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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle