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25 September 2019

First Thoughts: The Supreme Court ruling makes me proud to be British, and the rise and fall of Thomas Cook

An abrupt halt – at least for the time being – to Boris Johnson’s Donald Trump tribute act.

By Peter Wilby

 The United Kingdom, as is commonly observed, does not have a written constitution. It has something better, described by the Supreme Court justices who ruled that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was null and void: “A constitution, established over the course of our history by common law, statutes, conventions and practice… It has developed pragmatically, and remains sufficiently flexible to be capable of further development.” It has brought an abrupt halt – at least for the time being – to Boris Johnson’s Donald Trump tribute act and proved more reliable in curbing an overmighty and untrustworthy executive than its rigid and politicised American equivalent.

With or without a deal, Brexit may still go ahead. Our leaders may continue to make fools of themselves and us in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. The country may remain divided, perhaps more bitterly than ever. But just for a moment, we should all be proud to be British.

Summer holidays, Seventies-style

Nationalisation of the collapsed travel firm Thomas Cook isn’t quite as unthinkable as you may imagine. Founded in 1841, the company was sold in 1928 by the grandsons of its founder to Belgium-based Wagon-Lits, operator of the Orient Express. After Wagon-Lits’s continental assets were seized by German occupiers during the Second World War, the government transferred Thomas Cook to the British railway companies. It was nationalised in 1948 by Clement Attlee’s government, along with the railways.

Under public ownership, Thomas Cook remained the world’s largest travel agent, popularised the idea of foreign travel, pioneered package holidays – which it called “inclusive tours” – and made a record profit of more than £1m (equivalent to more than £18m today) in 1965. It lost market share, however, to younger rivals that promoted their holidays on price rather than quality and service. The Tories sold it in 1972 to a consortium headed by the Midland Bank, which paid the unexpectedly high price of £22.5m. It was in sufficiently robust health to survive a subsequent recession that saw off dozens of other travel firms.

You may think that only elderly lefties, frozen in the 1970s, would contemplate taking it back into public ownership. But a poll commissioned in 2017 by the Legatum Institute, a think tank that leans well to the right, found nearly a quarter of Britons favour nationalisation of travel agents. After Thomas Cook’s collapse, ruining tens of thousands of holidays, that proportion seems likely to rise sharply.

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The private school problem

Something else that sounds as if it has strayed out of the 1970s is Labour’s new policy on getting rid of fee-charging schools. There are four different ways of tackling what even some Tories call “our public school problem”. One is to prohibit charging fees for full-time schooling as Finland does. Another is in effect to nationalise them by expropriating the schools’ assets (as proposed by Labour activists). A third way is to compel top universities to award places to students from fee-charging schools in strict proportion to the numbers the schools educate (7 per cent). Finally, private schools’ charitable status – which saves them several billion pounds on VAT, business rates and other taxes – could be abolished.

Each of these policies has advantages and disadvantages; all will come up against legal as well as political opposition. But on this as on much else, Labour seems unable to decide which course it prefers. It should focus on abolishing charitable status, where it will be pushing at a half-open door. In a Times column in 2017, none other than Michael Gove asked how we could possibly “consider the education of the children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity”.

Bias at the BBC?

As sure as night follows day, the departure of John Humphrys from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was followed (one might say gracelessly) by Daily Mail extracts from his forthcoming “bombshell” memoirs decrying the BBC’s “institutional liberal bias”. As he is at pains to point out, BBC rules required him to be impartial but, in truth, there was never much doubt that Humphrys had little time for what he unoriginally calls “the politically correct brigade”.

So how come Humphrys was allowed to front Today for 32 years? How come some of them were under the editorship of another subsequent hammer of BBC “bias”, Rod Liddle, who resigned in 2002, not because his employers objected to his anti-liberal opinions but because they objected to the right-on views he expressed in the Guardian about the iniquities of fox hunting? And how come, despite what John Humphrys describes as the BBC’s failure to spot mounting public concern about immigration and the EU, Nigel Farage, who talks of little else, has appeared on BBC One’s Question Time on 34 occasions, more than anybody else this century?

From Tonga to Twickenham

Nothing exposes the nature of contemporary globalised capitalism better than sport. Football’s Premier League plunders top players from Africa and Latin America. The England cricket team snaffled its brilliant new fast bowler, Jofra Archer, from Barbados (though he does have a British father).

In rugby union, it is worse. Most of the best rugby players in the world come from the Pacific islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Nearly all their best players earn their living at clubs in Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand, which release them only rarely and grudgingly for international squad training. Equally important, under the sport’s lax qualification rules, many play their international rugby for those countries, often after being recruited in their teens. Australia’s World Cup squad includes two Tongans and four Fijians, while Manu Tuilagi, star of England’s first match in the tournament, was born in Samoa.

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This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace

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