John Harris

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Horsemeat scandal exposes the cheap food imperative | John Harris

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

This ever-widening story cuts to the heart of how messed up our eating and shopping habits have become

What do we know of the arcane processes and multinational supply chains that lie behind the modern food industry? Or rather, how much do we want to know? Some food lines – bread, high-end confectionery, wine – obscure the realities of mass production behind a hazy myth of traditional techniques, careful quality control, men in chef’s hats and the like. But in the case of the meat industry, everything is unspoken. For most people, there will probably be some half-formed idea of the trade’s realities that occasionally comes to mind: giant slaughterhouses, the questionable body parts that go into mince, the tangle of horrors forever embodied in that dread term “Turkey Twizzlers“. But it is largely all held at bay – part, perhaps, of that gentle denial whereby, once you’re beyond mere birds and fish, the English language tends to use different words for animals, and their edible flesh.

Well, now we know. Of all the coverage of the ongoing horse meat scandal, my favourite so far is in the Financial Times (paywall link), written beautifully straight, and therefore all the more powerful. From the top, then: “The Findus products revealed to contain horsemeat … came from a Comigel factory in Luxembourg. Comigel in turn was supplied with meat from a company in southwestern France called Spanghero, whose parent [company] is called Poujol.” Benoît Hamon, France’s consumer affairs minister, said “that Poujol ‘acquired the frozen meat from a Cypriot trader, which had sub-contracted the order to a trader in the Netherlands. The latter was supplied from an abbatoir and butcher located in Romania.’”

Let us briefly pause to marvel at what all this means. Of course, contrary to the widespread impression that millions of British carnivores have come close to being slowly poisoned, eating horse has probably done no one any harm. The weekend’s talk about the veterinary drug bute look distinctly like an ex post facto attempt to somehow make all the fuss look rational, and – I speak here as a vegetarian – the horsemeat imbroglio has revealed the astounding power of preferences that are cultural, rather than rational. But at the same time, this ever-widening story cuts straight to the heart of how messed up our eating and shopping habits have become, and what a completely screwed-up economy is doing to the most basic aspects of how we live.

Ours is an economy in which ludicrously cheap food is an absolute necessity, and not just for the people on benefits and limited incomes whose caricatured presence has been there in just about everything written about the current scandal. At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, wages continue to stagnate, bills carry on rising and the only thing that a lot of people can either cut back or keep to a minimum is food spending. On this score, I think of the family I recently met in Hartlepool, threatened by the so-called spare bedroom tax, and what a woman called Lorna Holden told me about its likely effects: “We can’t cut it from fuel, or electricity, or petrol.

So when you lay that budget out over a month, with your council tax and water, and all your bills, there’s nowhere else it can come from: the only place we can cut from is our food budget. And we’re already having the cheapest food you can buy.”

They are hardly alone: the cheap food imperative extends along a long social continuum, and reaches most of us. Last week, the market research company Mintel released figures suggesting that 89% of Britons now shop on a budget – and, moreover, that “some 30% of consumers buy budget ranges compared to just one in five (20%) back in 2008″.

The report went on, “over half (53%) agree low price is more important than brand name and nearly seven in 10 (68%) are proud to tell their friends about any good bargains they find”. Prior to the horse scandal, that presumably translated as lots of people loudly extolling the wonders of Tesco Everyday Value “beef” burgers, eight of which were retailing for £1. And contrary to what some people might have recently told us, this is not because they are so stupid that they barely know how to hold a knife and fork, nor any more ignorant about the food industry than millions of other people, but because some of us – most, in some way – increasingly have no option.

In other words, though the supermarkets squeeze producers and hold out the illusion of cheap food as a means of extending their dominance, much of this is a simple matter of market demand. And note what is actually happening within food markets. The year 2013 began with the boss of Waitrose warning that, partly because 2012 was so wet, the price of bread and vegetables was likely to go up by around 5%, if not more.

Meanwhile, bigger forces such as climate change and population growth make ever-rising food prices a certainty. And all this as a seemingly unending downturn means that anything better and healthier than the current state of affairs simply unaffordable. So, food producers are desperately trying hold back the inevitable, with very strange results: among them, the sourcing of supplies in far-flung corners of eastern Europe, where the food trade may be in the hands of crime syndicates, and the few people who well know that something grim is afoot have to keep quiet.

Since 2009, budgets for public-sector trading standards and environmental health have been cut by 32% in real terms. The trade union Unison reckons that over the last two decades, the meat inspection staff of the Food Standards Agency has been halved – and environmental health last year saw “a 15% reduction in enforcement notices issued; a 4% reduction in enforcement visits; and an 8% reduction in scheduled inspections”. Meanwhile, cheap meat pours into the UK from all over the world, and the current fuss about horses should probably be the least of anyone’s worries: how long, you can only wonder, before some genuine public health emergency emerges from this mess of complexity, cost-cutting, and what was once known as light-touch regulation?

Still, you may be reassured to know that EU regulations insist that if it’s called “meat”, it has to be “skeletal muscle with naturally included or adherent fat and connective tissue“, and that our own Food Standards Agency insists that “economy” beefburgers must contain a heartening 47% of the same stuff, sourced from cows. As ever, modern capitalism spoils us, eh?

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Kraftwerk at Tate Modern, night two: Radio-Activity

Friday, February 8th, 2013

In the second of their eight-show Catalogue series in London, Kraftwerk’s sepia-tinted futurism evokes our multiple pasts, from the 20s to the age of the microcomputer

Two items await as you check in for Kraftwerk’s Tate Modern performances: your branded 3D glasses, encased in a lovely rectangular slip-case; and a two-sided handout, explaining the whole Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 idea and the particular album that is about to be brought to life. The latter can be somewhat reductive, as proved by the words that set out the basics of 1975’s Radio-Activity: “A highly innovative science-fiction movie soundtrack about radio-activity and the activity of the radio. This all-electronic concept album explores the themes of broadcast communications and nuclear radiation.”

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That’s true, but perhaps only in the same sense that Bob Dylan’s Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is a song about his wife. What Radio-Activity truly conjures up is a little more profound: in its soundscapes of morse code, fleeting radio programmes and distant orchestras, it now evokes not just the sepia-tinted futurism of the early 20th century (and Fritz Lang, to be crude about it), but what the Germans call Ostalgie, and the shadowy mysteries of the cold war, captured not just in all those dots and dashes, but the centrality to what’s being re-imagined of nuclear paranoia. Twenty-odd years after the Berlin wall came down, its songs spark no end of random memories and images: the time some of us spent as awe-struck kids scanning the short-wave band for Radio Moscow, or the image of Ulrich Muhe nervously listening to the small change of human existence in The Lives of Others.

All that, though, is rather dealt a blow by what happens after the four men on stage have delivered a show-opening The Robots (now, it seems, Kraftwerk’s equivalent of the Velvets’ We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together, ha ha), and the minute or so of Geiger Counter. The title track of Radio-Activity is reworked as it has been since 1992 or thereabouts, when Kraftwerk allied themselves with protests against the Sellafield nuclear plant, and suffered the ignominy of effectively supporting U2. It used to be one of their most glorious pieces: now, a lot of its magic has been squashed by a clunky focus on Fukushima, and Ralf Hütter singing: “Chain reaction, and mutation/ Contaminated population.” I’m not exactly sure why I don’t like this, but I don’t: on reflection, it’s down to the awkward spectacle of a group who are surely all about such qualities as distance and ambiguity, gauchely doing their own equivalent of rabble-rousing.

It gets much better, though. Whereas the sound of the original album was a little muffled and muddy, presumably in keeping with its quest to replicate the sound of analogue radio, its live incarnation is sharpened, and given way more oomph. The visuals are all monochrome, set against a starry sky, and full of references to pre-60s modernism. For Radioland, there is both an image of a radio from the days when such things were known as “sets”, and the obligatory old-school radio mast, throwing out 3D representations of the lyrics. As with so many of The Catalogue show’s presentations, the found-audio of News is used for a section that – were this not an orthodox(ish) concert – would be understood as a video installation. And as far as I can tell – it’s dark, and one’s sense of time tends to go – the saggy, abstract nature of what used to be known as Side 2 (encompassing The Voice of Energy, Antenna, Radio Stars, Uranium and Transistor) is dealt with, meaning a quick passage to the innocent sweetness of Ohm Sweet Ohm, for some reason accompanied by an animation of cellos floating through space.

Then comes the obligatory Greatest Hits section. Yes, considering how little happens on stage, there are passages that rather drag. Of course, it’s not entirely clear if much is actually being played.

Naturally enough, given that even Florian Schneider has long since gone, you might wonder whether what you are watching actually deserves to be called Kraftwerk, or whether Hütter’s stubborn curating of his past is such an upending of his original aesthetic as to come out looking almost absurd. As Alexis Petridis wrote of the opening night, there is something curious about the fact that “a band who once seemed so forward-looking … now appear consumed by their past”. But as Radio-Activity proves, what’s perhaps so affecting and profound about the Tate series is that these events evoke not one past but several, stretching from the 20s to the age of the microcomputer: all our yesterdays, replayed with both romance and panache.

And all this in a building commissioned after an electricity shortage in 1947, reopened in the distant era of munificence that was the 90s. Really: who better to stand at the endpoint of all these tangled historical roads than Kraftwerk?

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Can David Cameron see off the Tory troublemakers?

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

The same-sex marriage bill has opened up deep rifts between the different factions within the Tory party. So how do insiders view the crisis that threatens to engulf David Cameron?

In November 1990, Conservative MPs brought to an end the reign of Margaret Thatcher – and, as some still see it, their party has never been the same since. There was an obvious rationale to what they did: though she had led them to three general election victories, she had become an electoral liability, so disliked and mistrusted that even her closest former colleagues now spoke out against her. But when she was toppled, a poison seemed to enter the Conservative soul: from thereon in, it seemed, the party had an insatiable taste for faction fighting and plotting against its leaders, an obsession with Europe – and a strange underlying self-loathing, perhaps born of a sudden lack of self-confidence.

The last point is highlighted in author and columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s brilliant modern history of the Conservatives, The Strange Death of Tory England. “In one light,” he writes, “the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher could be seen as a supreme display of Tory toughness, but that was not the whole story.” He recounts the story of a Tory MP talking about her downfall with the writer and Thatcher-confidant Paul Johnson, and expressing his dismay thus: “I’m afraid it means we’ve become a party of cowards.”

“And shits,” replied Johnson.

“No,” said the MP. “We’ve always been that.”

History does not record the MP’s identity – but whoever he was, the following years would arguably prove him right, in both senses. John Major’s turbulent time in office speaks for itself. Between 1997 and 2005, the Conservative party got through four leaders, often suggesting it was much more comfortable with regicide than thinking about why it suddenly seemed to be on the wrong side of history. But having been stabilised by the caretaker leadership of Michael Howard and then electing David Cameron, it seemed to belatedly understand the need to comprehensively reinvent itself, cut down on the in-fighting, “stop banging on about Europe” and get back to being a party of power.

When Cameron successfully ran for the leadership, his slogan was “Change to win” – but he did not quite manage that feat. Two-and-a-half years after the Conservatives missed outright victory election in 2010, the Tories seem to be in danger of resuming their old habits. With Cameron’s encouragement, their obsession with Europe has been revived, and then some. There is talk of plots against the leadership, and Conservative factions seem to multiply by the week. Worse still, with their proposed changes to constituency boundaries having been scuppered by the dastardly Lib Dems, there is a rising sense that the best they can hope for at the next election is a repeat of the hellishly uncertain outcome of 2010.

Were he to update The Strange Death, Wheatcroft tells me, the central idea of Tory decline would still be present and correct. “In the 1990s,” he says, “they abandoned even the pretence of loyalty and unity, and just began hacking each other apart. In a way, it’s remarkable they have recovered from where they were in the mid-90s, to be in government at all.” He credits them with an often overlooked achievement: getting a higher share of the popular vote in 2010 than the supposedly triumphant Tony Blair managed in 2005. But in the context of their current problems, he suggests that things hardly look glowing.

“There’s a flavour of a doomed garrison about them,” he says. “Even though they’re in office, they’re full of irrational hatreds. And they seem to have lost their old instinct for what kind of party to be: are they a moderate, Christian Democrat-type party? Or are they a party that yearns to be Ukip?”

On Tuesday, the House of Commons will vote on the proposals for same-sex marriage that Cameron has decided to talk up as a symbol of whether his “modernisation” project still amounts to anything. On Sunday, he was visited at Downing Street by a deputation of outraged senior Tory activists, and up to half his MPs – including as many as four members of the cabinet – are expected to oppose the measure, leaving it dependent on Labour and Lib Dem support.

Among the more elevated protests against the plans is a report co-authored by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and Phillip Blond, the policy thinker who was once celebrated as one of Cameron’s intellectual gurus, thanks to the school of thought he called “Red Tory”. When he launched his thinktank ResPublica, Blond was joined by Cameron; at around the same time, Cameron quoted Blond in at least one of his speeches, and credited his ideas with providing some of the intellectual substance for that long-faded notion, the “big society”.

But no more. In modern Tory politics, it seems, friendships might not last for long, and reputations can quickly wax and wane. As Blond sees it, Cameron has taken the wrong path in two ways: carrying on the zealous free-marketry that defined the Tories under Thatcher, and embracing the metropolitan liberalism of New Labour, as evidenced by Tuesday’s vote in the Commons. While doing so, Blond suggests, he has lost any sense of a coherent project, and fomented endless Tory dissent. “By failing to lead intellectually, Cameron risks not leading at all,” he says. “He’s failed to develop on the initial insights that he had, and he hasn’t come up with principles that people could unify around. So of course there’s disunity. If you don’t have a coherent programme at the top, you’re going to get division at the bottom.”

Conservative politics did not used to be like this. There were regular outbreaks of internal strife, for sure. But until the arrival of Thatcher, the Tories were a party of power: pragmatic, flexible, supremely confident – and rarely moved to the extent of passion by much more than vague patriotism and a sense of their own importance. The party-at-large was more of a giant social club than a political organisation, and the people at the top often cleaved to the mindset beautifully captured by Arthur Balfour, the Tory prime minister between 1902 and 1905: “Nothing matters very much, and most things don’t matter at all.”

For most of the past century, it was Labour that was most often distracted by internal strife, something that prompted the senior party figure and political diarist Richard Crossman to bemoan the different ways that each of the titans of British politics responded to political difficulties. “When the Tories are in trouble,” he wrote in 1956, “they bunch together and cogger up. When we get into trouble, we start blaming each other and rushing to the press to tell them all the terrible things that somebody else has done.”

Were Crossman alive six decades on, he would presumably laugh like a horse at how much things have changed. For the moment at least, Labour is strangely quiet and apparently united. Even though they are in power, it’s the Tories who are riven by factional divisions, and prone to huge bust-ups. Whatever is happening, there is little sign of anyone wanting to “cogger up”, and lots of examples of people rushing to the newspapers – or, rather, Twitter and the fantastically influential website ConservativeHome – to tell tales, and worse.

Cameron’s recent promise of an in/out referendum on the EU was presumably meant to calm Tory nerves, but last week brought claims that a rebellious hardcore of Conservatives are toying with two big ideas: a no-confidence motion in Cameron if the party’s standing hasn’t materially improved by the summer of 2014, and a more immediate demand for the sacking of chancellor George Osborne if March’s budget fails to work any economic magic.

By way of a strange punchline to the story, there is also the whirl of whispers surrounding Adam Afriyie, the backbench MP whom very few people had heard of, until he was suddenly being talked up as someone who might be a “stalking horse” candidate prepared to topple the prime minister, a serious prospect for the leadership, or a glorious example of delusions of grandeur. “The plot is all completely mad, but No 10 really need to listen,” said one anxious MP quoted in the Daily Telegraph. “I’m afraid they simply don’t understand their backbenchers. What is most significant is that some people feel the need to do this.” That’s pretty much spot on, though it ignores the figure who must surely haunt Cameron like a tousle-headed ghost, and whose current absence from parliament makes his position all the more interesting: Boris Johnson, whose last big public intervention was an apparently harsh critique of Osborne’s approach to the economy.

Rather than being a unifying, broad-church kind of leader, Cameron has turned out to be a divisive figure, widely disliked among some MPs for his supposedly haughty style of party management – and mistrusted because of his failure to bring the Conservatives an outright majority. Moreover, internal dissent now has a habit of spilling out thanks to modern means of communication, and the fact that the political right were much earlier adopters of the web and social media than the left: among their other talents, modern Tories are Olympic-standard tweeters, bloggers and Facebook-ists, and still much better at online manoeuvring than Labour people.

There are also Conservative factions and tendencies (”ginger groups”, they used to be called) aplenty, a sure sign of a party that is at risk of losing any coherent sense of itself. The long-standing Cornerstone Group has a strapline that reads “Faith, flag and family”, and has weekly meetings with the No Turning Back Group (Thatcherites), and the 92 Group, a very long-standing rightwing faction so named because they used to meet at 92 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea – which, as devotees of Tory trivia may know, was a house that belonged to the late Tory politician Sir Patrick Henry Bligh Wall.

Just along from them are the newly formed Conservative Voice, who seem to want to re-acquaint the Tories with blue-collar voters, and who educate their people via what their website calls a “campaign gym”. There is also the Free Enterprise Group (more Thatcherites), the Eurosceptic Fresh Start Group and the Cameron-supporting 301 group, named after the number of MPs who would have been needed for a Tory majority in 2015, had the Lib Dems not ratted on them and killed the boundary changes that would have substantially increased the chances of a Tory win. For the sake of thoroughness, we should also include Bright Blue, a self-styled “grassroots movement” that ”wants the Conservative party to keep on modernising”, and seems to be a clearing-house for young would-be Cameroons.

Most important, perhaps, is the aforementioned Conservative Home, the website-cum-movement whose figurehead is Tim Montgomerie, the man who briefly served under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership as his chief of staff, before going on to position himself as the voice of Tory activists. It may be some measure of the febrile state of Tory politics that Montgomerie is one of the most influential Conservative voices, who torments the leadership on a regular basis. Yesterday, he was orating from the pages of the Times, arguing that the Tories were in a ”fundamentally unhealthy” state, that Cameron’s modernisation project “has been conducted casually”, and that the prime minister’s political machine “has the attention span of a goldfish”.

Montgomerie is also a high-profile supporter of Johnson, whose most notable contributions to last year’s Tory party conference were a frenzied “Boris rally”, and a new website that crystallised his view of the correct Tory path, with its url reminiscent of the political satire The Thick of It: What Cameron thinks of Montgomerie is not a matter of record, though his constant manoeuvrings may bring to mind what Lyndon B Johnson famously said of advisers to President Kennedy: “They may be just as intelligent as you say. But I’d feel a helluva lot better if just one of them had ever run for sheriff.”

All this makes for an unstable, often rancourous atmosphere. It means that any hot Tory issue – gay marriage, Europe, the government’s economic direction – tends to be the subject of pamphlets, meetings, essays, angry blogs and oceans of tweets. To be fair to the Tories, their party’s political culture is brimming with ideas and passion: compared with the deathly dull events staged by Labour and the Lib Dems, their conference last year was by far and away the most intellectually stimulating and entertaining. But the question demands to be asked: what kind of future does this internal bickering suggest?

Yesterday, I spoke at length to one senior cabinet minister and Cameron ally. He warned against reading too much ideological substance into the internal Tory factions: “They seem to me to be grouped around individuals, and the principle division is between people who are, to a lesser or greater extent, pro-Cameron and the government, and those who are anti-him.” They range, he continued, from people who have “positions of principle” to those “who have personal reasons for disliking the government, some of whom are very passionate”.

He made comparisons to the internal Labour dissent that eventually did for Blair, which prompted an obvious enough question: why is Cameron facing such a restive party so soon into his first term? “The first thing is, because we didn’t win,” he replies. Cameron, he says, was blamed for the simple existence of the coalition and an election result that has hardened a kind of betrayal myth held dear by more hard-bitten Tories: “The idea that if he’d fought a better campaign, and he’d been a truer Tory, we could have been in a position where we could have indulged ourselves.”

Is all the plotting and faction-fighting a worry? “It’s important to be neither complacently dismissive of it – ‘Oh, it happens all the time’ – nor to panic or obsess. The most important thing is to try to appreciate why it’s arisen and what can be done about it.” Courtesy and engagement, he says, were always important, but at the same time, “you cannot reason someone out of a position which they haven’t reasoned themselves into. And lots of people hold the view they do about David and the rest of us because the instinct and emotion come first and the intellectual justification comes afterwards.”

The scale of dissent over gay marriage, he agrees, is a problem. “It’s not a good look to have a party arguing among itself. And it’s not a good look if some of the people arguing, and delivering letters, are delivering letters on this. If you have a Labour government, and you have a group of people handing letters into the prime minister – it might be to, say, save nurseries – now, you might say: ‘Well, this is an example of a sentimental lack of reality at a time of economic pain,’ but at least you don’t think: ‘The bastards.’ Whereas, there is a section of the population that see this, and thinks: ‘The one thing they’ll give up their weekend for is to say that gay people shouldn’t get married.’

“Without wanting to be Pollyanna-ish about it,” he continues, “if you have a group of people who just don’t like you, saying that you simply don’t deserve to be prime minister, when this issue passes, they’ll just find another one.” Dissent and periodic turbulence, then, would go on – but, he reckons, there will be no leadership plots this side of the next election.

We shall see. At the moment, the Conservative party occasionally brings to mind the Labour party of the 1980s, which was similarly faction-ridden, very ideological and full of feuds that were often as much personal as political. Among the Tories’ current opponents, then, there is a pronounced tendency to assume that the forces of history will once against assert themselves, Cameron’s time in government will be no more than a blip, and Labour will soon be back in office.

But that ignores some things about the Tories that remain firmly in place. First, the people in charge are a lot cleverer than some people would like to think. Second, they remain the party of the powerful, backed not just by huge economic interests, but most of the press, who may sometimes make Cameron’s life more difficult than he would prefer, but will come running once the next election comes into view. This strange mixture of strife and power, then, may yet continue – in which case, just wait until that Europe referendum, when all the Tories’ post-Thatcher tensions may well explode, making their current woes look like an unimaginable period of love and peace.

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There is cold fear and resentment, but little sense of hope | John Harris

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Libraries, swimming pools, youth services: all are under threat, with no evidence of an entrepreneurial spirit being created

The library in the Walker area of Newcastle was opened in 1908. Paid for by the renowned local industrialist Sir William Haswell Stephenson in memory of his late wife, its austere red-brick exterior embodies values that it’s easy to get dewy-eyed about: civic pride, popular education, the idea that success brings with it an obligation to give something back. When it celebrated its centenary five years ago, there were tributes to how the library had moved with the times, and found room for a thriving playgroup. “I’m sure Walker library will continue to serve the community for many years to come,” said the city councillor in charge of culture and leisure services, and the festivities passed in a blur of talks, exhibitions, and Edwardian fancy dress.

But Walker library is now one of 10 in Newcastle set to close. When it goes, it will leave a neighbourhood seemingly held together by not much more than a snack bar and a peeling bingo hall. Local library services will be moved to a sports centre. Although staff at the playgroup reckon as few as a quarter of families will take up the offer, there are negotiations under way to find the children – and some of the staff – places at an annexe to a primary school close by. But context is everything: not just in terms of the loss of such a symbolic building, but the axe falling on services across the city.

Having taken serious financial blows since 2010 and set its budget on a year-by-year basis, Newcastle city council has just finished its public consultation on cuts of around £100m spread over three years to 2016 – and they make for terrifying reading. By then, it says it will have to cut about a third of its budget and shed 1,300 jobs.

There is an undercurrent of local noise about the aspects of the cuts pinned to cost inflation, and allegations that Labour council leader Nick Forbes is proposing such drastic moves in order to pick a fight with Westminster. If that is the case, you have to believe not only that he thinks laying waste to the city is a good career move, but that beneath an Alan Milburn-ish exterior lies a secret clone of Derek Hatton. The truth is much more prosaic, and all about a grim pincer movement afflicting councils across the country: in Newcastle, about £50m cut from money the council receives from central government, coupled with rising demand for the basic services it is statutorily required to provide.

Last week, while the Treasury reportedly plotted further cuts to local government, the National Audit Office issued a report ominously titled Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities. With some understatement, it acknowledged “evidence that local authorities are reducing services”, and pointed out that they “may find it harder over the rest of the spending review period to absorb funding reductions”. But only some of them: to quote those well-known lefty provocateurs the Audit Commission, “councils in the most deprived areas have seen substantially greater reductions in government funding as a share of revenue expenditure than councils in less deprived areas.” In other words, Hackney, Hastings, Newham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle take a big hit, but Elmsbridge, Winchester and Richmond-upon-Thames have got off very lightly indeed.

That kind of imbalance is also reflected in the way the cuts are reported. In the London-based media, Newcastle is currently a byword for the 100% drop in the council’s arts budget that sparked an irate letter signed by such long-departed notables as the singer Bryan Ferry (who, in 2009, said “I would support a Cameron government … I have met him, and he’s a bright guy”) and a 61-year-old musician who still calls himself Sting. Unfortunately, there seem to be no stars who will speak up for the youth services set to be killed by a 100% cut in their budget, the Sure Start provision soon to be restricted to “those who need it most”, the respite services for parents of disabled children that will shut, the city’s remaining educational psychologists or the imperilled swimming pools.

Across the city, I sample an atmosphere that mixes cold fear with seething resentment – but remarkably little sense that the city has any other options. In hard-bitten Byker, the attendees at a local consultation meeting predict the area’s youth “running amok”, and complain bitterly of being at the receiving end of class war. In Scotswood, which overlooks the city in the manner of a silent bystander, a play centre seems likely to close some time in the spring and the volunteers who run the local neighbourhood centre also complain about the changes to benefits that will hit scores of local people (and annually suck £83m out of the city’s economy). In nearby Benwell, I meet two mothers outraged by what is happening to Sure Start, and services they access from after-school clubs, libraries and leisure centres that are all planned to close. The council’s official blurb promises that theirs is among areas that will be protected from the worst of the cuts, but this can easily seem like so much hair-splitting.

All this makes your head spin. But at the same time, you get a keen sense of bright, shining hypocrisies that extend into the distance. Ministers still parrot the political class’s habitual platitudes about “aspiration” and “opportunity”, while in places such as this they are self-evidently meaningless. All that stuff about the cuts avoiding what Nick Clegg calls “intergenerational theft” is made risible by what they’re doing to the life chances of millions of young people.

There is also occasional hand-wringing about the north-south divide: “We are not making use of the talent out there in all parts of our United Kingdom,” says Cameron, while the gap widens at speed. We might note that what Newcastle is losing over three years, we have been spending in Afghanistan every 8.3 days. Funny, isn’t it, how the prime minister can apparently find money for his adventure in Mali, but still insist that places nearer home are all but crushed in the cause of fiscal exactitude?

There is, I suppose, some coalition fantasy in which the barren expanses they are creating will sprout new centres of entrepreneurial zeal. According to this, today’s youth – refused extra educational help or denied a local library – becomes tomorrow’s genius digital tycoons, or something. But in Walker, even the technology that promises liberation only seems to sow more problems: at the nursery built in to the library, one of the women in charge tells me that children are suffering speech and language problems because their parents spend every waking hour on their mobiles.

Meanwhile, constructive outlets for people’s time and energy are shutting their doors, and the future offers pained quiet, broken by distant voices claiming, as ever, that what hurts also works. Where, really, is the evidence?

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Cuts, the council leader and a ‘bloody great crisis’ in Newcastle – video | John Harris

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

At the request of viewers, the latest installment of Anywhere but Westminster sees John Harris go behind the scenes with Newcastle council leader Nick Forbes, who’s leading the local government fightback against cuts

John Harris
John Domokos

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