Turn your back on a bad lot

. . . on toffs’ expenses, C P Snow and why sometimes it’s best to walk away

My answer to those who say that, because of the Iraq War or the widening gap between rich and poor or whatever, they cannot bring themselves to vote for another Labour government is always as follows. Don’t just think of the government; ask yourself what kind of people you want on the majority benches of the House of Commons. Surely it is better to have MPs whose instincts are to favour public services, the poor (both here and abroad) and a broadly liberal approach to social issues, no matter how often ministers fall short of the ideal. At least you will have MPs who understand and sometimes listen to your concerns.

This view is strengthened, not weakened, by the furore over members’ expenses. If we must have grasping representatives, I prefer those who charge for the mundane things you or I may buy, such as lavatory seats, hanging baskets, saucepans and £3.49 bottles of Tesco wine – and who care enough to use bath plugs rather than let water go to waste – to those who charge for moats, paddocks, chandeliers and horse manure. When they go to the hustings, Labour MPs should point out their expenses are those of the decent working class, while Tories charge toffs’ expenses.


As I pointed out here some weeks ago, and as the Daily Telegraph now acknowledges, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, is among the few who stand out for the modesty of their expenses claims. Simple disgust with his ministerial colleagues should surely now impel him towards the principled resignation I have advocated. If he is very brave, he could also resign his Doncaster North seat and announce that he will fight the next election on a clean-living, anti-sleaze, non-house-flipping ticket, against one of the moat-clearing Tories.

This would be a more risky, but also more imaginative, resignation than David Davis’s, which is now forgotten. With luck, Miliband would sweep back to the Commons as the only Labour MP to defeat a sitting Tory, putting himself in pole position to succeed Gordon Brown. At worst, he would have made a useless but wholly admirable sacrifice, and gained an honourable footnote in the history books. Which, in the present circumstances, is better than most ministers can hope for.


This month marks the 50th anniversary of C P Snow’s lecture on “the two cultures and the scientific revolution”, which elaborated on an idea first outlined in the New Statesman. Most comment since has concerned his fears about the mutual incomprehension between scientists and artists. Much of what Snow said still rings true. Though certain scientific concepts, particularly from quantum physics, have come to permeate the arts – and it is almost de rigueur for a novelist to have at least one bash at science fiction – you wouldn’t find many takers for explaining the second law of thermodynamics, or how a button is made, at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival.

However, as the title suggests, the two-cultures stuff was only half of Snow’s lecture. The other half concerned his belief that the global gulf between rich and poor would be closed by industrialisation. Some 20,000 “men” from Britain and America, Snow proposed, should take the scientific revolution to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. If we didn’t do it,

the Russians would. Whatever else survived in 50 years, Snow declared, global inequality definitely wouldn’t. “It’s just not on,” he said. Perhaps, instead of discussing the two cultures again, we should be asking why, on his second theme, Snow proved so wrong.


While we’re on things the NS started, here is news of a proposal published in December 2000. Though the cabinet was stuffed with MPs (including

Tony Blair) from the English north-east, we noted, New Labour had done extraordinarily little for the region. Our then north of England correspondent, Peter Dunn, proposed a candidate for the “big idea” Blair always lacked: a Ministry of International Information Technology in the region under a senior cabinet minister, with a research university for advanced technology alongside it. E-commerce companies would get grants to set up nearby and the north-east would have its own Silicon Valley. The idea got support from local academics and MPs, and Dunn identified a site in Stockton-on-Tees. Remember that when you next hear a politician say journalists never put forward constructive ideas.

New Labour ignored the proposal and the north-east was the beneficiary of nothing except “development” quangos and a proposed casino in Middlesbrough. But Dunn, who now lives in Dorset, has since interested Oliver Letwin, his local MP and Conservative Research Department chairman. A meeting is due next month involving Letwin and the Durham University vice-chancellor, Chris Higgins.

Despite press attempts to convince us that it’s worse in the Cotswolds, the north-east is badly hit by the recession. How ironic if the Tories were to steal Labour’s clothes and do something about it. If I were Ed Miliband, I would embrace this scheme without delay, and contact Dunn once I have completed my principled resignation.


Given the football authorities’ feebleness, the obvious solution, when players from leading teams dissent abusively, is that referees refuse to officiate their matches. These could then be declared 0-0 draws which, since Chelsea, Man United and the rest expect to win everything, would surely be a sufficient deterrent. I won’t insist on the superiority of Rugby Union, as a leading player was once banned for pushing over the referee after losing a Cup final. But I’ll mention an incident at the recent Cardiff v Leicester match in the Heineken European Cup. Leicester restarted after Cardiff kicked a penalty for three points. The referee adjudged (wrongly) that Leicester players were offside at the restart and awarded a scrum. “Oh, come on, ref,” protested the Leicester fly half. The referee, after a long, angry blast on his whistle, gave Cardiff another penalty, which was duly converted for three more points. l

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 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom