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8 July 2020

First Thoughts: Government by television, our ethical friends, and the Daily Mail’s idle talk

From October, the government proposes to hold White House-style televised daily press briefings, hosted by “an experienced broadcaster”.

By Peter Wilby

As if Britain weren’t already Americanised enough, the government now proposes to hold White House-style televised daily press briefings, hosted by “an experienced broadcaster”. We already have a Supreme Court, a National Security Council and a Downing Street chief of staff, all imported from across the Atlantic in the past 25 years.

Boris Johnson says the new briefings, planned to begin in October, will meet demand for “stuff from us”. But this is Britain, where we have a constitution and political system different from America’s. The US president is not accountable day-by-day to Congress in the same way as a British prime minister is accountable to the House of Commons. That is where ministers should explain their policies and answer questions put to them by MPs. The chamber’s procedures ensure a range of views is heard. It should be at the heart of British democracy. If people want “stuff”, they can get it from the BBC Parliament channel.

Hug the EU

I am all in favour of an ethical foreign policy, though to my mind it should start with winding down arms exports. I applaud the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, imposing sanctions on individuals accused of complicity in human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, Russia and elsewhere. Since we have already upset China by offering UK citizenship to three million Hong Kongers who may not like its new security laws, and by proposing to withdraw the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei from our 5G network, Raab may as well add some associates of Xi Jinping’s regime to his list. Those with “blood-drenched ill-gotten gains” should not “set foot in this country”, he says. Fine, noble sentiments.

But outside the EU, are we big and strong enough to make so many powerful enemies? If we want to oppose tyranny, shouldn’t we hug our (relatively) democratic neighbours as close as possible?

Sweating the low-paid

Ministers deplore low wages, poor hygiene and overcrowding in Leicester’s clothing factories, saying such conditions contributed to the city’s coronavirus infection spike. But I noted last month how governments drastically cut health and safety checks from 2010. The failure to check that workers get the national minimum wage is equally scandalous. According to the Low Pay Commission, about 360,000 workers are paid below the current £8.72 hourly rate – more than one in five of those entitled to it. Yet in 20 years, only 14 firms have been criminally prosecuted for non-payment. The average fine was under £3,00

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Even right-wing papers mostly supported lockdown and praised Britons for observing the rules. Now they’ve reverted to type. “Time to snap out of our Covid-induced trance,” instructs the Daily Mail. “Millions are happy to crowd sun-kissed beaches, throng into sportswear megastores or attend raves… parties and demonstrations.” Yet they “balk” at returning to their offices. “A work-shy nation faces bankruptcy,” warns the paper’s appropriately named Robert Hardman. On nationwide travels, he “found an awful lot of people… taking it easy”.

Expect more of this. Rising unemployment will be nothing to do with the government. Just an outbreak of mass idleness, best cured by cutting benefits.

Weekes and colourism

The great West Indies batsman Everton Weekes, who has died aged 95, was old enough to remember when non-whites were barred from elite cricket clubs in the British-ruled Caribbean. But when Weekes began his career in the 1930s, he wasn’t just excluded from the whites-only Wanderers and Pickwick clubs in Barbados, his home island. Given his dark skin and humble background, he couldn’t join Spartan, the club for the mostly light-skinned black middle class, or even Empire, which stood slightly lower in the hierarchy. Only after he played for Barbados did the latter accept him.

The West Indian historian Hilary Beckles observed that this “colourism” was as potent ideologically as racism. British colonists, on the ancient principle of divide-and-rule, encouraged it. 

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This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation