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18 March 2015updated 07 Jun 2021 1:43pm

First Thoughts: Corbyn’s unlikely supporters, Antarctica’s lost sea ice and the decline of Sunday newspapers

By Peter Wilby

When informed of the death of the notoriously taciturn former US president Calvin Coolidge in 1933, the satirist Dorothy Parker reportedly asked, “How can they tell?” One is tempted to respond similarly to reports, emanating from Labour MPs and senior civil servants, that Jeremy Corbyn is ill and may even have suffered a mini-stroke. One unnamed MP told the Times that a recent discussion with the Labour leader went round in circles: “It was always a repetition, always going through the same issues, time and time again.” Doesn’t this MP know that Corbyn has been like that since the 1970s? At least nobody can accuse him of inconsistency.

Dubious defenders

In rebutting charges that he is ailing in mind and body, Corbyn finds himself with strange bedfellows. The former Ukip MP Douglas Carswell tweets that he’d rather have Corbyn running “my country” than “the smug, self-regarding, incompetent Whitehall officials that briefed… the Times”. The Daily Mail columnist Dominic Lawson describes the claims as a “plot” that “enables him to stand as the principled democrat”.

The right sees a battle between, on one side, a beleaguered Brexiteer who hardly dares admit his true beliefs, and on the other, Oxbridge-educated, London-based members of the elite who include senior civil servants (deficient in common sense despite their brains), Times journalists purveying fake news, and Labour Remainers. No question about which side to take.

From ice-caps to nightcaps

The volume of sea ice around Antarctica, it is reported, has plunged since 2014 after rising since the 1980s. Antarctica has lost as much sea ice in four years as the Arctic lost in 34. I wonder how global warming deniers will respond to this development. They have tried to convince us that the planet isn’t really warming up – and that we can ignore Arctic melting – by quoting figures of increasing sea ice around the South Pole.

Perhaps they will fall back on the glass of whisky argument, to which a Daily Mail journalist once devoted a column. When he put ice in a glass and added his nightly whisky to the brim, he revealed, the glass didn’t overflow as the ice melted. Therefore melting sea ice wouldn’t cause sea levels to rise. How silly of scientists not to spot that! Unfortunately, a glass of whisky is a poor guide to planetary climate. Sea ice doesn’t absorb anywhere near as much solar heat as ocean water does. Moreover, there’s lots of melting ice pouring into the seas from land.

The sun sets on Sunday papers

When I joined the New Statesman as literary editor after being fired as editor of the Independent on Sunday, a staff member apologised for never having heard of me. Would anybody make such an apology now? Nearly all Sunday newspapers have become seventh-day versions of their daily sisters, largely indistinguishable in appearance, content and character from papers published any other day. But until now, the Sunday Times has retained its own staff, design and format (broadsheet while the daily Times is tabloid), even in some respects its own politics (pro-Brexit while the Times is mildly pro-Remain). I don’t need to look up the name of its editor, Martin Ivens, as I do the names of other Sunday editors.

The Sunday Times survives in this fashion for two reasons. First, thanks to the historic strength of the brand, its average sales are 75 per cent higher than those of the Times, whereas in most other stables, the daily paper sells more. Second, Rupert Murdoch, when he took over the two titles in 1981, was compelled to promise the government that they would remain wholly separate. Now ministers look set to agree that Murdoch can vary the undertakings to give the papers “flexibility to share resources”.

What this will mean remains to be seen. But Sunday papers are close to the extinction I have long predicted. Even at the Sunday Times, an attempt some years ago to give it a separate online identity failed. The titles may survive in print but, in its traditional and unique form, the British Sunday newspaper – which once gave us the most memorable reporting, campaigning and writing – is among the biggest and most regrettable casualties of the digital age.

Drawing first blood

Few people seem to have noticed that Neil Woodford, the once successful fund-manager recently forced to suspend payments to investors in his flagship fund, may be the first victim of Brexit. He argued that forecasts of post-Brexit disaster from “the London elite” were wildly pessimistic. British firms were well placed for growth, come what may. That was why Woodford put investors’ money into what he saw as undervalued UK companies, leading to his present difficulties. But like the Tory leadership contestants, Woodford is sticking to his guns. Let’s hope he’s right because, if he isn’t, the winner of the Tory contest will be suspending a whole lot more payments – to taxpayers, indebted graduates, public sector employees, farmers, fishermen, warship manufacturers and others. Voters be warned: investments in politicians, like other investments, can go down as well as up.

Paradise lost

For several years, we have taken an annual holiday in Corsica, having discovered a small, peaceful fishing village with sea on one side, mountains on the other, and old men playing boules next to a railway station through which trains pass slowly and infrequently. This, we decided, was an ideal spot for a journalist accustomed to quiet and unfashionable living to chill out. This year, we found, cranes spoil the views of the mountains. New developments sprout either side of the village. The once sleepy square is overrun by motor vehicles. A shop selling freshly cut cheese and charcuterie has opened a rather raucous bar as a sideline. The only comfort is that British visitors, by far the noisiest holidaymakers in my experience, are still quite rare. 

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This article appears in the 03 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion