Press restraint on Gary Speed, a Lib Dem war and the blazer squad

As confirmed by George Osborne's autumn statement, the government, largely by taking money away from tax credits for people struggling on below-average incomes, has found £600m to set up 100 additional free schools, including maths colleges for 16 to 18-year-olds. This seems somewhat at odds with the original idea for free schools, which was that they would be spontaneously generated by parents, teachers and other citizens.

But leave that aside. The schools, Osborne said, will be for "our most talented young mathematicians". How can that be achieved except by selective entry? Many supposedly comprehensive sixth forms are already selective in practice, but could the maths free schools eventually admit younger children?

Nothing would please the restless Tory backbenchers more than a stealthy revival of grammar schools. The Department for Education - headed by Michael Gove, who keeps saying he is "unashamedly elitist" - has already announced that existing grammar schools may expand their intakes, possibly by as much as 50 per cent by 2018. The Lib Dems say they oppose selection and we must rely on them to stand firm. Which is another way of saying that comprehensives don't have much hope at all.

Don't mention the war

While we're on the subject of the Lib Dems, newspapers report that they have called in brand consultants, who conclude the party should claim credit for the abolition of slavery and the granting of property rights to women. This is an ingenious idea: because the Lib Dems (and their predecessors) were out of power for so long, they have no equivalent of the NHS or council-house sales as tangible achievements. But nor do they have equivalents of the Winter of Discontent or the 1992 Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle to besmirch their record. Yet if they go back to their heyday, opponents may recall Gladstone's failure to rescue General Gordon in Khartoum. And it was on the Liberals' watch that the First World War broke out.


However much people may now deplore journalists' treatment of Kate and Gerry McCann - as detailed in evidence the McCanns gave to the Leveson inquiry into the press - we should not forget that the speculation about whether and how they were responsible for their daughter's disappearance did not begin in the British press. The first suggestions that all was not as it seemed came from Portuguese papers, closely followed by wild speculation online from the great British public. British newspapers feared being left behind on the story and - given the tone of their coverage for the first months after Madeleine's disappearance - emerging as credulous fools.

Following the apparently self-inflicted death by hanging of Gary Speed, the Wales football manager, the internet is again awash with "explanations" - almost none of them supported by anything resembling evidence - from the obvious ones about mental health to the most improbable conspiracy theories. As I write, the press remains unusually reticent, adding very little to the plaintive "why? why? why?" of his former Wales teammate Robbie Savage. In normal times, police officers would have been bribed, family mobiles hacked and unnamed "sources" and "friends" quoted. The restraint may not last long, but it suggests the tabloids have learnt something from the public roasting they received in recent months.

Prop up privilege

Nothing much, I fear, will change as a result of the fallout from England's shambolic performance at the Rugby World Cup. The English game is ruled by a 60-strong council representing counties, ancient universities and armed services. It is a hangover from the amateur game - the professional clubs have just one representative - and its members are driven by envy and even hatred of players who are paid handsomely for what they themselves did for nothing except expenses. Tales of misbehaviour at the World Cup will merely strengthen the determination of "the blazers", as they are called, to concede nothing to pampered professional brats.

Rugby union was invented not as a spectator sport - people who complained it was dull to watch missed the point - but as recreation for middle-class men who wished to associate, in a manly sort of way, with others of similar social status. Playing it showed you were "one of us" and provided a passport to "respectable" society; the heavy drinking sessions and trashing of hotels were rites of passage similar to those required of the more socially elevated members of Oxford's Bullingdon Club. For most of its history, it regarded professionalism and even competitive leagues as the work of the devil, because, if players were paid and results mattered, the lower orders might enter the freemasonry.

In New Zealand and Wales, rugby has long been a game for all social classes, which explains why, despite having far smaller pools of players, they usually beat England. Even now, the English game is dominated by men who went to fee-paying schools; as recently as 2008, the elite squad had just one player who attended a comprehensive. Many more years will pass - and no doubt many more dwarfs thrown - before English rugby escapes its past.

Green meanies

Back to Osborne's autumn statement. The Chancellor of the self-styled greenest government ever said: "We're not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel plants, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers."

I suppose that is true, but it was hardly the most inspiring rallying cry on the eve of the Durban conference on climate change.

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.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral