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America doesn't have a fascist in the White House, but a bumbling incompetent

This week in the media, from Trump’s utter incompetence to how I survived the Great Lettuce Crisis.

In Washington, it’s politics as usual, except with much more drama and at higher than normal speed. Allegations emerge from intelligence agencies that the US national security adviser Michael Flynn had pre-inauguration conversations with the Russian ambassador over sanctions imposed by President Obama. General Flynn assures Mike Pence, the vice-president, as well as security officials, that the subject wasn’t mentioned. Pence backs him publicly and Donald Trump’s spokeswoman says the president has “full confidence” in Flynn. Flynn says he “couldn’t be certain” after all that sanctions weren’t discussed. Newspapers report that the justice department is considering whether Flynn is vulnerable to Russian blackmail and the army is investigating whether he received Russian government money in 2015. The president says he is “evaluating the situation”. A few hours later, Flynn resigns.

Press, politicians and officials move to the next stage. Did Flynn have contacts with Moscow’s man before the election? Did he know about Russian efforts to influence the result? What did the president know? And when did he know it?

The sequence of events is familiar from countless political scandals in countless countries over the past 50 years. What they make of it in the Rust Belt and the Midwest, where the votes for Trump piled up, is anyone’s guess. In all probability, they are struggling, as most people do during political scandals, to understand who did what, why and when. But voters don’t matter just now. Even Trump has to work out how he can govern day to day and deliver even a few of his implausible and inconsistent campaign pledges.

Ever since Trump’s victory, I have argued that the checks and balances created by the US constitution, Washington officialdom and a vigilant press would frustrate his more alarming intentions. Even I did not predict how quickly they would do so. Within less than a month of taking office, he is all but contained. And it is dawning on Americans that they don’t have a fascist in the White House but a bumbling incompetent who isn’t up to the job.


Not on our watch

It was once said that the French minister of education in Paris could look at his watch and tell you what every child in France would be learning at that moment. The education arm of the OECD, also based in Paris, apparently wants to imitate the minister’s (possibly mythical) powers on a planetary scale. For many years, it has tested the educational achievements of 15-year-olds across the world. This leads to league tables where British children are usually shown to be lagging while their east Asian peers steam ahead. Many critics point out that such international tests, and the importance governments attach to the results, threaten a standardised international curriculum.

The OECD – motto: Nothing is worth doing in life, if you can’t measure it – now proposes to introduce similar tests for five-year-olds. They will test not just literacy and numeracy but also “executive function” and “locus of control” (no, I don’t know what that means either). Countries can then provide “better outcomes for citizens and better value for money”, which, I think, is code for the best possible outcomes for neoliberal capitalism at the lowest possible cost.

Several governments, including those of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany, Belgium and Scandinavian countries, have declined to serve up their infants as guinea pigs for the proposed tests. England’s Department for Education, however, has eagerly offered its services.


Expat exodus

A leaked document from the European ­Parliament unsurprisingly warns that, if Britain refuses to guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain after Brexit, EU countries may withdraw the “unrestricted rights” of British expats to “live, work and study . . . or benefit from . . . reciprocal health-care entitlements”.

Theresa May thinks she is going to bargain but has she thought it through? She will threaten to throw out 3.3 million EU citizens, a high proportion of whom are young, in work and skilled. EU countries will threaten to throw out 1.2 million British citizens, a high proportion of whom are old, retired and in declining health. Who has the better hand?


Blah blah land

I am still slightly baffled as to why La La Land, the Hollywood comedy-drama written and directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, received almost unanimous critical acclaim and why it has been showered with awards, most recently at the Baftas. It has a couple of numbers that get inside your head, some smart camerawork and several pleasing tributes to the great films of the past. Yet the first three-quarters of the film is excruciatingly dull, with a seemingly banal plot.

It was saved by the twist at the end, which I won’t spoil for the hermits who haven’t yet seen the film. Perhaps I am missing something but after I’d watched both the film and the annual orgy of mutual admiration at the Baftas, the Daily Mail’s habitual sourness – “another night for richly remunerated stars to burnish their lefty credentials” – came like a breath of fresh air.


Leaf or romaine

And what did I do in the great lettuce crisis of 2017? Why, I ate lettuce. Just as I ate courgettes during the closely related courgette crisis, spinach during the spinach crisis, cod during the cod crisis, and would have eaten vanilla if I thought I needed any. In each case, I noticed shortages for a couple of days, presumably caused by panicked shoppers emptying the shelves. Everything then returned to normal; the shelves at Sainsbury’s were groaning with luscious round lettuces on my latest visit. Cynic that I am, I suspect that, because these foods sell slowly in cold weather, supermarkets contrive shortages to boost sales.

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 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

Photo: Getty
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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.