First Thoughts: Beware US trade deals, the death of New Society’s Paul Barker and why the lights go out

Parliament has virtually no say over international trade deals. Ministers can conduct negotiations in secret and sign agreements without even informing MPs.

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We should be wary of assurances from the hawkish White House aide John Bolton that, after a no-deal Brexit, Britain can make speedy trade agreements with the US. Expect US demands that we drop plans for a digital services tax on the Silicon Valley giants from April 2020; that the NHS must pay more for drugs from American pharmaceutical companies; that we relax safety regulations on food; and that we allow more leeway for US companies to take stakes in British public services.

That much we know. There will be more we don’t know and probably won’t until it’s too late. Parliament has virtually no say over international trade deals. Ministers can conduct negotiations in secret and sign agreements without even informing MPs, much less getting their approval. So much for taking back control.

Sporting chancers

Dedicated sports newspapers, except those covering horse racing, have never succeeded in the UK, largely because the national and local press do a more than adequate job of writing about and reporting on sport. A typical Monday edition of the Times has more column inches on the subject – 20 pages on football plus ten on other sports – than on home and foreign news and comment. Can the newly launched Athletic, an online-
only, ad-free title owned by a company based in San Francisco and staffed by some of Fleet Street’s top sports reporters (wooed by generous salaries), possibly succeed?

At an annual £59.99, it’s certainly cheaper than paying £26 a month for digital-only access to the Times. But as well as not getting non-sports news, you won’t get cricket, rugby or, despite its title, athletics. The new title’s focus is exclusively on football. And it admits that, on big teams such as Manchester United and Arsenal, it can’t do more than the national press. Its selling point is “full-time dedicated writers” covering every team in the Premier League, eight second-tier English teams, and Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow.

In other words, it will compete mainly with ailing local papers. The company’s chief executive uncharmingly said: “We will… let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.” I am sceptical. Local papers may cut their coverage of councils and courts but will continue covering their football teams to the bitter end. Still, the country has never been so obsessed by football. As a female newspaper editor once said to me: “I know nothing about football except that readers who do like it want a lot of it.”

Society figure

Paul Barker, who has died aged 83, edited New Society magazine, which merged with the New Statesman in 1988, for 18 of its 26 years (it was founded in 1962). The weekly magazine’s personality was similar to his: detached, curious, sceptical, mildly liberal without being in the least bit ideological. It was also, like him, slightly pedantic – reading out my address to Barker, I was asked if Queens Road “takes an apostrophe”.

With the social sciences flourishing as never before or since, New Society widened public interest in them just as New Scientist popularised the physical and biological sciences. It published academics who wanted to reach an intelligent non-specialist audience: the anthropologist Edmund Leach, the psychiatrist RD Laing and the social historian EP Thompson among them. Sturdily non-metropolitan – Barker came from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire – it sent reporters up and down the country simply to find out how ordinary people lived and thought.

Barker was a dour, rather unclubbable man who disapproved of flamboyant newspapers such as the Sunday Times; when I joined it, he refused to speak to me for two years. But I admired his editorship and, though the merger was in reality a takeover of a magazine whose time had passed, his influence never entirely left the New Statesman.

Multinational grid

I wonder how many of those affected by the recent power blackouts realise that the National Grid is run by a multinational private company which also transmits electricity in the northern US, including parts of New York. As in the railway industry, ownership and responsibility in the power industry were made immensely more complex by its privatisation in 1990.

The structure of the electricity business was once a simple matter. The Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), where nearly all senior staff were engineers, did both generation and transmission. Twelve area electricity boards organised distribution and supply. In Scotland, it was even simpler: just two public bodies did everything from generation to supply. In 1990, the CEGB was split into four companies while the 12 area boards became 14 monopoly private companies. Most of the latter aren’t British-owned. One is owned by a Spanish company, another by Americans, a third by three Hong Kong companies. The retailers that send your bills form yet another tier.

All this makes it hard to know where responsibility lies when the lights go out. But you can be sure that the companies are run not by engineers but by financial specialists who know little more about how power gets to our homes and offices than I do.

The first Brexiteers

Wandering the other day round a vast, highly impressive and completely free museum at Cliffe Castle in Yorkshire, I discovered the Brigantes, presented in a heroic light by Keighley council, the museum’s owner. A tribe of ancient Britons based in what is now Yorkshire, they became independent allies of the Romans but went their own way in AD 69, eight years after Queen Boadicea was defeated. These early Brexiteers – living in a region where 58 per cent voted to leave the EU nearly two millennia later – were apparently indifferent to Roman trade links that stretched across Europe to North Africa and the Middle East. Alas, they were forced to accept Roman rule just two years later. There must be a lesson in that for Boris Johnson.

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 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy