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March 10, 2014updated 29 Jan 2016 5:48pm

Ben Judah's NYT piece is wrong where it doesn't matter and right where it does

By Spear's

Attack Ben Judah’s argument by all means – but go for the meat, not the irrelevant details

If you see facts as building bricks for an argument, you’re justified in doubting the argument if the facts are wrong. But perhaps there are building-brick facts and, say, decorative-tile facts: if these decorative facts are wrong, maybe your building is ugly or pockmarked, but it’s no less structurally sound.

This is the situation Ben Judah finds himself in: he has written a piece for the New York Times about why Britain is against imposing sanctions on wealthy Russians but got many decorative facts wrong.

Not just wrong – stupidly wrong. Take this: ‘The Shard encapsulates the new hierarchy of the city. On the top floors, “ultra high net worth individuals” entertain escorts in luxury apartments. By day, on floors below, investment bankers trade incomprehensible derivatives.’

As has been pointed out by Allister Heath and Sean Thomas, no-one yet lives in the Shard, let alone entertains prostitutes there, and no-one trades derivatives in it yet either.

London’s buses aren’t dirty (well, the 273 is a bit dodgy but the 38 has been designed by Thomas Heatherwick). Most of Mayfair isn’t unoccupied. There are no hordes of back-broken Lithuanians suffering on the South Bank.

But. But. These are decorative-tile facts – colour, as we call it in journalism – not building-brick facts. They are supposed to contribute to a dramatic and depressing picture of London, and that they’re wrong makes the article somewhat embarrassing.

Judah’s actual argument is, contrarily, dead on the money (so to speak). He writes:

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‘Britain’s ruling class has decayed to the point where its first priority is protecting its cut of Russian money — even as Russian armored personnel carriers rumble around the streets of Sevastopol. But the establishment understands that, in the 21st century, what matters are banks, not tanks… Here, in their capital city, the English are no longer calling the shots. They are hirelings.’

He points to how ‘Britain’s bright young things now become consultants, art dealers, private banker and hedge funders. Or, to put it another way, the oligarchs’ valets.’

This argument is, well, unarguable: one of Britain’s chief industries is financial services. They bring ’80 billion to London each year. Spear’s has been reporting on London’s new service class since we started – and there’s nothing wrong with that: we’re good at it and it brings wealth to Britain.

So I don’t wholly agree with the moral slant Judah takes – but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong: if we wanted to ‘bankrupt the Putin clique’, we probably could, or at least give them a serious kneeing in the balls.

What’s happening is that people who dislike the truth of Judah’s argument are picking away at the decorative details, not the real argument. If Allister Heath, Sean Thomas or anyone else wants to challenge that, I’m sure we’d all be happy to hear it. But they can’t, because Judah is right: banks, not tanks.

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