybody should study maths and the native language to 18, as the rest of Europe requires.
 

Taxing times

 
Vodafone will pay no tax in Britain and a measly £3.2bn in the US on the £84bn it gets from selling its stake in Verizon Wireless. This doesn’t matter, we are told, because Vodafone shareholders will receive dividends worth £60bn, of which £15.3bn – a sum equivalent to Bolivia’s annual GDP – will be in cash. This money will boost the British economy and yield tax.
 
The argument doesn’t stack up. For one thing, a large proportion of shareholders’ rewards will go offshore. For another, the rich folk who benefit will save or invest the money elsewhere (in a tax-efficient way, naturally) rather than spending it. What the Vodafone affair demonstrates is Labour’s foolishness in agreeing to make the proceeds from such transactions tax-exempt. It wanted the City to become an international base for mergers and acquisitions – in other words, as Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK says, to boost “socially useless activity by socially useless people”.
 

Ayatollah of Ely

 
A few days ago, I visited Ely Cathedral for the first time. It is not the longest in England – Winchester and St Albans are longer – still less the tallest. But it is somehow the most imposing, because it dominates a landscape that is flat and largely empty for miles around. Those who shudder at the thought of clerical rule in Iran and elsewhere are probably not aware that it represented England’s theocracy until 1837. From 1107, the bishop exercised full temporal as well as spiritual power over the Isle of Ely, so called because it was surrounded by swamp. No wonder Oliver Cromwell, who lived in Ely from 1636, felt moved to join “the congregation of the firstborn”.
 
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005