First Thoughts: Making peace with Brexit, why we need to talk about colour, and falling life expectancy

I detest getting up in the dark. At last, I understand what Brexiteers mean by “take back control”.

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Whatever happens over the coming weeks, I have made my peace with Brexit. I may even learn to love it. At least, I can say to myself, we have control of our own clocks. A few days ago, a European parliament committee voted to abolish both summer and winter time. From 2021, if the proposal passes further stages, member states will be banned from changing their clocks twice a year. Each must opt for “permanent summer” or “permanent winter” in the interests of “a unified EU time regime”. Since there’s long been a powerful business lobby for year-round British Summer Time – presumably so that bosses in London and Berlin can converse without troubling their mighty brains with calculating time differences – that is what we’ll get. If you rise at 6.30am (as I do), you will be getting up in the dark for about half the year.

I detest getting up in the dark. At last, I understand what Brexiteers mean by “take back control”.

True colours

Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, was denounced for referring to Labour’s Diane Abbott as a “coloured” woman. A day later, a Guardian columnist referred to “voters of colour”. What is the difference? Go back to the 1950s. In Britain, “no coloureds” notices were common in the windows of seaside boarding houses. In the segregated US south, “coloreds” denoted the sections of trains and buses where black people could sit. “Persons [or people] of color” avoided those associations and was widely adopted in the US from the late 1970s because it seemed more inclusive, covering anybody who wasn’t white. But many still consider the term too close to “coloreds”. The New York Times style book rules against its use, preferring “minorities” or naming a specific ethnic group.

Right-wing bloggers and some columnists would have you believe that this fussiness about mere words is “political correctness”, a modern invention. In fact, arguments about what to call black people have raged in America since the 18th century. Most of the first freed slaves preferred to call themselves “African”. But when early-19th-century whites started a movement to send them “back” to Africa, many decided “colored” would be better. After southern segregationists adopted that term, “Negro”, previously rejected as a white imposition, made a brief comeback.

Usage has changed frequently since, often coming full circle. The changes represent attempts to shake off the historical baggage of oppression and power imbalances. Because racism, conscious or unconscious, is deeply rooted in Western societies, each term tends eventually to acquire patronising connotations at best, insulting ones at worst.

If Tory ministers think it’s a drag to negotiate this linguistic maze, they should reflect that many of them benefit from generations of upper-middle-class white privilege. To be accepted into such circles, people had to learn the correct linguistic codes. Because the tiniest slip showed that somebody didn’t “really belong”, etiquette guides enjoyed healthy sales. Amber Rudd, I fear, is struggling to belong in a 21st-century multi-ethnic society.

Sharpening the blades

“How,” asks a BBC News reporter, “do you convince teenagers not to pick up a knife when they go out in the same way as they pick up a mobile phone?” Not, I would humbly suggest, by splashing knife attacks all over the TV news every night.

A few months off your life

Even if Britain leaves the EU and flourishes as Brexiteers promise, some of us may not live long enough to enjoy it. According to the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, males aged 65 are now predicted to die at 86.9, instead of 87.4 as predicted last year, and women of the same age will die at 89.2 instead of 89.7. Since 2015, life expectancies are down by more than a year for both males and females – after nearly a century consistently on the rise.

The US has a similar trend. Several other high-income countries, including France, Germany and Italy, have recorded life expectancy declines in recent years, but none as large, consistent or accelerating as those here and in America. (In Japan, by contrast, life expectancy continues to rise.) Doctors and epidemiologists think opioid addiction, obesity and stress may be responsible. But in the UK some also blame cuts in health and social care.

The actuaries’ calculations are subjective estimates of what will happen in future. But since money is at stake – actuaries advise insurance companies on how long they may have to pay you a pension – they are likely to be right. The very first actuaries, the two Scottish clergymen who founded Scottish Widows in 1748, were only £1 out in their forecasts of the fund’s capital 17 years later: they had £58,347 in 1765 against the predicted £58,348.

If I were a Tory, I would be alarmed: their voters, drawn disproportionately from over-65s, are dying quicker than expected.

States of well-being

With surprisingly little fanfare, the Guardian has introduced new sections. On Mondays, it offers four pages of “well-being”, in which readers are, for example, instructed on “five ways to move more” and given results of a muscle massager test. Tuesdays have a “love and sex” section, including a “how we met” feature: “I proposed in the queue for the toilets – and she said yes.”

Many of my male friends – all of a broadly progressive cast of mind – have complained for some time that the Guardian is being “feminised” (their word) too much. No doubt, they will complain more. I shall not myself linger over the well-being section and I grant that, under its first woman editor, Katharine Viner, the paper carries more about transgender issues (which occupied the whole of page 3 in one recent issue) and breast implants than I care to read. But a paper appealing only to my gender and demographic wouldn’t last many more years.

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 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control