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13 January 2017

Whatever Arlene Foster did, at least no one died

After all, Northern Irish voters forgave Martin McGuiness his spell in the IRA. Plus: why did Boris Johnson get a pass on Brexit bungling?

By Peter Wilby

What was Sir Ivan Rogers trying to tell us when he referred to “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” in his letter of resignation from the EU ambassadorship? According to “friends” quoted in the Times – which almost certainly means Rogers himself – he thinks that Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, were guilty of a “failure to understand briefings”. Put more crudely, he thinks the two Brexiteers are a bit thick.

I do not like the political positions of either Fox or Davis. But I note that both have science-based first degrees from universities other than Oxbridge (Fox studied medicine at Glasgow; Davis took molecular and computer sciences at Warwick). Both were also brought up in council houses. The third leading cabinet Brexiteer, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian raised on a large family farm on Exmoor, is, like Rogers, a Balliol arts graduate. He is apparently excluded from complaints about brain capacity. I wonder why.

 

The Cummings man

Rogers is not the first to question Fox’s grasp of the issues. Vince Cable said in September: “He doesn’t understand what a customs union is.” If so, he is not alone, according to Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign. In a 20,000-word blog that purports to explain the referendum result, Cummings states: “I am not aware of a single MP or political journalist who understands the single market – its history, its nature, its dynamics, its legal system . . . Cameron, Osborne and Clegg certainly don’t. Neither does Bill Cash [the veteran Tory Eurosceptic]. Neither does any head of the CBI. Neither do Jon Snow, Robert Peston, Evan Davis or John Humphreys [sic] so they do a rubbish job of exposing politicians’ ignorance.”

Cummings, a former special adviser to Michael Gove, offers no evidence of his own grasp of the subject. But since his rambling screed cites, among others, the 19th-century German chancellor Bismarck, the American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman and the 18th-century English statistician Thomas Bayes, I suppose we must take his erudition on all matters for granted.

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Cash for ash

After the First World War, Winston Churchill observed, “The whole map of Europe has been changed . . . but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” Now, as we grapple with Brexit, Northern Ireland’s troubles return in the contemporary form of renewable heating subsidies overpaid to businesses and farms, some of them no doubt in Fermanagh and Tyrone, and nearly all (one guesses) to members of the Loyalist community. The subsidies, overseen in an earlier ministerial position by Arlene Foster, the Unionist first minister, have led Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Foster’s deputy in the power-sharing executive, to resign, threatening the survival of the province’s eternally uneasy peace.

McGuinness argues that Foster should stand down pending an inquiry. Perhaps he is right. But whatever Foster did or didn’t do, nobody died. Which is more than can be said of McGuinness’s spell as an IRA commander, into which no inquiry was held.

 

Firm smack of regulation

The trouble with trying to create a sensible system of press regulation, which ministers are still struggling to do, is that somebody must finance it. In my view, neither government nor newspapers can be trusted as paymasters likely to respect the regulator’s independence.

Perhaps some charitable foundation or private individual with no axes to grind could be persuaded to step into the breach. But, no, the only available source of finance is Max Mosley, the ex-head of Formula One motor racing. Through family charities, he bankrolls Impress, the sole regulator recognised under legislation passed after the hacking scandal.

It is hard to imagine a less suitable paymaster. He is the younger son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader in whose Union Movement he was once actively involved. More recently, he sued the now-defunct News of the World for breach of privacy in reporting his involvement in a sadomasochistic sex orgy. Whether he was right or wrong to do so is beside the point. By no stretch of the imagination can he be described as a disinterested party. Following the News of the World case, Mosley tried to persuade the European Court of Human Rights that the law should require newspapers to give advance notification of their intention to expose private matters. The “victims” could then, if so minded, seek pre-publication injunctions.

This form of censorship was denounced by Milton in the 17th century. Mosley has no grasp of the most fundamental principles of press freedom and fair regulation.

 

A poor prognosis

A bad Christmas and New Year for the Wilby family, with all of us suffering colds/chest infections/flu/bronchitis/pneumonia (delete according to dramatic preference). But at least we didn’t have to risk treatment in an NHS hospital, encountering what the British Red Cross rather fancifully calls “a humanitarian crisis”. Of our two nearest hospitals, one is in special measures, while the other didn’t have a single spare bed from Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve.

The Labour Party came to office in 1997 determined that the NHS should provide standards of choice and personal attention as good as in the private sector. Only thus, its leaders reckoned, could middle-class support for the service and willingness to pay the necessary taxes be maintained. The Conservatives’ goal is the opposite: to reduce the NHS to a condition in which the middle classes abandon it, leaving a rump service for the poor. Taxes can then be cut, with the affluent needing the money for private insurance. The Tories are well on the way to success.

 

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge

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