Diary: Ed and David put us on fast track to boredom

Prime Ministers' Questions yesterday featured an unenlightening argument between Ed Miliband and David Cameron about who allowed the rail companies to put up fares by 11 per cent. Cameron alleged they were given that freedom by the Labour government. Miliband claimed, on the contrary, that Labour removed that freedom but the Coalition gave it back.

Cameron then came back with the claim that Labour changed the rules for "one year only – for an election year – there was no intention of making that permanent".

The argument dragged on long after the Commons chamber had cleared. Tory spin doctors produced copies of a franchise document signed in January 2010 by the then Transport Secretary, Andrew Adonis, which restricted the train operators' right to raise fares during the calendar year 2010, but specifying that the old rules would automatically apply after 1 January 2011 "except as may be contained in a further notice".

But Lord Adonis countered that with a statement saying that of course he would have issued another notice restricting fare rises for another year, if Labour had been returned to power.

What this mind-numbing argument illustrates is the farcical nature of the "privatised" railway system. In Victorian times, the railways operated in a genuine free market without state subsidy, but back then there were no cars or lorries to compete with. If the railways were left to the mercy of market forces now, all but a few lines would vanish. They are kept going for social and environmental reasons under government supervision.

Therefore, it is a political decision how much of the cost comes from tax, and how much from rail passengers. Labour decided to shift part of the cost in one direction and the Coalition, in its anxiety to limit public spending, shifted it back again.

Still the fares debate produced this priceless quote from the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening: "The real long-term way of reducing the pressures of relentless fare rises is actually to tackle the underlying driver..."

Music scene getting too heavy for Diane

Some rappers have set a bad example to the young by being overweight, unlike the slender rock stars of previous decades, says Diane Abbott, Labour's shadow health minister, in an interview with Food Manufacture magazine.

"A generation ago, pop stars – particularly in America – tended to come from working-class communities and be quite skinny. Now you have these rappers who are obese, which points to obesity being more of an issue for poor people who, perhaps, live in food deserts where it is harder to get fresh foods," she remarked.

It is customary to quote Ms Abbott only when she has put her foot in it, but if anything, this observation is dated.

Darren Robinson, known as the Human Beat Box, of the New York group, The Fat Boys, reputedly weighed 450lb when he died in 1995, aged 28. Christopher Lee Rio, alias Big Pun, also from New York, who also died at 28 from a heart attack, in 2000, weighed a reputed 780lb. In other words, some time in the past 20 years, junk food supplanted illegal drugs as the main threat to the lives of young music stars. Whether that is an improvement is a matter of opinion.

Name the men from the mountains

"I spent a happy Christmas indulging myself in the 24-hour existence of Carpatho-Ruthenia," said the Tory MP Paul Maynard during a Commons debate on the schools history syllabus – in tribute to the latest volume by the historian Norman Davies.

"It's not something I'd want to inflict on a group of 11-year olds," he added. People can laugh about Ruthenia, on the western slope of the Ukraine's Carpathian mountains, but from this small place sprang two of the most famous names of the 20th century.

One, to be precise, never visited Ruthenia; he was an ethnic Ruthenian, whose parents emigrated to Pittsburgh shortly before he was born.

The other grew up there, in a family of poor Hasidic Jews from a Ruthenian village, and left when he was a teenager. If you don't know who they are, check this column tomorrow.

Trench warfare over independence

Scotland has been promised a referendum in "autumn 1914", the SNP MP Pete Wishart told the Commons yesterday. Will the soldiers on the Somme get a postal vote, I wonder?

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