Released without charge: Gerry Adams with Northern Ireland's deputy FM Martin McGuinness on 4 May. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Arresting Gerry Adams, the problem with Venezuela, and beating poverty… with maths

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

What was the point of the Northern Ireland police arresting and holding Gerry Adams for four days over a murder that happened 42 years ago? A conviction would be impossible to obtain. Using a Diplock court (sitting without a jury) would be unthinkable for such a high-profile case. Few potential witnesses would be willing to give evidence and few jurors willing to convict, either because they regard Adams as a liberation hero or because they still fear the IRA. Mainland press commentators who insist “justice” must be done forget that justice is always elusive in a divided society where paramilitary gangs are never far below the surface.

Tony Blair’s peace with the Provisional IRA was a fudge and perhaps a necessary one. Hardline republicans will stick with democratic politics as long as they think it works for them. If it ever ceases to do so, the IRA – or a “rebel” offshoot, which is what the Provisional IRA was in the first place – will reappear. “We haven’t gone away, you know,” a Belfast rally was told after Adams’s arrest. That understanding has underpinned the province’s affairs for 16 years.

There was never a formal amnesty, only a series of nods and winks. Paramilitaries on both sides could do as they pleased in sectarian working-class ghettos. But Northern Ireland’s middle classes could get on with their shopping while business could make profits without inconvenience from bombs. So that’s all right – for the time being. 

Shapps goes Caracas

Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, accuses Ed Miliband of favouring “Venezuelan-style rent controls”. I don’t deny there are arguments against controls. But why doesn’t Shapps – who, I suspect, knows even less than I do about housing in Caracas – make those arguments instead of namechecking Venezuela as though that settled the matter? That country is now scarcely mentioned, even in the centre-left press, without words such as “dictatorship” and “tyranny” lurking nearby. Tory papers and politicians bracket it with the likes of North Korea, Iran and Syria. Although it is far from perfect, Venezuela regularly hovers around mid-table in most indices of democracy and human rights. It is singled out because its government is among the few that is recognisably socialist.

What Shapps probably had in mind was a new law that forces some private landlords to sell to their tenants at a “fair price” determined by the government. Which reminds me of the Right to Buy policy that the Tories forced on local council landlords. 

Everybody hates Tony

Et tu, Philip? The Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens, one of Tony Blair’s more respectful biographers, wrote a startling column the other day about the former PM’s “single-minded, almost manic, quest for personal riches”. Stephens has always argued that Blair’s intentions in Iraq were honourable and still thinks he was “a better prime minister than history will probably allow”. But he now says no other political leader has been so “diligent . . . in the sullying of his own reputation”. He accuses Blair – who recently called for the west to ally with Russia and China against Islamists – of “ahistorical and simplistic analysis”.

It is a measure of Blair’s fall that even the judicious Stephens holds him in such contempt. Some Labour people still call themselves Blairites but it will soon rival Stalinist or Maoist as a label to be avoided.

A problem halved

Rejoice. Global poverty – defined as the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day – has nearly halved, from 19.7 per cent to 11.2 per cent. Moreover, this fall happened overnight, just the other day. How? Not, alas, because some hedge-fund manager hired helicopters to drop dollar bills across Africa and Asia but because the World Bank has recalculated. Instead of using currency exchange rates, it has switched to purchasing power parity – which tells you what $1.25 will buy in different countries. Goods are usually cheaper in poor countries so a little goes a long way and, as the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles, puts it, “Many of the world’s poor are not as destitute as we had imagined.” That is a convenient conclusion for the World Bank, a body that imposes “structural adjustment” on developing countries, meaning less welfare and fewer public services.

Jurassic snark

My old friend Simon Heffer, trailing his new book, Simply English, writes in the Daily Mail: “To describe someone with outdated attitudes or opinions as a dinosaur is now a cliché.” It presumably wasn’t a year ago, when Heffer, commenting on an NS interview with the Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, wrote: “The roar of the dinosaur . . . echoes again.”

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 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder