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18 March 2015updated 07 Jun 2021 1:26pm

First Thoughts: Boris’s memory slips, a Brexiteer’s repentance, roll-up roll-up universities and a missed calling

By Peter Wilby

Sometimes a cartoon says it all. In last week’s NS (page 19), Grizelda showed two small children in floods of tears, wailing, “We don’t want to live in historic times!” as their startled parents looked on. I was reminded of last year’s Political Quarterly lecture by the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole. While Ireland over the past two decades has been “trying to awake from the epic into the ordinary, from the gloriously simple into the fluidly complex”, England, he said, was trying to reverse that process. Brexit was an attempt to move “from the ordinary into the epic, from the complex to the gloriously simple, from the openness and contingency of real life into a once-for-all moment of destiny”.

How surprising that it needs a Daily Mail columnist to pour a large bucket of cold water over all this destiny nonsense. Once a passionate supporter of Brexit, the Mail’s Peter Oborne has just repented in an long and eloquent article on the Open Democracy website, written after much agonising. With the trickle of companies planning to leave Britain now turning into a flood, the economic arguments for Brexit, he writes, are “now unsustainable”. Leaving the EU, Oborne argues, “will be as great a disaster for our country as the over-mighty unions were in the 1960s and 1970s” – quite an admission from a lifelong right-winger.

But Oborne is not exchanging one passion for another. He has no enthusiasm for Remain. He still thinks the EU is “dysfunctional” and “not democratic”. But he comes back to “quiet good sense” and the “lame… chilly and unexciting” proposition that suspending Brexit is “preferable to the alternative”.

That’s what we need. Not a lot of overheated rhetoric about historic times, but a shot of the chilly and unexciting. Read Oborne to them at bedtime and the children in Grizelda’s cartoon will calm down.

Johnson morphs

Boris Johnson is a multiple offender against House of Commons rules. The latest adverse judgement from the Commons standards committee – he failed to declare his financial interest in a Somerset property within the proper timescale – follows a report from the same body just four months ago, which found that he had broken the rules with nine recent payments. The committee notes “a pattern of behaviour” that shows “an over-casual attitude” towards obeying the rules.

Does this “attitude” remind you of anybody? Is it part of a deliberate attempt by Johnson to present himself to voters as the British Donald Trump?

Degrees of abuse

Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, is disgruntled with the universities. They award too many first-class degrees, he says, causing “unjustifiable, artificial grade inflation”. He also accuses them of “pressure-selling tactics” because they increasingly offer places to prospective students regardless of grades (“conditional unconditional offers”), provided they list the university as their first option.

Both are natural results of the quasi-market in university places that the Tories deliberately created. They’re the equivalents of travel firms offering “exclusive experiences” in resorts overrun by mass tourism, and carpet sellers quoting “special prices” available only until tomorrow morning. In 2015, the Tory-led coalition abolished the cap on the students that each university could enrol, thus unleashing competition red in tooth and claw. The new system gave clear incentives to recruit without regard to quality, to screw rivals, to avoid failing or marking down students, and to spend more on marketing, less on teaching. A quasi-market in schools – where income also depends on recruitment – has similar effects. To impress prospective parents, schools fiddle their exam and test results and put out glossy prospectuses. That’s how markets work. Belatedly, the Education Secretary is asking a regulatory body, the Office for Students, to review admissions procedures.

There’s plenty of work to be done in regulating real markets in the private sector. But since that would upset powerful business lobbies, ministers prefer to create bogus markets in state-financed services and then rush around trying to find ways of curbing the inevitable abuses.

Casting the first stone

When you delve into history, you discover that Britain bears a measure of responsibility for things that now outrage us. Take the south-east Asian kingdom of Brunei, which has introduced death by stoning for gay sex and adultery. From 1888 to 1984, it was a British protectorate, a colony over which the local ruler still had significant internal jurisdiction. It was granted self-government in 1959. Three years later, the Brunei People’s Party, demanding full independence and a more democratic constitution, won all ten elected seats on the legislative council, the remaining 11 being the sultan’s nominees.

The sultan, father of the present incumbent, Hassanal Bolkiah, refused to convene the council. An armed rebellion followed. It was put down with the assistance of British troops from Singapore. Brunei has been a dictatorship ever since. When I was at school and we proudly gazed at the slightly outdated map on the wall, coloured red for the extensive territories of the British empire, nobody told us about that sort of thing.

The word of Wilby

Walking the other day down the High Road in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, a middle-aged man and an older woman stopped me and asked: “Are you a priest?” I gestured to a nearby church and suggested they might find one there. “Are you sure you’re not a priest?” they asked with renewed urgency. “We’ve just lost a priest.”

Only later did I think of an explanation for this curious exchange. A priest, due to preach in the church, had been taken ill. I was being invited to stand in. I can’t help feeling that some press columnists would have readily accepted.

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure