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Student intolerance, the rise of the New Young Fogeys and John Major’s antique diction

NS Editor Jason Cowley on young fogeys and John Major’s antique diction.

I was recently a guest at a dinner at ­Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. Two formidable women hosted it: Ngaire Woods, the founding dean of the school, and Louise Richardson, who is a ­political scientist and the 272nd vice-chancellor of Oxford University but the first woman to hold the position. I sat next to her and we spoke, among other things, about the new code of censorship operating among students. In her appearance on Desert Island Discs last week, Professor Richardson, who is Irish, expressed bewilderment at the attitude of many students.

“I’ve tried to understand it,” she said. “Students and young people today, because of social media, operate in an echo chamber of like-minded people and are less exposed to contrary views . . . But a university is exactly where you should hear these views, and part of education is about hearing them and countering them reasonably.”

Her comments made me think about ­Malia Bouattia, the new leader of the National Union of Students, who is an advocate of “no-platforming” and has stated that Muslim students are being spied on by the state. We have tried to speak to her about her positions and the new culture of campus intolerance that has led even to the likes of Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell being “no-platformed”. So far, she has remained bashfully elusive. But perhaps if Ms Bouattia or one of her colleagues is reading this, she will get in touch. The invitation for her to write our weekly Diary remains open.

Age becomes them

On Desert Island Discs, Louise Richardson also said that this generation of students “has been more cosseted by their parents than earlier generations”. This was certainly the view of Jean Twenge, the American ­author of the book Generation Me, when I interviewed her for a Radio 4 Analysis documentary I’ve made exploring the attitudes and behaviour of this millennial generation – at the NS, we’ve called them the “New Young Fogeys”. For the programme, my producer, Katie Inman, persuaded me not only to retrace my journey to school, which most mornings meant negotiating a way through an intimidating group of schoolboy smokers gathered at the bottom of a narrow alleyway between two gardens, but return to my old sixth-form college in Essex. In conversation with some of the students, I was struck by how much less free they seemed than I was at their age. Less free to make mistakes, to take risks, perhaps because they are so aware of the consequences of behaving badly. It wasn’t adventure or rebellion they sought – but order and security. If they were fogeyish in attitude, it was, one of them said, because “social and financial pressures” had made them so.

Beating retreat?

The feuding among Tories during this wretched referendum campaign has been something to behold. Whatever you think of David Cameron and George Osborne, you cannot accuse of them, in this instance, of not acting in what they consider to be the national interest; whether it was in the national interest to hold the referendum in the first place is another matter altogether. By contrast, the huckster-in-chief is ­Boris Johnson. He once professed to be a liberal cosmopolitan but – along with Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and the rest – is advocating Ukip positions on immigration, as if Britain really could be turned into a walled island, as if retreat into nationalism and isolationism were in any way an appropriate response to the challenges and threats of globalisation. In the May issue of the ­Atlantic, Robert Kaplan persuasively wrote that “The West, if it does have a meaning beyond geography, manifests a spirit of ever more inclusive liberalism. Just as in the 19th century there was no going back to feudalism, there is no going back now to nationalism, not without courting disaster.”

It is the Brexiteers, not the Prime Minister, who are courting disaster.

Attlee’s ethos

I have an early proof copy of John Bew’s forthcoming biography of Clement Attlee. If Labour is to return to power, it is not to Tony Blair and Harold Wilson to whom it should turn for inspiration but to the ethos and example of Attlee. “Much of what Att­lee achieved was tied to a 20th-century project,” Bew writes in the prologue. “If something is salvageable from his government’s legislation, it is ethos rather than process. This unobtrusive progressive patriotism – built of a sense of rights and duties, a malleable civic code rather than a legal writ, with its emphasis on the ‘common wealth’ above individual self-fulfilment. . .” Citizen Clem promises to be one of the highlights of the autumn season.

Copper-bottomed turn

I always enjoy watching television interviews with John Major; I enjoy his antique diction and circumlocutions; his stiff, formal manner, like a senior clerk in a Dickens novel, and his elaborate courtesy, as if he is a long-time student of Nancy Mitford’s essay “The English Aristocracy”. He was in fine form on the Marr show last Sunday, as he raged about the machinations of the Brexiteers. “The belief that an unelected elite is running wild is yet another piece of copper-­bottomed Leave nonsense,” he said. (The italics are mine.) The proposition of the Outers was “nonsense on stilts” (a phrase popularised by Jeremy Bentham). The NHS was “about as safe” with Boris and co “as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python”. People were being “invited to vote for a pig in a poke”. It was a joy. Which other senior public figure today speaks as he does? 

Jason Cowley’s Analysis documentary, “The New Young Fogeys”, is on Radio 4 on 13 June at 8.30pm

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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

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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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