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Eton’s tower block pupils, hoarding disorders and eating pies on the NHS

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

It’s clear that the Tories don’t want to join a European fiscal union but do they want to continue with a British one? A fiscal union involves the transfer of resources from rich to poor areas, which often causes the former to grumble about how they subsidise the idle and incompetent. That is what drives the Northern League in Italy and Catalan demands for independence in Spain.

Could a similar movement in Britain – for a breakaway city state encompassing Greater London and its commuter hinterlands – take off? Maybe not but the Tories are doing everything possible to weaken the fiscal union. London already lives on its own economic planet. As reported recently, it has more cranes at work than the rest of Britain put together and its average house prices are up more than a third since the bottom of the downturn, against less than 10 per cent in the north. Tory policies accentuate this division. Because the north is much poorer than London, it loses when benefits are reduced and top tax rates cut. Public-spending cuts hit the north harder because it has proportionately more public-sector jobs. Regional pay scales, which the Tories favour for public-sector occupations such as teaching, would further drain resources from the north.

Now, Boris Johnson, backed by a report from the London Finance Commission (which he set up), is campaigning for the capital to keep revenue from council tax, business rates, stamp duty and capital gains tax. Perhaps Johnson sees a grander future as Mayor of London than as prime minister.

Essex hoards

The latest edition of an American psychiatric dictionary includes disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, or DMDD, which is defined as “abnormally severe and frequent temper tantrums”. This would appear to cover all teenagers I’ve ever met or heard of and most newspaper editors. My wife thinks I still suffer from it and, judging from the clutter around our house, we probably both suffer from hoarding disorder, another new entrant to the psychiatric dictionary, defined as “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of actual value”.

I realise these labels are mostly invented to enable the pharmaceutical industry to sell more drugs, but I would be wary of mocking them. We all have personality defects and it is somehow comforting to believe they can be traced to biological causes for which we are no more to blame than a bout of flu. It helps us to feel better about ourselves and to treat others more kindly.      

Ivory tower blocks

I am suspicious when heads of posh schools claim some pupils “live in inner-city tower blocks”, as Eton’s Tony Little did in last week’s New Statesman. How many? Two? Three? All the 45 who, Little says, don’t pay any fees, making them 3.46 per cent of the total? Do “inner-city tower blocks” include the Barbican in London, where three-bedroom flats cost more than £1.5m?

I am also suspicious of Little’s claim that admissions to Eton are “genuinely needsblind”. The idea –more often mentioned by fee-paying schools as an aspiration than as an actuality – is that children are admitted on academic criteria alone and then given financial assistance if their parents can’t afford the full fees. Yet unless the schools build up implausibly large endowments, or raise paying parents’ fees to even more eye-watering levels, “needs-blind” depends on two assumptions. First, the vast majority of parents on modest incomes won’t apply. Second, those who meet the academic requirements will come overwhelmingly from affluent homes. A flood of office cleaners’ children into Eton or other public schools is never going to happen.            

Choice cuts

Why is the NHS still serving pies and puddings to heart-attack victims? A friend who has just returned home from heart surgery (apparently successful) at a large northern hospital tells me that these were served to him as he recovered. As he awaited his operation over the May Day bank holiday, the main food available was sandwiches, mostly with mayonnaise. Only when he complained did he get a proper salad. There really is no point in ministers banging on about healthy eating if they can’t get the message through to public institutions.

Hear us roar

I have had what the sports pages call a “rollercoaster” weekend. One day, Leicester Tigers stormed into the rugby Premiership final; the next, Leicester City conceded a goal in the final minute, losing their chance of promotion to football’s Premier League. Why did I care very much about the first and hardly at all about the second? It’s not just because I find rugby the more thrilling and multidimensional game. Leicester City switched to a new ground a decade ago and are now owned by Thai plutocrats. Tigers have never moved from the Welford Road ground where I stood on the terraces as a child.

The club chairman and chief executive are both ex-players, as are three of the nine other board members, and three of the four coaches. Eight senior-squad players were born or schooled locally; the father of two others (brothers) played for the club. In other words, Tigers, though they have their share of footloose stars, remain rooted in their community, representing a continuity now rare in top-level professional sport.

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 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket