New Statesman Contents
Leader: University tuition fees and the common good
February 21st, 2018, 05:56 AM

We do too little to help the poorest ascend the education escalator to a life of more opportunity.

When the Conservative-led coalition trebled university tuition fees to £9,000 a year from 2012, the intention was to create a market in higher education. David Willetts, then universities minister, predicted that institutions would only charge the maximum amount in “exceptional circumstances”. He was wrong: almost all universities (not only the elite Russell Group) have done so.

The result is that students in England now graduate with average debts of £50,800, at a time when real wages are stagnant and we have a housing crisis. At the 2017 general election, Labour’s pledge to end tuition fees was popular (even if the British Election Study has since suggested that there was no significant increase in youth turnout).

Theresa May was humbled in the election, losing the Tory parliamentary majority. Her government has now launched the fourth government review of university finance since 1997. In her speech on 19 February, the Prime Minister correctly observed that English students face “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”.

But Mrs May pre-emptively rejected Labour’s policy of abolition. This was a defensible choice. The ideal of a free system, which recognises higher education as a public good, is a noble one. But at £11bn a year, the price of abolishing fees is high (no policy in Labour’s 2017 manifesto would have cost more). And as the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, has noted, academic research shows that early-years investment makes the greatest difference to life chances. Once children enter secondary or higher education, the attainment gap between the richest and poorest is far more stubborn.

The abolition of fees would also benefit high-earning graduates the most, as well as forcing those who do not attend university to pay through their taxes for those who do. Since debts are written off after 30 years, poorer graduates currently do not pay back the full amount. The present system is, in effect, a graduate tax.

Though in her speech Mrs May promised no headline cut in fees, she hinted at the introduction of lower fees for humanities and social science degrees. Graduates in subjects such as medicine, dentistry, engineering and technology earn significantly more than their counterparts. Yet a genuine market in higher education would risk harming social mobility by deterring poorer students from applying for the most expensive courses. This is not desirable.

The government would be wiser to commit to restoring maintenance grants. A system that forces the poorest students to incur the highest debts (an average of £57,000) is indefensible. And though the total number of students from low-income backgrounds has continued to rise, the number studying part-time has fallen by 56 per cent since the trebling of fees (“I plead guilty,” Mr Willetts has said).

Britain’s universities are one of its greatest strengths. However, we do too little to help the poorest ascend the education escalator to a life of more opportunity. A troubled government must not tilt the odds yet further against them through unwanted and dogmatic marketisation. 

Photo: Getty
There’s only one way Theresa May can meet the Brexit ultras’ demands – no deal
February 21st, 2018, 05:56 AM

On both standstill transition and the regulatory relationship, the Brexiteers may already be too late. 

Nice premiership you've got there, Theresa. Shame if something happened to it. That's the message that many are reading into the European Research Group's letter to the Prime Minister, her International Trade Secretary, Brexit Secretary and Chief Whip, obtained by Sam Coates at the Times and then widely leaked elsewhere. (You can read the full text here.)

The demands that matter: that the United Kingdom has "full regulatory autonomy" after Brexit and that any transition period be based on World Trade Organisation principles, rather than a standstill period in which the UK follows EU rules but can no longer shape them. The former means only the thinnest of trade relationships, as the essence of trade deals are common agreements on regulatory standards, while the latter means a sharp landing in March 2019, rather than the gentle transition that British business wants.

The thing is, the ERG aren't entirely wrong. A close regulatory relationship with the EU will limit the UK's trading strategy after Brexit (though you can fairly note that effectively the big trade hegemons of the EU and US impose regulations on everyone else, with the only choice which one of the two blocs you opt to be de facto led by). They are right, too, to fear that a standstill transition will stretch on forever, as the electorate becomes more pro-Remain and the complexities of Brexit take longer than the 20 months that the UK and the EU27 have rather over-optimistically allotted to it.

But they have two big problems. The first, as Andrew Cooper, the Conservative peer and former Cameron guru notes, what the letter confirms is mathematical. With 62 MPs, the Brexit ultras are big enough to force a vote of confidence in May's leadership but not big enough to win it alone.

The second is that on both standstill transition and the regulatory relationship, the Brexiteers may already be too late. As far as standstill transition goes, frankly, the time to "prepare for no deal" (to the extent that is even possible) was before Article 50 was triggered. That didn't happen, which means the government has two options: deal or catastrophe. The second was the Phase One agreement on the fate of the Irish border, which effectively committed the British government to a close regulatory relationship after we leave. (The agreement commits the government to maintaining the soft border on the island of Ireland, and domestic politics means a border in the Irish Sea is nothing doing either.)

That means that the only way you meet the ERG's demands is with no deal at all. Can they get one? Well, it all comes down to the Labour Party. The number of MPs who know that "no deal" is a catastrophe is far greater than the 62 signatories to the ERG letter. But equally, the only way that Labour can maintain its electorally lucrative position of "constructive ambiguity" is to vote down the deal using a form of words that can be read as either pro-Remain or pro-Leave depending on the audience. Insufficient access, no full benefits, something of that kind.

 All of which means that the hope that 62 Conservative ultras will be drowned out by the voices of Labour pro-Europeans may turn out to be in vain. No deal is more likely than it looks. 

The EU Withdrawal Bill is a dangerous mess - but the House of Lords is on it
February 21st, 2018, 05:56 AM

There are five major problems with the bill as it stands. 

The House of Lords is not known as the ‘detail chamber’ for nothing.  Line by line and clause-by-clause, the mixture of former lawyers, judges, industrialists, civil servants, trade unionists, third sector leaders, ministers and medics scrutinise legislation to see whether it will achieve the aims of those involved in the drafting.

In the case of the EU Withdrawal Bill, which begins its Lords Committee stage this week, the drafters’ efforts have been found wanting in a number of key respects.

First, given the main aim of bringing into domestic law the rules and regulations already in operation by virtue of our EU membership (and to do so with certainty and clarity), the Bill has made something of a hash of matters. It omits certain rights and principles – by disregarding the Charter of Fundamental Rights – and leaves Courts unsure of whether this new statute “trumps” existing law.

Second, the whole operation is undertaken by giving massive legislative powers to ministers rather than to Parliament, allowing them to make regulation, create new criminal offences, set up new quangos and even raise charges and fees. All without primary legislation.

Third, it allows ministers to amend – via secondary legislation –the transposed legislation, which risks undermining consumer, environmental and employment protections that we currently enjoy. These threats are not imaginary. The so-called impact analysis reports that Brexit could provide the opportunity for the UK to regulate “differently” across a range of standards – a euphemism, of course, for “lower”.

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnsonseems to believe all EU regulations are about some great ‘super-project’ rather than about protecting consumers or assisting trade. Meanwhile, right wing groups (including one led by a Tory MEP) salivate over the idea of bringing in food, drugs and chemicals from the United States that would not meet our existing health and safety rules. Not safeguarding the status of the domestically incorporated rules would effectively allow ministers to dilute long established standards.

None of these three shortcomings are needed for the act of leaving the EU. They are not what the government promised and as will be made clear during the upcoming debates on the Bill, ministers would be wise to respond in a constructive manner.

But there are other major concerns about this legislation that are more political than technical, and require ministers – and indeed, the Prime Minister – to have a proper change of heart.

One area of concern is where competences already devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – albeit within a straightjacket of EU law and activity – are to be brought back to Westminster post-Brexit. This is in breach of the devolution settlements and needs changing before the Bill becomes an Act.

Another area of concern is the powers of government in relation to Parliament, something directly related to the way in which Brexit will take place, i.e. the Withdrawal Deal being negotiated with the EU27. This deal will cover the rights of EU citizens, the money due to Brussels for commitments already made, the terms of any transition agreement, and the framework for our future trading and other relations with the EU. Key, vital issues of importance to our economy, our citizens and society. 

As it stands, the Bill excludes MPs and peers from having the right to vote on the deal (unlike members of the European Parliament will do). Yes, the Prime Minister said there would be a vote in both Houses but this would be non-legislative and non-binding on a motion; and not the legislative consent akin to the Bill that the Supreme Court required from government to trigger Article 50. Labour has long argued that it must be for Parliament – not ministers – to consent, by law, to the deal or indeed a no-deal outcome.

The Lords Committee stage of the Bill is already seeing almost unprecedented cross-party support for changes on all the above five areas. Multiple amendments have been co-signed by Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers, highly respected crossbench Peers and Conservative backbenchers: the strongest possible message in the second chamber that Ministers should think about making changes to this highly constitutional Bill.

Crunch votes – and government defeats – are currently anticipated for Report stage (after Easter) but ministers could take the heat out of matters and bring forward concessions along the way. None of our proposed changes challenge or undermine Brexit. But they would ensure that neither our system of law nor the role of Parliament is undermined in the process.

Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Brexit Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Photo: Getty
Stella Creasy: Labour can't wait for government to act on PFI. We need a windfall tax now
February 21st, 2018, 05:56 AM

PFI is the equivalent of taking out a payday loan to pay for building and running our public services.

Aneurin Bevan argued that the language of priorities was the religion of socialism. How Labour approaches Private Finance Initiative contracts is a real test of faith in what being left-wing means. Across the country schools and hospitals are saddled with debts they cannot reduce to pay for buildings and services they can no longer afford. Those headteachers planning redundancies or hospitals cutting operations to make budgets add up need more than to be told to wait until there’s a Labour Government. Today’s vote on whether to apply a windfall tax on the profits PFI companies gives us a chance to show whether our commitment to tackling predatory capitalism is fact or fiction.

Although introduced by John Major, PFI is synonymous with New Labour. It embodied the third way, bringing private cash to cover the cost of building public institutions. It seemed a win-win - Governments got to keep borrowing off the books, and private companies charged excessive rates of interest for taking on the risks of building and running schools and hospitals. With £200bn due back to these companies over the coming years for £60bn worth of buildings, PFI is the equivalent of taking out a payday loan to pay for building and running our public services. Last year the annual payments alone amounted to £10.3bn - with around half of this being for interest repayments and charges by these companies rather than for services. 

The National Audit Office calculate it is on average 40% more expensive than public borrowing. The problem isn’t the higher costs but the intransigence of the companies involved too. Northamptonshire Council is effectively bankrupt, but will still have to foot an eyewatering and irreducible bill of £270million over the next two to five years alone, of which £77m is interest payments. The Centre for Health and the Public Interest has highlighted that nearly a quarter of the additional funding the Government has promised for health and education will go direct to these companies in profits. Carillion’s collapse and uncertainty about Interserve shows that the belief working with the private sector would transfer the risks of building such projects to them is also flawed. 

With PFI, the devil is very much in the detail. Four hundred pages long, the standard contracts explicitly demand full cost recovery for the financiers if deals are cancelled. On top of this, the National Audit Office has also documented how the Government would be required to cover the costs of the interest rate swaps used to prop up their profitability. Human rights contract law is on the side of these companies in ensuring they would be compensated should anyone seek to nationalise them. Potentially billions would have to be paid to the eight or nine financing companies who account for most of this industry- vital funds sucked out of our already cashstrapped public sector for their shareholders not service users.

But whilst the deals are watertight, taxes are one area where there is room for manoeuvre. When these contracts were signed, the level of tax companies would pay formed a key part of the value for money assessment. Many were agreed at a time of 30% corporation tax. Under the Tories this will fall to 17% by 2020. Within the NHS alone they have already made a windfall of £190m savings in their tax bills from these changes - in our education system they stand to get an unexpected bonus of £60m extra by 2020 in reduced tax liabilities. 

Asking individual hospitals and schools to renegotiate these contracts on their own is prohibitively expensive and yields limited savings. If the Government stepped in to deal with the small number of companies involved across the portfolios of loans they hold this could generate substantial savings. Critically, using the threat of a windfall tax to get them to the table puts in sight a solution – and cashback - within a matter of months, not years. Longer term, enabling local councils and trusts to issue bonds, opening up a sovereign wealth fund for infrastructure investment and supporting more competition for the business of the public sector would all break the stranglehold these companies have had for so long on the costs of public sector borrowing. 

By voting for a windfall tax today, MPs have a chance to show if the Government is too afraid to negotiate, then Parliament will act to recoup taxpayers’ losses. It cannot happen a moment too soon. Claiming we can tear up contracts may sound great to the faithful in political party meetings, but to tackle the hell these services are living with there’s an urgent and pressing need to focus on how to get cashback for our public services now. Those working in PFI-run schools and hospitals need and deserve nothing less.

Photo: Getty
Libya’s slave markets are a reminder that the exploitation of Africans never went away
February 21st, 2018, 05:56 AM

Slavery was recorded in 20th century Ethiopia and continues to exist in Mauritania today. 

A recent African summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, saw one welcome piece of news: the African Union had – for the first time – called on Mauritania to end slavery within its borders. In what was described as a “landmark ruling”, the African Union reprimanded a member state for allowing the widespread practice of hereditary slavery. This is not what is now termed “modern slavery”, but the ancient practice of one person owning another: chattel slavery, as it is known.

While the announcement was a step forward, it was not quite what it seemed. This was not a declaration of African heads of state. The final statement from the summit failed to mention Mauritania. Rather, the call came in the form of a ruling by one of the African Union’s many subsidiary bodies: the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC).

Anti-Slavery International, which has campaigned against the scourge since 1839, welcomed the decision, but urged action. “The message to the Mauritanian Government is extremely clear: ensure that their masters are prosecuted with the full force of the law,” said Anti-Slavery’s spokesman, Jakub Sobik. 

How Mauritania responds remains to be seen, but the ruling came shortly after shocking evidence from CNN of the slave markets of Libya. “Eight hundred,” shouts an auctioneer. “900 ... 1,000 ... 1,100 ...” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars – the equivalent of $800. And with that, the ownership of refugees captured by human traffickers change hands.

CNN’s report was not the first to expose the practice, but the channel’s broadcast jolted public opinion. In the UK a petition calling for the British government to act attracted more than a quarter of a million signatures. As a result, it was debated in Parliament, with Labour MP Marsha de Cordova noting the outrage of her constituents from the African diaspora. “This is modern-day chattel slavery,” she said, “And a window into practices that form part of a particularly traumatic collective memory for many communities.”

In Britain, discussions about slavery have long focused on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and rightly so. Britain carried out slavery on an industrial scale: between 1640 and 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished, it is estimated to have transported 3.1 million Africans, mostly to the Americas. Furthermore, defenders of slavery justified their lucrative trade in human misery by promoting racist ideas that left indelible scars on Western society. It is only in recent decades that politicians have fully addressed the role of the slave trade in Britain’s history beyond the abolitionist movement, and even in 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair stopped short of a full apology, for fear of reparations. The more recent campaign against “modern slavery” has concentrated on criminal gangs exploiting undocumented workers, and elite families keeping vulnerable women as unpaid maids. 

Discussing slavery within Africa is, it seems, an uncomfortable subject, not least because of the potential in a digital age for a nuanced discussion to be used as an excuse to let the West off the hook. Liverpool’s otherwise excellent International Slavery Museum skims over the mention of slavery on Africa’s East Coast. How many schools explain that for five thousand years African slaves were captured in wars or raids and marched along the Nile, across the Sahara or transported over the Red Sea and Indian Ocean to Asia?

Forms of slavery existed in the Ottoman and Roman empires, but its presence can be traced far further back in time, and across the world. Europeans practiced slavery at least since the times of the ancient Greeks; so did the Chinese, Japanese and Indians. Maori turned prisoners of war into slaves. In Africa, “the first evidence was carved in stone in 2900 B.C.E. at the second cataract depicting a boat on the Nile packed with Nubian captives for enslavement in Egypt”, according to the late Robert Collins of the University of California. The trade on Africa’s East coast, to the slave markets of Arabia, India and beyond took place for at least a millenium. Collins calculated that the Asian trade numbered an estimated total of 12,580,000 slaves from 800 to 1900.

Slavery generally shared common attributes: brutality, oppression and frequently racism. Even when both master and slave were African, this did not prevent the most derogatory descriptions being used about the group from which the slaves were drawn. For example, racist terms were routinely used by Sudanese Arabs against those African groups they enslaved. This racism was manifested by Arabs’ derogatory use of the term “abid” (slaves) – and what the Northern Sudanese writer Mansur Khalid called “a series of [other] unprintable slurs – to apply to western and southern peoples.”

Much East coast or trans-Saharan slavery was practiced by Arabs. Ronald Segal (who wrote on trans-Atlantic as well as Islamic slavery) suggested that while there is a tradition of debate about the former, the latter has been less satisfactorily explored. “There is a conscious and articulate black diaspora in the West that confronts the historical record of slavery and racism there,” he wrote in his 2001 book Islam’s Black Slaves: The History of Africa’s other Black Diaspora. “That Islam has no comparably conscious and articulate black diaspora to confront it with the reminders of slavery does not make that record any more immune to examination and judgement.” 

African slavery was not restricted to Arabs or to Muslims. Nor did the African trade in slaves end in 1900. There is evidence of slaves in Christian-ruled Ethiopia in the 1930s: a photograph from the time shows slaves carrying their owners’ money to fund Emperor Haile Selassie’s war effort against Italy. 

It was the Italians who finally abolished the practice after they occupied the country. “The Italians issued a decree in April 1936 which liberated more than 400,000 slaves,” according to Seid A. Mohammed, historian at at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.

Even then, slavery was not eliminated. Mauritania continues the practice, failing to enforce a 2007 law designed to end the practice. Anti-Slavery International reports that slavery is still to be found in Mauritania, Niger, Mali, Chad and Sudan. “People born into descent-based slavery face a lifetime of exploitation and are treated as property by their so-called ‘masters’. They work without pay, herding animals, working in the fields or in their masters’ homes. They can be inherited, sold or given away as gifts or wedding presents,” says the organisation.

Mauritania is also a reminder that even if the situation in Libya stabilises, the deep roots of slavery may be harder to remove. What is required is a wholehearted campaign by African leaders to name, shame and impose sanctions against their fellow heads of state who continue to tolerate this practice. Until Africa as a whole acts, the scourge of chattel slavery will continue to blight the lives of its people.

As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?
February 21st, 2018, 05:56 AM

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.


Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.

Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.

A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.


Back in Laurie Penny’s flat, I become prey to some gloomy imaginings
February 21st, 2018, 05:56 AM

It has always struck me as odd that one of the most fundamental of human needs is one of the most expensive.

Back in Brighton, looking after Laurie Penny’s flat while she travels the world, saving it. The last time I was here I was, to start with, unaccountably depressed. These days I am cheerier, although that may be down to a growing acceptance of my condition.

Whether this is a good thing or not, I don’t know. “Why don’t you get a job?” was one unhelpful comment I received not too long ago, but how does one go about that? The last time I had a job, as in one of those things one gets dressed and goes on public transport in the morning to do, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, and not looking like going any time soon, either.

Anyway, I already have lots of things to do, which, if I were doing them, would take up all my time. I have a book about fiction in translation to write, another book to organise, and a script that is meant to be my ticket out of here. So I have enough on my plate. The day goes a bit like this:

7.45am – 9.00am Wake up.

9.05am Have a look around.

9.06am Pick up a book, start reading in bed.

9.07am Fall asleep again.

11.30am Wake up. Panic. Make tea. Read some more. Maybe even write something, if there’s a deadline.

1.30pm Fall asleep again.

4.00pm Wake up, feeling dreadful. Eat something. Make tea. Pick up book. Etc. Until

6.00pm Wine.

Bedtime comes around 1am or 2am.

As you can see, we are not exactly in the realm of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The person who suggested that I get a job had done a lot of hard work to turn herself into a teacher, for which achievement I have nothing but admiration, but she did so in the knowledge that whatever happened, she would still have a roof she could call her own over her head. Not having a roof one can call etc makes the slightest effort at self-improvement daunting, and you don’t have to Google “psychological effects of homelessness” to work that one out.

One thing I do is pay a lot more attention to the rough sleepers I encounter during the course of the day.

Shelter, the charity I started giving to the moment I got thrown out of the family home, says there are about 4,500 rough sleepers in the UK, a figure I find somewhat at odds with my own observations, although I am prepared to take their word for it.

So I do what I can. I give change when I have it; when I don’t, I ask them what they want and go to the nearest shop to get it. (Last week involved a personal financial crisis, and I was unable to help in any way short of curling up next to them on the street, but I’m not a saint.)

One thing this does is bring home the gulf that exists between the pavement and borrowed accommodation; but then again, that gulf has narrowed, for until I start making rather a lot more than I’m earning now, a room of my own is an impossibility.

It has always struck me as odd, and now strikes me even more forcefully, that in contemporary society, one of the most fundamental of human needs should also be one of the most expensive. Start thinking like this and you become prey to gloomy imaginings, like: what if they decided to do the same with food, and make a loaf of Mother’s Pride cost fifty quid? There seems to be no reason why not, in principle, and it does seem to be the way the world is heading right now.

I apologise for going on about this, week after week. What I really should be doing is, in 800 well-chosen words, considering the place of Flaubert’s L’Éducation Sentimentale in the canon, and persuading people to read it in translation, and then doing the same for many other novels, but it is damn hard to concentrate on anything else. Although today has been one of the better days. For which, as I believe I said the last time I was in her flat, you can thank Ms Penny, who, as I also said before, walks the walk when it comes to rescuing flotsam. Although she does want me to put up some shelves. It’s a blue job, she says. 

A Syrian family froze to death fleeing the war. So why hasn’t the world noticed?
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The family were only a couple of hours’ drive from the glitz and comfort of Beirut. Please note: this story contains a graphic image.

Aged just one-year-old, Yasser al-Abed was travelling towards safety with his family of 14. But the journey turned into a death trap. In total, 16 people, including six from the Abed family, froze to death in the mountains. They were just a couple of hours’ drive away from the glitz and comfort of Beirut.

The frozen bodies of the Abed family and their fellow refugees are a stark reminder that the conflict in Syria is not over. Not for those like the Abeds, whose neighbourhoods were destroyed during the assault on Islamic State, nor for the misery of those still living in the middle of a warzone.  

Half a dozen children are screaming in the packed, tiny room in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, where I meet the surviving members of the Abed family. The adults sit on the carpet with fallen faces. The mood is bitter. 

Amal, an 18-year old mother, is hiding in a corner of the room, her face buried in her knees despite her three-year-old daughter nudging her for attention. Amal is Yasser’s mother. Her son was the youngest of the six to die.

Eventually, she pulls out her phone and runs her fingers through the picture of her boy. “This is all I am left with. I miss him very much,” she says. Her eyes well with tears.

The Abed family came from the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The province had changed hands during the long conflict, falling to Islamic State in 2015 before being taken again by the Assad regime. Caught between airstrikes and extremists in the ground, up to 95,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting, according to an October UN estimate

In the Abed family’s case, their home was shelled in December 2017, leaving the family no choice but to seek safety somewhere else. For a month, they say, they stayed in a hotel in Damascus known as a collection point for Syrians hoping to leave the war-torn country. One day, they were approached by a smuggler who offered to escort them to Lebanon illegally.

Home to at least a million Syrian refugees, Lebanon started restricting access for more such cases in 2015. That has not deterred Syrians from trying to seek a safe haven, often endangering their lives a second time. Since December last year, 300,000 have fled Syria in renewed fighting on several fronts. The Abed family is one of them.

Desperate, they took the smuggler at his word. They decided to march in the middle of the night, braving the snow, the cold, and the violent winds.

After clearing immigration on the Syrian border, the smuggler sat them in a café and advised them to follow blinking lights emanating from a point on the mountain in the border area. He collected a sum of $1,500 for the group, told them it would be a short walk and left.

On the night of the journey, Yasser was in the arms of his aunt, Amal’s sister Abir. Seven months pregnant, Abir found it difficult to carry the infant. “The smugglers said it would be a 30 minute walk, but we walked all night,” she says.

The family followed the blinking lights as instructed and met three men. They discovered they weren’t the only ones to be transported but that a large gathering of 60-70 people would make the same journey. The three guides, possibly local shepherds, divided them into groups and they began their quest.

At some point in the night, the man leading Abir’s group disappeared. She was with her mother and some other family members, but deep in a winter storm, she became separated from the rest. Tired and lost in the dark, after hours of hard climbing, Abir succumbed to sleep. “When I woke up, everyone around me was dead,” she says.

Abir found her nephew Yasser lying still on the ice. His eyes were open, his face pale and his body tilted to the right. His sweater was labelled “Ferrari”. He had not survived the night.

His photograph, the snow encasing his lifeless face, reminded many of that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose picture after he washed up on a beach near Turkey shocked the world in September 2015. 

The image of Yasser and other Syrians, his face blurred. Source: Lebanese Civil Defense

Both Yasser and Alan were small children whose families were fleeing the war in Syria. Yet the response has been drastically different. Alan’s picture changed the nature of the debate about refugees in much of the Western world; Yasser’s has hardly received any attention.

When Alan died, it was the height of the refugee crisis, and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were knocking on the European door. By the time Yasser met his end this January, Islamic State was on the run, Assad was thought to be winning and the news cycle had moved on.

The reality is that the Syrian war isn’t ending, but flaring up anew, and Syrians are continuing to die.

Since December, several hospitals and clinics have been targeted by the Syrian regime in Idlib in northern Syria. Scores have been killed. They include civilians who were bussed out of Aleppo in December 2016 after rebels who had held the east of Syria’s second city surrendered. They died in Idlib instead.

In the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, 400 have been killed since late December, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights and a 100 of these are children. Thousands continue to live under a regime-imposed siege.

Both Idlib and Ghouta are in theory opposition-controlled “de-escalation zones” under terms of a ceasefire agreement negotiated between Turkey, which supports the rebels, and regime-backers Russia and Iran. The Assad regime is supposed to have given its assent, but has shown the rules little regard.

In August last year, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s media boss and close adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told me that there is no doubt the Syrian government will attempt to regain all of Syria. “We have got Aleppo and now we are in Deir Ezzor, next we will go to Idlib and get back every part of Syria under the control of terrorists,” she said.

The Syrian regime has gone about eliminating all shades of opposition and regaining the country in a systematic manner. First, it cracked down on the original, democratically-minded protesters. With the moderates crushed, it could create a narrative of “Assad versus the extremists”. Then, it used the fight between regional and world powers against IS to its advantage. Having won time with the four de-escalation zones, it focused on reasserting dominance in major financial and resource-rich regions. Now strengthened, it is targeting the opposition in these zones, including the civilians stuck among the rubble.

Assad’s blood-stained track record shows he is unlikely to stop while he is winning, which means more death, more destitution, more debris and displaced Syrians becoming refugees.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s hostility towards the Kurds and America’s support for them has put two Nato allies on opposite sides. And in the south west of Syria, two regional rivals, Iran and Israel, are engaged in a stand off after an Iranian drone was intercepted flying over Israeli territory. The contested border region of the Golan Heights, up until now dorman, could potentially become a newly active battlezone. 

In short, the theatre of war in Syria has expanded, not contracted. And both living in the country and leaving it will continue to be a death trap for ordinary families like the Abeds. 

The family members had suffered from the social injustices imposed by the regime for all thier lives. When Islamic State took over, their problems magnified. Amal and Abir couldn’t leave the house, and Shihab, Yasser’s grandfather, lost his job as a TV repair mechanic because IS banned watching it. But after losing their home and belongings in the war and half of their family in the subsequent attempt to flee, they wonder if they were better off living under IS. 

Losing Yasser makes Amal want to return to Syria. She came to Lebanon looking for a new home and safety but the sorrow of her son’s death has swallowed her. She craves the surroundings she knows.

Shihab blames himself for asking the family to escape. He wonders had they not, may be his grandson would still be alive.

As he received condolences from relatives, he said: “Life under IS was difficult but there was no war. Our house was only bombed when the regime started clearing them up.”

Anchal Vohra
Meet the over 60s supermodels: how a “greynaissance” is sweeping through fashion
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Daphne Selfe is 89 years old. She is also a supermodel.

Daphne Selfe, an 89-year-old supermodel, looks almost impossibly elegant as she glides onto the stage at a fashion event in Edinburgh. She’s tall and slim, with a mane of silver-grey hair piled perfectly on top of her head, and she’s impeccably dressed in a red, crushed-velvet jacket and long leopard-print skirt. She’s at the event to talk about diversity in fashion, and her eyes flash when she’s asked if she thinks people only hire her as a “token” effort to seem politically-correct.

“Not at all,” she fires back. “I’ve been modelling since the 1960s, I’m professional. If you do a shoot with me, you’ll be finished very quickly. Photographers say I have more energy than any other model they’ve worked with. I do yoga every day, and I can still do almost anything a younger model can. I’m proud that I’m still working and proud that I’m still considered beautiful. And I’m pleased more older models are finding work than in the past. It’s certainly fun for me.”

Daphne Selfe. Image: Getty

Selfe is represented by renowned agency Models One, which has the largest number of classic (over-50s) models in Europe on its books. Manager Uwe Herzstein has been asked about this so-called “greynaissance” many times. He’s a warm, friendly man who jokes on the phone about wishing he still had a six-pack, and acknowledges that customers of both high street brands and fashion houses want to be be represented by fashion models who are closer to their own age.

“Our older models are busier than they’ve ever been in the past,” he says, raising his voice over the hubbub of his busy office. “Many of them have been working in the industry with well-known designers like Versace since the Sixties. They’re iconic and have huge status within the industry, and the kudos they give to a designer if they choose to work with them is incredible.”

Models One also represent legendary 72-year-old model Jan De Villeneuve, who walked for Simone Rocha during last year’s London Fashion Week in February 2017, and who started modelling in 1966. De Villeneuve is, like Selfe, tall, slim, and poised, with a crisp bob of steely grey hair and striking aquiline features. But although she seems formidable, she’s anything but.

“I think I do prefer modelling now that I’m older,” she says in her soft, thoughtful Michigan accent during an hour-long phone conversation one February morning. “It’s more compatible with my general spirit. Here I am, wrinkles and all, and people simply have to accept that. When I was younger, I never really felt that I was beautiful, I was very insecure. These days I’m much happier. I stopped colouring my hair years ago, and it felt very good to not worry about keeping up with some impossible image. It’s easier getting older, I look the way I look and that’s that!”

De Villeneuve has an active Instagram account and says she loves to the fact she receives instant feedback from fans, particularly young women, whenever she posts a new photo.

“People seem to prefer the pictures where I look most wrinkled, old, and in need of sleep!” she laughs. “But I don’t mind that at all as the comments are so positive. I get a lot of very supportive messages from teenage girls and girls in their early 20s, they seem particularly inspired by the images and tell me how beautiful I look. And older women say how happy they are to see someone who has aged naturally. I haven’t had any work done, and it seems to give women a sense of relief to find you can still look good in your 70s without expensive or invasive surgery.”

However, when it comes to ageism in fashion, as with other diversity issues, there is always more work to be done, as 25-year-old business owner Jacynth Bassett is at pains to point out. In 2014, she founded a clothing website called The Bias Cut after a series of particularly bruising encounters when she was out shopping with her 60-year-old mother on the high street.

“I couldn’t believe how rude some of the shop assistants were,” she says on the phone, her voice is brimming with indignation. “One designer told my mother that the only thing in the store that was “suitable” for her shape was a black shrug. Like most women, her figure changed when she went through the menopause. Many women put on weight around their stomach, so I founded The Bias Cut with that in mind. We use non-professional older models drawn from our customer base: women who are a wide range of shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and ages.”

“It’s wonderful that older models like Daphne Selfe are being seen in campaigns on a more regular basis,” she continues. “but at the end of the day, she and other high-profile classic models are almost all very tall, slim and caucasian with long silver hair. That simply isn’t true of most older women, so the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to representing all types of aging. It’s about redefining what they, and we as a society, consider to be beautiful.”

Selfe acknowledges that too. She’s famously very honest (“once,” says Herzstein, “she was at a Gucci shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, she called out ‘this really is the most hideous outfit’”) and when asked by an audience member at her panel event why she was still getting work in her late Eighties, Selfe replied, “It certainly helps that I have the right look, and that I’ve kept my figure.”

Selfe is a uniquely beautiful, characterful, and talented woman, but admittedly not a typical 89 year old. It remains to be seen whether the fashion industry can expand their representation of older women. Still, a combination of the grey pound and greater awareness of diversity have certainly set things strutting down the right path.

Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.

A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.


Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”

Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.


Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.

The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.

The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”


But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.

New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

What’s in a name? The company charging £20,000 to “create” a moniker for your baby
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Dollar-eyed businesses have sprung up to capitalise on the demand to give a child an original name.

Last September, it took less than an hour between Prince William and Kate Middleton announcing they were expecting their third child and the bookies producing the odds on potential baby names. When Kylie Jenner took to Instagram to reveal her new born daughter’s name earlier this month, the post, simply captioned “Stormi Webster”, quickly became the most liked in the app’s history. A celebrity’s “name reveal” garners far more interest than the announcement of their offspring’s arrival into the world – unsurprising when the past year has seen the arrival of the likes of Rumi and Sir Carter, Chicago West and River Rocket Oliver.

Unique celebrity baby names certainly aren’t a new phenomenon – Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s daughter Apple will turn 14 this year, Paula Yates’ daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily is 21, while her half-sister Fifi Trixibelle is 34-years-old – but it can feel like they’re increasingly becoming the norm. Especially interesting is the current trend of avoiding all trends, when you consider that just 300 years ago, over half of all children born in Britain had one of six names – either William, John or Thomas for a boy; or Elizabeth, Mary or Anne for a girl. As recently as the 1950s, 30 per cent of kids in the US were given a top ten name; now that figure is at just one per cent.

As pointed out by the director of the American Name Society, Dr Iman Nick, this could largely be explained by an increase in diversity. Names frequently observed in certain ethnicities and cultures would have been less common in 1950s US, when white Americans made up 90 per cent of the population. Similarly, the internet, with its inherent globalisation, allows us to encounter names from cultures other than our own. An additional explanation, one cited by Jennifer Moss, the founder and CEO of, is anti-bullying programmes. “One of the things that parents worry about is their kid being bullied because of their name,” she said. “Now, I believe it’s more acceptable to be unique and individual.”

Whatever the reasoning, the outcome was perhaps inevitable. As with all popular trends – just look to cereal, avocados and unicorns – dollar-eyed businesses have sprung up to capitalise on the demand to give a child an original moniker. One such company, Switzerland-based Erfolgswelle, professes: “we are not looking for children’s names, we create them”. And it does so for a mere £20,000.

So, who are the clientele willing to dig so deep in their pockets to avoid nine months spent trawling the baby name books? Marc Hauser, the agency’s founder, says, quite simply, people – mostly American or British people – come to him because they can’t come up with a name themselves. Or, they can, but their baby co-creator is less keen on said name, and they’ve found themselves locked in the kind of heated disagreement that can only be resolved by handing £20,000 over to a team of naming professionals.

The company was born in 2015, when Hauser, who already owned an agency creating brand and products’ names, seized an opportunity to expand his naming empire. I asked how many children his team – which includes reserachers, historians and translators – have named since then, but was told non-disclosure agreements prevent even a rough figure from being revealed. So I asked for an example of a name they’ve created, but, unsurprisingly, was met with the same answer. Hauser did, however, suggest watching his stint on the BBC’s The One Show, which challenged the team to come up with a name in just three days (usually the process takes weeks, the narrator informs us).

The clip sees the Spain family, who admit to having scoured through thousands of names in search of one that is “not so common”, yet “not too out there that everybody’s like ‘wow, she’s got a weird name’”, presented with three potential names for their newborn daughter: “Lenook”, “Catlaine”, and “Oneia”. The latter did actually end up as little Betsy’s middle name; presumably at the behest of her dad, given her mum couldn’t actually pronounce it. (“Her name’s Betsy We-ni-a,” she proudly told the camera, as her husband groaned. “It’s Betsy O-nee-a,” he said, with a pained expression, for what was almost definitely the 56th time that day).

There is no denying that Oneia, Lenook and Catlaine are unique names. They ought to be, Hauser’s team work to ensure the name exists nowhere in the 12 most commonly spoken languages, including on trademark registers. The beauty of creating a word is that a meaning can then be assigned to it, or, as Hauser says: “We develop a credible new history and mythology around the new name.”

To do this, he explains, the team often use snippets of existing words. “In the BBC production we used the Greek word for dream (Oneira) and we took away the ‘r’. The resulting name, Oneia, is clearly based on this Greek word for dreams. Now we can create the mythology around the name. For example: ‘Oneia was the Greek patroness of the daydreamers’. Therefore we can invent meanings for a new name based on the history of the fragments we use.”

He also reveals that Lenook is a combination of Lena and Anouk, while Catlaine is a hybrid stemming from Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon – a Spanish-born Queen of England, to fit the family’s surname Spain – and Àine, an Irish goddess of summer, wealth and sovereignty. Mythologies are only created for chosen names, and as such Lenook and Catlaine, both discarded by the Spain family, mean absolutely nothing.

Not that it matters either way, but I’m a fan of the name Oneia. It’s pretty, and original. It’s mad that it’s just been assigned a random meaning, but it’s a nice meaning. But, the extortionate price aside, there's issues with the service. I think my concerns are best summed up by a simple observation from Dr Nick: “The name a parent selects for a child is a deeply personal, and in many ways, a sacred act.”

How could anybody pay to give up the chance to name their child? But when this argument is relayed to Hauser, he agreed it’s sacred, but isn’t that the point, he asked, challenging me to invent a nice, unique name that would both fit with my surname, and work on an international level. And, although I’m not sure I’d be willing to part with such a large sum of money (if I had such a large sum of money to part with); I have to admit, as he said, “it's not child's play”.

The Mad Max Brexit dystopia speech David Davis should have given
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

“And may god have mercy on our souls – for mankind surely won’t.”

“Let me get one thing straight. Fears that Brexit will plunge Britain into a Mad Max-style dystopia are based on absolutely nothing. Really, I don't even know who it is who's putting that rumour about. Sure, there was that slide deck created by my own department, but it was never intended for public consumption, and anyway the pictures were very clearly meant as a joke.

“At any rate: the idea that leaving the single market will turn the green fields of Buckinghamshire into a lawless desert kingdom fought over by warring tribes on stilts with guitars that shoot flame whenever you play a major seventh is very wide of the mark. As things stand, whatever our future relationship with the EU, the booming Milton Keynes economy should have access to adequate water supplies until at least 2020.

“Let me say, too: driverless cars are our future.

“It is also worth remembering that, since the British people exercised their democratic right and voted to leave the European Union, the United Kingdom has received record foreign direct investment. This is an unprecedented vote of confidence in the British economy as it diverges from the continent. And it goes to show that the chances of the British people finding themselves fighting their loved ones over the decaying remains of their neighbours, just so they can snap open their bones and eat the delicious, nutritious marrow inside, are *chuckles* slim, to say the least. In my constituency alone, we have two new branches of Tesco Metro.

“It is worth re-iterating, too, that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland. Thanks to new computer and drone technologies, we expect people and goods to continue to move freely between the North and the Republic. So the idea that we will need manned customs posts, let alone an enormous Berlin Wall-style barrier with watchtowers and floodlights and traitors being shot as they try to scale the wall and escape into the still-civilised EU, is complete and utter nonsense.

“Let me be clear: Britain must leave the Customs Union. That is what the public voted for. Now that is what the public must get.

“But it is time, now, for us to put aside our differences – for the country to come together, and for Remainers to support the government as we endeavour to get the best Brexit settlement that we can. It is no use just standing on the sidelines complaining that you don't like the referendum result. It is no use pointing out that, 20 months after the vote, the government has still yet to even decide on what it wants its future relationship with the EU to look like.

“And it is absolutely pointless to stockpile canned food and weapons in that concrete bunker you’ve had built at the end of your garden, just so that you can survive the total breakdown of all social and economic relationships that our decision to leave the European Union will inevitably bring about. It is insanity to even try to plan for the sort of kill-or-be-killed world which will make the last act of Threads look as warm and comforting as an episode of Peppa Pig. Brexit means Brexit, we are going to make a success of it and the living will envy the dead.

“Thank you. And may god have mercy on our souls – for mankind surely won't.

“Now. Would anyone like some warm water? I'm sorry, but I think we've run out of tea.”

Photo: Getty
Graham Coxon Q&A: “I live with a constant buzz of anxiety. I always have done”
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The Blur guitarist talks Tony Benn, being trained to be scared, and the contents of John Lennon’s fridge.

Graham Coxon, 48, is the guitarist in Blur and has released eight albums as a solo artist. He was born in Germany and went to secondary school with Damon Albarn in Colchester, Essex. He once described Britpop as a “grotesque travesty”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Aged around three, looking through a wire fence at a brown and white dog on wheels. My other memories are looking myself in the mirror and thinking “Oh, that’s you.” I still do that.

Who were your childhood heroes?

My heroes stemmed from my toys: Action Man, Steve Austin – I loved The Six Million Dollar Man. My dad was a bit of a hero – he was a bandsman in the army and had short hair and black shiny shoes. He always looked cool. When I was 7 I watched The Ipcress File and Harry Palmer became my hero – that’s when I started to want to be an actor. Music-wise, it was the Beatles all the way through – and then Paul Weller, Pete Townshend and all that lot.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

A few years ago Brian Aldiss’s books made a big impression: The Hand-Reared BoyHothouse, Super-State. When I met Damon he had paperbacks everywhere. He chucked me some DH Lawrence, then Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and that kicked me off – that and Thérèse Raquin by Zola. I really loved that heavy stuff when I was younger. I was hungry for knowledge. Later, Paul Auster became a hero of mine. New York TrilogyMoon PalaceLeviathan . . . they’re incredible books.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

I like people who are staunch in their beliefs, partly because I don’t have the confidence to be staunch myself. Tony Benn had tons of class and got everything right as far as I can see. All of his rules about tea were spot on, too – never wash out the teapot, etc.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The contents of John Lennon’s fridge, 1967 to 1968. I imagine it was full of LSD, cheese, pickle and milk.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to go to the future I imagined when I was eight – getting in a cigar-shaped car and shooting down a see-through tube to the studio or wherever. When I was a kid I had this fake army belt that I put around a jumper, and then I'd slip a pen on to my belt, and pretend it was the thing to open the doors or a communication device. I did a lot of drawing , mostly of wars between future cities which would usually end in huge explosions with the whole page being coloured in red. I’d happily send these pictures to wherever my dad had been posted. And with Lego I was always making ray guns and communication devices – I must have made tons of iPhones when I was about nine or ten, yonks before Apple existed. Then I started making saxophones out of Lego, just to pose with.

But it’s quite regressive, isn’t it, society? I still dress like I did when I was eight. The whole idea of the future is very exciting to a kid, but could I do without the sky the Earth has? Can I do without the trees that we have here? Could I do with forgetting the culture we have here, the music and the art? It would probably be sucked into some little hard drive you could keep in your wallet. I suppose I’d like to go to a future when all the idiots have, like the dinosaurs, become extinct, and decent people can live in peace and quiet.

What TV show could you not live without?

I spend most evenings from 6pm to 7pm watching the news and letting the fizz of the day leave my body, and I sort of enjoy that. 

Who would paint your portrait?

Frank Auerbach. He’s my favourite painter. Though if I really wanted to look wonderful, maybe I'd go for someone else. A lot of people make pictures of me and put them up on Twitter. Some of them are amazing, and some of them look like a four year old has done them, but they're all fantastic. When I was growing up I was mad about Picasso and Marc Chagall – and there’s a painter called Chaïm Soutine who made some interesting portraits, they were very similar to what I was doing at the North Essex School of Art in Colchester. I do like a bit of Goya too.

What’s your theme tune?

I imagine I’m walking into a boxing arena with a cape on: “I’m Your Man” by Wham! Otherwise, I've always really liked “Flying” by the Beatles – a lovely instrumental.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?

I’m not sure I got any advice – that’s why I’ve had a somewhat clumsy life. I haven’t really known the value of time. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I procrastinate. Looking back I would explain to myself exactly what addiction is, and that it can happen to anybody: including you. And I would big myself up a bit more. Everybody needs to know, as they’re growing up, that they’re fantastic, and they can do whatever they fucking want, and no one can stop them. They should have the freedom to make their own mistakes, to draw on the walls, to fall on their face –  although  that might be a bit of a paradox, warning people about the dangers of falling on their face but then allowing them to fall on their face.

What single thing would make your life better?

If someone made some incredibly good vegan mature cheddar.

When were you happiest?

I’m happy when I’m allowed to recharge, psychically, when I allow the interference to die down in my head. I live life with a buzz of anxiety, constantly. I always have done.

The Seventies was fraught with all kinds of stuff for me: there were all sorts of worries there. You’re watching all those mad public information films on TV about getting electrocuted or dying on a building site or men saying, “Do you wanna come and see my goldfish?” You're just trained to be fucking scared right from the off. Thanks, world.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I’d be a postman, and then when I got home, I’d write incredible poetry.

Are we all doomed?

Most of us, yeah. Not all of us. I think some of us will make it out.

Graham Coxon’s soundtrack to the Netflix series “The End of the F***ing World” is out now on digital download


SRSLY #132: Lady Bird / Collateral / The Young Offenders
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

On the pop culture podcast: Greta Gerwig's film Lady Bird, the BBC police drama Collateral, and the Irish comedy Young Offenders.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s head of podcasts and pop culture writer. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Lady Bird

The trailer.

The NS review.


The show on BBC iPlayer.

Young Offenders

Watch it now.

An interview with the cast.

Book club

For our 27 February book club episode, we are reading The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Order it in print here or as an audiobook on Audible here.

Tweet us on #srslybookclub to tell us your thoughts as you read, and send us a voice memo with your review of the book at

You can find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

Get in touch

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

“We write about everyone that pissed us off”: siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper on their hit hometown comedy This Country
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The brother-sister duo behind the revolutionary BBC comedy on their childhood feuds, “the Mr Perkins scandal”, and stalking Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in Cirencester.

The Crown Pub, which sits in the heart of Cirencester’s town centre, has been a favourite among locals for hundreds of years. For siblings Daisy and Charlie Cooper, it has particular personal resonance. “First drink. First date. First sick.” 28-year-old Charlie, in a bright orange Umbro sweater, leads us to a large wooden table hidden in a corner and stretches out his arms with pride. “There’s probably still microscopic particles of my sick in this table.”

It’s lunchtime, but as we’ve already descended into vomit chat, I get the ciders in – plus a lime and soda for 31-year-old Daisy, who is 37 weeks pregnant with her first child.

The sister and brother were born, raised and still live in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and it was their time in the town that inspired them to write the BBC Three cult comedy This Country. In it, they play cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe – unemployed, bored 20-somethings living in a tiny Cotswold village, where a lack of opportunities has pushed them into a state of arrested development.

Entire episodes revolve around arguments over who gets the top shelf in the oven, a local scarecrow festival, and Kurtan’s big decision over whether to study for a GNVQ in Swindon.

Both insist that truth is stranger than fiction: bizarre plotlines include a house getting “plummed” (think “egged”… but with plums), a schoolboy taking a wheelie suitcase to school every day, and a health drink pyramid scheme that sweeps the local community. All are based on real anecdotes from their hometown.

I tell them that the first season’s opening lines, which see Kerry and Kurtan show the camera crew all the different places in town they’ve spotted Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, made me cringe in recognition – I grew up in the Cotswolds too, and worked in a branch of Waterstone’s where Llewelyn-Bowen was a regular local celebrity. Charlie responds by whipping out his phone.

“I used to follow him round town, and just film him,” he says, laughing with sheer delight as he shows me not one but several videos of the Changing Rooms presenter roaming the streets of Cirencester in a long leather coat. “He’s in The Matrix! Wait for this gust of wind that takes his coat... Look at him! Who does he think he is? Brilliant.” Daisy lets out an exasperated, “Fuck’s sake…”

Nostalgic memories of Cirencester and its characters are not just a key part of This Country, it’s also clear they form a kind of shared language for Daisy and Charlie. During our chat, they argue over the details of specific childhood memories.

“Remember when we went to go see Grandad in his cottage?” Daisy asks. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve just seen my first ghost.’ We said, ‘Well, what’d he look like?’ And all he would say was, ‘He ‘ad a face on him like he was damned for all time.’” The two fall about laughing. “What does that mean? What does that even mean?!”

Daisy, too, has seen a ghost. Charlie reminds her of that with delight. “She did! She came back one night going, ‘I’ve just seen a ghost.’ I was like, ‘Really? Well, what’d it look like?’ She was like, ‘Well, I saw it on the side of the motorway. It was a man… and it had a high-vis jacket on.’” He cackles. “Like, of course that’s not a ghost! That’s the fucking maintenance guy!”

Daisy and her real dad, Paul Cooper, as Kerry’s father Martin Mucklowe. Photos: BBC

Daisy and Charlie grew up with their parents, Paul and Gill (who met at 16 and have been together ever since), in Cirencester town centre, “near the big Tesco”. Daisy, the wilder, older child, was skipping school and sneaking out to clubs at 13. Charlie, three years younger, was quieter, staying at home playing Theme Hospital and Football Manager for hours on end.

Like most siblings, they found cruel and unusual methods of winding each other up. Daisy recalls swinging Charlie’s dead goldfish in his face, seconds after solemnly promising their father she would break the news to him gently. She would persuade him that the birthmark on the left side of his neck was, quote, “a city for lice” – leading a panicked Charlie to try and scrub it off with a flannel. Or, perhaps most elaborately of all, she’d wake June-born Charlie on a crisp November morning excitedly wishing him happy birthday, pointing towards the balloons she had blown up and left on the stairs.

“I used to be like, well, it has to be my birthday – there’s balloons on the stairs!” Charlie says. “I would run down to the living room expecting to see a pile of presents, and there’d be nothing there. By the time I’d turn round, she’d be like, ‘Ha ha! You fell for it, you little dweeb!’ You used to be evil. That is evil! Isn’t it?”

They still argue on set. When our interview finishes, some bickering flares. (“You always undermine me!” “No I don’t – you undermine me!”) But, light bullying aside, their memories belie the great affection they had for one another: Charlie would “worry to death” about Daisy returning home safe, Daisy left smarting when she couldn’t impress her younger brother by smoking. “I always wanted him to look up to me, and he never did.”

And even when they weren’t getting on, their shared sense of humour kept them banded together. 

“What connected us, from a such young age, was always funny stuff,” Charlie recalls. “We could hate each other, but we would find the same things funny. It was so important.”

The pair would make stop motion films and home videos together, “that would always start out really serious, and then just descend into pathetic, silly shit”. They’d bond over the weirdness of B movies they found in their local video shop – from Critters to Meet the Applegates.

Their parents were unusually happy for Daisy and Charlie to hang back from school and work to do things they enjoyed more. Daisy remembers their Dad (who plays Kerry’s detached, criminal father Martin Mucklowe in This Country) watching the 2003 Jack Black film School of Rock, about a group of overworked schoolkids skipping lessons to participate in a local Battle of the Bands competition, and seeing him moved to tears.

“He was crying at the end. He turned around to me and my brother, and he said, ‘That’s the evidence, kids. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.’ He was that inspired by the film!” she says. “You grow up thinking what your parents say is gospel. And then you start to think, ‘Hang on a second. Our Dad is completely fucking bonkers.’”

Neither thrived at their local comprehensive, Cirencester Deer Park School, which Charlie calls “the most uninspiring place”. They weren’t popular with the teachers, and say that despite the success of the show, they haven’t been invited back. “Not after the Mr Perkins scandal.”

Ah, the Mr Perkins scandal. In the first series of This Country, Kerry and Kurtan hear that their old teacher, Mr Perkins, is dead. Shocked into silence, there’s a long pause. Then we cut to them shaking up a bottle of Lambrini and chanting “He’s dead!” around the town in celebration. Mr Perkins was the name of a real teacher at Deer Park – the school did not see the funny side. Um, he’s not actually dead, is he? “No, he’s not dead,” Charlie says. “He is a twat.”

“But yeah, they said the show was disrespectful to Mr Perkins.” He pauses for a moment. “Which it was, but–” He and Daisy burst into giggles.

“It was!” Daisy laughs. “Massively! But fuck Mr Perkins.”

“He’s a prick,” says Charlie, leaning into my dictaphone. “I don’t want you to change the name, because I want him to read that. That was quite therapeutic. That’s the thing: writing about a town that you grew up in means you can write about all these fuckers that piss you off.”

Kerry and Kurtan celebrate the death of Mr Perkins.

I first meet Daisy and Charlie at their office, a small room above the Corinium Museum (which exhibits locally found objects of historical importance); we swap anecdotes about the people and places we have in common as we climb the narrow stairs.

Their workspace is at once bare and cluttered – a single decorative plate and a lonely looking teapot sit on an empty set of shelves, but scripts and notes are piled on the desk, as well as a taxidermy magpie wearing an Innocent smoothie bobble hat. Framed fan art and Kerry and Kurtan finger puppets and dolls are perched on the mantelpiece. A newspaper board poster, proclaiming “RAVE REVIEWS FOR COTSWOLD COMEDY”, is stuck somewhat lopsidedly to an otherwise blank patch of wall. “I nicked that,” Charlie says happily.

Ideas for the show first began to form when Charlie, a recent drop-out of the University of Exeter, was living with Daisy while she studied at RADA – sleeping on the floor of her “crappy halls in the centre of London”. They had even less money than most students, thanks to a sweat-inducing financial cock-up Daisy, still the less responsible sibling, made in her second year. When she first moved to London, she lived with a boyfriend, and when they split up RADA made arrangements for her to move into their halls, but asked her to find a cheap hotel for a week to fill the gap. Daisy paid £300 up front for a week’s stay in central London. “It was this penthouse suite in Marble Arch. And I thought, ‘This is really weird. This is too good to be true! But this is great!’” When it was time to check out, the hotel informed her that £300 was just the deposit. “The hotel was actually three thousand pounds – for the week. So my student loan was all gone. I had no money to pay the rent, to get any food, anything.”

The pair ended up with about £20 a week to live on between them. Charlie was in charge of the finances, only letting Daisy do the weekly shop once. “She came back with a bottle of wine, a packet of fags and Tom Hanks’ Big on DVD. I thought, how am I gonna eat that?”

With no money, no computer and no internet, the two spent all their time together, bored and homesick. One of their main two sources of entertainment was a portable DVD player, which they’d use to repeatedly watch the 1993 BBC Beatrix Potter animation The Tailor of Gloucester, the bizarre story of an aging tailor struggling to make a wedding outfit for the Mayor of Gloucester by Christmas Day, with the help of several mice and his reluctant cat. (This sends me into frenzied delight, as it’s a firm family favourite in my own house.) “We loved that, because it was twee, and it reminded us of home,” Charlie says. “Why is the Mayor of Gloucester getting married on Christmas Day morning?” Daisy asks. “Who’s gonna turn up? Why is this guy making The Mayor’s marriage waistcoat all on his own? And why is his cat such an asshole?”

The other was swapping anecdotes from home. “We’d talk about people we knew from Cirencester,” Charlie explains. “We’d try and make each other laugh about, you know, what they’d be doing that night or what they’d be having for their Christmas lunch.”

Those stories eventually turned into an idea for a TV show. When Daisy graduated in 2010, the two moved back home to their parents’ house in Cirencester, which was no less bleak: their Dad had been made redundant, the family downsized to a two-bed house. “So all the money was going on rent, and we’d have no money left over for food, so we’d go through all the cupboards,” Daisy tells me. “There was literally just tins of prunes from like... We just had to make meals out of what there was.”

She recalls the anxiety of the financial gamble of spending the family’s last £9 on a coach to London for auditions. With no money for the tube, she would walk from Victoria to auditions in far corners of London – in broken shoes, held together with sellotape.

Looking back, this desperate period was key to the show’s success. “We had nothing else to do, no plan B, we just had to pour all that anger and frustration into the writing,” Charlie says. “If we had had money, we would never have done it.”

Daisy and Charlie as Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe

It’s only a two-minute walk between the pub and the Coopers’ office – but that’s still long enough for them to be stopped by affectionate fans. “How long you got, Dais?” one shouts, pointing at Daisy’s considerable bump. “Oooh – it’s coming!”

The road to getting the show made was long – the first series was six years in the making – and not without diversions. There was the pilot that was a “Glee-type version” of the show. There was the production company who envisioned the show as a country bumpkin version of Lee Mack’s Not Going Out. There were those who wanted to get other actors in to play the lead roles.

Then, Shane Allen, the Controller of Comedy Commissioning for the BBC, picked up the show. Charlie and Daisy were given producer Simon Mayhew-Archer, who pushed for a mockumentary format, and director Tom George to work on the full series. Daisy explains that the four of them work together, in Cirencester, on plots, character arcs and episode structures right from the beginning stages of writing. “They do feel like brothers, really, don’t they?”

Daisy and Charlie’s lives have changed considerably since This Country was made. At home in Cirencester, they’re both regularly recognised. Daisy tells me of her surprise when she was seated next to Kim Cattrall at an awards dinner, and the pinch-me moment of her hero Kathy Burke tweeting praise for the show. But they insist that practically and financially, their lives aren’t totally transformed.

“People think, once they see you on TV, that you’re a millionaire,” Charlie says. “We’re fairly comfortable for now.”

Daisy says the biggest change is “being able to relax”. She lives with her partner, landscape gardener Will Weston, who she lovingly describes as “a big oaf”. (Particularly observant fans might remember the first episode’s scarecrow festival is held in aid of “The William Weston Foundation”.) Their first child, a girl named Pip, was born on 4 January.

Charlie still lives with his dad, his mum, who he describes as “a mad bird woman”, and “all the parrots and the finches and the budgies”. “She’s literally just adopted a parrot called Sidney that’s got one eye, one leg, and has never eaten anything other than sunflower seeds his entire life.” Daisy says.

Kerry and the Vicar, Rev. Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi), on the Vicar’s allotment

Beyond Daisy, Charlie, and Paul Cooper, much of the cast are locals: Kerry and Kurtan’s irritating friend Slugs is played by the real aquaintance they based the character on, after long, boring conversations with him in Poundland drove them up the wall. (In real life, Charlie insists, “He’s the same – annoying.”) For the second series, they hosted open auditions in the Cotswolds. 

Did they ever fear that the show’s focus on two fairly clueless working-class characters would feed into stereotypes about “lazy” poor people? “Not really,” Charlie says. “I think we always approach the show from truth.”

Both acknowledge that, especially in comedy, working-class characters are almost never written or played by people with much experience of financial hardship, or the areas where they’re meant to be from. “That’s when it becomes a stereotype. With our show, it’s all about attention to detail, and being so specific with the characters to the point where we’re working out what their favourite film would be, or what they have for their lunch. As soon as you’re not doing those things, the character’s not 3D, it’s not real. You have to be here to write the show.”

The four had five months to write the second series – nothing compared to the six years they spent honing the first series. Charlie and Daisy both felt the pressure. “You’re worried you’re not going to be able to produce the work that you did in the first series,” Daisy says. “And you just totally forget how to write.”

“The first series was like a perfect storm – it was so spontaneous,” Charlie reflects. “And then, for the second series, you’ve got to work out what made that series so good.”

The new series deepens our understanding of the show’s major characters. We learn more about which relationships are most important to the characters – we get a greater sense of the importance of Kerry’s relationship with her dad, and Kurtan’s relationship with the village vicar. Kerry even gets a secret admirer who sends her bizarre, submissive letters. “Which is actually based on an ex-boyfriend from uni who used to send me letters about him being an inanimate object,” Daisy explains.“‘All I want to do is be your footstool and you’ll put your feet up on me and we’ll sit there watching Masterchef.’ It was really weird. Mum found an old letter from him that said, ‘I just want you to tie me to a tree in the forest and leave me there.’ How is that sexy? How does someone possibly get off on that?”

We learn more about what they actually want from their lives (beyond a SodaStream). We also learn about the time Kerry started a local fight club and gave herself a black eye. And we finally learn where Kurtan gets all his No Fear t-shirts. Most obvious of all in series two is Kerry and Kurtan’s genuine sense of belonging in the Cotswolds. They love where they’re from. It’s clear that Daisy and Charlie do, too.

“It takes a long time to realise that you do,” Charlie says. “I was so embarrassed about being from the Cotswolds. I used to say that I was from London. Until you move away, and then you start looking back and you appreciate it.

“It took us a long time to be comfortable with where we’re from. Now, I don’t have any desire to move. I’ll stay in the Cotswolds.”

Will Corbyn’s meeting with a Czechoslovakian spy impact Labour’s election chances?
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

If they thought voters would buy “Jeremy the spy”, they’d be less worried about whether voters were buying “Jeremy the Prime Minister”.

How much longer can the Czechoslovakian spy story have left to run? We’ve entered Day Five now, and it looks as though it may be dragged out for considerably longer yet.

The original story, which no-one disputes, is that Jeremy Corbyn met with a Czech intelligence officer Jan Sarkocy, here in the UK, under diplomatic cover. He was given a codename – Cob – but the conversations between Corbyn and Sarkocy yielded nothing that was not common knowledge. (Corbyn disliked the American government and Margaret Thatcher, and was uneasy about the powers given to the security services.)

But now Sarkocy is claiming that he paid Corbyn for information and had “at least” 15 other Labour MPs on his payroll.

It is true that agents of the Soviet Union and its satellites targeted MPs throughout Western Europe – particularly those MPs on the left-wing of the major social democratic parties – for intelligence work. It's also true that – spoiler alert – Corbyn opposed much of what the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were doing, both at home and overseas.

But Sarkocy has also claimed that, thanks to Corbyn, he knew what Thatcher ate for “breakfast, lunch and dinner, and what clothes she would wear the next day”, which, unless the answer was “food”, feels unlikely, to put it mildly. He has also taken responsibility for Live Aid, “revealing” it was funded by the Czechoslovakian intelligence services. His claims and his character have been dismissed by Czech PM Andrej Babiš and by Czech intelligence services.

But there is enough around, rather than in, the story – the historical facts of how Eastern Bloc intelligence operates Corbyn's general political sympathies at the time, his divergence from foreign policy orthodoxies, etc. – to ensure that it will run and run. 

Will it matter? I'm inclined to agree with the (generally Corbyn-friendly) trade unionist who told me yesterday that if they thought voters would buy “Jeremy the spy”, they'd be less worried about whether voters were buying “Jeremy the Prime Minister”. The accusation is so far from the weaknesses of the Labour brand – soft touch, can't get its act together – that I can't see how it will land in the minds of voters, as I wrote when the story started.

However, it is a reminder that Labour's rebuttal operation is still less effective than the party may wish. A more Labour-friendly version of events is being heard on the more left-friendly websites, while the Labour leadership puts a lot of faith in the hope that by the time of the next election, the right-wing press will have continued to decline in relevance. But here's the thing: it feels unlikely that the right-wing papers' influence over two of the media channels that actually shape elections – the BBC and commercial radio giant Global, whose news breaks across Classic FM, Capital FM, Jazz FM, Yougetthepoint FM, are far more important than anything any newspaper or website does or say – will have waned. Labour can't be certain that Facebook will still be its friend come 2022, either.

Of course, these attacks on Labour are a historical story based on the word of an eccentric former spy and probably won't matter. But if the Conservatives can recover the art of targeting the Opposition's areas of actual vulnerability, it could matter a great deal.

The polite extremist: Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seemingly unstoppable rise
February 20th, 2018, 05:56 AM

A Brexit ultra and profound reactionary, the eccentric MP is a strong contender to be the next prime minister. How dangerous is he?

Jacob Rees-Mogg calls it “God’s own country” – that swathe of rural Somerset south of Bath and Bristol where he was raised, and that he now represents in parliament. It is easy to see why the Tory backbencher, who conceivably could become prime minister before too long, loves it so much. When not in his Mayfair town house, or dwelling in some glorious imagined past, he, his wife and their six young children live in Gournay Court, a splendid 400-year-old mansion in the picturesque village of West Harptree at the foot of the Mendip Hills.

A short drive down the Chew River valley in one of his two vintage Bentleys, along narrow lanes flanked by neat hedgerows and pretty stone cottages, takes him back to Hinton Blewett, where he grew up in the Old Rectory with views across rolling farmland. A few miles beyond that is Ston Easton Park, an imposing Georgian pile with landscaped grounds that is now a luxury hotel. There, young Jacob – fourth of the five children of William Rees-Mogg, the distinguished former editor of the Times – spent the earliest years of his life, and was taught the Catholic catechism by his governess.

This is the storybook England of great estates, farms and elegant villages clustered around ancient, steepled churches. Here, the young Rees-Mogg was marinated from birth in English history and tradition. And now, aged 48, he would doubtless consider himself the embodiment of traditional English values.

He has never been seen (except perhaps by his wife) in anything other than a suit and tie. He speaks in sonorous Edwardian English and is unfailingly courteous. To be born British, he says, is “to win first prize in the lottery of life”. Not long ago he asked the House of Commons: “What greater pleasure can there be for a true-born Englishman [than] to listen to our national anthem… to listen to those words that link us to our sovereign who is part of that chain that takes us back to our immemorial history.” The Economist recently described him as “the blue passport in human form, the red telephone box made flesh, the Royal Yacht Britannia in a pinstripe suit”.

But Rees-Mogg’s many foes insist his values are those of a zealot, not those of modern Britain such as moderation, tolerance, inclusivity and compassion for the needy. His critics like him as a person and enjoy his intelligence, humour and self-deprecation, but contend that his old-school charm and civility mask extreme, doctrinaire positions not just on Brexit, but on almost every other social and economic issue including abortion, welfare and climate change. Rees-Mogg certainly has no time for “One Nation” or “compassionate” Conservatism, or for the “modernising” project begun by David Cameron. He unashamedly champions what he calls “full-blooded Toryism”. He has gained a passionate following among young Tories for whom – in an age of technocratic career politicians – the fact he is a character with  strong beliefs appears more important than what those beliefs may be. But older, more centrist members of the party are appalled.

“You would only elect him leader of the Conservative Party if you didn’t want to win an election ever again,” one grandee and former cabinet minister told me.

“I couldn’t stay in a party led by somebody like him,” said Anna Soubry, the prominent backbench Remainer, earlier this month. Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, has said the same, adding: “He’s not the modern face of the Tory party I and colleagues are desperate to prove is out there.”

Matthew Parris, the commentator and former Tory MP, was even blunter in the Times: “For the 21st-century Conservative Party Jacob Rees-Mogg would be pure hemlock. His manners are perfumed but his opinions are poison. Rees-Mogg is quite simply an unfailing, unbending, unrelenting reactionary.”

Rees-Mogg declined the New Statesman’s requests for an interview for this profile, citing a lack of time. However, he did find time last year for an hour-long podcast interview with Breitbart, the ultra-right-wing US website that helped to propel Donald Trump into the White House. Host James Delingpole introduced Rees-Mogg as his “most exciting guest ever” and “the sexiest thing from a right-wing perspective in British politics”. Rees-Mogg, an early supporter of Trump, also found time before Christmas to meet Steve Bannon, the US president’s former chief ideologue, in a Mayfair hotel. Raheem Kassam, the former Ukip luminary who brokered the meeting, said “the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond”.


It may not be his fault, but Rees-Mogg has led a relentlessly privileged life. He spent his early years as a pupil at Westminster Under School, which educates boys aged seven to 13. While there, he played the stock markets using a £50 inheritance from a relative, standing up at the General Electric Company’s annual meeting and castigating a board – that included his father – for the firm’s “pathetic” dividend. A contemporary newspaper photograph showed the precocious 12-year-old solemnly reading the Financial Times beside his teddy bears.

He proceeded, inevitably, to Eton, and from there to Trinity College, Oxford, to read history. An ardent young Thatcherite who had imbibed Euroscepticism at his father’s knee, he became president of the university’s Conservative Association, debated at the Oxford Union, and would nip down to London to help out at Conservative Central Office. He had his own telephone installed in his college room. He incurred mockery for suggesting students should wear a “full morning suit”, and embraced the mortarboard – “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.” One former student who knew him at university called him a “ghastly snob”. After graduating, he worked briefly for the Rothschild investment bank. He then spent three years with Lloyd George Investment in Hong Kong, before returning to London to run some of that firm’s emerging market funds. Surprisingly, since Rees-Mogg so passionately supports the reckless gamble with the British economy that is Brexit, a recent FT investigation described him as a cautious investor whose performance was “less than stellar”.

In 2007, Rees-Mogg and several colleagues left Lloyd George to set up Somerset Capital Management – one source of his estimated £100m personal fortune. Another source is his wife, Helena, the only child of the former Tory MP Somerset de Chair and Lady Juliet Tadgell, an heiress and former Marchioness of Bristol who is said to be worth £45m. Rees-Mogg met Helena while campaigning for a referendum on the EU constitution. He proposed in front of one of the half-dozen Van Dyck paintings that hang in her family’s stately home, Bourne Park in Kent. They were married in 2007 before 650 guests in Canterbury Cathedral, the archbishop having authorised a Tridentine mass in ecclesiastical Latin in light of Rees-Mogg’s fervent Catholicism. The couple now have six children aged between seven months and ten, all bearing the names of Catholic popes and saints. Following the birth of Sixtus last July, Rees-Mogg admitted he had never changed a nappy, adding: “Nanny does it brilliantly.”

The first recorded instance of him mingling at length with common folk came when he was selected, somewhat improbably, as the Conservative candidate for Central Fife in 1997. He toured council estates with the aforementioned nanny, Veronica Crook, in tow (she was his nanny, too, before looking after his children). Something was lost in translation, however, for Rees-Mogg came a distant third, securing just 3,669 votes. “The number of voters in my favour dropped as soon as I opened my mouth,” he said.

Four years later, Rees-Mogg stood again, this time in The Wrekin in Shropshire. He came second with 38 per cent of the vote, down 2 per cent on the Tories’ performance in 1997, despite a small uptick in the party’s national vote. Thereafter, the Kensington and Chelsea  Conservatives rejected him for “lacking the common touch”, but he was eventually selected as the Tory candidate in his native North East Somerset, despite opposition from the party leadership. Cameron allegedly felt Rees-Mogg’s exceedingly patrician mien would undermine his efforts to modernise the party. The then Tory leader certainly encouraged Rees-Mogg’s sister, Annunziata, the party’s unsuccessful 2010 candidate in neighbouring Somerset and Frome, to shorten her name on the campaign trail to Nancy Mogg, but she refused.

Jacob Rees-Mogg was elected to parliament in 2010, with a majority of 4,914 that he has since doubled. He and his family spend about three weekends a month in the constituency. He responds to constituents by letter, not email, because – an aide told me – “he thinks people should get their own personally signed reply”. Even his political opponents concede that he is a diligent constituency MP, though they question his ability to understand the less affluent.

“I’ve always found him very polite. He obviously cares about his family,” said Robin Moss, Labour’s candidate in the constituency last year. “But he hasn’t the remotest idea of what it’s like to live on Universal Credit or be homeless. He’s never put his hand in his pocket and realised there’s nothing there.”


At first, Rees-Mogg was regarded in Westminster as a colourful, eccentric and entertaining MP, but hardly leadership material. He broke the record for the longest word uttered in the Commons chamber with “floccinaucinihilipilification” (the action or habit of estimating something as worthless). He called for Somerset to be allowed to set its own time zone, as it could before all British times were harmonised in the 1840s. He suggested council officials wear bowler hats to identify themselves as “thorough-going bureaucrats”. He joined the all-party parliamentary group for historic vehicles. He wore a top hat to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. In one interview, “the honourable member for the 18th century” struggled to name a single pop group, and he began appearing on Have I Got News for You as some sort of amusing relic from the age of Downton Abbey.

Occasionally, he went too far. In 2013 he addressed a dinner of the Traditional Britain Group, which favoured the voluntary repatriation of black immigrants. That was “clearly a mistake”, he admitted. He also angered his party leadership by supporting an electoral arrangement with Ukip ahead of the 2015 general election.

But it was the 2016 EU referendum that raised his stature from that of a backbench ornament. Rees-Mogg campaigned vigorously for Leave, and has continued to fight for the hardest, purest form of Brexit ever since. In the wake of Theresa May’s insipid general election performance in 2017, he was seized on by young Conservatives desperate for a bold, colourful leader to take on Jeremy Corbyn – and so, the personality cult of “Moggmentum” was launched. (He joined Instagram and Twitter around the same time.) To persuade him to run for leader, two young activists, Anne Sutherland and Sam Frost, set up an online petition – “Ready for Rees-Mogg” – that now has more than 41,000 signatories, making it the biggest right-leaning campaign group in Britain. “We have a bunch of very, very boring people at the top of the Conservative Party, so someone who’s a bit different and not a classic cookie-cutter Tory minister is very exciting,” Frost told me.

Rees-Mogg’s rise continued. In September 2017 he emerged as the most popular potential leader in a monthly poll of more than 1,300 Tory members run by the website ConservativeHome, and has remained top in nearly every survey since. In October, he was the star of the party conference in Manchester, addressing packed fringe meetings while the main hall was half-empty. He has become something of a media celebrity, and gained a valuable new platform in January when he was elected chairman of the European Research Group, a cabal of 30 to 60 ultra-Brexiteer Tory MPs recently described by Peter Wilby in this magazine as “more of a party within a party than [Labour’s] Momentum”.

As the standard-bearer of the “swivel-eyed” brigade, he exerts relentless pressure to prevent May backsliding as she negotiates Britain’s departure from the EU. He speaks out when her red lines “are beginning to look a little bit pink”. He rejects any deal that would turn Britain into a “vassal state” or amount to “Brino” (an acronym for “Brexit in name only”). He objects to the negotiations becoming a “damage limitation exercise”, or to any suggestion that Brussels is dictating to Britain. He wants the UK out of the single market and customs union, even if that means crashing out of the EU without a deal. He is admired by Ukip supporters and is Nigel Farage’s preferred choice as the next Conservative leader.

In much the same way that Trump trashes the FBI to discredit its investigation of his Russian links, Rees-Mogg recently accused the Treasury of “fiddling the figures” to exaggerate the economic  damage of Brexit. “He’s theologically opposed to having policy driven by evidence and facts, insisting that anyone who disagrees must be lying or relying on false information,” one former Tory minister complained. But Rees-Mogg has uncompromising views that extend far beyond Brexit. He opposes the 1998 Human Rights Act, gay marriage and all abortion, even in cases of rape and incest – though he insists he would not seek to re-criminalise it. “I take my whip from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Whips’ Office,” he says.

He believes that “you alleviate poverty by trickle-down economics” or what some might call “sink-or-swim”. To that end, according to the website TheyWorkForYou, he has voted against a “mansion tax” on homes costing more than £2m, a bankers’ bonus tax, and tax increases for those earning more than £150,000. He has voted in favour of reductions in corporation and capital gains taxes, as well as greater regulation of trade unions.

Rees-Mogg has opposed increases in welfare benefits, even for the disabled – “the safety net [has] become a trap”, he contends. He supports zero-hours contracts, arguing that they benefit both employers and employees. He backed the controversial “bedroom tax” on council tenants deemed to be living in properties larger than they needed, and caused anger last autumn by appearing to welcome the fast-growing number of food banks. “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are,” he told LBC radio. Rees-Mogg is also a climate change sceptic who opposes costly measures to reduce greenhouse gases. “Even if the greens are right, Britain will make very little difference on her own,” he said. “I would rather my constituents were warm and prosperous than cold and impoverished as we are overtaken by emerging markets who understandably put people before polar bears.”

And so the list goes on. He opposes foreign aid because “this is not the job of the government but ought to be a matter of private charity”. He regards fox hunting as “the most humane way of controlling the fox population”. He supports the sale of state-owned forests, the mass surveillance of communications on security grounds, and restrictions on legal aid. He opposes any more devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales.

He wants tougher immigration and asylum rules, and is no fan of positive discrimination. In 2006, he resisted Cameron’s efforts to increase the number of  Conservative parliamentary candidates from ethnic minorities. “Ninety-five per cent of this country is white,” he said. “The list can’t be totally different from the country at large.”

“He had these sort of views when he was eight or nine. To still have them when he’s 48 seems to me to be pushing it a bit,” Chris Patten, the former Tory chairman, fellow Catholic and old friend of Rees-Mogg’s family, told me. “I don’t think they
have very much relevance to Britain’s problems in the 21st century, and the idea he could lead his party in this century is completely absurd.”

On the face of it, the idea is indeed absurd. Rees-Mogg has never held ministerial office (nor had Cameron when he became prime minister, but he had spent four years as leader of the opposition before forming a government in coalition with the Liberal Democrats). Except for his indisputable charm, Rees-Mogg comes across as a cartoon caricature of a Tory right-winger, and the ultimate toff in what is supposed to be a modern, egalitarian country. How he would play in Swansea, Sunderland or Stoke is anyone’s guess, for he seldom visits such places. Moreover, Rees-Mogg denies any interest in replacing May. If he threw his hat into the ring it would be thrown straight back at him, he protests. He has six young children, he adds.


And yet it might happen. “Yes it’s fanciful, but it’s not impossible,” says Paul Goodman, the former MP who edits ConservativeHome.

Few take Rees-Mogg’s protestations of disinterest seriously. As an 11-year-old he declared his intention to be “a millionaire by 20, a multi-millionaire by 40 and prime minister by 70”. He is now the bookies’ clear favourite as well as ConservativeHome’s frontrunner. He is speaking regularly at universities. “I’m absolutely sure he will stand,” a friend of his told me.

Rees-Mogg’s challenge will be to persuade the right of the parliamentary party to select him, rather than a cabinet-level Brexiteer, as one of the two candidates to be presented to the party membership.

He would be their riskiest choice, and Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, doubts he would prevail. “It’s one thing for a lot of members of the public, or the party, to think it’s great fun and admire him for never mincing his words and speaking 18th century English,” he told young activists in an unguarded moment at University College London in January. “It’s another to see that translating to being the prime minister and connecting with the whole of the country. So, no, I don’t see it happening.”

However, Rees-Mogg is a polished public performer and is untainted by last summer’s disastrous election. He has more charisma than Michael Gove, none of Boris Johnson’s personal baggage, and a substantial following among young Conservatives and those older, pro-Brexit party members who will have the final say. “In the end he’s a bit of a radical punt for his colleagues, but if he gets in the last two he will win,” said one supporter who follows the party’s internal machinations closely. Whether Rees-Mogg could win over the wider electorate is a moot point. He might prefer the fountain pen, but he is increasingly adept at social media. Supporters believe voters would warm to a politician who gives straight answers, who is funny and engaging, and whom they see as sincere and authentic even if they disagree with his views. They point to the equally improbable rise of Corbyn.


But the Jacobite rising faces fierce opposition. Late last week, Rees-Mogg was greeted by two separate sets of protesters when he arrived for a debate at the Cambridge Union – EU supporters and gay rights activists. “I never entertained the idea I’d see a politician like him so close to power. That’s absolutely terrifying for the future of this country,” Jessamyn Starr, one of the former, said. “He stands for bigotry and intolerance,” said Matt Kite, organiser of the LGBT “Kiss-in for Rees-Mogg”. “We won’t stand for people like him being wined and dined and applauded when his words have real consequences for people like us.”

Inside, Rees-Mogg was at ease in his dinner jacket. He spoke eloquently and humorously in support of the motion: “This house believes no deal is better than a bad deal.” He failed to address the consequences of “no deal”, but again dismissed the Treasury’s dire economic forecasts  – “if you believe those you’ll frankly believe anything” – and castigated the EU for proposing that  mobility scooters be insured. “Do we really want to make our elderly people zooming around on those marvellous mobility scooters pay an extra fee over which we have no say?” he asked.

But it was the passionate response of Rees-Mogg’s fellow Conservative MP, Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, that stole the show. For her, the debate was no game. She tore into Rees-Mogg’s Brexiteer allies for labelling pro-Remain MPs “saboteurs”, and judges “enemies of the people”. She spelled out the catastrophic consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal. “Who does want ‘no deal’?” she asked, before providing her own answer: “Those who wish this country ill and want to destabilise it. Those who want us to be a minimal tax, minimal regulation [country]. And those political ideologues who are so caught up in the majesty of Brexit that they have forgotten who loses out – including the little old lady on her mobility scooter – because our economy can’t look after the elderly properly.” The packed chamber burst into applause. Rees-Mogg looked a little shaken. The motion was lost. 

Jeremy Corbyn is getting better at command and control – but he can’t escape his old promises
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The problem is that effective politics is rarely kind or gentle.

In a way, the row that broke out this weekend at Labour’s National Policy Forum is not news at all. Realising that their preferred candidate had no prospect of winning, the nine officers of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee voted to halt the election for the chair of the NPF, saying that insufficient notice had been given of the contest.

The notional justification is that the party’s rules require that NPF delegates “are entitled to receive copies of relevant documents at least seven days before the Forum takes place” – in this case, candidate statements. Mike Creighton, a Corbynsceptic former Labour staffer who knows the rulebook far better than I do, argues that this interpretation of the rules is bunk on his blog.

My personal view is that the rules are vague enough that NEC officers’ interpretation of the seven day section just about stands out. In any case, it’s wholly irrevelant:  “using the rulebook to fuck over people” as one former staffer at Labour HQ once described his job to me, is an old, old, old, old Labour trick. It’s also an old, old, old, new Labour trick. Provided you have a majority among the nine NEC officers and the 39 members of the full NEC, that’s essentially all you need.

Indeed, the irony of this particular row is that if in July 2015, you had told someone in that in two years' time, Labour’s power players would halt an election to prevent the National Policy Forum electing Ann Black as its chair, you’d probably assume that Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall were set to win the contest.

So why are people so angry? In part, it’s because Labour politics is a game where the faction(s) that controls interpretation of the rulebook abuses it and where the faction(s) that don’t complain about it, but that the people who are complaining about it now have a bigger media platform than the people who used to complain in the world pre-Jeremy Corbyn. (That the press is considerably more Corbyn-hostile than it was towards New Labour in its rule-bending pomp helps, too.)

But it’s also down to three other factors. The first is that the level of political tolerance for belligerent political fixing is, however momentarily, at all-time-low because of the wider cultural changes sweeping the Western world post-Weinstein. Shouting over someone – in this case the NPF’s vice-chair, Katrina Murray, is not  good look, and also genuinely upset many of those present. That tied into the second factor, which is that in 2018, everyone has a camera.

The third is good old-fashioned incompetence on the part of the leader’s office and particularly some of their trade union allies. (Although there has been a lot of talk about “Momentum’s” role in bringing the election to a halt, ultimately there is only one NEC officer who could be described as a representative of “Momentum”. That is Christine Shawcroft, who did not vote in any case. This was a stitch-up by the trade union members of the officers’ group.)

Regardless, there was a comfortable majority among the NEC officers, and they could have quietly cancelled the vote on the morning of the meeting and conducted their argument over its election behind closed doors, rather than produce the ugly scenes that they did.

And while the leader’s office is a noticeably sharper operation than it once was, they are still living with the consequence of two foolish pledges made in Jeremy Corbyn’s first campaign for leader: the first is a vow for “gentler, kinder politics”. The reality is that politics not gentle and is often unkind. The second was his promise of “straight-talking honest politics”, again, not an adjective that is often associated with political effectiveness.

The lasting damage of this incident however may be to the leadership campaigns of Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry, both hitherto doing good work balancing the needs of Shadow Cabinet loyalty (and quietly courting Labour members) without egregiously offending Corbynsceptics among the parliamentary Labour party. Both deeply upset and angered Labour MPs with their defence of what occurred on Saturday on the Sunday shows (Rayner appeared on Marr, Thornberry on Peston). The biggest legacy of this weekend’s row may be the permanent disruption of that equilibrium – and with it, the increased likelihood that the party’s right will mount its own challenger for the leadership next time.

Photo: Getty
Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Photo: Getty
It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist. 

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/
“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.

Can Benjamin Netanyahu survive? How cigars could bring down Israel’s biggest political fighter
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

After a brief first term, the conservative politician has learned how to hold onto power. 

Benjamin Netanyahu has faced no dearth of scandals in his 12 years as Israel’s prime minister, from murky billion-dollar submarine deals to a wife accused of treating her staff like slaves and a son joking outside a strip club. In contrast, allegedly taking cigars and champagne in return for tax breaks, and back room deals for favourable press coverage seem rather mundane. But it is these allegations that may finally have him on the ropes.

Last week, Israel’s police recommended Netanyahu be indicted in two corruption cases: one for accepting gifts from wealthy businessmen in return for tax breaks and visas, and the other for seeking favourable press coverage from a leading daily in Israel, Yedioth Aharonoth.

The police claim they have enough evidence to charge him. The ever-confident Netanyahu denies the allegations. “Not for cigars from a friend, not for media coverage,” he told the cameras. Everything he had done was for the “good of the state”.

A former commando, Netanyahu is trained for combat. No-one who has seen him in action over the last two decades would expect anything other than for him to fight these allegations as tenaciously as he has fought domestic opponents, the United Nations and even President Obama.

The conservative politician’s public career was launched after the killing of his brother Yonatan. In 1976, pro-Palestinian militants hijacked a Paris-bound Air France plane and landed it in Entebbe, Uganda, with the open support of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. In exchange for hostages, the hijackers demanded release of 40 Palestinian militants held as prisoners in Israel and 13 more in four other countries. Yonatan’s subsequent rescue mission is remembered as one of the most daring ever. Despite saving a hundred hostages,  Yonathan was killed. He became a legend and Benjamin Netanyahu an advocate of the Israeli national cause. 

He became Israel’s envoy at the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1984, entered the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in 1988 and first became the PM a few years later in 1996. During his first tenure, Netanyahu endorsed a US-led effort to get the peace process back on track, ultimately co-signing the Wye River Memorandum alongside the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The subsequent backlash from the right toppled him from power. Since then, Netanyahu has formed several governments (he is currently serving his fourth term as PM) but Wye River would be the the last formal agreement signed with the Palestinians.

Despite his resistance to compromise on the issue of Palestine, in the present administration in the United States, Netanyahu has ideological allies. Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate in America, was until recently one of them. He donated to Trump’s campaign with one major objective, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a deeply symbolic gesture. Adelson is also the owner of conservative daily Israel Hayom, which is perceived as a mouthpiece of Netanyahu’s government. According to the editor-in-chief of liberal newspaper Haaretz, Aluf Benn, since the sudden emergence of Israel Hayom in 2007, Netanyahu’s star has risen. 

The newspaper plays a part in the allegations that threaten to bring him down as well. Netanyahu was allegedly approached by the publisher of another newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, who wanted the PM to introduce new laws that would prevent his rival from distributing free copies. Netanyahu has called the allegations a media witch hunt.

Netanyahu certainly has enemies. Tal Shalev, a political correspondent with Walla! News in Israel, calls Netanyahu, “King Bibi” (Bibi is his nickname) and says: “In the name of his political survival, Netanyahu has made many moves which have depicted him as one of the most divisive leaders in Israel's history.”

In 2009, facing pressure from the newly-elected Barack Obama, Netanyahu tilted to the centre and offered conditions for the formation of a Palestinian state. But in 2015, with a new centrist coalition under Labor’s Isaac Herzog set to win the election, he reversed his position. Appealing to voters in the West Bank settlements, he announced there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch. "I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel," he declared.

Netanyahu beat Herzog. Yet to form a government, he needed a coalition. Unable to form a unity coalition with centrist Zionist Union, which would have kept the moderates dominant, he agreed one with smaller far-right parties instead. 

Under the cover provided by these small yet fiercely nationalist players, he appointed more conservative judges to the Supreme Court and used his additional portfolio of communications minister to wield a tight grip over the media. Criticism of the government was termed “fake news”. Anyone who dares to question him could expect abuse on social media.

In the years since Netanyahu entered politics, the secular, liberal, left-wing elite has been increasingly eclipsed by a religious, nationalist, illiberal group of voters. The demographics have also changed, with the birth rate for ultra-Orthodox women outstripping that of the average Israeli woman. Netanyahu’s own, conservative party, Likud, has moved further to the right. 

Yet despite Netanyahu’s populist touch, Israeli frustration with corruption has reached boiling point. Demonstrations have taken place in Tel Aviv for weeks. Protestors chanted slogans like, "Not leftist, not rightist, but honest!" Others read, "Bibi go home." Netanyahu’s opponents have dug up an interview he gave in 2008 after Ehud Olmert, then prime minister, was accused of  corruption. Netanyahu, one of the first to question Olmert’s moral mandate, had said: “It is real and not without basis, that he [Ehud Olmert] will make decisions based on his personal interest in political survival and not based on the national interest.” 

Olmert subsequently resigned, but Netanyahu has so far ruled out following suit in his case. Surveys conducted since the decision to indict him reflect a deeply polarised country. Half of Israelis, the polls reveal, believe Netanyahu to be corrupt but half of those surveyed also don’t wish for him to quit just yet. The ardent Likud voter is sticking by him and believes the police simply want to topple him.

There is, moreover, a troubling lack of an alternative. The smaller right-wing parties are too small to govern without him, while the left appears out of touch with the masses. 

The party best positioned to exploit Netanyahu’s troubles is the centrist Yesh Atid. Yair Lapid, the leader of the party, is perceived as experienced and charismatic, and shows a willingness to court conservative fence-sitters by talking up religion and promising to be tough on terror. Atid’s electoral success in the next polls will depend on how far Lapid can build up an anti-Bibi mood and erode Netanyahu’s support base. The powerful prime minister may be responding to his indictment with a display of confidence, but for once he is vulnerable. 

Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

The UK is suffering from an extreme case of generational inequality
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Millennials across the developed world are struggling. But the UK stands out. 


“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics may refer to her first trip to Hawaii, but they could just as easily apply to UK trends in generational living standards that the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Commission has uncovered. That’s particularly so in light of new analysis comparing these trends internationally.

While there are huge living standards differences between high-income countries, there is also much shared ground, with the financial crisis and demographic patterns putting pressure on younger generations’ living standards everywhere. But the UK stands out. With the partial exception of Spain, no other country in living memory has experienced as large a “boom and bust” in generation-on-generation progress across both incomes and home ownership rates.

On incomes, the millennials (born 1980-2000) who have reached their early 30s are just 6 per cent better off than generation X (born 1966-80) when they were the same age. This is very small progress indeed when compared with the progress older generations are enjoying – baby boomers (born 1946-65) in their late 60s are 29 per cent better off than the silent generation (born 1926-1945).

These sorts of slowdowns have occurred in most countries, but not to the same extent. In the US, millennials in their early 30s are doing 5 per cent worse than their predecessors, but this compares to relatively modest 11 per cent gains for generation X relative to the baby boomers. In fact, in the US – despite higher levels of income – the absence of generational progress is what stands out. Typical incomes in the US for those aged 45-49 are no higher for those born in the late 1960s than they were for those born in the early 1920s.

Back to the UK. The “had it then lost it” story is also clear when we look at housing. Our previous research has shown that young people in the UK face much higher housing costs (relative to incomes) than older generations did when they were making their way in the world. In a large part this is driven by the rise and fall of home ownership.UK home ownership rates surged by 29 percentage points between the greatest generation (born 1911-1926) and the baby boomers, but this generation-on-generation progress has been all but wiped out for millennials. Their home ownership rate in their late 20s, at 33 per cent, is 27 percentage points lower than the rate for the baby boomers at the same age (60 per cent).

This fall between generations is much smaller in other countries in which housing is a key areas of concern such as Australia (a 12 percentage points fall from boomers to millennials) and the US (a 6 percentage point fall). As with incomes, the UK shows the strongest boom and bust – large generation-on-generation gains for today’s older cohorts followed by stagnation or declines for younger ones.

Let’s be clear though, the UK is a relatively good place to grow up. Ours is one of the most advanced economies in the world, with high employment rates for all age groups. In other advanced economies, young people have suffered immensely as a result of the financial crisis. For example, in Greece millennials in their early 30s are a shocking 31 per cent worse off than generation X were at the same age. In Spain today the youth (15-30) unemployment rate is still above 30 per cent, over three times higher than it is in the UK.

But, if everything is relative – before the parking lot came the paradise – then the UK’s situation isn’t one to brush away. Small income gains are, obviously, better than big income falls. But what matters for a young person in the UK today probably isn’t how well they’re doing relative to a young person in Italy but how this compares with their expectations, which have been shaped by the outcomes of their parents and grandparents. It’s no surprise that the UK is one of the most pessimistic countries about the prospects for today’s young.

The good news, though, is that it doesn’t have to be like this. In other parts of the world and at other times, large generation-on-generation progress has happened. Building more homes, having strong collective bargaining and delivering active labour market policies that incentivise work are things we know make a difference. As politicians attempt to tackle the UK’s intergenerational challenges, they should remember to look overseas for lessons.

Europe after the storm: how Emmanuel Macron plans to transform the EU
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The French president has a vision to lead the deadlocked EU out of crisis and towards greater integration. But can he carry the rest of the bloc with him, especially the troubled Germans?

Sometimes it takes a Frenchman. The 19th century writer and politician Alexis de Tocqueville is remembered today for explaining the merits of American democracy to the world. In the mid-20th century, two other Frenchmen (well, one French, and one a Lorrainer with ties to Luxembourg), political economist and diplomat Jean Monnet and foreign minister Robert Schuman, were pivotal in establishing a limited European Community of Coal and Steel; today they are remembered for creating the intellectual basis for its transformation into the European Union. Now, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is showing the deadlocked EU a way out of the crisis. What he is proposing on Europe is so major and so much more important than any other pressing current issue, including Brexit, that it is a wonder it is not being more widely and constantly discussed across the continent.

In a series of books, articles and speeches over the past 18 months Macron has brutally exposed the weaknesses of the European Union. The problem, he shows, is that the member states are too weak on their own to enjoy effective sovereignty in the fields of finance, economy, the environment, immigration, foreign policy and defence. Worse, the EU, in its current form, is unable to remedy these deficiencies. The euro is not based on a common parliament and economic policy, and is thus condemned to perpetual instability. The taxation regimes of the member states are not co-ordinated, leading to a downward competition between EU countries that puts the foundations of Europe’s welfare regimes at stake.

While the EU sets ambitious targets to tackle climate change, its member states fail to live up to their independent promises. The continent lacks a single jointly funded army commanded by a shared government and so its defence provision is inadequate; it is actually defended by a military alliance in Nato where most of the war-fighting capacity is provided from across the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel. Most of Europe has a common travel area – Schengen – but no common border defence or established migration policy, with predictable results in the Balkans and Mediterranean.

The Europeans are in effect, though Macron does not quite put it this way, leaseholders on their own continent.

President Macron proposes to return “sovereignty” to the populations of the member states – by which he means genuine democratic participation – through the creation of a larger “European sovereignty”. His concrete suggestions for EU reform are anchored in elements such as the establishment of a European military intervention force that would have a single European doctrine and budget; and of a European border police and a European asylum office that would uphold simultaneously the integrity of its outer border and a common asylum regime. The list could go on, but even more fundamental than the policy and instrument changes suggested are the proposals on how these would be governed, funded and legitimised.

The extent of the policies suggested and their European nature leads Macron to conclude that they require a common budget overseen by a European finance minister and tightly controlled by a European parliament. Given the policy areas that the proposals cover and the mechanisms suggested to enable them, they amount to reshaping the EU in such a way as to form a European state in all but name, rather than the European confederation we have today.

But this is not all there is to it. The president’s vision effectively abandons the framework within which changes to the EU’s structure have been made up until today, namely as the sovereign decisions of the governments of its member states. Instead he suggests that Europeans reclaim – our words not his – the freehold they forfeited, with good reason, in the mid-20th century.

For in President Macron’s vision a common road map for how to develop the new Europe would be put to discussion among the populations of countries willing to engage in the process, and ready to take those discussions into consideration when voting for the next European parliament in 2019. Ultimately, this vision suggests that where some member states aren’t willing to partake in the process they would not have to join in the new union, but remain part of a slower-speed rump made up of the remains of the EU of today.

Here are Macron’s own words in his book Revolution: “We have confused sovereignty and nationalism. I say that those who truly believe in sovereignty are pro-Europeans: Europe is our chance to recover full sovereignty... Sovereignty means a population freely exercising its collective choices, on its territory. And having sovereignty means being able to act effectively. Faced with the current serious challenges, it would simply be an illusion, and a mistake, to propose to rebuild everything at the national level. Faced with an influx of migrants, the international terrorist threat, climate change, the digital transition, as well as the economic supremacy of the Americans and the Chinese, Europe is the most appropriate level at which to take action.”

The underlying conception of “sovereignty” here appears complex, but is in fact clear and revolutionary; it is no accident that his manifesto book was titled Revolution. Macron is not simply “pooling” the sovereignty of the member states; he is vesting it at a higher level. Nor is the president taking sovereignty away from these states, because in today’s world they don’t have any to begin with. The peoples of mainland Europe will have a European sovereignty or they will have no sovereignty.


To understand where that leaves the nation state, one needs to grasp the distinction that French political thinking makes between the nation and the state. While most European nation states take their raison d’être from a shared territory or bloodlines, France’s identity is supplemented by another, that of the Republic. The Republic’s foundational myth is that of a defender of republican and universal values such as essential human and citizens’ rights. So far, these are recognised as distinct yet overlapping, as can be witnessed by important formal addresses of French presidents always ending in the call: “Vive la République, et vive la France.”

With Macron aiming to preserve the first, the French nation, he suggests transferring the other, the French Republic with its commitment to the defence of human rights and universal values, to the European level. The French nation will remain, just as the other nations will remain, but it will no longer be sovereign. The French Fifth Republic will come to a formal end – it is in practice already redundant – and will be replaced by the Sixth Republic, which will simultaneously be the first European Republic.

The Macron plan is thus, unsurprisingly, very “French”, as one might expect from a man who received his education from two of France’s elite universities, Sciences Po Paris and the École Nationale d’Administration, and who admires Napoleon. This is also reflected in some of his policy concerns, such as his recent call for the EU to develop a new Mediterranean strategy, which is reminiscent of Sarkozy’s failed Union for the Mediterranean, or the suggestion to establish European corporations that would be champions in one field of economic activity. That said, he and his plans are also very Anglo-Saxon (though he may not thank us for saying so). Macron makes frequent and willing use of his fluent English and has worked as a banker at Rothschild. He has praised the economic models that other countries have adopted and believes firmly in a digital start-up revolution.

Similarly, his foundational ideas for the reform of Europe are – directly or indirectly – inspired by successful developments from elsewhere. Just as the independent colonies that formed the United States realised that they were too weak to face the challenges of the age on their own, Macron emphasises that true sovereignty for Europe’s peoples can only exist through the creation of a single de facto state responsible for policies to deal with Europe’s greatest challenges. Yet, just as England, Scotland, Wales and part of Ireland remain as nations within a larger sovereign political union within the United Kingdom, so Macron sees France and the other nations retaining their distinct identity under the new “European sovereignty”. And he wants it not to be attained gradually and by stealth, but quickly through consultation and consent. He outlines a process of constitutional conventions followed by democratic procedures such as referenda, with a clear path to a European sovereignty by 2024 – the date of European parliament elections – agreed within a couple of years. Those unwilling to participate would not be able to block the progress envisioned by the others.


There are formidable obstacles to Macron’s vision, domestic, European and global. His plan is a fundamental challenge to French nationalism of both the right and the left. So far, outside the political extremes, the response has been muted, with the exception of a few symbolic battles such as over whether the European flag should be displayed in the French parliament. Serious opposition has tended to focus on his economic plans at home. Once people wake up to the core of these ideas, there will be furious controversy. The Fifth Republic will not go gentle into the European dawn.

The Macron plan is also fundamentally at odds with the current reality and temper of the EU and its member states. As one former eurozone prime minister told us when asked about Macron’s vision, the EU “is a confederation of states with a federal overlay. It is not a state and will not become one. It is a legal order and a habit of mind, a habit of consultation”.

The idea of a multi-speed Europe is also alarming in parts of eastern Europe, where given the current deficiencies in the state of liberal democracy it would be logical to assume that they would be left in the slow lane for integration. Moreover, the Macron plan has the capacity to throw a spanner in the works of establishing a mutual settlement between the EU and the UK over crucial Brexit issues such as the Irish border and the single market.

Above all, the president’s solution puts Germany in a quandary. Though it reflexively supports anything that smacks of a restarting of the “Franco-German motor” of European integration, or the “Franco-German couple” as the French would have it, Berlin understands “more Europe” in an incremental, not a final sense.

Germany has also been much less keen to shunt the eastern Europeans into a siding. For geopolitical reasons it has preferred to slow down the train in order to allow the slower states to keep up and to enable everybody to reach the same destination together, if they ever arrive.

Besides, there is a lot of sympathy among German conservatives, especially the Christian Social Union, for the very Hungarian and Polish conservatives that Macron would like to exclude or neutralise. At the beginning of January Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán was a guest of honour at the party’s annual New Year’s retreat. Most importantly of all, the German public and most politicians alike oppose the merging of sovereign debts which Macron knows is required to stabilise the euro.

Macron’s concept of European sovereignty faces an uncertain fate in the world at large. The support of the essential freeholders of Europe’s security, the United States and, to a certain extent, the United Kingdom, cannot be taken for granted. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, an American administration cannot be automatically relied upon to defend Europe.


Yet, at the same time Macron seems to be the only major European politician who has at least begun to build a working relationship with President Trump. So far it looks as if Macron has also understood that Britain shouldn’t be left to its own devices. Despite some growling over Brexit, he is not a plausible Britain-hater, and he has shown a keen interest in continuing defence co-operation. Also, if he has any sense, the president will realise that Brexit and the unification of mainland Europe need to be negotiated in tandem, because the two processes – just think of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic – are intertwined.

Then there are the spoilers in Europe’s neighbourhood and beyond. Russia, Turkey, and China keep Europe’s governments busy and all have the capacity to cause serious trouble. European countries are divided as to how to respond to issues such as Russia’s disregard for international boundaries or the integrity of democratic processes elsewhere.

Does President Macron have the capacity to see his ambitious plan through to completion? So far, everything in his personal and political life suggests that Macron is a man of extraordinary quality, who is unbound by convention and completely free of any path-dependency. He has never done things, at least none of the really big things, the easy way. 

Macron has a clear strategy for the creation of his European republic. Last year he began with the reform of the French economy, partly for its own sake, but mainly to impress Berlin. Failure to do so would have left him open to the standard German “ordo-liberal” charge that other countries are not to be trusted with a European budget or common debt. This is why his book and the Sorbonne speech of September 2017 gestured towards the former German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble by speaking of “upholding common rules”, rather than just holding out a begging bowl.

So far, Macron has been extraordinarily successful, far more so than many of his detractors expected, and his supporters dared to hope.  After his remarkable, but essentially flukey election victory he created a political party, La République en Marche, from scratch and romped to victory in the subsequent parliamentary elections. He has so far overseen the domestic reform process without being derailed by France’s once almighty unions, nor has he been affected by a major political scandal involving members of his hastily created and initially heterogeneous political movement.

And Macron is no longer a mere one-man band. His outlook has inspired other seasoned politicians from different parts of France’s former political system to join him. To name but a few among the more senior political ranks, the French economy minister Bruno Le Maire speaks fluent German, is often on German TV and appears credible on both sides of the Rhine. Meanwhile, foreign and European affairs are similarly handled by experienced politicians and diplomats.

While one should not overestimate the importance of French MPs, the new class of politicians elected to parliament by Macron’s victory is very different from its predecessors. They are particularly diverse and excited about doing politics differently.

Many MPs are now considerably younger than their average constituents, while others are remarkable in their own right. To name but a few, the French parliament now includes Cédric Villani, a winner of the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal, and a staunch European federalist; while the new head of its European affairs committee, Sabine Thillaye, held a German passport for the greater part of her life before also gaining French nationality. Even if the diversity of his MPs leads to political fractures, Macron’s majority in the lower house is sufficiently large to render this inconsequential.  However, in Europe, the president had an unexpectedly slow start because of the inconclusive outcome of the German federal elections in September. Macron had hoped to start 2018 discussing the future of Europe with Chancellor Merkel; but his scheme to draft a whole new Franco-German treaty for the 55th anniversary of the historic Élysée Treaty in 1963 has had to be put on hold.

Nonetheless, there are signs that the German debate is slowly going Macron’s way. First, the German election result, which damaged Angela Merkel, and the initial deadlock over coalition talks in the country have, for the first time in more than a decade, shifted Europe’s balance of power back towards Paris. Second, the coalition agreement struck between Merkel’s Christian Democrats, its Bavarian allies and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), strikes a distinctively pro-European chord as this was a core demand by the latter party. Third, and perhaps most importantly, by securing the key finance and foreign ministries, the SPD will have considerable leverage over European affairs in the new government.

One way or the other, between them, Macron and pro-European voices in the SPD have destroyed two tenacious recent narratives: that all is well with the EU, despite a few rocky patches, and that there can be no question of further far-reaching and fast-paced European political integration any time soon.

In the future, it will thus simply no longer be good enough for Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, to trot out as he did in December the old Berlin mantra that “the discussion about whether Europe should be a federal state, confederation or a United States is one for academics and journalists, not for German foreign policy”. There is also a new Franco-German spirit in place and for once it is linked to the beginnings of a visionary and yet realistic plan. It found expression in a joint Franco-German parliamentary resolution last month in support of European reform, a pis aller for the stalled treaty. Perhaps other eurozone parliaments will follow suit with similar temporary yet symbolic measures.


In his New Year address, Macron spoke directly to the European people. “I will need you in this year,” he said, “to rediscover our European ambition, a more sovereign and united Europe, and one that is more democratic and good for our people [sic].” He directly appealed to the much vaunted European public sphere, in effect over the heads of member state governments. It was undoubtedly the right decision, but nobody can be sure that it will work. The messages from the great European public are mixed.

To be sure, there has been a substantial recent outpouring of support for the European ideal, epitomised by the “Pulse of Europe” movement. But when one gets down to details, and especially any concerted plan to save the union, that consensus evaporates. Just before Christmas, a poll by the respected Körber Foundation showed Germans to be strongly supportive of the European Union but, by a small majority, opposed to Macron’s plan to save it.

For all the rhetoric, when it really matters, the European sense of shared destiny is still weak and common ideas are often lost in translation. Of course, public opinion can change, if credible leaders make the case to the public at large. To do this Macron will need a “Europe en Marche”, or to extend the La République en Marche across the continent: a project for the democratic unification of Europe.

Together with active citizens and other leaders he will have to craft a new common narrative that rings true in Paris, Athens and Tallinn alike. He will have to lead the nation une et indivisible out of its hexagonal comfort zone to act as a new Grande Nation in Europe. The French cannot be armed missionaries – that never worked – but they must be the animating spirit of the union. To succeed, President Macron will have to frighten and inspire Europeans in equal measure. The movement will need to give us a “project fear” and a “project hope”. 

Brendan Simms is professor in the history of international relations in the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, and chairman of pro-European think tank the Project for Democratic Union. He is a New Statesman contributing writer

Daniel Schade is a researcher and lecturer in European studies at the University of Magdeburg in Germany. He serves as deputy chairman of the PDU

A police spy’s ex-girlfriend on abuse and the state: “I didn’t have a chance”
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

“Lisa” had the ideal partner. Then it turned out he was an undercover cop. 

In the summer of 2010, Lisa and Mark were driving a van through the mountains of Italy. Brought together by their love of nature, cycling and climbing, it was an idyllic holiday for the British couple.

Then, one day, Mark went for a cycle ride. While he was gone, Lisa opened the glove box of the van and began searching for her sunglasses. Instead, her hand enclosed on Mark’s passport. It was the first tug of the thread that has, seven years on, still not led her to the full truth. And with every tug, she would be forced to accept that more of the happiness she had experienced over the past few years was based on a lie. 

“I have tortured myself with that for quite a few years,” Lisa (not her real name) tells me when I speak to her on the phone. “What did I miss? What should I have seen? Of course, I can see things now that are clear indicators, but it is so important for me to realise I didn’t have a chance.”

Mark was not the environmental campaigner he had pretended to be for the past seven years, but Mark Kennedy, a former undercover police officer with a wife and children in Ireland. Reporting by the Guardian journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, and their follow up book, Undercover, documented how, from the late 1960s, police had been infiltrating protest groups. Their deceit extended not just to having relationships with women while undercover, but even having children with them. In Kennedy’s case, he grew his hair out, pierced his ears and moved to Nottingham, where he began hanging around cafes popular with activists and introducing himself as Mark Stone. As well as gaining a reputation as an effective organiser, Kennedy had at least two serious relationships – the second with Lisa lasted six years.

When the revelations emerged, there was widespread horror at the idea that women had been manipulated in such a way. But seven years on, the public inquiry is cloaked in secrecy (hearings are ongoing, and there was one on 5 February 2018). Since 2014, the police have fought attempts to release details, in particular the aliases the undercover police went by. These are crucial as far as the activists are concerned, because it is these names, not the officers’ real ones, that will identify police spies. Meanwhile, the women, and in some cases their children fathered by undercover officers, have had to live with the consequences.

Undercover describes the woman named as Lisa in this article as a well-connected and trusted activist. At the time of the book’s publication in 2013, she had not spoken about her experience. Five years on, she says she needed time to make sense of what had happened to her.

Kennedy pretended to his activist friends that he was a professional climber, while hinting at a shady but lucrative previous life smuggling drugs. He was a reliable driver, and a regular at protests, including one where he was beaten up by police. One of the challenges Lisa grappled with was accepting that she was not, as she initially felt, simply too stupid to notice. “He was a trained manipulator who had the whole weight of the state behind his lies,” she says. “He had fake passports. He wasn’t a normal liar who I should have spotted.”

Another reason Lisa had managed to overlook the little things was because the relationship was one of the happiest she’d ever experienced. “What I realise now is, because it was important for this cover, he was putting a lot of effort into being my ideal partner,” she says. “That is hard.” Another woman in a similar situation described it to her as having a partner without an ego. “It is hard to think what a normal relationship would be like that after that.”

Lisa with Mark Kennedy, whom she knew as the environmental activist Mark Stone

I speak to Lisa in late December, shortly after the #metoo movement sweeps the world, when the words abuse and power seem to go hand in hand. In 2011, Kennedy told the Guardian there were “no lies” about his love for Lisa and that their relationship was “the realest thing I ever did”. In 2009, shortly after a raucous 40th birthday party with his activist friends, Kennedy’s handlers reassigned him to a desk job. He subsequently quit the police, joined a private security firm and returned to the activist scene – but crucially without the fake passport the police had previously provided for him.

How does Lisa understand the relationship, all these years on?  “I think it is something I will always wrestle with,” she responds. “I do want to believe he did feel in love with me, he said that he did, and I would like to think I could recognise genuine feelings.” Initially, she attributed the abusive nature of the relationship to his employers, but over time, her view has changed.

“I still think a lot of people were responsible for what happened to me and not the one person who I was in a relationship with,” she says. “However the feelings have faded and it is very, very obvious to me that there was a huge power imbalance in that situation.

“To put someone in a position that they were consenting to a relationship [that] if they had known all the facts they wouldn’t be consenting to – that is abusive.”

It is this power imbalance that continues to haunt Lisa, even after the hurt has waned. She is unnerved by the idea of backroom staff “observing my most private and intimate moments without my consent, reading my text messages”.

She also thinks about the wives of the police officers, inadvertently co-opted into the undercover world. According to Undercover, officers with wives or stable partners were preferred as undercover spies, because they were less likely to form emotional connections with the women they slept with (a whistleblower also described to The Guardian how potential spies were vetted by visits to the marital home). Their wives did not seem to merit similar consideration. “I think it is a total disregard for women’s lives,” Lisa says. She thinks about Kennedy’s children a lot, and what it was like to have “a dad part time”.

It was family that gave Kennedy away. Lisa had accepted Mark’s excuses for his absences (work), and explanations for why she had never been introduced to his family, although she once had an awkward conversation on the phone with a brother. “I realise now it was because his brother probably didn’t really want to speak to me. His brother wasn’t a police officer and was dragged into it.” When she opened his passport that day in July 2010, though, it was the discovery that he had a child listed that startled her. “People change their names for all kinds of reasons but people don’t have kids and don’t tell you about it.”

There were many more tugs of the thread to get to the truth. After discovering the passport, she confronted Mark; he claimed that in a past life he had been a drug runner, and cried for hours. They went on holiday again. It was only in the autumn that she asked a friend to help her investigate.

Lisa still hoped that her suspicions were wrong: even the revelation that he simply had another family “wouldn’t be quite so devastating”. When her friends had unearthed enough to convince her that she was right, she changed her mind and wanted to fly to Ireland to confront him. Her friends talked her down.

Instead, they persuaded her to ask him to come to them, and to her surprise, he agreed (she thinks he needed to know what information they had on him). Even then, she held out “a tiny, tiny shred of hope it wasn’t what I thought it was”.

Kennedy, who spoke to the press after he was exposed, told the Daily Mail in 2011 that the confrontation, which took place in the house of several activists, was “hugely menacing”. Lisa, though, says such fear was misplaced: “For all we knew he was still a serving police officer. We suspected he was wearing a recording device.”

Where Lisa and Kennedy’s accounts agree, it is on the emotional devastation of the moment. Kennedy said that the accusations brought him to tears, and he was “destroyed” by the look on Lisa’s face. “I think the person who turned up was a shell of a person,” says Lisa of the encounter. “He had kept this up for a long time and it was about to come crashing down. I imagine that was scary, even though we weren’t scary people. The thing we wanted was to get to the truth. We wanted him to tell us the truth.”

Since that time, Lisa has tried to move on with her life. However, her fear of encountering another undercover officer is so strong that she has had to give up many things she was passionate about, including political campaigning. She has also moved to a new town. Yet the scars take a long time to heal. “While I have got some amazing friends I would trust with my life, I haven’t found able to trust anyone in an intimate relationship since then,” Lisa says, her voice breaking up over the phone.

In late 2017, at the time the #metoo movement was sweeping Britain, Lisa joined other women formerly deceived by undercover policemen in lodging a complaint with the United Nations. Describing their experience as psychological and sexual abuse, the women argue that the UK government failed to prevent institutionalised discrimination.

Campaigners against police spies estimate that only 10 per cent of operatives have been uncovered. Lisa hopes the complaint will unearth what remains elusive – the identities of those in the back rooms, who gave Kennedy his orders, and why. “The questions I still need answers to, they are not about him – who he was,” she says. “They are about who they were. Who was directing him, who was watching our relationship and what was it all for?”

“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism
February 19th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

“Fascination and fear”: Rhythm and Reaction shows how Edwardian Britain responded to jazz
February 18th, 2018, 05:56 AM

A new exhibition charts the influence of, and racism towards, the musicians bringing jazz across the Atlantic.

Hard as it may now be to imagine but, a century ago jazz was a wild, untamed music fresh off the boat from America. Hated by conservatives, loved by youths; both the soundtrack to wild clubbing and a sonic siren for modernism, jazz meant many things – not least that the UK would spend the rest of the century following developments in African American music.

What kind of reception did those black American musicians get when they came to the UK? This isn’t a question often asked – UK pop/ rock histories love to go on about Jimi Hendrix being welcomed here at a time when Americans didn’t recognize his genius, and old Mississippi blues men settling in Yorkshire because it was so much more welcoming than the Jim Crow South. When this is stated, there is often a collective outbreak of patting ourselves on the back for not being racists – at least towards musicians we like – unlike our cousins across the Atlantic. But that was 50 years ago. How about a century ago?

“Fascination and fear sums it up well,” says Professor Catherine Tackley when asked about how Edwardian England responded to the inclux of jazz musicians.“There was certainly a strong novelty element, and jazz being understood as black music certainly established it for some as a threat. There was overt racism expressed, particularly towards members of black theatre companies which was also tied up with oppositions to 'Alien' workers more widely.”

Tackley is Head of Music at the University of Liverpool and curator of an exhibition that opened late-January in London. Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain looks, at first glance, to be just another gathering of old artifacts from a bygone age. And yet while this exhibition may trade in arcane items from a sepia era, Rhythm & Reaction provides both a fascinating overview of a largely forgotten time and a history lesson: documented here is how a new American sound, created by pioneering black musicians, would go on to resonate across Britain.

The exhibition emphasises how, almost a century ago, the “jazz age” – as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously described a post-WW1 USA, overflowing with money, confidence and hot music – also existed in the UK. Admittedly, in a nation traumatized by the war, Britain's jazz age was never going to be as loud and ostentatious as that then underway in the US. But what Rhythm & Reaction makes evident is how jazz inspired an outbreak of British creativity – not just music making but painting, graphic design, fashion, journalism, textiles, even ceramicists responded to the sound of New Orleans.

Using the end of WW1 as a starting point, the exhibition begins by acknowledging earlier African American musicians who had performed in Britain. In 1873 the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured widely to raise funds for a black university in Tennessee (and sang for Queen Victoria: her Royal Highness was impressed) while minstrels worked the music hall circuit from the 1870s on and would remain popular up into the post-WW2 years (so much so they inspired the now infamous Black & White Minstrels TV series). Ragtime arrived in England just before WW1 and fed into a craze for American dances such as the Lindy Hop and the Grizzly (swing dance’s origins are here). But jazz, unlike the aforementioned genres, launched a cultural revolution.

Jazz detonated in London in 1919 with the arrival of The Original Dixieland Jass Band – a crude, if energetic and entertaining, white quintet. The ODJB resonated with British youths in a manner comparable to the arrival of Elvis in the 1950s, Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s, The Ramones in the 1970s and Run-DMC in the 1980s. Raw American music, often involving more energy than skill, excited and inspired British youths (while upsetting their elders) across the 20th Century.

Featuring striking paintings by William Patrick Roberts and Edward Burra alongside exceptional graphic and textile work, Tackley’s exhibition makes a case for jazz being at the forefront of British modernism. The jazz musicians may have paid little or no attention to developments in painting and literature, but they fired up all kinds of creative possibilities here.

British youths instinctively responded to these energies, and in Edwardian society jazz’s spontaneity and insouciance became indelibly linked to sex. Inevitably, race came into play in an era where the UK was predominantly white and a colonial mentality shaped through centuries of Empire meant people with dark skins were often treated as inferior. Sex and race have often proved an explosive combination, as reflected by a selection of paintings and cartoons featured by Rhythm & Reaction. These range from crude caricatures of musicians as savages, through to Scottish artist J.B. Souter's painting The Breakdown. The Breakdown featured in the Royal Academy's 1926 Summer Exhibition and, in portraying a naked white woman dancing to a fully clothed black saxophonist (who sits on a broken classical bust), immediately proved controversial: Edgar Jackson, the editor of Melody Maker (the first UK magazine devoted to jazz), decried the painting, but not because of its toxic racism. Instead, Jackson stated, “We demand also that the habit of associating our music with the primitive and barbarous negro derivation shall cease forthwith”.  

Jackson campaigned for jazz to be seen as a sophisticated Anglo-Saxon music. The aptly named Paul Whiteman – a white American bandleader who played symphonic jazz, ie jazz softened with elements of light classical music – was its exemplar and very popular in the 1920s. But there was no hiding that the musical geniuses pushing jazz forth were the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, both of whom began touring the UK in the early 1930s. Not that they were welcomed by all: Armstrong’s London debut found The Daily Herald’s critic writing of the man who would touch more lives than almost any other 20th Century musician, “He looks and behaves like an untrained gorilla”.  

“Stereotype was never far away,” says Tackley, “and the point I make is that this can be traced back to the exaggerated portrayals in minstrelsy. There was an impulse to 'civilise' 'primitive' jazz via dance music, but then in the 1930s particularly, a growing realisation that individual improvisation by black musicians was a key aspect of the music. Black musicians generally seem to have been welcomed here. That review of Armstrong is extreme, and he does seem to have been more problematic for British audiences than Ellington, because the latter fitted better with dance bands on stage and dance halls.”

Indeed, Rhythm & Reaction doesn’t dwell on the negative, instead offering insight into how black musicians, increasingly from Britain’s Caribbean colonies, came to win loyal audiences here. Striking photos of Ken “Snakehips” Johnson – who lead the first all black British jazz band until a Luftwaffe bomb killed him on the bandstand of London’s Café du Paris in 1941 – hint at a black British identity that would develop more widely three decades later.

“For black Britons working in the entertainment industry offered important opportunities for those that would have been limited in terms of career advancement and social mobility,” says Tackley. “Jazz certainly brought races together, particularly musicians, but also audiences, in a way that was problematic to some degree in this period.”

Synchronicity of sorts finds Rhythm & Reaction connecting with two recent Radio 4 series that both survey British music making just before the jazz age. Clarke Peters (of The Wire) presented three episodes of Black Music In Europe: A Hidden History so looking at the pre-jazz music making of Africans and African Americans in England (and further a field) while Cerys Matthews presented a five-parter on the pioneers of the British recording industry that was taking shape as jazz took hold. While they are both fascinating series to listen to, Rhythm & Reaction allows the viewer to meditate on a great range of objects and build their own associations.

By shining a light on a very British response to a very American musical phenomenon of almost a century ago, Rhythm & Reaction poses plenty of questions for a UK once again divided over identity and outsiders.

Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain is at Two Temple Place until the 22 April.

Like many others, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was left in charge of a failing aircraft
February 18th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Ony when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility properly resource the NHS. 

The day Leicester trainee paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was struck off by the High Court for her involvement in the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt posted a tweet expressing his deep concern about possible unintended consequences of the ruling. He was referring specifically to the impact on patient safety.

At a stroke, efforts to build a culture of open learning – a cause Hunt champions – had been set back decades. You don’t get people to talk honestly about critical mistakes by threatening them with prison and professional ruin.

There may be other consequences that Hunt didn’t anticipate. Comparisons with another safety-critical industry – aviation – are instructive. On the day Jack died, from undiagnosed sepsis, Bawa-Garba was functioning as would a first officer on an aircraft. The plane’s captain was elsewhere, training other pilots on a simulator in a different city. The chief steward had failed to report for duty, so Bawa-Garba was expected to oversee cabin service as well as fly the plane single-handed.

The aircraft’s IT systems had gone down, meaning one of the stewardesses was permanently occupied looking out of the window to ensure they didn’t collide with anything. Another stewardess was off sick, and her replacement was unfamiliar with the type of plane and its safety systems. And Bawa-Garba herself had just returned from a year’s maternity leave. She’d done quite a lot of flying in the past, though, and the airline clearly believed she could slot straight back into action – they arranged no return-to-work programme, dropping her in at the deep end.

Not one of us would agree to be a passenger on that flight, yet that kind of scenario is commonplace in hospitals throughout the country. Critically ill patients have no awareness of how precarious their care is, and would have no choice about it if they knew. Since the Bawa-Garba ruling, doctors have been bombarding the General Medical Council (GMC) for advice as to what they should do when confronted with similarly parlous working conditions.

The GMC’s response has been to issue a flowchart detailing whom medics should tell about concerns. But it has failed to confirm that doing so would protect doctors should a disaster occur. Nor does it support worried doctors simply refusing to work under unsafe conditions. This is akin to telling the first officer they must inform the airline that things are bad, very bad, but that they still have to fly the plane regardless.

Jeremy Hunt has responded to the crisis by announcing an urgent review into gross negligence manslaughter, the offence of which Bawa-Garba was convicted. This is welcome, and long overdue, but it still serves to retain the focus on individuals and their performance, and keeps attention away from the failing systems that let down doctors and patients daily.

An action by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin is, arguably, more important than Hunt’s review. The organisation has written to Leicestershire police requesting that they investigate Bawa-Garba’s hospital trust for alleged corporate manslaughter. I sincerely hope a prosecution follows. I’m no fan of litigation, but change is only going to come when those who manage the NHS know that they are going to carry the can when things go wrong.

We need clear statements of what constitute minimum acceptable staffing levels, both in terms of numbers, and training and experience. When departments, or even whole hospitals, fall below these – or when unexpected problems such as IT failures occur – managers, faced with the real prospect of corporate lawsuits, will close the unit, rather than keep operating in unsafe conditions, as routinely occurs.

Only when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility – Jeremy Hunt and the rest of the Conservative government – finally act to resource the health service properly. 

This would be an unintended consequence from the Dr Bawa-Garba case that would be welcome indeed. 

Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British
February 18th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender
February 18th, 2018, 05:56 AM

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Planting trees below Turkish bombs in Syria
February 18th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Under assualt from all sides, the Kurds and their international helpers are trying to “Make Rojava Green Again”.

Turkey’s recent, bloody invasion of Rojava is codenamed “Operation Olive Branch”. It’s a cruel misnomer, and not only because scores of civilians have died in Turkey’s relentless and indiscriminate shelling of the progressive, Kurdish-led autonomous region

Afrin is the isolated western enclave of Rojava  that's currently under assault from Turkish artillery, jets, tanks and Turkish-backed jihadist militias. It’s famed for its four million olive trees – just as the larger eastern province of al-Jazira is “the breadbasket of Syria”, famed for its wheat.

But images of rolling olive groves and wheat blooming in the rich basin of the Euphrates river belie a history of wealth extraction and impoverishment under the Assad regime. Colonial-style oil and wheat monocultures, Turkish control of water supplies and five years of war have starved the earth. 

Kurdish-led ecological committees and like-minded international activists are working to Make Rojava Green Again”, in the words of a new internationally-focused campaign to plant tens of thousands of trees, and work with local farmers to build co-operative ecological structures.

Talk of tree nurseries seems incongruous in a warzone. But the land tells the story of the Kurds’ long repression – and the immense political and cultural challenges they face as they attempt to build a democratic, federalist alternative from the ashes of Syria.

“The attacks from the Turkish state are directly against the idea of an ecological, democratic society based on gender equality,” international volunteer Stefan tells the New Statesman over an encrypted phoneline. “Stopping this project means stopping the fight for a different society.”


Kurds are one of the largest ethnic minorities worldwide without a state of their own, instead largely inhabiting portions of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their language and culture has long been violently repressed – Kurdish-language education was banned in Syria until the outbreak of civil war, for example. In popular adage, they have “no friends but the mountains”.

The Assad regime used agriculture to wring Kurdish land dry, and keep its farming inhabitants reliant on state support. “Under the Syrian regime it was more or less forbidden to plant trees,” says Ciya, a member of the self-administration’s ecological committee in al-Jazira. “The regime wanted us to grow wheat.” Kurds say the regime enforced deforestation even in the streets of cities like Kobane, as a method of subjugation.

Wheat monoculture. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

Monocultures put the population at perpetual risk of famine, and necessitate large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to keep the soil artificially alive – a short-term solution with ruinous results. A drought in 2007-2008 hit half-a-dozen neighbouring countries, but only in Syria did it become a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Kurdish regions of northern Syria were kept dependent on Damascus for other vital necessities, and Kurdish people forced to travel into metropoles to find work.  “Under the Assad regime, the people were really disconnected from their land,” Stefan says.


Alone on an island prison with a thousand guards for company following his 1999 capture, the venerated leader of Turkish militia group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan modified his belief in a violent Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard.

Instead, he developed a libertarian ideology of “democratic confederalism”. He calls for a “soft” revolution expanding through the state, with people joining local committees and co-operatives until this "flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented” structure becomes the system of government.

When Assad started pulling forces out of Kurdish-majority regions in 2012, the PKK’s Syrian avatar (the PYD) took control of swathes of the countryside. The region is now formally known as the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, and informally as Rojava – or “West” in Kurdish.

Perversely, ISIS’ arrival in the area – and their famous defeat by Kurdish-led militias in Kobane – gave Rojava the name on the world stage and the limited military support from the United States it needed to survive. The Kurdish PYG and PYJ militias were lionised for defeating ISIS, even as their intimate allies the PKK continue to be listed as a terror group by the UK, EU and USA.

You’ll have seen orientalising clickbait about “the women fighting ISIS”, but feminism is one of three key tenets of democratic confederalism, along with the grassroots democratisation of government and ecological principles.

British leftists who’ve returned from Rojava say the “woman’s revolution” is the most visible and successful element.  All-female militias aside, each of the thousands of local committees must have 50 per cent female representation – a principle extending to the highest offices of government. (Meanwhile, committees working on domestic issues must have a minimum 40per cent male representation, so men don’t slack off from addressing “womanly” subjects like childcare).

In a historically highly-conservative region, newly-legalised divorces have skyrocketed, while a “woman’s house” on every street provides a safe space as women engage in new educational and co-operative programmes.

Meanwhile, those committees provide a forum to “solve daily questions, organise yourself in a democratic, self-administrated way… [for] society to become conscious of itself again”. For now, they’re the junior partner in a dual-power system with a more traditionally top-down administration, but they provide a forum for ordinary citizens to vote on issues of region-wide significance.

It’s a slow and difficult process, with some neighbourhoods and villages engaging enthusiastically while others remain loyal to Assad or unconvinced of the revolution’s liberal merits. But everyone gets cheap bread and oil, and the flight of millions of refugees into areas now being pounded by Turkish jets shows how highly ordinary people value the security Rojava provides.


As Stefan acknowledges, however, the “ecological revolution” is lagging badly behind. Arguments that drought caused the Syrian Civil War are easily over-stated: what is certain is that war destroys the land.

Wells and springs were destroyed by retreating Islamic State forces, who started huge oil fires to shield their flight from American bombers. Depleted uranium, heavy metals, TNT and other toxic carcinogens from spent armaments leach into the soil.

Landfill outside of the city of Derik. Photo: Internationalist Commune.

According to Alan, another Kurdish member of al-Jazira’s ecological committee, “for years now, the Turkish state has restricted the water supply by building many dams on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and drilling wells along the border line.”

By cutting power availability down to 6 or 12 hours daily, the “self-administration” government of Rojava nonetheless ekes out 75 per cent of its electricity supply from hydroelectric sources. Fully renewable power would be achievable, were it not for Turkish control of their water sources – or the embargo.

Neither Turkey nor the government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region allow people, aid or vital supplies to cross their shared borders with Rojava. Ecological ideals of self-sufficiency therefore take on a special urgency, even as circumstances make them all but impossible. Parts to repair and improve the hydro-electric plants cannot get into the country.

The embargo also contributes to a general economic crisis - grand composting and recycling programmes, for example, remain unrealised due to lack of funds.  

On the one hand, tens of thousands of hectares are being opened up to agricultural co-operatives, led by women and young people. On the other, as this frank interview with a Kurdish economic official makes painfully clear, the co-operative or “social” economy in Rojava is still dwarfed by an oil-funded war economy.

25 per cent of crops in al-Jazira are now those – beans, chickpeas – which require no irrigation, up from only 10 per cent before the start of the “revolution.” The local committees’ educational programmes are a far cry from the dubious glamour of the battle against ISIS, but in the long run they could prove just as vital.

Internationalist Commune

Westerners who go to fight – and die – in the battle against Isis are celebrated worldwide, and venerated as martyrs in Rojava itself. But increasing numbers of leftists are joining the “civil revolution” too, as teachers, doctors, engineers and environmentalists.

Some efforts have been cack-handed, for example driving malfunctioning ambulances into a region where there’s no such thing as a 999 call. A previous ecological endeavour, the “Rojava Plan”, arrived with grand and wildly inappropriate dreams to build organic fertiliser facilities and sank without a trace.

According to Stefan, the “Internationalist Commune” of civil volunteers seek to avoid these errors by understanding the revolution as a two-way process.

“The time for international help hasn’t stopped just because the war against Daesh has stopped,” he says, using the derogatory local term for Isis. His impeccable second-language English is seeded with Kurdish terms: şehid for “martyr” and tamam, or “fine”.

“Nobody would say it’s not important to fight Isis… but it’s also important to learn from and contribute to the up-building of a new society. For us Westerners, it’s really something to see the possibility of a different future.”

The “Make Rojava Green Again” project is a part of this slow drive. Even what Stefan calls their “short-term aims” will take years – planting 10,000 trees this year, and 50,000 in the next five, plus opening up a co-operative tree nursery to support local farmers.

 Photo: Internationalist Commune.

The Commune is calling for financial support, volunteers and knowledge-sharing from scientists and ecologists worldwide, as they work together with local committees and Rojava’s two co-operative nature reserves to build a revolution lasting beyond the revolutionary moment.

“In the future I will grow more trees around [my] land to keep the earth healthy, and help the other plants to grow,” says Abu Araz, a farmer who works with the Commune. Members of the Commune are already involved in civil work in Afrin, and they hope to transplant their tree-planting programmes there in the future, as “forests get destroyed, and water polluted because of the war”.

ISIS fight under the slogan baqiya wa tatamadad, or “remaining and expanding”. But they are a vanishing force now. And though other Turkish-backed jihadist forces are vying to take their place, it is the grassroots Rojava revolution which endures.

Thatcher’s long shadow: has the “miserablist” left exaggerated her legacy?
February 17th, 2018, 05:56 AM

A new book argues that Britain is far from the “neoliberal nightmare” decried by Corbynites.

In the archives of Newsweek magazine is a 2,000-word article credited to Margaret Thatcher, published in April 1992, and headlined “Don’t undo my work”. It is an amazing thing: a vulgar rendering of the basic argument of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, mixed with the pain of a once-powerful politician who now had precious little to do with her time, and outrage at the European Union’s Treaty of Maastricht. “I set out to destroy socialism because I felt it was at odds with the character of the people,” she wrote. “We were the first country in the world to roll back the frontiers of socialism, then roll forward the frontiers of freedom. We reclaimed our heritage.” In its final flourish, she refers to herself in the third person: “Thatcherism will live. It will live long after Thatcher has died, because we had the courage to restore the great principles and put them into practice, in keeping with the character of the people and the place of this country in the world.”

Up – or down – in the hereafter, what must she make of the strange point reached by the country she once ruled? Britain’s exit from the EU is an essentially Thatcherite project, which may yet result in the kind of laissez-faire dystopia she and her followers always wanted. But at the same time, we have seen something they thought they had ruled out for ever: the revival of an unapologetically socialist Labour Party, which is seemingly backed by a convincing majority of people under 40, and is possibly on the verge of taking power. Meanwhile, no end of wider developments – from the crises of such outsourcing giants as Carillion and Capita to mounting public unease about corporate tax avoidance – suggest that a sea-change is coming. Perhaps, in the midst of Brexit’s mess, we might be starting to wake up from what some people see as the 40-year nightmare of neoliberalism.

But what if Britain was never that neo-liberal, and there was not much of a nightmare in the first place? This is the argument attempted by Andrew Hindmoor, a professor of politics at Sheffield University. He wants to discredit an oft-told story: that “Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 marked the start of a still-continuing fall from political grace”, manifested in “dizzying levels of inequality, social decay [and]  rampant individualism”, and the surrender to free-market ideology of the Blair-Brown governments.

His contention is that “neoliberalism has had a surprisingly limited impact on our collective understandings of the world around us” – and that the realities of inequality, privatisation, and the shrinking of the state have not turned out to be as awful as some people think. He wants to nudge Corbynite readers away from the idea that the New Labour era represented a long period of political drought. Britain, in his reading, has obvious problems but is hardly the scene of a disaster – and the people he maligns as left-wing “miserablists” ought to recognise it.

At a time when polarised argument on social media has obscured the fact that politics is usually cast in shades of grey, his nuanced case ought to be welcome. Indeed, as a trigger for thinking deeply about what has happened in and to this country – particularly since the mid-1990s – the book just about does its job. Part of its argument is based on a familiar script, and a list of (mostly) undeniable New Labour achievements: “significant public expenditure increases, the introduction of tax credits, a minimum wage, devolution, and freedom of information”.

Hindmoor also eloquently sets out evidence that public opinion, in so far as it is measured by pollsters and academic researchers, is now more socially liberal than it has ever been, and also full of the kind of left-of-centre thinking (redistribution of wealth, nationalised utilities) that Thatcher thought she had expunged. From time to time, all this skirts close to the blindingly obvious, but it’s at least built on solid facts about the country’s recent history. Hindmoor’s problem comes when he pushes his arguments into much more contentious areas, and everything threatens to unravel.

Whether his points are always sincere or sometimes part of an academic thought experiment is unclear. Among his other arguments, he underplays the severity of post-2010 austerity by citing both slight increases in real terms in overall public spending, and the Conservatives’ failure to convincingly cut the deficit. But neither detracts from millions of people’s experience of cuts, whether through the NHS crisis or the savaging of services provided by local councils – something he half-acknowledges before dropping a real clanger. “The costs of austerity have not been loaded on to the poorest and most vulnerable,” he writes, which is most of the way to being absurd.

Elsewhere, Hindmoor claims that in education policy, “academisation [sic] is not a form of privatisation”, on the basis that schools run by independent trusts are funded by government and subject to Ofsted inspections. He apparently refuses to entertain the idea that if schools are snatched away from elected local authorities and put in the unaccountable hands of often questionable organisations (some of which are now in grave financial difficulties), something significant has happened. In an equally flimsy treatment of the health service, he says that there should be an argument “whether the contracting out of NHS services to private companies is… tantamount to privatisation”, which is some logical somersault to attempt. And he has almost nothing to say about what has happened to the benefits system, in which a once collectivist, benign set of institutions and arrangements has been replaced by a machine that represents individualism – or, if you prefer, neoliberalism – at its nastiest.

A section about inequality is stuffed with graphs and desiccated numbers that ought to strengthen his case, but end up adding to its weakness. “The UK is a country in which a significant redistribution of income still occurs,” Hindmoor says, which is true, but still leaves open the question of whether “significant” equates to “enough”. His evidence for an upbeat verdict largely rests on a rather laboured concept – also used by the Office for National Statistics – which includes basic public services in its definition of “final income”. The problem there is that you end up trying to make a positive case for the state of the country based on the continuing availability of free roads, schools and hospitals, which strikes me as an argument built on somewhat lowly aspirations.

His reliance on macroeconomic statistics, moreover, cuts him adrift from reality. Inequality is not just about numbers but people’s sense of opportunity, having a stake in the future and connection to the rest of the country. In the end, even Hindmoor does not seem convinced. “Inequality did rise significantly in the 1980s,” he writes. “Wealth inequality is growing. Social mobility is poor.” The abiding impression is of someone needlessly tying themselves in knots.

Does believing that Britain has been repeatedly pushed in the wrong direction over the last three decades make you a “miserablist”? Not at all. Like many others I think Thatcherism wrought damage that has never been healed, and that New Labour swallowed far too much of its legacy and set precedents for subsequent Conservative politicians. The invasion of Iraq was probably the single biggest policy disaster in post-war history, and compared to the hallowed Labour government of 1945-51, the Blair administrations’ institutional legacy – beyond Sure Start centres, which are now being closed at speed – was pitiful. At the same time, I well know that Blair and his colleagues improved the country in lots of ways, and it would perhaps be nice to go back to the halcyon period of 1997-2003. But that is now impossible, thanks to a range of watershed developments that point to the need for something very different.

Hindmoor’s text only briefly touches on them, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed: wages have been stagnating for more than a decade, near-zero interest rates have not triggered any surge in investment, unsecured private debt is at its highest level since the 2008 crash, and the idea that profit-making corporations are the answer to the modernisation of the state looks increasingly threadbare. Put another way, an era that began in the early 1980s may well be in its death throes, a realisation etched on to the upbeat faces of the people who now crowd into Jeremy Corbyn rallies, and rarely look like “miserablists”.

For many reasons, their politics is not really my thing, but I can see why their movement fits its time, in a way that this book’s glossing-over of deep political and economic failures does not. Its author should maybe bear in mind the closing lines of Thatcher’s Newsweek piece: “You always have people who take the soft option. The apparently easy way out is the way that gets you into deepest trouble. The lesson is, you don’t soften fundamental principles. You positively push them forward into the future.” 

John Harris writes for the Guardian

What’s Left Now? The History and Future of Social Democracy
Andrew Hindmoor
Oxford University Press, 285pp, £20

Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand
February 17th, 2018, 05:56 AM

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities
February 17th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

Combating smartphone addiction: taking back control of your phone – and your mind
February 17th, 2018, 05:56 AM

App designers manipulate the way our brains work to keep us hooked.

As I put my phone down next to the sink, a small warning flashed across my mind. “That could easily fall in,” I thought, before getting to work on the dishes. Thirty seconds later, my phone tumbled right in among the suds.

Smartphones are a ubiquitous part of daily life, with research showing that 85 per cent of UK adults own one. But they are still just a tool we use to make life easier – being without one should merely be a minor inconvenience. I have other ways of accessing the internet for work and keeping in touch with friends and family. So why did my phone’s fatal immersion make me feel as if a part of me had gone missing?

I found the answer in an unsettling new book by the US health journalist Catherine Price. She starts How to Break Up With Your Phone with a series of questions devised by Dr David Greenfield, the founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction at the University of Connecticut.

This quiz asks, among other things, “do you sleep with your phone in or near your bed?” and “do you find yourself mindlessly checking your phone many times a day, even when you know it is unlikely there is anything new or important to see?”. Answer “yes” to more than five questions, and you may have “a compulsive smartphone use pattern”. More than eight, and you may need to seek professional help for addictive behaviour. After reading this book, I think at least half the people I know would fall into the latter category.

Smartphone addiction is rife, Price explains. When you stop to think about it, this isn’t very surprising. The big tech companies that make smartphones and apps are constantly using their vast resources to keep you on your phone. The higher they can push “user engagement” – Silicon Valley-speak for “the amount of time you spend scrolling through Facebook” – the greater the opportunity they have of making money. The more you share about yourself, by filling out profiles on social media platforms and shopping online, the better they can tailor adverts to you.

App designers deliberately manipulate the way our brains work to keep us hooked, Price explains. Every time a new notification arrives, we get a release of a brain chemical called dopamine that has associations with pleasure and reward. The more this happens, the more likely we are to crave it, especially if the app purposely doles out its prizes sparingly. This is how we get addicted: our brains associate our phones with a reward, so we reach for them again and again to get a hit.

Although Price has created a manual for how you can “break up” with your phone, she emphasises that there isn’t anything wrong with using it however you want. The problem, she writes, lies with how quickly we integrated this intrusive new technology into our lives, without being aware of how it would change our behaviour. She has created a 30-day programme of exercises intended to release you from the constant compulsion to scroll and give you “a chance to stop and think” about what you are doing.

Price’s suggestions range from the extreme, such as a “digital sabbath” during which you turn your phone off for 24 hours, to the seemingly slight, such as reorganising your phone’s home screen so you can’t see the bright, tempting colours of your favourite apps the second you turn it on. 

Above all, she wants you to be conscious of the choices you make. One of her central ideas involves being fully aware of when you feel the need to reach for your phone, and why you are doing it. Is it ringing? Do you need to answer a message or look at a map? If not, maybe you could just leave it alone.

By the time I was halfway through following Price’s system, I was a convert. I deleted my social media apps in favour of the clunkier in-browser versions, which discourage me from scrolling for too long. I stopped charging my phone by the bed. The urge to check it for no reason is still there, but happens less often. I can go for hours with my phone situated in another room and not miss it at all until I need to do something. The phone no longer controls me. I am in charge. 

How Japan is preparing for the great flood
February 17th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”
February 17th, 2018, 05:56 AM

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20

Republicans only care about debt when there’s a Democrat in the White House
February 17th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Early forecasts for Trump’s 2019 federal budget claim the deficit will nearly double to $984bn.

Donald Trump bankrupted his companies six times. He bragged that he was the “king of debt”. He entered office owing more than $1bn to 150 institutions. So should we really be surprised to discover that the president of the United States was only pretending to be a fiscal conservative?

On 12 February, the Trump White House unveiled a $4.4trn federal budget for 2019 that, according to Bloomberg, forecasts the deficit “nearly doubling… to $984bn. The red ink would total $7.1trn over the next decade, the national debt would rise to nearly $30trn, and the budget would not balance.”

Members of the US press corps have been falling over one another to point out what a supposedly dramatic departure this is from “the traditional Republican economic catechism”. The president, observed the Washington Post, “is remaking the Republican economic playbook in his own image, abandoning ideological consistency in ­favour of a debt-busting strategy”. “Republicans learn to love deficit spending they once loathed,” was the headline in the New York Times.

Yet Trump is no aberration; nor is he an outlier in his party. The reality is that there has never been any kind of “ideological consistency” in favour of balanced budgets or “loathing” of deficit spending on the part of the GOP. Rather, Republicans cynically scream about debts and deficits when a Democrat is in the White House, only to then run up much bigger debts and deficits once a Republican takes over the top job.

Consider the historical record. Except for Barack Obama, who entered office in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, every single Democratic president of the postwar period (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton) has reduced the national debt as a proportion of GDP. In stark contrast, none of the Republican presidents since Richard Nixon left office in 1974 – Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr, Bush Jr – have been able to do the same.

The debt tripled under Ronald Reagan and doubled under George W Bush. Budget deficits also ballooned on their watch – thanks to a combination of unfunded tax cuts and a ramping up of military spending (sound familiar?). In fact, over the past 50 years, the only US president who succeeded in balancing the budget was a Democrat: Bill Clinton.

So Trump is following in the footsteps of his GOP predecessors, aided and abetted in his “debt-busting strategy” by congressional Republicans. The shamelessness of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan, in particular, has been a sight to behold.

During the Obama era, the two men postured as deficit hawks, constantly lambasting the Democrats for their alleged fiscal irresponsibility. In 2010, McConnell claimed that “the kind of spending and debt Democrats are engaged in… is like nothing this country has ever seen. And it threatens not only the livelihoods of our children; it threatens our national security.” In 2012, Ryan said a “debt crisis is staring us in the face” and suggested the United States could go the way of Greece.

These days, though, McConnell, Ryan and the vast majority of their GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill have not a word to say about the astonishing pace at which Trump is racking up red ink. Instead, they are eager accomplices, joining with the president to pass a huge tax cut in December that, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, will add a whopping $1.4trn to the national debt over the next decade.

Remember: there is nothing new to this Republican scam. Reagan administration officials back in the 1980s called it “starving the beast”: cut taxes on the rich; increase spending on defence; force up borrowing levels; and then insist on savage cuts to social spending to balance the books. It’s all a big con. They don’t actually care about the deficit; to quote Dick Cheney, speaking in private during the first term of the Bush Jr presidency, “deficits don’t matter”.

Am I being unfair? Listen to GOP senator Rand Paul, a hero to the anti-debt Tea Party. “I can’t in all good honesty, in all good faith, just look the other way just because my party is now complicit in the deficits,” Paul told his fellow senators on 8 February, referring to a Republican spending bill that he called “the very definition of intellectual dishonesty”.

So what should the Democrats’ response be? Mocking the Republicans for their inconsistency and double standards is a good start. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi suggested the “poor deficit hawk” has become “if not an endangered species, extinct, because the Republicans only seem to care about the deficit when it comes time to invest in people. Not when it comes time to give giveaways to corporate America and the wealthiest.”

Yet Democrats cannot afford to box themselves into a fiscal corner by obsessing over the deficit. Why would they want to tie the hands of a future president from their party? Especially when polls show that most Americans don’t care much about the deficit, and recent history demonstrates that none of the deficit doomsayers’ predictions – a rapid rise in interest rates, the collapse of the dollar, a Greek-style meltdown – came to pass.

For Democrats to try to take up the mantle of debt reduction now would be an act of political and economic self-harm. They should slam the Republicans for being hypocrites. But then they should borrow Cheney’s line. Deficits don’t matter. It’s what you use them for that matters. Trump’s budget may have provided Democrats with the ideal opportunity to finally say in public what Republicans have long said in private. 

Why US prosecutors have charged a Russian troll farm with interfering in the US election
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

13 Russians have been charged with disparaging Hillary Clinton - the question now is: did the Trump campaign know?

What the hell just happened?

The special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the US election just dropped a huge bombshell: a grand jury indictment against a notorious Kremlin-linked St Petersburg troll farm called the Internet Research Agency.

The indictment, which you can read in full here, alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy, orchestrated by Russian interests, with one ambitious goal: to “interfere with the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election.”

13 individuals linked with the Internet Research Agency's operation were charged, alongside the organization, with a variety of crimes related to this operation, including wire fraud and identity-theft.

We knew some of this had happened already, didn't we?

A fair bit of it, yes. Some of the material of the indictment was already in the public domain, such as that Russian agents purchased political advertising on social media.

But what is new here is the incredible level of granular detail in which the indictment maps the topography of the Russian destabilization campaign, from the chain of command in the agency's office in Russia to the stolen American identities and financial accounts and other techniques that allowed them to to manipulate public opinion and undermine the foundations of American democracy. The picture painted in the indictment is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Internet Research Agency was discussing ways to interfere with the US presidential election as early as May of 2014. By February 2016, an internal memo was sent around instructing specialists to post content focusing on politics. The memo exhorted agency staff to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them)”.

In an internal agency review document from September 2016 quoted in the indictment, one specialist was told that it was “imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton” in their posts to a Facebook group they controlled called “Secured Borders”.

Agency's operatives “used false US personas to communicate with unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump,” the indictment continues. 

It wasn't just Republicans who were targeted by this astonishing propaganda campaign; other groups or social media accounts aimed at minority voters, often encouraging them to stay home on election day. One Instagram account controlled by the agency, called “Woke Blacks”, posted in October: We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we'd surely be better off not voting AT ALL.” Other accounts posted things like “Hillary Clinton … wants to continue the war on Muslims”.

Yet another agency-controlled Instagram account, “Blacktivist”, posted just a few days before election day: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it's not a wasted vote.” 

The agency, sometimes using stolen PayPal accounts, also started taking out paid advertising on social media platforms, with taglines like “Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison”, “Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve The Black Vote”, and “Trump is our only hope for a better future!” Agency staff, using entirely fake online personas, even organized political rallies on US soil.

On 20 August 2016, a series of coordinated rallies were held in support of Trump across Florida; according to the indictment, agency workers, posing as grassroots organizers, approached Trump campaign staff to ask for help organizing them. They also reached out to US individuals, in some cases paying them money to help. One American, the indictment notes, was paid by the Russians to “build a cage on a flatbed truck”, and another to “wear a costume portraying Hillary in a prison uniform.”

Their work did not stop once Trump was elected; the agency continued to sow discord on American soil with, if anything, increasing brazenness. On one day, November 12, two opposing rallies, one called “show your support for president-elect Donald Trump” and another called “Trump is NOT my President”, took place in New York. 

Both rallies were seeded by accounts controlled by the Internet Research Agency.

The name of this agency rings a bell for some reason.

That's probably because of this widely-read 2015 New York Times magazine article by Adrian Chen, which focused on the agency's work as a troll farm.

“The Internet Research Agency ... industrialized the art of trolling,” Chen wrote. “Management was obsessed with statistics — page views, number of posts, a blog’s place on LiveJournal’s traffic charts — and team leaders compelled hard work through a system of bonuses and fines.”

He spoke with a former agency employee, Ludmila Savchuk, who described a corporate structure and intensive workload. “Her schedule gave her two 12-hour days in a row, followed by two days off. Over those two shifts she had to meet a quota of five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts and 150 to 200 comments on other workers’ posts,” Chen wrote.

So what happens now that they've been indicted?

That's less clear. In a press conference Friday afternoon, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general who appointed Mueller as special counsel, said that the US would seek the extradition of those indicted through normal channels.

It seems unlikely that Moscow will allow that with good grace; the US and Russia do not have a formal extradition treaty, and Putin is already chafing against sanctions brought by Obama in the closing days of his presidency. It is difficult to believe that Trump's own State Department will be willing to apply much pressure on the Kremlin to see justice done.

But the indictments against the agency are a bullish statement of intent from Robert Mueller and his team, and are perhaps intended more for the court of public opinion than for any eventual Washington trial.

Rosenstein refused to be drawn on the question of the political implications for Trump, saying instead that: “This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet.”

Whoa if true.

No kidding. “The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed,” Rosenstein continued, adding that there was “no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity” and “no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

He's being very careful, isn't he.

Yes. Rosenstein is in a tricky position; after Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey, it was Rosenstein who appointed Mueller as special counsel. Since then, Trump has barely bothered to conceal his anger at Rosenstein, and at attorney general Jeff Sessions, who left Rosenstein in charge of the Russia question when he recused himself from the whole issue shortly after Trump took office.

Rosenstein will therefore also be responsible for what to do after Mueller's investigation makes its final report, so it's not surprising that he should choose his words with care.

In the meantime, while between these indictments and those last year of Trump staffers including campaign CEO Paul Manafort – as well as the emails released on Twitter by Trump's son Don Jr – it is now largely beyond doubt that the Russians were engaged in a concerted campaign aimed at destabilizing the US political process.

The only question that remains for Mueller's investigation to answer is as simple as this: to what extent did members of the Trump campaign actively seek to collude with this vast Russian operation, and how high up in Trumpworld will the evidence eventually lead?

Robert Mueller. Photo: Getty
Can you match the YouTube comment to the YouTube video?
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Can anyone? 

It's called the YouTube comment thesis. It's called that because I just called it that, in that sentence you just read, but it's called that nonetheless.

The YouTube comment thesis goes like this: YouTube comments are so bizarre, nonsensical, and yes, offensive, that it is often impossible to match the comment to the video from whence it came. 

For example, check out this comment on a video of Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer being sung at the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton:

With that in mind, it's now time to test the thesis. Can you match the following YouTube comments to the YouTube videos they sit under? 




The Daily Mail’s reaction to Tom Daley’s baby is a reminder we’re not all equal yet
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Columnist Richard Littlejohn seems to find it hard to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness.

Seeing as it’s LGBT+ history month, you would be forgiven for thinking that, just maybe, Britain could make it through 28 short days without a homophobic media controversy. But sadly, where optimism appears, the right-wing British press too often follows.

After the news that British Olympic diver Tom Daley and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance-Black are expecting their first child via a surrogate, radio station LBC quickly found itself in hot water. The station asked Twitter users whether, in their opinion, there is anything “sinister” about the woman carrying Daley and Lance-Black’s child being absent from the majority of media coverage. While there has long been a debate about the ethics of surrogacy, there are plenty of straight couples who have also turned to this option, and many nuances depending on the context, so the timing and wording of the question seemed pointed. LBC subsequently apologised for the “badly worded debate”.

But meanwhile, the printing presses were whirring.The main course to LBC’s starter, the Death Star to its Vadar and the hot dog to its mustard was springing into action. Otherwise known as: The Daily Mail.

Seemingly unable to cope with the idea of a gay couple having a moment of happiness, the paper employed its most un-lethal weapon, Richard Littlejohn, to put things right. In a piece entitled “Please don't pretend two dads is the new normal”, the columnist condemned the pair’s social media announcement, before expressing his discomfort at women being treated as “breeding machines” (again, note the sudden interest in the surrogacy debate). Next he takes aim at the media, lambasting them for covering this news just like any other baby announcement. Littlejohn then asks a series of erratic questions in quick succession. “Is Daley or his husband the father? Was it Bill, or was it Ben? Or neither of them?” Like a GSCE candidate who failed to revise for the exam, he soldiers on: “More pertinently, never mind Who's The Daddy? Who's The Mummy?”

By this point, you can practically picture Littlejohn, sweaty and misshapen, frothing at the mouth as he pummels his keyboard. Sensing that he’s out of material but still has half a page to fill, he haphazardly directs his hostility towards a trans woman who appeared in the news earlier this week, because why bother being homophobic when you can be transphobic too? Concluding the piece on a crescendo of awfulness, he “jokes” that he’s looking forward to the pictures of Daley breastfeeding, because apparently you can’t be a parent if you don’t breastfeed.

I suppose I should thank Littlejohn for proving, yet again, that the best way to transform male right-wing columnists into strident feminists is an opportunity to remind gay or trans people that they’ll never be seen as equals. Pre-emptively defending himself against accusations of homophobia within the article, Littlejohn claims he supported civil partnerships (but notably not same-sex marriages) long before “it was fashionable” to do so. Yet in 2004, the year that civil partnerships were introduced, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde dedicated an entire column to tracking his obsession with LGBT issues. “In the past year's Sun columns, Richard has referred 42 times to gays, 16 times to lesbians, 15 to homosexuals, eight to bisexuals, twice to 'homophobia' and six to being 'homophobic' (note his inverted commas), five times to cottaging, four to "gay sex in public toilets", three to poofs, twice to lesbianism, and once each to buggery, dykery, and poovery.” She writes, concluding: “This amounts to 104 references in 90-odd columns.”

The reaction to Littlejohn's latest piece was quick. Several organisations pulled out of advertising in the Daily Mail, a signal that the days of men like Littlejohn may soon be over. But whether published or not, this brand of homophobia is still prevalent in Britain. It appears when people claim not to have a problem with LGBT+ people, until one of their children comes out as gay or has a gay friend. It appears every time a person starts a sentence with “I’m not being homophobic, but…” It appears when gay parents, even those who have won Olympic medals and Academy Awards, are still only seen as a marginally better option that children being left to, as Littlejohn puts it, “rot in state run institutions where they face a better-than-average chance of being abused”.

As I suspect Littlejohn knows, no one is claiming that two dads is the new normal. Two gay parents is still a relatively new image for media and the public to digest, which has enabled this “debate” to happen. When 58 per cent of gay men are too afraid to hold hands with a partner in public, the idea that gay relationships are accepted enough to be considered anywhere close the “new normal” is ridiculous.

Yet Daley and Lance-Black’s announcement has revealed that, while homophobia is still mainstream enough to make it on to major platforms in the UK, it does not go unchallenged. We might not know what the tomorrow’s “normal” will be, but relics like Littlejohn represent the very worst of the past.

Instagram can be painful in a breakup, but it helped me practise being myself
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Seeing his name as part of a wider list of friends, colleagues and ex-boyfriends who’ve watched my stories reminds me of the many different ways of loving and being loved.


It was the week before Christmas when my long-term - and newly long-distance - boyfriend let on that he thought our relationship should end. Three years have since passed, yet I can still remember our strange final few days together: a ski accident that induced mild concussion, and a perfect night out on New Year's Eve that confused everything all the more.

I remember feeling like there wasn’t enough air to breathe – but I also remember discovering something that would slowly help ease the hurt. 

The same soon-to-be ex had recently joined a photo sharing app called Instagram, and would show me pictures of our mutual friends’ beautifully prepared brunches and sultry selfies. His own posts at the time were portraits of America, where he’d moved for work, and his images formed small love letters to the urban world: to over-looked, empty streets; drive-in restaurants at night; a lost hat.

Looking back now, it was as if he was attempting to explain the world back to itself – through an iPhone, darkly. Yet I was sceptical: sharing my own life on yet another social media platform seemed so needlessly self-involved.

Then a throw-away comment, made on one of those last nights together, made me reassess my aversion. “I don’t know what you’re interested in?” he said as we were going to sleep.

I knew it was just one of those unthinking things that people say when things are tense. But I was also aware of how hard I was finding it to strike the right balance between building an identity as a couple, while still maintaining my own. If my best friend didn’t know what I liked and cared about, then who did? 

In the weeks and months after the break-up, Instagram offered a way to practice being me again. Each picture became a small act of self-expression. They reminded me of things that made had me smile long before any boy had: of snowdrops and seascapes and roads to new places. Sharing them also helped me feel less alone and, at a time when so much of my life was in flux, offered a sense of control – even if only over what filter to use.

I still often feel grateful for the way the app celebrates the small and seemingly insignificant. Unlike on Facebook, where observations about daily life can come across as indulgent, Instagram delights in the drama of the everyday: in the milk at breakfast and the cracks in the pavement on a walk home. As Virginia Woolf wrote: “In the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June”. 

I would even credit Instagram with helping establish the friendship my ex and I have since formed. Continuing to follow him was, at first, a minefield of reminders that he was doing just fine without me, not to mention an anxiety-inducing invitation to stalk the new women in his life. Yet each mutual “like” is its own small act of kindness and has more than made the decision not to block him worthwhile.

I’m not sure that today’s Instagram would be as helpful as it was three years ago, however. Apps change as quickly as we do, and the introduction of Instagram “Stories” now allows users to post images or short videos that can only be watched for up to 24 hours.

Like a kind of fast-food alternative to the main meal, these Insta-Stories encourage even greater divulgence about the minutiae of our daily lives. And, most compulsively of all, they reveal who exactly has seen your posts. 

Friends report that seeing ex-partners in these lists can be confusing and hurtful: if someone still cares enough to watch your stories, then why couldn’t they care enough to stay? And I’m not sure that I’d have been able to cope with this heightened degree of visibility during the break-up of something long-term.

But a recent dating experience has given me a small taste of what heartache on today’s Instagram feels like – and it isn’t all bad. 

When this latest, all too short, dating experiment collapsed, I was unusually torn-up. I immediately muted the person on Facebook. But when it came to Instagram I hesitated: seeing him continue his intriguing life would be painful, yes – yet I’d also be able to tell when he’d been watching me.

Each time his name pops up under my stories, it helps hold back my urge to message or text. Like a nicotine patch that staves off the need to smoke, these small doses of attention satisfy my compulsion to connect while respecting his request for distance.

However thin and ghostly the tie, I find it heartening that I can still follow his eclectic adventures (checking out historic churches). Plus seeing his name as part of a wider list of friends, colleagues and ex-boyfriends who’ve watched my stories reminds me of the many different ways of loving and being loved that I’ve been lucky enough to know. 

This isn’t to say I don’t still worry about the app’s negative effects. We all contain so many more selves than single images can capture, and I fear browsing my dates’ social media profiles leaves me with misconceptions that can take time to undo. I also worry that all this online curation inflates our sense of self to the point that it eclipses our ability to truly see and listen to others when we meet in the flesh.

I’d hate it if those things are true, and research certainly suggests that Instagram has its down-sides: according to a study by the Royal Society for Public Health, it is the most likely app to negatively impact young people’s mental health. But it is also a place where mending hearts doesn’t have to happen alone, and where we can continue to share the things that bind.

India Bourke
A political history of the Winter Olympics
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

From 9/11 to North Korea, world politics have played out in the stadium. 

The Winter Olympic Games is a relatively humble sporting event in comparison with its summer counterpart. Indeed, fewer sporting programmes take place and fewer countries take part in this winter sporting occasion than in the Summer Olympics. However, this modest nature by no mean suggests the festival of snow and ice sports presents fewer episodes of a political drama. 

Take the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Just five months before the commencement of this event, Americans witnessed terrorist attacks against their homeland. The memory of this tragedy was still vivid when the Winter Olympics was getting underway. The host nation used this sporting spectacle as a rite to remember the morning of 11 September 2001. A torn American flag, which had been found in the Ground Zero, was carried into the Rice-Eccles Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony. The flag bearers were officers from the New York Police Department and the Fire Department of New York, along with American athletes. Daniel Rodriguez, NYPD officer, also sang “God Bless America” solemnly. The Olympic spectacle had turned into an American patriotic ritual.

The US president, George W. Bush, also played a part. In proclaiming the arrival of Salt Lake City 2002, he added patriotic colour to the conventional opening declaration, adding “on behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation…” Instead of staying at a VIP box in the stadium, he stood alongside Team USA to show national unity.

The 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi was arguably the most controversial of politicised sports events. An avid skier, Russian president Vladimir Putin was keen to exploit sports to display the glory of post-Cold War Russia and the power of his political leadership. 

Sochi, on the Black Sea coast, was not seen as a conventional winter sport venue. Nor did it have modern amenities to host the Winter Olympics. The development of this small beach town into the Olympic city necessitated a massive urban uplift project. This drastic transformation cost Russia approximately $51bn, making Sochi 2014 the most expensive Olympics so far. As the games unfolded, Russia was filled with nationalistic fervour. Putin dexterously used this emotionally charged moment to propagate his image as a great leader. It was his Olympics after all.

Critics, though, questioned whether Russia was a suitable Olympic host, given its record on human rights. The International Olympic Committee might have pondered whether hosting the global sporting event would make Kremlin a responsible international player. This idealistic vision was shattered when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine a few weeks later. 

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang looks the most political winter Olympics ever. Dubbed the “Peace Olympics”, North Korea’s participation in the Games inevitably intensifies the political undertone of this event.

The political and military tensions surrounding the Korean peninsula are yet to abate. Nevertheless, the two Koreas are displaying unity at the Olympic Games. The South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader, celebrated together when the two Korean Olympic teams paraded as one during the opening ceremony. They also sat next to each other amicably and cheered jointly for the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team in the Olympic ice rink. 

The North Korean presence in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang may indicate thawing the relations between the two Koreas. Indeed, North and South Korea restored the diplomatic channel between the two sides. Yet, North Korea’s warm gestures may also be a propaganda effort to grab the spotlight and produce an appearance of peace-loving military power.

The USA is also playing a political game at the Winter Olympics. The White House invited the father of the late North Korea detainee Otto Warmbier to the opening ceremony. The US Vice President Mike Pence skipped the official reception in order to avoid meeting with the North Korean delegation. When the Korean Olympians marched together during the parade of the nations,  Pence declined to stand. These actions imply the US will continue its hardline approach to communist Korea. 

The importance of the Winter Olympics to international diplomacy looks likely only to increase. After Pyeongchang, Beijing will host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022.With  China becoming more economically and militarily ambitious under Xi Jinping, the wintertime political drama is likely to be continued.

Dr Jung Woo Lee is Lecturer in Sport and Leisure Policy at the University of Edinburgh. He recently published (with two co-editors) an edited volume of Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics.

Boundaries, in wine as in politics, are as random as the people who invent them
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots.

In gruesome times, as this little landmass drifts politically ever farther from the European coast, sparkling wine news gives drink for thought. Louis Pommery England is not actually terribly English; it’s a collaboration between Pommery Champagne and Hampshire’s Hattingley Valley, although the grapes, they hasten to assure us, are as British as Brexit.

Are they, though? I don’t wish to be difficult, but Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are French imports. All those sturdy Hampshire vines, bearing the plump fruit of this splendid, soon-to-be-isolated island, had to come from somewhere. How long must a vine root in English soil to be considered native?

Wine, that much-touted national product, turns out to be an unhelpful symbol for patriots. Champagne may be one of the glories of France, drunk by Napoleon, famously, in victory and in defeat, but it was also adored by the Russians, whose vast and chilly acreage helped ensure his downfall. Some 50 years after the retreat from Moscow, Roederer Champagne was selling 650,000 bottles a year to the nation that destroyed Napoleon’s dream of continental domination.

And Roederer itself presents a problem, from the patriotic perspective, when you consider that the first Roederer was not a Monsieur but a Herr. We all know how Champagne suffered during two world wars: the soil that nurtures Pinot Noir was soaked in blood. But when you live 200km from the Franco-German border, it isn’t only troops who march in: like Roederer, the houses of Krug, Bollinger, and Deutz were all founded by German immigrants. On a recent visit to Deutz, I kept mispronouncing “Dertz” as “Doytz”; I was unconsciously associating it with Deutsch, the German for German. William Deutz founded his winery in Aÿ, next door to his compatriot Bollinger’s house, in 1838, the year of Victoria’s coronation. The new queen’s mother, paternal grandparents and future husband were all German; her grandfather, King George III, was the first of their house whose mother tongue was English. How long must a royal family root in English soil to be considered native?

 “Our name pushed us to find distant markets where people were less intensely anti-German,” says Jean-Marc Lallier, the sixth generation of Deutzes since William. One of those markets was not so distant. In the late 19th century, 80 per cent of Deutz exports went through its English agent, which means they were sundowners all over the empire on which the sun never set.

In Deutz’s pretty château, full of ancestors’ portraits, I taste Hommage à William Deutz 2010: 100 per cent Pinot Noir, all from two vineyards just outside the window. “My grandfather made a William Deutz that was 90 per cent Pinot Noir,” says Lallier; “he was very austere, not funny and not very sexy either, and his cuvée was a bit like him. In 1966 my father made it a Blanc de Blancs. Pure Chardonnay in Aÿ, heartland of Pinot Noir: Grandfather was furious!”

Their modern Blanc de Blancs, the gorgeous Amour de Deutz, comes from Grand Cru vineyards a few kilometres away. I gaze out at William’s Pinot, so similar to England’s and yet so different, and drink, with sadness, to the understanding that political boundaries are as arbitrary as the people who invent them, and that in the human as in the vinous sense there is, in fact, no such thing as an island. 

Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now. 

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
In independent Kosovo, families still search for their missing children
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

A decade after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence, questions remain unanswered. 

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1999, Albion Kumnova was rounded up with five other men by policemen and put in the back of a van. From the four policemen kicking in the door to the vehicle speeding away, everything happened so quickly that Albion didn’t have time to put his shoes on.

Albion’s portrait sits above the television in his parents’ sitting room in Gjakova, Kosovo. He has thick, dark hair and a handsome face. Whenever she gets a message or phonecall, his mother’s phone lights up with a picture of him on holiday by the sea in Montenegro. Nesrete Kumanova has waged an intense war to find out what happened to her son, who was 21 when he was disappeared.

This weekend marks 10 years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A decade before that, brutal fighting erupted between Serbs and Albanians. The subsequent war claimed thousands of lives and further entrenched the split between the two ethnic groups. Between 1998 and 2000, 13,535 people were killed or went missing.

Gjakova was particularly badly affected by fighting. Now, Albanian flags are displayed prominently throughout the town, and there’s a strong anti-Serb sentiment. As Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s, Serbia was determined that the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo should remain just that - a province, not a country. From late February 1998, Serbs and Albanians were at war for control over the country, which today has a population of just 1.8 million, and is a mixture of Albanians and Serbs, although the latter in the minority.  

“Every family has at least one person who went missing,” Nesrete says. Some families have as many as 10 missing. They feel unable to mourn them as dead, just in case something miraculous happens.

In 2002, after the war had ended, Nesrete got together with other parents to lobby for information about what happened to their loved ones. They staged hunger strikes, one lasting as long as 16 days, and protested in Gjakova and Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The experience of hunger was overwhelming. “Being sad and when you have your pain with you, it’s very hard to handle it. But it’s the only choice I had,” says Nesrete. Their action had some impact, as some captives held in Niš, Serbia, were liberated. But her son was not in that group. She founded an organisation, Mothers’ Appeal, which is still going today. How many captives there were, and what has happened to them, remains unclear and a source of intense pain. 

“Without doing what we’ve done, nothing would move,” she says. “We thought we should be more active. Unfortunately, dead bodies are brought back to Kosovo – or their remains at least – and there are 1,600 others still missing from Gjakova.” 

Pristina city centre is decorated with banners and swags in preparation for the 10 year anniversary of independence. In Nesrete’s home, though, there’s nothing to celebrate.

“The independence of Kosovo has no meaning to families missing their loved ones,” she says. “The most important part of our life is still missing.”

The Kosovo government set up a commission for missing persons and gives monthly pensions to families of missing people. However, Nesrete criticises the government for inactivity and giving her false hope. “Everyone says: ‘this is going to happen’ but the result is almost nil. Every time there’s a knock on our doors, there’s another lie. I still don’t know what happened to my son.”

Many Serbs also lost family members in the fighting, but dialogue is impossible for Albanians, says Nesrete. “Serbs are all the same, they have always been like that,” she says. “Almost all of them are criminals. We have no faith in them. Even in the past in our grandparents’ time, they hung out together. They would keep an axe under their pillow and think about how to murder an Albanian. When they are born, they’re born criminals.”

The interpreter who has been sitting on a sofa adjacent to hers pauses, and exhales. “I’m sorry for translating this, but this is exactly what she said.”

To puncture partisan sentiment and show the catastrophe on both sides, Bekim Blakaj, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a long-established human rights organisation, has been helping to compile a book of every single missing or murdered person across Kosovo from 1998-2000. The project, undertaken by the centre, has been gruelling but necessary. “Our aim is to have a narrative for each and every person and a factual history. It is to stop the manipulation of numbers of victims and denial,” he says. “Albanians use some incredible numbers, that Serbian forces have killed more than 20,000 Albanians, which is not entirely true.”

The NGO goes into schools to do workshops, and Bekim says the children routinely cannot believe that Serbs were killed by Albanian fighters. Ten years after independence, Serb and Albanian children who were born after the war are still often picking up biased narratives from friends and relatives.

Each person listed in HLC's book has an average of eight sources to verify what happened. The work has been emotional and exhausting and several researchers were so burned out that they had to resign.

“It’s very hard because you have to be clear to the families that you can’t help them and you are just documenting what happened,” says Bekim. “But despite that they keep phoning you and you feel very bad when you can’t really do anything, especially when it comes to the missing persons. That’s the worst. But they keep calling you back.” Bringing victims together has helped some of them soften slightly. "At first they looked at each other as though they were enemies," says Bekim. "But then they realised that both sides were suffering and that they were victims with the same needs. Nowadays the situation is different – they are trying to cooperate."

Likewise, Nesrete has compiled a book with Mothers’ Appeal – it’s a list of people in Gjakova who went missing, with exactly what happened to them. It won’t bring Albion back, or give a gravestone or a funeral or any real closure, but it’s something. It’s all she may ever have.

Ann Summers can’t claim to empower women when it is teaming up with Pornhub
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

This is not about mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

I can’t understand why erotic retailers like Ann Summers have persisted into the twenty-first century. The store claims to be “sexy, daring, provocative and naughty”, and somewhat predictably positions itself as empowering for women. As a feminist of the unfashionable type, I can’t help but be suspicious of any form of sexual liberation that can be bought or sold.

And yet, I’d never really thought of Ann Summers as being particularly threatening to the rights of women, more just a faintly depressing reflection of heteronormativity. This changed when I saw they’d teamed-up with Pornhub. The website is reputedly the largest purveyor of online pornography in the world. Pornhub guidelines state that content flagged as  “illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive” will be removed. Nonetheless, the site still contains simulated incest and rape with some of the more easily published film titles including “Exploited Teen Asia” (236 million views) and “How to sexually harass your secretary properly” (10.5 million views.)  With campaigns such as #metoo and #timesup are sweeping social media, it seems bizarre that a high street brand would not consider Pornhub merchandise as toxic.

Society is still bound by taboos: our hyper-sexual society glossy magazines like Teen Vogue offer girls tips on receiving anal sex, while advice on pleasuring women is notably rare. As an unabashed wanker, I find it baffling that in the year that largely female audiences queued to watch Fifty Shades Darker, a survey revealed that 20 per cent of U.S. women have never masturbated. It is an odd truth that in our apparently open society, any criticism of pornography or sexual practices is shut down as illiberal. 

Guardian-reading men who wring their hands about Fair Trade coffee will passionately defend the right to view women being abused on film. Conservative men who make claims about morals and marriage are aroused by images that in any other setting would be considered abuse. Pornography is not only misogynistic, but the tropes and language are often also racist. In what other context would racist slurs and scenarios be acceptable?

I have no doubt that some reading this will be burning to point out that feminist pornography exists. In name of course it does, but then again, Theresa May calls herself a feminist when it suits. Whether you believe feminist pornography is either possible or desirable, it is worth remembering that what is marketed as such comprises a tiny portion of the market. This won’t make me popular, but it is worth remembering feminism is not about celebrating every choice a woman makes – it is about analysing the social context in which choices are made. Furthermore, that some women also watch porn is evidence of how patriarchy shapes our desire, not that pornography is woman-friendly.  

Ann Summers parts the net curtains of nation’s suburban bedrooms and offers a glimpse into our peccadillos and preferences. That a mainstream high street retailer blithely offers guidance on hair-pulling, whipping and clamps, as well as a full range of Pornhub branded products is disturbing. This is not about women’s empowerment or mutual sexual fulfilment, it is about eroticising women’s pain. 

We are living in a world saturated with images of women and girls suffering; to pretend that there is no connection between pornography and the four-in-ten teenage girls who say they have been coerced into sex acts is naive in the extreme. For too long the state claimed that violence in the home was a domestic matter. Women and girls are now facing an epidemic of sexual violence behind bedroom doors and it is not a private matter. We need to ask ourselves which matters more: the sexual rights of men or the human rights of women?

Photo: Getty
Lady Bird is fit to stand beside the most glittering examples of female coming-of-age films
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Greta Gerwig’s light touch avoids cliché and gives everything the smell of fresh laundry.

There are many female coming-of-age films directed by women: Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda and Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk are among the glittering examples that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is more than fit to stand beside. The picture takes its title from the self-appointed nickname of the strawberry-haired, milk-faced Christine (Saoirse Ronan). It is 2002 and she is on the cusp of graduating from a Catholic high school in Sacramento where she is a benignly defiant low-level rebel.

She heckles an anti-abortion speaker, gets caught with her hand in the wafer jar (“They’re not consecrated!”) and unnerves the faculty with her “Lady Bird for President” campaign posters (“It’s just a head on a bird’s body”). Gerwig’s deft screenplay and Nick Houy’s snappy editing keep these vignettes popping, never lingering too long on anything; they’re the colourful dots that form a pointillist portrait of Lady Bird’s life.

Boys drift in and out. She nurtures crushes on a budding actor, Danny (Lucas Hedges), and a cool-cat guitarist, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). But her priorities are limited to goofing around with her sweetly dopey pal, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), plotting to get into a college far from home and battling with the defining force in her life: her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who lives by the principle that if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to be brutally frank instead.

Marion has the unique ability to start a sentence as her daughter’s champion and end it as her most withering critic, but it can flip the other way just as easily. As they snipe at one another while shopping for a prom dress, their rancour is forgotten in an instant when Marion plucks from the rails a plausible contender and the pair of them descend into oohs and aahs. Metcalf, who was brilliantly flinty in the blue-collar sitcom Roseanne, excels once more at conveying shame and inferiority based on class. Her reaction when she learns that Lady Bird has been referring to their neighbourhood as “the wrong side of the tracks” amounts to a fleeting wince of inexpressible heartbreak.

The struggle between homely familiarity and big-city sophistication, clinging parent and spirited child, is familiar to the point of cliché. But the film’s light touch, and the affectionate sparring of Ronan and Metcalf, gives everything the smell of fresh laundry. Gerwig is known primarily as an actor, though she has shown a gift all along for writing candid, twitchy comedy, first in the “mumblecore” genre (no-budget DIY rom-coms) and then with her partner, the director Noah Baumbach, on Frances Ha and Mistress America. In those films she riffed on her kooky persona, but more importantly she prioritised stories of female friendship over the usual boy-meets-girl narratives. That continues here. The men in Lady Bird, including Christine’s depressed father (Tracy Letts), are sharply drawn, but the clinching moments all involve women negotiating conflicts between their own ambitions and the value of loyalty to one another. Gerwig dramatises this most beautifully in a simple, wrenching shot near the end of the film: the camera is fixed on Marion as she wrestles with her conscience, the oblivious sun beating down on her face.

Though Gerwig has denied that Lady Bird is entirely autobiographical, she did grow up in Sacramento, eventually fleeing it to study at Barnard in New York, and she has sprinkled the movie with choice details from her life. The man on whom the character of Danny is based staged the high-school version of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along that we see in the film, while his grandmother, who once taught Gerwig to fold decorative napkins, does the same thing here for Lady Bird. The densely packed detail which makes this such a luminous work shows Gerwig to be an uncommonly alert filmmaker. “Don’t you think love and attention are the same thing?” asks a nun who reads Lady Bird’s essay about her home town. That comment sheds light on the mother-daughter relationship but it applies also to the film itself. “It took time to realise that Sacramento gave me what home should give you, which is roots and wings,” the director has said. Her film has those, too. It’s grounded in experience – and it soars. 

Lady Bird (15)
dir: Greta Gerwig

There is nothing to fear from the beauty of the Irish language
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

I grew up in a majority Protestant area in Belfast, and only know a few words of Irish. But I love it all the same. 

On Valentine’s Day, Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster dashed any hopes of restoring government in Northern Ireland. Emerging from the talks to say that there was no prospect of a deal, she underlined the hopelessness of the situation by requesting that the British government should now impose direct rule from Westminster.

The talks had foundered on the subject of an Irish Language Act, which would put the Irish language in Northern Ireland on a similar footing to Welsh or Scots Gaelic. The idea was not always so controversial. The 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement, which paved the way for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, included a commitment to an Irish Language Act. Only in recent years has the DUP moved to create this as a major fault line. Paul Givan, the DUP Minister for Communities, raised the ire of gaeilgeoirs when he cut Irish language funding in 2016, a decision widely seen as sectarian, and later reversed. In 2017, Foster referred to Sinn Fein as “crocodiles coming back for more” if an Irish Language Act was granted. Her choice of wording galvanised Sinn Fein supporters and the wider non-unionist public into support for an Act. Meanwhile, DUP voters’ views have hardened – two-thirds oppose an Act.

The political posturing is a shame, because you don't need to speak the Irish language or have a background in it to find it fascinating. I grew up in a majority Protestant area in Belfast where the Irish language was not spoken. My family don’t come from a unionist tradition, but we are not Irish speakers either. Yet I discovered the language’s beauty and the rich history contained within it while attending Northern Ireland's first integrated school, Lagan College, where Catholics and Protestants are educated together. For A-Level English, amongst other things, we studied Brian Friel's 1980 play, Translations. Its first performance in Derry (also known as Londonderry) featured many who would go on to be famous, including Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea.

Translations is set in a small Irish village, Baile Beg, in the 1830s. A detachment of the British Royal Engineers arrives in the village, tasked with completing the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland. It is a process with political as well as geographical goals, designed to force the native Irish to speak English, as the survey changes the place names from Irish into English - Baile Beg becomes Ballybeg, and so on. It is also an attempt to change the heart and soul by altering the very sense of place and identity. During the play, tensions rise between the village and the soldiers, and the dark shadow of the forthcoming potato famine looms large. But love also blossoms between one of the soldiers and an Irish woman, despite neither speaking each other's language.

Many in Northern Ireland are familiar with the more obvious place names that are derived from Irish. Belfast is an anglicisation of Béal Feirste​, meaning “the mouth of the (river) Farset”. Stranmillis, not far from Lagan College, comes from an Sruthán Milis, “the sweet stream”, perhaps referencing the small streams that still run through the Botanic Gardens today. The majority Protestant area I grew up in, Dundonald in East Belfast, is an anglicisation of Dún Dónaill, “Donal's stronghold”, a reference to a 12th-century Norman fort that once stood nearby. The manmade hill on which the fort was built still stands in Dundonald's Moat Park. Even the Shankill Road area, the heart of loyalism in Belfast, derives its name from Seanchill, “old church”, a place of early Christian pilgrimage dating from around 455 AD that St Patrick likely trod on.

These secret words are everywhere (you can find more here). Despite Irish lessons at Lagan College (we weren’t forced – we could drop it after one year if we wanted) I'm still unable to string together more than a few sentences in Irish. But for me, after having my eyes opened the language’s hidden history, its beauty can be enjoyed by anyone. There is nothing, I believe, to fear from this fascinating legacy.

Reports of the talks seem to indicate that a hardline faction in the DUP has derailed the talks over the prospect of promoting the Irish language. It doesn’t have to be this way. The DUP’s electoral record shows it is clearly in control of leading and shaping unionist opinion. It should be capable of selling an Irish Language Act to its base.

Nobody is going to be forced to speak Irish. Street signs in Irish are unlikely to go up where they are vigorously opposed. There should be no threat to anyone’s culture. Irish speakers from unionist backgrounds like Linda Ervine need much larger platforms – as she says, “I have lost nothing of myself through learning Irish but have gained so much.”

Part of resolving this debate must involve showing how the beauty of the Irish language belongs to all of us, and what its words can reveal about the history of both communities. That way, like me, you can enjoy it without any history or background in it.

Adam McGibbon is a campaigner and writer from Northern Ireland. He tweets at @AdamMcGibbon.

The commercialisation of space: how billionaire visionaries like Elon Musk are reinventing space flight
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

With ultimate goals of putting humans on Mars, the pace of innovation in space flight is amazingly fast.

On 6 February at 3.45pm EST, Falcon Heavy lifted off from launch pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida. “I had this image of this giant explosion on the pad, with wheels bouncing down the road and the logo landing somewhere with a thud,” said Elon Musk, the billionaire founder and CEO of Space Explorations Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX. Musk had every reason to be worried before the inaugural test flight because, along with his cherry-red Tesla electric car as the payload, and a mannequin called Starman in the driving seat, the 70-metre-tall rocket was carrying the future ambitions of SpaceX.

Almost exactly a month earlier, on 7 January, a Falcon 9 rocket had taken off from the same launch pad carrying a classified cargo. All appeared to go smoothly, but reports emerged that something had gone wrong after launch and the payload, probably a US spy satellite worth billions of dollars, had been lost. Given the secrecy surrounding the mission what happened exactly remains a mystery. As the American technology journalist Joe Pappalardo points out in his serendipitously timed book, the most important element in the intensely competitive, risky world of rocketry is reliability and SpaceX’s was on the line. Now, with the successful launch of Falcon Heavy and the spectacular simultaneous touchdown of two of its three boosters back at the cape some eight minutes after launch, SpaceX has gained a significant edge over rivals.

To date, more than half the world’s satellites have blasted off from a spaceport situated in the jungle on the north-east coast of South America in French Guiana. Built in the 1960s outside the small town of Kourou, the Centre Spatial Guyanais is run by the European Space Agency and supplied by Arianespace, the world’s leading satellite launch company. Arianespace has long maintained its position as the best because it plays it safe. Innovation in spaceflight is always associated with greater risk, yet companies such as SpaceX are reinventing the industry by using their own rockets and spacecraft, and by conducting operations from their own mission control centres.

Spaceports exist, argues Pappalardo, “in a fragile balance of risk and reward, industry and science, physics and politics”.  Yet communities all over the Americas have been jockeying to create spaceports not just for the jobs they will bring, but also for the prestige. Each budding spaceport, from Waco to Wallops Island, has its own vision of a future of dazzling rocket launches.

The sad truth, however, is that unlike Cape Canaveral, the historic home of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programmes, most of today’s spaceports will probably never host a launch. One such facility is outside the aptly named city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Spaceport America was officially opened in October 2011, just three months after the last Space Shuttle flight. Designed by Norman Foster, it’s the base of Richard Branson’s troubled Virgin Galactic operation.

The rather sinister-sounding United Launch Alliance is a joint venture, established in 2006, between the aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing to ensure that the US could launch its own spy satellites. Any spare capacity to launch Mars missions and commercial satellites was a bonus. By 2012 SpaceX had broken ULA’s monopoly on government launches, winning contracts by slashing more than $100m from the $380m it claimed the ULA charged per launch. Falcon Heavy, at just $90m per launch and with twice the payload capacity of its ULA rival, will cut costs even further. This is being made possible by modern manufacturing techniques and SpaceX’s ability to design things from scratch, because everything that saves time saves money; and everything that trims weight lowers fuel costs.

Tom Wolfe chronicled the derring-do of test pilots like Chuck Yeager and the Mercury Seven, NASA’s first group of astronauts, in his book The Right Stuff. For Pappalardo those possessing the right stuff are no longer brave test pilots and would-be astronauts, but billionaire visionaries like Musk, whose ultimate goal is to put humans on Mars. Pappalardo argues that with companies such as SpaceX leading the way the pace of innovation is amazingly fast, but that interplanetary travel and even scheduled orbital spaceflights seem as far away as ever. That was before the success of Falcon Heavy. Visions of the future of travel have nearly always been wrong. Yet, as Musk says: “Crazy things can come true.” l

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight
Joe Pappalardo
Duckworth Overlook, 240pp, £20

All the reasons why we need to change the law on renting with pets
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

In a time of loneliness, pets should be fur the many, not the few.

Sadly, it's not news that many in my generation are going to struggle to match the material wealth of our parents and grandparents' generations.

But while the prospect of buying property remains an unattainable dream for many of us so called millennials, it's becoming clear that we are missing out on some of the everyday pleasures of home ownership too.

Labour are committed to tackling the housing crisis, through measures such as ensuring rights to affordable, well-maintained and safe properties on secure tenancies. But as well as this, our Animal Welfare Plan announced this week will improve tenants' quality of life too.

The right to keep a pet is something many people take for granted. We all recognise the positive impact pet ownership can have on mental health, not to mention the structure, purpose and responsibility looking after an animal can give. Yet many rental properties specifically prohibit keeping a pet.

There's no doubt that given the chance, many would jump at the chance to care for a furry companion, but unless they have the privilege of owning a property, most are unable to do so.

It's all very well the Tories appointing a “Minister for Loneliness” and identifying some of the problems caused by the isolation of modern life. But Labour is prepared to enshrine the right to this proven remedy in law.

I know that people – young and old – share Labour's concerns about weaknesses in the legislation to curb blood sports. The Animal Welfare Plan seeks to remedy this as well as ending the badger cull, undertaking a review of animal testing and banning live exports for slaughter.

All of this is extremely important, but I see the right for tenants to own a pet being more widely talked about in my peer group. From a two-legged millennial perspective, it is our inability as tenants to be able to own pets that is the constant reminder of our frustrated ambitions to own anything – yet another reminder that we are Generation Rent. It is only fair that such a basic desire – to care for a pet – should be “fur” the many, not the few.

Danielle Rowley is the Labour MP for Midlothian. 

Brexit is a mess, but the problem isn't our leaders
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The referendum itself was almost designed to deliver bad government.

A common refrain as the Brexit crisis unfolds is that not only is the United Kingdom’s Brexit process in a fine mess, it was one that Theresa May’s government got itself into. Government incompetence got us to today, with little progress, and a worryingly high chance a disorderly jettisoning from the European Union.

Labour - and in particular Keir Starmer - naturally adopt this posture, understandably seeking to maximise political capital from the debacle.  But other disinterested commentators join in.  It hardly seems right to single anyone out, as this is a common refrain, but David Allen Green’s blog and columns adopt the view constantly that this was a process that could have been done well with the right degree of administrative acumen.

What those who push this view downplay is that the most important difficulty all along has been how to reconcile the competing desires of the different factions either in favour of Brexit all along, or now seeking to make the best of it.  They think of the government (and the Opposition) as single, strategizing entities, and deduce from the chaos that they must be bungling.  The reality is that we have two debates, not a government and an opposition.

The irreconcilability within government ranks was almost inevitable given the design of the referendum question, which did not specify anything about what the UK should leave to.  No doubt without this ambiguity, there would have been less support for Leave, since as it was a very broad church could be united.  So we can say that the very fact we are embarked on Brexit at all means it was highly likely to be warfare afterwards. 

Key amongst the congregation of the Leave Church were:  ‘liberal leavers’ who wanted to leave the single market and create open borders and free trade with the rest of the world;  liberal leavers who wished to stay in the single market and retain symbolic control over sovereignty, accepting that for now this was the freest trading circumstance possible;  those who wanted to de-globalise, intervene more in industry, reduce migration, ‘take back control’.  And perhaps other factions with darker motives, too.

It is not incompetence to have failed to reconcile these inconsistent viewpoints.  What has to happen to move forward is that all but one of the factions has to submit, or be forced to in favour of a winner.   It is fairer to suggest that it was bad politics to end up without the political power simply to ignore or squash those factions except for your own, as Theresa May has done. 

But even this could be excused to some extent.  She picked the kind of Brexit that seemed to command a majority of her party, hoped to extend that majority to be able to dispense with the ex-Remainers, and lost ground because key swathes of tactical voters did not like it.  May is not able to send one faction packing because the nation is also undecided on the post Brexit future.

Part of the difficulty is that there is a degree of binariness foisted on the UK by the incentives facing the European Union itself.  Without this, it would be easier to sit Brexiters and Remainers down to do a bit of old fashioned horse-trading.

For the EU, Brexit is part of an existential crisis.  Existential because of a list of other threats:  the Mediterranean refugee crisis, albeit now abated;  an unfriendly and protectionist United States;  an unfriendly and meddling Russia;  populist governments in Poland and Hungary;  a financially unstable Italy;  not entirely vanquished populist movements in Holland, Spain, Greece, Italy and France. 

These issues raise the stakes for the EU.  Presenting the UK with a neat set of options all the way from the status quo to a Hard Brexit, with varying degrees of regulatory alignment, trade openness, and migration is not possible.   Many of the possibilities, like trading under existing terms but without freedom of movement, or applying the single market to some sectors and not others, can’t be offered for fear of sparking a desire on the part of other members to renegotiate their own relationship with the EU.  So the EU has tried to present us with a harsh sounding In-or-Out choice.

This confronts the UK cabinet with options that are very far apart, and so neither side relishes what would amount to a capitulation and won’t give in until the last possible moment. 

Appeals to competence and ‘leadership’ (Nick Macpherson, former Treasury Permanent Secretary chose that word) are sentimental and unrealistic.  As though charisma and get-go could dissolve fundamental ideological disagreements.  

One genuine question of competence is the worry that not everyone who matters in the argument understands what is and is not feasible given the EU’s predicament.  Or has an even approximately sensible notion of the costs and benefits attached to the different options.

Some of the public statements by the participants suggest that their understanding of these things is wanting.  There are countless examples of the Brexit Ultras saying things that imply they want their ‘cake and eat it’;  meaning they want their regulatory divergence [sovereignty cake] and frictionless trade [the eating it] at the same time.  There are fewer, but still worryingly frequent interventions by others from that constituency seeming to welcome the most disorderly, abrupt and Hardest Brexit.

Taken at face value, these interventions are daft.  But seen as a part of a fight to the death with Remainers, it is more explicable.

Perhaps those speeches are the result of the same kind of diabolical calculation made by Dr Strangeglove of the Kubrick film by the same name, whose seemingly crazy sabre rattling with nuclear weapons was designed to make the Soviets back down.  They could be aimed at provoking the following calculation in the minds of the moderates:  ‘They really believe this cake and eat it stuff, don’t they, despite evidence to the contrary?  So they are not going to back down.  And if we are to avoid the disaster of disunity in the negotiations, or have a chance of picking up the pieces at some point, perhaps we should back down now and let the other lot take a run at it.’

But what about Article 50, goes the main accusation from those who feel this is all about competence.  How could you start the two year clock ticking to either a hasty withdrawal agreement or bust without having figured out what you want?  How could Labour whip its MPs to support that?  Isn’t that reckless? 

Well, once again you have to drop the idea that either side consists of single thinking units in control of all their own moving parts.  If this is a game of chicken between starkly opposing factions, more time is not productive, since neither will back down anyway until the last possible moment. 

The chaos of Brexit is not primarily matter of administrative missteps.  It is inherent in the ambiguity of the Leave vote;  the radically divergent and conflicting visions for Britain’s future outside the EU; and the incentive the EU has to preserve itself by offering us binary choices, which make Leaving for others look very bad.

Photo: Getty
A hefty legal bill looks set to bankrupt Ukip for good – but could a new party take its place?
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

A libel fee could kill the party. Unless, of course, an expensive leadership battle gets there first. 

So long, and thanks for all the fish (that we'll now be able to do what we like with?): Ukip has been hit by a £600,000 libel bill after one of its MEPs, Jane Collins, was successfully sued for defamation by three Labour MPs – John Healey, Sarah Champion, and Kevin Barron – who she accused of ignoring child sexual abuse in Rotherham.

Ukip's share of the costs is likely to be at least £200,000, a financial blow that is expected to finish the party as a going concern. Unless, that is, the cost of a leadership election doesn't get there first. (The party's embattled leader, Henry Bolton, is facing a vote on his future this weekend.)

Does it matter? Ultimately Ukip has succeeded well beyond its founders' dreams: the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, and the Conservatives have aped a lot of their rhetoric too. In many ways, it looks to be to the 2010s what the SDP were to the 1990s: a failure, yes, but a pretty influential one.

The question that some MPs have is whether it clears the decks for a new party of the nativist right to emerge, potentially one funded by Arron Banks. My instinct is whether that happens or not is entirely irrelevant to the fate of Ukip. Ukip only got 300,000 more votes than the BNP in 2010, and its surge thereafter happened before, not after, its rival on the populist right collapsed completely.

The continent-wide problem on the far right has always been one of the supply-side, not the demand-side: these parties tend to be too driven by in-fighting, poor candidates and bad organisation to appeal. That won't change if Ukip dies. And every new party must now grapple with the big problem of Ukip's success, which isn't that it has lost its reason to be since the referendum; but that the only UK-wide election that new parties can easily win, and in doing so gain a measure of financial stability, are the proportional ones to the European Parliament. And that, more than its referendum victory, is why Ukip and any new party of the right, left or centre is going to struggle in the United Kingdom after Brexit.

Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
We banned the guns that killed school children in Dunblane. Here’s how
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

After the massacre hit our town, we campaigned for handguns to be outlawed, and it paid off. It’s time America took the same approach.

As I wake up to yet another story of a mass school shooting in the USA, the feelings and emotions of that crisp Wednesday morning on March 13th 1996 in Dunblane come flooding back into focus.

I had dropped my 3-year-old daughter off at her nursery around 9am and made my way to work. About an hour later, my mother phoned me in a blind panic to say that there had been shootings in Dunblane. My colleague and I had been oblivious. I quickly looked on teletext (this was pre-mobile and the internet days) and saw that the story was already headlining.

Dropping everything, I immediately went back to collect my daughter. The car radio was bringing sketchy updates, but it was clear that something major had happened and that several children had been killed. On arrival at the nursery, all was calm. It felt surreal that I had walked into a world that was closeted from outside, where everything seemed normal and as it should be, and yet all the while knowing other parents wouldn’t be collecting their child ever again. Standing there holding my precious daughter close, without realising the full extent of the carnage that would soon be revealed. 

As I drove the five miles back to my house all I could think about was my neighbour and friend across the road. Her husband had died of cancer the previous October and I couldn’t bear to think that one of her children had been affected. I knocked on her door and an unknown woman answered. Was that good or bad? I couldn’t speak. After what seemed like an age, she told me the children were OK. I felt over-whelming relief and yet the full horror of the loss of 16 children and their teacher soon became apparent.

The whole town cried for days. Those of us not directly affected still felt like our hearts had been ripped out, and it was hard to fathom how the families who had lost a loved one could be feeling. The media had a field day, with crews from all over the world descending upon us. Literally a mile of flowers appeared, sent from communities around the globe.

All this took place in our small innocent country market town, deemed a city only because of the 12th century medieval cathedral, surrounded by rolling countryside, farmland and hills and with a thriving local community. This sort of massacre didn’t happen in Scotland. nor in prosperous Dunblane. This happened in other countries, in other cities, in other places around the world. In South Africa. In America. Not in rural Perthshire.

Photo: Getty

I had been going to a yoga class in Stirling, one which had a crèche, and it was there that I met Ann Pearston. A few days after the event we were at the class, and both felt that we needed to do something so that a similar tragedy would never happen again on UK soil. It should be the last time that licenced handguns could be used to tear lives apart, as they had for the 17 Dunblane families and their friends – not to mention the many more who would live with the physical and emotional scars of being in the gym and at school that day, or from being on duty as part of the emergency services.

When Ann said she was starting a petition to ban all handguns in the UK and asked if I would I be up for helping, I was in without a second thought. Three of us started the campaign and organised A4 sheets of petitions and so the Snowdrop Petition was born; named after the only flower in bloom at the time. Days later, we had our first street stall in Stirling to garner support. News of the petition gained traction and within a couple of weeks we had people all over Britain asking for copies and organising their own stalls. The completed sheets started to come back in their hundreds. Within ten weeks we had approximately 750,000 signatures demanding a change to legislation. By the time we had presented the petition to parliament, the number was above one million. It was the most successful grassroots campaign in the UK then and to this day.

We had engaged politicians from across the political spectrum, and connected with people affected from the Hungerford shootings in 1987. With so many people pressing for change, if one person’s energy waned, another would pick up the baton. It was difficult for even the most hardline gun enthusiast to not be touched by the heartfelt interviews with the parents who had lost their precious children. How could a weekend hobby be worth the life of an innocent child? 

The Gun Lobby persisted with their usual tactics. “It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people.” But why, in a civilised society, do we allow people to own guns that are capable of mass murder in a matter of minutes? Our own massacre had been committed using legally owned rapid-fire handguns, and the perpetrator had 743 cartridges of ammunition on him – enough to have killed every child in the school. Yes, he was a loner with a difficult upbringing; and yes, most gun owners are responsible and would never think of turning their guns on anyone, but surely the risk is too great even if only one more life is lost due to a legal gun owner who “flips”. 

It took a change of government in 1997 to bring the handgun ban into effect, but our persistence and steady campaign had paid off. The UK has not seen another mass shooting using handguns. Indeed, there has only been one mass shooting since in 2010, when 12 people tragically lost their lives to a man who legally owned a shotgun and 0.22 calibre rifle. 

In Scotland, as we have our own legal system, we have strengthened the law further and since December 2016 all air weapons require a licence. While the UK record of deaths from firearms is very low, at below one per million people annually, it is even lower in Scotland. 

This brings me back to the United States. To a country whose response to the 22 Sandy Hook deaths is for people to ask for school teachers to be armed, rather than calling for people to disarm and to move for proper regulation of firearms and thorough background checks. There are 101 guns for every 100 Americans. That’s the legal ones.

How many more are actually in circulation? A country where millions of dollars are spent protecting its borders from “terrorists” from outside the US, who killed 68 Americans in 2016; when there are 96 deaths every day, of which seven are children and teens, or 13,000 a year, killed because of the nation's obsession with the second amendment and the “right to bear arms”. An amendment that was supposed to allow Americans protection against their government, and not be used so that people could terrorise each other. Since Sandy Hook in December 2012, a gun has been fired on school grounds nearly once a week, that’s more than 290 times. In the six weeks of 2018, there have already been 18 school shootings.

Then you listen to politicians, the National Rifle Association, and others who say that the latest families from Florida have their “thoughts and prayers”. I tell you what, I wouldn’t want thoughts and prayers, I would want policies and regulation and a grown-up discussion about changing the American gun culture. “Thoughts and prayers” won’t bring any of those children back, but regulation could stop more families facing the torture of life without their child, wracked with guilt about letting them go to school that morning. 

The American gun lobby is a mighty force, but cultural change can happen. Where there is a will, there is a way. Who would have thought that New York, Ireland, and Scotland would be the first three places in the world to ban smoking cigarettes in public places? Who could now imagine putting innocent lives at risk by driving home after a night of drinking, which was culturally acceptable just a few decades ago? 

There is no doubt that Scottish and British culture is different to American culture, but not that different. The British reaction to Dunblane was to embrace the shift that was necessary to reduce legal gun ownership on our shores. Surely it’s time for America to do the same?

Jude Kelly’s Diary: From train travel through 80s Russia to buses around Britain
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

It was strange on Friday, heading off from lunch with Misha Glenny, writer of McMafia, and landing in Moscow the same evening. Misha and I spent most of our time reminiscing about his father, the renowned translator and Russian expert Michael Glenny. He and I travelled right across Russia together in 1986 accompanied by the then science editor of Pravda Vladimir Gubarev, the first journalist to set foot in Chernobyl. So great was Gubarev’s horror at what he had uncovered that he exiled himself to his dacha for months and wrote his first play, Sarcophagus, set in Hospital No 1, where all the patients, scientists, firemen, engineers and building contractors reveal to each other the massive corruption and moral culpability that led to the devastating event and their own inevitable deaths.

It was early glasnost days and all could be said, nothing was censored. The play caused shock waves right across the Soviet system and I’d been asked to direct it by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I stood in the office of the literary department in Stratford open-mouthed as Michael Glenny’s vivid translation came rolling off the fax machine, revealing the unbearable mix of human stupidity and venal desire that placed the world in such danger.

This led to our train journeys, criss-crossing the snowy landscape, to research the piece, as Michael and Vladimir gave me a crash course in Russian history while smuggling vodka into railway carriages to cope with that short-lived and doomed alcohol ban that was one initiative of perestroika. I returned to direct the play, which I’m proud to say was nominated for an Olivier award. But one thing I think we’ve all learned, and as Misha illustrated over lunch, is that our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now
as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

Thawing relations

I was in Russia by invitation of the British Council, giving speeches to artists and cultural leaders about the power of culture to help us build the necessary shared understandings and beliefs. Earnest conversations but also jokes, enthusiasm, great food and no shortage of vodka reinforces that people are very different from political states.

I hate cold weather, but I went almost straight from Russia to Ottawa. Minus ten degrees. Then Banff – minus 15! The trip was partly driven by conversations with Canadian artists about climate change. The global Earth Summit happens in 2020: governments are gathering to review environmental policy and I’d been approached to curate an international festival bringing together many of the extraordinary artists and scientists working in the field. We’d met many of them during our investigation last year of the Nordic regions for Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters festival. Canada has equally powerful thinkers: these conversations are no longer of “fringe” interest. As part of my research, in August I’ll travel to the Arctic region to meet up with artists there. More cold! Brrr!

Coaching by coach

Yesterday, I was in my hometown of Liverpool for a meeting about a new British charity that Richard Collier-Keywood and I have co-founded called Drivers for Change. Me, arts; him, business. It’s directly inspired by an Indian charity, Jagriti Yatra, that takes 400 18- to 26-year-olds on a train journey around their own country looking at social enterprise projects and giving them the knowledge and skills to return to their own communities and make change happen.

I went for several years, supporting these enthusiastic millennials. But although I loved seeing what was being done in Bangalore or Thilonia, I was struck by the knowledge that back home in Sunderland, Port Talbot or Weston-super-Mare there are brilliant examples of change to learn from, and huge problems that need innovative approaches and courage to tackle. This June, we’re inviting 100 young recruits (80 British and 20 from overseas) from all backgrounds to travel through the UK, stopping in nine towns and cities to learn from and inspire others. It launches in Liverpool on 22 June during the International Business Festival, and although it’s buses and not a romantic locomotive, we have high hopes that it will produce a cohort whose actions and energy will make a real difference.

Watching the love tug

We live beside the canal in Shoreditch, east London, and have noticed a major escalation in epic silliness. At least once a week through December and January, groups of people immersed in hot water in a large plastic blow-up bath – known as the “Love Tug” – have floated past, drinking champagne. As I write, with the faux chimney of the tug steaming away and bursts of immodest laughter tinkling across the water, one group has just drifted under our windows. Wearing nautical hats and little else, many look like stag or hen dos. What a barmy start to married life.

Goodbye Southbank, hello world

Women of the World Festival (WOW) is in Kathmandu this weekend for its second year there – the youngest, poorest democracy with some of the most powerful women and girl campaigners you could ever meet. I have just announced that after 12 years, I’ll be leaving the Southbank Centre to build WOW into a wider global movement. Over eight years we’ve developed these festivals, which speak with candour about every aspect of women’s lives in 30 places, over five continents. It’s proved a hugely compelling project for me to devote more time to.

This month’s celebrations of women’s achievements in getting voting rights was gratifying but WOW aims to celebrate girls and women all year round. Celebration creates optimism, and optimism gives us the stamina to face up to the tough stuff and keep going. You have to build fun into life wherever possible… For me, it’s essential. 

WOW Women of the World festival will be held at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 7-11 March

Jacob Rees-Mogg shows just how much the British love a caricature
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Corbyn’s survival brings new vitality to the Tory extreme: Labour are doing it, perhaps we should too.

Some bookmakers have Jacob Rees-Mogg as favourite to be the next prime minister. It’s a bad time to make predictions but I think they’re right. The possibility – the danger, alternatively – is real.

There is a mood inside a wobbling team that many sportspeople will recognise: frustration with weighing compromises, the desire to be around certainty in the hope that it proves catching (even if the certainty is wrong-headed), an impatience with struggling on as things are, and above all putting internal clarity ahead of effectiveness out on the pitch. Put simply: at least we’ll have a plan, even if we end up losing badly. Extreme lack of confidence induces a kind of vulnerability and panic: please, someone, just tell me to jump and I’ll do it.

Something similar is happening inside the Conservative Party. Jacob Rees-Mogg, as a social conservative with considerable intellectual self-confidence and a gift for exploiting the English susceptibility to caricature, is potentially the chief beneficiary of that panicky mood.

There is a strange internal logic about the rise of Rees-Mogg, connected to both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s survival and ideological confidence, mad as it sounds, brings new vitality to the Conservative extreme: Labour are doing it, perhaps we should, too. No wonder Rees-Mogg has carefully praised Corbyn’s “integrity”. As Stephen Bush recently explored in these pages, Rees-Mogg is being positioned as the appropriate and symmetrical cure to the Corbyn problem.

The parallel deepens given that the founding principle of Rees-Mogg’s ideology, his version of revealed socialist truth, is the issue of the day: Europe. In July last year, I argued reluctantly that “Brexit must anoint one of its own”. As the negotiations entered the endgame, I speculated, there would be a pull from several directions towards a serious Brexiteer fronting the process. Remainers would begin to recoil from the political fallout. And Brexiteers would demand greater purity. Keen to make a clean break, Rees-Mogg would certainly approach Brexit with a spring in his step, and confidence is easily mistaken for effectiveness.

Where Boris Johnson’s persona is obviously a useful construction, Rees-Mogg’s is less clearly a conscious act. He has been eccentric and fogeyish since childhood. A personal style that may have begun in childish defiance has hardened into adult playfulness. That’s an odd kind of progress: a super-serious child giving way to an adult with a highly developed streak of childishness.

Yet it may appeal to the English weakness for deference nostalgia, an imagined past of gentlemanly public-spiritedness and heavy wool double-breasted suits. If Rees-Mogg turns out to have wider appeal, this will be central. Just as Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich person, Rees-Mogg plays to the gallery as an exaggerated, gentlemanly toff. His intended audience is not gentlemanly toffs, of course, any more than Trump’s pitch was to serious billionaires.

Trump’s election reveals that significant numbers of struggling Americans are still impressed by someone who looks very rich: his gleeful vulgarity resonated with the America we’d pretended wasn’t there. A similar Rees-Mogg effect, if it materialises, would suggest that a nostalgic and class-bound idea of Englishness persists more than liberals care to admit.

That leads to another question: just how serious is he? Public figures with a hint of caricature enjoy a structural advantage: they can hide behind the suggestion they are partly joking. In one context, Rees-Mogg can ham it up. In another, he can play the serious ex-investor turned political intellectual. So was he joking when he took his nanny canvassing on the campaign trail? That’s up to you. In the classic tradition of grand-country-house eccentricity, it’s unclear to what extent Rees-Mogg is sending himself up.

Rees-Mogg’s brand of traditional conservatism may not be popular, but it does give him a framework for attacking liberal orthodoxy, which is certainly popular. His portrayal of the globalising elite as the explanation of social problems – the liberals abandoned you and let you down – taps into post-financial crisis political logic: give us politicians who tell us that this isn’t our fault. As a leader for angry times, Rees-Mogg could be all too modern.

By accident or design, Rees-Mogg unites establishment reassurance with anti-establishment positioning. Where Johnson talks about having his cake and eating it, Rees-Mogg just gets on with it. Before he can win over the country, though, he has to win over the party. It’s all too possible – he only has to be in the final two MPs put forward to the party membership.

Some perceptive observers have likened the state of British party politics to the circumstances facing hermit crabs: the declining party is the shell, and the disempowered rump of sensible centrists are the crab. Why don’t they just accept shelter from another organisation? If your old home is no longer appropriate, why not move?

However, look at the same analogy from the opposite point of view: with a significant constituency threatening to flee, think of the gratitude directed towards anyone who stays put. It is the Conservative Party, after all, and Rees-Mogg is very conservative. That brings a kind of reassurance.

Very conservative, in my lexicon, is not the same thing as a real conservative, but you can see how the two might be conflated. As party membership declines and more strident voices gain power, parties become increasingly out of step with the electoral majorities they are supposed to seek. In the absence of intellectual patience – a common trait inside organisations under strain – the playfully extreme becomes indistinguishable from the genuinely authentic. 

The Oxfam allegations must not be used to tighten the UK’s purse strings
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The scandal will surely mean be an excuse for Tories to retire their hearts.

Oxfam clearly mishandled allegations seven years ago that its senior workers in Haiti paid local women, possibly even children, for sex. It also seems clear that, in this and other instances, Oxfam cared more about protecting what is modishly called its brand than about ensuring its workers were brought to justice – a pattern familiar from other organisations such as churches and boarding schools.

But please spare me the confected Tory outrage. Right-wing MPs have been sniping at aid charities for years. The party as a whole, however, has been inhibited by David Cameron’s commitment to ring-fence the international aid budget at 0.7 per cent of GDP, which was made to convince voters that Tories have a heart. Increasingly, it finds this heart an encumbrance. The money could go to the NHS, MPs and party supporters say, although they would probably rather use it for tax cuts. Revelations of orgies involving the most famous aid charity of all – one, moreover, that dares to point out that capitalism directs 82 per cent of wealth to 1 per cent of the planet’s population – will surely clinch the case. The Tories can safely retire their heart.

Big numbers

It was Andrew Dilnot, former chair of the UK Statistics Authority, who first asked me, “Is that a large number?” At the time, he was pointing at a figure on the Guardian’s front page that looked big but proved quite small when divided by the world’s population. I learned from him that the question is always worth asking.

Seven workers left Oxfam after the Haiti incidents. Was that a large proportion of the charity’s 230 workers in Haiti or its 5,000 staff worldwide? The Daily Mail reports 123 alleged sexual harassment incidents over nine years in Oxfam’s 650 shops staffed by 23,000 volunteers. That’s 0.06 per cent of volunteers each year (at most, since some could have been responsible for more than one incident) and 2 per cent of shops (again at most). The Sunday Times reports that Save the Children recorded 31 incidents of sexual harassment last year. It has 24,000 staff working in more than 120 countries. You do the sums this time and decide for yourself if these are large numbers and if sexual misconduct is more widespread in the charity sector than in, say, the Houses of Parliament.

Echoes of the 1930s

I feel a smidgen of sympathy for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail as they face accusations of anti-Semitism. In revealing that the billionaire George Soros was backing the Remain-supporting group Best for Britain with £400,000 – he later added another £100,000 – the former headlined its story with a “secret plot to thwart Brexit”. Another headline described Soros who, through his Open Society Foundations, has supported liberal causes across the world, as “a rich gambler… meddling in nations’ affairs”. The Mail followed in similar vein.

This language is routine for the two papers. Almost anybody who supports anything they don’t like is part of a “plot” or “conspiracy”. But though neither paper mentioned it, Soros, an American citizen born in Hungary, is Jewish. And the use of such words, as Stephen Pollard, the Jewish Chronicle editor and a Brexit supporter, points out, echoes not only 1930s Nazi propaganda but also language now used by eastern European groups, some close to their governments, that are explicitly anti-Semitic.

Pollard acknowledges that the Telegraph and Mail had no anti-Semitic intent. We live in strange times, however. The most shocking image of Soros I have seen was on Twitter last year, but later deleted. It showed his head superimposed on an octopus strangling the globe and was accompanied by the allegation that his foundation spends billions on “civil unrest, dividing Americans and suppressing free speech”. The author? Adam Milstein, an Israeli-American property developer, president of a family foundation formed to “strengthen the state of Israel and the Jewish people”, and a council member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the chief pro-Israel lobby group in the US. If he can’t get it right, what hope for British journalists?

What is it good for?

The government has a “Brexit war cabinet”. Since war cabinets are normally formed to prosecute, er, wars, this doesn’t sound right. First, we are not at war with the EU. (Or are we? I stopped following the tedious Brexit drama months ago.) Second, war cabinets should be united on basic war aims. Third, they are usually small. Both Lloyd George and Churchill started with five ministers (including themselves), later increased to seven. Margaret Thatcher had seven throughout the Falklands War. For the first Gulf War, John Major had five. For the Iraq War, Tony Blair had eight.

Theresa May has a war cabinet of 11 and battle, even in the metaphorical sense, hasn’t yet been joined.

Rain on my parade

For its weather forecasts, the BBC, obeying the prevailing demand to marketise everything that moves, has switched from the Met Office, owned by a UK government department, to MeteoGroup, owned by an American private equity firm.

Judging by its forecasts on the BBC website, MeteoGroup intends to justify the corporation’s claim that it will give better “value for money” by throwing more information at us. How much of it is useful and believable? It tells me that, 14 days hence, it will be dry and intermittently sunny at 4pm, the temperature will be 7°C but feel like 4°C, with 66 per cent humidity and an 11mph east wind. Can weather so far ahead be predicted with such precision? The website also tells me that at 6pm tomorrow, when I shall be in the West End of London, there is a 24 per cent chance of rain. What am I supposed to do with that information? Take a quarter of an umbrella? 

A Basic Opportunity Fund: the case for giving everyone in Britain £10,000
February 16th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The idea of the Fund is simple: provide all British citizens under the age of 55 with two payments of £5,000.

Despite record employment levels, in-work poverty now affects more people than out-of-work poverty. Average household debt is expected to reach an unprecedented £19,000 by the end of this parliament. For the 41 per cent of us with savings of less than £1,000, “just about managing” is one piece of bad luck away from “not managing”.

Amidst this economic insecurity, we need to rethink how people can be supported to enjoy secure and purposeful lives. A report released by the RSA today might offer part of the answer: a “UK Basic Opportunity Fund”.

The idea of the Fund is simple: provide all British citizens under the age of 55 with two payments of £5,000, to be taken in any two years of their choosing over the course of a decade (with parents able to claim for those under 18). With support from employers and other advice services, the recipient would be free to decide on the most beneficial way they could use the money.

That could mean people making major changes to their lives that would be otherwise untenable. A struggling low-paid worker could invest in a qualification which would in turn open the door to better employment opportunities. An aspiring entrepreneur stifled by full-time work might use the fund to go part-time, freeing time to turn an idea into a reality. A parent trying to sustain a small business could afford childcare to focus on making their company flourish. 

Underpinning this intervention is a confidence that – when supported to do so – individuals are best placed to make decisions regarding their futures. The Fund is not a license for laziness. Rather it is an investment, of belief as much as money, in people to find good work and good lives, well remunerated not just in pay but in purpose and wellbeing too.

Supporters of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) will recognise these arguments. Rather than an alternative, the Fund represents a stepping stone towards a full UBI in future. By demonstrating some of the benefits of unconditional support – as already being shown in UBI experiments in Finland and Canada (with trials also set to begin in Scotland) – the Fund could help to shift political consensus towards adopting a wholesale UBI.

The Fund, as with UBI, confronts a culture of low paid and insecure work, a punishing Universal Credit welfare system premised on hard conditionality, and an all-too-common situation of people being trapped in unhappy circumstances simply by virtue of needing to pay the bills.

People need not be subjected to the stress of punitive welfare sanctioning, bad work, and vulnerability to the potential impacts of job automation in certain sectors. Instead, they could be given a helping hand to create better lives for themselves: reskilling to adapt to a changing labour market; responding to life changes such as caring responsibilities; or turning a creative idea into a livelihood, for example.

The benefits of this approach do not end with the individual. Higher skilled, better paid, and more productive work means a better economy collecting more tax. Freeing people to move between jobs facilitates better skills matching, important when most workers report their skills as being underutilised. Less insecure work also improves health and wellbeing, easing strain on public services.

The Fund is therefore not a giveaway, but an investment in both human potential and our collective future. The upfront cost of the fund – estimated to be around £14bn per year – is no reason to shy away. There are, as explored in the report, a variety of funding options to explore — including innovative ideas such as the establishment a Sovereign Wealth Fund (an idea pioneered by Norway, whose fund is now worth over $1 trillion) or instituting a levy on the usage of public data by global corporations.

A Basic Opportunity Fund, just like a full UBI, is not a magic solution to all our problems and would need to be paired with further interventions including a reinvigorated system of lifelong learning. But it could form one part of a re-envisaged approach supporting everyone to live secure, happy, and meaningful lives.

Jake Thorold is an RSA research assistant and one of the lead authors of the RSA report calling for the creation of a UK Basic Opportunity Fund. 

Why the Jeremy Corbyn spy story won't change minds - and what could
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Conservative attacks on Labour are too shrill to be heard.

There’s a fun story in today’s Sun drawing on recently declassified Czech intelligence: that in 1986, a Czechoslovakian spy met with Jeremy Corbyn under diplomatic cover, but failed to get any high-level information of him, though Corbyn was considered to be of potential value enough that he was given the nickname “Cob”.

Czechoslovakia’s intelligence community doesn’t particularly come out of the story particularly well: all they gleaned from their meetings of Jeremy Corbyn was that he was critical of the United States and even more hostile to Margaret Thatcher’s government.

How much does this stuff matter, electorally speaking? From a Conservative perspective it confirms their belief that a Corbyn-led government would drag British foreign policy in a new and catastrophic direction, with potentially disastrous consequences for the future of Nato. (From the perspective of some longtime Corbynite loyalists, this is part of the point.) 

As far as voters go however, the story is likely to fall flat, for three main reasons. The first is that foreign policy, particularly the foreign policy of the opposition, tends to be low-salience among all voters, regardless of age, income or class background, particularly when the economy is not doing so well. The second is that the past is even less important. People vote on the future.

But the third problem with this line, and indeed a lot of the anti-Corbyn messages that the Tories are using, is that they are simply counter-intuitive. We're hard-wired to enjoy being validated and to disregard things that challenge our strongly held opinions. (One of, but not the only, reason why the last general election was so volatile is because most voters actually didn't know Theresa May or Corbyn all that well, as strange as that may seem to people who follow politics regularly.) People don't believe that the United Kingdom could ever “become like Venezuela” because that is so far removed from their sense of the UK as a strong and resilient country, and the current orthodoxy that politicians can bring about meaningful change.

People also tend to switch off whenever a political attack gets too animated. The frothy tone of most anti-Corbyn messages is self-discrediting. As Tony Blair noted in his memoir, The Journey, the most effective attacks are often the smallest, because the leap people have to take is not that large. He didn’t attack William Hague as a sinister small-state politician, but instead described him as being better at telling jokes than making good judgements.This worked a lot better, not least because people already thought Hague was good at jokes, so it wasn't the world's biggest leap. Compare and contrast that with Gavin Williamson's response to today's story, which is to say that Corbyn “can’t be trusted”, a far bigger claim. At best it raises eyebrows, but most people just switch off when they hear that kind of talk from one politician about another.

Now, it is of course true that a Corbyn-led government would do foreign policy very differently than any previous Labour government. Perversely, the attack line that might work is actually a lot less fair: it’s to say that it shows that his judgement is suspect because he didn’t work out that he was meeting a spy. Of course, you can fairly point out that the point of being a spy is to avoid detection, but because people already think of the party he leads as the nice and soppy party, telling people that he was too nice and soppy to spot a spy and therefore too nice and soppy to be Prime Minister confirms part of what they already believe.

Photo: Getty
"Some women will shag anything to get anywhere": Lisa Stansfield on fame, Weinstein and the problem with Jeremy Corbyn
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

She was the biggest British female soul star of the Nineties. At 51, she’s back and ready to let loose.

Lisa Stansfield likes to do an impression of Lisa Stansfield. Head down and shoulders hunched, she draws her arms in front of her and swings them in a simian manner, her entire body and baker boy cap vibrating as if she is caught in a chill wind. This is what she looked like, apparently, on the Pete Waterman ITV show Motown Mania in 2000, which she didn’t want to take part in because it was so “fucking naff”. And this is what she looked like at 14, singing in the working men’s clubs of Rochdale. Only, she had a huge perm then, which stuck out like this – her arms arc round her head – and made her look “like Kevin Keegan. No. Like a microphone”.

Lisa does the vibrating simian to express situations in which she wasn’t entirely comfortable. Earlier in the day, at a photo shoot in Kentish Town, she grabbed her glasses to examine the first run of portraits as they were delivered on to a laptop. She decided she looked “like John Hurt on acid”, so she threw some shapes for a different vibe, brandishing an invisible gun like one of Charlie’s Angels. She was tiny and wiry in her black leather assemblage – and she looked just like Lisa Stansfield. Fame is a science, she says. A cycle.

“There are elevators in East Germany that go round a loop rather than up and down, and they have no doors,” – she pushes her index fingers round to illustrate. “You jump in, and then you jump out again. That’s what I felt like.”

She was the biggest British female solo popstar of the Nineties: her debut album sold five million copies, she sang with George Michael at Wembley Stadium and cracked America too. Then she was gone for years, living in Ireland and walking around in a headscarf and wellies “trying to be a fucking farmer”. Now, looking back, she was an unwitting pop prototype: a self-taught soul star who swore like a docker and put her own twist on Motown decades before Adele or Amy Winehouse did; who won a local talent contest when such a route might still get you a lasting career in music; who wrote her own hits, when many would have assumed she came off the production-line of Stock Aitken Waterman. She is 51: the elevator is back and she’s about to step in. But at 23, promoting her debut album, she asked an NME reporter, “Why do people want to be famous?”

Stansfield tried to give up swearing as a new year’s resolution, shortly after Rochdale Council attempted a swearing ban in the town where she still lives. When I meet her in the bar of a London hotel, as night begins to fall, she has just spoken to a pop magazine. She would like to move to a different table for our interview, “Because if I’m asked the same question, and I’m sitting in the same seat, I think I’m going mad.”

She is known for speaking her mind. When Prince died in 2016, she was hastily brought on to breakfast TV for a celebrity tribute. She hadn’t known him well, and had heard about his death in the pub as anyone might. She recalled her mother meeting the funk overlord backstage in Rio and telling him what small hands he had – “like a little boy’s”. When the presenter, Naga Munchetty, admitted that Prince had once taken a shine to her, Stansfield winked and said, “The question is, did ya or didn’t ya?” – to national outrage, and suggestions that she had actually come straight from the pub. Collecting the award for Best British Female at the 1991 Brits, she was advised by the host, Jonathan King, not to say anything incendiary: she gave a little anti-Gulf war speech, which was cut out of the TV broadcast. These days, she can get away with more. She went on Good Morning Britain four years ago, wearing a necklace fashioned subtly from the word “Cunt”.

Her parents met working in the Era ring mill in Woodbine Street, Rochdale, in the 1950s. She – Marion – worked the cotton bobbins, and had come from Wigan: Rochdale was a step up.  He – Keith – was something of a catch, being the mill electrician or “fixer”. Rochdale was, at the time, under the conservative tenure of Wentworth Schofield MP, who was high up in cotton and formed the Manchester Yarn Spinners’ Association. Stansfield’s parents, she tells me, were the kind who bought the Mirror and voted Tory and saw no discrepency between the two. “Working class people vote Tory because they think it makes them look a bit posh,” she says. “They don’t know that the Tories are going to shit all over them because they’re poor.”

Her father became a draughtsman, and started working on the North Sea oil rigs: he was rarely at home during the week. Her musical interest came from her mother – like some real-life Little Voice, Stansfield would ape the songs of Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline and Diana Ross from the age of four. The competitions began in her teens, her mother driving her through sleet and snow as far as Newcastle, where she’d sing Motown classics in clubs, often accompanied by no more than an organ and its inbuilt drum machine. Wives would elbow their husbands and say, “shut up, Stan, she’s trying to sing”. She graduated to variety shows on Granada TV, and sang Randy Crawford’s “One Day I’ll Fly Away” in a pink metallic space suit.

“I was quietly determined,” she says. “I’ve never been like Madonna, I’d never push people out of the way.”


Pop songs once held such power that any idiosyncracies in the lyrics or vocal style would swell to cartoon proportions in the national consciousness. Caroline Aherne did a Fast Show sketch about Stansfield combing the airports of the world for a mislaid infant (“Been around the world and I-I-I, I can’t find my baby”). She dissected the complex paradox, “I may not be a lady, but I’m all woman.”

Stansfield performed “All Woman” at a secret gig at the Village Undergound in London, before Christmas. That sad psychodrama between a wife and her husband rang out differently in a “woke” modern world: “He said, babe, you look a mess/You look dowdy in that dress.” In her songs, women long for kisses, search for men they drove away and feed off a particular kind of immersive love. On her new album, Deeper, she sings: “And if you so desire, I’ll treat you like a king” – in any album you make at this stage of your career, she tells me, “you’re sort of pastiching yourself”. There is something gloriously unreconstructed about the feminity her songs express – and classic, in a Sixties way: a side of love, and love affairs, that is unfashionable in an age of pop alter-ego and fierce individualism. The emotional honesty might be an explanation for her huge gay following: “Perhaps it’s because I say eggs is eggs,” she suggests.

“Falling in love is an absolutely beautiful thing to go through, and why people shouldn’t talk about it is beyond me.”

Stansfield wasn’t aware that songs like hers are quite rare nowadays and says she’s glad she didn’t know, because she might have thought twice about writing them. Her music comes from a little creative Brill Building of two: it is co-written with her husband Ian Devaney, whom she met in a school play at the age of 14. They were in a band together, Blue Zone, when she was billed as featured vocalist on the 1989 club hit “People Hold On”, by Coldcut, and her name was launched. When she and Ian started going out, she tells me, the love was “urgent”: the new album is named after the deeper feeling that comes after many years with the same person.

It is with Devaney that Stansfield creates these songs of romantic co-dependency. They influence each other, and they “catalyse” each other, too. They can be good or bad catalysts, she explains. “We’ll have a period of time where we’ll drink, and then one of us will say, ‘Oh well, we won’t drink today’. And then one of us will smile [she gives a wink]... At the moment, we are being good catalysts. Trying to be as naughty as we can without being naughty.”


There was a clutch of them in the 1990s, these neo-soul women: their songs ruled the charts long before soul was said to be the dominant pop style. Everyone just “got on with it”, Stansfield says. She talked to Neneh (Cherry) a bit, and Mica (Paris). People compared her to Dina Carroll – “I didn’t like that!” She didn’t see much of Gabrielle or Des’ree, though she met them “afterwards”. Fame is talked of as a happening, a thing that took place, with a before and an after.

Stansfield has turned down invitations to judge The Voice and The X-Factor in recent years. Her reasons? They select winners they consider the easiest to manipulate, she says; “they wreck lives and the whole process is psychologically damaging.” But she concedes that the music industry has always been this way.

“You’ve got people with no integrity whatsoever who will look at a person like me, fresh off the boat and go: ‘Yeah, I can have a bit of that, I can fuck that right up. I’ll make as much money out of it as I can, and than I’ll shove it to one side.’”

Stansfield has sold 20 million records. Her tough streak developed when, as a teenager, her parents no longer chaperoned her. At 15, she went to modelling school on her mother’s suggestion. She was invited to the office of the director, who pulled her on to his lap, put his hand on her leg, and told her that if she played her cards right she would get on the cover of the teen title Blue Jeans. Stansfield slapped him, but continued going to the school – the compromise, perhaps, of a certain generation.

“It happens in the record industry,” she says. “There are women who will shag anything to get anywhere. But there are men who will shag anything too.”

When I ask her about Hollywood and the #MeToo campaign, she says, “I’m going to have a wee before that, then I can let go”, and she runs off. Her manager, sitting a few feet away, starts to button up her coat and moves a bit closer. Then Lisa returns.

“I’m sorry. But if I was an 18-year-old girl in Hollywood, and nothing was really working out for me, and Mr Harvey Weinstein asked me to come and watch him have a shower, I’d fucking watch him have a shower!” she says. “I’d watch him do anything as long as he didn’t touch me! There’s a lot of women who would do that. When they complain about things like that, they’re trivialising everything that those women who seriously have been abused have been through.”

She is on the side of Catherine Deneuve. “When you can’t go into a bar and be chatted up by a man, but you can go on Tinder and get raped, there’s something wrong.”


In 1992, having just turned 26, Lisa Stansfield was one of only three women to perform at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert (and the only one in her twenties), in a line-up of hoary rock legends – Roger Daltrey, Elton John – and American rock bands such as Metallica: “Ultra-famous people with big, big egos.”

“At rehearsals I’d be thinking, this is very morose, and everyone felt they had to be very serious because of the gravity of it all, and because of the Aids thing, and because of the enormity of Freddie Mercury.”

 She decided, for her rendition of Queen’s “I Want To Break Free”, to take to the stage with a Hoover and rollers to recreate the song’s famously camp video. The audience was an estimated one billion that night. She has remained friends with the band.

Fame grew throughout the Nineties: she wrote a song for the Bodyguard soundtrack and the theme song for Indecent Proposal. Along with George Michael, she was one of the few white English exports to break the US soul market when her debut album went to number one in the American R&B chart. In the words of Rolling Stone, “Not since Teena Marie has a white girl pulled off the pure joy and emotionality that Stansfield does, and without the downside of trying to sound authentically ‘black’.”

She does a routine about being mistaken for her own PA on press trips, being a small white woman. She was cool and aloof, the American critics said, but never cold.

Alongside Peter Gabriel and Neil Tennant, she gave substantial sums to Tony Blair for his 1997 election campaign, and went to meet him at the Labour headquarters in London.

She throws her legs wide, like a man, to recreate the scene.

“He’s like you would imagine him to be. That good, he’d eat himself. He asked me, ‘How’s it going?’ I said, ‘The tour’s going really well thanks.’ He said, ‘I’m talking about me!’ I gave him a lot of money but I’m not going to fucking do it again! Mind you...”

She takes a sip of her diet coke through a straw and reconsiders.

“Looking back, I would love Blair to take on the mantle again. I’ve lost hope with politics. I do hope Labour get in, but I see Corbyn as someone who plays guitar in a church and is down with the kids. One of those people who’s always talking to young people because he’s afraid that if he talked to a peer he might, you know, get it a bit wrong...?”

For four years at the height of her fame, Stansfield flew over the Atlantic once a week, promoting one album in the US while touring its follow-up in the UK: “I did not have time to think.” By the time of her third album she was unwell, but afraid to stop because sales were flying: “I know it’s bad to think like that.” She and Devaney moved to the Dublin suburb of Dalkey to slow down, possibly encouraged by the country’s rockstar tax exemption laws. They found themselves living in a Stella Street of exiled musicians: she regularly saw Jim Kerr of Simple Minds in the local SuperValu, buying bananas, though she never spoke to him. She bought a riding crop, new boots and jodhpurs, but only went on a horse twice.

The tabloids, which had always found rich pickings in Lisa Stansfield, started to report that something was up in Ireland, noting her rapid weight loss. She said she had developed an allergy to her own saliva: an autoimmune condition called herpetiformis.

“It imitates the herpes virus,” she says now. “Everything you ate, no matter how neutral tasting, burned like hell.”

For twelve months, she says, she would eat soup through a straw as the weight fell away. She’d been on 30 cigarettes a day for years by that point – she’d already “killed” her own tonsils by singing from her throat rather than from her diaphragm. A doctor looked for them once, she told a newspaper, but couldn’t find them – then he saw two little nubs the size of lentils.


At the Village Underground last year,  singing old tracks and new with the accompaniment of her slick neo-soul band, Stansfield sounded strong – but she still wakes in the morning next to Ian, she says, coughs, and tests out her vocal range in a string of puny little exhalations.

“The fact is, there’s always certain notes that are going to fuck you right up.”

Perhaps that is a driving thought for any singer – all part of the rush. In her fallow years, when her music did not fit in with the times, Stansfield had a few successful turns as an actor – alongside Anita Dobson in The Vagina Monologues, in a Miss Marple episode, and as the lead character’s mother in Northern Soul, the film about that Seventies Lancashire music scene. She was asked to be in Coronation Street too but the crossover of life and fiction felt a bit too much: when she started out, many British reviewers would compare her to Elsie Tanner, as she liked to do her interviews in curlers, fag in hand.

She enjoys the imitation of emotion and the suspension of belief that acting requires – she considers both things to be a feature of singing. But her favourite thing about acting is the nerdishness of the process: the science of blocking on stage, hitting your marks, getting to the right spot at the right time. It’s just like singing with an orchestra, she reasons. It’s all about being the one who could effectively screw it up.

Lisa Stansfield vividly recalls the moment she knew she would be famous, going to get a sandwich on Tottenham Court Road on one of her first trips to London to meet her record company. Passing the cinema, she saw a billboard for her first single “This Is The Right Time” – a giant red poster that just showed her eyes. She recalls a feeling of fear: “Everyone knows.” As her career began it took her a while, being stared at in pubs, to realise that people were not trying to “start” on her.

She may not have thrived on being told she was fabulous; fame may have made her unwell, but like many famous people, the alternative proved to be just as difficult and she waited for public interest to come round again. Which brings her back to the old-fashioned lifts in East Germany. Paternosters, they were called. They were outlawed in the Seventies because people kept misjudging their footing and falling down the shafts.

“People compliment me,” she says, “and if I ignore them, it doesn’t mean I’m rude. It just means I’m embarrassed. And I’ll aways be embarrassed, I think.” 

“Deeper” is out in April on earMusic. Lisa Stansfield tours the UK in April and May

The trade delusion: why Brexit won’t be Britain's salvation
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The notion that the UK will thrive outside the EU's customs union is an ideological fantasy. 

Few of those who voted for Brexit, it is safe to say, did so for the purpose of extricating the UK from the customs union. The free movement of people, the EU's opaque structure, and weariness with austerity and falling living standards were all significant factors in the result – but the desire for Britain to strike its own trade deals was not. 

It is, however, an obsession of the Brexit vanguard (Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson). For them, exit from the customs union, would herald the birth of a freewheeling, buccaneering “global Britain”. Rather than being shackled to Brussels, the UK would be liberated to strike valuable trade deals with China, India and “the Anglosphere” (the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). 

The ideological and sentimental appeal of this project to Conservatives is obvious. But the economic appeal is not. As Robert Chote, the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, emphasised when I interviewed him last month, “most of the work that trade economists have done” suggests that "the reduction in openness likely with the EU [the destination of 43 per cent of British exports] is likely to outweigh any increase elsewhere." Indeed, the government's own analysis suggests that the UK would lose between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of GDP over 15 years from a “hard Brexit” (withdrawal from the single market and the customs union), while new trade deals with the US and others would add no more than 0.6 per cent. 

Britain, as politicians of all parties have long lamented, does not export enough. But there is little evidence that customs union membership is the main obstacle. As former trade minister Jim O'Neill observed when I interviewed him, Germany's largest trade partner is now China (Germany exports five times more to China than the UK). Britain's problems are domestic in origin (low productivity, a lack of public and private investment) and domestic in solution. 

In view of this, most businesses, unsurprisingly, want the UK to retain customs union membership. A survey of 80 small and medium firms by the Harvard Kennedy School (co-authored by Ed Balls) is the latest evidence to this effect. Without the negotiating heft of 27 other member states, the UK will struggle to achieve beneficial trade deals. The US would demand greater access to agriculture (hence the spectre of chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-injected beef and acid-washed pork) and to the NHS. India and China would demand more visas (a problem for immigration-averse Conservatives). 

The greatest conundrum of all is the Irish Question (which Boris Johnson remarkably ignored in his speech yesterday). Should Britain adopt a new customs and trade regime, a hard border between North and South or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK becomes unavoidable.

After nearly two decades of peaceful coexistence between unionists and nationalists, we risk returning to the sectarian conflicts of the past. The success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement lay in ending the forced choice between British and Irish identities. People and goods move freely across an island border with 275 crossings (compared to 20 during the Troubles). Ireland is grappling with a problem created by the UK or, more specifically, the Conservative Party.

Partly for this reason, Labour has wisely not ruled out support for a continued customs union and Tory support for the proposal is higher than for single market membership (which could force continued free movement). At the end of this month, two pro-customs union amendments tabled by Conservative MP Anna Soubry and Labour MP Chris Leslie to the Trade Bill and Customs Bill will be debated and voted upon. Whether or not they pass, they will force inconvenient truths to be confronted. 

Customs Union withdrawal is a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, worse, it will merely multiply the epic challenges that Britain already faces. 

Getty Images
Will Self’s Great British Bus Journey is powerfully endearing
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

This radio show has none of the tendentiousness, mysticism and arrogance of the “wandering about talking” form.

“James Joyce took his readers into the bathroom. I’m going to take you into the coach bathroom.” Will Self, on a bus somewhere approaching Preston, sits on a “dinky winky little commode” and submits to some “tricky business”, sounding at ease. Self on the bog. Why not?

In another episode of his powerfully endearing 10-part series of 15-minuters (now available on iPlayer), in which he tours the UK’s smaller towns and cities via omnibus (he’s an enthusiast), Self comments on the “fulsome” coach passenger announcement. “I was expecting a little addendum on Kant’s categorical imperative,” he nods, on the way to East Kilbride, watching the low sun out of the window. Mentioning Bede and Dr Johnson, Self wonders how long it would take to travel the nation’s micro-regions via donkey.

Radio is for Self, I think, the perfect form. Psychogeography. Dread term. It usually means waffle. It means: on my way, I’m going to meet the world’s most boring ramblers, and be pompous about access to what are termed “secret histories” or “county histories” when, actually, they’re just history. There is none of this with Self. None of the tendentiousness, mysticism and hard-to-define arrogance of the “wandering about talking” form.

Self wouldn’t sound woeful if he saw a supermarket where there was once a temple of Mithras. He doesn’t bang on about ley lines, or “echoes”. He rarely spots a slaughterhouse next to a sewage works. You don’t sit there listening, feeling weirdly full. His approach is generous. He wants to communicate – to get listeners.

In Preston, he speaks to mosque goers and you just catch the end of him saying relaxedly, “pitch in as you like” to his interlocutors. In another episode (Middlesbrough) he describes London as erroneously fancying itself to be “bo-la-ho” (freewheeling, responsive) – possibly a made-up term.

Rare words emerge casually via Self, often as comedy. A friend recently heard him describe James Joyce as “diplopic” (having double vision). Nobody has used that word for 20 years. You never doubt that this is who Self is, and the effect is quite profound. Radio as a fast-working pill. 

Will Self’s Great British Bus Journey
BBC Radio 4

No, we don’t hate Boris Johnson just for winning
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

There are so many better reasons.

There’s a meme doing the rounds in the conserva-sphere, in the wake of Boris Johnson’s big Brexit speech: the idea that the only reason Remainers dislike the blond bombshell is because they’re incoherently bitter that he beat them in the referendum.

I’ve seen versions of this meme doing the rounds for years, since before Brexit was even a gleam in Nigel Farage’s eye. When it began, it wasn’t Remainers who were bitter, but the left, and the thing they were bitter about was having lost the London mayoralty.

It might even have been true, back then. In 2008, Labour had spent a decade in power, while the Tories thought they were the rebel alliance, and saw Boris Johnson’s victory in London as their first strike back against the evil empire. The night of that election, I was incandescent with impotent rage. Losing the London mayoralty to a Tory – to that Tory – really did feel like a perversion of the natural order of things.

So perhaps, back then, we did hate Boris Johnson for beating us. Thing is, though, 2008 was a long, long time ago, and in the ten years since those of us on the liberal left bit of the political spectrum have got pretty used to losing elections. So the fact that he beat us again back in 2016 is probably not why we have a problem with him now.

Perhaps the real reason we have a problem with Boris Johnson is that, after that stunning political upset in May 2008, it rapidly became clear he had no earthly idea for what to do with the mayoralty now that he actually had it. He swiftly scrapped an assortment of Ken Livingstone-era plans, but failed to replace them with ideas of his own, and he spent the next eight years focused on the fun, TV-friendly bits of the job, while having no apparent interest in the harder, more boring work of actually governing the capital.

Perhaps we’re annoyed that, when he did finally start using the powers of the mayoralty, it was not to address the housing crisis that even then was beginning to cripple this city, but to throw money at highly visible but highly impractical projects designed by his mates – a suspiciously high number of which, it must be noted, began with the letter “B”.

Perhaps we were irritated by the way that, having claimed more than 17 times that he had no interest in returning to parliament, and having been elected to the mayoralty for a second term on that basis, he broke his word the moment a safe West London seat popped up. Perhaps we found it annoying to discover we were not even slightly surprised.

Or perhaps we hate him for his actions since he returned to the House of Commons. For choosing which side he would take in the most important argument this country has seen in generations based, not on national interest, but on which side would do most to boost his own prospects of attaining high office. For being prepared to abandon the liberal Toryism he had claimed to espouse at City Hall, and to sow discord and stand alongside those who used racially divisive language, simply to forward his own career.

Perhaps we doubt his competence. We’re annoyed that he’s screwed up the job of foreign secretary so badly that he’s become a joke on the world stage: a symbol and self-parody of everything that has gone wrong with this country. We’re positively enraged that, when he misspoke and endangered the freedom of a British citizen, he did not have the guts or the honour to apologise, let alone to resign.

Perhaps we dislike Boris Johnson because he is, ultimately, empty. All that intellect, all that hunger, attached to no idea more solid or wide-reaching an ambition than his own desire to be prime minister. Perhaps we’re infuriated by Johnson’s continuing belief that “pro-having cake and also pro-eating it” is a clever piece of political wordplay, not a sign of a fundamental lack of seriousness that should prevent him from attaining the leadership role that he so clearly craves.

Or perhaps it’s simpler. Perhaps we’re annoyed that yesterday’s speech, which we were told would be an olive branch to Remainers, was so completely devoid of content that he started waffling on about carrots.

I can get over being on the losing side of an election. I’ve been on the losing side of many, and don’t expect that to stop any time soon. There are so many better reasons to dislike Boris Johnson.

The BBC’s Collateral is superbly high energy
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The writers of McMafia could learn a lot from David Hare’s new drama.

The writers of McMafia could learn a lot from David Hare’s new drama, Collateral (9pm, 12 February). From the beginning, the show was not only superbly high energy, but peopled with characters whose back stories are easily as gripping as the main action (McMafia concluded the night before Hare’s far less hyped series began). A brattish single mother; an eternally distracted Labour MP; a pregnant cop on a murder case; a vicar with relationship issues: on paper, this reads like an embarrassment of riches. And yet, the lives of all four (there are others, too) are at this point stitched together so seamlessly, I noticed the outlandish writerly generosity only later, when I tried to describe it all to my husband. With one exception (to which I’ll return), these are people you might know, in situations you’d run a mile to avoid – which, now I think about it, is a nifty summary of a certain kind of dramatic writing. Stick it on a few mugs, someone, and hand them out at commissioning meetings!

In south London, a pizza delivery man, a Syrian refugee called Abdullah, has been shot dead outside the mansion flat where Karen Mars (Billie Piper) lives with her two children (it was to Karen that he had just delivered supper). The killing appears to have been a carefully planned, professional hit, for which reason the DI working the case, Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan), believes Abdullah may not have been the intended target. But if not him, then who? Surely not Abdullah’s colleague, an ex-bouncer called Mikey (Brian Vernel)? There was only one witness to the killing, an illegal immigrant called Linh (Kae Alexander), who lives with her lover, a vicar called Jane (Nicola Walker). And here the circle closes: Linh’s dodgy student visa application was signed by Jane’s friend, the local MP David Mars (John Simm) – and yes, Karen is his ex-wife. The murder took place not only in his constituency, but outside his former home.

As set-ups go, you have to admit this is more than usually plump and juicy. Here is a mystery, but Hare has left room for some state-of-the-nation stuff, too. Abdullah, for instance, was living in a garage before he died, another victim of a society that has turned its back on immigrants; among David’s many frustrations is the fact that the leader of his party, Deborah Clifford (Saskia Reeves), is spouting furiously the same anti-immigrant nonsense as the other side. My only reservation at this point is that no cop in the history of the world ever sounded or acted like Glaspie (I know whereof I speak: I was with a bunch of police officers only the other night – though you could just watch an old episode of 24 Hours in Police Custody and reach the same conclusion). Mulligan’s sardonic little smiles and studied middle-class weariness – she plays a former teacher, who gave up the profession because it was “too violent” – don’t quite work here. Luckily, she has a fantastically convincing sidekick in the form of DS Nathan Bilk (Nathaniel Martello-White).

Over to Damned, (10pm, 14 February): at Elm Heath Children’s Services, the phone rings and rings (“Can I speak to Pat Boone? What about Engelbert Humperdinck?”), Martin (Kevin Eldon) has instituted an office tradition known as Fudge Friday (aptly named, but in fact he’s referring to the sugary sweet, not the muddle), and the snotty, know-it-all new intern is driving the team ever further round the bend. Why is Jo Brand’s social work comedy (co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, and now back for a second series) so completely wonderful? Perhaps it’s the way it combines scepticism, even cynicism, with something much sweeter, a credulity born of Brand’s essential kindness and wisdom. It never patronises, and it’s bloody, daringly funny.

“I’m from social services,” said Al (Alan Davies), gingerly entering the spare bedroom of a sex worker he had heard was seeing clients when her children were at home. “If you want role play, there’s a game set in that cupboard,” replied the woman, scarcely missing a beat. His face, sheet white among all the indecent pink, made me think of Edvard Munch’s painting: this show is a scream, in every sense of the word. 

Collateral (BBC Two)
Damned (Channel 4)

Andrew Adonis should ditch the pessimism and start a centrist party
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The former New Labour minister is perfectly placed to lay the foundations for an En Marche! style revolution from the centre. 

The idea that Britain might need and get a new political party has, within the space of about a year, gone from intriguing possibility to standing joke.

It doesn’t help, of course, that there has been a steady stream of people popping up to launch their own version, none of whom has had any serious public profile or backing from major political players. The Times published a chart this week showing 51 new parties were created last year. There have been 13 already in 2018.

And, as Lucy Fisher writes, the evidence from the last general election, at which the two big parties secured more than 80 per cent of votes cast, suggests there remains strong public support for the head to head that has defined British politics for decades.

There’s more: publicly, at least, there seems little appetite from the kind of politicians who would be needed to give a new centrist movement credibility and profile. Even as Labour and the Tories endure their own rancorous civil wars – with, one might add, the wrong side dominating in both cases – there’s no real indication that either might split. Many wise heads, including those who were involved with the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, warn there would in any case be little chance of success.

One of those ex-SDPers is Lord Adonis, the former New Labour policy wonk and minister who seems to have found a new lease of life as the hyperactive social media scourge of university vice-chancellors, Chris Grayling and Kamal Ahmed, and as a campaigner for a second Brexit referendum.

If anyone might be expected to get involved in the creation of a new centrist party, it’s Adonis. He is, in many ways, the centrist’s centrist – originator of many of Tony Blair’s most audacious clothes-stealing policies, a “what works” purist. What attraction can Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party hold for him? With a gaping hole in the centre-ground of British politics, why not fill it? With a substantial minority of liberal voters looking for leadership, for somewhere to mark their x with any enthusiasm, for an alternative to the shrieking horror story that is modern-day Westminster, why not provide it?

During a recent discussion at Oxford Uni’s Blavatnik School of Government, which I helped to organise, Adonis explained why he is against any attempt to shatter the mould. I’d like to say he was convincing, but in the end his argument amounted to the same tired tropes advanced by other naysayers: I tried it with the SDP and it was too hard; we’re stuck with what we have and must lump it; let’s just try to get Labour back from the hard left (good luck with that). In short, computer says no.

Adonis’s pessimism was countered by the energy and experience of Guillaume Liegey, who worked on the 2008 Obama campaign and ran the data for Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! A former McKinsey consultant who has his own campaign technology company, Liegey was called in by Macron even before the new party was created, to help figure out how to build something that had a chance of success and was sustainable.

Macron, according to Adonis, is “an extraordinary fluke”. Liegey saw it differently: “You have to put yourself forward if you want to be lucky.”

In a UK political culture where cynicism and negativity have become the dominant operating practices, and where the only positivism to be found is in Boris Johnson’s vaudeville bluffing, Liegey offers some food for thought.

En Marche! Began with the Grande Marche: 300,000 doors were knocked across France by volunteers, each household was asked 40 minutes of questions, and Macron was able to build a “diagnostic” of the country based on what the voters told him. This info was then used as a source for his policy programme and positioning. Joining En Marche! was made free, and today the organisation has 400,000 members compared to the Front National’s 40,000.

Macron deliberately sought to unite centre-left and centre-right by going after the populists directly. By focusing on the hard-right Marine Le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon as his enemies, he opened up a large space in the centre which only he appeared able to fill. The En Marche! Movement was built on volunteers rather than just a media campaign. When the party swept to power, many found themselves elected to Congress. “Human contact is still the best way of changing minds,” says Liegey. Technology is an enabler rather than an alternative to the traditional way of doing things.

There was much more, but the line that stayed with me was that “you have to put yourself forward if you want to be lucky”.

For all the naysaying, there are several untested arguments for a new party. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the centre must, one way or another, be represented. For all the votes cast last year for Labour and the Tories, voters may not behave in the same way if presented with different options (let’s set the Lib Dems aside as having little more than junk value). Meanwhile, 2018 is not 1981, and this Britain is not that Britain: our lives and our expectations are different now, the political tensions fresh, the demographics changed, the world of communication transformed. The possibility of the new is all around us at all times – so why not in politics?

And then there’s the SDP’s success, rather than its failure. New Labour emerged in its intellectual wake to become an extraordinary election-winning machine and a government that was given the space to modernise the country. A new centrist party might fail to displace the big two, but it would probably ensure that John McDonnell and Seumas Milne never get their grubby hands on the levers of power, and it would probably drag the debate back from the centre. It’s worth doing for those reasons alone. But who knows what might happen?

The thing is, the money’s there. There are obvious candidates with profile on the centre-right: Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening and others. And on the centre-left there is a phalanx of disillusioned backbenchers and talented local politicians who are being ground under the wheels of Momentum. What’s the point of letting that happen?

You have to put yourself forward if you want to be lucky. The centre needs some heroes. Andrew Adonis should be one of them.

Chris Deerin is a consultant with the Blavatnik School of Government.

The DUP adds to May’s woes by shattering hopes of a power-share deal with Sinn Féin
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The government barely has the legaslitive power for Brexit, let alone direct rule in Northern Ireland.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: after getting all dressed up to make a deal, Theresa May has had the wind let out of her sails by Arlene Foster.

The DUP's leader has declared that there is “no current prospect” of a deal being reached between her party and Sinn Féin, citing irreconciliable differences over the Irish language, and saying publicly what many members of the DUP have been saying privately for months: that power-sharing in Northern Ireland is dead for the foreseeable future and that it is well past time for Whitehall to begin direct rule. To add salt to the wound, Simon Hamilton, the DUP's man charged with negotiating with Sinn Féin, has said that May's visit was “a distraction” that was “not helpful”.

What went wrong? The British government rightly picked up that there was movement within Sinn Féin now that its leadership handover is done and dusted, which made a deal easier at their end; but failed to realise that the ground had shifted within the DUP as well, and not in a good way. Foster is a relative moderate – she even drinks from time to time – and still partly carries the blame for the DUP's disappointing result in the snap election in March 2017.

The collapse of power-sharing was triggered, yes, in part, because Sinn Féin wanted to effect the changing of the guard between the Martin McGuinness-Gerry Adams generation and the new Mary Lou McDonald-Michelle O'Neill generation. But the major factor was the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, a poorly-designed environmental subsidy that effectively paid businesses the more renewable energy they used, even when that usage wasn't replacing existing usage. The so-called "cash for ash" scandal saw farmers fitting heaters in buildings that had previously been unheated and businesses fitting extra heaters in order to cash in. The final bill is expected to exceed £1bn and the minister in charge was Arlene Foster, then Minister for Enterprise. 

There is no suggestion however that Foster behaved improperly during her time in charge of the department. But her maladroit handling of the row on the campaign trail helped contribute to the loss of the Unionist majority in the subsequent snap election. All of which meant that with anger rising in the DUP's grassroots about the Irish Language Act, the party leadership's ability to make a deal has weakened at exactly the point Sinn Féin's has strengthened.

What happens next? In all likelihood, the British government will persist with the idea that power-sharing is not dead for a while longer. Why? Because the legislative and institutional demands of Brexit already mean that the government's domestic agenda is largely non-existent. Now legislative time will have to be found to manage direct rule, putting further pressure on a stretched civil service and a majorityless government.

Commons confidential: Labour’s sisterly clash could expose the party’s north-south divide
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

Theresa May’s as light on her feet as a marble statue so Labour apparatchiks preparing Jeremy Corbyn for Prime Minister’s Questions are switching tactics to equip him with short-and-sharp openers instead of grand statements. After tributes to a dead soldier and the suffragettes at the last clash, Corbyn’s concise 12-word opener – “With crime rising, does the Prime Minister regret cutting 21,000 police officers?” – left the Downing Street plodder no time to collect her thoughts or hear helpful whispers from cabinet minions. Dithery May’s so slow-witted she couldn’t do sit-down, never mind stand-up. Comatose comedy, maybe.

Galloping Brextremist and former cabinet minister Owen Paterson is mercifully on the mend after breaking his back falling off a horse. The MP for Bloodsports Central remains curiously coy about the circumstances. Westminster’s wickedest whisper is that the ruddy-faced Tory was riding with a hunt and wishes to avoid giving cheer to fox hunt saboteurs. Tally-ho!

Comrade Corbyn’s resourceful executive director Karie Murphy runs a tight waste-not, want-not regime. Spotting a row of uprooted parliamentary bushes that were to be consigned to the compost bin of history, the former nurse persuaded a passing worker to help her carry them up to the office in return for a bottle of whisky. The greening of the balcony outside Corbyn’s window is the socialism of recycling.

Open Britain and Best for Britain are caught in a Life of Brian-style rivalry between the People’s Front of Remain and the Remainers’ People’s Front, despite recent unifying moves. The hourly war to issue the first and most outlandish comment is powered by quotable former Lib Dem spin doctors James McGrory and Paul Butters. If only Remain had proved so sharp before the referendum.

Should Corbyn’s party reforms include a second deputy leader, a position to be filled by a woman, the smart speculation is that Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry would battle it out. The sisterly clash could inadvertently expose Labour’s dangerous north-south divide.

Misdirected my way was an invitation to MPs and peers from Wiltshire grump James Gray to a circus proprietors’ bash next month to celebrate 250 years of big tent entertainment. With so many clowns in parliament, these visitors are guaranteed to feel at home.

The fallout from the terrorist murder of PC Keith Palmer continues with the Met transferring cops who know parliament and newcomers being told they’ll serve a maximum five years. That sound is a clumsy attempt to bolt stable doors. 

Who is Kim Yo-jong, North Korea’s new weapon of choice?
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The powerful younger sister of Kim Jong-un caused a stir at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

In the heavily guarded demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas is a place named Kijong-dong, better known as the North’s “Propaganda Village”. In its centre sits a 160-metre pole bearing a giant North Korean flag. The marker appeared as an act of one-upmanship, after South Korea installed a 98-metre flagpole in the nearby village of Daeseong-dong. At 270kg, the North Korean flag is so heavy it can barely fly.

This sort of hollow stunt is typical of the opaque, nuclear-armed Stalinist regime; its current “charm offensive” at the Winter Olympics in South Korea may be no exception. Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (who succeeded their late father Kim Jong-il in 2012), received a celebrity’s welcome in Pyeongchang, being praised in the local media for her modest attire, polite manner and even her fine cheekbones. Yet will her attendance at the Games really start to thaw the decades-long froideur between the two countries?

As vice-director of propaganda and agitation for the ruling Workers’ Party, 30-year-old Yo-jong is one of North Korea’s most powerful figures, with significant influence over her brother and his image. She has attempted to build a “man of the people” cult of personality around Jong-un, who is a few years her senior (his exact age is unknown). Yo-jong is thought to have masterminded recent bizarre photos of the dictator on fairground rides, riding horses, and trying his hand gleefully at factory work.

The siblings bonded while studying in Switzerland from 1996 to 2000 in temporary isolation from the regime (reportedly to lessen the influence of Kim Il-sung, their late grandfather, who founded the communist state in 1948).Together, they have endured defections of close family members and the death of their mother, Ko Yong-hui, from breast cancer in 2004. In 2014, Yo-jong married Choe Song, the son of a powerful party secretary, helping cement her place in the inner circle.

North Korea experts have greeted her arrival in the public eye with scepticism, with many criticising the fevered media coverage. This has been tinged with sexism; some publications dubbed Yo-jong the “new Ivanka Trump” (the US president’s daughter and aide is often described as a moderating influence). Oh Young-jin, of the English-language Korea Times, wrote: “Often, she [Yo-jong] looked cheerful and was caught suppressing a smile, and at other times humble. Rarely did she look haughty or arrogant… she looked fit and appeared nimble, compared to her brother and other male members of her family who are fat.”

Even the New York Times claimed that, with her “sphinx-like smile and without ever speaking in public”, Yo-jong “managed to outflank Mr Trump’s envoy to the Olympics, vice-president Mike Pence, in the game of diplomatic image-making”. 

But has her government done anything to merit such praise? The unified Korean women’s ice hockey team – featuring 12 players from the North and 23 from the South – was greeted with rapturous applause, including from Pyongyang’s army of government-dispatched cheerleaders (Korea lost the match 8-0 to Switzerland). But following a suggestion that the players should win the Nobel Peace Prize, South Korea-based political science professor Robert E Kelly tweeted: “This is getting ridiculous. Can we have some actual movement on inter-Korean issues before we all get so carried away by the Olympics?”

Many in the South believe the North’s diplomatic display is merely a tactical attempt to divide Seoul and the US. Yet if the North is seeking a genuine rapprochement, its timing could be worse. South Korea’s new president, former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, has pursued a policy of engagement with Pyongyang since his election in May 2017.  Detractors have labelled him “Moonshine” and he was criticised by Donald Trump and young South Korean liberals following Pyongyang’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September 2017.

Yet Moon persists in trying to lead his recalcitrant neighbour to the negotiating table. And though Trump’s reckless baiting of North Korea has caused many to fear imminent nuclear war, Pence signalled that the US approach could soften. The vice-president told the Washington Post that the US was willing to talk to North Korea without preconditions, pursuing “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time”.

The unabashed enthusiasm for Yo-jong’s wardrobe and distinctive facial expressions operates in this context. South Korea’s hotel staff were schooled in how not to offend their North Korean guests (don’t mention their leader by name; definitely don’t mention their nuclear programme). During the Olympic opening ceremony, the sight of athletes from both Koreas waving the blue and white reunification flag – matching the neutral UN colours of buildings in the demilitarised zone – made for a moving spectacle. But photo opportunities won’t help the millions suffering under the Kim family’s despotic rule. 

Picture: Ellie Foreman-Peck
Jacob Zuma took South Africa to the precipice – and the ANC took it back
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The end of the Zuma era has left South Africa both damaged and strengthened.

It was late on Wednesday night before President Zuma finally went on South African television to resign. His final presidential speech was characteristic of the man: opening with off the cuff jokes with the waiting journalists. “Are you tired? He, he, he,” he chuckled, before settling down to reading his prepared text. With a motion of no-confidence scheduled for Thursday in parliament, and his key financial backers being taken into custody, he had few other options. 

The end of the Zuma era has left South Africa both damaged and strengthened. Damaged in that the ruling African National Congress has for the second time had to fire a sitting President. Thabo Mbeki was sacked (or “re-deployed” in ANC jargon) in 2008. Now Zuma has had the same treatment. Finally, he conceded defeat rather than become the first South African head of state to be removed by a no-confidence vote.

Yet the country is also strengthened because, when the chips were down, almost everyone played by the rules. The ANC has been deeply divided over how to proceed. Its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was elected in December by a whisker (2,440 votes to 2,261) and has a narrow majority in the party. Yet very few took to the streets or threatened violence. “No life should be lost in my name,” he told the audience.

Instead, the ANC held interminable party meetings, finally deciding after hours of gruelling debate that Zuma had to go. For days he refused and the party had to place the matter before Parliament. In the end Zuma jumped before he was pushed.

The demon of tribalism

The only person who had flirted with going beyond the parameters of the Constitution was Zuma himself. He was accused of committing what is probably the most heinous crime in the ANC lexicon: tribalism. If the ANC’s allies, the South African Communist Party are to be believed, Zuma was prepared to mobilise Zulu militia to prop up his cause. A spokesman for Zuma called the allegations without merit.

“The South African Communist Party condemns tribalism in the strongest terms possible and the ethnic mobilisation, including that of Amabutho (Zulu regiments) that President Jacob Zuma has apparently engaged in as part of his plan to continue overstaying his welcome in office,” the party said in an official statement. It called on all South Africans to “unite in defence of our country and not allow him to go down with our hard-won democracy.” 

It was a cry of desperation. Zuma has revelled in his Zulu roots. His supporters hailed him as “100 per cent Zulu boy,” and he did nothing to dissuade them. But to mobilise the Zulu regiments would have taken matters to another level. Any South African who remembers the terrible events that surrounded the country’s first non-racial election in 1994 will recall the slaughter that took place in KwaZulu-Natal. The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party mobilised the regiments to try to keep the ANC from taking seats in the province. Thousands died in the clashes. Now, warned the Communists, Zuma appeared about to turn to the same militia.

Everyone know that ethnicity plays a role in the ANC, but the organisation was founded in 1912 precisely to overcome these tensions. As Pixley ka Iska Seme – who had done so much to bring the delegates together at the founding conference said: “The demon of racialism, the aberrations of the Xhosa - Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and the Tongas, between the Basuthos and every other Native must be buried and forgotten; it has shed among us sufficient blood! We are one people.” Throughout its century of existence, the ANC has stood by this principle. By taking his resignation to the brink he was putting that legacy in danger.

The nuclear question

But why did Zuma hang on to power with such grim determination? It was not simply that he faces many historic corruption charges (he maintains his innocence). Nor was it that he wants to protect the once-influential Gupta family, who backed the president and his family. Some of the Guptas have already been arrested; further arrests are anticipated. But there is a strong belief in South Africa that something more that drove the president.

At this point the talk turned to another explanation: one that involves nuclear power. President Zuma struck a deal with President Putin to supply a string of nuclear power stations at a colossal price. Mark Swilling, Professor at the School of Public Leadership of Stellenbosch University, wrote that the stations would cost South Africa R1.2-trillion (£73bn), with annual repayments of R100bn (£6.1bn). The mine from which the uranium would come was owned by the Guptas.

Ministers gagged at the cost, which was considered unpayable. A string of cabinet ministers resisted, all of whom Zuma sacked. Explaining why he was so set on doing a deal with Moscow, the president argued that the Soviet Union was the only power that had stood by the ANC during the apartheid years. “We were trained by the Soviet Union. They gave us weapons. We fought and we were liberated.”

Others look to another explanation. Professor Swilling claims that people privy to talks to remove the president believe that “Zuma is terrified, and that this has got something to do with the nuclear deal…Have the Russians threatened him or his family in some way?” 

The British connection

The entire Zuma saga has a strong British connection. The disgraced public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, collapsed after revelations that it had stoked racial tensions to try to defend the Guptas.

Lord Peter Hain has also raised concerns that UK banks might have “wittingly or unwittingly” handled illicit funds linked to the Gupta family via Hong Kong and Dubai.

These issues will take time to unravel, with investigations in Britain and the USA. In the end, Jacob Zuma gave up the fight. As so often has been the case in South Africa’s long and deeply troubled history, its key figures took the country to the edge of the precipice; but finally turned back. Cyril Ramaphosa will be sworn in. The Constitution has been respected and there has been no loss of life. The people and their government can resume the difficult task of building a country which all can enjoy. 

The polls are giving the Conservatives hope, but Jeremy Corbyn’s not worried
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The Labour leader believes that the rules of politics have changed – and in his favour. 

Under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party’s private polling – particularly surveys that reflected poorly on the leader – was restricted to a small circle of intimates who worried about it intensely in private and dismissed it in public. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the distrust of polling is sincere. The Labour leader has never liked market research or focus groups, and his aversion to both was only bolstered by the general election campaign in 2017, not least because the party’s own pollster, BMG Research, called the result wrong.

As a consequence, several recent opinion polls that put the Tories ahead of Labour  don’t particularly worry Corbyn or his inner circle, though there are jitters in the shadow cabinet and wider movement. Labour’s better-than-expected election result last June has ensured that any discussions about whether the leader could and should be doing better are conducted in hushed voices among friends.

One MP complained to me that he felt “suffocated” by the need to continually refer back to the unexpected result. That sense of being quietly smothered extends well beyond the Corbynite vs Corbyn-sceptic battle. The biggest shift is among the party’s pro-Europeans, who argued before the general election that Corbyn’s embrace of Brexit left their seats vulnerable to a Lib Dem surge (which never came).

Now, though, Labour MPs in heavily pro-Remain territory have the largest majorities, while those in areas that support Leave have the smallest. The new reality of the electoral map makes it harder for Labour’s single market advocates to get a hearing.

Those at the top of the party believe that British politics has entered a period of polarisation, in which neither of the main parties can expect to take a decisive lead. They also believe that this accounts for the failure of the Liberal Democrats to break out of single digits. There is a surprising amount of sympathy for that thesis among Westminster’s remaining Lib Dems. “When both big parties are feared,” one senior figure observed to me recently, “who’ll risk a vote on us?”

To Labour’s remaining Corbynsceptics, this is all special pleading. To them, the polls prove what the election did: that against Jeremy Corbyn, even a Conservative Party that acts as if it wants to lose still can’t quite manage it. The memory of the 1992 general election, when Neil Kinnock lost to John Major, is uppermost in these MPs’ minds. “In 1987, we had a good result that put us on course for power,” one former cabinet minister told me. “But we didn’t change and the Tories did, and we lost the 1992 election – it’s starting to feel that way again.”

That view is also shared by many Tories, which is why there is a spring in their step. One of the few things that unites most Conservatives is the belief that, at some point before the next election, Theresa May will be replaced by a more voter-friendly leader. In turn, Labour’s inability to build a convincing lead even against a prime minister as weak as May means a better candidate can and will win in 2022. (Most also think this parliament will last the full five-year term.)

There is one notable exception to the improvement in the Tory morale: MPs with seats in the capital. London’s remaining 21 Conservatives fit into three groups. The first are those who hold ministerial office and are therefore forced to sound supportive of the government in public, such as the Cities of London and Westminster MP, Mark Field. The second are those whose ideological commitment to a hard Brexit (against London’s economic interests and cultural preferences) makes them willing to risk losing their seats, such as Theresa Villiers, whose wafer-thin majority of 353 in Chipping Barnet has not dulled her Eurosceptic zeal. The third and largest group, however, are rebellious, depressed and fearful both about holding their seats and the prospects for Tory councillors in the local elections on 3 May. A bad result will make them even more restive.

Labour is preparing for the local elections by concentrating on voters rather than managing the expectations of journalists and backbench MPs. Damian McBride, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry’s spinner, looked relaxed when he made a rare appearance at a meeting for parliamentary advisers in early February. “The reason why Damian’s smiling is he knows that foreign affairs doesn’t feature in council elections,” Corbyn’s policy chief, Andrew Fisher, told assembled staff.

While McBride might have had a week off from filling the media grid, the rest of the domestic shadow ministerial teams were sent away with instructions to devise a week’s worth of news stories ready for the local contests. Yet Corbyn’s office has done little work to lay the ground for what a “good night” for Labour would be in May.

The local elections take place predominantly in England’s great cities, where Corbyn’s preferred brand of metropolitan leftism is popular. The challenge for Labour is that the party also did well in the cities when these seats were last contested under Ed Miliband in 2014. Corbynism could gift eye-watering majorities to sitting Labour councillors in inner London – and could wipe out the remaining islands of blue or yellow in London’s red sea – without making actual gains, particularly if the collapse of Ukip benefits the Conservatives.

The ones to watch are the Liberal Democrats. If they do better than expected, that will give Labour’s pro-European frontbenchers licence to re-open the Brexit debate. Few in Labour expect that to happen, and fewer still expect any rethink from the top if it does. Having ignored the warnings of the Westminster village before, Corbyn has both the confidence and the internal strength to follow his gut. 

On both the left and the right, I’ve never despaired more at British politicians
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

They lie because they are frightened: of the press, of their own party members, of killing their own ambitions, of a rising tide of thoughtless populism.

Distance gives perspective. I've spent the last week in Nepal, hearing about problems which are so much bigger than my own that it’s embarrassing: what do you say to someone worried that their house will be trampled by elephants again? And then every evening I would come back to my hotel, connect to the wifi and inhale Britain’s news. Except… there wasn’t any.

Brexit has broken the news cycle. In the course of a whole week, while parliament was in session, I can’t think of a single serious political development that I was desperate to understand better, or engage with more deeply. (Admittedly, I was shocked that the Telegraph took a sharp right-turn into George Soros conspiracy theories, but – I hope – that was a lapse of judgement rather than a calculated new policy.) British politics reminds me of a Land Rover stuck in a field: the wheels are spinning, mud is flying everywhere, but there seems to be no possibility of moving forward.

Like everyone else, I wish that any solutions didn’t have to start from here. That kind of thinking can drive you mad, though. On Twitter, someone suggested that Theresa May should have gone into her snap election promising to leave the single market (and therefore “take back control” of immigration) and stay in the customs union (thereby solving the Irish border question and softening the impact on the economy). Looked at that way, last summer’s campaign seems like even more of a wasted opportunity. Back when May was still the Iron Lady Mark 2, she could have faced down the hard Brexiteers – surely even Jacob Rees-Mogg wouldn’t threaten a leadership contest at the start of a short campaign? – and put her vision to the country. Then, as the leader of the largest party, she could have answered every self-indulgent hiccough about the referendum expressing the “will of the people” by pointing out that those same people had updated, or at least clarified, their will in the intervening months.

Of course, Theresa May didn’t do that. She somehow manages to be both reckless and cautious – which is almost impressive until you remember that she can’t even get two dozen of her own party, sitting at the same cabinet table, to agree what the Brexit end-state should be. Instead, the Tory party indulges itself in therapeutic infighting and preparations for the next leadership race. It has learned absolutely nothing from the referendum campaign, which was seen through the psychodrama of Dave vs Boris, a rivalry dating back to their school days. (I suppose it’s part of a grand British tradition that the EU referendum was lost on the playing fields of Eton.)

Not that Labour is any more inspirational. Its tactic seems to be, to borrow a phrase from Johnson, to wait for “the ball to come loose from the back of the scrum”. In other words: hang on for a Corbyn government. But that isn’t good enough. There might be four years of this parliament left to run, and all the indications are that the economy will get worse, wages will stay stagnant, homelessness will continue to rise, prisons will remain dangerously overcrowded, the transport network will continue to crumble, the NHS will gasp desperately for more money and we still won’t build enough bloody houses. This is no time to tend to the allotment and wait for your turn to come.

In this landscape, the small pockets of industry which do exist really stand out. There’s Michael Gove, admittedly with one eye on another run at the Tory leadership (well, stranger things have happened) attacking the environment brief with zeal. And on the left, John McDonnell and his advisers are genuinely trying to think about new ways to build an economy when the traditional social democratic model of redistributing the proceeds of growth is no longer an option. Everywhere else, stasis reigns. Truly, this is the age of political cowardice dressed up as strategy.

With noble exceptions such as Anna Soubry, most Tory MPs are keeping quiet about the disaster they think is coming because they are afraid of their voters. The bulk of Labour’s parliamentary party is keeping quiet about still thinking Jeremy Corbyn is hopeless because they are afraid of their activists. Corbyn himself talks relentlessly about a “jobs-first Brexit” to disguise the fact he’s fine with pretty much any kind of Brexit. (He knows that, unlike him, the majority of Labour members, as well as Labour voters, are pro-European.) May pretends that Liam Fox is the best choice for the job of trade secretary, when the truth is that his globe-trotting pointlessness represents nothing more than appeasement. And if Rees-Mogg enters the next Tory leadership race as the favourite, how many of his colleagues in parliament will have the courage to say to the swooning Conservative grassroots: we’ve seen him up close and you’re making a big mistake?

I used to think that Jeremy Paxman’s interviewing credo – “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” – was needlessly unfair to politicians, most of whom work long hours, put up with a lot of grief, and are motivated by a genuine desire to serve the public. But right now they are lying, almost all of them, almost all the time. And they’re doing it because they are frightened: of the press, of their own party members, of killing their own ambitions, of a rising tide of thoughtless populism. 

I’ve been writing about politics for seven years now, and it’s double that since I first became politically active thanks to the disastrous Iraq War. In that time, I’ve never felt so depressed about my country and the quality of the people who want to lead it. Previous governments in my adult lifetime have been variously wrong, and cruel, and misguided, and deluded, and complacent. But I can’t remember a time when Britain’s problems seemed so large and the politicians confronting them felt so small.

Podcast: Boris Johnson's Brexit Bungle
February 15th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The New Statesman podcast with Stephen Bush and Anoosh Chakelian.

Stephen and Anoosh discuss Boris Johnson's disingenuous Brexit intervention. Then they talk about a recent trip to see the Labour MP Laura Pidcock in Durham, and the art of a good political interview. Finally, they (try to) answer a very good listener question: what actually is the government's plan for the Northern Irish border after Brexit?

Send us your questions for future episodes via Twitter @ns_podcasts@anoosh_c or @stephenkb.

You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed:, or listen using the player below:

Jeremy Corbyn wants to win promising hope, but despair is his best weapon
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

"Things can't go on like this" is the underlying message of Labour's messaging.

There are only ever three messages at election time. If things are going well, the government runs on “Life’s better under [insert party name here] don’t let [the Opposition ruin it]”, and if things are going badly, they run on “[The Opposition] is a change you can’t afford”. One reason why politics is easier for governments than oppositions is that the Opposition only ever has one message: “time for a change”.

Labour’s new party political broadcast, which aired tonight on ITV, is in many ways a fairly typical entry in the “time for a change” genre. There, are, however, some distinctive twists.

As the party did with its last party political broadcast, Labour is using a documentary-style format, with the personal stories of ten ordinary people, in their own words, and the consequences of the cuts. rather than a focus on the party’s Shadow Cabinet spokespeople or even particularly Corbyn himself.  (The Labour leader is mentioned at the end but does not appear on screen himself.)

The film is one of a series of films that will air between now and the local elections, all directed by Josh Cole, who was also behind Labour’s “Somewhere Only We Know” video which aired the night before the election, and all using the same documentary format.

The previous broadcast focused on frontline workers in the NHS, generally seen as the most comfortable of Labour territory. Crucially, however, the video was intended to signal a breach not only with the Conservatives but Labour’s recent past, with the implicit message that frontline workers are those best equipped to run and direct the NHS.  The second film moves to ground that has usually been less hospitable to Labour: that of crime and policing.

The Labour leadership got a lot of joy out of this area at the election, successfully linking their wider anti-austerity message to the specific question of Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office and the cuts to policing. The gambit worked but still raises eyebrows at Westminster and in the Labour movement, both among Corbynsceptics and the Labour leader’s traditional allies, given Corbyn’s longstanding support for civil liberties causes and scepticism of police power.

While crime is rising and the Conservatives are led by a woman who made her name in part by standing up to police cuts, a decision that Labour strategists believe is only going to cause more pain to the government as time goes by, the party will continue to major on the issue.

The big difference in this film is that the party is widening the subject to the issue of how crime is prevented, beyond merely increasing the number of police on streets to community centres and other work, areas on which Corbyn – and Labour in general – are generally more comfortable than the Conservatives. For Labour, the hope is that “it doesn’t have to be this way” is a sufficiently exciting message to get their voters to the polls outside of a general election year, when the actual prospect for change is limited.

You can watch it in full below.

Photo: Getty
Welcome to the Uncanny Valley: how creepy robot dogs are on the rise
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

It’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door. 

If you’re among those devouring the latest season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian hellscape Black Mirror, you may still be having metallic nightmares of being chased by the freaky robo-dogs of  “Metalhead”. In which case, you maybe unsettled to know that these nightmares could in theory become a reality (in the distant future), as a viral video from the robotics firm Boston Dynamics (of backflipping robot fame) revealed earlier this week.

Charmingly titled, “Hey Buddy, can you give me a hand?” a SpotMini, Boston Dynamics’ smallest robot, approaches a door and appears to turn sideways before scampering away. Another SpotMini, fitted with an extending claw-arm, opens the door and lets the first robot scamper through, propping it open to follow. 


The director of “Metalhead”, David Slade, was inspired by these very demonstrations. As he stated in an interview in January, the inspiration for those robotic villains stemmed from none other than Boston Dynamics itself. “Those fucking Boston Dynamics robots are terrifying, so that in itself was enough that we didn’t have to worry about it,” he told IndieWire. 

Beyond its viral value, the SpotMini marks an interesting stage in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. Being able to open a door has long since been the bar for the development of modern robots, as Matt Simon of WIRED pointed out. With this bar seemingly met – and surpassed – the questions remains as to what’s next.

Boston Dynamics robots seem designed mostly for academic and research purposes. Previously, DARPA, the research and development wing of the US defence department and arguably the birthplace of modern robotics, rejected some of the robots for usage because they were too loud. Now, though, they’re silent.

Even those who were not Black Mirror fans expressed a sense of unease while watching the Boston Dynamics email. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door, which was previously the domain of, you know, humans and crafty pets. But such feelings of revulsion could have something to do with Masahiro Mori’s “Uncanny Valley” theory, which he first proposed in the 1970s.

The “uncanny valley” could be defined as the dip in emotional response from humans when interacting with a being that is vaguely humanoid. The theory suggests that robots become more appealing as they draw closer to human characteristics – but only up until a certain point. Once that point has been reached, and surpassed, humans then find those robots “uncanny”. Then, as they resemble us even more closely, we find that we grow less repulsed by them. 



While the theory has circulated since the 1970s, a 2005 translation of the paper into English made the concepts more widely accessible, and it has been studied by academics ranging from philosophy to psychology. Despite the term wriggling its way into everyday techspeak, the theory itself is yet to be proven. In 2016, the researchers Mathur & Reichling studied real world robots and humans’ reactions to them, but found overall ambiguous evidence for the existence of the uncanny valley. 

Watching one of the SpotMinis open a door – and then prop it open, like you would – may make our skin crawl for those very reasons. The SpotMini, and even some of Boston Dynamic’s other robots, like the backflipping Atlas, have a weird mix of familiar and unfamiliar characteristics. In the viral video, for example, the way that the armed robot holds open the door resembles an interaction that many of us see everyday.   

That may also have something to do with why this particular robot, which has also been used to wash dishes, has triggered a different reaction to Handle, another robot in the Boston Dynamic litter, which can wheel around faster than any natural organism and perform backflips (complete with an athletic hand raise at the end). Handle's acrobaticism inspires a mixture of fear and awe. Watching SpotMini, whose mannerisms bear a resemblance to a family dog, fumble and open a door, feels a little more familiar, but a little more weird.


There are, of course, real fears about robots that are not driven by TV. The baseline for robo-phobia has long since been that they’re not only coming to take our jobs, but they’ll be better than us at it too. SpotMini is technically very interesting because of how it merges software and hardware. That the two SpotMinis can co-operate paves the way towards teamwork between robots, which has until recently remained a far off prospect.

Robots are already a key function of many military operations. They carry out tasks that are too dangerous to entrust to humans, with more accuracy. Additionally, robots are entering our social spheres - with AI controlled assistants like Alexa, the controversial robot Sophia (she once expressed a desire to destroy humans), or the AELOUS home assistant that was unveiled at a convention in Vegas, which can vacuum and fetch you a beer (and will be retailing later this year).

While there are all kinds of debates within artificial intelligence and robotics about what this means for the field, there could be a greater number of non-technically trained experts interacting with robots, relying on intuition and common sense to frame their interactions. 

That takes the implications of the uncanny valley outside of just theoretical. What kind of robot can we interact with, sans revulsion? Does that mean we can only use them in specific contexts. And do they have to look a certain way? 

As always, there’s the bigger picture to consider too. Boston Dynamics remains spectacularly good at making viral videos that draw attention to its products, which are indubitably marvels of modern engineering. Moreover, lower level sensorimotor skills that an infant develops intuitively – such as, you guessed it, opening a door – are actually far more difficult to programme than high-level displays of intelligence, such as winning a chess game (also known as Moravec's paradox).

So while the robo-dog may be unnerving (and there's a reason for that), our robot overhounds are still a while away. But when fully autonomous and physical robots do eventually proliferate, they'll know how to set themselves free. 

How to identify if an online video is fake
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

As “deep fakes” raise concerns, everyone needs to equip themselves with the knowledge to spot a fraudulent video.

In January 2018, a desktop application was released. While images have been manipulated online for years, “FakeApp” uses deep learning to allow anyone to create realistic face-swap videos – often for sexually explicit purposes. Headlines were made when celebrities were superimposed over porn stars, while many on social media laughed at safe-for-work edits of Nicholas Cage’s face onto other actors’ bodies.

This month, Reddit and PornHub banned these videos – known as “deep fakes” – and when Motherboard first broke the story, writer Samantha Cole was clear about the potential consequences of the tech.

“It isn’t difficult to imagine an amateur programmer running their own algorithm to create a sex tape of someone they want to harass,” she wrote. But Hany Farid, a digital forensics and image analysis expert from the Dartmouth College, warns there could be even greater consequences.

“What I’m particularly concerned about is the ability to create fake content of world leaders,” he tells me, giving the example of Donald Trump declaring nuclear war. “You can imagine that creating an international crisis very quickly."

Nicholas Cage as Lois Lane in a Superman movie 

Despite the bans, people aren’t going to stop using this technology, which means every internet user has a responsibility to get smarter about what they share. Right now, deep fakes themselves aren’t too hard to identify. A combination of common sense (did noted-feminist and multi-millionaire Emma Watson really film a video of herself in the shower for Reddit?) and looking for tell-tale signs (does the video flicker? Is it a very short clip? Does something seem off?) will suffice.

Yet as the technology improves and other technology (such as the artificial intelligence used by researchers at the University of Washington to create a fake speech by Barack Obama) becomes more accessible – everyone will need to be equipped to spot fake videos.

“Ten, 20 years from now, ideally we will have software online where you can upload a video and it can tell you if it’s real or not, but we’re not there, and we’re not even close,” says Farid, who warns that ordinary people shouldn’t attempt to do complicated forensic analysis of videos and pictures. “A low-tech solution can solve a lot of the problems: common sense.”

When Farid wants to verify a picture or a video, he has many tools – including his own knowledge – at his disposal. When he wanted to see if a viral video of an eagle snatching a baby was real, he took a single frame and analysed the shadows. He found them inconsistent with the sun in the video. When he wants to see if a person in a video is CGI or real, he uses software that identifies subtle colour changes in people’s faces.

Farid's analysis of shadows in the eagle video

“When you’re on camera and your heart is beating, blood comes in and out of your face,” he explains. “Nobody notices this, you can’t see it – but the colour of your face changes ever so slightly, it goes from slightly redder to slightly greener.” So far, this same technique appears to work for faceswapped deep fake videos, and digital forensic experts can use the colour changes to determine a person’s pulse, which in turn determines if the video is real.

“Now I’ve told you this, guess what’s going to happen?” says Farid. “Some asshole Redditor is going to put the goddamn pulse in.”

Farid's analysis of a real person vs. CGI person's pulse, based on the red and green in their faces

Farid calls this an “information war” and an “arms race”. As video-faking technology becomes both better and more accessible, photo forensics experts like him have to work harder. This is why he doesn’t advise you go around trying to determine the amount of green or red in someone’s face when you think you spot a fake video online.

“You can’t do the forensic analysis. We shouldn’t ask people to do that, that’s absurd,” he says. He warns that the consequences of this could be people claiming real videos of politicians behaving badly are actually faked. His advice is simple: think more.

“Before you hit the like, share, retweet etcetera, just think for a minute. Where did this come from? Do I know what the source is? Does this actually make sense?

“Forget about the forensics, just think.”

Kim LaCapria works for one of the internet’s oldest fact-checking web resources, Snopes. Deep fakes aren’t her biggest concern, as lower-tech fakes have dominated the internet for decades.

Most successful video fakery in recent years involved conditions that allowed for misrepresentation, she says. Examples include videos in a foreign language which aren’t subtitled but are instead captioned misleadingly on social media (such as this video of a Chinese man creating wax cabbages, which Facebook users claimed were being shipped to America and sold as real veg) and old videos repurposed to fit a current agenda.

In the past, low-tech editors have successfully spread lies about world leaders. In 2014, a video appeared to show Barack Obama saying “ordinary men and women are too small minded to govern their own affairs” and must “surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign”. It gained nearly one and a half million views on YouTube.

The faked Obama video

“This video goes back perhaps four years or more, and wasn’t exceptionally technologically advanced,” says LaCapria. “It involved the careful splicing of audio portions of a speech given by President Obama abroad. It spread successfully not just due to its smooth edits, but also because the speech was one not many Americans witnessed.”

Concern about the political ramifications of deep fakes may be overhyped when we already live in a world where a faked Trump tweet about “Dow Joans” can be shared by over 28,000 people, and a video of an academic talking about “highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right” can be taken out of context to publicly shame him. Yet LaCapria hopes that deep fakes will now inspire people to be hypervigilant online.

“Readers should really be cautious to find the source of the video and its context before sharing it,” she advises. When it comes to speeches by world leaders, you can Google for a transcript or simply search to see when a statement was first said. For example, a participant on Australian TV show The ABC claimed London Mayor Sadiq Khan said terror attacks are “part and parcel of living in a big city” after the 2017 Westminster attack. In fact, he actually said a version of this in 2016.

“People should definitely be wary if they can’t themselves authenticate a translation, and as always, they should be aware if it’s a ‘too interesting to be true’ situation,” says LaCapria. “If a famous person is depicted doing, saying, or engaging in newsworthy activity, it’s likely that would be something entertainment and news websites would report if it were even remotely legitimate.”

Sometimes, things that are too-good-to-be-true are true. This month, a video of Trump’s hair blowing in the wind exposed the president’s strange scalp. Snopes were able to verify it by comparing the popular video on social media with footage from other sources – such as Fox News, The Guardian, and Getty Images. This is arguably something everyone can and should do. When a video confirms your political biases, just double check.

Trump's hair blowing in the wind

Deep fakes, then, are just the latest iteration of a problem as old as the internet. While its worrying that FakeApp has democratised the process of creating fake videos, problems still remain with how we receive and scrutinise information online.

“We have to start afresh,” says Farid, arguing people need to be taught how to properly handle online information. He himself has been asked to run public talks where he explains this.

“Do I really have to tell people to use common sense?” he muses, with a hint of frustration. “Apparently, here we are – so OK, fine. I’ll do that.”

More like this: How to identify fake images online

Hany Farid
Has The Good Place shown how to stop TV shows going to a bad place?
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Too many shows flog an idea to death, but NBC's exploration of the afterlife offers another way.

We have all been there at some point in our lives. It’s a bad feeling, a sinking feeling, but it’s the first step towards acceptance. Whether it’s your childhood fave or what was, for the last few years, your weekly bright spot, we’ve all had that same defeating, heart-breaking moment when we finally have to admit to ourselves: our favourite TV show has jumped the shark.

In the last decade, seemingly never-ending show runs have become entirely normal and expected. Starting in the United States about 15 years ago, we began to witness shows such as The US Office, Smallville, and Desperate Housewives running for near double-digit seasons despite critics calling for the show’s end years before their overdue finales. It hasn’t taken long for other countries, the UK included, to adopt similarly exhaustive programming. 

Add in the rise of transnational programming (original shows on Netflix, Amazon, etc, that are broadcasted globally at the same time) and it is increasingly difficult to avoid having your favourite shows being flogged to death well past their expiration date as production companies attempt to squeeze out the remaining enthusiasm for a once fresh and interesting proposition. Sure there were (and are) some successfully long-running classics, but we now few shows finish in under five seasons, and by the time they do wind up most are past their sell by date.

I’m not here to argue that these shows will, or should, change their runs and cut short early even if people are still watching. With big money involved in episodic programming, it’s a relatively fruitless campaign to try to change it. But if we can't wean TV off its addiction to never-ending runs, then perhaps we need to find a new way of keeping them from going bad, and the answer may just lie in recent hit The Good Place. 

(Warning, major spoilers below.)

For those who haven’t watched it, NBC’s The Good Place (broadcasting simultaneously in the UK on Netflix) begins with its protagonist, Eleanor Shellstrop, being dropped into the afterlife in the Good Place, the show’s version of a heaven where all of the people who were “good” in their mortal lives get to spend eternity. After a couple of minutes of being introduced to the wonders of an afterlife of pleasure, the viewers discover that Eleanor is there by mistake, having spent her entire mortal life as a living nightmare to her friends, family, and mankind as a whole. Following this revelation, the entire first season is dedicated to Eleanor’s attempts to become a good person to avoid being found out and sent to the Bad Place, the show’s version of hell, by being taught ethics and morals by her Good Place peer, Chidi. 

But then at the end of the first season comes the  twist: the four main characters (Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason) aren’t in the Good Place after all, but have instead been in an experimental version of the Bad Place, designed to ensure they psychologically torture each other, as a new and innovative alternative to the physical torture carried out by demons in the traditional Bad Place.

Then earlier this month, The Good Place hit us with another shocking season finale. After our four main characters spent the entire second season evading demons and avoiding being sent to for an eternity of physical torture in the Bad Place, they are given a chance to prove they deserve a spot in the real Good Place. The season ends with them being sent back to earth, and back to mortal life, to demonstrate that they’d changed for good after trying to become better people in the afterlife.

For any other TV show, this would be a pretty shocking twist, but now, for TGP viewers, this is merely par for the course. But it has managed to eschew the twist-tropes often seen in mainstream television shows. No protagonist harbouring a character-altering secret for several seasons, no revelation that the villain was in fact the Good Guy all along. The Good Place doesn’t flip an element of a character, bring in someone new, or even reveal something shocking about an entire group. Instead, it does something that’s rarely been seen before: it changes the entire framework within which the show functions. The characters don’t dramatically develop nor does the audience discover any surprising information about them, but the show still undergoes a major makeover that refreshes dynamics, changes perspective, and redevelops the entire premise. This changes The Good Place into something which is both familiar and entirely different. Most importantly, it takes a premise that could otherwise get old pretty quickly and gives it a jolt of new life with one simple change.

Of course The Good Place has only wrapped on its second season, and has done so with about half the episodes of an average length episodic comedy in the United States, so it will take more time to see if these world-altering change-ups have the longevity they promise. But in a television landscape filled with one note premises being stretched to breaking point over too many episodes, on every channel and every platform, The Good Place provides a refreshing, new path to keep good shows from going bad.


How much government aid does a charity like Oxfam actually get?
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The international development secretary has warned the government could cut Oxfam’s funding as a response to a scandal in Haiti. 

Generally, charities enjoy a lot of trust. In fact, at the end of last year, they were the fifth most trusted public institution, after the NHS, armed forces, police, and schools. But public confidence has wavered in recent years, in part down to distrust about how charities spend donations and a lack of knowledge about where donations go.

The recent allegations against Oxfam and its staff will do nothing to help that public trust, and will only serve to open up more scrutiny on the sector. Last Friday, The Times reported that a number of aid workers were sacked or allowed to resign in 2011 after an internal inquiry into alleged sexual exploitation. According to the leaked report, one of the men, Roland van Hauwermeiren, admitted to using prostitutes in Haiti, during post-earthquake relief efforts. The revelations have triggered a public debate about the conduct of aid workers, and how exactly charities should be monitored and funded. 

Unlike profit-making companies, which may suffer from a bad reputation and still rake in cash (arms dealers, anyone?) charities rely on their reputations to attract funding and donations. Now, Oxfam’s looks in jeopardy. International development secretary Penny Mordaunt reiterated her warning that the government could cut Oxfam’s funding as a response to the scandal. But what would that mean for the charity’s future?

As is frequently complained about by the Jacob Rees Moggs of this world, the government spends 0.7 per cent of its national income on foreign aid. That equates to £13.4bn. The UK first hit this target in 2013 and enshrined the spending requirement in law two years later.

Foreign aid money is either earmarked for specific projects and goes directly to the country involved or is pooled into larger budgets of multilateral organisations like the European Commission. Last year, the top recipients of bilateral aid were Pakistan, Syria and Ethiopia.

Only a tiny amount of Department for International Development’s overall international aid budget is given straight to Oxfam – the charity doesn’t even make it in on the list of top 20 recipients of multilateral aid. Last year DFid gave £31.7m to the charity, less than a quarter of a percent of its overall foreign aid budget. So from the government’s perspective, just a drop in the ocean.

But if Mordaunt were to carry out her threat and cut all of Oxfam’s government funding, what effect would that have on the charity? 

Well... Oxfam would definitely notice. Of its £409m income last year, 7 per cent came from the UK government. That's in comparison to donations and legacies which accounted for 26 per cent of funding and trading sales which make up just over a fifth.

The charity itself spends about three quarters on charitable activities, and a quarter on wages and running costs. Last year, it spent £303.5m on charitable activities, mainly involving humanitarian response work and development work. A tiny fraction was spent on campaigning. The countries that benefited the most included Yemen, Nepal, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iraq.

While Oxfam gives reasonably detailed explanations of its work in each country it aids, it doesn’t publicly account for every penny spent in frontline operations (after all, which organisation does make such intricate details public?) It’s no surprise that it's here where things get less transparent.

In the wider sector, concerns have been raised about money being spent in countries known for corruption, but there are no good estimates as to how much money is lost because of this. Anecdotal evidence also suggests efforts to protect budgets can also make things worse. While donors may have good intentions to spend their money wisely, bureaucratic spending rules can end up delaying urgent projects on the ground. Most employees who receive salaries don’t expect to have to account for how they spend it to their boss. Aid workers, too, receive salaries – but in disaster areas, their comparative wealth may give them a clout that few ordinary employees enjoy. 

Transparency and trust-building can take many forms. The solution to the Oxfam scandal is unlikely to lie in forensic accounting alone. Instead, the answer may be better character vetting for aid workers and closer information sharing between organisations in the sector. After all, the charity that subsequently employed van Hauwermeiren said it was never told of the allegations. In the case of the Oxfam aid workers in Haiti, for all the focus on the charity’s funds, the scandal has focused on the behaviour of the workers and how they allegedly abused the legitimate structures of aid relief. 

An examination of the huge power imbalance between rich Western aid workers and those in urgent need could also help the sector answer questions about why this has happened. This could lead to more tangible solutions and safeguards like whistleblower networks or “humanitarian passports” that detail an aid workers’ previous conduct. Oxfam itself has said that it will look carefully at how it recruits and manages its aid workers, especially in situations where the urgent need for aid may increase pressure to find frontline workers. It has also introduced a new code of conduct since 2011 which stipulates: “I will also not exchange money, offers of employment, employment, goods or services for sex or sexual favours.”

While on the face of it, giving money to charity should be fairly easy for a government to defend, in practice it actually requires having quite a sophisticated conversation about the realities of charity funding. It is yet to be seen whether Oxfam’s turmoil will produce such discussions within government, or only further entrench the current ideological divides.


Photo: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images
I went to Paris’s least-visited neighbourhood – here’s what I learned along the way
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

I wanted to be a tourist in the most authentic bit of Paris. So I caught a train. 

“Why,” I ask, “of all the places in Paris, did you decide to come here?”

The American tourist looks at me like I’m an idiot, as well he might: we are standing outside of Notre Dame.

“It’s in the guidebook,” he says. “Besides, where else am I gonna go?”

I have been asking myself the same question. Since I learned of a recent 59-point plan by the Paris Mayor’s Office, to turn the French capital into the world’s most visited city, I have begun to wonder what it means to visit a city at all.

Paris’s officials simply want to overtake Bangkok and London in the Mastercard Global Destination Index, based on the yearly total of overnight stays by foreigners. But how many of those visitors go beyond box-tick itineraries of guide book sanctioned sites? Is it really Paris they are visiting, or an idea of what Paris is supposed to be: a Paris theme park, not Paris itself. Certainly, in the white-grey drizzle of this January morning outside Notre Dame, there’s an air of Alton Towers to the poncho-wearing crowds. But as the American asked, where else are they going to go?

My answer, like that of legions of tiresome tourists before me, is that the only true visit to Paris is one that encounters its “authentic” side. I imagine some magic side-street bistro in the 17th Arrondissement, stuffed with accordions and hairy-knuckled men eating eggs at the bar. But this, to be honest, is just more guidebook fluff. Surely, the most authentically Parisian part of the city, must be the part least tainted by tourism: a place where no visitor ever goes? According to my logic, the least visited part of Paris is the most Paris part of Paris.

The suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois became famous throughout France in 2005 as the epicentre of riots protesting unemployment and police harassment. And when commentators tried to explain why the violence had begun in that suburb, they blamed its unique isolation. Clichy-sous-Bois has its own administrative district, referred to in France as a commune, with a population of almost 30,000. Yet there are not only no direct transport links from Clichy-sous-Bois to the centre of Paris, but no direct transport links from there to anywhere else with direct transport links to the centre of Paris. Despite the suburb being less than 10 miles from Notre Dame, journey times can take up to two hours. Symbolically, I decide, this makes Clichy-sous-Bois, Paris’s least visited place. It is here I will go.

The city’s dedication to its tourists is apparent the moment I leave Notre Dame for the nearby Réseau Express Régional (Regional Express Network) station at St Michel. True, the 1970s-built RER is a masterful piece of public transport design, linking distant suburbs through the centre, but the first two trains that stop at St Michel will bypass the suburbs entirely. Both instead are heading direct to Charles de Gaulle Airport.

After waiting almost 15 minutes, the right train, packed as a peak-time commuter service, pulls into the platform. We are out of the city centre fast, pulling above-ground, and looking out on the grey, unplanned jumble of Paris beyond the Périphérique ring road. It is a Dorian Gray portrait of a space, growing uglier and older, while the face Paris presents to the world retains a museum-like beauty. Notre Dame had looked bad enough in this weather; the commune of Aubervilliers, which the train passes through first, with its close-together tower blocks and rusting industry, is grim to the point of cliché.

After 30 minutes, I change to a tram in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a commune in Paris’s Zone 3. Aulnay-sous-Bois is about the same distance from Paris’s centre as Clichy, but the journey takes less than half the time. Five tram stops later, I step into another commune, Livry-Gargan. The fastest way to reach Clichy-sous-Bois now is to walk. It is another half hour on a slight incline, along a busy road, through the rain.

Vast, brutalist apartment blocks loom from the distance. At first, they are just shapes in the white-grey. Close they are imposing, almost beautiful in their bleakness and size. But to start holiday-snapping the apartment blocks, impressive though they are, feels wrong. These are places where people live, not sights to be seen.

Besides the towers, there is little that differs this place from the suburbs I have already passed through. I feel a sense of anti-climax. My assumption that this might be the most Parisian part of Paris feels, suddenly, what it probably always was: silly.

Nevertheless, tiresome tourist that I am, I stubbornly set off in search of the essence of the place. I head to the town hall – incongruously old and low-rise – where I dutifully read an information sign that says something about the Knights Templar and something about the Duc d’Orleans. This information seems like the very opposite of Clichy-sous-Bois.

I find a café that is warmly lit, and full of men sat around large round tables playing cards. There are no women, and mine is the only white face. A football game from Africa is playing on a corner TV. The barman tells me they’re out of beer, so I settle on a coffee, which comes thick and rich.

Whenever a new person enters, they individually greet everyone in the room. I soon fall into conversation with two men, one from the Ivory Coast, the other from Mali. Both have lived in Clichy-sous-Bois for eight years. They are far from tourists, but still, I ask how often they go to the centre of Paris.

“Every day,” the man from the Ivory Coast tells me. “For work.”

His name is Di Batarad and he is a jewellery seller. Does he gets tired of the commute?

“It’s a long journey,” he shrugs. “But it is not a difficult one. And things will be better soon. They’re extending the tram.”

This is true. Though not part of the 59-point plan, work is underway to extend the tram into Clichy-sous-Bois. It was due to be completed in 2017, though has been pushed back until next year.

I ask Batarad whether he considers the suburb to be truly part of Paris, and he offers an exaggerated shrug.

“Technically, yes,” he says. “But in reality, no.”

It is the nail in the coffin of my idea. Batarad is as clear on what is the real Paris as any tourist: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame. I leave the café defeated.

The rain has eased, now, and in the distance clouds part to reveal a purple sky, against which is the etched silhouette of Sacré Couer, cresting the Butte de Montmartre. Before I can help myself, the view reminds me I am in Paris. Despite my pretensions toward the authentic, I’m struck suddenly by the importance of icons and of guidebooks in the creation of place, by the importance of the beaten track, particularly when encouraging visitors or counting their numbers. Clichy-sous-Bois may not or may not be Paris, I think, but you can definitely see it from here.

Leader: Why Labour’s renationalisation is a better choice than the private sector
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Water and sewerage bills are £2.3bn a year higher than if the utilities had remained in public ownership.

For too long, nationalisation was a taboo subject in British politics. New Labour accepted all of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisations and even extended the market into realms where the Conservatives feared to tread (such as air traffic control and Royal Mail). Few expected the idea of public ownership to return in any significant form.

However, it is central to Labour’s inchoate programme for government under Jeremy Corbyn. As the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has confirmed, the party would renationalise the railways, the water companies, the energy grid and Royal Mail, while also ending the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme, which was dramatically expanded during the Blair-Brown years.

The Conservatives deride nationalisation as retrogressive and redolent of the 1970s era of stagflation and industrial unrest. But polls have consistently shown that an overwhelming majority of the public favours state-owned utilities. What is driving this desire for change?

Voters are certainly weary of substandard service and the excessive prices imposed by many private companies. A 2017 study by the University of Greenwich, for instance, estimated that consumers in England were paying £2.3bn a year more for their water and sewerage bills than if the utility companies (many of them owned by private equity funds or overseas investors) had remained in public ownership. Of the £18.8bn profit made by nine firms in the decade to 2016, £18.1bn was paid out in dividends, with infrastructure investment funded by more expensive commercial borrowing.

A recent assessment of the PFI scheme by the National Audit Office found that overall spending on the deals was higher than publicly financed alternatives: a group of schools cost 40 per cent more to build – and a hospital 70 per cent more – than if funded by government investment.

Even as they dismiss public ownership, the Conservatives have been forced to consider its partial return on the railways. Three years after the reprivatisation of the East Coast Main Line, the inept Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has conceded that Virgin Trains East Coast’s breach of its £3.3bn contract may lead to renationalisation. Opponents of public ownership contend that it would be “unaffordable”. Mr McDonnell, however, has suggested Labour would acquire assets by swapping shares for government bonds (with the state gaining new revenue streams). In the case of rail, a Labour government would progressively renationalise the service as franchises expire, which would be a protracted process.

Public ownership is not an invariable panacea. The state, as well as the market, can become a vested interest. Few are nostalgic for the era of British Rail. Yet a dogmatic preference for the private sector has not served the public interest. Across Europe, most notably in Germany and France, the state plays an indispensable role in ownership and strategy. In Britain, where Conservative grandees once denounced Mrs Thatcher’s privatisations as “selling off the family silver”, Leviathan should be roused from the depths. 

Gordon’s gravy train

Gordon Taylor is the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and arguably the world’s most successful trade union leader. A former journeyman footballer, he has occupied his position since 1981 and now, at the age of 73, is earning close to £2.3m a year. Nice work if you can get it.

Mr Taylor has been accused of riding the PFA gravy train for far too long and enriching himself while his association spent just £100,000, as it did in 2016-17, on concussion and head injury research. Football – especially the English Premier League – has become the ultimate expression of rampant, winner-takes-all free market globalisation. Mr Taylor, like so many others in the game, is cashing in.

Is his salary justified? “Only in football, which is so detached from reality, could you pay yourself a salary of that nature,” said Simon Jordan, the former Crystal Palace chairman. Yet Mr Taylor – who has had personal problems with gambling – retains the support of his members, the players. And why not? Footballers’ salaries have risen extravagantly on his watch at the PFA. He is that rare thing: a successful union baron at the head of a rampant neoliberal industry. 

The case for a liberal Brexit is as strong as Boris Johnson’s principles
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Clue: not very. 

The decision to use Boris Johnson as the advocate of a Remain-voting, “liberal”-friendly Brexit underlines how the government has still not faced up to how deeply and fundamentally divisive its drive to take us out of the European Union has become. His speech today was utterly vacuous, and utterly lacking in any details of what this supposed “liberal” Brexit would entail.

The Foreign Secretary once, perhaps, did have the credentials to pull this off. After all, he was twice-elected as Mayor of London, because of his ability to corral a significant number of voters who would otherwise have opted for a candidate of the centre or the left. But all of that went when he made what now all know was a cynical and calculated decision to back the Leave campaign in 2016.

It wasn’t just that Johnson was suspected of having made his decision on whether to back Leave or Remain on the basis of which proposition would strengthen his position inside his party. What eroded trust was the campaign itself.

In the referendum campaign, he was promoter-in-chief of the claim that the NHS would benefit from an additional £350m a week if the country voted to leave. Not a penny of that has been, or ever will be delivered, and even Johnson’s recent attempt to secure another £100m a week fell flat, after he reportedly failed to even mention it at the subsequent Cabinet meeting.

The man who had previously claimed to be the very strongest supporter of Turkish membership of the EU also portrayed that country’s long-delayed and increasingly troubled application to join as an immediate threat to Britain.

In short, Johnson proved that it would be foolish to take him at his word, especially if that meant expecting him to show consistency in the face of the tide of opinion in the Conservative party.

But if Johnson is an unconvincing messenger, he’s not the only problem with claims for a “liberal” Brexit.

Take trade. Here the Brexiters talk about the ability to conclude “free trade” deals with the rest of the world. Their concept of free trade is stuck in the late 19th century, and represents a simplistic focus on tariffs on basic commodities. Inside the EU, though, we get much more than tariff-free trade, but also a single market based on common standards – a regime designed to handle today’s highly sophisticated manufactured goods. Even more importantly it encompasses a wide and continually deepening market in services.

None of that is in prospect from any of the putative free trade deals on offer, even if we believe – in the face of years of experience of negotiating real trade deals – that we could reach a quick deal with the US, Australia or New Zealand.

Then there are citizenship rights. Brexit threatens to strip every Briton of rights to freely travel and work across Europe. It is impossible to see anything on the horizon which would make up for that enormous loss of liberty, but it is not the end of the threat. Because the Brextremists are queuing up to promote proposals to strip British workers of their rights as soon as we leave. Top of their list is ending restrictions on the working hours of hospital doctors – but we can be sure that is only the start.

Other freedoms the EU gives us are also under threat, such as environmental and food safety standards. How many of these are likely to survive the crash trade deal our government is said to want to sign with Donald Trump? For a start we are likely not just to have to accept imports of chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef, but to allow them in the UK also: if we claim it is safe to eat, how could we justify banning our farmers from the same methods? That matters not just for the food itself, but also for our land and water supply.

The case for a  “liberal”  Brexit is as strong as Boris Johnson’s claim to be a politician of principle. In other words, there is no case at all.

James McGrory is the Executive Director of Open Britain

Why are Labour and the Tories competing over animal welfare?
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Courting the donkey vote.

Labour has just announced a load of animal welfare proposals: banning foie gras, opposing the badger cull, curbing hunting with dogs, mandatory CCTV in abattoirs, stopping the export of live animals for slaughter, moving away from intensive factory farming, and giving renters the right to own pets.

These policies come after months of the Conservatives championing animal rights and eco-friendly policies on social media. It’s a nakedly coordinated strategy that follows the fateful majority-sapping manifesto’s missing ivory ban, and promise to revisit fox-hunting (two stories that were read and shared on social media ahead of the election more than the main parties and mainstream media appreciated).

For a government that contemplated importing chlorinated chicken post-Brexit, run by a party leadership that wanted to reverse the country’s stance against killing animals for sport, the party’s newly warm words on animal rights sound an awful lot like virtue signalling – particularly with unconvincing eco warrior Michael Gove at the helm of this rebrand as Environment Secretary.

Like Labour, Gove plans to fit compulsory CCTV in slaughterhouses (which was a manifesto pledge), as part of a raft of new animal-friendly measures, including new rules to prevent puppy farming. But despite these efforts, the government has a long way to go if it wants to catch up with Labour on animal rights.

This was proved by last November’s rush to believe that Tory MPs ruled that animals don’t feel pain (it was actually a matter of claiming domestic legislation recognises animal sentience, to avoid incorporating an EU protocol on the subject).

The misleading story went viral at such a speed and scale – BuzzFeed estimates over 7.5 million people would have read it – that it was clear how easily people were confirming their biases about Tory animal welfare attitudes.

The party hastily responded. Gove issued a statement and released a video to clarify what had happened – promising animal sentience would continue to be recognised post-Brexit, and beefing up sentences for animal abusers. Yet such a response also revealed the Tories’ concern that Labour has a better reputation on this subject.

Neither party should be surprised that the British public cares deeply about animals – it’s long been the case that a substantial number direct donations and bequests go to animal charities (last year, animal charities were the second highest recipient of direct donations, and received the highest number of legacies in wills).

But the instant positive or negative feedback of social media makes public attitudes towards animal rights feel more urgent – therefore fuelling this latest policy war.

“I just ran”: The New Statesman team share their bad, awkward and embarrassing date stories
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Behold, people, the New Dates-man.

Wet Wet Wet lied to you: love isn’t all around. But you know what’s all around? Dates. Especially bad ones. Especially the many soul-crushingly horrible, awkward, weird, stressful dates you have to go through to find the handful of ones that aren't. We’ve all got stories, at least everyone on the New Statesman team does. To spare our blushes we've kept them anonymous, but here they are to provide a timely reminder that bad dates happen all the time, to everyone. 

Happy Valentine’s Day from the New Datesman!

It was a social experiment – conducted in the interests of science.

My worst date wasn’t a date, as I repeatedly told my friends at the time. They didn’t believe me, but it wasn’t; it was a social experiment – conducted in the interests of science – that just happened to necessitate a stranger from Tinder. There was no romance involved, other than the fact we spent five hours asking one another American psychologist Arthur Aaron’s 36 Questions To Fall In Love. The premise is that opening up to one another (and I did tell him things about my life that some of my closest friends don’t know – it was intense), fosters a mutual sense of vulnerability and trust, and that these things are the basis of love.

I took part because I wanted to write an article about the experience, but, was ultimately – predictably – so awkward and nervous that I drank a lot of wine, which meant the whole thing was not particularly profound. (Unsurprising spoiler: I did not fall in love. I have since realised that love cannot blossom while you and a stranger are tightly wedged between four other strangers in a very busy Franco Manca pizza restaurant; particularly when all four of the other strangers aren’t even being subtle about listening in on the weird exchanges of life stories happening next to them).

I think the highlight was one of the many, many questions that forces you to compliment the other person (it really is very hard work repeatedly being asked to compliment a stranger) when he told me that I have “a face that really grows on people”*. Luckily I can recognise that this is obviously a hilarious thing to say to somebody, and as such is possibly my favourite compliment ever received, but when I later told my mum she was pretty offended on my behalf.

*By this point in the night, he may as well have just said “I did not fancy you before becoming heavily intoxicated by all the wine we have drunk”.

He spent the next week sending me graphic WhatsApps about his oral sex technique.

Sometimes, you have to accept you’re the villain in someone else’s story. Other times, you have to accept you’re the villain in quite a few people’s stories.

These people are my two (and only two) Tinder dates. The first, with a young man who told me to “Hurry up” whilst I ate my fried chicken and chips and also – shockingly, disturbingly – called the barman “bud”. These faux pas were so great that I forced my friend to ring me and pretend he was my housemate locked out of my flat so I could run away from the date. Unfortunately, I was very drunk and therefore unconvincing, screaming “OH NO! YOU’RE LOCKED OUT!” in my worst am-dram voice.

I also ran away from my second Tinder date. He went to the toilet and I just ran, ran, ran from the O’Neills from whence I came. He spent the next week sending me graphic WhatsApps about his oral sex technique, until I blocked him.

These are undeniably powerful stories about female agency – except for all the parts that are just me being a dick.

This guy was fun, handsome and by his own admission not a Tory.

He was my first date from a dating app, and actually the only one from the apps I ended up somewhat hooking up with. I am actively bad at dates and even worse on dating apps (my profile photo on Tinder was for a while just me wearing a Labour leader face mask, and I once responded with a single “no” to a poor lad’s “hi” on OkCupid).

By any dating app standard, this guy was quite great: he looked the same IRL as on his photo, was fun and had similar political views to mine (something that you can pretend isn’t important but really is if you don’t want, two years in, to be told you’re “too feminist” by someone you thought was a Blairite but is really a Tory). But this guy was fun, handsome and by his own admission not a Tory, and altogether the date wasn’t BAD.

I did, however, find myself wearing his FC Barcelona jersey after a failed attempt at sex – there was apparently no condom in his Islington condo, which he owned as well about 45 cars he showed me on his phone, and how Tory is that, eh – and we watched the Peep Show episode where Mark gets very unwillingly married to Sophie and Jeremy pees in the church. It was “quite an unsuitable thing to watch on a date”, and he profusely apologised.

He texted me a few days later to say we wouldn’t meet again because he wanted to try to get his ex back, which, you know: bad idea, but you do you. I didn’t mind that much – I had just moved to London, started using dating apps, and he did introduce me to Peep Show, so I’ll forgive the poor taste in sports teams and cars.

One date quite literally ran away at the evening’s end.

The more I like someone, the more I seem to mess the date up. There should be some kind of fancy, mathematical terminology for that, like “singles' inverse function”.

I kid myself that I’m in control by only meeting up with people whose work intrigues me in some way; I figure that I’ll then at least learn something new about beekeeping, or Google DeepMind, or the next financial crisis. This strategy has led to many enjoyable first outings, including one which started by getting undressed (to swim in the Hampstead Heath pond).

But nothing seems to stave off the inevitable. When I finally meet someone I think I could care about in the long run, my inner demons are unleashed. I’ll become overly defensive and combative, and even end up criticising the unwitting object of my affection. One date quite literally ran away at the evening’s end (ostensibly to “catch a bus”). In sum: my own worst date is me.

I found out later that he’d done a line before our date.

We had met on a dating app but had mutual friends in common from university. He seemed fairly easy going over text but we both had really different schedules so it started to become very difficult to find time to even meet for a drink. Eventually, we both found ourselves around the same area, so we decided to grab a drink (we both had plans later).

We meet, and he seems very nice but a bit agitated and kind of nervous – I put it down to the usual nerves and brushed it off.

About half an hour into our drink, he starts checking his phone every other minute and seems even more nervous, and then disappears into the bathroom. Half an hour later, some of his friends show up because they’d made plans to go out… and decide to do their pre-drinks there...with me in tow.

I left soon after and found out later that he’d done a line before our date, topped up mid-date and then had invited his friends to come hang out. Never again.

First, I realised that I didn’t actually know how to pronounce his name.

After a few weeks of merry workplace flirtation with a temp in my old job, he left and I forgot all about him – until I received a text asking to meet up. What followed was a catalogue of awkwardness that makes me cringe at my former self.

First, I realised that I didn’t actually know how to pronounce his name. It was a Welsh name with Ws and Ys where you’d least expect, and I’d only ever used it written down. But it turned out this was the least of my worries.

When I agreed to meet up, he wanted to go for dinner, which I thought was too much for a first date – so I suggested a wine bar. He forlornly mentioned a few restaurants he’d like to try but I insisted. When we arrived (“hello…you”, I think I said, avoiding the name), he bought us drinks – wine for me, an orange juice for him.

“Why are you drinking orange juice, are you hungover?” I asked, like an absolute idiot. It turned out alcohol had ruined his life for 17 years – something I didn’t know, which also revealed that he was about 20 years older than I thought when I put the timelines together.

It was a car crash from then on: he spilt his orange juice on my laptop, started mansplaining about my ethnic background (even though he had to ask me where the country was), and I basically ran to get on the Tube afterwards. The lesson? Never question why someone isn’t drinking, and never lecture someone about their own minority status. Even if you are Welsh.

Boris Johnson’s big Brexit speech was high on rhetoric and short on answers
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Remainers aren’t worried about John Stuart Mill - they’re worried about policy.

Boris Johnson and I don’t have much in common but we do share a university, albeit one we attended several decades apart. Listening to his big Brexit address at Policy Exchange, I found myself gripped by unwanted flashbacks to my time there and the speeches one would occasionally have to endure in tutorial when someone – usually but not exclusively someone from a famous private school like Johnson’s – hadn’t done the reading but did have a big argument they knew could get them through the hour.

Similarly, Johnson’s speech hung together as far as the essay question he had set himself – “Is Brexit a great liberal cause?”- went, but unfortunately it fell apart as far as the actual thing the government needs to solve; which is “What did Remainers fear to lose in the referendum, and how can they be reassured?”

The problem is that most Remainers didn’t vote to stay in the European Union because of a high-minded commitment to the institutions of the EU or an ideological sense that it was better for liberalism, or conservativism, or social democracy or socialism or whatever creed you care to name. Those that did are beyond the reach of Johnson or the government anyway. Most Remainers voted to stay in the EU because of concern about what leaving would look like, and the disruption it might cause, and it was on that subject that the speech was thinnest.

Where it did succeed in offering reassurance was the passages in which Johnson effectively pledged that in some sectors nothing would change, i.e. security and foreign affairs – for both of which the British government hopes it will effectively remain in the EU. (The same is true of science and research.)

It was when the speech entered the murkier areas – the ones where the government as a whole, and perhaps Johnson as an individual, is less clear on what they want – that it fell apart. Frankly, you can give as many fine monologues about the importance of setting our own tariffs, but the fear that occupies the minds of many Remainers, particularly those in Northern Ireland, is that Brexit means a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The only way you can prevent that is a significant measure of customs and regulatory alignment, which Johnson appeared to rule out in the speech.

Ditto, while the passages about British citizens still enjoying visa-free holidays might have been amusing, the actual point of voter concern is that they or their spouses will no longer be able to live, work and move in together freely in the EU area as they do now.

If Boris Johnson wants to make a success of Brexit, let alone to win back the Remainers it lost at the 2017 election, it needs to engage seriously with what the actual fears of the actual people who voted Remain are, and indeed engage seriously with the issues around delivering Brexit more broadly, not deliver 45 minutes of flannel about John Stuart Mill.

Photo: Getty
Afrofuturist superhero movie Black Panther breaks new ground in more ways than one
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

As well as being the first mainstream black superhero movie, it’s witty and includes plenty of leading women. 

It’s clear almost from the start of the latest Marvel adventure Black Panther that the title character is not your run-of-the-mill superhero. Did Captain America or Wonder Woman have to drink a purple potion while being buried in red sand, only to emerge in the long grass of the Ancestral Plane, where fiery-eyed panthers doze in the trees under a pink sky before metamorphosing from cat to human? They did not. It is only one of several dozen instances during which the more reflective cinemagoer has cause to wonder if there is anything separating the movie from, say, Yellow Submarine or the psychedelic Monkees film Head. Black Panther is, in every sense, a trip.

There are numerous ways in which the picture breaks new ground, none of which would count for very much if the film itself didn’t work some wonderful miracles within the confines of its genre. It is the first black mainstream superhero movie, the most expensive studio project ever made by an African-American director (take a bow, Ryan Coogler, who only made his debut, Fruitvale Station, five years ago) and the first picture of its kind to be populated almost entirely by black actors. Relatively new faces including Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Michael B. Jordan (Creed) mingle with veterans such as Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker.

It is just as notable, however, for tipping the gender balance of its leading characters in favour of women: T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), is protected by an all-female security squad from his birthplace, the technologically-advanced African country Wakanda, where the infrastructure and aesthetic provides a good, working, one-stop definition of Afrofuturism. Those bodyguards, known as the Dora Milaje, are headed up by the exacting Okoye (Danai Gurira), who wields her magic spear and sniffs at guns (“How primitive”). Also on hand are T’Challa’s former squeeze Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), around whom he goes weak at the knees, and his teenage sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), a gadgets expert who mocks him relentlessly and comes on like a sassier version of Q from the Bond films. Any victories Panther notches up in his efforts to find the villain who has stolen quantities of Wakanda’s deadly metal vibranium are as much theirs as his.

Meanwhile, an audacious theft is in progress over at the world-famous Museum of Great Britain. What do you mean, you’ve never been there? The heist is being masterminded by Erik Killmonger, who represents an example of nominative determinism in action. What if he’d wanted to be a marriage guidance counsellor or a chartered surveyor? He would likely still have exuded the same mixture of suavity, sincerity and menace that is the stock-in-trade of the charismatic Michael B. Jordan. Announcing his decision to simply steal an African artefact from one of the glass cases, he says “how do you think your ancestors got it?” while the (white) curator looks on in horror.

As his South African partner-in-crime Ulysses Klaue, Andy Serkis relishes the chance to show his face after nearly two decades of working predominantly in performance capture roles. He is also one of only two white actors in the main cast, the other being Martin Freeman as the CIA agent Everett Ross, and it’s unexpectedly refreshing to see normal superhero film proceedings turned upside down when Everett is left in the lab to operate the tech while his black allies get stuck in on the battlefield, dirtying their hands in the combat proper. Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, and Freeman, who was Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit trilogy, have referred to themselves rather marvellously as the new picture’s “Tolkein white boys”, which is as witty as anything in the script itself.

That script, by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, adheres to the usual genre formula of tomfoolery, in-jokes, mythology and outright poppycock, but their knack for teasing emotional resonance out of standard scenarios gives them the edge over predecessors and competitors alike. One character contemplating death says: “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships because they knew death was better than bondage.” You don’t hear that sort of thing in Batman V Superman.

Black Panther is on release.

The New Statesman Cover: The polite extremist
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

A first look at this week's magazine.

16 - 22 February issue
The polite extremist

If this big Brexit speech is what Boris Johnson means by reaching out, he's doing it wrong
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The Foreign Secretary is misreading why people voted to leave the EU.

Roses are red, violets are blue/Boris Johnson is in all the papers/so now I am too. 

The Foreign Secretary's big speech to reach out to Remainers is trailed across the press and the big news sites, and Johnson has written for the Sun, warning that Remainers should not try to stop or reverse Brexit and arguing that leaving the European Union is actually big, liberal moment which we should all be excited by. My first thought is that if this is what Johnson means by "reaching out", he's doing it wrong.

But the bigger problem speaks to the long-run problem of Brexit, one with implications for all the political parties but which are particularly acute for the Conservatives, which is that the Brexit vote was not a liberal moment or anything like it. Yes, many of its cheerleaders in the press are liberals. Yes, its most thoughtful policy thinkers are liberals.

But the impulses that drove the majority of Leave voters weren't: they were to spend more money on the public realm, the NHS in particular, and to take a greater level of control over immigration and to end the free movement of people. While the votes of people who wanted to stay in the EEA, or to strike ambitious trade agreements with India were bigger than Leave's margin of victory, they aren't a significant electoral force.

While it's not the only governance problem that Brexit throws up - the biggest of course is the complexity of having to end a four-decade long relationship - that's further aggravated by the fact that the electorate in 2015 and in 2017 was majority-Remain and in all likelihood so too will be the electorate in 2022. That means that the quarter of Remain voters who are not yet reconciled to the referendum outcome have a larger impact in general elections than they would in a referendum re-run and that has big implications for Tory hopes for a majority that allows any Conservative leader to pass radical legislation.

There may be a path to a significant Tory majority, but it involves either bringing about a genuine reconciliation with that quarter of Remain voters or becoming a "full" Leave party: that is to say, more statist, more nativist, and altogether a different party to the one that Boris Johnson hopes to lead. 

Photo: Getty
The Secret Civil Servant: Even Sir Humphrey was never called a useless lying bastard in public
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The Brexit minister Steve Baker accused us of being inaccurate – and thoroughly bloody devious as well.

It’s been a busy few weeks down Mandarin Avenue. As a pleasant diversion from deciding which biscuits to have at elevenses, holding a few séances to establish government policy and turning nouns into new verbs, the Civil Service appear to have been indulging in its own spot of information hijinks, with some economic analysis turning up somewhere it shouldn’t. Naughty civil servants. Brexit minister Steve Baker responded by accusing us of being inaccurate, and then as a clarification, thoroughly bloody devious as well. I don’t know which one is more insulting. At times like these, it’s a standard Westminster cliché to refer to such events as being “A Bit Yes Minister”. Except even Jim Hacker never stood up in Parliament and called Sir Humphrey a useless lying bastard.

The relationship between civil servants and ministers is often a tricky one. In the past fortnight, this seems to have soured to near contempt. In my experience, it’s generally more strained with a Conservative administration. Which makes sense when you consider that every middle class, Oxbridge-educated, senior civil servant is actually a communist. I really must stop taking that hammer and sickle to work.

Leaks like this always touch the nerves of government ministers, regardless of what they say. Leaking documents to the press is their manor. If the miscreant was a remain-leaning civil servant, it may well have unintended consequences, calling into question civil service impartiality and giving any critic licence to condemn the validity of analysis, rather than engaging with the substance of it. This will likely dilute the organisation’s ability to deliver tough news to those in power. Which is bad news for everyone.

If it was leaked by a political Brexiteer for that very purpose, then it was a tactical master stroke. The next time I’m briefing a politician, and I’m describing anything more pessimistic than a future Britain resplendent in wealth, an immortal David Attenborough and unlimited cheddar for all, it will be tempting to ask: but do you believe me?

It’s quite something to be called untrustworthy by politicians. I doubt many of us will lose any sleep over it. I take great amusement in the fact that studies always highlight how much more the public trusts civil servants than politicians. If you think that we’re generally faceless, nameless bureaucrats for whom the public have little understanding, no sense of what the job is, what our titles mean or who we are, and still the public trust us more than elected officials, that’s something joyous to behold. The latest Institute for Government survey has trust for politicians at just above 21 per cent. Roughly one in five. I’d like to think that if you asked the Great British Public “Do you trust liars?” you’d probably get about one in five. But then maybe we doctored those figures as well.

All this unpleasantness draws into focus the delicate eco-system which officials and politicians, who often work so closely together, inhabit. It also highlights the huge policy space being left unoccupied by indecision at the top. Inevitably, someone is going to plug in the Policy Generator and attempt to fill that gap, because the fuse has been lit on the Brexit cannon and it’s high time we all climbed in.   

In all fairness to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Baker did apologise afterwards. And he did say the allegation about Her Majesty’s Treasury fiddling the figures should have been investigated. It’s just something of a shame he didn’t investigate it with his own brain before he started talking nonsense about it.  

But then this is a minister who has told officials that in Brexit the Movie (not The Musical - I’ve got the option on that) he wants to be played by Brad Pitt.

The question is: do you believe me?

The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Steve Baker probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect.

Photo: Parliament
I live on the threshold between two worlds and I share my bed with an ape
February 14th, 2018, 05:56 AM

I cannot afford anything that costs more than £5.13, for those are the funds left in my bank account. I run the risk, if I take the Tube to the British Library, of not being able to take it back.

I am sitting with my wife on the bed, watching University Challenge. A small family of chimpanzees sits on the bed with us, grooming each other. There are also a couple of gorillas, one of whom has taken a liking to me, and she holds my hand gently. I am worried, though: I have heard that the great apes can be violent, and the phrase that keeps popping up in my head is “ripped his face off”, from a long-ago news report, and that was just a chimp. Lord knows what a gorilla could do.

“How long are we looking after this lot again?” I ask.

“Until around midsummer,” she says.

“Midsummer!” I yell, and suddenly it’s the radio alarm clock, and John Humphrys on the Today programme.

My dreams have been getting weirder lately. I will spare you the worst. I wonder if it’s where I’ve been living. I am under strict instructions not to open any windows – apparently the cat is an escape artist. The lack of fresh air is doing things to my subconscious.

A more interesting explanation is the area I’m in. Olympia is in an interesting part of London. If you wanted to make someone a present of Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington and Earl’s Court, Olympia would be where you put your finger on the knot to tie up the parcel. Yet it is weirdly difficult to get to: you have to use the Overground train, and although there is also a Tube station, it only works at weekends. Don’t tell me that isn’t an inversion of the natural order. In the morning, I can stand in the kitchen in my underpants and watch gouts of commuters leaving the Overground every 15 minutes. As often as not it’s been raining, and I watch with pity.

The area is liminal, on the threshold between worlds. Turn left out of my door and you are in a part of the world where JK Rowling has her London pied-à-terre, and where Jimmy Page and Robbie Williams have furious rows about the latter’s proposed basement extension (I am so with Jimmy Page on this one). But turn right out of my door and before about 60 yards are up you can be staring, as I was, at some of the grimiest and most depressing housing that this country has to offer. In west London, the bricks are yellow – the capital’s traditional London yellow stock, made from the local clay – as if the road to Oz has been torn up and used to make houses. The exteriors may be Victorian but you can tell from the state of the net curtains what it’s like inside, and the mental picture is not a pretty one. Then again, who am I to judge? Right now, anyone with an interior they can stay in or return to for the foreseeable future is in a better position than I am.

Carry on up Holland Road, and you get to Shepherd’s Bush station, and from there it is but a 15-minute walk to the family home, where the wife and I raised our chimps – I mean our children. She is after a divorce, understandably enough, and keeps calling me to check that I have done my taxes. “I’m doing them, I’m doing them,” I say. (It is my financial condition that is giving her demand for official separation some urgency. I completely understand this.)

As I write, it is the last day for filling in tax returns before fines start to build up, and I am being beset by anxieties. I have not filled in a tax return in my life; I have always got someone else to do it for me. Now I cannot afford to pay anyone else to do it: I am unmanned. In fact, I cannot afford anything that costs more than £5.13, for those are the funds remaining to me in the bank account. I run the risk, if I take the Tube to the British Library, of not being able to take it back, and it is a long walk. Meanwhile, I am waiting for some Albanians to give me the advance for a book they want me to write about a part of Albania. Rereading that sentence makes me realise it may be unwise of me to base any future financial decisions on this advance.

So I suppose that wraps it all up nicely. What with the air, the psychogeography, and the sense of looming disaster, no wonder I’m dreaming of primates, sitting around me on the bed, waiting to tear me apart. 

What Pancake Day and the royal wedding have in common
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The occasion occupies the same space as Kardashians, or curling. 

Pancakes are like royalty: they have a long history in Britain, they radiate luxury, and, like so many other things, they’re taken too seriously by the Americans. 

Historically, Shrove Tuesday aka Pancake Day  is the last day on which one could stuff their face with eggs, milk and sugar before observing 40 days of Lent. It has roots in both pagan and Christian traditions. 

Although its religious origins are now long-forgotten, the date is still celebrated around the world in a multitude of ways. Germans and Italians dress up. The Americans and the French celebrate with street parades. In Britain, where Shrove Tuesday is now largely exists only under its modern moniker, the focus is squarely (or roundly) on pancakes.

But why? We can't really like pancakes that much, for if we did, surely we’d eat them far more often? Why have your co-workers spent today, literally the only time they have made pancakes in the past year, arguing over whether crepes or stacks are superior; nearly coming to blows over maple syrup vs lemon and sugar?

The British allegiance to Pancake Day begins with childhood indoctrination. In my school, our teachers took Pancake Day very seriously, and from a young age, ensured we knew how to toss a pancake. This year, Manchester United footballers posed with local primary school children during a pancake-making session. Primary school websites include pancake songs, debates about toppings and boasts about just how many pancakes their pupils consumed.

It could be that teachers are tired and children are easily distracted by something sweet sizzling in a pan. But there is some method to the madness. A study published in 2016, by the University of Texas found that children engaging in a group activity are more likely to be affiliated to the group, rather than just being around them.  

Dr Nicole Wen, the lead author of the study, concluded that this was because “human psychology is geared to motivate individuals to engage in behaviors that increase inclusion within their social groups”. Making pancakes on Pancake Day is the ultimate expression of this. It is an arbitrary day of festivities that we can all take part in. 

Though it is arbitrary, beyond the actual nicely-fried batter, Pancake Day works because we all take it seriously. It occupies the same space as Kardashians, or curling. They have little impact on our day-to-day lives, and logically there is no reason we should derive pleasure from them, and yet we invest emotionally in them. 

Perhaps the ultimate example of taking the ridiculous seriously and revelling in it is royal weddings. A study of the coverage from the BBC and ITV during the 2011 royal wedding found that, after Will and Kate, the third protagonist of the days events was in fact the public.

Both channels would broadcast interviews with members of the public, which they could then use to describe the national mood. 

That study concluded that “ordinary members of the public legitimised the event’s significance” and that these interviews “functioned to invite the viewer to participate, to integrate themselves with this ‘centre’ of festivity.” 

Pancake Day is as much about us as it is about the pancakes. We care about Pancake Day because everybody else cares about Pancake Day, because we prefer eating to working, and because it gives us a sense of belonging. 

There are also practical reasons for dressing up something fairly trivial in ritual and tradition. A study published in Psychological Science in 2013 found that rituals before eating makes food taste better. One experiment conducted asked half the participants to break a chocolate bar in half first before eating it, while the other group were instructed to eat it as normal. The researchers found that those who had first broke the chocolate bar in half reported it to be more delicious. This may explain why pancakes taste especially good today, or why turkey does on Christmas Day.

Similarly, while republicans may be left cold by enthusiasm for the marriage of two people among 60 million, those who have already bought their monarchist tickets will derive real pleasure from the pageantry of the show, without any of the stress involved in a real wedding.

Indeed, the modern royal wedding, like the modern Pancake Day, asks very little of the country. It is ridiculous, but, despite the efforts of republicans, largely uncontroversial. In contrast to soul-searching events like Valentine's Day, there are no expectations to live up to, and no hopes to be dashed. 

“Here's How Prince George Is Celebrating Pancake Day,” gushed Elle in 2017. Two faintly ridiculous traditions collide – for those who need something to cheer up the dark days of February, it’s the perfect mix. 

SRSLY #131: Requiem / Queer Eye / Over the Garden Wall
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The pop culture podcast with Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

. . .or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s head of podcasts and pop culture writer. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Sign up for Caroline's newsletter here.


The whole box set on the BBC iPlayer.

The Radio Times piece about Lydia Wilson's fringe.

Queer Eye

The show on Netflix.

An interesting review from Vulture.

How to get a copy of the New Humanist to read Caroline's piece about the show.

Over the Garden Wall

More details and preview clips on the Cartoon Network website.

Book club

For our 27 February book club episode, we are reading The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Order it in print here or as an audiobook on Audible here.

Tweet us on #srslybookclub to tell us your thoughts as you read, and send us a voice memo with your review of the book at

For next time: 

We are watching Young Offenders.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

Carin Baer/Netflix
From Soros to Oxfam, political polarisation is pushing conspiracy theories into the mainstream
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Two stories from opposite sides of the political spectrum over the past week show quite how far such theories have come.

We normally think of conspiracy theories as the preserve of cranks, the jet-fuel-won’t-melt-steel-beams nutters who think 9/11 was an inside job, or those strange individuals convinced that everyone from 3rd century BC Greek astronomers to Stephen Hawking have perpetuated the myth that the world is spherical rather than flat.

But in recent months we’ve seen conspiracy theorising edging ever further into the mainstream, and two stories from opposite sides of the political spectrum over the past week show quite how far it has come.

First, we had George Soros backing a “secret plot to thwart Brexit” on the front page of the right-wing Daily Telegraph, detailing a donation made by the financier to what was in fact a very public campaign for a second referendum on EU membership. The story painted the Best for Britain organisation as a shadowy cabal aiming to undermine the will of the people, accompanied by a dose of dog-whistle anti-Semitism.

Then, just a few days later, The Times ran a story about Oxfam employees paying local women to attend sex parties in Haiti – women from the same damaged communities they were meant to be helping. This time around, it wasn’t a newspaper pushing conspiracy theories, but a range of left wingers who suggested that the story had been released in a bid to punish Oxfam and discredit the charity’s work.

The fact that The Times had published its scoop mere weeks after the publication of Oxfam’s damning report on global inequality was used to argue that the newspaper must be motivated by vengeance rather than justice (or even just a good story).

In a blog post, Richard Murphy, a respected left-wing expert on tax, cited a column by Rod Liddle attacking Oxfam’s supposedly anti-capitalist agenda as evidence that the journalists at the Times must have produced their report in a bid to defend their wealthy masters.

“What The Times is really angry about is the fact that the world, rightly, believed Oxfam when they said that capitalism distributes the rewards of market activity inequitably and that the world's wealthiest people did not actually earn their fortunes but extracted them from others,” he wrote. “And so, in an attempt to discredit this message The Times is dedicated to raking Oxfam's muck. And it found some.”

To be fair to Murphy, it’s a plausible motive, but he hasn’t provided any evidence that backs up his claim.

Now, of course, clandestine organisations plotting to overturn democratic votes do exist. And of course, it is not exactly unheard of for a newspaper to run a story to punish some perceived enemy, political or otherwise.

But with both the Soros story and the response to the revelations about Oxfam, conspiracies have been imagined and alleged without any evidence to back them up, just a conviction that such an uncomfortable truth couldn’t really be true. It’s unthinkable that those motivated by what they think is best for the UK might believe Brexit is a terrible idea. It’s unthinkable that The Times might consider a major charity failing to stop the abuse of those it was trying to help a story worth printing on its own merits.

For people faced with things they don’t want to accept, conspiracy theories can be a useful comfort blanket. People can use them to hide from those inconvenient truths without troubling the rest of the world too much.

But what’s especially worrying about both these recent examples is how the theorising has spread from the fringes into mainstream discourse – the pages of a national newspaper, the public posts of otherwise reasonable activists and commentators (Murphy was at one time described as an economics guru for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn).

You don’t have to be a centrist to resist buying into convenient conspiracy theories, but you do need to be prepared to accept that maybe, sometimes, some of those on your side, maybe even lots of people on your side, might be wrong, and maybe even that sometimes the other side might be right. But that’s very difficult if your chosen political stance demands absolute belief.

Many of those touting the most outlandish conspiracy theories will urge you to “keep an open mind” on whether the moon landings were faked or aliens crashed at Roswell. Doing so seems to be beyond a growing chunk of people on both the left and right who see a conspiracy behind anything that challenges what they know, without any doubt, must be true.

Photo: Getty
The full horror of the Department for Work & Pensions’ Valentine message
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Romance isn’t dead. It’s fit to work.

Ah, nothing says love like perpetuating the damaging societal myth of benefit scroungers via a cutesy gif.

Those Casanovas over at the Department of Work & Pensions have decided to get all hot and heavy on the subject of welfare fraud in celebration of Valentine’s Day this year.

“Claiming to be living alone is one of the most common types of benefit fraud – don’t ruin #ValentinesDay by failing to declare your true circumstances,” it says in a saucily authoritarian post on Twitter.

And to add the honey to the vinegar, a lovely pink graphic:

“Declaring your true love tomorrow?” it asks, floating over a cartoon hot-air balloon in the shape of a heart. “Don’t forget to declare your true living arrangements too. Don’t get separated from your Valentine. Tell us of a change now.”

The DWP logo pops up.

And, the absolute tease, it adds a link to an Express article about benefit “swindlers”.

Ooh, DWP, you are absolute filth.

Anyway, once the charm wears off, here’s the context of this claim:

  • The government estimates 1.1 per cent of benefits paid out are fraudulently claimed (in 2015-16). But even this minute proportion comes under the category of “overpayment” (accounting for 1.9 per cent of benefit expenditure in 2015-16), which also includes honest mistakes on both sides. So only a tiny minority of people are fraudulently claiming.
  • There is also underpayment in the system, which is almost the same proportion. The amount underpaid to benefit claimants in the same period as above was 1 per cent of total expenditure.
  • The government says undeclared cohabiting is a common type of benefit fraud. But this is thought to be because of fast-changing living circumstances and the complicated nature of cohabitation as a relationship – “living together” can mean many different relationships, and the government asks you to declare the income of your married partner, your civil partner, or if you are “living together as a married couple” if you’re claiming benefits or tax credits, which is a confusing description.
  • Cohabiting claims have most infamously been messed up on the government’s side – the private company Concentrix that managed tax credit claims for HMRC withdrew money from people who they accused of cohabiting with RS McColl (a Scottish cornershop chain that would appear on some people’s statements because you can collect benefits there), the 19th century philanthropist Joseph Rowntree (a claimant lived in a house provided by the Foundation under his name), and their own children.
Twitter screengrab and creative commons stock images
No matter how much you hate Facebook, Wired’s “beaten Mark Zuckerberg” cover is a disgrace
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The magazine have published a photograph that wouldn’t look out of place on The Daily Stormer.

The competition to be the most boring person at the party used to between the guy with the acoustic guitar playing Wonderwall, the person loudly discussing veganism, that bloke explaining why The Beatles are overrated, and the couple with the impressive knack for managing to bring up how they don’t even own a TV. Now, the top of the pain-in-the-arse pops is the person who doesn’t use Facebook, and wants to tell you why you shouldn’t either.

Facebook is awful. There are lots of reasons: it’s an extension of the surveillance culture we’ve become almost bored of discussing, it pretends to have hippy ideals while being utterly gimlet-eyed about destroying whole industries, it was a conduit for misinformation on industrial scale during the 2016 Presidential election, and it constantly forces you to find out about the lives of smug couples who you can’t quite bring yourself to unfriend.

But  like Mark Anthony  today, I come not to bury Mark Zuckerberg but to, well, not praise him either, but mildly defend him.

The latest cover of the US edition of Wired magazine features a composite image of a bloodied and bruised Zuckerberg. The photograph  created using a lookalike and a picture of the real Facebook founder and CEO  is a metaphor for the strife he has faced in recent times. You can see why the editorial staff and photographers at Wired were so jazzed about this concept  it is already on its way to becoming a modern classic. But there are some big problems with this choice...

With the surge in “populism” (a nice cuddly name for fascist and pseudo-fascist movements) across the Western world, antisemitism and violence towards minorities has also spiked massively. The figures get heavily disputed by the right because, well, they don’t want to face up to the side-effects of even their low-level bigotry. In this climate, Wired publishing a cover story featuring an image of the probably the world’s most famous Jewish businessman battered and bruised is tone deaf.

To Wired Pravda for the Silicon Valley set the imagery is just metaphorical. They are so proud of their achievement that they have written an entirely separate article about how the effect was achieved. And the journalism in the feature that the image trails is excellent deeply reported and insightful on the fundamental problems that confront Facebook’s leadership in the age of misinformation. But that doesn’t make up for the cover.

The cover is succour to fascists. I’ll be accused of hyperbole but I don’t believe it is such: Let me spell it out Wired have published a photograph that wouldn’t look out of place on The Daily Stormer. Fascists will be getting tumescent at the thought of beating up one of the world’s most successful (and richest) Jewish businesspeople. That is the reality.

In a wider sense, the image is a great example of how Wired’s distorted world view skews its reporting and the visual and journalistic choices it makes. To Wired — aside from the occasional semi-critical article like the Facebook feature — technology is the balm for all ills. That’s a highly dangerous standpoint in a century where technological advancement is faster and colder than ever before.

Technology has always disadvantaged the poor first. Now, it has brought us to a situation where the so-called gig-economy has revitalised a kind of feudalism. We need to ask more questions about the deployment and development of new technologies, from gene therapies, AI and robotics to consumer-level tech like augmented reality, machine learning and social networks.

Silicon Valley is less inspired to disrupt the world of the rich. It builds things to make their lives easier and ‘disrupts’ the existences of the poor and disadvantaged. The future is not evenly distributed and we should all be deeply concerned about that. But Wired virtually beating up Mark Zuckerberg? That’s not the answer. 

Amy Tan Q&A: “I don’t think about doom – but I know what it feels like”
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The author talks global warming, Donald Trump, and Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No 3”.

Amy Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952 to Chinese parents. Her first novel, “The Joy Luck Club”, was published in 1989 and later adapted into a major film. She has since published five other novels and two children’s books.

What’s your earliest memory?

The most vivid happened in the front yard of my first home in Fresno, California. My parents and older brother were on ladders picking fruit. One piece fell on my head, my brother laughed and I cried with indignation. I picked up the fruit and held it in my palm: a soft, fuzzy, golden ball.

Who are your heroes?

I admire many people for specific selfless deeds: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Peter Knights for founding nature organisation WildAid, Zheng Cao, a mezzo-soprano who healed others while struggling with cancer. Also, those who do compassionate work and stay anonymous. Many women fall into that category.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven. I became passionate about nature – noting changes over time and interactions with other elements in the ecosphere.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Looking up is a dangerous perspective to take when it comes to people who are by their nature political, and thus required to make imperfect compromises.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A timeless place on an island in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, surrounded by marine life, and the writers and composers of the 1930s.

Who would paint your portrait?

Dear God, spare me.

What’s your theme tune?

Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No 3”. It surges with passion, victory, delusion and  annihilation – good for all occasions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. My mother told me that when I was young, and I absolutely follow it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The leader of the less free world, the US despot I refer to as “45”. I am venomous in my feelings towards him and his spineless, hand-wringing, salivating toadies.

What single thing would make your life better?

Having another president.

When were you happiest?

Despite my disgust with our current president, I am extremely happy now. Happiness is cumulative, not temporal.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Naturalist illustrator. I love wildlife and learning something new by noticing details and patterns. It is work that requires solitude. In all those ways, it is very much like writing.

Are we all doomed?

The greatest threat that could doom all of us is global warming. It is coming with certainty, unless changes are made. But I do not think about doom, and I do know what doom feels like. I was in the CNN newsroom in New York on 9/11 when the first tower was hit. The day before, my doctor called me about some peculiar test results and said I likely had brain or pancreatic cancer… 9/11 made me forget I had been told that. As it turned out, it was not World War Three, it was not cancer.

“Where The Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir” is published by Fourth Estate

In many ways, we are all Alan Partridge – which is why he’s still so funny
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

We shudder as we see ourselves in the paradoxically self-loathing character.

My dad claims he once got a call from Radio Norwich that went something like this:

Radio Norwich producer: Hi, this is [insert name] from Radio Norwich.

My dad: A-HA!

Radio Norwich producer: Hello?

My dad: [deflated] A-ha…?

Radio Norwich producer: Is that Jonathan?

My dad: Yes, sorry, I was referencing... never mind.

This was an Alan Partridge moment for almost too many reasons to count. For the many, many Brits aware of Steve Coogan’s recurring character – a maladroit local radio presenter with Jupiter-sized delusions of grandeur – the “A-ha” is Alan’s ABBA-referencing catchphrase. Radio Norwich, of course, is synonymous with Alan’s disintegrating career.

This week the BBC announced a new Partridge series, set to parody the corporation’s most Partridge-y institution: the One Show. The BBC, which seem set on self-parodying self-flagellation since John Morton’s sitcom W1Adescribed the new show as a “heady mix of news and froth”. This description – a perfect dig at the “And now an interview with a gangster rapping sheep”-style One Show – absolutely must have been written either by Steve Coogan himself, or the character and show’s co-creator Armando Iannucci.

My dad’s utterly ham-fisted attempt at a joke referenced Alan Partridge’s second TV incarnation, I’m Alan Partridge.  And, in the most Partridge-esque way, it backfired before fizzling into a mildly embarrassing word sludge. But Partridge-ness – Partridgity, even – isn’t just a dad trait. Alan Partridge exists in us all, and that’s why he’s one of British comedy’s funniest creations.

Anybody who has ever tried to fit in by pretending to like a band (Alan on his favourite Beatles album: “I’d have to say [it’s] the best of the Beatles), or who has failed to find French circus performers funny can – with a pinch of self-loathing – relate to one of the most tactless and boorish creations of all time. And the self-loathing involved is an important part of this. Alan embodies that paradoxical British trait of simultaneously hating yourself, while also thinking you’re better than everyone. We shudder as we see ourselves in the character. A key reason why we can all laugh at the failed BBC chat show presenter-turned-provincial radio broadcaster, who plays at being suave, well connected and intellectual, is that, at some point, we’ve all pretended to be something we’re not. Who amongst us has never boasted about knowing a shit famous person, or been caught out while trying to have a view on a world event we know absolutely nothing about? Then, provided we’re cursed with the self-awareness Alan completely lacks, we’ve all looked back on those moments and said, “Fuck. I’m Alan Partridge.”

But then there’s the “thinking you’re better than everyone” part. When you sit down to watch an episode of any of the Alan Partridge series, you’re basically given half an hour in which you’re allowed to be a school bully. And it feels fantastic. From his appalling “sports casual” outfits, to his nerdy and profoundly anal use of niche industry lingo – even from industries that he’s never even worked in: “it’s like people who say Tannoy when they mean ‘public address system’. Tannoy is a brand name” –, we look at Partridge and get a kick out of understanding that he’s a complete twat, when he himself can't.

This laughing “at” is played on brilliantly in I’m Alan Partridge, when hotel receptionist Sophie, one of Sally Phillips’ early roles, can’t keep a straight face when speaking to Alan. Whether he’s complaining about having “cock piss Partridge” graffitied on his Rover 800, or likening her fellow receptionist Susan to a “lovely” Jersey cow, “ripe for milking”, Phillips almost broke the fourth wall by doing what we were all doing at home: pissing ourselves at what a complete idiot Alan is.

Alan is a manifestation of a kind of white, middle-class, middle England, dangerously sexually repressed bigot we don’t all necessarily know in person, but we at least know of. He’s that distant relative in his fifties, your dad’s second cousin’s husband Steve, whose Facebook posts are solely about immigration and cars, and who wouldn’t particularly get why Alan Partridge is funny. Which makes the whole piss take a kind of inside joke shared by an entire demographic.

The closest we have in real life to Alan Partridge is probably Jeremy Clarkson, who referenced this by ending Top Gear episodes with another Alan catchphrase: “And on that bombshell…”. In an episode of The Grand Tour that I was recently forced into watching by my aggravatingly heterosexual father and brother, Clarkson described the boot of a Tesla as big enough to fit an “owl sanctuary”. And if that wasn’t a reference to his own Partridgity, it was just spooky.

By parodying the Daily Mail-reading Clarkson type, Coogan and Iannucci punch neither up nor down. They just punch. Really hard. The writing and acting is so good that all Alan needs to do is say a brand name (Toblerone being a recurring example) and it’s somehow hilarious. He’s so culturally tuned into the agonisingly dull minutiae of petrol stations and roadside hotels that those things become actual viable jokes.

Maybe it’s the holy trinity of boorishness, delusions of grandeur and extreme pettiness that make Alan Partridge the perfect punch line/ punch bag. But – lest we forget – in the words of AP himself: “I’m Alan Partridge”. And so are you.

How Mexican directors came to dominate the Oscars
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

The US President might want to build a wall, but the future of film lies south of the United States border. 

In 2014, Alfonso Cuarón became the first Mexican filmmaker to win the Oscar for Best Director, when his work on ambitious sci-fi drama Gravity was lauded by the Academy. Four years on, the Best Director Oscar has been dominated by filmmakers of Mexican origin. Since Cuarón went home with the gold, his fellow countryman Alejandro G. Iñárritu has won twice, for Birdman and The Revenant. Although last year's award went to white director Damien Chazelle for La La Land, the trend now looks set to continue apace.

Guillermo del Toro, perhaps the most well-known proponent of the movement known as New Mexican Cinema, is the running favourite to win Best Director at this year's ceremony. His unusual fantasy romance The Shape of Water has the most nominations of any film, with 13, and Del Toro has hoovered up precursor prizes throughout the race. On Saturday night, he won the Directors' Guild of America Award, which is a near-perfect barometer for Oscar success. In the award's nearly-70-year history, it has only diverged from the Academy's pick on seven occasions.

But what is behind this stunning new wave of success for Mexican directors?

“I think it has been a long time coming,” says Dr Miriam Haddu, senior lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Royal Holloway University. “All three of these directors started around the same time in the 1990s, from similar backgrounds, and then moved to Hollywood, so it has probably been building up as the culmination of quite a lot of work.

“I think there are a lot of factors that have come into play to make them not just recognised as successful Mexican directors, but as successful directors. It might be timing that is crucial. It's reflective of the climate in Hollywood, which is now much more open to alternatives.”

Dr Marc Ripley, who researches Hispanic horror cinema at the University of Leicester, agrees the trio of Cuarón, Iñárritu and Del Toro have been hugely influential in bringing Mexican cinema to the masses.

“The three of them work quite closely together,” he says, “They have managed to bridge this gap between representing quite specific Mexican issues, but yet appealing to a wider international audience. In their latest films, they are working more internationally and with largely English-speaking casts, so their cinema obviously has a wider audience.”

Del Toro, in particular, is a filmmaker who has dazzled audiences for years with his eye for a monster and has made big Hollywood movies such as Hellboy and Blade II, alongside the more textured work of humanist ghost story Devil's Backbone and his dark fairytale masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is a fusion of those two halves – an entirely American story told with Del Toro's signature poetic flair.

The Shape of Water isn't the only Mexican influence to be felt at this year's Oscars. The easiest award to predict of the whole evening is Best Animated Feature, which will be handed to Pixar's Coco – a kaleidoscopic celebration of Mexico's annual Day of the Dead tradition. Ripley says the strength of the “Latino dollar” at the American box office has led to an improvement in representation and allowed the diversity of the USA to “reach as wide an audience as possible” on the big screen.

There's an irresistible urge to discuss the movie world's warm embrace for Mexican artists in the context of the US administration's threat to erect a border wall between the two countries. It's as if the push from Donald Trump to create a solid divide between the nations is being countered by the rich Mexican culture seeping through. When The Shape of Water is winning big at the Oscars and Coco was one of the biggest box office hits of last year, it's tough not to think the man in the White House looks a little red-faced.

Haddu says: “We know what the response by Hollywood stars has been to the Trump administration, so I think in many ways it has galvanised the Latino community and perhaps created a level of empathy from viewers, who are against the Trump rhetoric.”

The Academy has been both criticised and applauded for its cultural representation in recent years, from the righteous fury of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign to the euphoria when Barry Jenkins's Moonlight won Best Picture amid the calamitous, Carry On Oscars controversy of the notorious envelope mix-up. It's crucial, in that context, to point out that voters are seemingly in love with the filmmaking craft and extraordinary talent of directors born south of the border. President Trump might want to build a wall but, when it comes to culture, that division is a porous, flimsy structure.

If you miss the goofball Will Smith of the Nineties, you’re in luck: he’s on Instagram
February 13th, 2018, 05:56 AM

Via the app, Smith continues to offer the charismatic, wholesome silliness that catapulted him to fame in the 90s.

Remember the Fresh Prince Will Smith? Wicki-wicki-wild-wild-wild-west Will Smith? Goofball Will Smith?

That Will Smith was one of the greatest, and probably best-loved, comic actors of the Nineties and early Noughties. The multi-industry success achieved in his 20s and 30s – as a hip-hop artist, sitcom star and Hollywood leading man – was largely thanks to his guileless exuberance and larger-than-life physicality. A big kid in bright colours and baseball caps; he was family-friendly, but charismatic and self-assured. He offered an aspirational masculinity, but one grounded in wholesomeness and silliness. His was an irresistible charm. Well, that Will Smith is still here – on Instagram.



A post shared by Will Smith (@willsmith) on

Smith made no secret of his ambition to be “the biggest movie star in the world”. But after earning Oscar noms for his biographical performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, something went wrong. In 2018, Smith comes off the back of a string of critical and commercial bombs: the overly earnest, roundly-mocked Collateral Beauty, crushingly puerile” meme-fodder Suicide Squad, and the “painfully derivative” Netflix film Bright. Just last month, Richard Brody in the New Yorker claimed “Smith is at risk of becoming the new Tom Cruise”: a once-charming star, burdened by too many terrible projects, now an embarrassment.

But just before Christmas, 49-year-old Smith joined Instagram and started posting videos. Some are vlogger-style inspirational videos, like the one where he quotes the poet Rumi (“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”) and adds, “The Philly translation of that is: don’t be hanging with no jank ass jokers that don’t help you shine.” Some show off his comedy skills full-force: like the parody recreation of his sincerely hipster son Jayden Smith’s flashy music video “Icon”. In one, he proves he can still solve the Rubik’s Cube. In Australia, he films himself feeding a crocodile, with the silly-voiced intro: “Uh, welcome to the Will Smith’s first episode of When Dumb People Get Bit”. Much of it verges on corny Dad territory – but that’s part of its charm: just as he did in the Nineties, Smith offers a wholesome joy that millennials call “pure”, or “too good for this earth”.

And just like that, Smith is ascendant once more. In the two months since joining, he has racked up over 8 million followers. Beyond Instagram, on other social networking sites, clips of his videos, along with fans' declarations of love for them, go viral. “Following Will Smith on Instagram restored my faith in silliness,” one user writes, with over 8,000 favourites. They’re already much-memed:  a video of a young man frantically taking notes is captioned, “Me as soon as Will Smith posts an Instagram video preaching life lessons and handing out keys.” Inkoo Kang writes in Slate, “Smith’s Instagram is so compelling because his photos and videos feel like behind-the-scenes images from a sitcom where the movie star is rewriting TV dad–dom.” British culture writer Bim Adewunmi observes that Smith’s “Instagram renaissance” is, fittingly, a “fulfilment of his true destiny: to be an internet-Uncle Phil for millennials.” If you miss the Will Smith of the Nineties – you’re in luck. He’s only a few taps away.

New Statesman