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

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.