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4 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:47pm

First Thoughts: The great university con (redux), alternative facts, and the beauty of a Suffolk church

By Peter Wilby

On its “get ready for Brexit” website, the government advises that, if we leave the EU without a deal, “new rules will apply for travel to Europe”. But how can I be travelling “to” Europe when, as a British citizen resident in Britain, I am already in it? At school, long before the UK joined the EU’s forerunner, the European Economic Community, I was taught in geography lessons that Britain was part of Europe. Any child who suggested the contrary was sharply corrected.

The British Isles are on the European continental shelf and were connected to the rest of it by land only a few thousand years ago. The white indigenous English share about 40 per cent of their DNA with the French and 26 per cent with the Germans. The English language shares linguistic roots with French, German and Spanish. Our philosophical, religious and cultural traditions are essentially European. Does the Japanese government advise its citizens on travel “to” Asia or the Madagascan government on travel “to” Africa? I think not.

Brexit cannot change the facts of geography. But even the national curriculum, as revised under Michael Gove in 2013, refers to “the United Kingdom and Europe” as though they were separate entities. Our hard Brexit government has clearly decided, in the spirit of Donald Trump, to supply us with “alternative facts”.

The power of name and shame

Something else I remember from childhood is finding an item in the local newspaper reporting that an uncle had been fined by magistrates for taking a pig from an agricultural market without paying for it (accidentally, he said). I recall my parents’ embarrassment – hushed voices, clearing of throats – when I discovered the story.

That kind of public shaming was an important deterrent to lawbreaking. But as a new report shows, such convictions now go almost entirely unreported. Last year, academics from the University of the West of England sat through 240 cases in one week at Bristol Magistrates’ Court. A few decades ago, perhaps a dozen reporters would have been there every day. The academics saw only one journalist all week and found just two published reports. The other 238 cases went uncovered, though a Crown Prosecution Service list of 60 convictions, merely giving names, charges and sentences, was published online.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, wants criminals once more to be frightened of the police. In the past, they were also frightened of public exposure. Thanks to the decline of the local press, they can now be fairly confident that neighbours, relatives, work colleagues and curious children will remain ignorant of their misdemeanours.

No right to buy

Alarm bells are ringing in the right-wing press about Labour proposals – likely to be included in a forthcoming election manifesto – for a “right to buy” scheme for private tenants. Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” policy for council house tenants may well have secured the Tories thousands of working-class votes in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was widely acclaimed as a “liberation” for ordinary folk. Is Labour’s new scheme also a “liberation”? Alas, no, according to the Daily Mail. It is “chilling” that private tenants will be able to “forcibly buy the home they live in at a discounted price set by the government”. Why? Because it “could lead to a crash in property prices, a new mortgage crisis, a rise in homelessness and even a recession”. And, no doubt, to wars, famine and plague as well.

Perhaps the Mail will explain why Labour’s proposal should have such dire consequences while the Tory policy of enabling council tenants to “forcibly buy” their homes “at a discounted price set by the government” was perfectly OK.

Education, education, education

Despite the hostile response from some readers (see last week’s letters page), I sympathised with Harry Lambert’s cover story “The great university con”, arguing that standards on degree courses have slipped. Over the past century, employers who once required only basic school qualifications have demanded ever higher levels of general education: first one A-level then two A-levels – followed by three; degrees, first-class degrees, and now first-class degrees from the more “selective” universities.

Nobody stopped to ask how mastering all those A-level and degree courses, now almost universally required for policing, journalism, nursing, banking, accountancy and a host of other careers, enabled anyone to become better at their jobs. They are merely labels, signifying, not very reliably, how smart – or at least well-connected – you are in comparison to your contemporaries. Since the content of the courses is usually irrelevant, so are the standards. Far from enhancing equal opportunity, the demand for more credentials favours children whose parents can afford the best schools and longer periods of full-time education.

Call it Kismet

In the medieval town of Lavenham, Suffolk, we went to a chamber music concert in its imposing 15th-century parish church. It was organised by a charitable trust, Music in Country Churches (patron: HRH the Prince of Wales), which supports churches of “special beauty and historical importance”. One of the pieces played by an excellent Czech string quartet was by the 19th-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin. Its third movement, the programme noted, has been played “in numerous arrangements which include, unfortunately, the vocal arrangement ‘And This is my Beloved’ in [the 1953 musical] Kismet”.

Why “unfortunately”? The song has given pleasure to millions, as has Kismet. What is wrong with that? Does it detract from anyone’s pleasure in hearing the music in its original form? Artistic snobbery is the worst form of snobbery and, in our increasingly divided country, it is rife among the upper middle classes.


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This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war