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26 February 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 3:06pm

The credulity of Straw and Rifkind, Syriza’s losing hand and Labour’s muddle over fees

Plus, why Wolf Hall should have character stats flash up - so you can remember who destroyed the most monastaries.

By Peter Wilby

What is most extraordinary about the behaviour of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretaries who were trapped by undercover journalists into offering their expertise to a fictitious Chinese company for £5,000 a day or more, is that they were so easily bamboozled. It is not, after all, the first time that MPs have been taken in by such approaches. Did it not occur to them to do a little research? To check the identity and track record of those supposedly running the company? To check the credentials of the go-betweens?

Both Straw and Rifkind believe that MPs aren’t paid enough (in terms of either salary or post-retirement pension) and that this excuses their anxiety to acquire “consultancies”. Straw, it is reported, says: “There is [a] really serious issue these days of making politics sufficiently attractive for the brightest and best.” On the evidence of his and Rifkind’s credulity, he clearly has a point.

Arguments of a straw man

I have known Straw for 46 years, since he was elected – supposedly as a left-wing firebrand – to the presidency of the National Union of Students. I immediately liked and respected him and, although we have had little contact in recent years, I still do.

However, he always had a weakness for making deals. I recall arriving at his flat late one night when he was the NUS president to find him in a state of high excitement, bashing away on a typewriter. He was putting down on paper, he said, a formula for ending the dispute over universities’ “secret files” on their students – some of them identifying potentially troublesome political leanings – which had led to campus sit-ins across the country. Soundings had led him to believe that he could make a deal with
the vice-chancellors.

The evident buzz he got from this prospect far exceeded, in my observation, any buzz he got from leading his followers into battle. Barbara Castle later appointed him as her adviser for his “guile and low cunning”, a description of which Straw was so proud that he showcased it below a chapter heading in his memoirs. Sadly, the deal he eagerly offered the fictitious Chinese suitors and the guile with which he proposed to serve them bring to an ignominious end his political career.

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Dealer takes all

In an imperfect world, however, guile and deal-making are useful talents for politicians of any description. Syriza’s leaders, I fear, lack them. The new Greek government went into negotiations with its European partners holding a nuclear option: it could ditch the euro, return to the drachma and, in effect, default on its debts. True, that course would inflict damage on Greece and on Syriza particularly, since it told voters that it wouldn’t leave the eurozone.

But a nuclear option always entails potential damage to those who threaten to unleash it. Grexit would blow apart the idea that the eurozone is for ever, suggest that the EU (facing a possible Brexit as well) is crumbling from the edges, confront Germany with the prospect of losing its markets in southern Europe and perhaps deliver new allies and business partners to the Russians and Chinese. Were EU leaders more willing to run those risks than Greece was to run the risks to its own future?

Syriza, it seems, never tried to find out. International diplomacy is like a game of poker in which contestants have to judge whether their opponents really do have an ace in their hands or are just bluffing. The Greeks chose to play without an ace. Syriza’s anti-austerity ideas look like common sense even to many economists. But because the new leaders lack experience of the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations of top-level diplomacy, it isn’t surprising that they were bested when it came to deal-making.

Fee on thee, wretch

It will take mighty feats of deal-making to sort out Labour’s mess over student fees. The party proposes to reduce the cap on them from £9,000 to £6,000 a year – but its leaders can’t agree on where it will find the money to compensate universities for the lost income.

It is painfully ironic that two parties that purport to care about the less privileged (the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour) have managed to make such trouble for themselves on this issue. As long as it is a service distributed uniquely according to “merit” – rather than being available on the basis of need, as most welfare services are, or a universal right of access, as schools and public libraries are – university education will disproportionately benefit the children of affluent parents who have the wherewithal to ensure that the necessary credentials are acquired.

Fees have not deterred students from poor homes but, by allowing the continued expansion of higher education, have enabled more of them to participate. If a party wishes to benefit the underprivileged on a bigger scale, it should force universities to discriminate in their favour.

Mantel’s match stats

By the time you read this, you will have seen Anne Boleyn lose her head – assuming you have been watching the BBC’s production of Wolf Hall. But if my own circle of acquaintances is any guide, you probably gave up midway through the series because you couldn’t follow who was who and what was going on.

One difficulty was the frequency of unexplained flashbacks; another was the high number of characters called Thomas, Henry or Mary. Though I have read Hilary Mantel’s two novels, I needed the who’s who that they helpfully include in order to follow the TV production. Perhaps the BBC should have assisted further by flashing explanatory titbits on the screen as sports programmes do during live matches: “Thomas Cromwell, king’s chief minister, 260 monasteries, 142 nunneries, 183 friaries dissolved since 1536.” Or: “Henry VIII, Church of England manager since 1534, six marriages in premiership reign.”

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