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Sixty years of Attenborough through the eyes of the New Statesman

For more than half a century, the magazine has followed the broadcaster's work.

Read the New Statesman's most recent interview with David Attenborough, by Brian Cox and Robin Ince, here.

For almost 60 years, New Statesman critics have attempted to put into words the effect of seeing David Attenborough in his native habitat: the wild. “Attenborough is a lively, floor-pacing, arm-swinging magic lantern man, deftly imitating by turns a harassed traffic policeman, a Nonconformist minister searching for the clinching analogy and a district nurse on a bicycle,” wrote his fellow BBC grandee Dennis Potter in 1974.

It was Tom Driberg, in 1954, who first introduced NS readers to the “highly successful TV ‘personality’, whose casual, conversational manner conceals a deliberately studied technique”. When Jack Lester, curator of London Zoo’s reptile house, fell ill, Attenborough, then a producer, stood in to present the BBC2 series Zoo Quest. “In comparison with [him],” Driberg wrote, “many of the old troupers from the regular entertainment world seem intolerably brassy and two-dimensional.”

Following the groundbreaking Life on Earth (1979), Julian Barnes seemed somewhat perplexed to see the presenter squatting low behind a wall, observing the religious rituals of Indonesians in Spirit of Asia (1980). “This may be a productive style for creeping up on things we think we know too well and over-despise, like animals; indeed, part of the deserved success of Life on Earth derived directly from Attenborough’s guileless mixture of reverence and zeal. But the last episode of Life – which presented humans as if they were merely an advanced breed of problem-solving beast – was the least satisfactory, and in retrospect it’s easier to see why. People – unless they’re fossilised or preserved in peat, and enlivened with some label like protocrotojurassic – aren’t really Attenborough’s thing.”

After a blissfully quiet, though unfulfilling, stint as controller of BBC2 – “I asked what the policy should be, and they said: ‘That’s up to you, dear boy. You tell us’” – Attenborough became an outspoken critic of reforms to the licence-fee model. “The changes at the BBC are all market forces and marketing,” he told Mary Riddell in 1998. “Gets up my nose a bit, [and] I do have a frisson of despair at the standards.”

He still voices concern for the corporation. “It is crucially important for our society and [represents] the highest aspirations of our society. I’m appalled anybody thinks otherwise. If you remove the licence fee, it would be gone in a decade,” he told Sophie Elmhirst in 2011. But Attenborough, now 86, has recently taken to speaking out about a far more serious problem, that of overpopulation. Writing in the NS in April, Attenborough spoke with uncharacteristic force about ecosystems ruined by the arrival of man. “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”


Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

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