Jamie’s mangetout dinner, a fool’s bargain, and why West Side Story is better than opera

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

If Bashar al-Assad’s regime is using chemical weapons in Syria – and given how our leaders deceived us over Iraq, it is hard to know what to believe – the argument for US and UK intervention is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should. No good ever comes of meddling in the Middle East. Cruise missile attacks on Damascus may strengthen Assad, allowing him to rally patriotic support and portray the rebels as western-Zionist stooges. Or they may strengthen the Islamists in Syria, including two al-Qaeda groups. Most likely, both Assad and the Islamists will gain. Liberal secularists get marginalised when the bombs start to fly.
 
The Assad regime has always murdered, tortured and imprisoned its opponents. It is now doing in the open the sort of thing it has done behind prison doors for years. If we wish to stop dictators, we should not wait until the TV beams atrocities into our living rooms. There are 27 countries on the government’s list of human rights violators. According to a parliamentary committee, 25 of them have been licensed to receive exports of British military and intelligence equipment. The Department for Business considers Libya and Saudi Arabia “priority markets for arms exports”. Other customers include Egypt, Bahrain, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Russia and, yes, Syria, which was invited to an arms fair in London last year.
 
The most common argument for continuing the arms trade is that it gives us influence over tyrants. That doesn’t seem to be working terribly well.
 

Economical with the truth

 
“Lies!” my late father always shouted when advertisements came on TV. Everybody knows that ads contain untruths, I would say. But, he would point out, all too many people believe them – though how they would be enlightened by his shouting when only my mother and I were within earshot he did not explain.
 
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) often strikes me as being about as effective as he was. It is lately exercised over discounts, which are simply advertisers’ lies in another form, like claims that a powder washes whitest. It has announced an investigation into furniture and carpet chains that inflate prices for short periods in a few stores and then present the normal prices as bargains. Tesco, meanwhile, has been fined £300,000 for labelling strawberries as “half price”.
 
However, such claims are ubiquitous, because there can be no “normal” price for fresh fruit and vegetables, which vary according to season, or for tables, which come in all shapes and sizes. The only true discounts are on standardised, branded goods, such as tins of Heinz baked beans.
 
Whatever regulations the OFT tries to impose, shopkeepers will find new ways to mislead customers. If it takes particular exception to lies about prices, it should either ban discount claims entirely or permit them only if retailers announce price rises with equal prominence.
 

Market forces

 
The tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty dies hard. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, speaking with metropolitan authority, advises that, instead of eating “chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers”, the poor should visit their local market and “just grab ten mangetout for dinner”. It would be cheaper than at supermarkets where, he explains, “You’re going to buy a 200g bag . . . or a 400g pack.”
 
Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, there’s a market once a month. I’ve never seen any mangetout and the veg come in 200g or 400g bags. Not the place to be poor, perhaps.
 

The dark ages

 
Cricket’s bad light laws –which robbed England of victory and paying spectators of a thrilling climax in the final Ashes Test at the Oval – are preposterous. A dark red ball, it is said, is hard to see even when the floodlights are on (as they were at the Oval) and it is therefore dangerous and unreasonable to continue when natural light is fading.
 
Yet batsmen are now protected by helmets and other gear, while fielders and umpires are probably more threatened on late afternoons with the sun in their eyes. One of the bestknown matches in history – a knockout cup tie between Lancashire and Gloucestershire in 1971 – ended in semi-darkness just before 9pm in late July with an over from one of the world’s fastest bowlers. The batting side won, even though nobody then wore helmets and white balls hadn’t been invented. One batsman scored 24 in an over. Before he went out, he sat in a darkened room to accustom his eyes to the conditions.
 
High-flying Jets I am usually doubtful about the merits of musicals but I decided to give the Sadler’s Wells performance of West Side Story a try. It was brilliant.
 
Two things occurred to me. First, West Side Story (1957), which is about the tensions between New York street gangs, was as important an influence as Look Back in Anger (1956) in liberating theatre from middle-class characters in middle-class settings.
 
Second, if, as its supporters sometimes claim, opera is the highest art form because it combines music, poetry and narrative drama, West Side Story must be higher still because it combines those three, and dance. Discuss, as the exam papers say.
Jamie Oliver with Australian Premier Ted Baillieu in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.