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18 December 2015

We should all celebrate the Christian story, whether or not we are believers

The lessons of Christmas, Michael Gove's quest for justice and how the French blocked Le Pen.

By Peter Wilby

Forgive my scepticism, but I shall not spend my Christmas celebrating the climate-change deal agreed in Paris. Any conference that lasts more than a day draws the participants into a bubble within which they become oblivious to the inertial nature of the outside world. I remember this from education conferences, during which everybody (including me, who usually attended as a supposedly detached journalist) became convinced that, if some new form of school organisation or new teaching techniques were adopted, we would nurture a race of Einsteins.

Not being a scientist, I have no idea of how the carbon emissions targets agreed in Paris are to be enforced. Nor do I really understand how each country’s emissions will be measured. After all, China’s coal-burning emissions do not appear in the stratosphere with a “Made in China” label on them. Is there anything to stop the Chinese from waiting for a favourable wind so that the effects can be blamed on, say, Taiwan or South Korea? I wonder how many of the politicians who slapped each other’s backs in Paris are as ignorant as I am.

If targets are to be reached, according to better-informed people such as the Reading and Imperial College meteorology professor Brian Hoskins and the campaigner Bill McKibben, fracking has to stop right away, coal and gas have to disappear within 20 years, we all have to get our homes properly insulated, solar panels and windmills have to be erected just about everywhere, and we must all drive electric cars. Does it feel to you as if any of that is about to happen? Has anybody told George Osborne, who cut nearly all kinds of green investment in his Spending Review? Has the message reached those people who adorn their homes with flashing lights at Christmas?


Shares in saving the world

One threat we hear little of these days is “peak oil”. This was the idea that the oil would soon run out and the urgency to find a substitute would drive us towards green energy, regardless of whether we agreed to fight global warming. Now the price of petrol dips below £1 a litre, providing an instructive example of how markets work.

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When the price is high, companies rush to exploit new sources. With oil around $100 a barrel, US investment in fracking – a highly expensive technology – soared between 2005 and 2010, so that it now accounts for a fifth of global investment in crude oil. New supplies caused the price to drop. Investment stopped. It’s no longer worth anybody’s while to get oil out of the ground or even to look for it. Supplies will shrink, the price will rise, talk of “peak oil” will follow. Then the investment will return, politicians will shout, “Drill, baby, drill,” and companies will sink wells in national parks.

If investors believe governments meant what they said in Paris, that cycle will be broken. Investment in oil and gas will never recover from its present slump. The share prices of conventional energy companies will go into free fall, while those of green energy producers soar. Watch the stock markets if you want to know whether the planet will be saved.


Nouvelle vote cordiale

In all the talk about electoral reform in Britain, I never heard anyone advocate the French voting system. This involves two rounds, with the weaker candidates dropping out for the second. Here, it is taken for granted that it’s difficult enough to drag Britons to the polls once a year, never mind twice in two weeks. Yet in France, the turnout for presidential elections is roughly 80 per cent and even in regional elections, such as those just completed, it can exceed 50 per cent. It often increases in the second round.

The system allows voters to shock established opinion by voting for Marine Le Pen of the Front National without risk of giving her power. They can then cast a “serious” vote for a more respectable person. Shouldn’t we try something similar?


Gove’s goodwill

’Tis the season of goodwill, and I shall therefore send – metaphorically at any rate – a Christmas card to Michael Gove. Rightly criticised for his record as education secretary, this fanatical neocon appears in a quite different light as Justice Secretary. He has reversed a ban, introduced by his predecessor, on prisoners receiving books by post and scrapped the iniquitous court charge that penalised those who didn’t plead guilty. Now he proposes to cut jail terms and force prisons to give a higher priority
to rehabilitation.

Prison reform is not a way to win votes or political friends, particularly in the Conservative Party, as liberal-minded ministers of the past such as the late Rab Butler so painfully discovered. By far the most popular Tory home secretary of the past 50 years was the right-wing Michael Howard; I once watched him incite a party conference to collective orgasm with one of his “prison works” speeches. Gove should be praised for his guts, and so should David Cameron for finding him possibly the only job where he can do good, not harm.


Carol protest

Nothing draws me more to religion than Christmas. That is not because I lose my atheist faith but because I intensely dislike all the commercial baggage and babble that surrounds the festival. So, in a spirit of protest, I shall try to attend at least one carol service and possibly a midnight Mass, too, as well as listening at 3pm sharp on Christmas Eve to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

All religions have stories at their heart. Christianity, to my mind, has the best: an omnipotent God who chooses to be incarnated as a human, born in the most humble circumstances imaginable. Whether or not we are believers, we should all celebrate that story in the coming days and ponder its meaning. 

This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special