A selection of the writing, wittering and viewing that has caught our attention over the past week.
► Nick Cohen’s 2007 book What’s Left? was a superb sustained diatribe against those leftist politicians, intellectuals and commentators who had become so consumed by hatred of America that they had abandoned common sense and common decency. The current Labour leadership bid by Jeremy Corbyn has seen Cohen return to the theme, most spectacularly in this piece in Standpoint magazine, where he lambasts both the anti-western tendency and the leftovers of New Labour for committing the same wrong of cosying up to totalitarian, right-wing forces, each for their own misguided reasons.
In fairness, though, it’s worth noting that even on the anti-imperialist far left, there are voices prepared to speak out in dissent. Workers’ Liberty, for example, are quite clear that Hamas and Hezbollah are ‘violently anti-women, anti-semitic, anti-gay, anti-working class theocratic bigots’.
► Did you know that Iain Duncan Smith’s universal credit is simply never going to happen and that it is an open secret in Whitehall that this is the case? The rumours have been well aired, but Dave’s reinvigorated media fan club assures us that welfare reform is going to be one of his great legacies, along with academy schools, a 24-hour NHS (as opposed to what, exactly?) and … you know, that sort of thing. Here is John Rentoul in the Independent on Monday in an unhedged prediction that IDS’s flagship is heading for Davy Jones’ locker.
► Amid all the brouhaha over Corbynmania, it’s easy to forget that in the immediate aftermath of the general election it was the prospect of Tory divisions over the long-promised ‘in/out’ vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union that preoccupied many commentators. And doubtless the Euro referendum will soon resume its rightful place as the most important political story in town.
With this in mind, the ‘Hated Peter Hitchens’ has been posting documents from the 1975 referendum on his blog. Perhaps the least surprising of his findings is that the ‘repeated bleat’ that the Britons of 40 years ago thought they were voting for nothing more than a free trade agreement turns out to be ‘so much pipe-smoke and spittle’. In Hitchens’ view, the threat to parliamentary sovereignty was not just the key plank of the campaign against staying in the European Community, it could also be read between the lines of the arguments in favour. When decision day came, however, 67% of voters chose to ignore the issue, siding with Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher over Tony Benn and Enoch Powell. (And who can blame them?)
Some in today’s Yes camp fear that the current anti-Westminster mood has turned the tables, handing the advantage to No. But as Dr Robert Saunders points out on his essential The Gladstone Diaries, it was ever thus. Indeed, in 1975 the fear among the pro-Europeans was of an anti-establishment campaign of the kind that had kept Norway out of the EC just three years before. So the politicians did what they so often do when the common folk threaten to misbehave: they enlisted the support of celebrities. As Saunders puts it, ‘Actors for Europe’ gathered together ‘one of the great pantomime casts of the decade’.
Unsurprisingly, the scans on his blog are rather more fun than those from Peter Hitchens, but both are equally telling.
► Many years ago, Lion & Unicorn’s Dan Atkinson was confronted with a proposal to change his then employer’s pension scheme, so he sought the advice of a colleague, a staunch leftist. This chap knew no more about pensions than Dan did, but his reasoning was simple. Who wanted them to vote ‘Yes’ to the changes? The management. So how should they vote? ‘No’, obviously.
The latest issue of the always excellent Lobster contains this variation on the theme from the editor, Robin Ramsay, in his ‘The View from the Bridge’ editorial:
[P]olitics is simple in the first instance: see what the global corporations want and support the opposite.
► In the perhaps-unlikely setting of The Conservative Woman website, we came across this piece from Nick Booth about Dave’s love of gimmicks: ‘There is no modern problem, it seems, that cannot be solved through an on-line course, a csar or a bootcamp.’ He is especially scathing about Cameron’s new small-business czarina:
When did the Balkan aristocracy earn its reputation for efficiency? There’s nothing about it on Wikipedia. And yet, the Government can’t get enough of csars. Michelle Mone, the figurehead of bra brand Ultimo, is apparently the latest great white Russian hope. I don’t know why they don’t just take this csar/bootcamp obsession to its logical conclusion and anoint Ms Mone as the Csar of All Bootcamps and be done with it.
► But for a lonely plea from John Harris in the Guardian, Britain’s buses – the withered, over-priced Cinderella service of our so-called transport infrastructure – continued to lose out to the far sexier subject of trains in what passed for political debate this week. The news that a Corbyn government might consider introducing women-only carriages, to create spaces free from leerers and gropers (aka men), was variously taken as evidence that the Great Leader is a) an out-of-touch paternalist, b) a straight-talker unafraid to tackle uncomfortable problems, or c) a man with a hitherto unsuspected grasp of what makes for a good radio phone-in topic.
Taking a longer view was Simon Abernethy, on the History Today website, who noted that in the Victorian era female-only carriages resulted in calls, from some men, for total gender segregation. One male passenger wrote:
Men mostly travel in silence; women … talk almost incessantly. In the name of humanity let them have carriages reserved to themselves, but also let us men have carriages reserved to ourselves.
Perhaps not what Team Corbyn had in mind.
► Finally, the already tired subject of BBC charter renewal has been back in the news, with reports that, at a dinner in Edinburgh, The Great British Bake Off’s Sue Perkins took culture secretary John Whittingdale to task for being a miserly, BBC-hating git (aka a Tory) … or something along those lines.
The occasion was the fortieth James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, a (critical) defence of the Corporation delivered by known Gash man Armando Iannucci. No doubt Auntie’s many detractors will want to write off his speech as a case of licking the hand that feeds him, but that, surely, is the point. Iannucci might just be the most important creator of broadcast comedy of the last 25 years, and it is no accident that so much of his output has been made under the BBC banner. In the delicate area of politicians legislating on culture, a man who sends up cant and groupthink for a living deserves an especially careful hearing; not least because this MacTaggart lecture features an above average number of good jokes.
That all said, other broadcasters are available, so it would be remiss of us to sign off without drawing your attention to the very best of Iannucci’s non-BBC work, the often overlooked The Armando Iannucci Shows (2001) from Channel 4. Here the sublime and the ridiculous are one and the same.