Miliband furious over Mail article about father
Labour leader accuses newspaper of lying and overstepping boundaries, but aides nervous about taking on press giant. Read more…
Ed Miliband attacks Daily Mail for smearing his father
Labour leader reacts angrily to newspaper’s suggestion that his father was an unpatriotic Marxist who ‘hated Britain’. Read more…
Press industry pushes ahead with new regulator despite political deadlock
Leading newspaper and magazine publishers take first steps in setting up Independent Press Standards Organisation. Read more…
From curriculum rows to Niall Ferguson’s remarks on Keynes, our past is the fuel for debate about the future
The bullish Harvard historian Niall Ferguson cut an unfamiliar, almost meek figure last week. As reports of his ugly suggestion that John Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality had made the great economist indifferent to the prospects of future generations surged across the blogosphere, Ferguson wisely went for a mea culpa.
So, in a cringeing piece for Harvard University’s student magazine, the professor, who usually so enjoys confronting political correctness, denied he was homophobic or, indeed, racist and antisemitic for good measure.
Of course, Ferguson is none of those things. He is a brilliant financial historian, albeit with a debilitating weakness for the bon mot. But Ferguson is also part of a worryingly conservative consensus when it comes to framing our national past.
For whether it is David Starkey on Question Time, in a frenzy of misogyny and self-righteousness, denouncing Harriet Harman and Shirley Williams for being well-connected, metropolitan members of the Labour movement, or the reactionary Dominic Sandbrook using the Daily Mail to condemn with Orwellian menace any critical interpretation of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy, the historical right has Britain in its grip.
And it has so at a crucial time. The rise of Ukip, combined with David Cameron’s political weakness, means that, even in the absence of an official “in or out” referendum on our place in Europe, it looks like we will be debating Britain’s place in the world for some years to come. And we will do against the backdrop of Michael Gove’s proposed new history curriculum which, for some of its virtues, threatens to make us less, not more, confident about our internationalist standing.
For as Ferguson has discovered to his cost, history enjoys a uniquely controversial place within British public life. “There is no part of the national curriculum so likely to prove an ideological battleground for contending armies as history,” complained an embattled Michael Gove in a speech last week. “There may, for all I know, be rival Whig and Marxist schools fighting a war of interpretation in chemistry or food technology but their partisans don’t tend to command much column space in the broadsheets.”
Even if academic historians might not like it, politicians are right to involve themselves in the curriculum debate. The importance of history in the shaping of citizenship, developing national identity and exploring the ties that bind in our increasingly disparate, multicultural society demands a democratic input. The problem is that too many of the progressive partisans we need in this struggle are missing from the field.
How different it all was 50 years ago this summer when EP Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class , his seminal account of British social history during the Industrial Revolution. “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artist … from the condescension of posterity,” he wrote.
He did so in magisterial style, providing an intimate chronicle of the brutality inflicted on the English labouring classes as Britain rose to be the workshop of the world. Thompson focused on the human stories – the Staffordshire potters, the Manchester Chartists – to build an account of an emergent, proletarian identity. It was social history as a political project, seeking to lay out all the tensions and conflict that really lie behind our island story.
As his fellow Marxist Eric Hobsbawm put it, social history was “the organisational and ideological history of the labour movement”. Uncovering the lost lives and experiences of the miner and mill worker was a way of contesting power in the present. And in the wake of Thompson and Hobsbawm’s histories – as well as the work of Raphael Samuel, Asa Briggs and Christopher Hill – popular interpretations of the past shifted.
In theatre, television, radio and museums, a far more vernacular and democratic account of the British past started to flourish. If, today, we are as much concerned about downstairs as upstairs, about Downton Abbey‘s John Bates as much as the Earl of Grantham, it is thanks to this tradition of progressive social history.
It even influenced high politics. In the flickering gloom of the 1970s’ three-day week, Tony Benn retreated to the House of Commons tearoom to read radical accounts of the English civil war. “I had no idea that the Levellers had called for universal manhood suffrage, equality between the sexes and the sovereignty of the people,” he confided to his diary. Benn, the semi-detached Labour cabinet minister, felt able to place himself seamlessly within this historical lineage – lamenting how “the Levellers lost and Cromwell won, and Harold Wilson or Denis Healey is the Cromwell of our day, not me”.
But despite recent histories by the likes of Emma Griffin on industrialising England or Edward Vallance on radical Britain, the place of the progressive past in contemporary debate has now been abandoned. So much of the left has mired itself in the discursive dead ends of postmodernism or decided to focus its efforts abroad on the crimes of our colonial past. In their absence, we are left with Starkey and Ferguson – and BBC2 about to air yet another series on the history of the Tudor court. How much information about Anne Boleyn can modern Britain really cope with?
This narrowing of the past comes against the backdrop of ever more state school pupils being denied appropriate time for history. While studying the past is protected in prep schools, GCSE exam entries show it is under ever greater pressure in more deprived parts of the country.
Then there is the question of what students will actually be learning. Michael Gove’s proposed new syllabus has rightly been criticised by historian David Cannadine and others as too prescriptive, dismissive of age-specific learning and Anglocentric. While the education secretary’s foregrounding of British history is right, experts are adamant this parochial path is not the way to do it. Indeed, cynics might wonder whether Gove – the arch Eurosceptic – is already marshalling his young troops for a referendum no vote.
For whether it is the long story of Britain’s place in Europe, the 1930s failings of austerity economics, the cultural history of same-sex marriage or the legacy of Thatcherism, the progressive voice in historical debate needs some rocket boosters. Niall Ferguson’s crime was not just foolishly to equate Keynes’s homosexuality with selfishness. Rather, it was to deny the relevance of Keynes’s entire political economy – and, in the process, help to forge a governing consensus that is proving disastrous for British living standards.
That is what we need an apology for.
The inaugural Bad Grammar award has gone to a group of academics for an open letter in which they criticised education secretary Michael Gove. Are we too hung up on the correct use of language?
Charlie Higson, comedian and author
Language is a uniquely human attribute, one of the things that makes us what we are. We are all born with the faculty to use it and all languages conform to the same basic patterns and structures. The idea that we might need a huge rulebook telling us how to use it properly is ludicrous. People all round the world, and for thousands upon thousands of years, have been using language to communicate perfectly well without needing to be told how to do it by a bunch of grammar Nazis who think that the way they talk and write is the correct, unchanging way.
I once met a very interesting guy from the OED who was fed up with people misunderstanding what a dictionary is. It’s not a set of rules about how to use language, it’s a set of observations about how it’s used, which is why it needs to be constantly updated. Language changes, it is not fixed, and the only function it needs to perform is to be understood. For Toby Young et al to pretend not to understand perfectly clear English in the academics’ letter to Gove is pathetic. Over to you, Adolf (I’m playing the Nazi card early on this one).
Quentin Letts, columnist and sketchwriter at the Daily Mail
Ah yes, the grammar Nazis. Ve haf ways of making you parse! Like you, Charlie, I dislike the ideas of incorrigible pedants – I imagine them with wheedling voices and maybe leatherette patches on their sports jacket elbows – who pick up writers on their grammatical solecisms. Yet I can see the value of grammar, and I am not so sure that Toby Young, who is doing more for poor kids than Anthony Crosland ever did, is wrong to insist on grammar being taught in schools.
Grammar is the coat hanger on which language can hang. It provides structure for sentences the way door lintels can prevent a house collapsing. I will not do a Lynne Eats, Shoots and Leaves Truss on you but it is worth remembering the old chestnut, “Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off”. Without punctuation/grammar the sentence makes no sense.
Some lefties put it about that grammar is a horrid thing because it is “elitist”. They say grammar should not be taught in state schools because it perpetuates privilege. What rot. This approach simply smacks of indolence by teachers who are putting grammar in the “too hard” basket.
We should teach grammar to our poorest pupils to make sure that they have the ability to express themselves clearly and compete with children who have been to private school.
CH: For God’s sake, Quentin, they do teach grammar in state schools. You can’t teach English without teaching grammar, it’s inherent. All three of my boys have been through the state system, and they’re perfectly able to read and write. And our teachers are not indolent: indeed, I think you’ll find that teaching is considerably harder work than tossing off a few lightly opinionated columns once in a while. They are the ones working at the coalface, struggling day to day to educate our kids with limited resources, and I think they know a great deal more about teaching than Michael “let’s make things better by fucking them up” Gove.
Surely the question being asked is whether children should have separate grammar lessons, specially designed to put them off reading and writing for ever? If you really want the poorest kids to compete with those who have been to private school, double the education budget, pay our state school teachers more and invest in their schools.
QL: My goodness, you make our teachers sound like a veritable convocation of saints. Both my parents were teachers (private sector) and I have come across plenty of thumb-twiddlers and work-dodgers in the school common room.
Separate lessons for grammar may not be required – 40 minutes on sentence construction would drive anyone mad – but I would welcome a strong emphasis on grammar. Sometimes I receive letters and emails which are so badly written they read like drunken Esperanto. I simply do not believe this image you create of a kingdom in which smiling children are currently being taught everything they need to know if they are to write clear English. As for today’s spelling standards, aieeee!
The goal of enabling all children to write a clean, clear sentence is not just some airy-fairy desire to recreate the prose of Kipling. Michael Gove is not, as his critics lazily claim, a throwback. He is a real meritocrat in that he is trying to make the educational system see that excellence is the greatest liberator of talent, not a suppressor of the poor. Teaching children the “boring” rules of grammar will help them with job applications. It will also, by the by, train their minds. Grammar is not just about grammar: it is also about logic and intellectual rigour. We need those skills if our country is to compete with the likes of China, India, Russia and Brazil.
CH: Yes, we British once ruled the world with our firm grasp of grammar, applying its rules to oppress and exploit the ungrammared dusky hordes. And now we are in danger of being swamped by the dastardly Chinese, Brazilians and Russians who will hammer us into the floor with their superior grasp of split infinitives.
I’m not claiming our schools are perfect, though I do suggest that investment is more important than constantly fiddling with the curriculum. Halve the classroom sizes and you’re halfway there. Of course there are many state school teachers who are “thumb-twiddlers” and “work-dodgers”, and I’m sure there are many in the private sector (just as there are failures and successes among the pupils). English teachers do work hard to instil the basic rules of spelling and grammar, but we can all make mistakes, and (sorry to be a spelling pedant, here) your initial email to me contained at least two. But not everyone has a newspaper subediting department on hand to clean up their prose.
QL: It would not worry me if Russians split infinitives. We need to be more wary of them splitting atoms.
I repeat my belief that grammar is good for the grey matter, not to mention the beauty of English prose. The theory here is the same as in, say, painting or music: I feel that the best abstract artists are likely to be those who have mastered traditional drawing techniques. Great jazz musicians tend to know quite a lot about musical theory. Similarly, the best free-roaming verse is likely to have been written by people who have learned the concise, precise art of good grammar.
On your point about the British empire, was there not a comment from Dame Jacqueline Wilson the other day – no rightwinger, she – that her overseas fans now write to her in better English than do her British correspondents? Our education system cannot be insular: it must be alive to the international competition our country will face in coming decades, and rigorous schooling, not least in “fusty” grammar, will help us to train world-class minds. Grammar is not everything, but it is surely more important than citizenship classes or sex ed. Anyway, Charlie, if they lose all sight of grammar, they will never want to buy your books, and that would be a pity.
Friends Life does U-turn on £100,000 life insurance payout to bereaved family of cancer sufferer
The bereaved family of a man whose £100,000 life insurance claim was rejected has now been awarded the money, after their plight was publicised in The Observer.
The newspaper reported last December on the case of Nic Hughes, who died in October 2012, less than a year after being diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder with secondary tumours in his liver. His critical illness and life insurance provider, Friends Life, rejected his claim for a payout and cancelled his policy, alleging Hughes had failed to disclose information.
Hughes had declared that he suffered from ulcerative colitis when applying for the policy, but Friends Life said he had not admitted to suffering from pins and needles, or being asked to reduce his alcohol intake by his doctor – symptoms his doctors said were unrelated to the cancer.
This left his wife, Susannah Hancock, and their eight-year-old twin sons, without the support of his £100,000 life policy.
The Observer story was picked up by the Daily Mail and the family’s campaign was supported via Twitter by celebrities, including Stephen Fry and Miranda Hart. The Observer encouraged the family to take the case to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Last week the ombudsman ruled that the policy was wrongly cancelled. In a letter to the family it said: “While the firm remains of the view that Mr Hughes did not disclose some things at the time of the application, it accepts that any non-disclosure was not deliberate or relevant to the claim he later made – so the firm accepts it was not entitled to rely on that and it should have paid the critical illness claim when it was submitted.”
Friends Life has decided not to take the case to review and has instead agreed to pay the £100,000 claim in full, plus interest. This is in addition to an ex-gratia payment already made.
The life company said in a statement: “While we continue to have concerns about this case, we are sympathetic to the circumstances of Mr Hughes’s family and believe it would be unfair to prolong the claim process any further.”
Hancock said she was “overwhelmed with relief and joy” and “so thankful to The Observer for picking the story up and taking it on.” She said that her children danced around the kitchen at the news. “It means we can carry on living here,” she told them – and they cheered.
Swede who briefed MPs on peril of pre-school daycare admits he has no academic degree
A Swedish childcare “expert” who was called to brief MPs last month on the dangers of subsidised daycare has been attacked as “unscientific” and “unqualified” by the author of the main study on which he drew.
Jonas Himmelstrand, the keynote speaker at a House of Commons event organised by the campaign group Mothers at Home Matter, linked near-universal pre-school daycare in his country to an alarming decline in adolescents’ mental health and educational achievement, as well as to rising youth suicides. “This is a dream which failed, which any country attempting to emulate should be warned about,” he said.
After the talk, David Davis, a former Conservative party leadership candidate, commended Himmelstrand for his “startling figures”, which he said demonstrated that “separating children from their mothers at an early age and putting them into care while the mother returns to work can have damaging consequences”. However, Dr Sven Bremberg, a researcher at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute who led the 2006 inquiry into youth mental health cited by Himmelstrand, said his study had ruled out daycare as a cause. “There is no substance whatsoever behind Himmelstrand’s statement that a decline of mental health in young people in Sweden is related to daycare. That was one of the points we specifically investigated,” he said. Bremberg said that Himmelstrand should not be taken seriously by British MPs. “Himmelstrand does not have scientific qualifications as far as I know. By misquoting, he is handling arguments in a very unscientific way.”
The Mothers at Home Matter event was hosted in the Commons by Claire Perry, a Conservative MP who is David Cameron’s official adviser on parenting and childhood. It was attended by Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary. The group, formerly known as Full Time Mothers, gained prominence earlier this year after the government announced measures aimed at helping mothers return to work, including shared parental leave and, last month, a new tax break on childcare worth up to £1,200 per child per year.
The government’s reforms reflect the influence of Nordic family policy, which combines generous shared parental leave with heavily subsidised daycare to keep mothers in the workforce. In Sweden, 83% of one-to-five-year-olds spend time in daycare, with the cost to parents capped in Stockholm at around £130 a month for the first child, £85 for the second and £42 for a third.
Himmelstrand’s talk received enthusiastic coverage in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, which referred to him respectively as a “researcher” and “psychologist”. Lynne Burnham, the secretary of Mothers at Home Matter, told the Observer that Himmelstrand’s research was “all based on proper scientific figures”. She said: “He works quite closely with an American professor and sociologist. I can certainly send you some of his research papers.”
When contacted by the Observer, however, Himmelstrand said that he had been “self-taught”, although his late father was an internationally known sociologist. “I cannot say I have an academic degree, and I have never claimed to have one,” he said. “Some British media have mistakenly written that I am a sociologist. This is not correct.” In the introduction to his House of Commons talk, he said that he was the founder of the Mireja Institute and a “faculty member” of the Neufeld Institute, founded by Canadian psychologist Dr Gordon Neufeld. Last week, however, he conceded that Mireja was a “one-man outfit”. The Neufeld Institute says on its website that it invites people to become “faculty members” if they complete an advanced course in home-schooling and a two-year internship at its “virtual campus”, at a cost of more than £8,000.
Himmelstrand blamed Bremberg’s criticisms on “a misunderstanding”, saying he had only cited the study to support his claim of deteriorating youth mental health in Sweden. The link to daycare had come from other studies, particularly a 2001 study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the US. “I am convinced that I have a strong argument, strong enough to question whether a system like that in Sweden should be adopted without further study by other countries,” he said.
HeHimmelstrand conceded that there had been no study since the 1980s to investigate the links between high enrolment in daycare in Sweden and mental health in later life. “The Swedish government shows no signs of wanting to study the effects of daycare,” he said. “It is like a totalitarian system defending its ideology at any price. A study showing that the Swedish daycare system is not in all children’s best interest would shake the Swedish political system.”
He argued that this also meant that Bremberg, whom he described as “on the extreme pro-daycare side in Sweden”, was overstating his case. “Dr Bremberg is making too strong a claim in saying: ‘There is no substance whatsoever … that a decline of mental health in young people in Sweden is related to daycare.’ No one can claim this either way scientifically. There are simply too many factors.”
When challenged on Himmelstrand’s qualifications to brief MPs, Burnham noted that he had given speeches on daycare in other countries. “He travels the world speaking on these issues, so I guess there must be some credibility to these figures,” she said. “It’s not just Himmelstrand who’s been saying this; there are other people saying the same thing.”
As well as Bremberg’s study, Himmelstrand’s cited research by a Swedish psychologist, Magnus Kihlbom, which he said demonstrated that a decline in the quality of Swedish daycare meant that it was now actively harming many children. When contacted, Kihlbom dismissed Himmelstrand as “probably a conservative”. “I don’t think it’s a question of either/or,” he said. “Even for very small children, daycare of good quality with reliable relationships between the carer and the small child is good for most children.”
A review of the evidence on daycare by the Institute for Public Policy Research, to be published next month, has concluded that the overall impact on child development is beneficial. “There’s now a fairly strong body of evidence that high-quality care has a positive effect on both cognitive development, and also emotional, social and behavioural development,” said Imogen Parker, the author of the paper. “There are some studies that found that, for the under-threes, there might be a trade-off between positive cognitive effects and negative behavioural effects, but where that is the case these negative effects are short-lived and not particularly pronounced.”
Himmelstrand, who is a fervent advocate of home schooling, has moved his family to Åland, a Finnish island a three-hour ferry ride from Stockholm, because he fears that the “trigger-happy” Swedish social services might take his children into care. He supports himself primarily through his work as a consultant promoting the “mentoring” ideas of Mike Pegg, a British management writer, and doing presentations on Neufeld’s work. He denies being a political conservative, but is a regular speaker at the Stockholm Freedomfest, a Swedish offshoot of a gathering for radical libertarians set up by Mark Skousen, a devout Mormon free-market economist.
Perry and Davis both declined to comment for this article.
The BBC’s decision to censor the protest track from The Wizard of Oz recalls the Chinese Communist party
In 2011, Chinese censors tried to erase mentions of jasmine from its state-policed web. They banned shops and markets from selling the plant. They cancelled the 2011 China international jasmine cultural festival. They even plucked from the web a video of President Hu Jintao singing Mo Li Hua, a Qing dynasty paean to the jasmine’s delicate flowers.
It wasn’t that the communists objected to jasmine in particular or climbing and rambling plants in general. They were frightened because, after the “jasmine revolution” in Tunisia, anonymous voices had called for a jasmine revolution in China. The paranoid authorities were censoring jasmine’s symbolic meaning; the hidden message known only to initiates.
The worst that can be said of the Tory press and the BBC is that they have now sunk to the level of the Chinese Communist party. Since MGM released The Wizard of Oz in 1939, few have found the Munchkins’ chorus – “Ding dong! The Wicked Witch is dead/ Wake up sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed” – obscene or subversive in the least.
But Britain’s surreal conservatives did not want the BBC to ban the song because its words were libellous or a breach of the criminal law. They hated the song not because of what it said but because the intention of the left wingers who bought it was to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher.
The silencing of the Munchkins must rank as one of the most inept acts of censorship Britain has seen. The days when the Radio 1 playlist made or broke a song’s chances went with the invention of the web. Neither the Daily Mail nor the parliamentary Conservative party appeared to know that if you want to ban a single today, you need to compel YouTube and iTunes to take it down.
Ham-fisted though it may be, the attack on The Wizard of Oz tell us much about the authoritarianism of British conservatism and the cowardice of the BBC. It proves that the right can be just as politically correct as the left. Thatcher’s supporters might have tried to win the argument. They might have said that it is contemptible to celebrate the death of a sick old lady, who had been the democratically elected leader of a free county. They might have directed our attention to her grieving friends and family. They might have pointed out that Mrs Thatcher left power 23 years ago and it is politically illiterate to blame her for the ills of the present. They might, in short, have tried to have convinced their opponents of the justice of their cause in free debate. Instead, they tried to silence.
As for the BBC, what is there left to say about it? Can it show The Wizard of Oz again? Can it only run the film after the 9pm watershed? Must the announcer warn: “This children’s story contains Munchkin choruses that some viewers may find offensive”? Its decision to ban every part of the song except for a five-second clip in a news report shows clearly something that many people outside the media rarely understand: the BBC folds under pressure.
During the debate on the politicians’ plans to regulate the press and news websites, many people have asked why journalists should worry when regulation works so well at the BBC. The behaviour of the BBC last week explains why. Tory MPs and the Daily Mail picked on the BBC rather than iTunes or YouTube because they knew they had a chance of winning. Any other media organisation might have said it stood by the principles of free speech. If music buyers had, for whatever reason, put a song in the charts they had a duty to play it.
Because the BBC is funded by a licence fee everyone must pay, because it is in the end a state broadcaster, it is far easier to intimidate. “Free speech is an important principle,” said Tony Hall, its director general, as he struggled to explain his behaviour. Politicians know he doesn’t mean it. They understand that if they make life hard enough for the corporation it will abandon its principles.
Why do you think that during her decade in power Margaret Thatcher never privatised it?
Good riddance to a Labour politician who wants to be admired for not standing by his own brother
Will David Miliband ever be back in frontline politics? Lord Mandelson and others say he will. The rest of us should probably hope not. It strikes me that he has never demonstrated the danger of his political aspirations more clearly than in the abandoning of them.
Having been unable to overcome the resentment that followed a leadership battle with his brother, Miliband Senior is off to do charity work in America.
Our country must never be led by a man who would fail to build bridges with his own brother. (You might say the same applies to Ed Miliband, but, having won, he obviously isn’t the one who remains bitter.)
The feud jars with too many principles of our national character. “Blood is thicker than water”, that’s what we say. Deep down, family is all we really care about. We bicker and recover, argue and forgive. When the chips are down, we know whose side we’re on. We might be furious with a sibling, parent or child – but if that person is criticised or attacked by an outsider, the attacker has us to deal with.
Imagine how often those attacks and criticisms come, if your brother is leading a political party! And where is David? In the Club Class cabin to New York.
Neither does it work, if you aspire to lead the British in world affairs, to cope so badly with loss. Tut tut, that’s not the idea at all. Not what Kipling said. In the poem that we always vote to be our national favourite, we are reminded to “meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”; to “watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools”.
There’s nothing there about running off to a £300,000 job abroad.
David Miliband says the move is “right not just for me but for the Labour party as well”, asking rhetorically: “Has it been hard for me to accept I can best help the Labour party by giving not just the space between the frontbench and the backbench to Ed but the space between the frontbench and 3,000 miles away? Yes, that’s hard for me but I think that is right.”
We are so used to the waffly constructions and double negatives of political language, it’s worth re-reading those lines a few times to grasp how awful they really are.
In being unable to forgive his brother, after nearly three years, Miliband asks for both our pity and our applause. He wants us to see this exile as the hard, noble, gallant decision of a brave and selfless hero.
But we can see how easy it would be to throw his weight behind his brother and the past behind them both. All it would take is one fully supportive speech, a swallow of pride and a pat on the back, and they could be a powerful symbol of unity to inspire us all. Yet he wants not just to skip town but to be admired for doing it.
This reminds me of nothing so much as Tony Blair, who not only refuses to admit that the Iraq war was a ghastly and terrible error but still wants to be revered for the “morality” behind it. We must break free from these men who see their own failings as glories. They are the keenest to seek power over the rest of us, but that way lies the end of the world.
Go, then, David Miliband. Turn your back on the brother you can’t forgive and leave him to it alone. I do believe it has been hard, and I hope the charity gig goes well. But you must not come back and try to rule over me and my family, while you don’t even know that charity begins at home.
The other night, at the theatre, I watched two simultaneous plays.
This was not an avant-garde fringe production (although “two simultaneous plays” sounds exactly like the sort of terrible idea with which a group of hopeful drama students might bankrupt themselves at Edinburgh) but a performance-double intended by nobody and witnessed, I think, only by me.
The first play was The Book of Mormon, which I enjoyed enormously. The second, unfolding simultaneously across the aisle, was a darker and more complex piece of work entitled Quentin Letts Watching The Book of Mormon.
Both plays were on a fish-out-of-water theme. In The Book of Mormon, a bespectacled missionary is surrounded by sceptical Ugandans whose problems he can’t solve. In Quentin Letts Watching The Book of Mormon, a bespectacled theatre critic is surrounded by laughing people whose amusement he can’t understand.
One of the plays ended happily, with a merry musical finale. The other ended with an angry review in the Daily Mail that talked of “cynical profanity”.
Letts clearly never expected to like it; even as he took his seat, he looked like a man who’d just run over his own dog. Every time I laughed or clapped with the rest of the audience, I could see him in my peripheral vision, making another gloomy note on his pad.
What I loved most about TBOM is that it is – radically, in modern comedy – kind and friendly about religious faith. Sure, it’s a toothy satire of specific beliefs, but it shows belief in general as a warm and hopeful instinct that can make people happier.
Perhaps it just chimed with my own view of the human search for God (a good and natural principle, resulting in some inevitably clumsy guesswork over the specifics), but I saw an amazing irony in Mr Letts expecting a rant against religion and thus seeing one. It was the play, not he, that had an open mind and heart. He had no faith. Happy Easter.
