Show Hide image

Fussing over the Queen, Clegg’s Oratory, and how to deal with terrorist threats

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

“Don’t make a fuss!” was the Daily Mail’s front-page headline, paraphrasing the mon - arch’s instruction when she needed hospitalisation after repeated dashes to the unmentionable. The Mail proceeded to make a fuss, as did most other papers, particularly the Telegraph, with its royal picture occupying the entire space above the front-page fold, save for a short column headed: “Her Maj - esty in hospital”. The BBC’s royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell, who once worked for Panorama and reported from Northern Ireland, Beirut and the Falklands, waited humbly outside Buckingham Palace, as if he were a medieval peasant hoping that his monarch would recover sufficiently to cure him of scrofula. One item of substantive information emerged: the Queen would spend two days in hospital.

She was out in less than 24 hours.

Yes, it was all very silly – but no sillier, perhaps, than equally ill-informed sports reporters speculating about a footballer’s ligaments. And not much sillier than endless stories about what one Lib Dem said to another Lib Dem about Lord Rennard’s allegedly wandering hands. Newspapers and broadcasters have so much time and space to fill that they have long lost the ability to discriminate – between the reliable and unreliable, significant and insignificant, surprising and unsurprising. All they know is that royalty, football and sex will sell.

School ties

The London Oratory – the comprehensive to which Nick Clegg and his wife have opted to send their eldest son – is said to be a “good school” because it has some of the best exam results in London. Yet it is “good” because parents such as the Cleggs and the Blairs send their children there, armed with cultural capital from affluent, middle-class homes. Situated in an area where houses sell for more than £2m, it recruits God-fearing, churchattending Catholic children from across the capital. Only 6 per cent receive free school meals (the best available proxy for deprivation), against 36 per cent in inner London as a whole. No doubt the teachers do a fine job but the main determinant of any school’s success is not the quality of teaching but the calibre of the pupil intake.

Clegg is capable of understanding this. Yet, like other politicians, he trots out platitudes about how parents need more choice of similarly “good” schools. It is not, however, possible for more than a small number of comprehensives to have as few poor children as the Oratory. The Tories’ Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced full “parental choice” to “drive up” standards. All it has done is to allow the smarter and richer middle classes to keep their children in socially exclusive laagers without paying fees. In the Oratory’s borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, only 60 per cent of parents get their first choice of secondary school and nearly 20 per cent don’t get even their second or third choices. Isn’t it time somebody admitted that the parental choice policy has failed?

Home truths

Several boss-class members announced their support for Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo!, who has banned working from home. Mayer argues: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.” Alexandra Shulman, the editor of British Vogue, owned by Condé Nast, agrees: “The daily download of chatter within the office feeds into what we produce in an incalculable way.”

Corporate executives keep staff in the office for “incalculable” reasons but when they see calculable ways of saving money – in customer services, say – they have no hesitation in outsourcing.

Scare tactics

On 3 March, police in Londonderry, the UK’s 2013 capital of culture, rammed a van carrying four primed mortars. Officers said (as they would) that, if they had not acted with minutes to spare, “mass carnage” could have followed. Most papers printed in London thought the story hardly worth mentioning. Yet the incident was not exceptional: last month, police found a rocket launcher and warhead in Belfast.

The threat of Islamic jihadists receives great attention from politicians and the press and we are told that, to control them, we should abandon civil liberties. Irish Republican terrorists, though fewer than 20 years ago, have a longer history, more support in their communities (at least tacitly), better equipment and a more successful record. Yet we shrug our shoulders at the threat they pose to a part of the UK that is due to host the G8 summit in June. And that, I think, is the better reaction.

Killing the joke

My wife and I went to see Trevor Nunn’s production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic. It has two thuggish but goofy gangsters and, in one scene, a US general is warned they carry guns. “I should hope so,” he says, asserting his support for the Second Amendment. The gangsters – like Laurel and Hardy, one is thin and weedy, the other well built – cry: “Guns don’t kill people. We do.” The audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not.

Kiss Me, Kate was first performed on Broadway in 1948. Have Americans been discussing gun control, in the same terms, for 65 years? I fear they have and the line will sound just as edgy in 2078.

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 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes