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First Thoughts: A warning from Canada, mask wars, and the loss of Ruskin College

It should be concerning to us all that during the recent heatwave deaths in British Columbia have risen to three times normal levels. 

By Peter Wilby

Lytton, the Canadian village that recorded a temperature of 49.6˚C this month before wildfire burned it to the ground, is on roughly the same latitude (50.2 degrees north) as the Cornish town Redruth. So Britons should not assume that what happens 4,500 miles away is no concern of theirs. Global warming deniers, having mostly given up claiming that the climate is nothing to worry about, have argued for the past decade or so that action should be delayed because greater wealth and improved technology will enable future generations to cope better than we can. 

Now the future is here, somewhat earlier than predicted, and, with deaths in British Columbia during the heatwave at three times normal levels, we don’t seem to be coping well. Or rather, poorer people – who can’t afford air conditioning, and often work outdoors and live in areas that lack green spaces – aren’t coping. The rich manage fine and, if the worst happens, can probably flee to the Arctic and plant vines.

[See also: How record temperatures are setting Canada on fire]

Shady subsidies

Since I lean to the left, you’d probably expect me to welcome ministers’ plans to offer state subsidies to promising industries, a policy previously associated with such reviled figures as Tony Benn and Edward Heath. I have concerns, however. First, given the government’s record on Covid-related contracts, what safeguards will prevent the subsidies going to ministers’ friends and party donors?

Second, will we be told which companies are getting how much? Nissan’s decision not only to invest further in its Sunderland car factory but also build a battery plant is celebrated as a vote of confidence in post-Brexit Britain. But how much is it costing taxpayers? Though there’s been no official announcement, ministers haven’t denied that a subsidy is involved. They refuse, however, to say how big it is.

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[See also: Gavin Williamson, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove acted unlawfully during Covid-19 – what happens next?]

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RIP Ruskin

Read obituaries of trade union leaders and Labour MPs and you will often see mention of Ruskin College, Oxford. Founded in 1899 to provide degree-level opportunities for the working class, its teachers included Clement Attlee, its students John Prescott and Dennis Skinner. Though it was not a college of the university, Oxford validated its degrees.

Now, according to Ruskin’s latest accounts, its resources are inadequate “to continue in operational existence”. It no longer offers degrees such as its internationally famous course on labour and trade union studies. On the orders of the Further Education Commission, a quango, it is being absorbed this month into a consortium of local colleges. As one ex-member of its governing board puts it, “the college has to all intents and purposes died”. 

Ruskin was one of the great institutions of the British labour movement, alongside the unions, the Co-op, the friendly societies and the working men’s clubs. All are sadly diminished. Perhaps that was unavoidable, but I can’t help feeling that their decline is connected to so many taking refuge in the false comforts of identity politics.


Read all about it

Michael Gove and Sarah Vine are both journalists by trade. It seems curious therefore that they didn’t understand that, if you announce on a Monday morning that you are separating but nobody else is involved, people may believe you. But if you announce it on a Friday afternoon (as they did), everyone will assume you’ve been contacted by a Sunday newspaper which is about to break an embarrassing story. They will speculate wildly for 36 hours on social media. And they will then feel cheated to find nothing in the Sunday morning papers. 


Behind the mask

Despite Boris Johnson’s promise to withdraw all Covid-related laws on 19 July, the Daily Mail continues to fight the mask wars. His call for “responsible” people to continue wearing face masks in enclosed spaces threatens to divide us into “hostile tribes”, it protests. The most pro-mask health academic, it points out, is a communist. I am reminded of a line from Paul Simon’s Bob Dylan parody, “A Simple Desultory Philippic” (1965): “I’ve been Ayn Randed, nearly branded/communist, ’cos I’m left-handed.” 

[See also: Why Boris Johnson’s unlocking plan is such a risk]

This article appears in the 07 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The baby bust