Oil hikes, treading on corgis and His Buffoon Highness

Peter Wilby’s engaging and entertaining take on the big stories of the week.

It is a measure of how unseriously David Cameron took his green commitments - made when he was trying to convince us that Conservatives cared, if only about polar bears - that he has revived them only as the cost of oil soars towards $150 a barrel, perhaps even $200. Those who want to save the planet should be grateful for the Arab rebels and profiteering oil companies. Even the motormouth Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond - who wants to raise motorway speed limits, thus increasing both the likelihood of road casualties and carbon emissions - has been told to plan for electric cars.

But the green moment will be short. The oil "crisis" is created by financial speculators and panic-stricken politicians. Why "instability" in the Middle East should induce such alarm, I have never understood. Perhaps it is some folk memory of 1956, when the Suez Canal was blocked, or 1973, when Arabs thought they could make a collective stand to stop the west propping up Israel. But there's no reason why the oil should dry up now. Rather, the contrary: the tyrants need the revenues to buy off unrest and new regimes - democratic, Islamic or whatever - will need them to avoid instant popular disillusion. Wars also need oil revenues. Prices fell during the Iran-Iraq war.

The prospect that the planet may be uncomfortably hot in 50 years is far too remote to worry the Tories. But high petrol prices in May could make the local government elections uncomfortable for Tory candidates. That's the only thing on Cameron's mind.

All that glitters is not gold-plated

The report on public-sector pensions from the former Labour minister John (now Lord) Hutton must be understood as part of a wider agenda. First, after private-sector recklessness, greed and incompetence plunged us into financial crisis and recession, Tory politicians and right-wing newspapers aimed to deflect popular anger on to public-sector workers. They eagerly pointed out that, while stock market falls and near-zero interest rates had slashed the value of most private-sector pensions, teachers, nurses, firefighters and local government bureaucrats continued to enjoy the prospect of a "gold-plated" retirement, on up to half their final salaries, with ample protection from inflation. Government measures, notably changing the inflation index used in calculating payments, have already cut their value by around 25 per cent. But ministers reckon there is mileage in continuing the jihad.

Second, pension obligations are the biggest barrier to more privatising and outsourcing of public-sector services. Public services, we are repeatedly told, are run for the employees, not the public. They are being "reformed" so that they can be run for the benefit of capital.

Not-so-handy Andy

I do not much care where Prince Andrew gets his massages. And given that British companies scatter bribes all over the Middle East to secure contracts, I am not going to criticise him for giving lunch at Buckingham Palace to relatives of unsavoury dictators.

But everybody has known for years that he is one of nature's plonkers and his sheltered royal upbringing and lifestyle hardly equip him to
be a shrewd judge of character. As WikiLeaks revealed, diplomats know him as HBH ("His Buffoon Highness") because of his cockiness, rudeness and habit of "doing exactly the opposite of what has been agreed". So can anybody explain why he was appointed "trade envoy" in the first place and why he wasn't sacked long ago? If we need celebrities to sell our goods, can't we send Joanna Lumley or Piers Morgan, who would at least make people laugh?

Corgi registered

Des Wilson, the founder of Shelter (his other causes included lead-free petrol, freedom of information and, less admirably, the Liberal Democrats), shows, in his newly published Memoirs of a Minor Public Figure, how best to deal with the royals. Invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace, he told Prince Charles that he should get out more and find out how people really lived. He then told the Queen that the Ideal Home Exhibition, which she was about to visit, was a fantasy world bearing no relation to the lives of her subjects.

He also - I owe this information to a speech by Lord (Peter) Hennessy at the launch party - trod on a corgi and, when the creature protested, somehow formed the impression that the Queen was barking at him.

It took this noisy, unselfconscious small-town New Zealander to convince the British that several million of their fellow citizens still lived in slums and that their government was the most secretive in western Europe. Can we bring him out of retirement for a last campaign to rid us of the House of Windsor?

Dubbing down

BBC4's Danish thriller The Killing, with an average of 500,000 viewers an episode, is getting surprisingly good ratings by the standards of
a highbrow minority channel. Even more remarkably, it has subtitles. I have a theory that it's hopeless to try to persuade the English to stick at learning foreign languages because they never hear them spoken.

In most popular holiday destinations, waiters, hoteliers, even taxi drivers speak English. Very little pop music in a foreign language penetrates the English market. Foreign films never get to most cinemas nor on to television, except in the small hours. TV producers seem to assume either that the very sound of foreign words will send viewers to the off switch or that nobody can be bothered to peer at subtitles.

As soon as foreigners open their mouths, whether on a news programme or a documentary, they are drowned out by a dubbed translation. Danish isn't exactly a world language but at least it's a start.

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 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?