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16 December 2015

The night I was five Tube stops from terror, Blair’s special pleading, and the age of floods

The Tube station ticket hall in Leytonstone where a middle-aged man carrying a guitar was attacked with a knife.

By Peter Wilby

The Tube station ticket hall in Leytonstone where a middle-aged man carrying a guitar was attacked with a knife – in what police described as “a terrorist attack” and Tube announcements as “a customer incident” – is yards from where my wife and I lived more than 40 years ago. I still go to Leytonstone at least twice a year to visit my NHS dentist and frequently stop off there to change Tube trains.

It is a curious place, in limbo between the inner city and the well-heeled outer London suburbs such as Woodford, which, before Greater London was invented, were part of Essex. It was never quite traditional working-class East End, nor has it ever been heavily colonised by yuppies as, for example, Hackney has. It has a sizeable but not dominant Muslim population. When we lived there, Irish Catholics seemed the more evident minority; three lived in the flat above, one of whom, apparently in a fit of religious ecstasy, mistook my wife for the Virgin Mary. My Chinese dentist – not the present one but his father – told me that the area had a significant gay community. A crime writer insisted it was full of gangsters. Others remembered it as big in 1950s jazz.

It is the sort of indeterminate area – faintly seedy, claiming respectability, sometimes aspiring to be fashionable – that you find only in London. Widely known for nothing much except being the birthplace of David Beckham and Alfred Hitchcock, it resists categorisation. Even the knife attack, with which a man has been charged, may not turn out to be an example of terrorism as normally defined.

Did the proximity of the incident – five Tube stops from where we live now – make us into supporters of bombing? Yes, for about 30 seconds. But on reflection, we agreed that, for no clear purpose, David Cameron and his government have inflamed passions and put us in greater danger.

Lessons from Oldham

Labour’s by-election victory in Oldham West shows that it helps to have a popular local candidate – in this case, Jim McMahon, the leader of the council. One of the benefits of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is that neither the Blairites nor the Brownites can now parachute Westminster wonks, spin doctors, research assistants and media cronies into safe seats up and down the country.

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Corbyn should resist the temptation to push his supporters into Labour candidacies. Even if he does a Mandelson for the leader and turns him into a winner, I can’t see the old Old Wykehamist Seumas Milne going down well in Hartlepool. Corbyn should tell constituency Labour parties to favour local people with a record of local activism, not necessarily party political. Why not recruit as candidates leaders of tenants’ associations, organisers of food banks or campaigners against planning decisions? That really would be a new kind of politics.

Climate changed

As I mentioned last week, the fallback position of global warming deniers is that our descendants will be wealthier and more technologically advanced than we are and therefore do a better job of adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change if it ever happens. In other words, posterity can look after itself. But repeated floods suggest that posterity is already here and making a poor fist of it. In 2005, the waters in Carlisle reached 20 inches above their previous highest level in 1853. New flood barriers were built. In the latest floods, the waters rose 20 inches above the 2005 level. The barriers proved inadequate.

Whatever the causes of flooding, we don’t seem to be very good at managing it. Nor, since the government has cut funding for flood defences by 14 per cent this year, do we seem to have growing amounts of wealth to spare. I doubt, however, that any of this will create more public pressure to fight climate change. Australia and the US have worse problems with changing climate and the deniers’ grip on their politics seems stronger than ever.

Wishful thinking

For a giddy moment, I thought that Tony Blair had repented. “Having asserted the importance of public services,” he writes in the Spectator of his decade in office, “we . . . became obsessed with introducing the market to them, thus diluting their values. In wanting to prove our ‘business’ credentials, we believed the private sector could do no wrong. In supporting America post-9/11 . . . we became fellow travellers of the ‘neocons’.” This, I thought, was a succinct analysis of what went wrong with New Labour. I couldn’t have put it better myself, though I would have said more about the folly of mortgaging the future of hospitals and schools through public-private partnerships so that they are now saddled with huge rents to the private sector. I would have said more, too, about how New Labour failed to control house prices and private credit and allowed finance to dominate the economy.

Alas, Blair was summarising his critics’ case before defending his policies in terms that suggest he has learned nothing. He admits only that, before 2001, “We were . . . timid.” He means: not Thatcherite enough.

Silly sausage

You can sample any world cuisine in London, it is often said. But someone who tried to test this told me that even the German embassy didn’t know of any German restaurants in the city. But an unobtrusive place called Herman ze German has been selling sausages a few yards from Charing Cross Station since 2008. Now a restaurant has opened in King’s Cross called the German Gymnasium (since the 19th-century building was once exactly that) and it heaves with the young and monied. I tried it and found it just the right side of mediocre. Will it catch on? In King’s Cross, once noted for prostitutes and alcoholics but now redeveloped as a “destination”, anything can succeed. But I can’t imagine the British saying, “Shall we go out for a German tonight?” And still less: “Would you pick up a German on the way home, please, darling?”

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires