An Afghan banana seller in Jalalabad, 2013. Each of the fruit contains more than the RDA of sugar. (Photo: Getty)
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Getting into state school Gove-style, milking the dairy industry and going bananas about sugar

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts.

Michael Gove has won praise for sending his ten-year-old daughter to Grey Coat Hospital, a girls’ comprehensive in Westminster. It is refreshing that a Tory education secretary has opted for a multi-ethnic urban school (nearly 30 per cent of its pupils don’t have English as their first language) and that his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, has written about “the miracle of our state education system . . . [which] welcomes all-comers”. Vine admits that “snobbery” (her word) plays a part when parents choose fee-charging schools. They are “paying for their child to mix with the right kind of kids”.

While giving the Goves due credit, we should note that they aren’t exactly sending their child to the neighbourhood comprehensive. She will travel more than five miles from their home in west London, bypassing several other comprehensives rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.

More important, you need nifty footwork to get your child into Grey Coat. It is not only a Church of England school but also a specialist language school, which admits 10 per cent of its children after an “aptitude” test. It is hugely oversubscribed, with more than six applicants for each place, and the criteria for choosing the lucky ones are exceedingly complex.

More than two-thirds of places are reserved for Christian applicants who have attended church with their family weekly for five years. The child must also acquire “points” from baptism, confirmation, Sunday school attendance and “a role in public worship”. Parents, too, must accumulate points from, say, “elected office in the church” and “practical involvement”.

In November, the schools adjudicator deemed these arrangements neither open nor fair as required by the government’s
admissions code. Working hours or childcare difficulties prevent some families, especially single parents, from participating in church activities, the adjudicator ruled. Did Gove take advantage of an admissions process that breaches his department’s rules?

Following Shephard

While we’re about it, it isn’t true that Gove is the first Tory education secretary to send a child to a state secondary. Gillian Shephard, in office from 1994 to 1997, sent two sons (actually stepsons, but their mother died young and Shephard raised them from infancy) to state schools. But Shephard is a woman, so I suppose she doesn’t count.

Dear dairy

Tesco’s latest cut in the price of milk – it will sell four pints for £1 – has led to another spate of stories about the imminent collapse of the British dairy industry. I do not know enough about the economics of farming to judge the veracity of these reports. I do know that, all my adult life, people have complained about things that, though the complainants do not realise it, are the result of successive (mostly
Tory) governments trying to make the British economy more “competitive”.

Rock-bottom milk prices putting farmers out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1994 of the Milk Marketing Board, which once set prices according to production costs. Small, independent retailers going out of business? Blame it on the abolition in 1964 of resale price maintenance (RPM); RPM allowed producers to fix the prices at which their goods were sold. Unhelpful and ignorant sales assistants? Blame the end of RPM again, because retailers now compete on price, not on personal service. The country has repeatedly voted for more capitalism. It should now grin and bear it.

Sugar goes bananas

Is milk good for us? Who knows? Following advice on what to eat has as many ups and downs as following the England cricket team. Keep sugar to a minimum, we are told. Fine, many of us already call it “white death”. Now the World Health Organisation says we should aim to limit it to six teaspoons a day. A banana contains seven teaspoons, the WHO adds. I deduce that I should never eat a banana or, if I do, I should eat half, saving the other half for another day. On either day, I should take care not to eat an orange, which contains four teaspoons. Can that be right?

Tell me Hawaii

Sir Tim Rice seems baffled by the failure of his latest musical, musing that people don’t want new songs, only old ones repackaged. Reluctant to reject a production because it lacks popular appeal, I hastened to buy tickets before From Here to Eternity closes at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London. The music was unmemorable, the set colourless (though it’s supposed to represent Hawaii, a tropical island), the choreography ragged, the historical context (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) barely evident. Sometimes, the popular verdict is spot on. Rice should try writing better shows.

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 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage