The manliness of fracking, bad intelligence, and English Test cricket’s selection problem

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Do you care that David Miranda, the partner of an investigative journalist, was held and questioned for nearly nine hours at Heathrow? Enough to take to the streets about it? Or contact your MP? Miranda lives with Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who revealed the extent of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance, thanks to the whistleblower Edward Snowden. You are not an investigative journalist, nor do you live with one. Even if you did, you probably wouldn’t be ferrying materials, as Miranda was, between your partner and a film-maker. Do you, come to that, really care that some geeks in a windowless room in Maryland can read your emails? After all, they contain nothing of the smallest interest to the security authorities.
 
As ministers repeat ad nauseam, you need fear nothing if you aren’t doing anything wrong. On the other hand, you have much to fear from terrorist attacks, though I am not aware of any calculations of the respective risks of being detained as a suspect and of being around when a bomb goes off. Even if you unluckily suffer the former, you probably won’t be killed or maimed – though if you are Brazilian, like Miranda and Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot dead on the London Underground in 2005, it seems you risk particularly rough treatment.
 
So, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? Support the authorities in their exhaustive attempts to keep you safe, even if they sometimes go too far. Remember, however, what the chairman of a long-forgotten inquiry into intelligence agency abuses, Senator Frank Church (quoted in the current New York Review of Books), said in 1975 when the agencies’ powers were a fraction of what they are now: “If a dictator ever took charge . . . there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know . . . That is the abyss from which there is no return.”
 
One of the boys
 
I try to get my head around the pros and cons of fracking. Like many current issues, it strikes me as highly technical, requiring PhDs in physics, chemistry, geology and economics to get a full grasp of the subject. It certainly sounds nasty, because it involves drilling, splitting rocks and injecting water (which I had understood to be in short supply) underground.
 
I don’t want to be a knee-jerk lefty and, now that the Guardian’s George Monbiot has explained that support for fracking marks you out as “one of the boys”, I shall keep my counsel for fear of being thought effeminate. Yet one thing puzzles me. Why are the people outraged by protesters who oppose fracking because it (allegedly) ruins the countryside also outraged by the spread of wind turbines because they (allegedly) ruin the countryside? As Adam Smith nearly said, there’s a lot of ruin in the countryside.
 
Citizens’ advice
 
Browsing the internet, I stumbled across the website of Democracy 2015, a movement set up last year by Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the Independent. Launched with fanfare in that paper, it invited “likeminded citizens” from “demanding careers” to contest every constituency at the next election in the expectation of forming a one-term government to set the country to rights. Now Whittam Smith reports: “Our first public meetings were not as successful as we expected . . . A period of careful reflection is necessary.” In the Corby by-election last November, Democracy 2015 received 35 votes, 64 fewer than the Church of the Militant Elvis.
 
Whittam Smith may be better advised to find people who have pursued undemanding careers in the constituencies they seek to represent. They would be MPs for just one term, with no ambitions except to serve their constituents, scrutinise government actions, vote for legislation only if convinced of its merits and decline freebies or consultancies. Such a group could get 50 seats and transform parliament.
 
Full Monty
 
The spin bowler Monty Panesar has been left out of England’s latest Test squad because he pissed on nightclub bouncers. Perhaps, as recommended by Sir Michael Parkinson, he was testing himself for prostate cancer. How the incident affects his ability to spin a cricket ball isn’t explained. Nor is the failure of Panesar and other talented non-white cricketers – Ravi Bopara, Samit Patel, Adil Rashid, Ajmal Shahzad – to establish themselves in the England team, often for reasons only partly to do with on-field performance.
 
I do not accuse selectors and coaches of racism but some inquiry into this persistent underachievement is surely necessary.
 
In vino veritas
 
Each day, I take five tablets: three in the morning, two at night. I have no idea what they’re for. It’s just that, from time to time, my doctor summons me for “tests”, says I have “failed” and prescribes more tablets. Now, some Danish scientists say that all this screening and medication of senior folk may do more harm than good.
 
It’s probably best to hedge your bets. The latest tests, which involve answering an interminable government questionnaire about “lifestyle”, rule that, being “moderately inactive”, I must drink less wine and take more vigorous exercise.
 
I think I’ll give that a miss. 
Lawyer Gwendolen Morgan, acting for David Miranda, emerges from the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

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 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.