Sarah Ingham: Why does Britain discourage genital mutilation in Africa but endorse it via the NHS here?

27 May

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

With the Covid pandemic and now Monkey Pox stalking the land, ‘going viral’ has taken a bit of a hit.

Until early 2020, it was a handy way of describing how each and every new product, social norm or idea catches on. It can be anything: Buddhism, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, climate change, the mini skirt, the military covenant.

This random process of social contagion was generally of interest only to social scientists until The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell was published two decades ago. Becoming a global bestseller, the book itself reached a tipping point itself – ‘that magic moment when ideas, trends and social behaviours cross a threshold, tip and spread like wildfire.’

The Tipping Point came out in 2000, a few years after the internet took off, but long before Facebook, the i-phone or Instagram allowed crazes, fashions, fads and trends to sweep through society ever-faster.

On Monday at Westminster Hall, MPs debated the lack of legal recognition given to non-binary gender identities. The debate was the result of an online petition which gained 140,000 signatures.

Those taking part were clearly mindful of the sensitivities around subject, dialling down the rhetoric and party politicking. As Annaliese Dodds, Shadow Minister for Labour and Equalities, stated: “The key value for Labour in considering these issues is that of respect. The issues of sex and gender are highly emotive for understandable reasons”.

So highly emotive is the trans and non-binary issue that many in the Labour Party can’t bring themselves to define a woman [adult human female], eh? So highly emotive that MPs from all parties have repeated claims made by lobbyists that there are 500,000 identifying as trans and non-binary in Britain? Pointing this out would inevitably have led to tut-tutting over ‘tone’ on Monday afternoon.

Policymakers’ recent relentless appeasement of trans and non-binary ideologues – ‘trans women are women’, a denial of biological reality BTW – risks alienating millions of women voters, sports and safe spaces for whom have blithely been sacrificed. It could be considered almost comically short-sighted by MPs, if only children’s health and well-being were not also being jeopardised.

There has been an explosion in the number of under-18s identifying as trans and non-binary, with children referred to gender clinics increasing 17-fold between 2010-11 and 2020-21. According to GIDS, the Gender Identity Development Service based at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, twice as many girls as boys were referred. In addition, the peak age for these girls seeking was between the ages of 13 and 16. There is separate evidence that many of them are on the autism spectrum.

Schools have become battlegrounds where the culture wars are played out. While the spotlight in recent years has been on universities, Britain’s classrooms have received far less attention. A tougher focus on political impartiality in schools is being demanded by Don’t Divide Us, the campaign group which has a number of concerns, including the surge in the teaching of Critical Race Theory.

Groups on either side of the trans debate are keen to get their message into schools. Transgender Trend calls for evidence-based healthcare for children suffering from gender dysphoria. Its guidance pack for schools is described by LBGTQ+ advocates Stonewall, which produces its own lesson packs, as ‘a deeply damaging document, packed with factually incorrect information’ and ‘dangerous’.

Dangerous, surely, are medical interventions which give children not only the mistaken hope that they can change their sex, but that once they do all their problems will be magicked away. This can culminate in gender reassignment surgery once they are 18. Why does Britain discourage genital mutilation in Africa but endorse it via the NHS here?

We would castigate Big Pharma for drug trials on young people in the developing world, but have no problem with British children as young as 12 being prescribed puberty blockers, the long-term impact of which is imperfectly understood. If breast-flattening in Cameroon is perceived as violence against women, why is adolescent girls’ breast-binding endorsed by the Scottish government?

“In certain areas of the country, clusters of school children are saying they are non-binary or trans … Why it is more prevalent in some areas than in others?” In Monday’s debate, Nick Fletcher, the MP for Don Valley, raised a question that few others have dared to ask.

In 2018,  Dr Lisa Littman, an American academic, was denounced for her work on what she termed ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria’: interviewing parents, it emerged that peer group influence could be a factor, where ‘one, multiple or even all of their friends have become gender dysphoric or transgender-identified during the same timeframe.’

Last week, Bill Maher, the US talk show host, last week questioned why there are so many trans teens in California but not in Ohio, unleashing a torrent of comment on social media, with many pointing out that liberal CA is far more accepting of diversity.

It would be curious if transgenderism turned out to be one aspect of life that is immune from social contagion. While short-lived mass enthusiasm for Pokémon or Peloton workouts are benign, other outbreaks can be far darker, reflected by, for example, the spate of suicides among young people in the Bridgend area around 2008.

In February, Nadhim Zahawi issued new guidelines for political impartiality within schools. In March, Stonewall issued Creating an LBGTQ+ Inclusive Primary Curriculum which ‘helps to embed your inclusion work into every area of the curriculum’, by for example using LBGT-inclusive statistics in maths.

Sponsored by Pearson, it is also funded by the government’s Equalities Office. The Jesuits were mindful of the young children’s impressionable nature: it must be questioned whether today they would be given such licence to influence our primary schools.

Trans advocates are often quick to seek to close down any debate around the issue by invoking ‘hate’ and ‘transphobia’, evincing the sort of intolerance which they seek to outlaw. However, those organisations wishing the taxpaying public to keep quiet and do nothing but acquiesce to their agenda should not be taking public money.

Profile: J.K. Rowling, striving to stop Starmer nailing his colours to the fence on trans

16 Mar

When J.K. Rowling was 14 years old, she heard about Jessica Mitford, who “had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War”, and “charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her”.

By Rowling’s account, “It was the camera that captivated me.” Mitford the upper-class Communist became her heroine, and many years later, in 2006, she reviewed Decca: the Letters of Jessica Mitford, for The Daily Telegraph.

The idol of a 14-year-old cannot always withstand the mature and sceptical gaze of a 41-year-old, as Rowling by then was. But in this case there was nothing to worry about:

“Decca’s letters sing with the qualities that first made her so attractive to me. Incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target.”

People who have not been following Rowling’s battle against Sir Keir Starmer and other Labour politicians on the vexed question of trans rights might suppose this to be a case of a famous author who dabbles for a day or two in Twitter without understanding what she is getting herself into.

Such a view would be gravely to underestimate Rowling. Like Mitford, she likes nothing better than a good fight. She has been deliberately, not accidentally, provocative, for she enjoys danger and is convinced of the justice of her cause.

At the end of last week, Sir Keir visited British troops in Estonia. While there, The Times reported, he said that “trans women are women”, and when asked to define a woman, replied:

“A woman is a female adult, and in addition to that trans women are women, and that is not just my view — that is actually the law. It has been the law through the combined effects of the 2004 [Gender Recognition] Act and the 2010 [Equality] Act. So that’s my view. It also happens to be the law in the United Kingdom.”

This provoked a series of furious tweets from Rowllng:

I don’t think our politicians have the slightest idea how much anger is building among women from all walks of life at the attempts to threaten and intimidate them out of speaking publicly about their own rights, their own bodies and their own lives. 1/3

Among the thousands of letters and emails I’ve received are disillusioned members of Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems and the SNP. Women are scared, outraged and angry at the deaf ear turned to their well-founded concerns. But women are organising. 2/3

Now @Keir_Starmer publicly misrepresents equalities law, in yet another indication that the Labour Party can no longer be counted on to defend women’s rights. But I repeat: women are organising across party lines, and their resolve and their anger are growing. 3/3

Rowling speaks as a woman of the Left. She is a friend of Sarah and Gordon Brown, and gave the Labour Party a million pounds when he was leader.

Nobody could accuse her of being pro-Tory. Harry Potter, her most famous creation, spends his holidays being persecuted by the ghastly Dursley family, who live in Privet Drive and read The Daily Mail.

She has said that in 1994-95 – when as an impoverished single mother, having fled with her daughter, Jessica (named after Mitford) from her short and abusive first marriage, she was writing her first Potter book – it was Labour’s proposals for lifting single parents out of poverty which appealed to her, and Tory moralising about marriage which disgusted her.

Before the 2010 general election she wrote a piece for The Times in which she said that since becoming rich, as she did soon after her first book was published in 1997, she had not changed her mind. She still could not stand the Tories.

During the Barnard Castle affair in May 2020, when Boris Johnson stuck by his adviser Dominic Cummings, the official Civil Service Twitter account published a tweet which described the Government as “Arrogant and offensive”, and asked: “Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”

Rowling wished to know the name of the official who had posted this rapidly suppressed tweet, so she could pay him or her a year’s salary. She denounced Cummings’ “indefensible hypocrisy” and described Johnson’s behaviour as “despicable”.

While the trans row is not at the front of the public’s mind, it poses a mortal danger for Labour, opposing as it does two groups which believe themselves to be in exclusive possession of the truth, while their opponents are plunged in unforgiveable error.

Trans activists maintain that men who know themselves to be women should be able on their own authority to declare themselves women. They are inclined to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being transphobic, an offence placed on a level with racism, i.e. unforgiveable.

Rowling and co hold that sex is a biological given, and say it would be intolerable to allow access to women-only spaces to men who claim to be women. Many traditional feminists are outraged that their hard-won women-only spaces might be invaded in this way.

The majority of public figures, confronted by such a contentious issue, where one is liable to be denounced in bitter terms if one adopts a clear position, try to keep their heads down. (So too many commentators. Here is a ConHome interview with James KIrkup, one of the few journalists to have followed the story.)

No less a figure than Tony Blair has warned, “Keeping your head down is not a strategy.” He went on to say:

“On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour Party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions. A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan or J.K. Rowling is not going to win.”

Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary and one of Labour’s most experienced frontbenchers, nevertheless sought, the other day, to keep her head down, saying when asked to define a woman:

“I think people get themselves down rabbit holes on this one… I’m not going to get into rabbit holes on this… As you can see I’m avoiding going down rabbit holes because I just think this is pointless.”

If Cooper’s view had prevailed, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would never have been written.

Such evasiveness infuriates Rowling. On Tuesday 8th March, International Women’s Day, Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, was asked on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 to define a woman, and said:

“There are different definitions legally around what a woman actually is . . . you’ve got the biological definition, legal definition, all kinds of things.”

Pressed for Labour’s definition of a woman, Dodds replied:

“I think it does depend what the context is, surely. You know, there are people who have decided that they have to make that transition. Because they live as a woman, they want to be defined as a woman.”

Rowling tweeted:

“Someone please send the shadow minister for equalities a dictionary and a backbone.”

She also tweeted a picture of Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP who agrees with her on the trans issue, and provided the caption for it:

“This is what a woman who owns a dictionary and a backbone looks like.”

And as it was International Women’s Day, she tweeted:

“Apparently, under a Labour government, today will become We Who Must Not Be Named Day.”

My literary adviser (I have not read the Potter books) points out that Voldemort, the villain, is most often referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Rowling has 13.9 million followers on Twitter, Sir Keir 1.2 million and Dodds 73.3K. Of the three, Rowling is undoubtedly the most entertaining.

For she is not just an avoider of questions or a creator of soundbites. She is prolific and audacious. Some authors, having sold 500 million copies of their most famous series and seen it translated into 70 languages, might be tempted to rest on their laurels.

Rowling would be bored to death by such a life. Rather than emigrate to some sunny tax exile in order to preserve as much of her fortune as possible, she married a Scottish doctor, bought a house outside Perth, had two more children, went on writing books, and set up charities devoted to such causes as multiple sclerosis (from which her mother died), social deprivation and orphanages in Ukraine.

In June 2020 she wrote a piece about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues, in which she said of her decision to support Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who had lost her job for what were deemed “transphobic” tweets:

“I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.

“What I didn’t expect in the aftermath of my cancellation was the avalanche of emails and letters that came showering down upon me, the overwhelming majority of which were positive, grateful and supportive. They came from a cross-section of kind, empathetic and intelligent people, some of them working in fields dealing with gender dysphoria and trans people, who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.”

Rowling was born in Gloucestershire in 1965. Her parents had been in the Royal Navy, and were both 19 when she was born. This was not a gilded, Mitford world, but the house was full of books. She went to Wyedean comprehensive school, where she was head girl, and from there to Exeter University, where she read French, which included a year in Paris.

She always wanted to be a writer, but like most people with that ambition, doubted whether it would be possible. After various unsuitable jobs, such as bilingual secretary, she found the first Harrry Potter story taking shape in her mind on a train journey.

There is a directness in Rowling’s manner which is found in few politicians. She goes for things, and on the trans question she has gone for the whole lily-livered Labour leadership.

If and when she gets them to stop nailing their colours to the fence, she will have done them a service.

Iain Dale: Perhaps one day I’ll get involved in an election again. In the meantime, here are my predictions for Super Thursday’s results…

7 May

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

This is the first time for some years that I haven’t been able to host a live election night show on LBC. Because of Covid, many local authorities decided they wouldn’t count overnight. And since I don’t have a show on Friday or at the weekends, I feel as if I’m being silenced!

Like most of you, I suspect, I love elections. I well remember my first election day back in 1983 in Norwich. I was designated to be a teller and work in the Committee Room. I’ve always loved lists and can remember the thrill of crossing off all the people who had voted on the electoral roll boards.

Sitting outside the polling station was great fun, and was probably the thing I loved doing most. I enjoyed the banter with the tellers from the other parties and with people who were voting. The winks, the furtive smiles. Or growls. I’d have happily done it all day.

And then I remember when I was a candidate in various local elections, and then a general election, touring the polling stations and talking to the election officials. This was quite a challenge in North Norfolk in 2005, where there were, if I recall correctly, more than 100 polling stations.

Still, it kept me out of mischief on polling day, and took my mind off the disaster I knew was ahead of me at the count! The last time I was involved in an election day as a party activist was in 2009. I can hardly believe it was so long ago. Since then I’ve always been on the radio, or preparing for an overnight show. But I’ll always remember the thrill I got out of being involved. And who knows, one day I may be again.

– – – – – – – – – –

Second preferences are a weird thing. You’re voting for a candidate or a party you really don’t want to win, but they’re the least-worst option. By definition it’s a negative vote. In the PCC election I’m afraid I just could bring myself to tick a box at all.

– – – – – – – – – –

“You’ve broken the law, Iain,” said a Twitter follower. He had heard my For the Many podcast in which I revealed how I had voted (by post) in the local elections, both in Norfolk and Kent. “You can’t vote twice,” he maintained.

Luckily I know my electoral law better than he did. If you have properties in two different council areas you are, indeed, entitled to cast your vote in each of them in local elections. However, that does not apply in general elections. I patiently explained this to him.

His reply was amusing. “So you’re telling me I’ve missed out on voting twice for the 17 years I’ve had a second home?” Yup, I said. “Bugger,” he replied.

– – – – – – – – – –

So here are my predictions for the results of the various elections…

Scotland: SNP to get a majority of seats. Conservatives remain the main opposition. Greens gain an extra one or two MSPs. Alex Salmond is elected with one or two others.

Wales: Conservatives add seats, but Labour remains largest party. Plaid gain a few seats. Lib Dems disappear completely. Mark Drakeford to lose his seat.

London: Sadiq Khan walks it. Shaun Bailey gets 25-30 per cent of first preferences. Greens get around 10 per cent.

West Midlands: Andy Street wins.

Hartlepool by-election: Conservatives to take it.

English County & District Councils: Lib Dems do better in these than any of the other elections. Labour lose seats, Conservatives gains. Greens add to their seat count too. Minor parties squeezed.

– – – – – – – – – –

Jacqui Smith and I will be recording an Election Special For the Many podcast for release on Monday morning, analysing all the results.

Whatever they bring, there is bound to be a new bout of reshuffle speculation. However, if the results turn out as I predict above, if I were the PM I’d be tempted to leave any reshuffle until a bit later in the year – either before the summer recess or in the autumn.

The same is not true for Keir Starmer, though. Having had an impressive first eight months as leader of the Labour Party, 2021 has so far proved to be disastrous.

To be fair, it’s not all down to him, as few of his shadow cabinet have managed to cut through at all. Anneliese Dodds is copping a lot of criticism, but to be fair to her, she’s not alone in failing to make much of a mark. The consensus among pundits is he needs to bring Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn into his top team. But what if they don’t wish to return?

Cooper seems to enjoy chairing her select committee and Benn may well feel he’s done his bit. Do a search among other Labour MPs who have a bit of experience, and they’re pretty thin on the ground. Starmer’s position at the moment is far from enviable.

Iain Dale: Ofcom was right to revoke the license of CGTN. It shouldn’t stop there, though.

5 Feb

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Keir Starmer hasn’t had a good week.

He had to apologise for saying at PMQs that he had never argued we should remain within the orbit of the European Medicines Agency.

Footage then emerged of him saying he would like to abolish the monarchy.

Then The Guardian got hold of a leaked strategy report which suggested Labour should wrap itself in the Union flag, Starmer should get off the fence and the party’s spokespeople should dress more smartly.

And then Wednesday was rounded off with an opinion poll showing a Tory lead of seven points.

Oh, and I forgot Stephen Bush’s excoriating article for The New Statesman in which he courageously reckoned that there are plenty of people doubting if the Labour leader was up to it.

I’ve written before that I thought Starmer had a very good first few months as Labour leader.

He inherited the job right at the beginning of the first lockdown, but made a good fist of leading his party out of the darkness of the Corbyn era.

He looked the part, supported the Government when necessary and put in some sharp Commons performances, especially at PMQs.

He assembled a team, which initially looked as if it could take the fight to the Government.

However, since Christmas he seems to have lost his way.

There are growing rumblings that he’s not “opposing” enough and appears too wishy-washy.

His reputation as “Captain Hindsight” has been placed firmly in the minds of the voter, and his front bench team appears unable to do anything except accuse the Government of doing “too little, too late” or remain in a state of “perma outrage”.

Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor is a good example of this.

A transparently nice woman, she seems unable to articulate a Labour vision of how Labour would handle things better except to say she’d spend more money than the Conservatives and do it quicker.

My For the Many podcast colleague Jacqui Smith maintains Dodds is doing a lot behind the scenes to develop policy.

Well, maybe that’s the case, but in terms of putting over the Labour case on the airwaves, both she and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet need to up their game.

I wonder if a reshuffle might be on the way, in which some of the missing big beasts of the Labour jungle might be brought in, like Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper.

– – – – – – – – –

Talking of the Conservatives’ seven-point lead…

I wonder how much of this is due to a “vaccine bounce”. People have very short memories.

Assuming the vaccine rollout continues to go well, it may well be that it’s this which sticks in the minds of voters rather than the handling of the PPE, care home and schools fiascos.

Johnson can but hope.

– – – – – – – – –

I write this a few minutes after learning that Ofcom has revoked the license of the Chinese broadcaster CGTN.

I’ve no idea why it took it so long.

Each time I have dipped into CGTN – and admittedly it’s only been on a few occasions – what I have noticed is that is a heady mix of perfectly well reported stories interspersed with utter propaganda, disguised as reputable journalism.

It has clearly modelled itself on RT, the Kremlin-funded channel.

CGTN even hired former Ofcom board member and head of Sky News Nick Pollard to make sure it stayed just within the boundaries of acceptability, but he eventually saw the light and resigned over its coverage of the Hong Kong protests last year.

Quite how any British journalist had the front to take jobs with CGTN (or RT for that matter) is obviously something they will have to answer for in any future job interviews.

Were I ever in a position to be hiring anyone, I would just throw their CVs in the bin. I hope GB News and the new News UK station will bear this in mind, given that they’re both hiring presenters and producers at the moment.

Ofcom should not stop with CGTN, though. Quite how they have allowed RT to continue broadcasting its propaganda on the Sky platform is anyone’s guess. I hope they’re next to feel the iron fist of the Ofcom banning unit.

Ryan Bourne: A reassuringly conservative speech from Starmer’s Shadow Chancellor. The Tories will need to up their game.

20 Jan

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Just in case the Conservatives hadn’t got the message: Labour under Keir Starmer is a very different beast to the party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Dueing the past fortnight, the Labour leader has parked his tanks on conservative lawns, talking first of Labour as “the party of the family,” then setting out a foreign policy vision of the UK as a “bridge between the U.S. and Europe.” Annelise Dodd’s Mais Lecture on economics was perhaps more striking still in the break of tone and type of criticisms made of Conservative policy compared with the last leadership.

Gone were the unhinged attacks on “neoliberalism” that characterised Corbynite bloviating. The fault-finding was specific and targeted. Dodds acknowledged the difficulties any government would face in a pandemic. Her surgical critique was that the UK’s Covid-19 outcomes were worsened by government foot-dragging on tightening lockdown restrictions, and Treasury attempts to fine-tune the balance between economic and public health.

Specifically, she claimed that its mixed-messaging on financial support to businesses, first delivering it and then threatening to withdraw it based on firms’ “viability,” created needless uncertainty. With the vaccines hopefully soon ending the pandemic, she argued that supporting firms until reopening was now more prudent than letting the chips fall when furlough ends in Spring. On the balance of costs and benefits, most economists would probably now agree.

There was little Corbyn-like wailing about past “austerity” either. Dodds’ criticisms of the last decade of government fiscal policy were restrained, and more plausible for it. She claimed that some spending cuts may have adversely impacted the pandemic response; that 16 fiscal targets coming and going since 2010 has created instability; that there should be more focus on the long-term public finances rather than the short-term; and that rapid deficit reduction coming out of the pandemic (including tax hikes, as Rishi Sunak reportedly wants) would be economically destructive. All these criticisms, individually, would not be surprising in ConservativeHome op-eds.

Yes, Labour still wants a bigger state than the Conservatives. Yet unlike many on the Left, Dodds appears under no illusions that running up debt is riskless or a free-lunch. “…it would be an irresponsible economic policymaker who planned on the assumption that low interest rates will continue indefinitely,” she said, while musing about a longer-term inflation risk. Her new “fiscal framework,” focused on planning to balance day-to-day spending and tax revenue, would be based on the recommendations of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Now none of this is particularly exciting. The speech was littered with boilerplate progressive assertions and the usual touching faith in the power of government. But it’s telling that Dodds actively shirked the opportunity to announce some glitzy new retail offer to grab newspaper headlines. There was no promise even of a Labour government “creating” high-wage jobs, or “transforming” the economy.

Instead, the speech was quintessentially small-c conservative. Labour, we were told, would protect the independence of the Bank of England, be “responsible” with the public finances, embrace free trade, protect businesses from Covid failure, focus policy on thorny structural problems rather than chasing day-to-day media coverage, and deliver “value for public money” from government spending.

Indeed, peer through the mundane parts of the speech, and you see a rhetorical critique of the current government that wouldn’t have looked out of place coming from Conservatives a decade ago. Dodds’ subtle message was that government decisions on infrastructure and procurement contracts were often determined more by short-term, pork-barrel political considerations than sound economic judgment, bringing with them at least a whiff of crony capitalism.

The speech highlighted waste and mismanagement through Covid-19, for example, including on the test-and-trace programme and the purchase of faulty antibody tests. Any errors are more forgivable in a pandemic when there were potentially huge returns on such investments and time is of the essence.

But those types of criticisms will likely amplify with Conservatives’ newfound penchant for large regional infrastructure projects (prone to massive cost overruns) and place-based revival packages (prone to political cronyism). Again, the argument that Conservative economic decisions are politically-motivated and wasteful is a very different attack than the more ideological opposition from Corbyn and McDonnell.

None of this is to say that all of Dodds’ analysis is coherent or correct. The theme of the speech was “resilience” – that is, how the pandemic shows the need for an economy robust to future shocks. Mercifully, Labour has not jumped on the bandwagon of saying the pandemic proves we need the government to actively re-shore a whole bunch of medical manufacturing production—the braindead, yet widespread “fight the last war” recommendation of those unable to conceive of shocks originating here. Yet there was still a bit of a “this crisis proves much of what I’ve always believed to be true” about her analysis.

Dodds suggested, for example, that a lack of savings among the poor, job insecurity among gig economy workers, and “socio-economic inequality” all help explain Britain’s poor Covid-19 outcomes. Perhaps on the margins those factors did make things worse. But the overwhelming reason why the UK has performed badly so far relative to countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand, is surely little to do with the labour market or macroeconomic policy, and almost entirely explained, to the extent that policy can actually explain things, by public health decisions at various times.

It is within Labour’s comfort zone to say reducing inequality and strengthening workers’ rights would have mitigated the costs of this pandemic. It would have been braver for them to expose failures in government bodies: say, Public Health England, whose centralisation of testing proved a disaster; or the NHS, with its systemic rationing reducing the incentive for spare capacity; or government scientists, who downplayed the early need for tough measures and told people mask wearing was unnecessary. If they really want “resilience,” they would surely explore the future case for deregulation in medical innovation. Earlier human challenge vaccine trials, for example, could have sped up delivery or a working vaccine, negating much of the last year’s pain.

Such a broad evaluation was perhaps always too much to hope for. But this speech proved that Labour is developing a more refined critique of the Conservatives. This is not the sort of emotional “blood on their hands” or anti-capitalist screeching we saw from Corbyn’s Labour.

Instead it is a crisp focus on the need for decisiveness, competence, and propriety in delivering effective government. The upgrade in opposition may well, in time, sharpen government decision-making. But a party with half-baked plans to rebalance the economy through massive infrastructure projects and shifting around government departments, led by a Prime Minister known for making late calls, may find such criticisms difficult to shake off.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: The Chancellor brings a mysterious poetry to his numbers

25 Nov

“Numbers alone can ring hollow,” Rishi Sunak said at the end of his statement. But in his mouth, numbers did not ring hollow.

He brought a mysterious poetry to these figures. We are borrowing and spending far more than we can afford, or expected only a few months ago, and have also suffered “the largest fall in output for over 300 years”.

The Chancellor avowed that the debt we are accumulating is “clearly unsustainable over the medium term”.

And yet his transcendent lucidity and preternatural calm made the whole situation seem sustainable, the recovery just a matter of remaining as clear-headed and unflustered as Sunak.

Many Chancellors sound bored by the figures they read out to the House, or at least make those figures sound boring to the less numerate Members of Parliament.

Sunak somehow conveyed his love of spreadsheets in a way that Philip Hammond, his predecessor but one, never managed to do. There was a music of the spheres in all those noughts.

Lord Chesterfield said that Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister from 1721-42, when addressing MPs was

“So clear in stating the most intricate matters, especially in the finances, that while he was speaking the most ignorant thought that they understood what they really did not.”

Sunak has the same gift. And just as Walpole was trusted to clear up after the South Sea Bubble of 1720, so Sunak is trusted, at least for now, to clear up after the pandemic.

His lustrous black hair contains more streaks of grey than it did when he started in February, but otherwise he seems unaffected by the burden he bears.

In a level tone he announced “a new Levelling Up Fund worth £4 billion” from which any local area will be allowed to bid for projects which will have a noticeable impact and be “delivered within this Parliament”.

Sunak does not wish those Labour voters who turned Conservative last December to feel in 2024 that the Chancellor has let them down.

Nor does he wish anyone to suppose he is an unfeeling technocrat, who thinks only the figures matter. He ended by saying that the spending he had announced was “secondary to the courage, wisdom, kindness and creativity it unleashes”.

We are united in a moral mission, “a common endeavour”. Anneliese Dodds, replying for the Labour Party, was left with nothing much to say, and could not be blamed for that. She is a great improvement on her predecessor, but could not spoil Sunak’s day.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: There is a place not just for smiles but for Samuel Smiles in the Chancellor’s vision

8 Jul

Rishi Sunak belongs in a Spy cartoon. He should be drawn in profile, thin, alert, dark-haired, immaculate in a sombre suit and white shirt, leaning forward slightly at the Dispatch Box, like a batsman about to play an elegant cover drive.

Behind the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the end of the Treasury Bench, sat his captain, Boris Johnson, round, rumpled, genial, his own knockabout innings at PMQs just over, now content to watch his star player make some runs.

The Speaker, or umpire, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, decreed a three-minute pause between the end of PMQs and the start of Sunak’s statement, so the House could rearrange itself while obeying the laws of social distancing.

The Prime Minister held good-natured exchanges with passing backbenchers, a smile put on the face of each of his fielders, a smile on his face too. One felt one was watching a team who enjoy doing things together: an impression the media would consider it unprofessional to convey, for there the talk is always of splits, and Sunak is seldom mentioned without the suggestion that he will soon take Johnson’s job.

The Chancellor began by announcing that the Government is “unencumbered by dogma”, and motivated by “the simple desire to do what is right”.

The Prime Minister looked on with approval. He has a dog, but will never allow himself to become encumbered by dogma.

Sunak said that to extend the furlough scheme indefinitely would be “irresponsible”, for it would “give people false hope”. He instead announced “the kickstart scheme”, which will provide traineeships for “kickstarters”, defined as 16 to 24-year-olds at risk of long-term unemployment.

One can kick start a motorcycle, but whether the same applies to 16 to 24-year-olds at risk of long-term unemployment is not yet clear.

The Chancellor observed that the longer one is out of work, the harder it is to return to work, so he hopes to see “hundreds of thousands of new kickstarters”.

After this, his statement sagged a bit. Versions of the Green Homes Grant have been announced every year for decades.

As if recognising this, Sunak promised that his final measure has never been tried before. Members of the public who go out to eat at a restaurant, cafe or pub in August will be entitled to a discount of 50 per cent off, up to a maximum of £10 per head, including children.

The Prime Minister flushed with pleasure, patted his hand on the back of the Treasury Bench, jigged his knee up and down and nodded enthusiastically.

The Chancellor had put a smile on his captain’s face. Here was a Merry England gimmick, cheering everyone up.

Not that Sunak wanted to get carried away. “I believe in the nobility of work,” he added. There is a place not just for smiles but for Samuel Smiles in the modern Conservative Party.

The Shadow Chancellor, Annaliese Dodds, is a vast improvement on her tricksy, self-satisfied predecessor, John McDonnell. During her reply, she communicated complete honesty of intention as she reproached the Government for failing to overcome fear of the pandemic, which is what most damages the economy.

According to Dodds, Johnson has claimed the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt because he wants to avoid being compared to FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, whose desk bore the famous sign, “The buck stops here”.

She claimed Johnson’s motto is “The buck stops anywhere but here”.

Here is Labour’s attack on the Prime Minister: that he wriggles out of responsibility for the grievous mistakes made in the official response to the pandemic.

Incidentally, Truman’s desk carried another, less well-known sign, quoting some words of Mark Twain: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”