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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Just what does Starmer believe in? His brand of ancient Socialism is dead

Our country is now so broken, so confused, so befuddled, so delusional, so incoherent, so intellectually deranged that it will take more, much more, than the coming change of Government to fix it.

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It will take a generation and a leader with the qualities, though not necessarily the politics, of Churchill (and then some). We don’t yet know who that will be but I promise you it will not be Sir Keir Starmer.

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Starmer will be the kind of Prime Minister we have become used to ever since John Major was living above the shop in Downing Street. He will be earnest, mostly sincere, a good manager and careful with the economy.

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But do you know yet what he believes in? He cloaks himself in romantic socialism. Ask him about it and he might trot out memories of a Leftist upbringing, mention that the name Keir was bestowed in honour of Keir Hardy, the trade union firebrand who was a founding father of the Labour Party.

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He will point to his modest roots – father a toolmaker, mother a nurse – and recall the pebbledash house where he grew up in Surrey. But he will gloss over the knighthood, the stellar legal career that culminated in him leading the Crown Prosecution Service, the affluent gaff in North London.

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None of it matters really because the socialism he looks fondly back on is long gone. It was the socialism of coal miners, steelworkers, shipbuilders and, yes, craftsmen like Starmer’s dad.

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Starmer will want to keep the party rooted in the centre Left, where Tony Blair planted the first green shoots of New Labour – because we’re all middle class now and that’s where the votes are. So, it won’t matter how you vote at election time. The choice will be between Starmer and someone exactly like him on the centre Right.

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The trouble is that the battle is not between Right and Left any more, but between right and wrong. Our society is a hall of mirrors that distorts its values and plays tricks on the minds of its young people.

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One of the first problems Starmer might have to turn his mind to is Thames Water. So, here’s a question for him: What kind of society poisons its own well? In the past, this company has been run by a vile bunch of charlatans and crooks who are responsible for the worst scandal I can recall.

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Successive owners have milked its resources and paid themselves and their cronies handsome salaries, bonuses and dividends while failing to invest enough in infrastructure and maxing out the company’s borrowing. It now owes a staggering £18.3 billion and is considered “uninvestible”, meaning you’d have to be one sandwich short of a picnic to put money into it.

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The debt mountain includes £190 million loaned by two Chinese banks and due to be repaid at the end of this month. If they won’t restructure the loans and default follows, the banks could end up as shareholders. The China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, already owns 8.7 per cent of Thames Water.

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Meanwhile, raw sewage continues to be poured into the Thames and other rivers in the South East, turning them into a cesspit that poisons fish, bathers, rowers and the whole ecosystem supporting the waterways. It stinks, both literally and ethically.

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And don’t imagine that because you pay your water bills to a different company, you have nothing to worry about – other water companies are in serious trouble, too.

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You can see Thames Water as a business problem or a political problem. In fact, it’s a moral one. This was happening in plain sight and yet no one acted. Were the regulators asleep on the job? Worse, were they complicit? As with the Post Office scandal, no one has yet gone to jail. Why?

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Margaret Thatcher flogged off the water companies in 1979 for £7.6 billion. She was wrong to put our most basic asset at the mercy of shareholders and I would argue the same is true of the railways.

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But it is too late now. The question is: If it becomes Starmer’s problem, what will he do about it?

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He will have more esoteric troubles to address too. This country is riven by cultural anxieties. Tomorrow (Wednesday) the Cass review into gender identity services for children will say that transgender children face grave psychological consequences if they are allowed to “socially transition”.

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The number of children who see themselves as females trapped in a male body (or vice versa, of course) is rising. Some schools have allowed children to change gender without telling their parents. Those who change their names and pronouns to the gender of their choosing could be damaged psychologically, the review, led by Dame Hilary Cass, will conclude.

‍ It is likely to lead to new guidance for teachers from the Department for Education on how to deal with transgender children. My generation had no idea such children existed and some, such as Harry Potter author JK Rowling, pictured, will not accept that they do.

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She sees it as fantasy or a self-indulgent whim, at best; at worst, predatory males out to prey on unsuspecting women. Rowling takes some stick for that – “so many death threats I could paper the house with them” – but refuses to back down in the face of the abuse. So, here’s an idea: Rowling for PM. She might just be the no-nonsense leader we’ve been looking for.

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Ever heard of “gaslighting”? This is another modern phenomenon: It means undermining someone by psychological manipulation. Often it’s a partner aiming to gain control over the subject by making them question their own instincts, beliefs, judgement – and to shatter their confidence. It too is on the rise.

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Children new to dating find themselves coerced into sexual relationships by online bullying and mockery. Employees complain that their bosses are gaslighting them by questioning their ability and chipping away at their self-esteem. Of course, some of this is real passive aggression and some imagined.

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The term gaslighting is taken from the title of a 1944 noir film by George Cukor – Gaslight, about a crook who marries a woman to steal her inherited jewellery. As he searches the attic for the gems, he switches on the gaslights, causing others in the house to flicker. He then convinces the woman that she must have imagined the flickering.

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Psychologists have also adopted the word as a clinical concept. It is all part of the rash of mental illness and frailty that has overtaken young people.

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These are not the normal problems that politicians are faced with. Inflation, crime, even war … they understand how to deal with those. But these are symptoms of a deep national malaise. We don’t know who we are any more.

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Waves of newcomers have arrived to make their lives here; far too many to be integrated comfortably. It is not easy to lay out the welcome mat if you have been waiting patiently, perhaps desperately, for an operation and see strangers coming ashore to put even more pressure on a dysfunctional health system.

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You don’t become British merely by virtue of being given a British passport. Immigrants dream of coming here but some of those living that dream become disillusioned. They have been forced to take jobs other don’t want and live in squalid housing. Their children drift to the margins, turn to crime.

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Ask the Nordic countries. Once almost laughably liberal, they are now looking to the nationalist far-Right for answers.

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We cannot house the people who are already here, so how can we deal humanely with the thousands more arriving every year? And that’s without considering our own children and grandchildren, who see buying their home as a shimmering mirage on the horizon, ready to dissolve as soon as they reach out for it.

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Yet, where I live, homes are being built on every available plot of land. Towers are going up, each containing dozens of flats. But too many of them will not be lived in. My local council sends people to a housing investment jolly at Cannes, in the South of France, to glad-hand the money men and encourage them to invest in the borough.

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And they do (with the unspoken understanding that there will be a light touch on planning permissions). Some buy land and build. Others buy apartments and then leave them vacant while their value goes up and up. What kind of society solves a housing crisis in this way?

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Starmer might not consider these among his most pressing problems. But they are. He must find a way to make Britain a cohesive society again. We have had a taste of social unrest recently and I sense more to come.

*****

‍ I love the story of Russ Cook, the self-styled “Hardest Geezer”, who ran the length of Africa in 352 days, raising £700,000 for charity.

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He was robbed at gunpoint, kidnapped and his back almost gave out under the stress of running a marathon a day. But he made it, went for a dip in the sea and enjoyed a triumphant strawberry daiquiri.

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Before he left, Cook, 27, from Worthing, Sussex, told how he had been wasting his life drinking and gambling – until he had an epiphany at 3am in a Brighton nightclub.

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Pah! I thought. We’ve all had one of them. But fair’s fair, we didn’t all run 10,000 miles afterwards. Top man, Russ.

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I’ve been watching two series on Netflix: The Gentlemen and Ripley. The first is vintage Guy Ritchie, funny, beautifully written and acted and full of characters as grotesque as cathedral gargoyles. The second, shot by Steven Zaillian in sumptuous black and white, is a masterpiece, utterly mesmerising. See them both while you can.


RICHARD DISMORE


9 April 2024