A new statesman?

The Bagpuss and Clangers creator issues a stark warning about the fate of the planet unless some tou

Yes! Yes indeed! If there’s one thing the world needs most urgently just now it is a new statesman, or come to that, an old statesman or stateswoman, one, or half a dozen even, who can draw the world’s attention to the sorry state it has got itself into, and persuade it to sort itself out.

Where would such a statesman start? What qualities would be needed? Courage, certainly. Also a complete absence of personal or political agenda; to be widely recognised and universally respected for sincerity, truthfulness and have the stature and authority to deliver. It’s a lot to ask.

But, literally at this moment in time, the need is simpler. We need a statesman with one over-arching faculty: the ability to recognise, bring to public attention and act on, an imperative.

What is this imperative?

Listen . . .Faintly, from over a quarter of a century ago, I can hear the icy Welsh voice of the Trade Union leader, Clive Jenkins, declaring gleefully: "The Cap-it-al-ist System has failed!"

Don’t be alarmed! I’m not suggesting that Clive Jenkins might have been the statesman we need. At the time his words just reminded me that Capitalism is not so much a System as a naturally-occurring growth: "wherever two or three are gathered together in its name, one of them will very likely open a shop."

So whether it’s called capitalism, honest trade, market economics or exploitation, the unbridled, self-generating search for personal gain has always been the driving-force of human life – and equally, a function of government has been to bridle it, to guard the welfare of the many and of the world itself, from the depredations of the greedy few (and pigs were meant to fly).

But Clive Jenkins’ words were prophetic. Human housekeeping has at last failed, not because it has ceased to grow and prosper, but because, like shot lettuce in an untended allotment, it has let itself grow into such an absurdity of self-indulgence that it has been blindly despoiling the planet, profligately using up its resources as if there was no tomorrow and has at last suddenly noticed something that has long been in front of its eyes – that there is no tomorrow.

The government has at last brought itself to admit that man-made global warming is the most dangerous peril that the human race has failed to face, and it is now busy failing to face it.
That sounds unduly damning, but it seems to be true. Having admitted the existence of global warming, the government has examined the evidence and has chosen to adopt a particularly optimistic prediction of the future effects of global warming. A prediction that has been recognised by its own chief scientist as being ‘politically biased’ (BBC Today 27 10 05). Its reason for doing this is that it allows more time than there is available, nearly half a century, in which to make corrections to the ‘economic system’ without unduly disturbing the river of conspicuous consumption on which it depends.

The likelihood that the chosen prediction, the prophetic “target” adopted by the government, could lead to the suicide of the world is now well known and is confirmed by the realistic and up-to-date research which takes into account the self-inducing nature of global warming and suspects that the time left may just be a few years*. But, looked at as a political policy, the draconian legislation that would be needed to save the world in the time left, does not seem to be being regarded as politically realistic and is therefore not likely to be brought forward.

So where does that leave us?

Us? The government has already chosen for us. For years now we have been farmed by the supermarkets and the supermarket-style government. We are free, free to have whatever opinions we fancy, because it doesn’t make any difference what we think, so long as we go on shopping.

So what the government seems to have settled for is the prospect of a slow death-sentence for the world rather than a sudden difficult attempt to save it. Not because it is deliberately callous but because it doesn’t think it could sell the idea of compulsory privations to an electorate so softened by years of ever-increasing standards-of-living that it has come to assume that complacent affluence is a basic entitlement, something it couldn’t be expected to live without. Oddly enough I am old enough to remember the so-called privations which we all lived through during the 1939-1947 war, and I know they were all right. But all the same I can see that, if they had an option, few people would fancy to try it again.

The difficulty is that in this case there isn’t any option. The prophesies and predictions offered by enterprising climatologists are just that: auguries, about as definitive as the entrails of chickens were to the Romans. We cannot base the life or death of our children on guesses. The only chance we have of saving the world is to cut CO2 emissions to near-zero immediately and so hope to reverse global warming while there is still time. That is the imperative.

This is difficult to come to terms with. Quite seriously, I doubt if many politicians know what an imperative actually is. Like most of us, they are conditioned to assuming that there is always choice, that life goes on; that ‘global warming’ is just one among many issues on which they can take a posture.

The political parties are already jostling and competing to show which is the greenest by proposing small cosmetic gestures intended to give the impression that they will reduce the ever-growing rate of CO2 emission. While all the time I suspect that they are fending off the thought that they might be kidding themselves, going along with the illusion of safety offered by the ‘chosen version’ rather than facing the fact that all the time there is a space-ship hovering out there, quietly brewing up to destroy life on earth. It may be called the sun, but that is what it is.

The statesman, or stateswoman, if there is one out there, might just discover that the human race is not after all as stupid as it has been led to believe it is. Then we might find ourselves a future, one in which common-sense and compassion are allowed to inform our natural greed, in a world that is safe at last.

© 2006 Oliver Postgate

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Oliver Postgate was the creator of Bagpuss, the Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. His autobiography depicts his passage from grinning show-off to grisly old git, a journey that included not only a prison sentence but also a thirty-year period working with Peter Firmin in cow-shed and pig-sty, making small films. Oliver died on 8 December, 2008
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.