The 2010 fees protests. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
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The credulity of Straw and Rifkind, Syriza’s losing hand and Labour’s muddle over fees

Plus, why Wolf Hall should have character stats flash up - so you can remember who destroyed the most monastaries.

What is most extraordinary about the behaviour of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretaries who were trapped by undercover journalists into offering their expertise to a fictitious Chinese company for £5,000 a day or more, is that they were so easily bamboozled. It is not, after all, the first time that MPs have been taken in by such approaches. Did it not occur to them to do a little research? To check the identity and track record of those supposedly running the company? To check the credentials of the go-betweens?

Both Straw and Rifkind believe that MPs aren’t paid enough (in terms of either salary or post-retirement pension) and that this excuses their anxiety to acquire “consultancies”. Straw, it is reported, says: “There is [a] really serious issue these days of making politics sufficiently attractive for the brightest and best.” On the evidence of his and Rifkind’s credulity, he clearly has a point.


Arguments of a straw man

I have known Straw for 46 years, since he was elected – supposedly as a left-wing firebrand – to the presidency of the National Union of Students. I immediately liked and respected him and, although we have had little contact in recent years, I still do.

However, he always had a weakness for making deals. I recall arriving at his flat late one night when he was the NUS president to find him in a state of high excitement, bashing away on a typewriter. He was putting down on paper, he said, a formula for ending the dispute over universities’ “secret files” on their students – some of them identifying potentially troublesome political leanings – which had led to campus sit-ins across the country. Soundings had led him to believe that he could make a deal with
the vice-chancellors.

The evident buzz he got from this prospect far exceeded, in my observation, any buzz he got from leading his followers into battle. Barbara Castle later appointed him as her adviser for his “guile and low cunning”, a description of which Straw was so proud that he showcased it below a chapter heading in his memoirs. Sadly, the deal he eagerly offered the fictitious Chinese suitors and the guile with which he proposed to serve them bring to an ignominious end his political career.


Dealer takes all

In an imperfect world, however, guile and deal-making are useful talents for politicians of any description. Syriza’s leaders, I fear, lack them. The new Greek government went into negotiations with its European partners holding a nuclear option: it could ditch the euro, return to the drachma and, in effect, default on its debts. True, that course would inflict damage on Greece and on Syriza particularly, since it told voters that it wouldn’t leave the eurozone.

But a nuclear option always entails potential damage to those who threaten to unleash it. Grexit would blow apart the idea that the eurozone is for ever, suggest that the EU (facing a possible Brexit as well) is crumbling from the edges, confront Germany with the prospect of losing its markets in southern Europe and perhaps deliver new allies and business partners to the Russians and Chinese. Were EU leaders more willing to run those risks than Greece was to run the risks to its own future?

Syriza, it seems, never tried to find out. International diplomacy is like a game of poker in which contestants have to judge whether their opponents really do have an ace in their hands or are just bluffing. The Greeks chose to play without an ace. Syriza’s anti-austerity ideas look like common sense even to many economists. But because the new leaders lack experience of the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations of top-level diplomacy, it isn’t surprising that they were bested when it came to deal-making.


Fee on thee, wretch

It will take mighty feats of deal-making to sort out Labour’s mess over student fees. The party proposes to reduce the cap on them from £9,000 to £6,000 a year – but its leaders can’t agree on where it will find the money to compensate universities for the lost income.

It is painfully ironic that two parties that purport to care about the less privileged (the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour) have managed to make such trouble for themselves on this issue. As long as it is a service distributed uniquely according to “merit” – rather than being available on the basis of need, as most welfare services are, or a universal right of access, as schools and public libraries are – university education will disproportionately benefit the children of affluent parents who have the wherewithal to ensure that the necessary credentials are acquired.

Fees have not deterred students from poor homes but, by allowing the continued expansion of higher education, have enabled more of them to participate. If a party wishes to benefit the underprivileged on a bigger scale, it should force universities to discriminate in their favour.


Mantel’s match stats

By the time you read this, you will have seen Anne Boleyn lose her head – assuming you have been watching the BBC’s production of Wolf Hall. But if my own circle of acquaintances is any guide, you probably gave up midway through the series because you couldn’t follow who was who and what was going on.

One difficulty was the frequency of unexplained flashbacks; another was the high number of characters called Thomas, Henry or Mary. Though I have read Hilary Mantel’s two novels, I needed the who’s who that they helpfully include in order to follow the TV production. Perhaps the BBC should have assisted further by flashing explanatory titbits on the screen as sports programmes do during live matches: “Thomas Cromwell, king’s chief minister, 260 monasteries, 142 nunneries, 183 friaries dissolved since 1536.” Or: “Henry VIII, Church of England manager since 1534, six marriages in premiership reign.”

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 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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