Eat canapé, avoid catastrophe

. . . on the 10:10 luvvies, Keith Waterhouse, and football’s castrati

One should naturally support the 10:10 campaign to persuade us all to reduce our carbon footprint by 10 per cent in 2010. But the more I think about it, the more fatalistic I become. For a start, anything that involves a launch at Tate Modern and a galaxy of celebrities is, by its nature, likely to be transient. In 2005, Make Poverty History was all the rage, but poverty seems still to be with us. My chief memory of the Live 8 concert is of Pete Doherty and Elton John kissing moistly. Will we now see Andrew Motion snogging Rory Bremner (10:10 seems to boast a better class of person) and, if so, will it persuade us to turn down the radiators? Or will we think we have done our bit just by watching them?

As an Oxford physicist pointed out in the Guardian, cutting our greenhouse-gas emissions by 10 per cent in a single year would not save the planet (or, rather, us): it would merely put off the evil day. Most people could reduce their emissions with surprising ease, particularly if, like 10:10's celebrity signers, they are fairly affluent. The danger is that, having done it, they will think the job is finished, and they can party as though it were VE Day 1945.

I suspect the newspapers echo public opinion on this subject. Just about all national papers now accept global warming, but they still object to anything required to deal with it. Low-energy light bulbs will cause old folk to fall down stairs. Higher petrol duties or road charges will be unfair to the poor (though most poor people don't own cars). Restrictions on cheap air travel breach the time-honoured British right to celebrate summer by vomiting over waiters in Faliraki. Wind turbines are ugly. And so on. Does anyone really think that, barring technological miracles, we have the slightest chance of averting calamity?


Keith Waterhouse, who has just died, was the son of a poor costermonger in Leeds. He left school at 14 and worked for a cobbler and an undertaker before getting a job on the Yorkshire Evening Post. Today, even editors of the Sun (such as the newly appointed Dominic Mohan) have a degree; his predecessor (Rebekah Wade, now News International's chief executive) once studied at the Sorbonne.

The growth of educational opportunities was supposed to increase social mobility. However, because length of education and acquisition of credentials are associated with social background, it did the opposite. I deliberately use the word "credentials" rather than "qualifications" because the former has nothing to do with the skills or qualities you need for a particular job, and in journalism's case, as the late Nicholas Tomalin wrote, you need only "ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability". Employers use credentials - five higher-grade GCSEs, good honours degree and so forth - to sift out "unsuitable" job applicants, rather as they once used knowledge of whether or not you came from a "good" family.The effect is much the same. Perhaps, as well as outlawing discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability, we should also outlaw discrimination on grounds of credentials.


I don't think he ever got round to this one, but here is an example of the imprecise and obfuscatory use of language against which Waterhouse frequently protested. A report from the Financial Services Authority shows, unsurprisingly, that financial institutions received nearly three million customer complaints last year. The authority lists them by "product category": "loan products", "pension products", "banking products" (presumably what you and I call an account) and so on.

But as I point out to bank "advisers" who offer "products" I neither want nor need (such as savings accounts at 0.1 per cent interest), banks don't produce anything. Rather, they take a gigantic rake-off on what other people produce. By calling it a "product", they convince themselves and their more credulous customers that they perform a socially useful function. Which, as the FSA's chairman Adair Turner acknowledges, isn't true.


I am puzzled and distressed by the failure of the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, to make the principled resignation I have repeatedly advised. "With friends like Peter Wilby . . ." he says to our political correspondent (see last week's New Statesman). What can he mean?

Perhaps he is waiting till Christmas, when he will turn 40, the age at which Anthony Eden resigned in 1938. Servants wept in the streets when Eden left the government (well, they did in Austria anyway) and Churchill spoke of this "strong young figure". Eden eventually blotted his record at Suez but otherwise the precedent is auspicious. He returned to government in 1940 when Churchill became premier, marched with him down the Champs Élysées when France was liberated, and finally succeeded the great man in No 10. Ed, a glittering future awaits you!


Most comment on Chelsea's breach of Fifa rules in signing up a French 11-year-old has lamented the big clubs' ability to poach talent from smaller clubs. My concern, whatever the club's size, is about the effect on the child. Clubs take boys as young as eight and, from 12, they receive at least five hours' weekly training. Add weekend matches and time spent travelling, and there is room for little else in a child's life, at an age when he should be developing a distinct personality and diverse interests. Yet, of 9,000 boys attending British football academies each year, 90 per cent are discarded by 16.

In its distortion of normal development (including, to some extent, physical development) and its creation of hopes that will almost certainly be disappointed, the cruelty is reminiscent of that once inflicted on talented boy singers, who were castrated so that their voices could survive into adulthood. Never mind Fifa rules. The whole practice of clubs signing up children should be barred under international law.

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 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?