Boring Mandy and Eton outstripped

I must report that, for the second time, Peter Mandelson has sent me to sleep. The first occasion was in 1998 when, as the new editor of the New Statesman, I was summoned - on the promise of a refreshing cup of tea, which never materialised - to the great man's ministerial office. There, he instructed me, in a hypnotic monotone, on Whitehall structure and the importance of his mission to change it. Unfortunately, I had lunched too well and drifted off. I am not sure he noticed. At any rate, when I returned to consciousness, probably after some minutes, he was still droning on, apparently unperturbed.

Twelve years later, once more after lunch, I started to read the Times extract from Mandelson's memoirs covering the immediate aftermath of the general election. It started with the polls closing on the Thursday night. Then, strangely, the story seemed to jump to Sunday night, when, "to avoid being seen, Gordon and I walked through the underground tunnel from No 10 to the Ministry of Defence". Ignorant as I am, I didn't know such a thing existed and wondered idly if Mandelson in 1998 ordered the excavation of several tunnels connecting Downing Street to Whitehall departments so as to correct what he called (during our meeting) "the weakness of the centre" - or if there was just one tunnel, so the prime minister could dash through and press the nuclear button. After these surreal and alarming speculations, I suddenly found myself reading that Gordon had left for the palace.

I looked back over five pages of solid Times type and realised that, apart from the tunnel, I hadn't taken in a single word. I realised a truth that may be more important to the New Labour story than is generally acknowledged: Lord Mandelson is a crashing bore.

Another pensions scam

One millstone that Gordon Brown had to carry through 13 years in office was the accusation that he effected a wicked raid on the nation's pensions. In his first Budget, he removed a tax exemption on dividends which, it was reckoned, "robbed" pension schemes of £5bn a year. As more company pension funds went into deficit and employers closed down "defined-benefit" schemes (delivering pensions based on a proportion of final salary), Tory MPs and journalists blamed Brown's "raid" - though rising longevity played a far greater role in the funds' difficulties.

Now the coalition has devised its own pensions raid, and I hope Labour makes the most of it. In future, employers paying defined-benefit pensions will have to uprate them annually in line with the consumer prices index (CPI), instead of the retail prices index (RPI). Because the CPI is usually lower than the RPI, it is estimated that between £50bn and £80bn has been wiped off the value of pensions for roughly 12 million present and future pensioners. Brown transferred money from pension funds to public services, welfare payments and relief of general taxation. The coalition has transferred wealth from ordinary people to shareholders.

Summer lovin'

Whatever the weather, you know when high summer is here. It's when the Daily Mail runs its first feature warning middle-class parents what their teenage children are up to on holiday. This annual piece invariably involves posh girls from "prestigious" schools wearing "micro-mini skirts" or "tiny shorts". There's lots of promiscuous sex, mostly underage, and readers will naturally be upset and disgusted to read about it. "Pretty, blonde" girls, some of them children of architects or barristers (imagine!), get insensibly drunk and "pull" several boys a night. The piece always ends with a moral homily. As well established in the English calendar as the first cuckoo and the first swallow, this piece usually comes from a Mediterranean resort. This year, it comes from Newquay, Cornwall. Whether that is because journalists can't now afford to go abroad, or because posh teenagers can't, I am unable to say.

Count your talents

Who should be paid £231,400 a year (plus £45,123 in pension contributions)? Probably nobody, but I would certainly rule out lawyers, accountants, bankers, newspaper editors and anybody with "communications", "strategic" or "consultant" in their job title. I might stretch a point, however, for Mark Elms, head of Tidemill, a primary school in a deprived area of south London that is full of itinerant children to whom English is a foreign tongue. If, as we are told, he receives £70,000 more than the head of Eton, whose job is to secure advantages for the already advantaged, it suggests that, for once, our society has its priorities right.

Selective thinking

In England's latest victory over Bangladesh, Ajmal Shahzad and Ravi Bopara raised hopes that they can establish themselves in the side. But there is a long and puzzling history of black, brown and mixed-race cricketers failing to do so: Mark Ramprakash, Gladstone Small, Alex Tudor, Phil DeFreitas, Chris Lewis, Owais Shah, Monty Panesar and, most recently, Adil Rashid are examples of players who, despite promising much, and even winning Test matches, never quite secured their England places (though Panesar and Rashid, if not Shah, have time to come back). Only Basil D'Oliveira and Nasser Hussain ever became, for more than a year or two, automatic choices. Many more white South African exiles - for example, Tony Greig, Allan Lamb, Robin Smith, Kevin Pietersen - become regular England players, and now Jonathan Trott could be another. I do not allege selectorial bias or institutional racism. But perhaps those responsible for the England team should, as the players say after a defeat, take a long, hard look at themselves.

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 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain