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12 February 2020

First Thoughts: The appealing dullness of Keir Starmer, HS2 and England’s mistreatment of Jofra Archer

After five years of Boris Johnson’s comically ill-conceived projects, voters will want unflamboyant competence.

By Peter Wilby

Should green-leaning folk support Boris Johnson’s go-ahead for the £106bn HS2 rail line? I suppose anything that makes people less likely to drive private cars should be welcomed, even if the consequent reductions in carbon emissions would in the short term be offset by those generated from building new infrastructure.

But a truly green government would surely aim to discourage people from moving around so much by freezing or even reducing total transport capacity. Instead of building HS2 through ancient woodlands and nature reserves, it would convert the M40 into a railway or, perhaps better, a corridor exclusively for coaches. It would also embrace Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to give us all free full-fibre broadband, which would make video-conferencing and working from home far more realistic propositions, at an upfront cost of £20bn. Perhaps the misfits and weirdos that Dominic Cummings wants to recruit for Downing Street will back ideas such as these.

The dishwater candidate

Keir Starmer is terribly dull. Before he entered the Commons in 2015, he had done nothing since leaving school except study law, practise law or write about law. Though he has a lawyer’s forensic speaking skills, he is neither flamboyant nor inspiring. He is married to a solicitor and they have two children. He supports Arsenal Football Club. I don’t think I have read anything surprising or even interesting about him.

Nevertheless, he will have my vote for Labour leader. After five years of Boris Johnson’s comically ill-conceived projects, voters will yearn for peace and quiet. They will want unimaginative, unflamboyant competence. Labour Party members, after more than four years of Jeremy Corbyn and his policies, are, it seems, already of that mind. 

Right getting it wrong

“Plenty of young black women… would find it easier to get an opinion piece published or a film financed today than an elderly white heterosexual male,” writes the right-wing journalist Douglas Murray in The Critic magazine. Peter Hitchens, Dominic Lawson, Simon Jenkins, Max Hastings, Richard Littlejohn, Charles Moore, Rod Liddle and Jeremy Clarkson – to name a few from whose opinions it is hard to escape – are all white, male and, I believe, heterosexual. I do not like to think of them as elderly, but they have all passed their 59th birthdays. 

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Except on the Guardian, it is hard to think of many young black women with comparable access. As for films, neither the Baftas nor the Oscars this year had any women on their best director shortlists.

Right-wing journalism is full of false statements like Murray’s. No doubt they echo the average Briton who, according to polls, overestimates the UK’s Muslim population by 400 per cent. One can attribute that to ignorance. But Murray, who is neither heterosexual nor elderly, went to Eton and Oxford.

Missing spinners

England will send an all-white squad to play two Tests in Sri Lanka next month. The squad should have included two experienced non-white spin bowlers, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, and an unusually speedy black fast bowler, Jofra Archer. Moeen and Rashid, both recently dropped from the Test squad but badly needed in Sri Lanka, where pitches favour spin, feel they are not “ready” for more Test cricket. Archer helped win the 2019 World Cup and square the series against Australia last summer. Then his speed dipped. He complained of pain in his elbow. When the medics found nothing wrong, whispers started about his “commitment”. It turned out that he had a stress fracture.

Maybe the absence of these three is just coincidental. Yet over the past half-century England have persistently failed to get the best out of non-white cricketers. One is bound to wonder why.

The no-show PM

During last November’s floods, the Prime Minister, with a general election to win, was filmed mopping up water in Matlock, Derbyshire. After the floods caused by Storm Ciara he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he is busy improving his widely criticised mopping technique.

This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose