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Naked sleepwalking, going native in Spain, and the real threat to the NHS and the BBC

Plus: why the EU referendum is our Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump moment.

The other day, I read that police in Manchester had picked up a man who was sleepwalking through the city late at night with no clothes on. He wasn’t identified at the time, though I did wonder if it was Louis van Gaal. The story reminded me of an occasion when my late friend John Fortune found himself in the street in Chiswick one night, having sleepwalked (he was dreaming he was in Manhattan) and shut the front door behind him.

He dialled 999 from a phone box. “Are you naked?” the operator asked. “No,” said John. “I’ve got my pyjamas on.” “In that case, it’s the fire brigade you want, sir. I’ll put you through.” (Apparently if you’re naked they send the police.)

So John went back and sat on the wall outside his house and, sure enough, a few minutes later, a fire engine came slowly up the street, its blue lights flashing but without the siren. The fire officer jumped down, took one look at John sitting there in his ­pyjamas and said, “Well, George Parr. You’re in a bit of a pickle, aren’t you?”

Viewers of our TV show will ­remember those peerless interviews in which the Johns – Bird and Fortune – took it in turns to play the hapless George Parr, who could be anything from a banker to a junior minister or an army general. How I miss those sketches. Just imagine who Parr might be today. Probably a Brexiteer.

The air that I breathe

“We want our country back” is a constant Brexit refrain. Yet many of the things that make our country great – the BBC, the NHS, the Post Office – are most at risk not from the EU but from the largely pro-Brexit right wing of the Tory party, which wants to undermine the BBC, privatise the NHS and sign up to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would ­allow companies to sue our government if its policies impacted adversely on their profits.

Many of those pesky European regulations and directives, meanwhile, are designed to improve the quality of our air, beaches and animal welfare – improvements that our government often fights tooth and nail. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for instance, was held to account by the European Court of Justice after the campaign group ClientEarth complained that the air ­quality in 16 of our cities and regions – including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Cardiff – was unacceptably below EU standards on pollution.

Bad medicine

Among the Syrian refugees seeking to come to this country are many highly qualified people, including doctors. As he ran out of ways to keep the lid on the crisis, it must have crossed the Prime Minister’s mind that one way to stop them coming here is to create a situation in which nobody in their right mind would want to be a doctor in Britain. Luckily, in Jeremy Hunt, he has the right man for the job.

Where’s Jez?

The referendum campaign so far has been dominated by the battle between Conservatives. Invariably, it’s David Cameron v Boris Johnson; or George Osborne v Michael Gove; or IDS v . . . well, IDS. The other parties barely get a look-in. This is partly because Jeremy Corbyn is still unwilling or unable to make any impact. Each morning, surrounded by a scrum of reporters and news crews waiting to hear something – anything – he doesn’t use the opportunity and is instead bundled into a waiting people-carrier as if he were being taken off to appear in court.

In the battles to come, Labour supporters need a champion, not a conscientious objector. And Corbyn needs a strong phalanx of supporters around him to put out the message in the studios, just as Tony Blair could rely on John Reid, David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett or Peter Mandelson to fight his corner. What we hear of those inside Team Corbyn all too easily gives rise to the impression that he is a Trojan horse. Actually, make that a Trojan donkey.

Isla del Crime

I’m always bemused when Vote Leave states that EU immigrants put an untold strain on the NHS. It is the youngest, fittest migrants who come here to work on our farms and in our factories. Imagine if Britain were a haven for the EU’s pensioners and gangsters. It must feel like that for the Spanish, who for years have provided homes for our retired people and criminals (in some cases, both). To be fair, once they arrive in Spain, the Brits do their best to integrate. Do they set up British pubs, eat fish and chips, watch Premiership football on Sky and play bridge? No. They learn flamenco, eat paella, speak Spanish and quote Cervantes at length.

One fact to rule them all

Just as in the Scottish referendum, people insist that what they want are “facts”. It’s as if they’re waiting for one killer fact that will seal the argument. Yet there are any number of facts available, both for and against Brexit. Maybe they want a comparison website, where you can type in your circumstances and choose your supplier of government based on who offers the best deal. That’s the level at which many of the economic claims on both sides have been made: “Vote Remain and save £4,300!” or “Vote Leave and we’ll cut VAT on fuel!” (That tax was introduced, by the way, not by Europe but by the arch-Brexiteer Norman Lamont and reduced by Gordon Brown against Tory opposition.)

Identity crisis

Ultimately, I believe that the decision is ­existential. What sort of people are we, and what sort of country do we want to live in? Are we outward-looking and ­co-operative, believing in the principle that we can achieve more by uniting across borders? Or are we angry, disillusioned with the EU project in general and immigration in particular? Am I Barack Obama or Marine Le Pen? Mark Carney or Jacob Rees-Mogg? Stephen Hawking or Chris Grayling? In a sense, this is our Hillary Clinton v Donald Trump moment. I know which I prefer. l

Rory Bremner writes for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe

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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