New Times,
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  1. Culture
2 September 2016

Dancing balls and Paxman’s “virtual corpses“

This week in the media, from Apple’s tax liabilities to Jeremy Paxman’s run-in with the “virtual corpses”.

By Peter Wilby

Ed Balls, by the general consent of his contemporaries, was one of the outstanding politicians of his generation; one who may have been perceived as too much of a bruiser and bully to become prime minister but whose ability should have made him chancellor or home secretary. It was his misfortune to serve under two dud leaders.

Elevated to the cabinet when his mentor Gordon Brown became PM in 2007, Balls reveals in his memoirs, serialised in the Times, that Brown talked to him five times in less than three years about becoming chancellor. The notoriously indecisive Brown “felt for different reasons at different times” that he couldn’t do it. He also recalls how Brown’s combination of indecision and workaholism showed itself when they travelled in Concorde and the plane, mid-flight, tumbled 36,000 feet in a few minutes. Working on a speech for an international finance meeting in 2002 (when Balls was Brown’s Treasury aide), the two men stopped to prepare for death, discussing “the good things . . . we’d done in our lives”. At 24,000 feet and still falling, Brown asked if they should finish the speech.

Balls became shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband but their relationship was distant. They spoke only twice during the 2015 election campaign, which was, Balls writes, “astonishingly dysfunctional when I compare it to how Tony [Blair] and Gordon worked”.

You can’t get more dysfunctional than that. Brown’s indecision and Miliband’s poor leadership skills were widely reported in the press, particularly the NS, to emphatic denials. The reports were indeed wrong. Things were much worse.


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Two left feet

His political career apparently over, Balls is scheduled for Strictly Come Dancing. “I’m not a natural dancer . . . not . . . naturally a ­yoga-ish, well-held person,” he tells the Times. He can do a waltz and “a sort of version of rock’n’roll” and no doubt thinks that, after intensive tuition, he will improve in time for his TV appearances. I wonder. My wife and I have been taking dancing lessons for more than five years and, despite our excellent teacher and my wife’s elegant progress, I can still do little more than a rather clumsy waltz, a sort of rumba and no recognisable version of rock’n’roll at all. If Balls considers himself a badly held person, he should see me in action.


Biting Apple

Whatever its democratic deficits, the EU remains the best hope of reasserting the power of elected governments against multinational corporations. This is illustrated by the European Commission’s ruling that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple and should pay €13bn (£11bn) in back taxes. Labour leaders should reflect on what left-wing governments could do with £11bn – some of which would be paid elsewhere if Ireland hadn’t acted as a tax haven for Apple – and regret their failure to campaign more vigorously for Remain. The EU is at last taking on the corporate giants; Google is next in its sights. Expect a Tory government, from outside the EU, to make rock-bottom tax offers. Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s clumsy leadership, the left may have lost its best opportunity in a generation.


Pay the police

I have an answer to Labour’s continuing problems over security for this autumn’s annual party conference in Liverpool. Having rejected G4S because of its links to Israeli prisons and another company, Showsec, because it doesn’t recognise trade unions, it has turned to a third company, OCS Group, which allegedly uses zero-hours contracts.

What seems not to have occurred to party leaders is to ask Merseyside Police to do the job, with charges at £61.47 per constable per hour. I know this is rather on the high side but the police are, after all, a public-sector service in which employees are paid proper wages and pensions, as post-Blairite Labour would presumably wish. Before the last quarter of the 20th century, the police had a virtual monopoly on providing security for big events. Shouldn’t Corbyn make it his policy to restore that position?


Young at heart

I have never read or even heard of Mature Times, a free publication which claims to be “the voice of our generation”, meaning the over-fifties. Jeremy Paxman, 66, found it at a hotel reception desk and berated it in the Financial Times as a “dreary publication” full of adverts for hearing aids and stairlifts aimed at “virtual corpses” on the verge of incontinence and idiocy. Seizing the opportunity for publicity, the publisher accuses Paxman of insulting 21 million people and compares him to Jeremy Clarkson without the charisma.

At 71, I am with Paxman, right down to his criticisms of governments that pander to the “whiffy vested interest” of old people by giving us annual pension rises that, most years, exceed wage rises. I never read Saga Magazine and read the Oldie only once, when asked to contribute. When I was under 25, I did not see myself as part of a “youth market”. I have no intention of ­becoming part of a “mature market”.


Out of time

Kenneth Branagh playing Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer – a role taken by Laurence Olivier when the play opened in 1957 – ought to be the theatrical event of the autumn. Alas, what was admittedly a preview left me cold. The audience response was lukewarm; the man next to me fell asleep. Osborne’s play, rated by many critics as his best, hasn’t worn well. It now seems wordy, slow and unengaging. Though Branagh was as good as you’d expect, the set of the production at the Garrick Theatre in London was uninspiring.

Osborne used Rice, a declining music-hall comedian, as a metaphor for a Britain struggling with loss of empire and national identity. But although John Osborne transformed British theatre, he wasn’t a good enough writer to rise above his times.

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war