Why white men must relearn British values

When on the tube, it’s noticable that those most willing to give up their seats for their elders are young men of Asian heritage.

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I hope that Theresa May will treat the army chiefs’ pleas for more money with what George Brown, Labour’s deputy leader in the 1960s, would have called “a complete ignoral”. The army says it needs to counter the Russian “threat” but, if that exists, it is from cyber-warfare and political disinformation, which won’t be stopped by buying a few more tanks. President Vladimir Putin, dreadful though he is, has no ambitions to restore Russia to its old Soviet Union glory, let alone to launch a hot war in Europe. He just wants, as street kids say, a bit of respect. If he threatens neighbours such as Georgia and Ukraine, it is because he wants to deter further expansion of Nato. After Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, he doesn’t have much faith in the West’s peaceful intentions.

Unlike Stalin, Putin doesn’t have an ideology to export, beyond some incoherent mish-mash of authoritarian nationalism and Orthodox Christianity with a dash of male penis envy. Russia is just another capitalist nation-state, pursuing strategic economic interests which are mostly in the Middle East and the Caucasus, not in Europe. Though the news seems not to have reached the upper echelons of the military, the “red menace” is over.

The fringe, unhinged

It should be no surprise that, after its glad, confident, victorious morning of 24 June 2016, Ukip should have fallen apart, with Henry Bolton, its fourth leader since Nigel Farage stepped down in the wake of the EU referendum (fifth if you count Farage’s own brief return), facing a revolt from his party’s national executive committee. All parties on the political fringes, left or right, end up like this. A fringe party is formed in the first place because its founders cannot cope with the compromises and complexities of mainstream politics. They are by nature impulsive, impatient, dogmatic, narrow-minded, quarrelsome and, to varying degrees, unhinged. They attract people of similar character.

Since the referendum, Brexit has entered the political mainstream. It has become a matter of political horse-trading, give-and-take, negotiating complex trade deals and all the other things that motivated the Ukippers to reject the established parties and strike out on their own. The party’s great cause has been stolen from it. No wonder its leader is reduced to bedding racist glamour models.

No smoke alarm

Around five fires a week start in the Houses of Parliament, it is reported. Because they are so frequent, fire alarms aren’t sounded nor evacuations ordered. If they were, Westminster would never get its business done. The antiquated buildings, with their deteriorating electric wiring, seeping drainage units, water leaks and asbestos, are frequently described as a calamity waiting to happen. Yet there is no sense of urgency. The Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom will shortly propose delaying modernisation plans until “thorough and detailed analysis” has been carried out.

If MPs are so careless of their own safety – and of the hundreds who work alongside them, to say nothing of parliament’s thousands of daily visitors – how can we expect them to bother about high-rise flats that may be in danger of going up in flames, as Grenfell did? Perhaps they are trying to show solidarity with the unfortunate folk who occupy sub-standard social housing.

Maximum wage

The former England full-back Jimmy Armfield, who has died at 82, only ever played for Blackpool, his local club. When Manchester United wanted him in 1957, Blackpool blocked the move; regardless of contract, a club could then hold a player’s registration as long as it liked. It could also pay him only £20 a week, the maximum wage. Now, the Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez can move to Manchester United from Arsenal and earn a reported £500,000 a week.

As usual, fans and commentators lament the “obscene” wages and ask whether there is any limit to the levels they can reach. The answer is that there isn’t. Football is 21st century capitalism in its purest form. It operates in a global labour market and it pays by results. The top teams are brands with a global following. Companies around the world compete for rights to televise their matches and pay eye-watering sums to secure them. Top players can name their price because everybody wants to watch them.

In Armfield’s day, every football enthusiast in Blackpool would have supported the Blackpool team through thick and thin. They would have trooped loyally to their local ground on Saturday afternoons. Now at least half the inhabitants probably support Manchesters United or City, or Liverpool, and follow them on TV. Football’s wages bubble will burst if governments worldwide agree to ban the game from TV or if fans cancel their cable and satellite subscriptions and go back to their old local loyalties. You decide which is the most unlikely.

Glued to their seats

In the correspondence section of last week’s issue, Dr Graham Mott, commenting on my observation that old age creeps up faster than you expect, said that his “overwhelming emotions” on being offered a seat on the Tube were “surprise, indignation and insult, with gratitude a long way behind”. I find many of my contemporaries share those emotions. But I have learned to accept offers with good grace and, during rush hour crushes, almost to expect and even, by glaring at people occupying seats,
to demand them.

The most plentiful offers come from young men of Asian heritage. Though white women sometimes offer seats, white men hardly ever do so. I often wonder if education in “British values” should include the instruction not to give up a train or bus seat for the older generation but to stare stonily and silently into a smartphone even if a shrunken 90-year-old with two walking sticks looms over you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power