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Daylight robbery, clubbing in Loughton and getting Algeria wrong

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Stock markets around the world are soaring. As I write, the FTSE-100 index of leading companies’ shares is at its highest level since mid-2008. How can this be so, when Britain faces a triple-dip recession, the US is still flirting with the edge of its fiscal cliff, and the euro crisis remains far from solved?

Simple. Stock markets try to take the long view. And, for capitalism, the long view is very rosy. Welfare states everywhere are being scaled down, more public assets are being privatised, wages are falling in value, workers are cowed and fearful.

The rich have no need of economic growth. With profits and executive pay in western countries at record levels as proportions of GDP, they can sit back and take a bigger share of the existing cake. We are in the middle of redistribution on an unprecedented scale: from poor to rich.

Doolally in the desert

For me, David Cameron can make as many speeches as he likes on Europe. One advantage of our remaining in the EU is that Brussels keeps politicians harmlessly occupied, fretting about rules on the shape and size of carrots. At least nobody dies. But when prime ministers promise “decades” of conflict against North African terrorists, requiring “iron resolve”, I fear carnage.

How little Cameron understands about the Islamic world was amply demonstrated when Algerian forces stormed the In Amenas gas plant that was attacked by jihadists. The Algerian government hadn’t consulted him, he wailed. But as well as Britons, Americans and Frenchmen, the hostages reportedly included Japanese, Romanian, Norwegian, Belgian, Irish, German, Portuguese, Filipino, Malaysian and Algerian workers, and probably other nationalities, too. How many other governments were the Algerians supposed to consult? Did Cameron expect an international summit before they acted?

More importantly, he clearly fails to grasp that, in a country where Islamists command significant support, no government dare appear to act in concert with western powers.

Quote unquotes

Did anybody ever say what we all think they said? For half a century, I understood that Mandy Rice-Davies, who was involved in the Profumo affair, said “he would, wouldn’t he” when told, during cross-examination at Stephen Ward’s trial, that Lord Astor denied sleeping with her. Dammit, it’s even in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Now, in a letter to the Times, Sir Ivan Lawrence, QC, who took notes as a pupil of Ward’s defence counsel, claims she said no such thing.

James Callaghan, we are assured, never said, “Crisis, what crisis?” Harold Macmillan didn’t say, “You’ve never had it so good.” There is no evidence that Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake” nor that Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Ingrid Bergman didn’t say “Play it again, Sam” (which you can verify by watching Casablanca yet again) and Voltaire didn’t say “I disapprove of what you say” etc, though somebody else, summarising his views, did.

Is all history bunk? Sorry, that isn’t right, either. What Henry Ford actually said was: “History is more or less bunk.”

Acts of defiance

The six independent directors of Times Newspapers Ltd (TNL) have at last dared to inconvenience Rupert Murdoch. He wants to put John Witherow, the editor of the Sunday Times, in charge of the Times and to merge the papers into a seven-day operation. The directors, appointed under the terms of Murdoch’s takeover in 1981, are required to approve new editors and keep the two papers separate. Witherow’s appointment has therefore been blocked. I can think of only one previous occasion on which the directors made a stand – when Murdoch “stole” the titles, placing them in a new company. He intended to liquidate TNL and fire all the workers. A few years later, Murdoch fired all the workers (except journalists) anyway. Now, he has made Witherow “acting editor” of the Times, with Martin Ivens, previously Witherow’s deputy, “acting editor” at the Sunday Times. No doubt they will work closely together.

The only way is Essex

As regular readers know, I live, quietly and unfashionably, in Loughton, Essex. But a website called Late Night Essex brings disturbing news: Loughton is “known” for “its luxurious and glamorous approach to clubbing”. It has two bars that are said to be “pulling in celebs regularly”, even though, as far as I know, there’s nowhere fashionable for miles around. Can anything be done? Groups of resolutely unfashionable residents, protesting outside the bars against late opening hours, are regularly featured in the local press. But I fear their efforts will be in vain and, if I am to continue my unfashionable way of life, I may have to relocate.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez