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2 September 2020

First Thoughts: The commuting and coffee economy, a British Fox News and damning Starkey

Local businesses in my suburb report sharply increased custom, after years of struggle. New jobs will emerge, often closer to workers’ homes.

By Peter Wilby

The government’s attempts to bully the professional and managerial classes back to their offices reveals that, for modern capitalism, what you consume matters as much, perhaps more, than what you produce. Many people who work in city centres produce nothing at all. As little as half a century ago, one in five London jobs was in manufacturing. Now the proportion is barely one in 50. Instead, people provide “services”: they shuffle money around, buy and sell property, draft legal contracts and offer “consultancy”.

Much of this business can perfectly well be performed in suburban homes, where the average worker puts in an extra hour a day, according to one study. Employers save on expensive office space, employees on the hassle of commuting and the planet on absorbing a few carbon emissions. But people consume more when they travel to an office: they dress up, use perfume and make-up; buy sandwiches, coffee and bottled water; gather in wine bars, pubs and restaurants. For the sake of the purveyors of such goods and services, employees are commanded to return to their desks.

I feel sorry for the waiters, office cleaners and shop assistants who will lose their jobs. But in Loughton, Essex, a commuter suburb where I live quietly and unfashionably, local businesses – from the butcher to the jeweller – report, after years of struggle, sharply increased custom. In such areas new jobs will emerge, often closer to workers’ homes.

Exit Johnson

Could Boris Johnson, after winning the largest Tory majority since 1987, be overthrown within the next year? It seems improbable, but many good judges consider it likely, particularly since his near-death experience with coronavirus may have permanently weakened his health. Moreover, there’s a precedent. In May 1955, Anthony Eden, weeks after becoming premier, secured a handsome Tory majority with 49.7 per cent of the general election vote. By December, he was being accused of dither and weakness. The Daily Telegraph, as Tory then as now, called for “the smack of firm government” and in 1956 came the Suez calamity. By January 1957, despite his continuing popularity with the public, Eden was out, ostensibly on grounds of ill-health. He was succeeded by his chancellor, Harold Macmillan. Will history, with extraordinary exactness, repeat itself?

News from the right

With ministers doing everything they can to weaken the BBC – they are expected soon to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee – the vultures are circling. Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, it is reported, plans a round-the-clock TV news channel, Murdoch having sold his stake in Sky News in 2018. More advanced are rival plans for GB News, led by Robbie Gibb, chief Downing Street spin doctor during Theresa May’s premiership.

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Sources connected with both projects – which may, I suspect, eventually combine forces – deny any intention of imitating the US’s rabidly right-wing, pro-Trump Fox News. GB News, we are told, will be “truly impartial” and totally committed to “factual reporting”. One would be more confident of that if a former executive of Fox News weren’t running the Murdoch project and if a GB News co-founder hadn’t described the “woke, wet” BBC as “possibly the most biased propaganda machine in the world”.

A word to the unwise

Two months after being shamed for saying that the slave trade was not genocide because “otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks” alive now, David Starkey re-emerges in the right-wing Critic magazine. A wise man would write about something different. Starkey is not a wise man. He intended no offence, he pleads: he was using “damn” as “a numerical intensifier” in the same way as he may describe a room as having “so many damn books”.

I am reminded of what the Duke of Gloucester said when presented with the second volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by its author Edward Gibbon. “Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble. Eh, Mr Gibbon!” Gibbon didn’t get the joke either.