Iain Dale: Covid-19. There is no good reason why the arts sector should get a billion pound bailout while coach operators do not

2 Oct

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

Like most of you (I hope) I was absolutely appalled by the US Presidential debate on Wednesday. I stayed up to watch it, last I have done for virtually every debate of this kind since I saw Ronald Reagan whip Jimmy Carter’s sorry ass in 1980.

I suppose that I knew what was about to happen but, even so, to see it actually unfurl in front of my eyes was a real shock.

Trump was at his bombastic worst, flailing around in all directions and socking it to Joe Biden from start to finish. He ignored all the rules of the debate and reduced the moderator, Chris Wallace from Fox News, to a jabbering wreck.

All Biden had to do in response was be vaguely coherent and look statesmanlike. He failed on both counts. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, barely able to get a sentence out without stuttering. He repeatedly said ‘here’s the deal’ without actually explaining what the deal was. He lost his cool too often, and insulted Trump in the same childish way that Trump insulted him.

They both made our own political leaders look like giants in comparison. Even Boris Johnson at his blustering worst couldn’t have been as bad as either of these two embarrassments to their nation. And to think that there are two more of these debates to come. Watching them will be like rubbernecking a train crash – one for the whole of America.

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The understandable tension that exists between protecting the nation’s health and reopening the economy has been stark this week.

Whatever decisions the Government takes are bound to be wrong for either side of the extremes of this debate. Taking the ‘right decision at the right time’ is proving to be impossible.

Everyone hailed the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme: it certainly did wonders for the restaurant industry, and probably saved some businesses from going under.

But there’s also little doubt that it gave people a false sense that everything was about to return to normal. Not so. Coronavirus will be with us for many, many months to come. Normality – whatever that is – will not return until a mass vaccinisation programme is launched, and that won’t be until well into 2021.

Until then, everyone will have to adapt the best they can. For some sectors, it will be easier than others. The wedding industry, together with events and exhibitions, get a lot of publicity for the understandable woes they’re going through, but there are plenty of other sectors which don’t get any publicity at all, but are suffering just as badly.

I’ve taken up the cause of coach operators, who are going through some incredibly tough times, especially the smaller, often family-owned businesses. These are perfectly good and viable companies yet, through no fault of their own they are now living on a financial precipice.

These are the companies I hope that the Government will find an innovative way of helping. Banks cannot be relied on to come to their rescue and, while I fully accept that taxpayer subsidies cannot go on for ever, there is no reason that the arts and culture sectors should get a £1.5 billion bailout, when others are getting the sweet sum of diddly squat.

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After a couple of weeks of stories speculating about the Prime Minister’s health, motivation, finances and mojo, it’s been good to see him re-enter the fray this week, and actually looking and acingt the part.

Bluster will always be part of Johnson’s armoury, but he has to learn when it’s appropriate to deploy it and when not. In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, he decided to reduce it to Defcon 4, which was the right thing to do.

His statement to the Commons and press conference were at least part way to rediscovering the Boris of old. Now that the stories have started about the timing of his eventual departure from the job, it will be difficult to stop them.

The crucial factor here is whether he actually enjoys the job, and whether it is what he thought it would be. In any normal era, winning an 80 seat majority would mean you had a cast-iron right to fight the next election. (Of course, in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a 100 seat majority and was out on her ear only three and a half years later.)

Contrary to what some people are writing, Conservative MPs may be a bit whingey and whiny at the moment, but they know that there would be no appetite to turf out a Prime Minister who won an election only nine and a half months ago.

No, if Johnson decides to depart early, it will his decision and his decision alone. The historical precedents suggest that his is unlikely to occur. With the exception of Harold Wilson, no Prime Minister in the last century has left office voluntarily. And before you cite Macmillan and Eden at me, both were forced to resign because of ill health. Blair was forced out by Brown, long before he really wanted to go, too.

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Tomorrow I am speaking (in person, rather than via Zoom) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The audience will be socially distanced and I’m not even sure I’m allowed to do a conventional book signing afterwards. Strange times.

“Relight the economy, return to work and reopen schools”. The message from Sunak that the nation needed to hear.

13 Aug

Yesterday, incredibly troubling figures revealed the extent to which Coronavirus has damaged the UK economy. It has gone into a recession, having suffered its biggest slump on record between April and June. In that quarter, the economy shrank by 20.4 per cent compared with the first three months of the year.

The news, though drastic, should not have come as a huge surprise. Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, there were stark warnings about the economic horrors being stored up – the job losses, the taxes to be paid and the impact on the young, many of whom had already borne the brunt of 2008’s financial crisis.

The trouble was that anyone who relayed concerns about the effects of the measures taken on the economy was liable to be accused of selfishness – “oh, you care about money not lives?”, was very much the verdict delivered on those who spoke out – with lockdown posed as the only moral choice. Overall there seemed to be a mindset of: “We’ll worry about the economy later”. Well, “later” is here.

How do the Conservatives react to the economic news? I rather think Sunak hit the right note when he announced his “three Rs” plan to The Sun. It stands for “relight economy, return to work and re-open schools”. After all, without a vaccine, and the recession here, what else is there to do?

My personal hunch – partly inspired by the large number of pageviews ConserativeHome gets for articles about Sweden – is that this is what the silent majority has been calling for. It wants the Government to be much bolder in speeding up the economic recovery.

Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme has been one welcome initiative. It was used more than 10.5 million times in its first week;. It is a fantastic (albeit expensive) way of helping get things back to some type of normality.

But it’s the public information campaigns that need a rethink, hence why this new one is needed (even if it might not be as catchy). The “stay at home” message was the right one to give in the dark days of the pandemic in this country. With infections, hospitalisations and deaths now all falling, almost the very opposite message, but one equally urgent, should be pressed home.

Some of the messaging needs to be especially targeted at younger generations, many of whom are still scared of this virus, despite themselves being at low risk. This became obvious to me when I went to my gym on Monday night. Even allowing for the steps taken to ensure social distancing, it was almost empty, with about five – at most – exercising.

Before the virus struck, it would have been packed with fit twenty and thirtysomethings, especially on that night. Based on that recent showing, the days of gyms are sadly numbered.

Regulations could be further eased. Some of the measures extended to bars – al fresco dining, for instance – have been great for business. But it has often been remarked that British nightlife is restricted, with closing times being much too early. On a recent trip to Soho I noticed everything closing up while the streets were still full of young people wanting to continue the night. It seemed a waste of economic opportunity.

Lastly, there’s the art sector. Sadler’s Well is one of the greatest venues for dance in the world. This week it sadly announced that around 26 per cent of its staff are facing redundancy. As my mother, a huge fan of Sadler’s Wells, pointed out – what will there be to return to if the pandemic has this effect on great theatres such as this one? Unfortunately the newspapers seem more intent on fearmongering about second waves rather than demanding to know why these venues in this country cannot now reopen as long as sensible precautions are taken.

In saying all this, I do not believe the Government acted incorrectly in March in imposing lockdown. It acted on the information available and the advice given to it. Lockdown seemed the right choice back then. But times and risks change. Granted the Government has eased lockdown, but it should now be even bolder in the steps it takes to get life back to normal, which is why it’s so refreshing to hear Sunak’s message.

However, the first test being the opening of schools. If we cannot resume things for children who are the least at any risk from this virus, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Now that people have the economic reality staring them in the face, they know there are tough choices to be made. And that doesn’t mean deciding whether to prioritise bars or schools in the reopening of the country; it means trying to get much more of society back out again, even if things cannot be risk free. After all, we cannot stay home forever.

Darren Grimes: Today, it’s Conservatives who are the real rebels – against woke conformity and the cancel culture

15 Jul

Darren Grimes is a political commentator and is content creator at Reasoned UK.

I’m often emailed by very kind folk who think I am acting bravely. I’ve always questioned this; after all, I am merely offering my opinions. But what they’re getting at is that ordinary conservatives are told their ideas and values are reactionary, prejudiced, sexist or racist, and to stand up against the trend, for the views of the common sense majority, is now considered brave to do.

Some might be wondering how on earth we conservatives can possibly be the rebels, when the Conservative Party recently won a Commons majority of 80, the party’s largest since 1987? It may also seem odd to describe conservatism as rebellious when rebels, by definition, want change, and conservatives seek to conserve.

But while self-described conservative political parties across the West win elections, they are losing the institutions that act as the scaffold of our culture. Consider the Left’s dominance of our media; social media giants playing the role of custodians of an openly left-wing environment, and the boardrooms of corporations seeking affirmation from those media and cultural gatekeepers – always a good demonstration of their enlightened values at dinner parties and Davos drinks receptions.

The reason why conservatism is rebellious today is that the dominant cultural view is one that seeks to uproot our past, and what we stand for – making it revolutionary to stand against this view. In this culture war propagated by our generously funded universities and the BBC, it’s clear that the Left’s online battalion of outrage mobs and cancellation notices are aimed squarely at those who dare argue against it.

There’s also a world of difference in small-c conservatism and the big C Conservative Party. The Left is winning, despite being formally out power; in education, the arts, among the regulators and within all of their powerful functions over everyday life, because our politicians seem more concerned with looking good to Twitter over actually being good.

It is perhaps understandable; it takes real guts to put your head above the political parapet – the most high profile curreny example is being J.K. Rowling with her defence of sex-segregated spaces and biological truth.

According to Populus, approximately two-thirds of British people thought that a male-born person, with a penis, who self-identifies as a woman, should not be allowed to use female-only changing rooms. For suggesting that this view is justifable, Rowling is dismissed by those that her work made stars of as “rather conservative”. So even what can be read as moderate conservatism is enough to warrant Rowling’s cancellation. A school has since dropped its plans to name one of its houses after her after the online furore.

For ordinary folk, to be conservative requires balls of steel. No platforming is a regular occurrence in our supposedly world-class universities: I have been contacted by students who report that it is almost impossible for some societies to secure venue bookings to host democratically elected MPs with centre-right views.

Imagine that. Those who represent our country are now not able to engage in discussion with our nation’s young. The invitation will be issued, accepted, a venue secured – and then, like clockwork, left-wing students will apply pressure to the university societies and diversity teams to work their no-platforming magic.

Is all lost for Britain’s young? Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck University, presents limited data that shows that Britain’s youngest voters, the Zoomers, seem to be diverging from voters aged between 22 and 39. He posited the idea that the chilling effect of political correctness could explain why the ‘Jordan Peterson generation’ is quite so conservative. However, the issues a warning: “The Conservatives are going to have to do a lot more to reverse the leftward drift of the culture if they hope to remain competitive in a generation’s time.”

In a brilliant interview last weekend, Ricky Gervais depressingly argued that The Office wouldn’t get the green light in today’s climate. He made the case that free speech protects everyone, and explained that the evolving definition of what constitutes hate speech is detrimental to society, when our speech is already policed via libel, slander, watershed, advertising and criminal laws.  And he delivered the wonderfully pithy line: “If you’re mildly conservative [on Twitter], you’re Hitler!” If only our Conservative politicians could defend our values in such a robust fashion.

If we look at reforms since 2010, with Tory-led or Conservative majority governments, there’s precious little in the way of public appointments or reforms that show the Conservative Party’s ideological commitment in this area. Remember what happened to the late and great Roger Scruton? But with or without the big C party, there is much we can all do.

Online cancel culture depends on social anxiety and fear, which creates this atmosphere of self-censorship for what are ordinary and widely-held views. Under-represented voices in the mainstream media, arts and academia agree with you, your politics and your value system. The more of us that come out of the closet – the political one – the more tolerant and reflective our culture will become. Producing better quality discourse and a more rigorous discussion of ideas.

Those with genuinely sexist, racist or homophobic views are, rightly, called out for being so today. But so are those unfairly accused of being so by those that disagree with them. We may have moved on from the Middle Ages: it is not the man who is executed anymore, but his character on Twitter. Free discussion is being shut down. Activists must be reminded that how you challenge uncomfortable views is, as is evidenced throughout history, through more speech, not less. We must be opening up, not shutting down, avenues to discussion and debate.

Our ancestors were much braver than we are today.  But all is not yet lost, come out and join the reasoned fightback against this madness.

The arts bailout: a reminder not to underestimate Dowden

6 Jul

In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.

Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.

With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.

Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.

The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.

There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.

Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business.