Gordon’s pig, Tory toadies and fat cats

Beware the Tories bearing red-tinted gifts.

When the Conservatives use words such as "co-operative", it is wise to count the spoons. Their proposals for allowing state employees to take over primary schools, nursing teams and so on, and to keep and distribute among themselves any surplus, may possibly signify a belated conversion to workers' control, perhaps prompted by the self-styled "Red Tories". But I think it safer to treat the proposals as a back-door device for more public sector privatisation.

I am reminded of the demutualisation of the building societies under Tory governments in the 1980s and 1990s. These were owned by their customers - that is, savers and borrowers, known as "members" of each society - and could trace their lineage back to the self-help institutions started by working-class communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. An Abbey National boss, Clive Thornton, once called them the highest form of socialism.

The Tories systematically undermined them by introducing legislation that encouraged them to behave like banks, advancing unsecured credit and raising funds from the wholesale money markets rather than from their savers. Most important, they were urged to demutualise and become conventional shareholder-owned banks, with members getting windfalls in compensation for their loss of control. Some Tories were so intent on destroying the mutual model that they wanted to compel all building societies to convert to plcs within a decade. Happily, that didn't happen but most large societies, including Northern Rock, took advantage of the new legislation, with consequences that are now familiar.

All this was sold with a leftist slant. The building societies, we were told, were a conspiracy against the workers, limiting their access to credit and operating as a cosy cartel. Beware the Tories bearing red-tinted gifts.

PM's porkies?

Watching Gordon Brown being interviewed by Piers Morgan on ITV1, I was reminded of the actress Katharine Hepburn, of whom the satirist Dorothy Parker said: "She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." Asked about the death of his first child, Brown was appropriately (and, I am sure, genuinely) tearful. Otherwise, his response to nearly all questions - about sex, girls, drink, marriage, supermarket shopping, Tony Blair, lavatories, people being rude about him and why he was on the show at all - was to laugh uproariously. It was, I suppose, a more plausible performance than Alastair Campbell's on the Andrew Marr Show the previous weekend; he broke down because people had been nasty about Tony Blair, an emotion that would tax the A to Z repertoire of even the most accomplished actor.

But I knew the Brown interview was fun­damentally phoney when he trotted out a tale about a burglary at his bachelor flat. The police, he said, were horrified by the mess the intruders had left, and he had to explain that this was the flat's normal condition. This story is used whenever somebody tries to convince us Brown is what the Americans would call a regular guy, and I swear I've heard or read it at least 50 times in the past dozen years.

Most strangely, Brown claimed that Middle Eastern governments had sent him, as a gift, a whole roast pig. A pig? From the Middle East? Can this be corroborated? Or had the PM misread the crib notes Sarah must have given him?

Causes without a rebel

As more and more MPs stand down, disgraced by their expenses, we can look forward to a House of Commons that will contain more fresh faces than any since 1945. Everybody assumes that this will be a great improvement and we shall get a fearless, incorruptible, independent-minded House.

Think again. Now that David Cameron is imposing shortlists of approved candidates on local constituency parties and generally doing to the Conservatives what Tony Blair did to Labour, the probability is that a higher proportion of MPs than ever will follow the leadership line. Few are likely to rebel because, being young and ambitious, they will aspire to front-bench positions. The Commons usually contains a sizeable number who have long given up on ministerial office or, alternatively, have lost it and therefore harbour resentments against their leaders. Such natural rebels will be in short supply after the election.

Bank robbers

With inflation now at 3.5 per cent, it is very hard to find a savings account that pays sufficient interest to maintain the real value of your money. With most accounts, once tax is deducted, depreciation will be substantial. Only by handing your money over to the banks for a minimum of three years, with no rights to access it in the meantime, can you beat inflation, and then only just. In effect, banks are charging us to leave our money with them.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. A negative interest rate is precisely what some economists propose to get the economy moving again. If savers behave rationally (I use that word as economists use it), they will withdraw their money and go on wild shopping sprees, launching another exciting boom. If they behave even more rationally, they will see that, while they are being robbed, bankers continue to draw million-pound bonuses. Savers will then march on banks' headquarters to lynch every fat cat they can find.

Afghan hounded

The Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn highlights, as he often does, the case of an Afghan mother of six "living in a £2m London house courtesy of the mug British taxpayer". Why, he asks, doesn't the Department of Social Security give her a Harrods account so she can furnish it as well? Well, why not? It would be better than paying British troops to kill her fellow citizens.


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 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN