‘It’s that Florida 2000 feeling all over again’, said the BBC anchorman at breakfast on Wednesday. It wasn’t. George Bush was well ahead in the popular vote nationally and seemed set to win even without Ohio. The only similarity with Florida 2000 was the Democrats’ (and therefore the television’s) desire to take away the legitimacy of the result. But what is most frustrating about coverage of US elections in Britain — and it is happening more and more with our domestic election coverage — is the paucity of hard information. Elections have results, lots of them, in congressional districts, in Senate races, in states, across the nation. It’s like football or cricket. If you’re interested enough to be watching, you want to know the scores, and what they mean. I watched and listened to the BBC for a couple of hours without ever being given actual figures for all the states that had declared. Instead we cut back again and again to the exhausted and disappointed John Simpson with the Republicans, Bridget Kendall with Kerry etc., with the endless, dire ‘What is the mood?’ question. Jim Naughtie gave us slow-moving interviews with moderately well-known people about what might happen over the next four years. So much more interesting to learn about swings, surprises, black votes, blue-collar votes, turnout figures, the character of key counties in key states. You get all this on Fox from the brilliant Michael Barone, editor of the Almanac of American Politics. British television seems to have no real electoral experts at all.
Anyway, as discussed in this column on 2 October, the ‘warmongers’ are winning. First John Howard, now George Bush and, next year, probably, Tony Blair. This doesn’t automatically mean they are right, of course, but it should moderate the hysterical tone of their denouncers. These three English-speaking nations are not being dragged into madness by undemocratic leaders. The leaders are wrestling with a hugely difficult global problem quite bravely and thoughtfully. The majority of voters are prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The other day, I entered the grand building of a megabank and was issued with a visitor pass. On the back of the pass, a banner read, ‘Commitment to a Safe Environment’. There followed a series of orders. The first said, ‘Visitors have a duty of care whilst on the premises and must comply with the firm’s Health and Safety Policy and Fire Procedures.’ Most of the infuriating aspects of our culture seemed compressed into this tiny slip of paper — the bossiness, the obsession with legal liability, and the goody-goody pretence that all this is for ‘the environment’.
Another aspect of commitment to the environment is wind farms. These defy the power of satire. Last week I drove over to ghostly Lydd airport to sit in on the inquiry about the proposal to build 26 wind turbines on Romney Marsh. Bird experts were explaining how these objects, nearly two and a half times as high as ordinary pylons, would drive away and/or chew up shovellers, golden plover, Bewick’s swans, and the very rare bittern. I suppose these rural skyscrapers might, conceivably, be a price worth paying if they really could satisfy our energy needs, but an experiment conducted by a friend of mine puts some perspective on this. He lives in eastern Scotland, where more wind farms are proposed. The developers have told him that no electricity is generated by wind farms at speeds of less than five metres per second. My friend, an environmental and meteorological enthusiast, has taken 50,000 readings with a device on the roof of his house over the past few years. Only 3 per cent of the time has the wind averaged the speed required. Because Romney Marsh is perfectly flat, you can see across it. Leaving Lydd airport, you find a more environmental answer to our energy problems in full view. It is called Dungeness power station. It is nuclear.
A Muslim leader here, Dr Ahmed al-Rawi, president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, has said it is legitimate to fight British soldiers in Iraq, and has signed a declaration with other Muslim leaders to that effect. Reporting the story, the Sunday Times said that the Muslim Council of Britain ‘distanced itself from al-Rawi’ but the quoted response from the MCB was, ‘The MCB has always opposed the war, and we want to see our troops brought back home immediately, and their lives not further endangered.’ Note that this is not a contradiction of al-Rawi’s view. It is not clear that the MCB does think it is wrong to attack or kidnap British soldiers in Iraq. I have asked them to say that it is, and they have declined. I have sympathy with those thoughtful men on the Council who explain what a hard task it is to hold all Muslims together on a moderate response to questions of this sort, but if that is so, it only confirms how serious the problem is.
Here’s a problem that I think the new ‘access regulator’ for universities hasn’t thought about. Quite high proportions of students in this country are from overseas. They are not controlled by government quotas and they are liable for full fees rather than subsidised ones. As a result, therefore, it is likely that these students are grossly unrepresentative of global ethnicity and social class. Far more will come from America and other parts of the developed world than from, say, equatorial Africa. And those who do come from poor countries will tend, even allowing for scholarships, to be the children of privileged elites. Time, surely, for the government to force universities to commit to equality of access across the globe and a much more strenuous attempt to find Bushmen, Inuit, Bedouin, or residents of favelas, at present put off by the appallingly middle-class image of the universities. How long before Gordon Brown finds some Nigerian Laura Spence denied a place at Oxford in favour of some Wasp from Massachusetts and excoriates the university for its racism and snobbery?
The discovery of an 18,000-year-old female skeleton in the Indonesian island of Flores is very exciting. One argument advanced by experts to show that the creature was, indeed, human is that there is evidence of ‘collaborative hunting’. So at the same time as hunting is identified as part of the definition of our species, the House of Commons is trying to ban it.