Richard Ingrams: One issue rises above war and economic crisis

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The Independent Online

With the capitalist system in crisis and economic forecasters once more staring into the abyss, while protesting Syrians are massacred and millions face death from starvation in Africa, the Daily Mail focuses on what is considered a more important issue: the proliferation of the plastic bag in our towns and cities.

It may seem absurd but politicians of all parties will pay serious attention to this irrelevant crusade. The reason is that they live in fear of the Daily Mail and its weird, if talented, editor Mr Paul Dacre. The notion that Mr Dacre and his newspaper represent the opinions of that mysterious entity called Middle England is accepted as a self-evident truth by all those hoping to appeal to its inhabitants, and especially the Tories.

So we should not be surprised to find London's Mayor Boris Johnson adding his support to the anti-plastic bag campaign. "Plastic bags are an unnecessary scourge on our environment," he proclaims, "and I've set out my ambition to make London a plastic-bag-free city. We are planning a renewed campaign ahead of 2012 when the eyes of the world are on us."

So visitors pouring into London for the Olympic Games will be expected to overlook the city's crumbling underground system, the countless roadworks and traffic jams and instead salute the mayor for ridding the capital of the menace of the plastic bag like some latter-day pied piper.

Expensive research in an age of austerity

People are so busy these days either kicking cans down the road or balls into the long grass that it is often difficult for the observer to make out what, if anything, has been decided on various important questions.

In the case of Rupert Murdoch and his proposed takeover of BskyB, it was never quite clear who was going to do the deciding. One minute it looked as if the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was the man responsible while others involved, including Hunt himself, seemed to think the final decision would rest with the communications watchdog Ofcom. But few people seemed to know anything about Ofcom, and in the endless debates about the issue Ofcom said nothing at all.

Ofcom is, in fact, a quango which somehow managed to escape the flames in David Cameron's promised bonfire. It is headed by someone called Ed Richards who draws a very large salary and perhaps wisely keeps a very low profile.

This week Ofcom published a report about smartphones telling us, inter alia, that 27 per cent of teenagers now use smartphones in venues where they have been asked to turn them off. Ofcom's director of research, James Thickett, said, "This raises an issue about social etiquette and modern manners and the degree to which we are tolerant of such behaviour."

It also, one might add, raises an issue about whether in this age of austerity the state should pay people like Richards and Thickett to engage in such a pointless exercise.

Resign in protest, repent at leisure

A BBC programme about political resignations proved little apart from showing how very few public figures there are who have resigned as a matter of principle. Two of the notable exceptions are Lord Carrington, still with us, who resigned as foreign secretary over the Falklands war, and Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned from the Foreign Office over Blair's invasion of Iraq, as did Robin Cook, Clare Short and two junior ministers.

In a culture where few people in responsible positions are called to account – will anyone be named and shamed for wasting billions of pounds on an NHS computer system that has now been scrapped? – it is considered sufficient merely to offer your resignation in the almost certain knowledge that the offer won't be accepted. Former BBC director general Greg Dyke was caught out failing to ensure that this was the case and to his obvious dismay found himself in the street.

As for what resignation achieves, the answer is pretty well nothing, a lesson that was forcibly brought home to me when many years ago I resigned as The Spectator's TV critic in protest at the sacking of the then editor, Alexander Chancellor. A few weeks later the magazine appointed its new TV critic – Alexander Chancellor.