Trump’s climate silence, why Labour shouldn’t urge an election, and replacing Dimbleby

No politician dares advocate higher fuel taxes, restrictions on airline travel or meat rationing. 

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In the Hollywood disaster film The Day after Tomorrow (2004), global warming (confusingly) triggers a new ice age. The US government and much of the population evacuate to Mexico from where the former vice-president – now president, after his predecessor’s death in a gigantic snow-storm – addresses the nation. Previously a climate-change denier who called warnings of catastrophe “sensationalist”, he admits to “a profound sense of humility” and apologises for his ignorance.

Many of us would love one day to hear similar words from Donald Trump. But we won’t. A sudden climate flip is highly unlikely and one involving tons of snow still less likely. That is why even politicians who accept the latest warnings from the UN’s expert panel on climate change – that the Earth is hurtling towards temperatures 3°C higher than in pre-industrial times – won’t do much about them. After a few years of flatlining, carbon emissions are now higher than ever. No politician dares advocate, for example, higher fuel taxes, restrictions on airline travel or meat rationing.

Politicians out of office routinely warn about lower economic growth, declining wages and failing public services, knowing they have a chance of being able to say “I told you so” at the next election and to promise higher living standards etc. But they can’t plausibly promise fewer hurricanes, fewer extreme heatwaves or fewer refugees from drought-stricken or flood-hit countries. Even if all carbon emissions stopped now, the effects of what’s already in the atmosphere will continue for decades.

Labour in waiting

Oppositions naturally want general elections, and the possibility is much talked about as a Brexit denouement approaches. But for several reasons, Labour should hold off. First, whatever emerges from Brexit, a Tory project, it will leave millions of voters – Remainers or Brexiteers, or more likely both – feeling betrayed and angry. Second, when Universal Credit is fully implemented, it will affect seven million people, of whom a high proportion will find themselves worse off – possibly by as much as £2,400 a year, according to some forecasts. Third, around half a million old folk, overwhelmingly Tory voters, die off every year and are replaced on the electoral register by overwhelmingly pro-Labour young people. Labour – if not Jeremy Corbyn in his 70th year – can afford to wait.

All that jazz

I shall keep an open mind on whether “jazz hands” – wiggling your hands, palms facing outwards, on either side of your head – should be adopted instead of loud clapping. The latter, Manchester University students’ union argues, may upset people with sensory disorders. The students are denounced as “snowflakes” but one shouldn’t mock those who try to be mindful of others. What worries me, though, is the creation of more social occasions where nobody quite knows how to behave. Once, it was customary not to clap in church or between movements in classical concerts. Both conventions have been eroded in recent years, with the result that, for example, eulogies at church funerals are followed by tentative ripples of applause as mourners check anxiously what others are doing.

Contrary to some reports, the Manchester students haven’t banned clapping. But perhaps they should at least put up notices saying “jazz hands” are “preferred”. Otherwise, they risk upsetting another significant group: those, like me, who suffer chronic social anxiety about whether they are doing the right thing.

BBC brain drain

As the BBC chooses a successor to David Dimbleby as Question Time presenter, it should also resolve to improve the calibre of the panels. In the 1950s, panellists on a BBC TV and radio show called The Brains Trust, answering topical questions from the public, included Julian Huxley, AJ Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Bertrand Russell, CS Lewis and many other academics, scientists and serious writers. Though such high-powered panels would now be thought too daunting, Question Time could have one contemporary equivalent on, say, every other edition.

Instead, it offers, in addition to the obligatory politicians (who rarely include senior ministers), too many pop singers, unfunny comedians, columnist blowhards and mediocrities from the business world. A typical recent example was Claude Littner, a sidekick of Alan Sugar best known for confrontational interviews on The Apprentice. Asked about knife crime, he set new standards of banality by observing that youths shouldn’t be allowed to roam the streets “sticking knives into people at random”.

Boxed-in Britain

While everybody is preoccupied with Brexit, the Scottish parliament has sneaked through Earth-shattering legislation. Literally. It has ordered the relocation of the Shetland islands. Most maps of Britain show Shetland in a box somewhere to the right of Aberdeen. Some visitors apparently board the ferry expecting a journey of an hour only to find that it takes more than 12 hours. Now, when publishing maps, public authorities must display the islands “in a manner that accurately and proportionately represents their geographical location”.

I sympathise with Shetlanders’ wish that outsiders understand they are closer to the Arctic Circle than London. It used to irritate me that so many southerners, vague about anywhere north of the Watford Gap, believed my home town of Leicester was close to Leeds or Manchester, both of which are as far from Leicester as Leicester is from London. But, it turned out, I was equally ignorant. I thought Kent was just an appendage to London, rather like the now extinct county of Middlesex. In my first year on a national newspaper (1968), I was sent to cover a union conference in Margate, which I assumed was 20 minutes away by train. Amazed that the journey took nearly two hours, I arrived embarrassingly late.

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 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain