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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.