First Thoughts: Flooding in Venice, royal term limits and why professional sportsmen are like robots

In as little as 20 years, Venice will be uninhabitable and many of its greatest treasures lost.

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Consider what the floods in Venice tell us about modern politicians’ capacity to think long term and humanity’s prospects of averting catastrophic global heating. The city has had impending disaster under its nose for more than half a century. It is threatened not just by rising sea levels but by the ground sinking. Yet the city, and regional and national politicians have done almost nothing to avert the danger that, possibly in as little as 20 years, Venice will be uninhabitable and many of its greatest treasures lost.

I say “almost nothing” because at least industry was forbidden in the 1970s from further undermining the city’s foundations by pumping groundwater from beneath the lagoon. But thanks to inertia, dithering and corruption, the authorities have still not completed a flood protection scheme mooted after floods in 1966, agreed in 1983, begun in 2003 and now expected to be finished in 2022, six years behind schedule. The authorities allow giant cruise liners into the Grand Canal, stirring up mud and further weakening the buildings’ foundations, as well as adding to carbon emissions and local pollution.

Instead of banning the ships, they ask the owners “to raise funds to support our stricken city”.

Global heating sceptics, finding denial of human-induced climate change increasingly untenable, now claim that governments should focus on mitigating its effects. Venice shows that politicians, fearful of jeopardising short-term prosperity for long-term safety and upsetting hoteliers, landlords and tour operators who make millions out of the city, cannot manage even that.

A royal fiasco

Like any sizeable business, the monarchy needs firm direction. The fiasco of Prince Andrew’s TV interview with Emily Maitlis suggests that Elizabeth II is failing to provide it. Which, at 93, is unsurprising. Shouldn’t there be an age limit for monarchs? Of the Queen’s predecessors, only Victoria and George III, whose mental health compelled him to give way to the prince regent at 72, made it as far as 81. Most, including her father George VI, didn’t even get to 70.

Like presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the Queen clings to office, accepting no term limits. How ironic if she, praised for steering the monarchy through more than 60 years of rapid change, finally discredits it beyond redemption.

The Daily Stasi

As I noted here two weeks ago, reporting that the Daily Telegraph could fall into the hands of President Trump’s former aide Steve Bannon, it is always possible for a newspaper to find a worse proprietor. The Berliner Zeitung, which aspires to become Germany’s Washington Post, has done exactly that. It was once owned by the crooked and bombastic former Labour MP Robert Maxwell and later fell into the untender embraces of the former Daily Mirror boss David Montgomery, notorious for his addiction to cutting editorial budgets and sacking journalists.

When the millionaire Holger Friedrich and his wife, Silke, bought the paper two months ago, journalists hailed them as saviours. Alas, the hacks now learn Friedrich worked for the East German secret police, the Stasi, delivering incriminating reports on his fellow soldiers in the armed services.

Robots united

In several past columns, I observed that professional sportsmen have become robots, incapable of thinking for themselves when confronted with the unexpected. Now England’s rugby coach Eddie Jones writes in his autobiography: “Players are becoming robotic… they get told what to do all the time… what time…  to arrive and what… to wear… They’re told what to think and what to say… They follow blindly even if they are being led badly.”

Jones’s sinister solution was to summon England’s players for an “important” meeting at 8am, fail to turn up himself and spy on them through hidden video cameras. A few, he recalls, eventually organised “a productive meeting”. Luckily for Jones, it evidently didn’t decide to seek redress under human rights laws.

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 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over