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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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