New Times,
New Thinking.

Surely it’s not too late for the Sun to sack Kelvin MacKenzie?

Rich List landlords, apologies for Hillsborough, and Lord Baker – my unlikely Tory comrade.

By Peter Wilby

Ministers have been presenting their dispute with junior doctors as a new “miners’ moment” – a trial of strength between the elected government and an overmighty trade union. In the 1980s, it was Margaret Thatcher v the National Union of Mineworkers; now it is Jeremy Hunt v the British Medical Association.

Hunt may face the harder battle. Miners, despite their heroic status among some sections of the public, lived mainly in isolated communities. Most people had never met a miner; almost everybody has met a junior doctor and would find it difficult to envisage such a person as “the enemy within”.

“No trade union,” says Hunt, “has the right to veto a manifesto promise voted for by the British people . . . It was the first page of our manifesto that we’d have a seven-day NHS.” Indeed, the Tories promised in 2015 to “ensure you can . . . receive the hospital care you need, seven days a week”. Who wouldn’t vote for that? But if the manifesto had promised to impose a contract forcing doctors to work on Saturdays for less money, the Tories would have lost the election.


Slow wheels of justice

The determination of relatives and friends to pin the blame for the 96 deaths at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield in 1989 on those truly responsible might have been considerably weaker had it not been for the Sun. For that much, they should be grateful to Kelvin MacKenzie, the paper’s editor when it accused allegedly drunken fans of picking victims’ pockets and urinating on “brave cops”, as well as causing the crush that suffocated people in the open air.

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Now an inquest jury has agreed that the fans, far from being to blame, were unlawfully killed. The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch, apologised in 2012 after a two-year inquiry established what had happened. MacKenzie, who left the Sun in 1994 but is now back as a columnist, also apologised in 2012 – but he had done so once before, only to suggest later that he was merely obeying Murdoch’s instructions and didn’t mean it.

If it took the justice system 27 years to reach the right verdicts, it is surely not too late for the Sun to sack MacKenzie in disgrace and for Murdoch to issue one of his “most humble day of my life” apologies.


Private property

This year’s Sunday Times Rich List, revealing the 1,000 most loaded people based in Britain, attributes the wealth of 16 of the top 50 either wholly or partly to property. The 16 include David and Simon Reuben (£13.1bn), the owners of the Millbank Tower in London, who occupy the top position, and the Duke of Westminster (£9.35bn), the owner through inheritance and our unreformed land ownership laws of much of the city’s Belgravia district, in sixth place. Among the top 50 in the world, the Sunday Times gives property as the source of wealth for just three, including the Reuben brothers. For the top 50 in Europe, it’s four, three of them also in the British list. That speaks volumes about the condition of Britain.


Strange alliance

To Lincoln with Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, who was education secretary during Margaret Thatcher’s high noon, to visit the local university technical college (UTC). Baker, with the late Ronald Dearing, a former civil servant and Post Office chairman, invented UTCs in the late 2000s. New Labour agreed to finance them under the academies programme. They give a hands-on education in technical subjects for 14-to-19-year-olds and there are now 39, with more on the way.

Each college has a university sponsor and several industrial supporters that provide work experience. The involvement of universities is a stroke of genius. Technical education – engineering, computer science, and so on – has lamentably low status in England, and although the word “technical” is a turn-off, “university” gets parents’ aspirational juices flowing, even if the combination sounds like an oxymoron.

Tory ministers, determined (as Baker observes) to put every young person through a curriculum originally laid down in the secondary regulations of 1904, continue to support the colleges but without enthusiasm. Baker, now 81, still takes the Tory whip in the Lords but is disgruntled. In the Daily Telegraph recently, he launched a withering critique of government plans to force all schools to become academies and to “go back to an outdated diet of academic subjects”. I hold no brief for him, but in these strange times I am tempted to address him as Comrade Baker.


Little big city

When Leicester City, my home-town team, finally win football’s Premiership, the sportswriters will run out of superlatives – they’ll be unable to decide whether it is the greatest achievement in world sporting history or merely in English history.

I am not sure that this is even the greatest achievement in Leicester’s sporting history. Its rugby union team has won the English Premiership eight times in the professional era (beginning in 1996), more than any other team. Its county cricketers, competing against the likes of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Surrey, which have international grounds and much larger catchment areas, have won the County Championship three times, despite spending most of their history at the bottom of the table.

The sportswriters imply that Leicester is some kind of one-horse town from which success should never be expected. It is, for one thing, the eighth-largest city in England, bigger than either of its East Midlands neighbours Nottingham and Derby, both of which won football’s top prize in the 1970s. (Warning: this claim will be disputed, as some lists absurdly categorise Teesside and Bournemouth/Poole, for example, as ­single cities.) For another, I remember, when I was a child, the Daily Express reporting that Leicester was the second-richest city in ­Europe after Antwerp. I am sure the Express wouldn’t have got it wrong. 

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism