Plebs and toffs

Many years ago I was on the Cambridge Union Committee when Andrew Mitchell was President.  Speaking as a bit of a pleb myself I never got the impression that this was a word he’d use or even a concept he’d recognise.  I wish him well in the ongoing ‘plebgate’ investigations.

But the whole affair has set me thinking.  Why is the word ‘pleb’ so outrageous that the mere suggestion that one has used it might be enough to end, or at least interrupt, an otherwise impressive career?  Yet at the same time left-leaning politicians and lazy ‘comedians’ can always rely on the word ‘toff’ to get them a cheap laugh or round of applause.  Remember for example the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in 2008 when Labour poured out the invective on Conservative candidate Edward Timpson – ‘The Timperley toff’, ‘Lord Snooty’ and so on.  (Outcome – 17% swing to Conservatives, first by-election gain for over 15 years.)  And how, ironically, some of the attacks on Ed Miliband himself (always happy to use the class card in his ‘one nation’ Labourism – recall how he laid into Mitchell at the height of the issue) from the nastier element of the Left in his own party dismiss him as ‘just another Labour toff’, causing to have to make huge play of his comprehensive education (at Haverstock in Chalk Farm, sometimes referred to as ‘Labour’s Eton’, before he went on to Oxford and Harvard).

On the face of it these terms ‘pleb’ and ‘toff’ are joined at the hip.  Both, like a whole string of other words that rightly we don’t use in the field of race, sexuality, gender and so on, seek to denigrate someone on the basis of something beyond their control, in this case the circumstances of their family of origin.  Both imply that one can assume large amounts about a person’s character based on a single feature and that all people with that feature are basically the same.  And of course both seek to imply that the object of the insult is unfitted to play certain roles in society.  Yet pleb is outrageous, toff is funny and to be applauded.

Why should this be?  I think the answer is pretty simple.  The Liberal Establishment, that group of control freaks (whose own background, like Miliband’s, is generally speaking far more ‘toff’ than ‘pleb’) who have taken it on themselves to dictate what is acceptable and what is not – indeed who is acceptable and who is not – have decided the issue for us.  “Burn the witch” shouted at a photograph of Lady Thatcher gets gales of laughter, “one-eyed Scottish idiot” aimed at Gordon Brown in the same week gets calls for sacking and a forced apology.  (Indeed a prior similar comment about Mr Brown from one of the left’s darling comedians went unnoticed and has been scrubbed from the internet as far as I can find.)  I’m not defending either comment but they don’t seem all that much different to me, and of course it is much easier to find much worse personal attacks on politicians of the Right than it is on those of the Left.

The attack on freedom has taken a slightly different course recently.  There is an increasing shift from those who are uncomfortable with variety and dissent away from restricting action.  Even Labour is not thinking of returning taxes back to the levels they presided over in the 1970s, and we are still by law allowed to say some things that are a bit risqué as defined by the Liberal Establishment.  In its place is coming a more subtle attack on what happens next.  You’re allowed to earn money but not to spend it on giving your children a good start in life (there’s been a noticeable recent upping of the attacks on private education, in part through the ‘toff’ agenda which is of course very simplistic anyway).  You’re technically allowed to make jokes or comments that the LE disapproves of but the consequences for your career and general social standing can be severe.  Whatever factors are inflating the UKIP bubble, a reaction among normal folk against the strait-jacket of modern Liberalism is surely worth a good few puffs.

There’s a story of a young American journalist who was given an audience with Stalin after the War.  The journalist said to Stalin, “The difference between my country and yours is that I can go into Time Square and shout ‘I hate the American President’ and nothing will happen to me”.  Stalin said, “You are wrong, it is just the same here.  I can promise you that you can go into Red Square and shout ‘I hate the American president’ and nothing will happen to you here either”.  The LE’s view of freedom – a freedom to do anything that the LE approves of, especially if it might offend a few more traditionally-minded folk who probably vote Conservative anyway – is not all that different from the attitude taken by some pretty unpleasant regimes in the past.  It’s a shame, because the Liberal tradition of protecting minorities and defending freedom to offend those in authority (formal or soft) used to be a strong and honourable one.

Glory be to God for dappled things …

I love the ‘dappled days’ where the various strands of life weave in and around each other.

So yesterday started with my usual swim and a tutorial from my good friend and fellow councillor James Cousins on how to set up a blog.  (So any merit of these pages is mine but any faults are down to him!)  Off to West Hill Ward to look in on an open door session for residents of Florys Court and Augustus Road about their forthcoming repairs and decorations programme, then to the Town Hall for a leaving do for Russell King, a former Wandsworth councillor who is upping sticks and heading down under – a shame, as he was a rare example of clear new thinking and I think he’ll be missed.

After a Group meeting – usual mix of good contributions from good people and petulant shouting down of dissenting ideas – I ended up at New Broadcasting House.  I’ve become a great fan of the media, including the BBC.  The final product looks effortless but the amount of work that goes into it is extraordinary.  I got the call late afternoon from one of my usual contacts there, spent 40 minutes driving in, 30 minutes sitting and waiting, then got 3 minutes on The World Tonight with Caroline Quinn talking about Russia energy sanctions, and 40 minutes to get home.  Odd business when you think about it but it gave the day an interesting end.  Carlos looked hot and bothered when I got in – how a Cuban can struggle with English summers mystifies me – but we relaxed in front of “Graceland” (an American televisual play, your Honour) and all was well.

My main aim for the day – to plough on with this book on energy that I have to get done by February and which I suspect will be something of a theme of these posts in coming months – got pretty much ignored, perhaps because I had so much opportunity for displacement activity.  As I am doubtless doing now.  So cheerio, I have a mercifully empty diary for August so no excuses.

Russia, gas and German scaredy-cats

After more than a decade of misty-eyed yearning after renewables at the expense (literally) of pretty much everything else, the Europe Union finds itself in a right state.  (OK, I know the EU is not a State much as some would like it to be.)  The EU’s dependence on imported energy grew from 47.8% in 2000 to 54.1% in 2010.  And in 2013 the single biggest source of EU’s imports of hard coal (27.1% of total EU-27 imports), crude oil (34.5%) and natural gas (31.8%) was the Russian Federation.

Why should we bother in the UK, since we still have some reserves of our own and get most of our imports from Norway?  Well, the situation in the UK with regard to energy import dependency has changed more rapidly than in any other member of the European Union. While the EU-27’s energy production fell by 12% between 2000 and 2010 (from 941 mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent) to 831 mtoe), that of the UK fell by 45% (from 270 mtoe to 148 mtoe). Although energy imports per head of the population are still below the EU average the UK has moved from being a net energy exporter in 2002 to a net energy importer in 2010, a trend which will persist as North Sea gas reserves continue to run down.  And if Russia’s gas gets cut off, say, the increased competition for other sources would inevitably push the price we had to pay through the roof.

How has Europe addressed this gathering cloud?  Germany shut down half of its nuclear stations, with the rest to go over the next eight years or so.  Although it is building quite a lot of new coal plant (and has increased its carbon dioxide emissions by some 5% over the last three years for those who care about such things – which I do) and makes quite a bit of wind and solar energy when the wind blows and the sun comes out, inevitably its needs for imported gas have grown considerably.  In 2011 Germany was actually a net gas exporter (producing 10 bcm – billion cubic metres – and consuming 7.2 bcm); in 2013 it was practically neutral (producing 8.2 bcm and consuming 8.1 bcm).  Germany is in the fortunate position of being able to outbid its neighbours for power supplies when the wind is still and the sun in, and to dump dangerous surplus electricity from wind and solar at times when supply outstrips demand on its neighbours.  (Dangerous?  A system with too much electricity is as bad as one with too little, being susceptible to power surges which can blow electronic equipment and ultimately melt the wires, at staggering cost economically and socially.)

We can’t just blame the Germans.  When a country does try to improve security and environmental performance by striking a deal to build new nuclear plant (which does not release significant amounts of carbon, nor does it depend on Mr Putin being in a good mood or the wind blowing at convenient speeds) along comes the Competition Commission to delay matters by many months in a ‘State Aid’ investigation.

So we’re pretty much stuck.  We must I think hope that fracking is going to give us another breathing space but it is hard, at this point, to imagine that fracking in our relatively crowded island will repace the vast reserves of North Sea gas which we once had but which are now running short so quickly.

Eyeball to eyeball with Putin – we threaten severe sanctions, he smirks and reminds us what happens when he turns off the gas taps to Ukraine, as he does every couple of years or so.  Who would blink first?  I have my fears.  But we Europeans have only ourselves to blame for the weak hand we hold.