Leaving, US-style: students in Newcastle at their end of GCSE prom, 2011. Photo: Getty
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Loaded language, school prom debt and the riches of average earnings

Peter Wilby remarks on how so much of our public discourse concerns “inappropriate language”. Plus why are parents bankrupting themselves for American-style proms?

On 20 May, the Guardian’s front page brought readers the latest on the “sexist” emails sent by Richard Scudamore, chief executive of football’s Premier League from his work computer . On page three, it reported a court case in which a 33-year-old man was charged with retweeting messages that threatened the MP Stella Creasy with rape. A page-four story updated us on Nigel Farage’s possibly racist comments about Romanians. Page five was dedicated to John Inverdale recalling last year’s storm over his disparaging remarks on Radio 5 Live about the looks of a female tennis player. Page seven brought news of an internal battle in the Police Federation after the Plebgate affair over what the former Tory minister Andrew Mitchell said in 2012 to police officers at the Downing Street gates. By then, we were nearly at the foreign pages, where a million Bosnians were coping with floods, Thais with martial law, and Indians with a new leader who allegedly connived in mass slaughter in 2002.

I do not wish to minimise the offence caused by Scudamore, Farage, Inverdale or, allegedly, Mitchell, still less the distress caused by the Twitter troll. Nor do I wish to single out the Guardian; other papers covered these stories, if not always quite as prominently. (I am sure the relatively modest coverage of Scudamore’s emails in the Times and Sun has nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch’s close business relationship with the Premier League.) But isn’t it striking that so much of our public discourse concerns what is described as “inappropriate” language? And I haven’t even mentioned the Guardian’s page-two story: the conviction of Abu Hamza on several charges, including “advocating” violent jihad.

Comprehensive costs

Commentators frequently note the rising cost of sending a child to a fee-charging school. We hear less of the rising costs at state schools. Comprehensives routinely organise holiday excursions to, say, Zambia, or ski slopes in America. Now schools are preparing for the annual “prom” after GCSE exams. For parents of girls in particular this involves far more than buying a ticket. Stretch limos, photographs, hair, make-up and, above all, dresses, some imported from America, can bump the cost up to nearly £1,000. True, there is no compulsion to take part but, as every parent knows, it’s not as simple as that. I wonder how many families get into debt rather than risk their children feeling left out at schools that always bang on about being “inclusive”.

No doubt Michael Gove thinks this kind of thing is admirably aspirational. But in my view state schools should not be acting as vehicles for conspicuous consumption.

Egalité, briefly

I have reached page 336 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which represents 58.2 per cent of the total distance to be travelled. One reward of such books, arduous though they are, is that you come across illuminating material that goes unmentioned in reviews. For example, the conventional view of “les événements” of 1968 – the student uprising in Paris – is that they had significant social and cultural effects but zero influence on economic injustice. Not so, according to Piketty. President de Gaulle, desperate to buy off unrest that spread to the working class, agreed an immediate 20 per cent rise in the minimum wage. It had increased only 25 per cent in the previous 18 years, but more than doubled in value over the next 15.

The result, Piketty writes, was “a very substantial compression” of inequality. So the students, who romantically saw themselves as a revolutionary vanguard, did the working classes some good, if only temporarily. The steady improvement in wages and the fall in inequality were smartly reversed in 1982-83 by – wouldn’t you know it? – a Socialist government.

Aspire to average

Perhaps Ed Miliband’s proposals to link the minimum wage to hourly earnings will lead to another “very substantial compression”. But it depends what he’s talking about, which isn’t clear. Most reports refer to “average earnings” and “median earnings” as though they were synonymous. They are not. An average wage is calculated by adding all wages and dividing by the number of earners, a median by listing all wage-earners by order of rank and finding the one bang in the middle, where half earn more and half less. The former can be 25 per cent higher than the latter, because it is inflated by bankers, chief executives and Daily Mail editors.

Almost certainly, Miliband intends a link with median earnings. But perhaps we pedants should shut up. The best hope of reversing the trend to more inequality may be for Labour to link the minimum wage, by stealth, to average earnings.

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 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.