By giving the tabloids just enough red meat, Johnson has been able to speak out against a British exit without coming under fire
On Tuesday, Boris Johnson made his latest thinly veiled bid for the Tory leadership, outlining his own distinctive vision of Britain’s relationship with the EU ahead of David Cameron’s crucial, defining speech on Europe later this month. He called for Britain’s EU membership to be “boiled down to the single market”, scrapping the social chapter and other pesky regulations from Brussels. He then went on to suggest that Britain should join the “outer tier” of Europe along with Switzerland and Norway, while maintaining an active role in shaping single market legislation.
Never mind that neither Norway nor Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is purely based on free trade, never mind that minimum social and employment standards are an inextricable part of the single market: Johnson knows how to play the keys of Eurosceptic press like a concert pianist. This may just be because when it comes to British Euroscepticism, Boris Johnson invented the Steinway. As Sonia Purnell points out in her biography, during his stint as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent from 1989 to 1995, Johnson pioneered the kind of acerbic anti-European polemicism that dominates much of the press today. One of his articles referred to the “noxious aromas emanating from Holland”, a reference to the fumes of Dutch pig manure reportedly being detected in Essex. Another accused a French minister of trying to ban the use of certain English words.
The Murdoch newspapers in particular followed Johnson’s lead. In a BBC poll on the most memorable front page of the century, Johnson paid tribute to this by nominating an edition of the Sun from 1990 which called on readers to “tell the filthy French to frog off”. The article went on to say that “they insult us, burn our lambs, flood our country with dodgy food and plot to abolish the dear old pound”.
Johnson last night described David Cameron’s stance on eurozone integration as “intellectualy and morally wrong,” calling for a policy rooted solely in Britain’s long-term interests. Yet when it come to Euroscepticism in the press, vested interests are likely to play a much stronger role. Rupert Murdoch has a deep commercial and ideological aversion to the EU, viewing its anti-monopoly laws as a threat to the expansion of his media empire and its social policies as antithetical to his economically neoliberal worldview. Other newspaper proprietors, the Barclay brothers of the Daily Telegraph, Richard Desmond of the Daily Express, and Lord Rothermere of the Daily Mail, have similar political and business interests in advocating British withdrawal from the EU.
Undoubtedly, the economic pressures facing newspapers have also played a part. Not one of the rightwing tabloids currently has a full-time correspondent in Brussels, leading to a reliance on freelance reporters who are in constant competition to come up with the most ludicrous story about the EU. Having helped foster deeply Eurosceptic attitudes, the rightwing press must now compete to pander to them.
As a consequence, over the past two decades the EU has been subjected to a daily barrage of attacks, ranging from gross exaggeration to outright fabrication. Screaming headlines denounce the latest sinister plot from Brussels, whether it is banning selling eggs by the dozen, stopping children from blowing up balloons, or even plotting to liquify corpses and pour them down the drain. Many of these “Euro myths” have now become deeply embedded in the popular imagination. It is perhaps no coincidence that 18- to 24-year-olds, who are more likely to get their news online than from traditional print media, are the only UK age group in which a majority would vote to stay in the EU.
Johnson now finds himself wrestling with the Eurosceptic monster he has helped to create. The mayor of London is torn between the broadly pro-European voices of the City of London and business leaders, who want to see their interests protected through constructive engagement with the EU, and the Tory grassroots, who are baying for the blood of Brussels bureaucrats. Already, he has faced criticism from those in the party who see his latest speech as a betrayal of his previous support for a straight in-out referendum.
Nevertheless, as a seasoned Eurosceptic journalist himself, Johnson knows all too well how to play the rightwing press, which has come out in force to support his call for partial disengagement. His description of the euro as a “calamitous project” could have come straight from a Daily Mail editorial. Crucially, by giving the tabloids just enough red meat, he has been able to speak out against a British exit without coming under fire.
The recent conclusions of the Leveson inquiry have shown how Murdoch and other media moguls have been able to significantly influence Britain’s policy on the EU, pressuring successive governments to adopt a particular line. In Boris Johnson, however, they may have just met their match.