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.

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 
Broadcaster Sir David Frost at BBC studios. Image: Getty

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 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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