First Thoughts: Political U-turns, fake news at the Daily Mail and why reading is bad for your health

Boris Johnson’s U-turn over a border with Ireland is of a comparable scale to that of Ted Heath in 1972. 

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“U-turn” is an overused term for politicians changing policies because of public pressure, a need to compromise or the discovery that some half-baked idea doesn’t work. A true U-turn should be on a grander scale. The Tory prime minister Edward Heath set the standard. Having campaigned in 1970 on slashing public spending, refusing to rescue “lame duck” companies and rejecting statutory controls on prices and incomes, he flip-flopped on all three in 1972.

Boris Johnson’s U-turn – after he told unionists in Belfast that no Tory government could put a border in the Irish Sea, only then to agree with the EU to do exactly that – is of comparable scale. For most of the 20th century, his party called itself the Conservative and Unionist Party. Its leader in 1912, Andrew Bonar Law (later PM), supported the Ulster Volunteers, a paramilitary group ready to resist rule by a Catholic-dominated parliament in Dublin. The full title fell into disuse but, in one of his last acts as leader, David Cameron revived it. It duly appeared on the 2017 general election manifesto cover.

Johnson’s flip-flop recalls that of the French president Charles de Gaulle. When he took power in 1958, he proclaimed – in a speech in Algeria to French settlers who accounted for a tenth of the colony’s population – “Vive l’Algérie française”. A year later, he began moving Algeria towards independence, ending a long civil war. A grateful French nation kept him in office for more than a decade. Does Johnson expect a similar reward?

Watch what they do

Once Brexit is “done”, Johnson promises, he will “invest” in schools and other public services. But watch his government’s actions. Without parliamentary debate, the Treasury has hiked the Public Works Loan Board’s interest rate from 1.8 to 2.8 per cent. The board is the main source of local council borrowing for building or improving schools, roads and social housing.

Who wants to be a princess?

In an ITV documentary, Meghan Markle said friends warned her off marrying Prince Harry because “the tabloids will destroy your life”. She waved them away and was then amazed that the papers were “allowed” to “say things that are just untrue”. To avoid such misunderstandings, Buckingham Palace should commission a guide called So You Want to be a Princess? and require any prospective partner for a male royal to sit a rigorous examination on its contents. For a hefty fee – half to be donated to Republic, the anti-monarchy campaign group – I’d write it myself.

My grandfather and eye

My paternal grandfather insisted that too much reading of books caused eye strain. To evade strict controls, my father, as a child, resorted to reading in the outside lavatory, causing (so he said) excruciating piles in later life. The scientific consensus, then and for years later, was that myopia was largely genetic.

But now it seems my grandfather was right. Myopia among UK under-16s, the Sunday Times reports, has reached 20 per cent, against 7 per cent in the 1960s. Insufficient outdoor light is partly to blame, but many scientists say excessive “nearwork” on books and screens makes a decisive contribution. They warn of a surge in the numbers who go completely blind.

In South Korea, Taiwan, China and Singapore, short-sightedness among urban 20-year-olds exceeds 80 per cent. Some specialists call it “school myopia”. Perhaps British ministers should rethink their attempts to make our schools emulate east Asia’s intensive education styles.

Hitch in the plan

A Daily Mail campaign instructs ministers to ensure parents “give children their jabs” – particularly the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. A leader warns about online “fake news” spreading “pernicious myths” about MMR’s safety. Where is this “cruel trick” (the Mail’s words) perpetrated? Why, on MailOnline, where the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens’s interminable explanations of his “worries” about MMR – the last written in 2013 – can still be read.

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 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state