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15 January 2015

Labour’s ground rules, serial sequels, Prince Andrew’s life and guarding the guardsmen

Elections disputes, toe-sucking scandals and guardsmen behind bars. It just goes to show, there are no new stories, only variants of old ones.

By Peter Wilby

As the general election draws closer, Tony Blair and the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, talk about Labour claiming “the centre ground”. Neither seems to understand that since the mid-1970s the Tory project has been to change where the centre ground lies. Labour, ambling in the same general direction as its opponents, has allowed the project to succeed. All it ever offers is what in rugby union would be called a scramble defence to “save” the NHS, which is now just about all that remains of Labour’s post-1945 “new Jerusalem”.

Ed Miliband understands the need to make public ownership, redistributive taxation, greater social equality, employees’ rights and robust welfare provision into subjects for serious discussion once more. He shows few signs that he can turn such issues into a coherent and convincing programme. I have heard it suggested that he is a latter-day Clement Attlee who will amaze once he gets into Downing Street. If so, he needs an Aneurin Bevan to provide passion and a Harold Laski to give intellectual ballast. What he does not need is Blair and Balls babbling about the centre ground, a vacuous concept if ever there was one.


The destiny of the “spare”

The trouble with Prince Andrew, now embroiled in sex abuse allegations, is the same trouble that has afflicted junior male members of the royal family for generations. They have no function except as a backstop lest those further up the line of succession fall under horse-drawn carriages. Nowadays, they are expected to “earn a living” or “make a contribution”. But nothing in their experience equips them to cope with anything resembling an ordinary job, even an unpaid one. They are not usually very bright – royalty is not selected for brains and, even if princes have any, they receive none of the challenge or stimulation that would develop intelligence – and they are therefore sitting ducks for dubious characters such as Jeffrey Epstein, the American billionaire who allegedly supplied Andrew with “sex slaves”. The last and greatest service the Queen could make to her country is to announce, on her deathbed, that she should be the last of her line. She would thus spare her direct descendants from weird half-lives – and force the rest of us to grow up.


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Royal repeat reporting

Predictably, newspapers are salivating over the Andrew story. But their coverage says more about them than what really happened between the prince and Virginia Roberts, his accuser. One paper reports Roberts saying Andrew “started licking my toes, between my toes, the arches of my feet”, a scenario remarkably similar to that conjured in 1992 to embroider tales of an affair between David Mellor, then a cabinet minister, and the model Antonia de Sancha. A second paper quotes Roberts saying “it was not behaviour that I was used to . . . from a prince who had daughters”. A third states: “Nobody should forget that Prince Andrew is a war hero.” A fourth initially declines to identify the accuser “out of respect for her wish to bring the case anonymously” but later names Roberts after it “approached her lawyers”. The four newspapers were the Daily TelegraphSunday MirrorGuardian and Mail on Sunday. You should not find it difficult to match the reports with the correct newspapers.


Keep Broadchurch narrow

Like several million others, I watched the first episode in the new series of ITV’s Broadchurch. But I rarely watch sequels of either films or TV dramas. Planet of the Apes was successful because the underlying concept was so original and cleverly executed. No sequel could beat the shock of its climax in which Charlton Heston discovers the ruins of the Statue of Liberty. We should be thankful that nobody thought of a sequel to Brief Encounter and that we remain mercifully ignorant from a Casablanca II of how the “beautiful friendship” of Rick and Louis developed. In most sequels, the characters become caricatures and the plot contrived. Will Broadchurch be different? Perhaps, because it promises to unpick several mysteries from the first series. But no Broadchurch III, please.


Unions missed a trick with Maggie

Newly released government papers from 1985-86 reveal that Margaret Thatcher approved the GCSE exam because “to do otherwise . . . would look like taking the side of the unions”. This initially seems a puzzling statement, as the main teachers’ unions campaigned for the abolition of O-levels and CSEs, designed for children of different abilities, and their replacement by a single exam for 16-year-olds. But the unions threatened to boycott the new exam in furtherance of a pay dispute. Thatcher therefore backed an exam that involved, as her private secretary observed, “a shift away from the traditional approach to learning in favour of a ‘can’t-fail’ mentality [and] assessment by the pupils’ own teachers”.

Did other unions miss a trick? If they had campaigned for the privatisation of water and power supplies, threatening strikes while they remained nationalised, those industries might have remained in the public sector.


Bearskins behind bars

Fear of terrorist attacks has caused the Queen’s Guard with their bearskin hats to take position behind palace gates, the Mail on Sunday reported on 28 December. “A crying shame,” said Malcolm Rifkind MP. Next day, I started the latest volume of David Kynaston’s history of modern Britain, covering 1959-62. The first page recalled that, after a woman complained she’d been kicked, the Buckingham Palace guardsmen were moved behind the railings. “A bad show,” declared Enoch Powell MP.

As I frequently explain to young journalists, there are no new stories, only variants of old ones (see also Toe-sucking, above). Guardsmen are now moved lest members of the public attack them; in 1959 they were moved lest they attack the public.