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2 September 2021updated 03 Sep 2021 11:18am

First Thoughts: The British pet obsession, solving the lorry driver crisis, and yet another statue scandal

The nation’s concern for Pen Farthing’s animals might have more to do with Victorian attitudes of those who are “deserving” and “undeserving” of our aid.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The British love of animals knows no bounds. That is the unsettling lesson from the saga of “Operation Ark” – the scramble in the final days of the UK evacuation from Afghanistan to find room for nearly 200 rescue animals at the demand of their keeper, the former Royal Marine Pen Farthing. After a ferocious TV and social media campaign that split the nation, with MPs receiving thousands of emails from constituents advocating the animals’ rescue, Farthing and his pets made it safely to the UK on a private charter flight on Sunday 29 August. The charity’s Afghan staff did not. Their plight – and that of the women, LGBT people and Afghans who worked with Western governments but who have now been left to fend for themselves – has garnered less sympathy from the British public than a shelter full of dogs and cats to which the Taliban poses no direct threat.

In the days before Farthing’s great escape, a YouGov poll found that a staggering 40 per cent of Britons think animal lives are worth the same as human lives. Even as an animal lover myself (I generally prefer my cat’s company to that of other people), this figure is hard to digest, especially given only 2 to 3 per cent of the UK population is vegetarian. We may adore our fluffy friends, but that doesn’t stop most of us happily eating them.

I wonder if the nation’s concern for Farthing’s pets has more to do with Victorian attitudes of those who are “deserving” and “undeserving” of our aid. Awkward questions about past transgressions and religious and cultural factors that could hinder the assimilation of a desperate Afghan refugee are conveniently irrelevant when considering the fate of a dog.

Recruitment drive

The shortage of lorry drivers to deliver to supermarkets has become so acute that one logistics company is now offering salaries of up to £56,674 a year, while Waitrose advertises pay up to £53,780. For reference, that is higher than the average salary of teachers and architects.

The lack of drivers and other issues with supply chains could prove devastating – already, shoppers are facing bare shelves. Steve Murrells, the chief executive of Co-operative Group, warned: “The shortages are at a worse level than at any time I have seen.”

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An urgent fix is clearly needed. But in the longer term, as the furlough scheme unwinds this month, the solution is staring the hapless government in the face: a national retraining scheme for anyone whose job has been affected by Covid, offering a route into a challenging but high-reward (and virtually future-proof) career in logistics.

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[see also: UK retailers report lowest level of stock since 1983]

Wokery or whitewashing?

Newspapers are furious at a decision by Cambridge University’s classics faculty to put up signs in its archaeology museum explaining the “whiteness” of sculpture plaster casts. This is, according to some enraged academics, “unhinged”, “extraordinary” and “modern-day gobbledegook”. How dare Cambridge try to “woke-wash” the ancient world.

I wonder if any of the scandalised scholars quoted in these articles are actually classicists. If they were, they would know that Greek and Roman statues weren’t meant to be the gleaming white stone we see today in museums, but would have been garishly painted – a point that will presumably be noted on the new signs, along with details of where the subject of the sculpture came from. Surely they are not suggesting it is “unhinged” to provide factually correct information?

Moreover, for all the mockery about imposing modern values on to antiquity, ancient Greece and Rome were far more diverse than these narrow-minded outrage-merchants seem to realise. What we think of as the classical world stretched at various points from Spain to Asia, the Scottish borders to northern Africa. Rome even had a black African emperor – which might not be immediately# apparent from the whiteness of his statue. If students get a warped impression of the ethnicity of the civilisations they are studying, any decent historian would want to set the record straight. Or have the culture wars become so bitter it is now considered “woke” to be historically accurate? 

[see also: Beyond the culture wars]

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future