When will we ever learn?

In 2012, sugar became more dangerous than gunpowder. According to the historian Yuval Noah Harari, of the 56 million people who died that year, 620,000 did so by the hand of their fellow humans: 120,000 in war and 500,000 from crime. By contrast, 1.5 million died from diabetes. Harari’s wry observation adds weight to Steven Pinker’s assertion in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) that humans are on a trajectory towards peace and non-violence. But wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, across the Sahel and Yemen; Russian and Chinese irredentism; nuclear threats from North Korea; Trump’s belligerency, not to mention the asymmetry of terrorism, render urgently relevant the continued

Stand and deliver

Some opera-lovers prefer concert performances to full stagings. I don’t. It’s that whole Gesamtkunstwerk thing: opera needs to be seen as well as heard. There’ll always be circumstances in which concert performances are welcome — to rescue a neglected score, say, or if a symphony orchestra wants to stretch itself. But when a major company presents standard repertoire in concert, it feels like an admission of defeat. Opera North recently mounted a magnificent concert version of Wagner’s Ring — but for all the brave talk about a ‘radically stripped-back’ production, who seriously doubts that, if funds had allowed, it’d rather have gone the whole way? Now it’s doing Turandot in

Watch: Dithering Labour frontbencher Jon Ashworth hounded by Piers Morgan

If Labour ever does make it to No.10, it’ll be Jeremy Corbyn with his finger on the nuclear button. The Labour leader has been famously wishy-washy on whether he’d retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack. And it seems Corbyn isn’t alone on the Labour frontbench in dithering on the subject. Following his performance during an interview on Good Morning Britain today, Mr S hopes that Labour MP Jon Ashworth isn’t involved in the decision-making process in the event of a nuclear strike. Ashworth was repeatedly asked by Piers Morgan what he would do if another country launched an attack on Britain. Here’s what he said: When @piersmorgan asks

Portrait of the week | 27 April 2017

Home Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, cheered the United Kingdom by promising four new bank holidays for the whole country when he becomes prime minister, for the patronal days of St David, St Patrick, St George and St Andrew. Asked about the replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent, he said: ‘I’ve made clear any use of nuclear weapons would be a disaster for the whole world.’ Three hours later, the Labour party put out a statement saying: ‘The decision to renew Trident has been taken and Labour supports that.’ The Communist Party decided not to field candidates against Labour. Theresa May, the Prime Minister, visited South Wales, following a YouGov

Barometer | 26 January 2017

Nuclear near-misses It was revealed that last June an unarmed Trident missile test-fired off Florida from a British submarine headed in the wrong direction, towards the US. Some other accidents involving nuclear weapons: 24 Jan 1961 A B52 bomber exploded in mid-air after taking off from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. Three of the four activation devices on one of the two hydrogen bombs it was carrying were turned on. 8 Dec 1964 A B-58 caught fire on the ground at Bunker Hill Air Force Base in Indiana. The nuclear bomb on board was burned but did not explode. 18 Sept 1980 A worker at Little Rock

Long life | 8 December 2016

While American conservatives, including Donald Trump and the Cuban exiles in Florida, whooped with joy at the news of the death of Fidel Castro, and while millions of America-haters throughout the world extravagantly mourned his passing, Barack Obama was circumspect. ‘History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,’ he said. This was a restrained comment by an American president about a foreign leader whose 47 years of dictatorship had been sustained almost entirely by stirring up hatred of the United States; and we won’t have to wait for history’s verdict on his impact on that particular country, for we

Agents of enterprise

A teenager in the second decade of the Cold War, my father was taught to play snooker by a KGB agent. His own father was the principal of a theological college in London that had been allowed to accept two foreign students from Russia only if, said the Moscow authorities, a third ‘student’ (notably less ardent in his desire to become a clergyman) was allowed to accompany them. And this is the problem of the world of international espionage: you think it’s going to be all poisoned-tip umbrellas and canasta parties but can wind up in South Norwood studying early church history while making sure Sergey and Dmitry aren’t getting

1966 and all that

In the song ‘All the Young Dudes’, David Bowie gamely tried to reassure the youth of the Seventies that, despite what their Sixties elders were always telling them, they hadn’t been born too late after all. On the contrary: it was the ‘brother back at home with his Beatles and his Stones’ who was missing out. Sadly, for those of us growing up at the time, even Bowie at his most thrilling wasn’t quite as persuasive as we’d have liked. OK, so it was definitely annoying to be surrounded by people banging on about how great the Sixties were. But once we’d heard the music, there was an uncomfortable sense

Barometer | 28 April 2016

Getting a head Barack Obama dismissed Boris Johnson’s accusations that he shown disdain for Sir Winston Churchill by removing a bust from the Oval Office. What’s the going rate on eBay for such a bust? One-sixth scale resin bust of Winston Churchill (removable head) £12.50 Sir Winston Churchill bronze/brass bust £44 English-made marble bust of Sir Winston Churchill £70 Signed classic Winston Churchill bust by Oscar Nemon £80 Tallent Winston Churchill Terracotta Bust Cigar Lighter (used) £165 The academy difference Education Secretary Nicky Morgan partially retreated on plans to turn all schools into academies, free from council control. How do academies perform against maintained schools at GCSE? Sponsored academies Capped point

Apocalypse now? Markets seem set on a self-fulfilling prophecy

All this talk of a new financial apocalypse, so soon after the last one, is starting to annoy me. Partly because investors as a crowd are so irrational; -partly because so much that governments and central banks have done to contribute to the current market mayhem seems to work against the sensible efforts of ordinary folk to build a bottom-up recovery. Markets first. We’ve had hissy fits about China, even though connections between the Chinese and UK economies are so marginal. We’ve had near-hysteria about the prospect of (and in the US, the start of) rising interest rates. Now there’s a panic about European banks, because Deutsche Bank, midway through

Portrait of the week | 18 February 2016

Home David Cameron, the Prime Minister, spent time in Brussels before a meeting of the European Council to see what it would allow him to bring home for voters in a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. The board of HSBC voted to keep its headquarters in Britain. Sir John Vickers, who headed the Independent Commission on Banking, said that Bank of England proposals for bank capital reserves were ‘less strong than what the ICB recommended’. The annual rate of inflation, measured by the Consumer Prices Index, rose to 0.3 per cent in January, compared with 0.2 per cent in December. Unemployment fell by 60,000 to 1.69 million. A

I told you so: the UK electricity gap looms wider than ever

Amid all the turmoil in global energy markets, we should not lose sight of the UK power programme that we’re praying will keep our lights on a decade hence: it is, as you know, a hobbyhorse of mine. So how’s it going down at Hinkley Point in Somerset? My man with big binoculars in the Bridgwater Bay nature reserve tells me he’s seeing plenty of lorry movements on the nuclear site, but signals from EDF of France — which has a two-thirds interest in this £18 billion project, alongside Chinese investors — are very worrying. Having already spent £2 billion, the French state utility has deferred until at least the

Portrait of the week | 12 November 2015

Home David Cameron, the Prime Minister, outlined four changes he sought in Britain’s membership of the EU. He wanted to protect the single market for Britain and others outside the eurozone; to increase commercial competitiveness; to exempt Britain from an ‘ever closer union’; and to restrict EU migrants’ access to in-work benefits. Mr Cameron put the demands in a letter to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council. David Lidington, the Europe minister, said that others in the EU could put forward ‘alternative proposals that deliver the same result’. In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, Mr Cameron had said: ‘The argument isn’t whether Britain could survive

The great British kowtow

Any British Prime Minister who meets the Dalai Lama knows it will upset the Chinese government — but for decades, no British Prime Minister has much cared. John Major met him in 10 Downing Street, as did Tony Blair. These were small but important nods to Britain’s longstanding status as a friend of Tibet. Of course the Chinese Communist Party disliked seeing the exiled Buddhist leader welcomed in London — but that was their problem. How things have changed. Now China is far richer and Britain is anxious, sometimes embarrassingly so, to have a slice of that new wealth. From the start of his premiership, David Cameron has been explicit

Barometer | 24 September 2015

Available for parties Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said that leaving his party to join the Liberal Democrats would be like ‘leaving the Beatles to join a Bananarama tribute band’. Is there such a thing? Bananaruma is a Leicester-based band led by the head of arts at a local secondary school. They advertise an hour-long show, for which they bring their own professional PA system with full lighting show. So far they have had one booking, at the Stamford Arms in Groby on 25 July. Tickets cost £20, including a three-course meal, with a bottle of bubbly thrown in for tables of six who booked before 1 July. Sporting chances

The clock that stopped: the victory of nuclear arms and defeat of nuclear power

‘I visited the black marble obelisk which marks the epicentre of the explosion, and I saw the plain domestic wall-clock retrieved intact from the rubble with its bent hands recording the precise time of day when the city was obliterated: 11.02 a.m. I was glad to be alone, because I could not have spoken.’ Published here 20 years ago, that was my memory of Nagasaki, the target on 9 August 1945 of the second and last nuclear weapon ever deployed. The subsequent seven decades of non-use of nuclear arms — deterred by that most chilling of threats, ‘mutually assured destruction’ — is one of the miracles of modern history, given the

Toby Young

Nuclear reaction

The 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has produced some predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth about the horrors of nuclear weapons. The Guardian called the dropping of the bombs ‘obscene’, citing the figure of 250,000 casualties, and CND organised a commemorative event where Jeremy Corbyn renewed his call for unilateral nuclear disarmament. As a conservative and a realist, I don’t have the luxury of moral certainty. Was Harry Truman wrong to take the decision he did? On 16 August 1945, Winston Churchill defended him in a speech in the House of Commons, making what has since become the standard case. Yes, Japan would have been defeated eventually, but the

Nuclear overreaction

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my three main fears were: being blown up by the IRA; being eaten by a Jaws-like great white shark; being vaporised by a nuclear bomb. I expect it was the same for most kids of my generation. The first two, obviously, were a function of the Birmingham bombings (et al.) and the Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg axis of shark terror. And the third was the product of the relentless propagandising of CND as rehearsed faithfully on pretty much every BBC programme going from John Craven’s Newsround to The Archers, Animal Magic and Roobarb and Custard. I don’t actually remember the notorious episode where

Selective memory

It’s 70 years since the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and yet there has been no rush to commemorate this anniversary. It’s perhaps not surprising. Who would choose to recall the events of 6 August 1945 when the world first witnessed the effects of nuclear warfare? Yet the absence of date-setting, the annual forgetting, makes it appear that we’re much less keen to remember something that might make us feel uncomfortable or discredit us. One exception was on Radio 4 on Monday morning, when, in Under the Mushroom Cloud, Shuntaro Hida, a 98-year-old survivor of Hiroshima, told us frankly and without sentiment his memories of that day in

There was a credible alternative to the Iran deal. Obama just chose to ignore it

President Obama has accused critics of the recently announced deal with Iran of having no credible alternative. According to Obama, it was this deal or no deal. And then, alleges the president, the options are either acquiescence or war. But this is a false choice, set up by the Obama administration to make its bad deal look like the best we ever could have hoped for. Yet, the truth is that the alternative to this deal was not no deal, it was a better deal, one that actually met the international community’s objectives in undertaking negotiations in the first place. The Iran deal presented at Vienna is both weak and