WikiLeaks, wealth and Wayne

History the US prefers to forget, confusing coalition policies, football commodities and perennial p

The tales of torture, reckless bombing and murder of unarmed civilians in Iraq contained in the latest WikiLeaks documents led not to soul-searching in America, but to complaints about the comfort they may give to present and future enemies. Americans have never been good at self-criticism, a point illustrated by US censorship of a fascinating book I am currently reading, Empires Apart. The author, Brian Landers - hardly a loony lefty, but a former senior Home Office civil servant who has also worked for several multinationals, including Penguin Books - argues that America's development has remarkably close parallels with Russia's. Both built an internal empire, partly based on ethnic cleansing, before they created an external one, Russia's being presented as an extension of socialism, America's as an extension of freedom and democracy. Both opted to create client states rather than to rule directly in the conventional imperial manner.

Landers notes that Americans have a habit of wiping inconvenient events out of history. Bloody Sunday, 1905, when the Russian tsar's troops fired on demonstrators in St Petersburg, killing about a hundred, is quite widely known. An equivalent event 16 years later in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when the National Guard sprayed black protesters with machine-guns, killing (according to modern research) about 300, is almost forgotten. All this is succinctly explained in Landers's introduction, which provides the framework for the book. Distributors of the recent US edition, published by Pegasus, initially refused to handle it because of its "anti-American sentiments". They reluctantly agreed only when the introduction was deleted.

Basic instincts

Wealthier pensioners - and the average income from all sources for a pensioner couple is now over £29,000 a year, comfortably exceeding the national average wage - would be the main beneficiaries if the coalition goes ahead with its leaked proposal to increase the state pension to £140 a week (£280 for a married couple). Poorer pensioners would simply receive as of right the money which, under the present system, they get by claiming means-tested top-ups. It is argued that many do not claim, because they find the process too complex or humiliating, but the same could be said of many younger people who are either unemployed or on low wages. So why confine the principle of a decent basic income -unconditionally guaranteed to all individuals, without means tests or work requirements - to one age group?

Here, it gets confusing. A basic citizen's income for all sounds like an egalitarian, left-wing policy and, in its purest form, it was ad­vocated by Bertrand Russell ("no one should be compelled to work, and those who choose not to work should receive a bare livelihood, and be left completely free") and Karl Marx (though he wanted it in the form of free goods and services). But forms of it were also supported by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Moreover, there is only one state in the world that has anything resembling a basic income. It is, of all places, Sarah Palin's Alaska, where all residents of more than six months' standing receive an annual dividend - $2,069 in 2008 - from its oil revenues.

Two 19s and a free period, please

Equally confusing are the coalition's plans for groups of parents, teachers or volunteers to set up new schools. These are being called "free schools", but the last time people talked about free schools was in the 1960s and 1970s when lefty teachers rebelled against the regimented discipline and old-fashioned curriculum of conventional state schools which, in their view, were designed to produce docile workers for capitalist production. Even more confusingly, the Financial Times reports that the new free schools will be allowed to employ unqualified teachers and to set up in "pubs, takeaways, shops and houses". This sounds like something out of the de-schooling movement of the 1960s, which argued that education had no need of permanent buildings, fixed timetables or full-time teachers.

For most of the past 40 years, Conservatives have denounced such ideas as lunacy. But mixed with Lib Demory, Toryism turns into something very exotic, which will no doubt give us such delights as the Rose and Crown Academy for Merry Infants and the McDonald's quarter-pounder college for obese early teens.

Agents provocateur

Whatever we are told, I suspect that Wayne Rooney's decision to stay with Man United - and the earlier suggestion that he might move elsewhere - had little to do with the player himself or even with the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Increasingly, such matters are settled by players' agents (who, bizarrely, get most of their money from the clubs) and club owners or their financial advisers. Newspapers treat players' moves as human dramas but, in fact, footballers are acquired and disposed of in the same manner as banks acquire and dispose of financial assets. Though Rooney and Ferguson are exceptions, footballers and their coaches come and go with bewildering rapidity. I can no longer name more than two players in my home-town team, Leicester City, and I've long forgotten the last manager but three. The only things that count are the owner, his or her bank balance, and the level of debt.

Popping up

I switch on Newsnight on 25 October and find that everybody is already wearing poppies. Apparently, they first appeared two days earlier, though the official British Legion launch date is 28 October. Is this a record? Why don't we just wear them all year round, rather as the Chinese used to wear their Mao badges?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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.