Milk, the Mail and Martin O’Neill
Why the Tories should abolish school milk and throw people out of council housing – oh, and why they
Call me a fascist beast if you like, but I rather hoped the coalition would go ahead with stopping free milk for under-fives. For one thing, it would make the government unpopular, as it did Margaret Thatcher, who, as education secretary in the 1970s, cut milk for children aged seven to 11 and became known as "Milk Snatcher". For another, I never liked the stuff as a child and, despite warnings from teachers about my bones crumbling, refused to drink it.
But I also happen to think free milk is one of those fiddly little benefits, like free bus passes for the over-sixties, that we ought to have outgrown. Just as bus passes rest on the outdated presumption that all pensioners are poor, so free milk presumes all children are malnourished. That was potentially true in 1940, when free milk was introduced. It is not so now. A high proportion of ethnic-minority children can't even drink milk because they are lactose-intolerant. Healthy Start vouchers, available to poor parents to buy fresh fruit and vegetables as well as milk, are a better option. The £50m spent on nursery milk could be used to increase their value, as health ministers suggested.
The biggest priority, however, should be to bring food retailers to heel by compelling them to label unhealthy food clearly and to stop marketing junk to children. The coalition has made it plain it will do nothing of the sort. Milk has been declared sacrosanct because of its symbolic value. If anyone thinks it symbolises David Cameron's concern for children's health, they are mistaken.
Turfing people out of council houses is another proposal that I hope Cameron goes ahead with. But there the fascist beast in me stops: my hope is purely partisan. The right to buy council houses was what, during the 1980s, delivered the votes of many aspirant families that had previously voted Labour to the Tories. Now, taking homes away from people who happen to have bettered themselves strikes me as likely to send the potential victims flocking to Labour.
How does this proposal fit with the coalition's stated aim to improve work incentives for the lower classes? Or with Cameron's ideas of strengthening social bonds and local communities? Since private-sector renting offers (after the first six months) only two months' security of tenure, the coalition in effect proposes to make high mortgages virtually compulsory for families that want their children to have a stable, settled upbringing. Which seems likely to provoke another explosion of poorly secured credit.
Wealth of nations (except ours)
Reports that the China Investment Corporation, owned by the Chinese government, may take a stake in Liverpool FC raise the question: why don't we have something similar? Sovereign wealth funds now own an estimated £2trn of the world's assets. China's two major funds have stakes in Citigroup, Barclays, Visa, Apple and Coca-Cola; Singapore's in the Swiss bank UBS; Dubai's in Sony; Qatar's in Sainsbury's. Lots of countries, particularly oil-rich ones, have such funds, including Brazil, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway and Russia. Even US states, such as Alaska, New Mexico and Wyoming, have them. So why not us?
The obvious opportunity came in the 1980s when North Sea oil was flowing, but at the time the only significant supporter of the idea was Tony Benn - who, as energy minister in 1975, had set up the British National Oil Corporation partly to ring-fence prospective oil revenues for investment - and he was regarded as a madman. Tory governments preferred to use the money for tax cuts and welfare payments during a deliberately engineered recession. Besides, if a fund was set up, the Scots might declare themselves independent and snaffle it. Under the Tories, North Sea oil and gas produced £35m every single day for 17 years. The Norwegians, also North Sea beneficiaries, set up their fund in 1990; today it is one of the world's top three sovereign funds and pays the pensions of the country's citizens. A couple of years ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that, if the tax revenues had been invested, Britain would have a pot of some £450bn. Add Tory privatisation proceeds, and it would be the world's biggest sovereign fund, banishing any doubts about our creditworthiness. Next time you hear the Tories witter on about how Labour didn't put money aside for a rainy day, remember that.
Pakistan drowning in floods, Moscow sweltering in a heatwave, and chunks of ice breaking off Greenland. Even the Daily Mail's science editor, Michael Hanlon, declares himself a believer in global warming. "My views in recent years have shuffled," he writes. The Mail usually stomps rather than shuffles but, that aside, all that remains is to convince the editor, Paul Dacre, that, if this goes on, house prices will fall, the English middle classes will be wiped out and only asylum-seekers - who have perfected their boating and survival skills - will survive.
Hero or villain?
Martin O'Neill's record as a football manager looks admirable, and neither of the two clubs he managed immediately before he took over Aston Villa - Leicester City and Glasgow's Celtic - prospered after his departure. But is O'Neill, who has walked out of Villa because the owner wouldn't let him spend more on players, as good as he's cracked up to be? He lifted Villa from mid-table mediocrity to sixth in the Premiership in each of the past three seasons. Which sounds good, except that Villa's wage bill has also risen - to the Premiership's sixth-highest. If a manager is a genius, shouldn't he be doing better than his inputs would predict? That is how head teachers are judged. If the success of clubs and managers was rated on that basis, football might be solvent.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005
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