The strangest questions I’ve been asked while talking to students about my life as an author

Some years ago, on a book tour, I was invited to speak at a community college somewhere in the northern United States. The students at this college were a polite and attentive audience, as they usually are in the United States. At the end of the talk, though, they were invited to ask questions.

Silence ensued, as it often does in such circumstances. The talk had been about being an author and what was entailed in writing books. The class was an English one, and the students were encouraged to write. The topic was therefore relevant to their course and might reasonably be expected to inspire a question or two.

At last a hand went up at the back and a young man broke the silence. “Have you suffered?” he asked, giving the word suffered its full value.

The question took me by surprise and it was a moment or two before I was able to work out why he should have asked this. It had something to do, I thought, with the notion that books come from suffering, and that a relatively trouble-free life is no background for literary composition.

In a sense that is true – many books do come from authorial unhappiness. An equable temperament, accepting of whatever life brings, does not necessarily prompt one to write.

Students at a lecture theatre (ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

The student’s question may, however, have come from somewhere quite different. He might have been so accustomed to the familiar tone of the misery memoir that he assumed that anybody who wrote a book would, by that very fact, be one who has suffered some calamitous misfortune.

He might be forgiven for that impression; there are numerous books today that chronicle unhappy or unresolved lives and the undoubted suffering such backgrounds involve. Perhaps this student thought that I had simply omitted to mention the suffering that I must have experienced in order to be a writer. As the American writer Gore Vidal said of the Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, gore vidal, which apparently means in Russian, “He has seen grief”.

Exiled Russian writer and Nobel prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

As it happened, it proved rather difficult to answer the question. I could not claim the sort of suffering that fuels misery memoirs. Moreover, I belong to a generation that has never had to fight a war and has, by and large, in this country at least, had many advantages. So suffering in that sense was not something of which I could boast.

As to other forms of suffering – the sort of suffering that comes from existential angst – while some may experience that, I never had – not really. So eventually I said, “Frankly, no, I haven’t really suffered.”

He nodded, perhaps that was what he thought all along – that I had not suffered when I should have suffered. Perhaps he concluded that any advice I had given about writing was by that fact rendered nugatory – because who should pay any attention to an author who had not suffered?

The talk over, I was escorted to my car by the principal of the college. As we walked along the corridor, one of the students followed us from the lecture room. Coming abreast of us, she announced that she had had a question that she had not had the opportunity to ask in the lecture theatre. I assured her that I would be happy to answer it now.

Her question was every bit as surprising as the question about suffering, perhaps even more so. “Do you like eating wild mushrooms?” she asked.

“Magic mushrooms” which cause a hallucinogenic effect. (Evert-Jan Daniels/AFP/Getty Images)

I glanced at the principal, who remained inscrutable. I was on my own.

“It depends,” I said. “I’m a bit wary about wild mushrooms.”

That was a truthful answer. You have to be very careful with wild mushrooms.

The young woman smiled. It seemed that she was satisfied with this answer, and so she said goodbye and disappeared back down the corridor. I said nothing to the principal. I felt I had strayed into an absurdist play, something dreamed up by Ionesco or Beckett.

Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989), winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

As I was driven away, I reflected on these two questions, but particularly on the second. What should have possessed that young woman, apparently rational and in a state of sobriety, to ask me, a complete stranger, whether I liked eating wild mushrooms? Was it simply genuine curiosity, or was there some unspoken agenda, perhaps a criticism?

It suddenly occurred to me that she might be talking about magic mushrooms, and I, in my naivety, had not tumbled to that. Was it therefore an invitation, an offer of a chemical experience? But then would such an invitation have been issued in the presence of the principal of the college who might be assumed to take a dim view of magic mushrooms being bandied about on the campus?

I think about that strange visit from time to time. In this life we are occasionally asked questions we cannot answer, or cannot answer in the way perhaps expected of us. Such questions remind us that people sometimes talk to one another in terms that one side of the conversation may not understand. Perhaps that is what afflicts us now.

That is what I think, but I also think I might be missing something about this encounter. But what? Complacency? Perhaps the answer was staring me in the face. Perhaps there was a line or two of Burns that could be the key. O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us!

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YouTube’s next tactical move in the battle for online attention? Embracing philosophy, science and history

While Netflix and Amazon fight out the great streaming war in the battlefield of addictive drama, YouTube is making a tactical move in the unlikely genres of philosophy, science and history.

The Google-owned platform’s strategy is based on its evolution into the modern home of practical education. Part training college, part public library and part in loco parentis, YouTube is increasingly our first port of call for learning new life skills.

YouTube executive Luke Hyams describes the platform as “the biggest video library and resource in the history of civilisation”. It is also a media giant competing in an increasingly crowded video entertainment market.

Whereas rival streaming services throw their budgets at star directors, scriptwriters and acting talent, YouTube’s content focus is on its own “YouTubers’”, the creators and influencers who have used the platform to build channels that attract millions of visitors each day.

Homegrown talent

Hyams, who is head of YouTube Originals for Europe, Middle East and Africa, will look to harness this homegrown talent in making a series of ambitious UK-commissioned shows which he hopes will become global hits.

Netflix is already ramping up its UK-made portfolio, which runs to more than 700 shows. BritBox, a streaming service dedicated to UK content, launches later this year. Hyams describes the UK as “incredibly important”, not least because it has international appeal.

YouTube is partnering with British philosopher Alain de Botton’s educational company The School of Life, the BBC’s science team and the London-based production company Remarkable TV to make a series of YouTube Originals for release from October this year.

The School Of… is inspired by The School of Life’s already popular YouTube channel (it has 4.7 million followers) but will feature prominent YouTubers examining 21st century philosophical issues.

The grime artist Lady Leshurr will seek to answer the question “Is Democracy Dangerous?”, while the opening episode will feature Spanish-born vloggers The Martinez Twins exploring the theme of anxiety, after their own dizzying but traumatic rise to internet fame.

‘Redefining’ education in visual media

YouTube will make its new library free-to-air. (Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)
YouTube will make its new library free-to-air.
(Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)

Hyams says YouTube has an opportunity for “redefining” the intersection of education and visual media, which he says has come a long way from the days of the BBC’s long-running Look and Read and the Open University. “We have found a generation of young people who are really hungry for knowledge but don’t want it in a boring way.”

Virtually History, which debuts in November, is a 40-minute virtual reality film on the fall of the Berlin Wall, aimed primarily at an audience too young to remember an event in 1989 that was era-defining for the MTV generation. Hyams says “the whole idea of a united Europe” and “the dangers of building walls” gives additional contemporary relevance to the film.

He was also taken with Remarkable TV’s innovative use of VR. “It allowed an immersion into the past which is the closest you can get to time travel.”

A third show, The Edge of Science, will premiere on the BBC Earth YouTube channel in December and is an examination of the most “out there” scientific theories and whether they might actually fly. Hyams says that BBC Studios pitched the idea by pointing out that Albert Einstein spent many years as a lowly patents clerk and that his theory of relativity was long regarded as “codswallop”.

Portrait taken in 1950 of German-born Swiss-US physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), author of theory of relativity, awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. (Photo: Getty Images)
Albert Einstein’s struggles will feature in one of the YouTube Originals shows (Photo: Getty)

The film, which will be fronted by Cambridge University scholar and podcaster Rick Edwards and features UK inventor and YouTuber Colin Furze, seems timely with automated cars on the horizon.

It also speaks to Google’s long-held interest in space travel and to YouTube’s track record in influencers exploring science through the medium of photogenic stunts. “If we are trying out these [theories] we need to do so on a scale that feels entertaining,” says Hyams. “Not like we are in a classroom with a couple of Bunsen burners.”


While the streaming war is largely a scramble for subscribers, all of these UK YouTube Originals will be released free-to-air. YouTube needs the films to be talked about and shared widely to enhance the platform’s reputation as a home for professionally made content. “My priority is getting these shows to as big an audience as possible,” says Hyams. But the Originals will also come with a prompt to users to try them in the ad-free, £11.99-a-month environment of YouTube Premium, where they can view entire series from day one and access other UK YouTube Originals, such as The Sidemen Show.

YouTube is in a media struggle but it competes on its own terms in a parallel space to its rivals, defined by its creators. “We [YouTube Originals] are really staying truer to the stuff that works on YouTube,” says Hyams. “If it feels like it could fit in anywhere else, it’s really not for us.”

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Social media is a powerful tool for campaigning so needs to be transparent

Sadly, in public life, “astroturfing” does not mean laying nice new five-a-side football pitches – it means fake community campaigning, mobilising “grass-roots” support for a cause without declaring one’s true interest.

Astroturfing first became notorious in early 90s America, when the tobacco industry used it to resist legislation – but it has reared its ugly head more recently too.

Two years ago PR consultancy Bell Pottinger was caught doing it in South Africa, which ultimately led to the collapse of the agency. Bell Pottinger was outed by opposition party The Democratic Alliance for using more than 100 fake Twitter accounts to stir up racial tension. The campaign distracted attention away from its clients, the billionaire Gupta brothers and their corrupt relationship with then-president Jacob Zuma.

As a result, the British PR industry underwent quite justified soul-searching to ensure that other agencies were ethical and above-board.

Advertising dilemma

Earlier this month, the Guardian published an in-depth investigation into CTF, the communications consultancy run by Sir Lynton Crosby, long-standing adviser to Boris Johnson. It alleged CTF had built unbranded disinformation pages via Facebook for Saudi Arabia and major polluters.

The PRCA, the PR industry body that expelled Bell Pottinger from its ranks in 2017, was quick to condemn any form of astroturfing, although CTF is not a member of the PRCA.

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Social media giants should learn from their mistakes after a shameful start to 2019

Fleishman, however, is the world’s fourth-largest PR agency, and its UK arm has also been at the centre of an astroturfing storm. Manchester City Council alleged last month that Fleishman and its client SMG were behind what appeared to be a grass-roots community leaflet and “Friends of Eastlands” Facebook page whipping up opposition to a proposed new entertainment arena in the Eastlands area. SMG owns the Manchester Arena and does not want a rival second venue in the city. After the Manchester Evening News and PRWeek published the story, Fleishman denied wrongdoing and last week referred itself to the PRCA for investigation.

With social media offering a powerful – and more easily anonymous – channel to campaign for one’s cause, it must be tempting to use less-than-transparent tactics to fight one’s rivals. It is not necessarily illegal, but it is clearly unethical in any open, democratic society.

Danny Rogers is group editor-in-chief of Brand Republic Group

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Succession sneers at real world where modern global media dynasties compete for video subscription revenue

Succession, a compulsive, sometimes horrifying and often hilarious depiction of life inside a modern global media dynasty, has returned for its second series.

The satirical drama stars Dundee-born actor Brian Cox as a US media magnate with Scottish roots and a nest of ambitious offspring jealously fighting over the corporate pecking order. Fans of the show’s writer Jesse Armstrong will recognise the script’s acerbic banter and excruciating interpersonal relationships from his British hits Peep Show and The Thick of It.

Despite Armstrong’s denials, it’s hard not to see the Murdochs as the chief inspiration. But the show’s Logan family is an amalgamation that draws from other dynasties; the Trumps, the Redstones (the power behind Channel 5’s owner Viacom) and the Roberts family (which oversees the Comcast empire).

Succession, made by HBO, is fictional entertainment but it sneers at a real world where kingpins of modern media compete across international territories for video subscription revenue. Sky, which hosts Succession on its Sky Atlantic channel, was itself the subject of an extraordinary arm wrestle for control between Rupert Murdoch’s Fox and Comcast’s Brian Roberts last year. Murdoch’s defeat in that struggle, and his subsequent retreat from the entertainment sector, means that his family is no longer a main player in the streaming wars that will dictate how future generations consume video media.

The cast of Succession
The Roys are said to be inspired by the Murdochs (Photo: HBO)

The extent to which those wars are changing behaviour in British households was revealed in Ofcom’s Media Nations report for 2019, which identified “fundamental shifts in viewing habits”. Half of UK homes pay for streamed video (usually Netflix, which has 11m UK subscribers, or Amazon Prime Video, which has 6m), and 40 per cent of people see streaming as their “main way” of watching TV and film. A nation that has BBC iPlayer for free, pays for 19.1m video subscriptions.

This pattern will only intensify. Firstly, because young viewers are devoted to streaming; the amount of broadcast TV watched by 16-24-year-olds has halved since 2010, from 169 minutes a day to 85 minutes; this group spends longer watching YouTube than television. Secondly, the streaming wars are about to get far more intense.

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With its British wit and clever characters, Succession manages to humanise the super rich

In the autumn, Apple will launch its Apple TV+ service (cost not yet disclosed) and it has 30 original series and films in preparation. On 12 November, the Disney+ service (including the Star Wars and Marvel franchises) launches at $12.99 (£10.69) a month.

Late this year, BritBox, the ITV-led new home for British made content, will debut at a competitive £5.99 a month.

Succession family at the table
Which dynasties are The Roys based on in real life? (Photo: HBO)

Netflix, which recently upped its standard plan to £8.99 a month, is ramping up its British content and has 736 UK titles on offer (up 76 per cent from 2016). BritBox, which will offer nostalgic British archive material as well as original shows, will have seen that Netflix’s most popular show in the UK is Friends, which ended in 2004.

Sky launched its streaming platform NOW TV in 2012 and media analyst Alex DeGroote says this foresight gives it “first mover advantage” in the market. It has welcomed Netflix onto its platform rather than facing it down (seeing its UK competition in telecoms providers BT and Virgin).

‘There are some scary media bosses out there. It’s nice to imagine that us users and our choices still matter’

Ian Burrell

The proliferation of content-thirsty platforms is an opportunity for UK producers. The BBC has hit a rich seam of drama, notably Bodyguard, Killing Eve and Line of Duty. Its shows Luther and Peaky Blinders are highly popular on Netflix. Sky, once criticised for low-rent UK output, now makes quality in-house dramas such as Patrick Melrose and Chernobyl, and has launched Sky Studios with plans to double investment in original productions.

August is the month when we stream the most shows. But just how many drama series can we watch? Ofcom says people with three or more subscriptions watch no more than those with two (107 minutes a day).

Sarah Snook as Shiv Roy in Succession season 2 HBO Sky Atlantic
It looks like Shiv will soon be in the Waystar Royco driving seat (Photo: HBO)

Mihir Haria-Shah, head of broadcast at Total Media, predicts that the explosion in choice could mean that users select a single “base subscription” and become capricious in their other streaming activities. “It will get to a point where people can’t justify parting with any more of their disposable income, they will churn in and churn out when there’s too much choice in the market and subscribe to things only when they want to.”

Steve Miller-Jones, of content delivery service Limelight Networks, suggests the winners of the streaming wars will use machine learning to create a superior user experience, offering levels of interactivity found in e-Sports. “Things like being able to overlay pieces of data about a drama character or a sports team – not as decided by the producer but by the person watching.”

There are some scary media bosses out there. It’s nice to imagine that us users and our choices still matter.

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Why doing absolutely nothing can be brilliant for your mind

When’s the last time you really got away from it all? I wasn’t exactly offline on a visit to Croatia at the weekend, checking emails, posting to Instagram. But I stumbled upon a helpful reminder to unplug.

“We don’t take our coffee standing up like the Italians,” my guide Ivana told me as we strolled past cafes lining the polished pedestrianised streets of Zadar. Nor are takeaway cups a thing – people here like to take their time, sit and savour the moment. Even stranger, I noticed the people we passed weren’t tapping at their phones, or on laptops.

They were just… sitting.

It’s called fjaka, I learn, and it’s loosely translated as the art of doing nothing. Some describe it as a meditation, others as a lethargy, but it’s part of the culture on the Dalmatian coast, their version of the siesta without actually having to go to sleep.

English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) contemplates the force of gravity, as the famous story goes, on seeing an apple fall in his orchard, circa 1665. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I find our gimmicky obsession with borrowing cultural traits tiresome – the Danes find it odd that we have books dedicated to finding “hygge”, or cosiness, and the Japanese custom of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, well, don’t we already have that? We call it, less catchily, “going for a walk in the countryside”.

But fjaka intrigued me. Later, I spoke to Bruno, who guides hikers in Paklenica National Park. “I like to sit here, for half an hour, an hour, and just look,” he said, gesturing to the canyon below. “That’s fjaka.” I can’t remember the last time I sat for even 10 minutes without my fingers itching for my phone, without feeling guilty that I should be doing something, achieving something.

It’s a cultural thing, I suppose. The idea of time wasting is aligned with sinfulness – the devil makes work for idle hands. But others argue that it is only in being idle that we can gain real creativity, let the muse in. And stillness must be a pathway to the divine – look at the daily routines of monks. But modern society has made us anxious and agitated, always on tenterhooks, flight or fight mode always turned to on.

SYDNEY, NSW – NOVEMBER 18: A visitor to the Art Gallery of New South Wales looks at paintings by Camille Pissarro November 18, 2005 in Sydney, Australia. The gallery is about to open an exhibition of Pissarro’s work, drawn from collections all over the world, in the largest comprehensive exhibition of the Impressionists works ever to be held in Australia. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Fjaka is described as an almost weariness, a torpor. It sounds to me like a moment of burnout, a small inoculation of exhaustion, without letting the chronic version engulf you. Tour guide Dino Ivancic, talking to a BBC writer, likens it to stretching out in a hammock, wine within reach, fishing line tied to your toe.

I gave it a shot, sitting overlooking the sea, trying to channel my inner Huck Finn. The balmy breeze helped me slowly settle into a stupor. Still, I felt self-conscious, and had to stop myself from reaching for my phone. But eventually my eyes began to glaze over. For a brief, blissful moment, my mind was blank.

Will I be able to replicate this in a busy London Starbucks? I think I might attract some strange looks. But maybe I’ll take myself to a park at the weekend and sit with my back against a tree, or find a spot by a duckpond. And when I berate myself for wasting time, I’ll remind myself that that’s an achievement in itself.

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Why Boris Johnson won’t be going on national radio or TV anytime soon

When Theresa May resided in 10 Downing Street, her Director of Communications Robbie Gibb found himself accused of BBC bias. Gibb – who had a long career at the corporation prior to joining the government – faced criticism that he had a tendency to give the lion’s share of interviews with the then Prime Minister to the BBC. As the Sky News anchor Adam Boulton put it: ‘May’s largely silent spin doctor, ex BBC suit, thinks only his old employer matters’.

‘Dominic Cummings also appears to feel little in the way of warmth towards the Today show’

Channel 4’s Michael Crick went further: ‘If Number Ten is not careful it could soon look like the BBC has become the state broadcaster’.

However, Crick and Boulton may soon be able to rest easy. With a new Prime Minister instilled in No. 10, the next time you hear complaints about preferential access, expect them to come from the other side.

In this undated handout photo released by Kensington Palace, courtesy of the Obama Foundation, Prince Harry interviews former US President Barack Obama as part of his guest editorship of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. (Photo: The Obama Foundation via Getty Images)

Over the weekend reports emerged (Mail on Sunday) that special advisers have been told to stop putting up ministers to appear on Radio 4’s Today programme. Lee Cain – the No 10 Director of Communications – is said to have told those assembled that Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme is a ‘total waste of time’. He’s not alone. Johnson’s most senior adviser Dominic Cummings also appears to feel little in the way of warmth towards the show – reportedly telling colleagues that he didn’t listen to it once during the EU referendum campaign where he was the campaign director for Vote Leave.

So, is Team Johnson at war with the BBC? It’s certainly the case that this new government is less focussed on the corporation than those who came before it. Visitors to 10 Downing Street report that these days you are more likely to see Sky News on the TV screens. Tellingly, Johnson didn’t go on the Today programme or the Andrew Marr show once during the leadership contest. Instead, his team opted for alternative shows Radio 4’s the World at One and Sky News’s Ridge on Sunday.

Conservative Leadership televised debate on June 18, 2019 in London. (Photo:Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images)

Insiders suggest that the relationship between the BBC and Boris Johnson took a turn for the worse during the Tory leadership contest over the BBC debates. The campaign bumped heads with the BBC political team after they raised doubts about the proposed format of the BBC five person debate chaired by Emily Maitlis. The show went ahead but the end product was described as ‘chaotic’ by critics.

However, rather than a simple allergy to the corporation, the Today comments are part of a wider shake-up when it comes to Boris Johnson’s media strategy. At the Thursday media meeting, government aides were told that their focus ought to be on the evening bulletins rather than morning news.

The BBC news at Six, ITV news at 6.30 and BBC news at 10 are seen as crucial to appealing to the public and reaching out to new voters. A special premium is placed on getting rolling footage of Boris Johnson out and about meeting people across Britain onto the news. Ministers with policy announcements in the grid are still permitted to do a morning round.

There is also a renewed push on regional news. Ministers are to be encouraged to do more regional media – including BBC regional bulletins – and to find ways to make policy announcements more personal to local areas. Another way of reaching out is through the use of social media – as an additional tool – with People’s Prime Minister Questions.

Theresa May takes part in the BBC’s Question Time programme on June 2, 2017 in York. (Photo: Stefan Rousseau – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The reason for the change in tack relates to the audience Team Johnson are focussed on appealing to. Rather than wavering anti-no deal MPs or the Westminster commentariat, it’s the general public they have in their sights. In an election, the Conservatives are looking to win marginal seats in areas that voted heavily to Leave.

‘The focus is the country rather than the Westminster bubble,’ says one party insider. There’s a view that the shows the Westminster commentariat focus on are not the ones that decide elections.

Cummings has long been critical of such shows and how MPs may do them for self-serving reasons. Reflecting on the EU referendum, he was critical of those Eurosceptic MPs who joined the campaign and ‘sort of wanted to win’ but ‘had other priorities’. These priorities included Radio 4: ‘They were very happy to be on the Today Programme. But they didn’t want to win that much.’

Johnson allies also complain that some presenters too harbour a personal prejudice against their man. ‘If they suffer from Boris Johnson Derangement Syndrome, why should he talk to them?’ asks one party loyalist.

Will it work? While diversifying outlets will be a welcome move for many, the Johnson government ought to be careful that they cannot stand accused of the same antics as their predecessors were – just on the other side.

For the time being, however, if you’re looking to hear Boris Johnson’s voice on the radio, listeners would be best advised to turn to their local station.

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Our museums need to return the artefacts they’ve stolen, not just glorify our imperial past

Ferial, an old friend, was in town this weekend. She’s a Ugandan Asian who moved to the USA when we were exiled in 1972. I suggested a visit to the wondrous, new Islamic gallery at the British Museum (BM). She announced she was done with the museum: ‘I just get angry when I go there because they stole from us and our lands.’

She never had such hang-ups before. Her objections reflect the zeitgeist. 

The British Egyptian writer Ahdaf Souief recently resigned from the BM board because BP is a sponsor, and, because the museum studiously passes over inconvenient truths: ‘… born and bred in empire and colonial practice, [the BM] is coming under scrutiny.

‘What you need is will. And that will is sorely lacking in our government and institutions’

Yet it hardly speaks’. Hardly listens either, especially when old colonies kick up. Recently, Olivia Grange, Jamaica’s minister for culture, demanded the return of priceless carvings found in a cave in 1792 and blithely exported to the UK by uncivil imperialists who believed they had a God-given right to use, control, pillage and, oh, ‘civilize’ peoples and nations around the world.

Nigeria also wants back its priceless Benin bronzes taken by thieving Europeans during the 19th century. The most beautiful of these are with the BM and the rest are in France, Germany and USA. 

Jamaica’s Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture, Olivia Grange  (Photo:Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

The V&A also ‘owns’ filched artefacts, including precious items that once belonged to the Ethiopian Emperor and Mughal courts.  According to one art historian I spoke to recently, there are more Indian treasures being shown, bought and sold in Britain than in India. He did not want to be named as he has professional connections with our biggest museums.

A new project, India Pride, set up by young British Asians is now campaigning to get illegally obtained exhibits returned to India. I hope they have infinite patience.  Remember this country still refuses to hand back the Parthenon marbles, which Greeks have been trying to get back since 1832. Toffs like Lord Elgin simply took stuff they fancied, in his case, facilitated by those other avaricious imperialists, the Ottomans.   

Ownership, acquisition and legal requirements make resolution complicated but not impossible. What you need is will. And that will is sorely lacking in our government and institutions. France, in contrast, is behaving more responsibly. In 2017, following a government commissioned report, President Macron made a commitment to legitimate restitution claims made by African and Asian countries.

Demonstrators protest against oil giant BP’s sponsorship of the British museum outside the show Sunken cities : Egypts lost worlds exhibition at the British Museum in London on May 17, 2016. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Britain’s responses are, arguably, less principled. They ‘lend’ exhibits to nations that rightfully own them and tell upbeat stories about Britain’s museums being repositories of interconnected ‘world histories’ or guardians of beautiful things in an unsafe world. Canny but derisory. 

What if Germans were to use these tricks to hold on to looted Nazi art? Or a gang smuggled Anglo-Saxon relics to say, Pakistan, and sold it to a museum there? 

The British Museum has agreed to loan the plaques back to a new museum in Benin City in Nigeria. The Benin Bronzes were taken from Africa by British troops in 1897.  (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Last December, Crusoe Osagie, a Nigerian state spokesman, said on CNN : ‘If you have stolen property, you have to give it back.’ And say sorry. And tell the whole truth about what happened. Such a reckoning is excruciating, unbearable for a nation which seeks to re-glorify the imperial past as we head into an uncertain future.

Those fighting for truth and restitution are equally resolute. Museums can no longer pretend to be neutral. They need to act ethically and get on the right side of history. Will they?

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Fathers are taking less and less paternity leave in the UK – here’s how the government can fix that

If you’re planning a family, you’ve probably had “the talk” with your partner. When your forthcoming joy-bundle/sleep-depriver finally arrives, who is going to take time out to look after them? 

Or maybe you’re putting that talk off. After all, it can be tricky. There’s careers, mental wellbeing and, sometimes, egos to consider. Too often, male-female couples end up sticking with the mum — the “default option”

‘Research from Australia found that children whose fathers took more leave than average did better on IQ tests’

Just before she left office Theresa May (remember her?) was concerned enough about Britain’s fathers that she reportedly planned to extend paternity leave from the current 1-2 weeks to 12. 

5th March 1937: Fathers at Blaenrhondda, South Wales, taking their babies out for some fresh air  (Photo:Fox Photos/Getty Images)

But if Boris Johnson wanted to put his own stamp on this issue, there’s plenty he could learn from other countries about how to get dads to take more time with their children.

In the UK, the number of dads taking paternity leave is actually declining. According to research published in July by the law firm EMW, just 31% of eligible new fathers used their leave in the past year. That figure has now fallen for four years. As few as 2% of couples may use their “shared parental leave”, which is taken later, in the first year with your child.

That’s a shame, because dads taking time out with their kids is good for children and parents alike. 

Research from Australia found that children whose fathers took more leave than average did better on IQ tests. Mums across the world still shoulder way more than their share of unpaid care work, and sharing childcare helps redress the balance. Portuguese dads reported that they bonded better with their children.

In Norway, a simple tweak turbocharged the number of dads taking shared parental leave. This policy does what it says on the tin: it offers couples a legally-protected allocation of time off work, some or all of it paid, which they can share between them. Norway has had it since 1978. But as of 1992, under 3% of eligible dads were taking it up. 

A newborn baby girl  (Photo: BAGUS KURNIAWAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1993, everything changed. The country introduced a “daddy quota” — four weeks of leave that was earmarked only for fathers.

Dads could use it or lose it. And by 1997, over 70% of eligible fathers were using it. Sweden (home of the “latte papa”) and the Canadian province of Quebec are among the other places to try out similar ideas.

Pay is also important. “In the UK, you get £148.68 per week or 90% of your average weekly earnings, whichever is lower, on paternity leave. In Estonia, the percentage of dads taking paternity leave almost quadrupled in a year after the country promised fathers on leave 100% of previous earnings. 

And EMW’s research highlights how men make up 69% of workers in precarious “gig economy” jobs. Self-employed Brits don’t get statutory paternity pay, which could help explain the lack of takeup.

In order to encourage more fathers to take paternity leave, German Family Minister Kristina Schroeder is seeking to lengthen parent leave from the current 14 months to 16 months, though German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble sees the measure as too expensive. (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

No government has really nailed the best way to help gig economy workers, but Ireland does offer a “paternity benefit” to both employed and self-employed people who are taking leave.

Legal tweaks can’t fix everything. Companies have a role to play too — managers’ views and behaviour can influence men’s decisions.

But if it’s going to get easier for British couples to sit down for that talk, there’s plenty the government could do to help them out. As far as the sleep deprivation goes, though, you’ll still be on your own.

Josh Lowe is editor of Apolitical, the global learning platform for government

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I struggle with making permanent, adult decisions in this uncertain world- but I’m trying

My father sometimes says to me that I’m his greatest achievement. He says that for everything he’s done in his life, the professional accolades, his marriages, the dedicated reading and thinking he has used his life for, I really was what made it all worthwhile. The very fact of my personhood, my individuality, has justified his own life.

When my father says these things I believe him. I know that his people and his community are the most essential parts of his life and his self, because that’s true for me too. Really the only point of my existence is to be close to others, to love and be loved. And it’s because I know just what he means that it’s so difficult not being able to imagine a world in which I would have my own children.

The world is warming faster than predicted by the United Nations’ top climate change body, with harmful emissions exceeding worst-case estimates. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood – Pool/Getty Images)

I’ve been ambivalent about children forever, always associating them with reluctant abstinence from an active life. I grew up seeing my mother raise me and my two brothers without a long term partner and though she was often happy she was also often frustrated, I think, by the limitations of being a young woman in her prime who had too many responsibilities to enjoy it. But something has changed in recent years.

‘The way we live makes me fearful of any permanent commitments’

Now that I am a little older, it isn’t so much that I’m afraid that I can’t look after children than I’m afraid the society we live in can’t look after them.

All of the things I thought I would now be pursuing have felt too difficult to do, at the precise point I should be nailing them down. I’m too distressed by and scared of what’s happening around us.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly hate the idea that the encroaching climate apocalypse should make us stop having children It seems an unworkably cynical approach- how can we reimagine a sustainable world by way of eliminating the impulse to reproduce? I have seen rude, cruel people on social media make fun of climate activists who have children and I find them laughable and small-minded.

Supporters of far-right figurehead Tommy Robinson demonstrate outside the Old Bailey on September 27, 2018 in London. (Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

And yet it remains true that I can’t countenance bringing a baby into this world. It’s not purely that I fear for the wellbeing of a child who will come into their middle age fifty years from now- New York submerged, the Arctic melting– it’s that the way we live makes me fearful of any permanent commitments.

They just don’t seem possible, or even desirable, not only because of the climate but because of what is feeling like an inexorable slide toward fascistic governments and impulses and far right violence. I find myself deferring decisions, staying transient, keeping moving.

When friends speak to me about scrimping for years to buy property, all I can think is: why? When I imagine settling in one place and choosing to spend the rest of my life there, I think: how?

Meghan Markle’s engagement ring (Photo credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m not proposing my feelings are logical, or proper, or desirable. Last night I went to the engagement party of two of my best friends. Though marriage is one of those things our troubling, shifting world makes me frightened of, around them I suddenly felt safe and hopeful again.

They reminded me about love, about its unmanageable capacities, its infinite potential. They made me want to get busy reimagining, instead of always avoiding.

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The secret Brexit document exposes the duplicity of those that led us into this no-deal debacle

As someone whose father has severe dementia and daughter has profound disabilities, I am well aware of the depth of the social care crisis confronting this country with starved services, diminishing facilities and dwindling staff.

There has been endless talk and much hand-wringing, but no real action to solve a scandal causing immense distress to many families. We have seen 17 white papers, green papers and reviews of funding over the past two decades, while Theresa May’s government delayed a promised green paper six times during its disastrous tenure.

Demonstrators carry placards during a PeopleÕs Assembly demonstration against the Conservative government’s health policy on February 3, 2018 in London. (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

So I was sceptical when Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised to ‘fix the crisis in social care once and for all.’ He had, after all, taken minimal interest in this unglamorous issue during his rollercoaster career in politics and journalism.

He was also one of the key apostles of Brexit, which has intensified the staffing crisis as my own family has seen. Now we learn that far from fixing the crisis, he is happily cruising towards no-deal departure that would tip this already ‘fragile’ sector over the edge by driving up costs and closing down care homes.

‘We enter probably the most contentious period of my life at Westminster’

This is not my conclusion. It comes from Yellowhammer, the government’s secret internal planning documents setting out the anticipated impact of no-deal – a scenario that looks increasingly likely under the leadership of Johnson and his fanatical puppet-master Dominic Cummings.

The papers, leaked to The Sunday Times, set out the frightening future facing this country in just ten weeks time with shortages of fuel, food and medicine, logistical chaos for firms, surging bills for consumers, rising civil disorder, businesses shifting jobs abroad, farmers hit hardest and the return of a hard border in Ireland.

The document must be treated cautiously, of course. It may over-estimate damage – or turn out too optimistic. As always with such a leak, there are questions over why the papers were handed to journalists and who benefits, with all sorts of machiavellian interpretations flying around.

Conservative MP and leadership contender Boris Johnson poses with a string of sausages called “Boris Bangers” during a visit to Heck Foods near Bedale, northwest England on July 4, 2019.  (Photo: DARREN STAPLES/AFP/Getty Images)

Inevitably, ministers desperately sought to downplay their own documents. Yet as we enter probably the most contentious period of my life at Westminster, one that threatens major constitutional crisis and exacerbation of alarming societal divisions, this leak underlines the hideous realities of sudden rupture with our most important allies and trading partners.

The detail underlines two points about Brexit. First, the disgusting duplicity of those that led us into this debacle. Voters were assured by its architects that leaving the European Union would be easy, that we held all the cards, that a deal would be simple. Tory MEP Daniel Hannan insisted ‘nobody is talking about threatening our place in the Single Market’ – yet now we confront the disaster of no deal.

‘Democracy is not the tyranny of a one-off majority’

Theresa Villiers, whose seat in cabinet underlines the talent void in politics, claimed there was ‘no reason why the UK’s only land border should be any less open after Brexit than it is today’ while the ludicrous Owen Paterson said the Irish border issue was ‘blown up out of all proportion.’

Former chancellor Philip Hammond is routinely mocked by ultras who have seized control of the Tory party. But he was right to point out no-one voted for no deal since we were assured we would leave with agreement.

Philip Hammond attends the G7 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors’ meeting in Chantilly. (Photo: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/AFP/Getty Images)

Even in his leadership campaign last month, Johnson told the public that prospects of no-deal were ‘a million to one’ – while claiming negativity about crashing out was ‘wildly overdone.’ No wonder so many people, especially younger generations seeing their future set on fire, have such little faith in politicians after seeing these charlatans play incendiary games.

Brexit has always been about Tory party internal politics. This was the reason for the foolish referendum, it is the reason Johnson demands departure on Halloween night and it is the reason Jeremy Corbyn’s appeasement is such a betrayal of his party. Those that backed this concept will continue to blame others for failure rather than admit to their own mistakes, but Yellowhammer underlines the damage it can cause to this country. Indeed, it is hard to think of another act of similar national self-immolation in recent British history – made all the crazier by the timing, as the world looks increasingly likely to topple into economic downturn amid growing turbulence.

If Brexiteers had been more honest, arguing we face perhaps a decade of pain to reset our global stance, I would have more respect for them. Instead they chose to lie, lie and lie again – and were rewarded by their self-obsessed party with Downing Street.

A man carrying an anti-EU pro-Brexit placard shouts in a counter protest against pro-Europe marchers on a March for Europe demonstration against the Brexit vote in Parliament Square. (Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

My objection to Brexit was not based on love of Brussels, despite sharing Margaret Thatcher’s belief in the single market and admiring free movement. It was a conclusion based on the fact that our nation had spent decades positioning itself as the open gateway to Europe, exploiting trade and linguistic advantages but avoiding fiscal and regulatory excesses. The complexity of unpicking this tangle of ties was glaringly obvious.

So the second point exposed now with sharp clarity is how forcing through Brexit without a deal is a deeply unpatriotic act. And those flip-flopping ministers such as Amber Rudd and Matt Hancock, those MPs staying silent to keep their seats, those business leaders failing to speak out and those journalists ignoring truth, are among the most culpable.

Amber Rudd and Theresa May (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Brexit is defended on grounds of democracy, but as I have seen reporting from autocratic states, this noble system of government is about far more than the simple act of voting. It is about accountability, fairness, freedom, rights and trust.

Democracy is not the tyranny of a one-off majority. It is the ability to challenge our rulers, question our decisions and, above all, to change our minds – especially when confronted with fresh facts in changing times.

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When and how do we forgive sporting cheats like cricketer Steve Smith?

They booed him each time he walked out and again as he returned to the Pavilion. At Edgbaston and Lord’s, they jeered his runs, rejoiced when he was out. They even cheered as he was hit on the arm and neck during brutal Jofra Archer’s fastest-ever England bowling spell.

Luckily, Steve Smith was not too badly hurt. But what does the best test batsman in the world have to do to earn redemption? Can we forgive tarnished sporting heroes?

For those immune to this summer’s gripping Ashes cricket, Smith the ex-Aussie captain, and David Warner, their cockily aggressive opening batsman, are both “disgraced” because in South Africa last year, Cameron Bancroft was caught on camera using sandpaper to help a roughed-up ball swing more. Young Bancroft did it at Warner’s behest, with Smith’s sanction.

Australia’s Steve Smith is assessed by medical staff after being hit on the neck by a ball off the bowling of England’s Jofra Archer on August 17, 2019.  (Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

All tearfully admitted it. Aussie PM Malcom Turnbull even spoke of the national shame. Despite ridiculously short one-year bans, cheating cost the latter two millions in lost earnings.

Worse, is to be “disgraced”. The indomitable Smith has shrugged it off to score literally tons of runs since, but Bancroft and Warner are struggling. Normally genteel cricket grounds become febrile when they appear.

But, they are hardly the first sportsmen to have been caught cheating, and served bans. When exactly will they be redeemed?

In some sports cheating is or was endemic. Cycling is the obvious example, Lance Armstrong its most famous exponent. After perennially protesting his doping innocence and issuing lawsuits, the seven times Tour de France “champion” confessed belatedly (on Oprah!), was stripped of his titles and stepped down from his own cancer charity, Livestrong. He will never be redeemed.

Lance Armstrong confesses to Oprah Winfrey (Photo: George Burns/Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images)

Athletics is scarcely better. Shameless Ben Johnson, the 1988 Olympic 100-metres winner, had eyes that were yellow he had doped so much. Johnson served his ban, returned, was caught again and banned again for life in 1993.

Perhaps it is the pre-meditated nature of the offence? It is not like a cricketer claiming a bump ball catch or a footballer instinctively “hand-balling” like Maradona or Thierry Henry.

We see cheating in almost every football match but players simulating fouls or injury are not disgraced, just abused for 90 minutes. British boxer Tyson Fury appears to be entirely forgiven for his doping offence, which earned him a two-year ban. Is it just that we like the laddish, British Fury?

Do we have an unconscious bias that dictates correct severity of punishment and Smith’s sentence wasn’t long enough? It is certain Smith will be booed all summer and no doubt that he will use our abuse against us. Because it is not cheating that makes him great.


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Sure, turn your offspring’s bedroom into a spare room when they leave home – but don’t lie about it

If you’re a teenager off to university this autumn, well… mum and dad don’t love you as much as they claim.

Chances are your parents are planning to repurpose your childhood bedroom, rather than – as is only right and proper – preserving it as an immaculate shrine until you come home for approximately three hours at Christmas. (You need to remind the cat who you are before rushing off to stay with your cool student friends.)

A study by AA Financial Services asked 2,000 people what they’d do with their offspring’s room once said offspring left for further education. Two thirds wanted to make use of the empty space, from turning it into a spare bedroom to creating a study, walk-in wardrobe or gym.

Monsters – right? At least, that would have been my reaction ten years ago, when I left for university. But now I’m older, I think it’s (obviously) fine for folks to do whatever they want with their kids’ rooms. Come on. They’ve spent the last two decades sacrificing their own desires for the sake of the family – from reluctantly permitting animals in the house to affecting to find it cute when tone-deaf little Olivia practices the French horn. The least they deserve now is carte blanche to decide how to use the extra space. 

A boy and girl play the game Twister at home, circa 1968. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

How mature, you may think. But actually, I’m just making a thinly veiled dig at what my parents did with my room, which involved heartfelt promises to keep it just for me, but then secretly using the space for their own dark deeds. And by that I mean their hoarding habit. 

When I went home a few weeks ago, at first glance, my bedroom looked much the same as always. There were the familiar piles of books, photo collages and meticulously selected clashing floral wallpapers (how else does an aspiring young writer reassure herself that she’s A Creative Person?). But, on closer inspection, it transpired the available floor space had halved since my last visit. Aha! Mum had been shopping again.

Since I left home, my parents have attempted to fill the emotional chasm carved by my absence with material goods. (At least, that’s my preferred narrative – please don’t point out that some people just really like buying stuff.) On that last visit, the room contained 64 – I counted – bottles of shampoo. That’s along with the fruits of my mum’s charity shop rummages; enough cushions to open a small branch of John Lewis; and my niece’s My Little Pony collection. 

15th December 1925: Three girls on Christmas morning delighted with their gifts from Father Christmas. (Photo: Basset Lawke/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

I don’t begrudge them using the space. (Well, not much.) It’s more that I find the room’s ambiguous status confusing. Seeing as it still looks like my room, I feel a pang of resentment when happening on a toy pony and realizing the space is being shared with my niece. I appreciate that a twenty-eight-year-old woman feeling jealous of someone who hasn’t started school yet isn’t a good look.

But this only illustrates my point – the situation encourages unhealthy regression.

It’s far better for parents to reclaim bedrooms openly and make a clean break of it. Then there’s no risk of offspring getting possessive about something they haven’t lived in since sitting their A-Levels.

So, go wild, mum and dad. Create your own serene study – or glamorous gym. Just don’t touch the wallpaper. 

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Stop calling things ‘the new Love Island’ – and stop trying to make opera fit the mould

OMG did you see? Isolde just pulled Tristan for a chat. And Charlotte’s up on the terrace pie-ing Werther off after her head was turned by Albert.

Is this the future of opera? It might be, according to Stuart Murphy, chief executive of English National Opera.

“As my teenagers sat glued to the final of Love Island, it struck me how closely it echoes the drama we see on stage at English National Opera: passion, lust, betrayal, glamour, love, friendship, silliness,” he wrote last week. “Opera has that in spades, just with the world’s most beautiful music throughout. The only thing missing is a vote-off.” Plenty of boo-ing, though.

The English National Opera is currently advertising for a new artistic director to replace Daniel Kramer who announced he was leaving in April, after less than three years at the helm. Applications close next week, and according to Murphy the right candidate will be immersed in other art forms and popular culture – from Fleabag to Black Panther – as well as having an encyclopaedic knowledge of opera itself.

“Someone who watches Sky Arts and BBC4, and knows theatre, opera and dance? Sure. But it’s healthy that they also watch or are aware of the pull of I’m A Celebrity… and the Marvel films,” wrote Murphy.

Lena Dunham’s series Girls was the zeitgeist once – but was overtaken (Getty)

His instincts are right on one level. Anyone working in the arts should be an enthusiast for all of culture. Opera – which incorporates music, theatre, storytelling, dance and visual arts – cannot exist in a vacuum. The traditional boundaries between art forms have never been blurrier.

Opera also cannot exist without an audience. And persuading new audiences to book for Wagner’s The Ring Cycle when they could be watching Wagner on The X Factor, when there are myriad other, easier, cheaper entertainment options, is a constant challenge for institutions such as ENO.

Is comparing opera to Love Island the answer? I don’t know and not least because it’s particularly banal to suggest the ITV2 reality show is the first to offer up affairs of the heart as entertainment.

If anything, the producers are stealing their storylines from the likes of La traviata or The Merry Widow.

This sort of zeitgeist-grabbing happens every so often in culture and I’m never convinced it’s the right way to go. For a while everything was the next ‘Girls’, then everything was the next ‘Girl on the Train’, now everything is the new ‘Fleabag’ or ‘Love Island’. It may be a handy marketing hook but why would anyone pay to see another version of something they can watch for free, at home on the sofa?

What really brings in new audiences is good productions, done well, at accessible prices. The ENO offers free tickets to under-18s for any Friday, Saturday or opening night performance. As attempts to get down with the kids go, that’s better than any patronising Love Island chat.

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‘My back bad and the car not sold’: The virtues of keeping your liberty MOT’d and on the drive

The dog dead and the car sold.

That line is by Roger McGough and it comes from a poem about a very old couple. It has haunted me for the past few weeks because I have been thinking of getting rid of my car. That would, of course, be good for the planet and for everyone who would rather not breathe in traffic fumes. However, my principal motive is less altruistic. For the past seven months I have suffered from a back problem that is exacerbated by driving. My husband has never learned to drive. The car has been sitting outside our house, taxed, insured, MOTed and doing nothing, like a greedy and idle pet.

Even before the back trouble, I hadn’t been driving very much. In 2007, when I judged the Booker prize, I realised that travelling by train would allow me some much-needed reading time. With a senior railcard it worked out cheaper, too, and it was less tiring. The main snag was luggage.

Day trips were fine but anything involving a suitcase could be problematic. There are still far too many stations you can’t get out of without climbing up and down a lot of stairs. I could manage with difficulty but I became acutely aware of the obstacles disabled people face when they are travelling.

The joy of taxis

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‘I’ve saved £280 on my car insurance’: Would you be better off on a pay-as-you go policy?

Since then, I’ve mainly used the car for short journeys near my home. Recently, we’ve had to take taxis instead. Leaving aside the expense, I have found that life is a whole lot better with taxis than with driving myself.

A taxi comes to your house and drops you where you want to go. You don’t have to think in advance about where you’re going to park or worry about finding a space. It won’t matter if it rains because you’re not going to be out in the open for more than half a minute. You don’t have the responsibility of driving a lethal weapon, knowing that a stupid mistake could have terrible consequences for you or for someone else. You don’t have to worry about breaking down.

If I didn’t have a car at all, I wouldn’t have to pay for repairs. And I could afford lots of taxis. So I’ve fantasised about selling the car. I got valuations from a couple of websites and discovered it is worth slightly more than I expected. One website, when it didn’t hear from me, raised its offer. But I haven’t been able to make the drastic decision.

The dog dead and the car sold.

The couple in the poem are waiting for the end. It feels too final. My back might get better. I might even begin to enjoy driving again. After more than 50 years as a car owner, I am afraid I might feel as if I’ve lost a limb.

Expensive deadlines

An apprentice mechanic works on a car with his trainer on 24 February 2016 (AFP/Getty Images)
An apprentice mechanic works on a car with his trainer on 24 February 2016 (AFP/Getty Images)

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Car insurance price hike: our tips to keep costs down by choosing your car wisely or switching your policy

The deadline was in July, when my insurance was due to be renewed. As a loyal customer, I knew I was being ripped off but I’ve mostly been too busy to do anything about it. I have occasionally tried comparison websites but you have to choose from a list of occupations on a drop-down menu and mine is never there.

Obviously I wouldn’t expect “poet” and I wouldn’t think it a good idea to own up to that anyway. “Author” isn’t available and even “writer” is problematic. You get offered “copywriter” or “screenwriter” but not plain “writer”. Sometimes they also want to know the nature of your business. “Literature” isn’t an option. Nor is “books”. “Publishing” is on offer, as is “bookselling”, but that’s not what I do. If you lie to an insurance company, your insurance isn’t valid. So I end up remembering that my time is worth something and stick with the company that is ripping me off.

This time I tried Direct Line, which, as you’ll know if you watch enough television, is not on comparison websites. Its drop-down menu allowed me to say I’m a writer. It even allowed me to say I’m an author. Hallelujah. And the quote was half of what I’ve been paying. I’ve decided to keep the car for another year and spend less money on it.

One good result of the months of taxis is that I’m now less afraid of losing my licence. I’ve reached the age when you have to fill in a form every three years with details of your health. This is sensible but it is also a source of considerable anxiety to some of my contemporaries. Last year I had to admit I fainted on one occasion in 2016, which meant filling in a long form and waiting while DVLA wrote to my doctor.

Sooner or later, DVLA may make the decision for me. Or the next expensive deadline – the big service, the road licence – may cause me to reconsider. There’s a part of me that really wants to sell the car. There’s another part of me that doesn’t want to be like McGough’s old couple.

WH Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen but it seems it is helping to make something not happen.

The dog dead and the car sold.

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Iain Dale: Don’t mention the war, please. Why Johnson was wrong to suggest Hammond and company are collaborators.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio, and is the author of the forthcoming book ‘Why can’t we all just get along’.

Last week at the Edinburgh Festival, John McDonnell told me that Labour would insist on Jeremy Corbyn leading any interim government of national unity, following any successful vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s administration.

I told him that this idea was delusional, since the Labour leader wouldn’t be able to command a majority in Parliament in such circumstance.  Yesterday, Corbyn confirmed that this is exactly his intention.  But since there are plenty even of his own MPs who don’t have confidence in him, one wonders how he thinks he could persuade those of other parties to row in behind him.

Jo Swinson has made it clear she wouldn’t. Anna Soubry is p**sed off that she wasn’t even cc’d on his letter. I have never thought a national unity government is a runner, and I think it’s even less likely now. Jeremy Corbyn really believes that defeating No Deal is the be all and end all, he wouldn’t be taking such an uncompromising stance. I wonder if his public aversion to it is as deep as he is making out.

– – – – – – – – – –

Corbyn says that he will call a Vote of Confidence when he thinks he can win it. Well, obviously.  But his rhetoric at the moment leads me to believe that he’s in danger of boxing himself in. The more he talks about it, the more pressure there will be on him to deliver it. And if he doesn’t, he’ll be painted as ‘frit’.

– – – – – – – – – –

The defection of Sarah Wollaston to the Liberal Democrats was among the least surprising news of the week. She will surely not be the last of the original Independent Group of MPs to travel that particular journey. I’d have thought there will be at least a couple more before their conference takes place.

And then, of course, there could well be one or two defections directly from the Conservative benches. Guto Bebb and Phillip Lee are the candidates most often mentioned. Both seem to be going through a bit of public agonising. I suspect if either of them, or indeed anyone else does the dirty deed, it will be at a moment of maximum impact. August is probably not that time.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Prime Minister was unwise to use the word ‘collaboration’ on his Facebook Live session earlier this week. He was rightly complaining that the actions and words of some Conservative MPs – and he clearly had Philip Hammond in mind – were persuading the EU to stick by its guns while they wait and see what havoc Parliament can wreak when it returns in early September.

His sentiment was right – but you can’t go throwing around words which have World War Two connotations and effectively accuse some of your Parliamentary colleagues of being quislings (another word with the same suggestion).

To so so debases the debate. I don’t know if it was a deliberate use of the word, or whether it just slipped out. If the latter, fine; but if it was a deliberate attempt to feed into the ‘People v Parliament’ narrative, well, there are better ways of doing it.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Monday, I returned from my two weeks appearing on the Edinburgh Fringe. In 24 shows, I interviewed Sir Nicholas Soames, Brandon Lewis and Eric Pickles (together), and Johnny Mercer, among many others. We’re releasing all the interviews on a new podcast, Iain Dale All Talk, which you can now subscribe to on whichever platform you get your podcasts from.

– – – – – – – – – –

Today is the first day of my first and only holiday of the year. It will last ten days and I intend to spend it in Norfolk doing precisely nothing. Apart from play golf. And binge-watch box sets. And write next week’s ConHome Diary, of course.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s government of national unity plan is ridiculous – but Jo Swinson has fallen into the trap

From time to time, a political story emerges that is so silly, I begin to worry if I am in fact not covering politics at all, but have actually been hit by a large object and fallen into a deep coma, or perhaps have accidentally ingested a great quantity of mind-altering drugs.

The latest brain-melter is the “plan” to prevent no-deal through a government of national unity. The problem the plan seeks to solve is this: Boris Johnson’s Downing Street has vowed to do everything within its power to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union without a deal. The only guaranteed way to prevent that is for a ragtag bunch of MPs, united only by their opposition to a no-deal Brexit, to first defeat Johnson’s government in a vote of no confidence and then to vote confidence in another one. This is to be done with the express purpose of securing an extension to Article 50 in order to hold either another referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union or a fresh general election, depending on the preferences of the politician in question.

Boris Johnson's government is fixed on taking the UK out of the EU by October 31st, with or without a deal (Photo: Julian Simmonds - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson’s government is fixed on taking the UK out of the EU by October 31st, with or without a deal (Photo: Julian Simmonds – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

There are so many holes in the scheme you could use it as a cheese grater. The biggest is that to win a vote of no confidence, you would need the votes of every single opposition MP, plus three Conservatives in order to overcome the combined parliamentary forces of the Tory government and its parliamentary allies. It is doubtful in the extreme that even three Conservative rebels can be found. An iron law of parliamentary rebellions is that they are smaller than the number of publicly-advertised dissenters. It is one thing to tell a journalist that you might rebel and quite another to actually do it. The only exception is when rebelling puts you on the right side of your party membership. As members of the Tory party quite like Brexit and have an intense dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, that exception doesn’t apply.

Parliamentary arithmetic is against Corbyn’s plan

Getting even three Tory names is a major difficulty, but clearing that hurdle on paper still isn’t enough. There are also the ten MPs who were elected in 2017 under Labour colours, but who have since quit because they believe that Jeremy Corbyn is unfit to be Prime Minister. This is due to what they see as, at best, toleration of anti-Semitism in the Labour ranks and a collection of political views that are dangerous to the country. Then there is Sylvia Hermon, an independent Unionist MP who opposes the Conservative party but has vowed never to make Corbyn Prime Minister due to his historical ties to the Republican movement. So to cancel out their votes you need not three Conservative MPs, but fourteen. There is no chance of attracting anything like that many Conservative rebels.

Just three have even bothered to respond to a letter from Corbyn calling on them to make him Prime Minister on a temporary basis in order to stop no-deal – and one, Caroline Spelman, has made it clear that she will not back him in a confidence vote.

Conservative MP Caoline Spelman (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Conservative MP Caoline Spelman (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Yet without the votes of the 247 Labour MPs, there is no hope for a government led by anyone but Jeremy Corbyn, and Corbyn is not going to support a government led by anyone but him. Why? Because that would mean publicly acknowledging that a critical bloc of MPs believe him to be anti-Semitic and dangerous to the country, while another MP believes him to have been too closely linked to practitioners of terrorist violence to be given the keys to Downing Street. Morever, it would show that Corbyn himself feels these objections are reasonable enough to be acceded to. That would hole below the waterline any hope of becoming Prime Minister on a longer-term basis.

As plans go to stop no-deal, a unity government is so farfetched, it would be less ridiculous than crowdfunding the invention of time travel and heading back to 2016 with a bunch of ballot boxes full of Remain votes.

Talking about the GNU is a political tool

But the plan is still being talked about because it is a useful stick for politicians to beat each other with. The idea originally started life as a device to undermine Jo Swinson’s campaign for the Liberal Democrat leadership – for supporters of Ed Davey, her defeated rival, to gently suggest that the job required an experienced politician who had been a Secretary of State in the coalition government, while Swinson had only been a junior minister.

Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson (Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson (Photo: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

The stick was briefly pressed into service by Caroline Lucas, the sole Green MP, who proposed a government led only by women to stop no deal, as if Jeremy Corbyn would suddenly come around to acts of political self-destruction if the instrument of his demise was a woman rather than a man. It’s not wholly clear who the stick was meant to hurt but it successfully got Lucas a day of frontpage coverage, something that all too often eludes the Green party.

The target was Corbyn: to pass the blame to him for failing to work sufficiently bravely cross-party to stop a no-deal Brexit. Understandably, the Labour leader didn’t enjoy that at all and turned the focus onto Jo Swinson, the original intended victim of the unity government wheeze. Swinson jumped the gun in pointing out the obvious – that Corbyn had no hope of forming a government – allowing Labour to paint her as the agent of no deal.

But the reality is that what will cause no deal if it happens is a government that thinks it can ignore votes in our elected House of Commons, whose will has, repeatedly and demonstrably been for further extensions to the Article 50 process rather than a no deal Brexit. In a sane world, it would be that government that is the focus of people’s wrath, rather than Swinson or Corbyn.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman

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Aisling Bea’s new comedy reminded me of how lonely I was when I first moved to London

“Sure who would I have to go to the cinema with?” If there’s one thing I struggled to buy about This Way Up, Channel 4’s new tragicomedy, it’s that funny, vivacious Aisling Bea, its Irish writer and star, has ever been short of people to go to the cinema with. Her character Áine is funny too, in a goofy, doesn’t-give-a-shit way, yet she takes late-night solo walks in London, and sits in a park nursing a shoplifted Pret smoothie (which she duly recycles) while trying to get hold of her mental-health nurse. 

‘I could never admit to friends back home that my new, exciting life wasn’t quite what it seemed’

Bea’s portrayal of loneliness touched a nerve. Being an ex-pat is tough – most friendship groups are already established, with no room for newbies. When I moved to London from Ireland, I had never been in a city as huge, and yet had never been more lonely. Surrounded, but alone.

Aisling Bea in This Way is Up. (Photo: Channel 4)

One particularly painful moment comes when Aine gets a text from her would-be party host uninviting her just as she’s leaving a voice message about what to bring. She recovers admirably (“I’ll just eat the pavlova and ketamine myself”), but later lies about it to her concerned older sister. 

In a time where we have so many outlets through which we can wear our hearts on our sleeves, it still feels shameful to admit we are lonely. I’ve done the aimless walks, and the bright protestations that I needed a night in anyway when people cancelled. I could never admit to friends back home that my new, exciting life wasn’t quite what it seemed. 

But it was comparatively easy for me. I have a shared language and, broadly, culture – I am familiar with everything from “lashings of ginger beer” to Mrs Slocombe’s pussy and I grew up eating Cornish pasties and Branston pickle.

It also stated that loneliness affects nine million people in the UK and is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
(Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

But I can’t imagine what the loneliness and isolation must be like if you arrive here with a language barrier, with no idea how the system works, and often to open hostility. Being an ex-pat is infinitely easier than being an immigrant. 

Last month, a story emerged of an Irishman in London who died with no living relatives. But 130 people turned out for the funeral of John Lynch after a radio and social media appeal. It was heartwarming, but I hoped he had some community in life, as well as death. If we all rallied round a bit more, made eye contact, talked to our neighbours, maybe loneliness would be less taboo. 

Little by little, I found my community. My newish friendships are some of my most honest, and I can tell them when I’m feeling blue, or vulnerable.

Oddly, now, I love my alone time – alone, but not lonely. But I try to remind myself to be open to anyone else who might be reaching out – even if it’s just for help deciphering a Tube map, or advice over a coffee. There’s always room for a newbie.

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Henry Hill: Wallace rejects amnesty for Ulster veterans, but wants inquiries restrained

Wallace rejects amnesty for soldiers but wants inquiries curbed

This week Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, revealed that he is opposed to offering an amnesty to members of the Armed Forces who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

Whilst arguing that they should receive “the very best legal advice and support”, the former Security Minister is reportedly concerned that any amnesty would also need to be extended to paramilitaries and terrorists. According to the Times, he said:

“We must make sure we don’t let off the hook the murderers that are still out there and need to be hunted down and convicted of the killings that they took part in.”

This will be controversial due to the previous scandal over so-called ‘comfort letters’, which were issued by the Blair Government and are widely viewed to have given a de facto amnesty to IRA terrorists. They came to light after collapsing the trial of John Downey, who was being prosecuted over his role in the Hyde Park bombing.

However, Wallace did offer ex-servicemen some hope. The Daily Mail reports that he doesn’t want any new investigations to proceed unless actual new evidence emerges against individual soldiers. He also stated that he did not intend to allow the history books to be ‘rewritten’, and that the Armed Forces should be proud of what they achieved in Ulster.

This is addressed directly at the concerns of many unionists, who worry that the historical inquiries process is unfairly targeting the Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary and thus bolstering a republican narrative of the Troubles.

Labour’s civil war on the Union deepens

Last week, I wrote about how John McDonnell had opened a rift in the Labour Party over their stance on a second Scottish independence referendum.

In what looked like a fairly shameless bid to woo the SNP, the Shadow Chancellor announced that a Corbyn-led government would not stand in the way of a second referendum.

This sparked huge controversy because McDonnell appeared to be unilaterally re-writing Labour policy on the issue – and cutting Scottish Labour off at the knees to boot.

Although he initially doubled down on his remarks, this week opened with Labour officially ruling out entering into any formal alliance with the Nationalists to oust the Tories, instead committing to governing as a minority government in such circumstances.

If true, this suggests a remarkable amount of strategic incoherence. Such an announcement is unlikely to undo the damage McDonnell has likely done to Labour’s standing with its unionist voters, whilst ruling out an alliance appears to rule out any potential dividend from his actions. Of course, it does invite us to speculate as to what constitutes a ‘formal alliance’…

Meanwhile the Scottish party has condemned the national leadership, and Labour MSPs have vowed to ignore the Shadow Chancellor’s new policy – although left-wing allies of McDonnell hit back at ‘kamikaze unionists’ in a leak to a separatist site. The surprise departure of Brian Roy, the General Secretary of Scottish Labour, added to the turmoil.

On the Tory front, David Mundell has cropped up to suggest that it would be very difficult for the Government to resist legislating for a second referendum in the event that separatist parties won a majority at the 2021 Scottish election. (He is mistaken.) Meanwhile a poll found that only two fifths of Scottish voters think another referendum should be granted in the next five years.

Salmond paid half a million by the Scottish Government

It is often suggested that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP pursue independence so vociferously in part to distract from the hash they are making of governing Scotland. This week provides yet another raft of embarrassing headlines which lend weight to that suspicion.

First, and most shockingly, it emerged that the Scottish Government has paid out almost half a million pounds to Alex Salmond, the former First Minister, over its mishandling of its official inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him. This money was to cover his legal costs after he mounted a successful legal challenge on the matter.

That case is separate to the criminal case against the former SNP leader, who is charged with two attempted rapes, nine sexual assaults and two indecent assaults. He denies all wrongdoing, but the case remains a time bomb ticking under the Scottish Government – Sturgeon was Salmond’s protege, and it was her administration that presided over the botched inquiry into his conduct.

If that weren’t enough, elsewhere this week we learn that once again the Nationalists’ university fees policy has seen Scottish pupils missing out on places offered to applicants from elsewhere in the United Kingdom; the SNP Health Secretary has announced that an embattled £150 million hospital may not be open by the end of 2020, following concerns about the construction process and reviews of its safety; and a pro-Nationalist business magnate is furious that the Scottish Government may be about to nationalise a shipyard he rescued.

This week in commentary

There has been quite a bit of interesting commentary on Union-related issues this week, so rather than scatter them throughout the rest of the column I’ve collated them here.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Warner suggests that Brexit has made Scottish independence more difficult (only two years after ConHome considered that point proven, but still). Rather than be bullish about the implications of this he chooses to finish on a maudlin note, but that’s unionism for you.

From his new vantage point at the Atlantic, the excellent Tom McTague (formerly of Politico) sets out why Brexiteers are right to be deeply concerned about the Irish backstop. The analysis isn’t perfect, but it’s a rare sympathetic take on the pro-UK position.

In the Scotsman, Brian Monteith – now a Brexit Party MEP – suggests that Ruth Davidson’s decisions have imperilled the UK, whilst Paul Hutcheon writes in the Herald that the biggest threat to the Union is Scottish Labour’s collapse.

Finally, Iain Martin has decided that the way to save the UK is radical constitutional reform including devolution to England, a senate, and the rest. As is traditional for advocates of this position, he appears to just assume it will work, and makes no attempt to explain why identical assumptions about the last two decades of the devolution project have all come to nothing. Sigh.

News in Brief:

  • Varadkar ‘opposed to direct rule’ as he prepares to meet Johnson – iNews
  • Controversial cybernat blogger to launch new separatist party – The Times
  • Lib Dems and Greens to join anti-Brexit alliance with Plaid – The Spectator
  • SDLP sparks row after querying Union Flags on Tesco fruit – Belfast Telegraph
  • Scottish Court to hear ‘fast-tracked’ legal challenge to Brexit – FT
  • Ex-Plaid leader criticised over comments on carrying knives – The Sun
  • RBS ‘will move to England’ in the event of independence – The Scotsman
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Andy Street: Making connections to change our region

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

When the Prime Minister gave his first speech at the Manchester Science and Industry Museum on July 27, he spoke of the “basic ingredients of success for the UK”.

He spoke about culture, liveability, responsibility in power and accountability – but the subject that resonated most with the experiences of the West Midlands was his belief in the power of connections.

He said: “Inspiration and innovation, cross fertilisation between people, literally and figuratively, cannot take place unless people can bump into each other, compete, collaborate, invent and innovate.”

The West Midlands provides a case study for the UK in how connectivity can transform an area by linking its communities, its geography, its businesses and its people. In the UK’s most diverse region, this commitment to connection is a key part of the new Urban Conservatism we are building here, which is winning support.

In a region spread across the seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton, connectedness has been vital in building a sense of unity. Most obviously, huge investment in our transport network is allowing our communities to physically meet.

But as the Prime Minister said, connectedness isn’t just about tramlines and buses, it’s about encouraging the sharing of ideas to drive growth – and it’s as old as the hills.

Successful city states – going back to the Italian Renaissance and beyond – flourish by bringing people together to drive social and economic progress through greater understanding and innovation. The lesson of history is that places that unite different cultures to distil their ideas and harness their ambition are successful, be it 18th century London or 20th century New York.

Here, that ambition means connecting an increasing number of economic hotspots. From the cluster around the NEC known as ‘UK Central’ to the massive Phoenix 10 brownfield reclamation scheme in the Black Country, the resurgent economy in the West Midlands is creating jobs that require connectivity. Investment in public transport is building an arterial network taking people – and their ideas– into these centres of opportunity.

But the real lesson of the West Midlands story is how we are learning to connect people, not places. The Mayor’s Community Weekend, for example, brought tens of thousands of people together over 165 events through a partnership between the West Midlands Combined Authority and the National Lottery Community Fund. A hundred workplaces joined in with the Mayor’s Giving Day, encouraging charity in all forms. My Faith Action Plan brings together different faiths. We are even connecting the generations through my Cricket Cup at Edgbaston on September 8, which will see grandparents and grandchildren take the field together.

In such a diverse place, these soft social initiatives solidify to bind the connections we make, simply by getting involved. The alternative to connectedness is isolation, which breeds intolerance. It’s critical to stand against intolerance of any kind, whether it’s racial, religious or the kind of schools protest against equality teaching we have seen in Birmingham.

We are also making great strides in closing divisions in our communities to improve social mobility. In 2007, 20% of our young people left school with no qualifications, a figure that has been brought down to 11% through retraining in areas like digital and construction, and growth in modern apprenticeships.

That’s being helped by a unique feature in the West Midlands – the Apprenticeship Levy Transfer Scheme, which allows us to spend the unused apprenticeship levy paid by big firms more sensibly. Closing skills gaps like this is another way that we promote connectedness across and within our communities.

Connectivity in a more literal sense can be achieved through technology. I was encouraged by the PM’s commitment in his candidacy to speed up the roll-out of Fibre Broadband across the country. This kind of quick expansion is vital if we are to ensure that no areas are left disconnected from digital opportunities through under-investment.

However, with 5G coming first to our region, we aren’t prepared to wait for connections to spark innovation. Just a few weeks ago a ground-breaking trial here hinted at what can be achieved with 5G, when we linked local ambulances to doctors in A&E in real-time. The same technological connectivity is driving our automotive sector in its ambition to become the UK capital of driverless vehicles.

Sitting as we do at the heart of England, the West Midlands is positioned to benefit from the Prime Minister’s ambition to better connect the nation and rebalance the economy. As the PM said, “We need to literally and spiritually unite Britain, and that means boosting growth and bringing our regions together.”

To me, there is no greater instrument for this ambition than HS2 – the single piece of investment that will unlock millions of pounds of transport and housing infrastructure our region desperately needs.

Sites like the new tram line from East Birmingham to Solihull are indelibly linked to HS2. We have a target to ensure local people are never more than 45 minutes from a HS2 station, and schemes such as reopening closed railway lines and the impressive Sutton Coldfield Gateway have been meticulously planned around this major investment by the Government to sew our country together. Without it we are definitely poorer.

Connections need to be international too. As Michael Heseltine pointed out in this report ‘Empowering English Cities’, which was commissioned by the West Midlands Combined Authority, the underperformance of our major cities on the world stage is a critical problem that must be solved if we are to balance our economy.

However, this does not mean adopting an adversarial position to competing city regions like Rotterdam, Lyon, Frankfurt, Milan, Chicago and Sapporo, it means ensuring that we have the global connections to take in the best ideas and turn them to our own advantage.

This crucible of cultures concept is the very purpose of the civic university, and you will not find a better example than Chamberlain’s University of Birmingham – which is why our universities must, post-Brexit, continue to welcome International students. They literally connect us to the world and the ideas developing beyond our shores.

Travel opportunities are also important in nurturing our global position. Birmingham Airport has its sights set beyond the Brexit horizon with continued growth in passenger numbers. Work is due to start on its T18 project – named because it will create a terminal that can handle 18 million passengers a year, a rise of nearly 40% on the previous record, achieved in 2017.

HS2 makes this project even more important, as the airport will only be 38 minutes away from Euston, much quicker to get to from North London than both Heathrow and Gatwick.

Finally, I consider my own role as Mayor of the West Midlands to be one of connectivity. Overseeing a region where Labour control the majority of local authorities has meant that my job has often been about providing the glue that holds us all together, encouraging teamwork. In the UK’s youngest, most diverse area, this Urban Conservative approach is paying dividends politically as we attempt to make more of our constituent authorities Conservative.

This kind of inclusive Conservative leadership is where the party must be – and we are looking to Prime Minister Johnson, as the former Mayor of Britain’s mega city, to understand this and follow it through in Government. The Prime Minister will know what a Conservative Mayor in an urban region can achieve through physically connecting people – whether it’s through social connections, transport connections or digital connections – and I hope he will be considering how we can replicate this across the country.

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Henry Hill: McDonnell reminds us wherein lies the real threat to the Union

Writing in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, Tom Harris makes the point that the hard left, from which hail both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, has “always been prepared to sacrifice the Union for power”.

This much was obvious before the Shadow Chancellor split his party in two this week over the question of whether or not the Opposition would offer the Scottish National Party a second referendum on independence in exchange for parliamentary support in the House of Commons. Getting Corbyn to sing from the right hymn sheet on the Union has always looked like an uphill struggle for his Scottish comrades.

But McDonnell has gone much further, and much more explicitly, than his boss. Indeed, as Jonathan Freedland points out, he’s gone further than he conceivably needed to. When faced with a backlash, he doubled down.

Why might this be? Well, for starters its worth remembering that Harris might be mistaken when he says that the left is prepared to ‘sacrifice’ the Union. They are very often instinctively hostile to it, regarding it as an imperialist construct. Some, such as George Galloway, do draw a vehement distinction between Irish nationalism and Scottish, but that isn’t a universal position.

The second factor is that the Shadow Chancellor might have cast a cold eye over Labour’s fortunes in Scotland and concluded that they are unlikely to make a significant contribution to the likelihood of a (Corbyn-led) Labour Government. Wooing the SNP, with their dozens of MPs, might look like a better bet – and folding on a second independence referendum is one of the biggest carrots he could offer them.

‘Corbyn-led’ is important. With Jo Swinson today declaring that the Liberal Democrats won’t help put the Labour leader into Number Ten, his only route there – absent a smashing general election victory, which seems unlikely – lies through the Nationalists.

But this strategy, if such it is, contains an inherent contradiction. If Labour’s best, or perhaps only, route to power lies through the support of a substantial number of Scottish MPs of one hue or another, Scottish independence logically implies handing the Right a substantial advantage in the rest of the UK.

A few possibilities suggest themselves: McDonnell hasn’t entirely thought this through; he thinks a second referendum would be won by the unionists; or he plans in some fashion to entrench Labour’s position south of the border in the process of delivering the referendum.

But there is a fourth option. Just as David Cameron offered an EU referendum on the assumption that the Lib Dems would block it, so too might the Shadow Chancellor be dangling an independence one in front of the SNP in anticipation that he wouldn’t, in the end, be able to deliver it – due this time not to formal coalition negotiations, but a backbench revolt.

Make no mistake, this is another acid test for Labour MPs. On Europe, they have made much noise about fidelity to their Party’s official stance, rather than their leader’s more ambiguous position. There is nothing to prevent them doing the same here.

Hundreds of Members of Parliament standing in solidarity with their Scottish comrades and indicating their refusal to collaborate with McDonnell’s bid to trade the United Kingdom for separatist support would be a powerful moment… if they choose to take that stand. Will Labour MPs stand by their leadership, or their Scottish fellows and their country?

In the meantime, his calculation about Scottish Labour’s weakness, and response to it, may become self-fulfilling. At a time when Ruth Davidson is caught in an awkward strategic position over Brexit and Boris Johnson, she has now been handed a powerful card. Consolidating the pro-Union vote is what delivered her victories in 2016 and 2017, and McDonnell has just sent Labour’s remaining voters – who lean unionist – a very good reason to give the Tories another look.

This row is also a useful reminder that, for all the excitement over a single margin-of-error poll lead for independence, the much more concrete threat to the Union comes from those forces – Labour and Remain – prepared to actively collaborate with the separatists and pander to nationalist sentiment in order to try to wield the supposed fragility of the Union to their advantage.

News in Brief:

  • Sturgeon accused of ‘complacency’ as exam passes fall – Daily Telegraph
  • Northern Irish Office loses key advisor at the wrong moment – News Letter
  • How the Left lost Wales – UnHerd
  • Scottish Tories attack SNP over prisoner voting – Daily Telegraph
  • Anger over removal of Queen’s portrait from Stormont – The Times
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