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12 September 2018

How Geordie Greig seems to have called time on the Daily Mail’s characteristic fury

No traitors, saboteurs or enemies of the people are to be seen in new editor’s pages.

By Peter Wilby

According to leaks, the European Reform Group, headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, is drafting plans for a post-Brexit Britain that include cuts in income and capital gains tax, business rates, stamp duty and VAT on domestic fuel. We can also look forward to a “nuclear missile shield” and an expeditionary force to defend the Falklands if necessary, though how it would get to the South Atlantic now that both the royal and merchant navies are much diminished is not explained.

I do not find this an inspiring vision. Since the Brexiteers’ rhetoric suggests they think they are re-fighting the Second World War, Rees-Mogg’s “think tank”, as it generously calls itself, should study the record of the wartime government. As early as November 1942, an official commission under William Beveridge set out a blueprint for a welfare state. Another report that year proposed the “green belt”. White papers on social insurance were published in 1943 and on a national health service in 1944. Also in 1944, parliament passed an Education Act promising secondary education for all.

When Labour took office in 1945, most of the measures that made its name were already in draft form and public support well established. We should be thankful that Rees-Mogg and his ilk weren’t in charge during the war. Their narrow, divisive and unimaginative outlook would have persuaded the British there was nothing worth fighting for.

May’s law and disorder

Have cuts in policing gone so far that we shall see vigilante groups roaming the streets and troops deployed to control civil disorder? In my experience, Armageddon usually fails to arrive – and I certainly discount scare stories about a “hard Brexit” – but I keep hearing people talk seriously about such possibilities. The National Audit Office warns that ministers have no idea whether the police service is “financially sustainable”. The Guardian, not a paper that normally frets about law and order, reports that the Metropolitan Police are closing investigations into sexual offences, violent attacks and arson within hours of them being reported. Across the country, four in five burglary investigations are closed without a suspect being identified.

Theresa May should watch out. Law and order is supposed to be a Tory selling point and governments are most vulnerable when they fail at the very things the voters expect them to be good at. May should be mindful of how the 1978-79 wave of strikes in “the winter of discontent” doomed a Labour government which had been elected because voters expected it to make deals with the unions that would stick.

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No more fury at the Mail

Perhaps May can take comfort from the calmer country discovered this month by Daily Mail journalists. Under the paper’s new editor Geordie Greig, who has just taken over from Paul Dacre, crime stories are no longer grouped under “Wild West Britain”. No traitors, saboteurs or enemies of the people are to be seen. And so far I have not spotted a single instance of “fury” in headlines. In the Dacre era, “fury” (dictionary definition: “fierce passion, madness, wild anger, or frenzied rage”) was headlined at least once, sometimes several times, in every issue.

Reality outwits parody

Poppleton University has closed. You have probably never heard of it nor read the Times Higher Education, where this satirical creation appeared for four decades. But the death of Poppleton marks, I think, the end of something.

Featured in a weekly column crafted by the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor, Poppleton had a rich gallery of fictional characters such as Professor Lapping, the bumbling head of media studies; Dr Piercemuller, who was always on a research trip to exotic lands; and a nameless vice-chancellor fluent in the latest management jargon. The British press used to abound in such columns. The Daily Express had Beachcomber with recurrent characters including the well-meaning but ineffectual Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, and the scientist and inventor Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht. The Daily Telegraph had the Peter Simple column, which featured the immensely rich Mrs Dutt-Pauker, admirer of Stalin and grandmother of children whose first words were “boycott South African oranges”. Other fictional columns included the Spectator’s Wallace Arnold, a very right-wing Tory; the Guardian’s Bel Littlejohn, a very left-wing feminist; and the New Statesman’s Lynton Charles (Tony Blair’s middle names, geddit?), a New Labour minister.

None still exists in its original form. I asked Craig Brown, who created Arnold and Littlejohn, why this kind of satirical fiction has largely died out in newspapers. He suggests reality has replaced parody, or at least elbowed it aside. Loopy, ego- driven columnists proliferate. And why would the Telegraph need satire when it has Boris Johnson?

Cook’s perfect timing

Only cricket can produce moments quite like Alastair Cook scoring a century in his final Test match innings for England at the Oval. Cricket is a team game that contains a multitude of individual dramas. Nobody remembers, say, Bobby Charlton’s 100th goal. But no cricket-watcher will forget Geoffrey Boycott’s 100th first-class century, scored in a Test match at Headingley, his home ground in Leeds; or Ian Botham’s match-winning century also at Headingley against Australia in 1981, just after he got out for nought in both innings at Lord’s and lost the captaincy; or Donald Bradman, the greatest batsman of all, being bowled for a duck in his final Test, also at the Oval.

England had already won this summer’s five-match series against India. But with a theatrical gift of timing that, of all team players, only cricketers seem to possess, Cook made the “dead” Oval Test the one that everybody will remember.

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This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism