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Fussing over the Queen, Clegg’s Oratory, and how to deal with terrorist threats

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

“Don’t make a fuss!” was the Daily Mail’s front-page headline, paraphrasing the mon - arch’s instruction when she needed hospitalisation after repeated dashes to the unmentionable. The Mail proceeded to make a fuss, as did most other papers, particularly the Telegraph, with its royal picture occupying the entire space above the front-page fold, save for a short column headed: “Her Maj - esty in hospital”. The BBC’s royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, who once worked for Panorama and reported from Northern Ireland, Beirut and the Falklands, waited humbly outside Buckingham Palace, as if he were a medieval peasant hoping that his monarch would recover sufficiently to cure him of scrofula. One item of substantive information emerged: the Queen would spend two days in hospital.

She was out in less than 24 hours.

Yes, it was all very silly – but no sillier, perhaps, than equally ill-informed sports reporters speculating about a footballer’s ligaments. And not much sillier than endless stories about what one Lib Dem said to another Lib Dem about Lord Rennard’s allegedly wandering hands. Newspapers and broadcasters have so much time and space to fill that they have long lost the ability to discriminate – between the reliable and unreliable, significant and insignificant, surprising and unsurprising. All they know is that royalty, football and sex will sell.

School ties

The London Oratory – the comprehensive to which Nick Clegg and his wife have opted to send their eldest son – is said to be a “good school” because it has some of the best exam results in London. Yet it is “good” because parents such as the Cleggs and the Blairs send their children there, armed with cultural capital from affluent, middle-class homes. Situated in an area where houses sell for more than £2m, it recruits God-fearing, churchattending Catholic children from across the capital. Only 6 per cent receive free school meals (the best available proxy for deprivation), against 36 per cent in inner London as a whole. No doubt the teachers do a fine job but the main determinant of any school’s success is not the quality of teaching but the calibre of the pupil intake.

Clegg is capable of understanding this. Yet, like other politicians, he trots out platitudes about how parents need more choice of similarly “good” schools. It is not, however, possible for more than a small number of comprehensives to have as few poor children as the Oratory. The Tories’ Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced full “parental choice” to “drive up” standards. All it has done is to allow the smarter and richer middle classes to keep their children in socially exclusive laagers without paying fees. In the Oratory’s borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, only 60 per cent of parents get their first choice of secondary school and nearly 20 per cent don’t get even their second or third choices. Isn’t it time somebody admitted that the parental choice policy has failed?

Home truths

Several boss-class members announced their support for Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo!, who has banned working from home. Mayer argues: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.” Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, owned by Condé Nast, agrees: “The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way.”

Corporate executives keep staff in the office for “incalculable” reasons but when they see calculable ways of saving money – in customer services, say – they have no hesitation in outsourcing.

Scare tactics

On 3 March, police in Londonderry, the UK’s 2013 capital of culture, rammed a van carrying four primed mortars. Officers said (as they would) that, if they had not acted with minutes to spare, “mass carnage” could have followed. Most papers printed in London thought the story hardly worth mentioning. Yet the incident was not exceptional: last month, police found a rocket launcher and warhead in Belfast.

The threat of Islamic jihadists receives great attention from politicians and the press and we are told that, to control them, we should abandon civil liberties. Irish Republican terrorists, though fewer than 20 years ago, have a longer history, more support in their communities (at least tacitly), better equipment and a more successful record. Yet we shrug our shoulders at the threat they pose to a part of the UK that is due to host the G8 summit in June. And that, I think, is the better reaction.

Killing the joke

My wife and I went to see Trevor Nunn’s production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic. It has two thuggish but goofy gangsters and, in one scene, a US general is warned they carry guns. “I should hope so,” he says, asserting his support for the Second Amendment. The gangsters – like Laurel and Hardy, one is thin and weedy, the other well built – cry: “Guns don’t kill people. We do.” The audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not.

Kiss Me, Kate was first performed on Broadway in 1948. Have Americans been discussing gun control, in the same terms, for 65 years? I fear they have and the line will sound just as edgy in 2078.

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 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide