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22 April 2020

First Thoughts: Nurses’ pride in a pittance, Sussex business as usual, and Labour wages civil war (again)

Since almost everything the tabloids print about Harry and Meghan is “distorted, false, or invasive”, they have no need of royal assistance. 

By Peter Wilby

Nurses and care workers, it is said, are the front-line troops in the “war” against coronavirus and yet they are pitifully rewarded. Alas, it was always thus. In the Second World War, armed services’ pay was frequently a subject of contention. In 1942, a Conservative backbencher, Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid, a First World War flying ace, complained that army privates in the US, Canadian and Australian armies were paid at least twice as much as their British counterparts. Our soldiers, he said, found themselves “in a humiliating position” when they met those from other countries because they couldn’t stand a round of drinks. The “ordinary British private” couldn’t go to the cinema or afford “stamps, cleaning material, toothpaste and the like”. When he went on leave, he noticed that “the neighbour’s children whose father was working in industry were not only better clothed but were also better fed”. 

However, Sir James Grigg, the war secretary, told MPs that lots of men who left higher-paid civilian jobs “have settled down to a more rigorous life… in the Army with the utmost keenness and enthusiasm”. In such times, a spirit of “sacrifice and endeavour” was “much more fitting” than one of envy. Nearly 80 years later, ministers wouldn’t put it quite like that but they would, I think, share Grigg’s sentiments.

Bring on Brexit

Continuing the wartime analogies, I see a no-deal Brexit at the year’s end as an act of national kamikaze. But I can understand why ministers refuse even to consider an extension of the transitional period. They have failed abysmally to get testing done, the supply of personal protective equipment done, the manufacture of ventilators done, or anything else done that might help protect us from Covid-19. At least they can still get Brexit done. 

Politics’ two cultures

“We are guided by the science,” say ministers in their daily televised briefings. But “the science” isn’t a fixed, infallible entity. Different scientists can reach different conclusions from the same evidence, or give different weights to different pieces of evidence. Unfortunately, few journalists at the daily briefings have sufficient understanding of science or statistics to challenge the expert advisers’ charts and graphs or the conclusions ministers draw from them. Most days, the leading questioners include the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg (history degree) and Hugh Pym (philosophy, politics and economics), Sky’s Beth Rigby (social science), and ITV’s Robert Peston (also PPE). The eight ministers to have appeared so far have one science degree between them: Alok Sharma’s BSc in applied physics and electronics. Not a dialogue of the deaf perhaps, but certainly a dialogue of the ignorant.

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A snub, a shrug

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex inform the editors of the Sun, Mirror, Mail and Express (though, oddly, not the Star) that they will no longer “engage” with such papers. The tabloids will not be inconvenienced in the slightest. Since almost everything they print about Harry and Meghan is, as the couple put it, “distorted, false, or invasive beyond reason”, they have no need of royal assistance. Their procedures will be unchanged. Make up a story. Ring the Sussexes’ press office. Request corroboration. Record refusal to corroborate (previously “not true”, in future “no comment”). Publish the story.

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Writ large

Writs are about to fly back and forth over an internal Labour Party report on anti-Semitism, which is strictly confidential and under lock and key, but in my possession and that of almost everybody I know. I haven’t read all the report’s 851 pages (or even 151 of them) but it alleges, as I understand it, that some folk within the party wanted Labour to lose the 2017 general election. I dare say no more. Except that it’s been a while since the great betrayals of 1931, 1961, 1981 and 1994, and I’m thrilled that my comrades can now wrangle over the great betrayal of 2017. One would not wish them to be sidetracked into trying to beat the Tories.

This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb