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8 October 2015

McDonnell’s environmental hazard, shifty stakeholders and my five days living like a Tory

I booked a cottage called Primrose Hall. I realised on arrival that I had committed myself to five days in a museum of Toryism.

By Peter Wilby

It’s funny how all politicians at the top of mainstream parties eventually start sounding the same. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, at least managed in his Labour conference speech to avoid the phrase “hard-working families” by talking instead about “families . . . working hard”. But as refreshing as it was to hear mentions of rail nationalisation, the abolition of tax breaks for landlords and cuts in corporate welfare, his biggest theme was the need to “dynamically grow our economy”.

I have no idea what this means, though I suppose it must be preferable to dynamically shrinking the economy. It is surprising, however, that the new left-wing leadership has so quickly committed itself to the centrist economic orthodoxy that nothing can be achieved without growth. In truth, we should probably learn to live without much growth, not only because nothing that governments or central banks do seems to bring western economies back to life, but also because of threats to the planet’s future. References to the environment and “green” policies were conspicuous in McDonnell’s speech by their almost complete absence.

The shadow chancellor is said to be a “loony lefty”. Perhaps so – but he isn’t a very radical thinker. The Green Party’s proposal for a basic citizen’s income, in which the state automatically gives everybody enough to stay above the poverty line, is surely worth a look.


Another country

McDonnell even used the words “our country”, as did Jeremy Corbyn. David Cameron rarely fails to use them. For example, his contributions to a recent Commons debate on refugees had about ten instances. The typical phrases are: “We know terrorist threats to our country are growing” and “To tackle . . . poverty . . . in our country, we need to go after . . . sink schools, high unemployment, debt . . .”

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Cameron presumably believes that “our country” carries a message of inclusiveness. I hear the opposite message, in which “ours” means “not yours”, the country’s owners being Cameron and his fellow toffs.


Exhausting the left

We are used to scandals afflicting UK and US corporations that operate under a devil-take-the-hindmost model of capitalism but Volkswagen, which concealed the real levels of pollution emitted by its cars, is another matter. It is a quintessentially German firm that embodies the consensual or stakeholder model of capitalism often held up for admiration by our centre left: not only are its plants unionised, it even campaigned, in Tennessee last year, for workers to join a  union. Elected works councils help decide on schedules and working conditions. An eighth of VW shares are owned by the Lower Saxony state government. Such arrangements, the left often warns, risk turning unions and state bodies into collaborators with the capitalist enemy. Will Hutton, a prominent advocate for a “stakeholder society”, writes in the Observer that VW succumbed to the temptation for “boundless self-enrichment”. That’s the problem with capitalism, however you dress it up.


Lone wolves

In Norwich on 28 September, two men and a woman were given long prison sentences because, over a decade, they subjected five children to what the judge called “sexual abuse of the worst kind”. They threw parties at which adults played card games to decide who abused which child. The children were “passed around like toys”, the judge said.

Newspapers covered the case but failed to mention either the ethnicity or religions of those convicted. From their names (Rogers, Adams, Black) and photographs, however, we can assume they are not Pakistani Muslims. We shall not, therefore, be reading long features pondering the role of their “community” and “culture”.


Blue afternoons

For a short break last month in Rutland – where my wife planned to sail on Rutland Water and I to watch cricket in neighbouring Leicester – I booked a cottage called Primrose Hall. I thought it was a converted village hall and a primrose was just a flower but I had not read the details carefully. I realised on arrival that I had committed myself to five days in a museum of Toryism.

The original hall belonged to the Primrose League, founded by Randolph Churchill in 1883 in memory of Disraeli and dedicated to Conservatism and “the imperial ascendancy of the British empire”. It was designed particularly to engage the working classes, who could pay a few pence for associate membership. (Remind you of anything?)

By 1910, it had more than two million members and was wound up as recently as 2004. The league’s branches were more interested in holding dances than putting out Tory propaganda but it was discomfiting to be reminded round the clock – rain ruled out cricket and confined me indoors for long periods – of how deeply Toryism embedded itself into English life, the owners of Primrose Hall having provided various mementos of the league. Happily, the cups, saucers, plates and bedlinen were decorated not with the yellow primrose but with a red flower that was perhaps a poppy, though I preferred to view it as Labour’s red rose. Perhaps I shall go again.


Last man in

Whether or not Frank Tyson, who has died at 85, was the fastest bowler in history, his biggest achievement, to my mind, was to live so long. He belonged to an era – 1952 to 1958 – when England were undeniably the best team in the world. Remarkably, six of its biggest stars died before they were 70: Laker (at 64), Lock (65), Statham (69), May (64), Cowdrey (67) and Wardle (62). I suspect that outstanding sportsmen, who seem rarely to live to great ages, cope less well than most with physical decline. Whatever the explanation, the early disappearance of childhood heroes is peculiarly depressing. I cling to the hope that Tom Graveney, now 88, will soldier on into his nineties.

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide