New Statesman Contents
Just like Ukip, Marine Le Pen's National Front is slowly sliding into irrelevance
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

The FN's vice president just quit, and voters might be next.

France’s National Front (FN) bears many similarities to Britain’s Ukip: a divisive but influential leading figure, a burning hate for migrants and the European Union, and a tendancy towards constant internal strife. So following Ukip's implosion during and after last June's general election it is not all that susprising that the Front National has been taking a similar path.

Since Marine Le Pen was beaten by Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the French election last May, a series of internal fights has unfolded at the FN. The most recent row is also the most important to date: Florian Philippot, the FN’s vice president and Le Pen’s close advisor for years, has resigned.

It has been weeks in the making: early in September, Marine Le Pen had repeatedly asked him to give up leadership of one of the party’s internal groups, “The Patriots”, which he developed as his movement until it was seen as a threat to the party’s unity – a far-right version of Macron’s En Marche movement, if you will. As he refused to proceed, Le Pen officially removed him from his duties.

“Saddened, I am leaving the National Front,” Philippot tweeted. He explained on TV that he had been made a “vice president of nothing”: “I don’t have a taste for ridicule, neither one for doing nothing, so I am leaving the party.”

Philippot, 35, had been one of Le Pen’s most crucial allies since he joined the FN in 2011 and the party’s biggest representative in the East that heavily votes for Le Pen. He became the face of the party’s “dédiabolisation(de-demonisation) and relative openness on social issues. In a hilarious but telling episode, Philippot was recently criticised by FN members after he tweeted about eating at “Strasbourg’s best couscous restaurant” (for couscous is not a culturally French dish and FN die-hards would have rather seen him tucking into a good old choucroute).

Le Pen has claimed that Philippot’s political career is “finished”: “A tool like thus of the National Front, which is extremely powerful and with which one can share ideas (…) cannot be created in a snap of the fingers. All the ones who tried it have disappeared and it will be the case for Florian Philippot. This is the reason why I regret his departure.” In a letter to FN members, she denounced his “insulting and diffamatory attacks” against the party and promised them a “debate” on the future of the party.

There is nevertheless a reason she may soon regret the loss of her former advisor: Marine Le Pen is increasingly alone. Philippot’s resignation comes only three months after Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, left politics and her duties within the party. A long rival of Philippot’s, her brand of very socially conservative (even for FN standards) identity politics also had a strong following. They always fought internally but balanced each other out.

Now, with both gone, Le Pen will struggle to reach out to their different bases – even if, as she wants to believe, Philippot fails to take enough of her supporters with him. She has also lost credibility after her disastrous debate with Macron, where she appeared weak and confused. Within the party, many point back at the debate as the date she started losing ground.

Everyone in French politics seems to be launching their own movement these days. There is no proof that Macron’s political miracle can be replicated: Philippot, just like his hopeful peers, could completely fail to create any momentum.

But it’s the FN that is stuck: “Marine” had hoped to become Macron’s main opposition, but that role is being filled by far-left Mélenchon, who has positioned himself to lead the protest against the new labour reform. She has missed the boat, and the rats are leaving her sinking ship.

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“If not evolution then revolution”: temperature rises in Catalonia as independence vote looms
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Clashes between Barcelona and Madrid over the disputed referendum lead to protests and arrests.

Summer may finish today according to astronomers, but the heat in Barcelona has been steadily rising over the past few weeks. Things reached boiling point yesterday when the Spanish police arrested 14 Catalan officials responsible for organising a referendum on independence for the region. They also seized about 9.8 million ballots intended for this vote, which the Catalan government wants to hold on 1 October.

The Spanish central government, the conservative People’s Party (PP), is completely opposed to the referendum and has so far refused even to discuss it with the Catalan administration. This prompted the pro-independence Catalan parties in power to start planning it unilaterally.

On 6 September, the Catalan parliament passed the Self-Determination Referendum Act, which established how the vote will be organised and held. The question would be: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state with the form of a republic?” And since the electoral register can only be accessed by the Spanish authorities, whoever is allowed to vote in the Catalan regional elections can have their say.

Legal experts are divided over whether this kind of independence referendum is allowed by the Spanish constitution, which was approved in 1978. This was just three years after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, and one year after the first democratic elections since the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

According to the constitution, sovereignty resides with the Spanish people. Opponents of Catalan independence claim it is therefore up to the whole of Spain to decide such a matter – and that in any case, it would have to be approved by the Spanish government.

But those in favour of the Catalan process argue that, given the complete lack of political will in Madrid regarding the referendum, the unilateral way is legitimate even if it may be declared illegal according to Spanish law.

As expected, two weeks ago the constitutional court suspended the Catalan Self-Determination Referendum Act, and yesterday’s police operation followed. Shortly after the raid began, during a government control session in the Spanish parliament in Madrid, prime minister Mariano Rajoy said “the rule of law has worked and it’ll continue doing so”. He insisted that the government was just “doing its duty”.

In this charged atmosphere, while Rajoy was still speaking, the MPs of the Catalan parties supporting the referendum walked out of the room, while those of the ruling PP chanted: “Leave here your salaries!”

Later in Barcelona, the Catalan regional prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, said Spain had “de facto suspended self-government in Catalonia and de facto applied the state of emergency”. Surrounding him during his speech, several other high officials looked funereal.

Applying further heat to the situation, the head of the Spanish tax agency signed an order on Tuesday that gave control of the Catalan public finances to the Spanish state. From then on, and at least until the end of the year, the Catalan administration isn’t allowed to allocate any money that hasn’t been sanctioned by Madrid.

However, the Spanish central government could still go even further and, using Article 155 of the constitution, suspend self-government in Catalonia – not de facto but officially. This extreme measure, never used in modern Spain, would in theory make possible what Catalans often joke about: tanks from the Spanish army would drive down the avenues of Barcelona.

Catalonia is the richest Spanish region, last year contributing 19 per cent of the country's GDP, while its population represents about 18 per cent of the total. It has long considered itself historically and culturally different from the rest of Spain, and yet just a decade ago an independence referendum would have been inconceivable.

In 2006, just 15 per cent of Catalans wanted “an independent state”. But that year the ruling PP referred the Catalan statute to the constitutional court, which declared part of it illegal. Then, after the PP won the general elections in 2011, the Spanish government started refusing to engage with Catalonia on the issue. 

Support for Catalonia becoming an independent state remains at around 41 per cent in favour and just under 50 per cent against. However, when Catalans were asked if they would vote in a referendum not sanctioned by Madrid, 67.5 per cent said yes, and of those, 62.4 per cent would vote “Yes”.

As of today ballot boxes are still being kept in a secret location, and Puigdemont and other Catalan officials insist the referendum will be held one way or another. In the past, the Catalan PM has said that if “Yes” wins, Catalonia will declare its independence within 48 hours.

For now the atmosphere is tense. On Tuesday, thousands of people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest against the police operation, in front of several offices of the regional government that were being searched.

The biggest demonstration was next to the Catalan finance ministry, which was being searched by the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police. Many protesters were carrying the estelada, the unofficial flag of the independence movement – some worn it as a cape, others waved it in the air.

“We are protesting against this unjust situation”, said 47-year-old sales rep Ferran Batalla. “[The referendum] is not an aggression, it’s an option to have justice, an option to ask the people what they think."

The protesters chanted in Catalan, “We will vote!”, and in Spanish, “We want to vote!” Some were distributing flyers that read in Catalan, “We vote to be free”, and graffiti on a telephone booth said in Catalan, “Voting is not a crime.”

In English a giant banner on top of the building that hosts the Catalan finance ministry read: “Welcome to the Catalan Republic”. At one point, police coming out of the building were met with deafening whistles before the crowd started chanting in Catalan: “Out with the occupying forces!”

“I don’t want to fight anybody in Spain, but we’ve reached a point in which we can’t understand each other any more”, said Batalla, who complained about the fact that the central government has always sternly refused to talk about planning a referendum. “When the state doesn’t want to negotiate, and doesn’t want you to leave, and doesn’t want to hear from you, and mistreats you… They think we are stupid, and we are fed up and this is over, because they are making us feel as if we are the bad ones."

In nearby Plaça de Catalunya just a month ago, barely a flag could be seen among the huge vigil following the terror attack on Barcelona. And if that proved to be a show of social and political unity between Madrid and Barcelona, today the Spanish government on the one side, and the Catalan authorities and many of their people on the other, couldn’t be more polarised.

Many Catalans mention the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and the agreement with Westminster that preceded it, as an example of how things could and should happen. But the two situations are actually very different.

Catalonia makes up a far larger chunk of Spain's population and economic output than Scotland does of the UK. Meanwhile, Spain has a constitution that the government considers untouchable, while there is nothing similar in the British legal framework.

Late Tuesday, Rajoy made an official statement urging the Catalan government to get back to  law and to democracy, and stop at last this “escalation of extremism”.

"This referendum can’t be held, it has never been legal nor legitimate,” he said, before adding: “And every illegal act and every infringement will get its response, which will be determined, proportional and rigorous”.

The PM’s intervention was followed by a huge cacerolada in Barcelona and many other Catalan cities – meaning people started banging pans in their windows in protest. In the streets, demonstrations went on through the night as people tried to prevent the Guardia Civil from leaving the Catalan finance ministry. The protest was mostly peaceful, but police cars parked outside were destroyed while people chanted a rhyme in Spanish: “¡Esta noche os vais sin coche!”, or “Tonight you will leave without a car!”

Finally, at around 4am the first Guardia Civil agents started leaving the building. There were moments of tension between the protesters and the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan regional police, who opened the way for the Guardia Civil.

Wednesday began calmer, as both sides considered their next steps. The Spanish government remains focused on preventing the vote from happening, but has said it will be open to dialogue afterwards. “On 2 (October) we will talk and this new dynamic will take us to look for solutions because the coexistence of all Spaniards must continue in Spain... We’ll have to sit together and talk, and that we will do”, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, the spokesperson for the government, told Spanish Radio. 

By the afternoon, there hadn’t been word of response from the Catalan authorities, but having invested so much in the referendum and seeing the atmosphere in the streets, it’s not clear how they could backtrack.

In a bar in the Eixample area of Barcelona, right outside the city centre, people discuss the situation over their mid-morning coffee. “What happened yesterday was shocking, independently of whether one supports independence or not,” says 37-year-old Italian IT consultant Paolo Mosca, who has lived Barcelona since 2013.

“I understand that within the Spanish legal frame the referendum isn’t legal, I know this, but within the Catalan legal frame it is legal because it was approved in the Catalan parliament”, says Sergi Pedraza, a developer and who was born in Catalonia as the son of Andalusian parents.

“The only possible solution, because the situation has become unsustainable, is a referendum, but one well planned and agreed with the state”, says Álex Castaño, 28, also a developer, originally from Seville and who has lived in Barcelona since 2015.

All three would be eligible to vote and Sergi says he’d vote “Yes” while Álex says he wouldn’t vote. Paolo says he’d vote “Yes” because he understands and supports the will of those who want independence. But he and Álex say they’d probably leave if Catalonia becomes independent, because of the uncertainty of what may happen to today’s cosmopolitan Barcelona.

By noon the street demonstrations had resumed, this time in front of the Catalan High Court, where hundreds of people, many of them again carrying and wearing esteladas, were protesting against yesterday’s arrests. Loud Catalan music could be heard.

“The government in Madrid is insulting the intelligence of the Catalan people,” says retired businessman Enric T Coromina, who adds that he studied law and is “politically from the right”. He is wearing a barretina, a Catalan traditional red wool hat, and a T-shirt saying in English: “Make no mistake, I’m Catalan, not Spanish”. He’s sitting on a folding chair; has brought food, water and a blanket, and says he’s ready to spend the night here. He’s sure the vote will happen – he will back “Yes”– and will be legitimate even if not legal under Spanish law.

"If evolution is not possible from within the system, then there’s only one other way left and that’s revolution, civil disobedience,” he concludes, as more and more people join the protest.

Photo: Getty
No, Virgin Trains East Coast, I will not bid for the “luxury” of first class
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Train tickets are already the height of decadence. 

You're sitting in standard class on a train journey from London to Edinburgh, and it's rammed. The man whose elbow keeps digging into yours is eating chips, and the grease is making you feel sick. You keep bumping legs with the man opposite. The woman sitting next to him is listening to music, with headphones seemingly designed to emit a tinny, irritating beat. And this is only the start. You've got five hours left to go. 

Virgin Trains East Coast wants to offer you a way out of this hellhole. Disgruntled standard class passengers can now bid for an upgrade to first class, where they can stretch out their legs, log in to the free wifi, proffer their glass for a top up of wine and look forward to their complimentary dinner. Prices start at just £5. According to the company's commercial director, this will allow passengers a chance to "treat themselves". The chief executive of Seatfrog, Iain Griffin, which runs the bidding platform, said it gave passengers "the chance to get a really good deal".

I can only assume Iain is a man who has never caught a Virgin Trains East Coast train before. Let's assume you're able to plan ahead. An advance ticket for a train leaving London on Wednesday 11 October at 7pm and returning at 7.35pm on Friday will set you back £72.50. That's the cheapest option. Or you can catch the Megabus, which takes more than 9 hours to get there. In fact, the price varies wildly. Buy a similar journey next week, and the cheapest tickets cost £102.50.

What riles the true East Coaster is also that it wasn't always this way. During the golden age, 2009 to 2015, East Coast was managed by the government (yes,  nationalised trains), and it had a generous loyalty programme, which allowed frequent travellers to trade points for full train journeys. It was still pricey (and profitable for the government), but regular customers felt valued, and there was a vigorous campaign to stop the government handing the franchise to Virgin Trains. 

Virgin promptly switched the loyalty scheme to Nectar. As the campaign group Save East Coast Rewards pointed out at the time, a £255 spend that once earned you a free train ticket now merely bought a sandwich. Not only that, but travellers complained that the cheapest advance tickets were harder to get hold of. 

It is already common for the East Coast traveller sitting in a packed train to be serenaded by announcements that the First Class carriages are spacious and empty. With First Class carriages taking up a third of all carriages on some journeys, there seems to me a more obvious solution - abolish First Class. 

Over the years, and especially during the golden age of nationalisation, I did occasionally find it worth my while to upgrade and drink wine for five hours straight. For £5 extra, it is great. One time, before it was abolished, I even had dinner in the buffet car. But £5 is the minimum starting bid, not the maximum, and frankly, I don't need to "treat myself" when I travel by Virgin Trains East Coast. Every time I pay more than £100 for a train to go home to visit my family in Edinburgh, I'm spending more than I would do for any other luxury. 

Photo: Getty
Here's something the political class has completely missed about Brexit
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

As Hillary Clinton could tell them, arguments about trade have a long, long afterlife. 

I frequently hear the same thing at Westminster, regardless of whether or not the person in question voted to leave the European Union or not: that, after March 2019, Brexit will be “over”.

It’s true that on 30 March 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the EU whether the government has reached a deal with the EU27 on its future relationship or not. But as a political issue, Brexit will never be over, regardless of whether it is seen as a success or a failure.

You don’t need to have a crystal ball to know this, you just need to have read a history book, or, failing that, paid any attention to current affairs. The Democratic primaries and presidential election of 2016 hinged, at least in part, on the consequences of the North American Free Trade Association (Nafta). Hillary Clinton defeated a primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, who opposed the deal, and lost to Donald Trump, who also opposed the measure.

Negotiations on Nafta began in 1990 and the agreement was fully ratified by 1993. Economists generally agree that it has, overall, benefited the nations that participate in it. Yet it was still contentious enough to move at least some votes in a presidential election 26 years later.

Even if Brexit turns out to be a tremendous success, which feels like a bold call at this point, not everyone will experience it as one. (A good example of this is the collapse in the value of the pound after Britain’s Leave vote. It has been great news for manufacturers, domestic tourist destinations and businesses who sell to the European Union. It has been bad news for domestic households and businesses who buy from the European Union.)

Bluntly, even a successful Brexit is going to create some losers and an unsuccessful one will create many more. The arguments over it, and the political fissure it creates, will not end on 30 March 2019 or anything like it. 

Photo: Getty
Mark Sampson's exit leaves the FA still trying to convince itself of its own infallibility
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Football's governing body won't be able to repair the damage to its reputation in silence.

By the end, it appeared as if Mark Sampson was weathering the storm.

Despite personal reflections that the uproar and scandal that has surrounded his recent tenure as England women's football manger was taking a toll, he seemed, as of Tuesday night, firmly ensconced in the post he had held since 2013.

Player Eniola Aluko’s claims of bullying and racism against the coach – given little backing from teammates and, on balance, disregarded by consecutive enquiries – remained a persistent story, yet talk of a fresh investigation were trumped in importance by Sampson’s continued presence at training and in the dugout.

The BBC’s occasionally rabid attachment to proceedings gave the saga prolonged oxygen, but when Sampson seemed to retain the FA’s support – taking charge of the Lionesses’ 6-0 win over Russia on Tuesday night – the worst appeared to be over.

With hindsight, the vultures were simply sharpening their talons.

Sampson’s sacking – less than 24 hours after that Russia game – came after a report was unearthed detailing a historic complaint against him from his time coaching Bristol Academy – a job he left to take up the England post.

In what has long become customary, the FA received these claims nearly four years ago yet failed to act definitively – initially concluding that their new coach was “not a safeguarding risk”. However as the recent crisis depended, the full details of these initial accusations were allegedly not revealed to senior leadership.

Confirming Sampson's departure on Wednesday, FA chief executive Martin Glenn carried a pained expression reminiscent of former incumbent Mark Palios, who, in another entry in the annals of great FA crises, resigned in 2004 as a result of an affair with FA secretary Faria Alam.

Glenn will hope that his own head is not sought in the weeks ahead as his conduct throughout the Sampson saga is probed.

It also marks yet another turbulent 12 months for the beleaguered governing body, who almost exactly a year ago to the day, parted company with England men’s coach Sam Allardyce after just a single game in charge – the former Bolton and Sunderland coach getting the bullet as a result of transfer advice offered to undercover journalists.

The Allardyce departure was handled with uncharacteristic efficiency – a symptom, perhaps, of the initial scepticism behind his appointment rather than any particular reflection on his crimes.

With clear-eyed judgement, it is difficult not to have a portion of sympathy for Sampson – who, cleared by those investigations, maintained the very visible backing of his squad – right up until Wednesday’s bitter denouement.

That he’s been paid in full for the three-year contract signed last summer speaks for how soft a line the FA took on the events that forced the sacking – hoping, perhaps, for as quiet an ending as possible for both parties.

Regrettably, for the FA at least, considerable damage to their reputation will not be something they can repair in silence – not in an era where women’s football enjoys such a high profile in the national consciousness and the body continues to mark itself an easy target for criticism. 

The exact contents of those 2014 allegations and that report are sure to be known down the line – non-disclosure agreements willing – but are as of now only conjecture and innuendo.

Without details, it’s difficult to know how hard to judge Sampson. The facts of his performance on the pitch mark him out as having been an accomplished coach. That is no longer the exclusive measure of success.

Detractors will murmur darkly about there being no smoke without fire, while his supporters will point to the unique nature of the job and the often confrontational elements of its duties.

Sampson, at 34, is still a relatively young man and may be able to coach again once the rancour has subsided – although with a reputation severely bloodied, will look on the two-year salary windfall with some gratitude.

Despite Glenn’s insistence that his former manager is “clear to work” in the sport, it’s hard to envisage his career ever resuming in the women’s game.

The FA itself is again left rudderless as it tries to convince itself of its own infallibility. Flabby management structures and the perception of being an antiquated country club – valid or not – will be revisited with relish.

Perhaps positively, it could herald a more honest conversation behind what success looks like for the national game as a whole. Inclusiveness and development of a robust culture are often the first words to disappear from the vocabulary once on field results start to falter.  

For once, the identity of the next coach is not the urgent dilemma facing the FA.

Photo: Getty
Trump’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is the new darling of the neocons
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

She issued a scathing denunciation of the “flawed and very limited” Iran nuclear deal.

Remember how some people used to think that an isolationist Donald Trump would slay the zombie neocons of the Republican Party? “Here’s why Trump’s foreign policy terrifies neocons” (Washington Post). “The Neocons v Donald Trump” (New York Times). “Trump,” wrote the former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks in Foreign Policy, “has little time for… neoconservatives.”

Surprise! It was all a(nother) big lie. Consider Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who has emerged as the new darling of the neoconservatives. On 5 September, Haley addressed an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) – home to the likes of Paul Wolfo­witz and John Bolton and dubbed “Neocon Central” by its critics – and issued a scathing denunciation of the “flawed and very limited” Iran nuclear deal.

The 2015 deal relaxed sanctions on Tehran in exchange for new restrictions on, and inspections of, Iran’s nuclear programme. Formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was painstakingly negotiated between the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US), the European Union and Iran. And yet the Republican-led US Congress passed a separate law insisting that the president notify lawmakers every 90 days whether Iran is in compliance. Trump last did so in July – but with great reluctance.

At the AEI, Haley argued that the president would be within his rights to refuse to re-certify the deal in October. Yet, in true Trumpian fashion, her speech in support of that argument contained a long list of demonstrable untruths, including: “Iran has been caught in multiple violations over the past year and a half”; “Inspectors are not allowed to look everywhere they should look”; and the deal “wasn’t supposed to be just about nuclear weapons”.

Report after report from International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors has confirmed that Iran is sticking to the JCPOA terms. “Haley’s speech was the most compelling argument I have heard against the deal, but dishonest in key ways,” Ilan Goldenberg, who served as the Iran team chief in the Pentagon under Barack Obama, tells me. “Especially with regards to the quality of the inspections regime, which is incredibly rigorous and nearly unprecedented.”

It is worth noting that the 45-year-old Haley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, is a foreign policy neophyte: she was appointed as US ambassador to the UN despite having no experience of international affairs and diplomacy. Neocons, however, like empty vessels. The former Reagan officials Wolfowitz and Richard Perle jumped on board the know-nothing George W Bush’s campaign in 2000 and the pundit Bill Kristol helped persuade John McCain to make the fact-free Sarah Palin his running mate in 2008. As my old boss Arianna Huffington once observed of Palin: “She’s perfect for the neocons: likeable on the outside, a blank slate on the inside.”

Haley, to be fair, is much smarter and politically savvier than Bush and Palin. She has impressed liberals such as the philanthropist Melinda Gates, who told Quartz that the UN ambassador “is doing a particularly good job”, and the Eurasia Group director, Ian Bremmer, who calls her an “exceptionally talented politician”. She is the daughter of Indian immigrants, Sikhs from the Punjab, and, according to a recent Vox profile, “She stands out in an administration run chiefly by white men. Telegenic and poised, she has a knack for the limelight…”

In the short term, a US state department source tells me, the ambitious Haley has her eye on being secretary of state (the incumbent, Rex Tillerson, is losing Trump’s confidence). In the long term, she wants to run for president, no less. Her undermining of the Iran deal will only help boost her credentials in the eyes of the neocon-heavy Republican foreign policy establishment. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to lay the blame for a potential nuclear crisis with Iran solely on Haley. Trump has described the nuclear deal as “the worst deal ever” and calls Iran “the number one terror state”. He appointed not only the hawkish Haley to his cabinet but also his defence secretary, James Mattis, who once described the three biggest threats to US national security as “Iran, Iran, Iran”, as well as the CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, who has claimed that the Iranians are “professionals at cheating”.

Trump has long insisted there is a better deal to be done with Tehran. As ever, he is deluded. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted on 14 September: “The #JCPOA is not (re)negotiable. A ‘better’ deal is pure fantasy.” On 13 September, 80 of the world’s leading nuclear nonproliferation specialists issued a joint statement warning that “abandoning the deal” would “isolate the United States” and “increase the likelihood of wider conflict” in the Middle East.

Then there is the knock-on effect on North Korea. If, according to the US government, the Iran deal is not worth the paper it is written on, how can anyone expect Kim Jong-un to agree to a similar deal to curb his own nuclear programme? “Why, in the midst of a major nuclear crisis on North Korea, Trump would generate a new crisis on Iran is beyond me,” says Goldenberg.

The answer is as clear as it is dispiriting: Trump is obsessed with undoing Obama’s signature achievements at home (health care) and abroad (the Iran deal). A Republican president without a grand political vision of his own has made it his mission to do the exact opposite of whatever his Democratic predecessor did.

So, goodbye to the Iran deal. Welcome back to the neocons. And God help both the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, where millions of lives hang in the balance. Trump’s balance, that is. 

Photo: Getty
Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Photo: Getty
The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.

                                                                                       

A National Trust property. Photo: Getty
How will Labour manage its Brexit divisions?
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

The EU is the only issue on which party activists significantly diverge from Jeremy Corbyn. 

For decades, Labour has relished the Conservatives' unending civil war over Europe. But the opposition has its own divisions to contend with. There are those in Labour who regard its current stance as too Europhile (seven MPs voted for the Tories' EU Withdrawal Bill) and a larger number who regard it as too Eurosceptic (49 MPs voted for single market membership in June). 

The party's recent support for single market and customs union membership during a Brexit "transition period" provided a point of unity and a dividing line with the Conservatives. But tensions endure. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer did not commit to permanent single market membership on the grounds that it could force continued free movement (which Labour's manifesto pledged to end). For a significant number of MPs, concentrated in the West Midlands and Yorkshire, the UK's future European relationship must involve significant curbs on immigration (35 per cent of the party's 2017 voters backed Leave). 

Others on the left of the party, most notably Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, have long spoken of the single market as an obstacle to socialism (Corbyn voted against its creation in 1986 and against all subsequent major EU legislation). 

At next week's Labour conference, Brexit could prove the greatest flashpoint. The trade union movement (which was pivotal in the transition debate) and business lobbyists (alive to the possibility of a Labour government) will both push for a softer stance.

Brexit is also the only major issue on which Labour activists significantly diverge from Corbyn. recent poll found that 66 per cent of members believe the UK should “definitely” remain in the single market, with a further 20.7 per cent more favourable than not. Nearly half of the Labour grassroots (49 per cent) support a referendum on the final Brexit deal, with a further 29.4 per cent inclined towards one.

Constituency parties have submitted motions backing single market membership and free movement, which could be selected for debate next week. Corbyn has long voiced his belief that activists should have greater influence over policymaking.

Those on the left opposed to Corbyn's stance, include Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the TSSA union, and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister. The latter recently told me: "Borders should be an enemy of all progressives: either we are internationalists, or we are not. Those of us who have been critical of neoliberal globalisation have always pointed out that we have the free movement of goods, commodities and capital – but not of people."

Others, however, believe that Labour should maintain greater ambiguity and focus on exploiting the Conservatives' divisions. As a Labour insider told me: "You shouldn't give yourself the problems of government when you don't have the advantages of government." Labour, he suggested, should follow former leader John Smith's adroitly tactical approach to the Maastricht Treaty. 

At present, there is little external pressure for Labour to soften its Brexit stance. The Liberal Democrats, who have demanded a referendum on the final deal, are still flatlining in the polls and a new centrist party remains a fantasy. Corbyn and other shadow cabinet ministers are mindful of the risk of alienating Labour's Eurosceptic voters. For now, they are following the advice of Napoleon: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."

Photo: Getty
Ruling the waves: should the UK own its offshore wind?
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

A new report from Labour Energy Forum makes the case for greater public ownership in the offshore sector.

Rule, Britainnia! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves to EU policy again. So goes the thinking of the Brexiteers. But little mention is made of the foreign companies ruling our waves – via offshore wind.

According to a new report by the Labour Energy Forum, over 90 per cent of the UK’s offshore wind is owned by non-UK entities. Plus, over 50 per cent of is controlled by public, often state-owned entities, like the Danish wind company DONG.

In contrast, UK public entities own less than 1 per cent of the total wind farms already built or under construction. That translates to just one single wind turbine: a lonely creature, barely off the beach at Levenmouth in Scotland.

At a time when UK already generates more energy from offshore wind than any other nation and the costs are tumbling, does this ownership model put Britain at a disadvantage?

The government's Department for Business, Energy and industrial Strategy avoids answering this question head-on. Instead it focuses on how overseas investment can benefit service businesses: “Over £11bn of investment in new UK offshore wind farms is due to take place over the next four years with around half of the expenditure in planning, building and running offshore projects going to British companies,” a spokesperson told the New Statesman.

But what about future profit? If offshore wind is eventually able to power domestic demand six times over, as the Offshore Valuation Group predicts, how can the UK public reap the rewards of potential sale abroad?

“The UK has such enormous resources we should be leading, not lagging,” says the Labour Energy Forum’s report author, Mika Minio-Paluello of Transition Economics. Theresa May’s sale of the UK’s Green Investment Bank in April ended the coalition’s experiment in public sector ownership of the green economy, and since then their ambitions have been “limited”.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Minio-Paluello has spent a lot of time in Germany and seen the benefits of the public ownership route. The city of Munich never privatised its local energy supply system, she says. They are now working towards a 2025 target of 100 percent clean energy by building offshore wind farms, including around the UK. “They hadn’t farmed the staff out to the private sector or made as many cutbacks, which meant they could engage with [the renewable transition] as a society as a whole.”

The potential gains for the UK are substantial: from more control over where money is spent and who is employed, to greater tax revenues. “Offshore wind is already breathing life back into ports like Grimsby,” the report says, “but more stimulus and direction is needed. Especially as the fossil-fuel sector gives way to the clean energy economy.”

Yet is the UK already too far behind to catch up and compete with Europe's energy giants? Creating a fully independent public offshore wind company that builds its own wind farms is not a realistic short-term goal, Minio-Paluello says. But you have to start somewhere; the important thing is to be an active partner in the process.

Some UK local authority pension funds have already put money into the Green Investment Bank’s offshore wind fund – yet the hands-off approach means they have no direct influence on how the projects are carried out, staffed and supplied. A more involved option could see UK public bodies operating within the sector in partnership with more established companies. Even as non-operating partners, such bodies could still set requirements on local content and job creation – something that is especially important considering the low union density within the sector at present, the report notes.

A joint enterprise between the non-profit company Energy for Londoners and the Danish energy giant DONG, for example, could build a new windfarm with part UK public ownership. This is not fundamentally different from the councils who already invest in onshore wind and solar farms, Minio- Paluello suggests, “it’s just bigger”.

Such a scheme would allow the UK entities to build up their experience and staffing in the sector, opening the door to grander ambitions in the future. Plus it could bring down energy costs: public companies like DONG and Vattenfall have already led the way towards building subsidy-free sites, while access to cheaper capital can be passed on as savings to the consumer.

Without such interventions, some fear a return to the ill-winds of the Thatcher era, when the revenues from the North Sea Oil boom were squandered and government stakes sold off. “I think it’s quite possible that in 30 years we will look back and ask why did we privatise all our offshore wind sector?” Minio-Paluello says. 

The Labour Party is starting to explore the options, and campaigns like Switched On London and Manchester’s Energy Democracy are also doing their part. But a wind of change must blow from Westminster too – and soon.

Photo: Getty
Carwyn Jones is preparing for a fight with the UK government
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

From Labour's soft-nationalist wing, Jones has thought carefully about constitutional politics. 

This week's 20th anniversary of the 1997 Yes vote on devolution in Wales was a rather low-key affair. But then while there are plenty of countries around the world that celebrate an Independence Day, few nations or regions around the world would make much fuss about "Partial Autonomy Day".

The most important single event of the day was, almost certainly, the address by First Minister Carwyn Jones at the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ 20th anniversary conference. The sometimes diffident-seeming Welsh Labour leader has rarely been on stronger form. Much of his speech was predictable: there were his own recollections of the 1997 referendum; some generous reflections on the legacy of his now-departed predecessor, Rhodri Morgan; and a lengthy list of identified achievement of devolved government in Wales. But two other features stood out.

One, which might have struck any observers from outside Wales was the strongly Welsh nationalistic tone of the speech. In truth this has long been typical for Jones, and was a very prominent element of the successful Labour general election campaign in Wales. A fluent Welsh-speaker and long a part of the soft-nationalist wing of Welsh Labour, the First Minister briefly considered what would have been the consequences of the achingly-close 1997 ballot having gone the other way. Wales, we were told, would no longer have had the right to be considered a nation – it might even (gasp!) have lost the right to have its own national football team. But this theme of the speech was also linked to devolution: why should Wales not have parity of treatment on devolved matters with Scotland?

The most striking feature of the speech, however, was the confidence and combativeness with which the First Minister set about attacking the UK government on constitutional matters. This territory has often appeared to be the area which most animates Jones, and on which he is most comfortable. He has clearly thought a great deal about how to protect and develop the constitutional status of devolved Wales. The First Minister was clearly deeply unimpressed by the UK government’s handling of Brexit as a whole, and he linked Brexit to broader problems with the UK government’s approach to the constitution. Brexit was declared in the speech to be the "biggest threat to devolution since its inception" – and the audience were left in no doubt as to where the blame for that lay. Jones was also clearly very comfortable defending the joint stance he has taken with the Scottish National Party First Minister of Scotland, in opposing the EU Withdrawal Bill and much of the UK government’s approach to Brexit negotiations. This high level Labour-SNP cooperation – extraordinary, given the otherwise utterly toxic relations between the two parties – was argued to be the necessary consequence of the UK government’s approach, and the threat of a power-grab by Westminster of powers that are currently devolved. 

Finally, the First Minister had one new card up his sleeve. He was able to announce a Commission on Justice in Wales, to be chaired by a figure of impeccable authority: the soon-to-retire Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, John Thomas. The clear intention of the Welsh government seems to be to use this commission to advance their agenda of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction. This is another matter on which there appears to be little current common ground with the UK government.

Carwyn Jones emerged from the general election as a greatly strengthened figure: having led the Labour campaign in Wales when it appeared that the party might be in difficulty, he deservedly accrued much political capital from Welsh Labour’s success in June. The First Minister has been thinking imaginatively about the UK constitution for some years. But for a long time he failed even to carry much of the Welsh Labour party with him. However, he succeeded in having many of his ideas incorporated into the Labour UK manifesto for June’s election; he is no longer a voice crying out in the wilderness. On the anniversary of devolution, Jones said little that was wholly new. But the combination of everything that he said, and the tone and confidence with which he said it, was striking. This was not the speech of a man looking to back away from a confrontation with the UK government. Wales seems up for a fight.

Getty
I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Photo: National Theatre
From war and slavery to prison – life inside an immigration detention centre
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

David spent five years locked in a house in Britain. Then he spent two years in immigration detention centres. 

Visitors at the immigration detention centre are met by Sid the Sloth, balancing an acorn just as he does in the family film Ice Age. The picture is one of the brightly coloured murals adorning the otherwise bare walls of the visitor's entrance. The lurid paintwork sits in stark juxtaposition to the barbed wire outside, and the metal detector and eight sets of doors which visitors must pass through.

It is a thin veneer which fails to mask a system containing institutionalised abuse from top to bottom. It isn't surprising, then, that one of the conditions of my visit was not to identify the centre - the volunteers I joined fear having visiting rights withdrawn by the company in charge.

Once inside I met Sivan, a 32-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker who came to Britain clinging to the underside of a lorry. He had been tortured by the Turkish authorities. For Sivan the children’s cartoons in the visitor’s entrance held a particularly cruel irony. Detainees at the centre are not allowed smartphones, and with no access to email Sivan’s wife, also a Kurdish asylum seeker, is unable to send her husband pictures of their first child. The couple have not seen each other in the two months since Sivan was detained. That day, in the visitor’s lounge, Sivan saw his son for the first time. Holding photographs of the little boy in his hands, Sivan’s face momentarily lit up as it split with joy and then sorrow.

Sivan does not know when he will be able to see his young family - or if they will ever be able to be together.

Across Britain more than 3,000 people, many fleeing war and torture, are locked up indefinitely in immigration centres. They arrive in Britain seeking refuge. But are shut away in privately-run prisons before being forcibly removed. Often with little or no English, detainees rely on volunteers to help them navigate Britain’s complex immigration system.

At the volunteer hub, which helps 80 of the 500 men in the centre each week, I met former detainees who all had one thing in common: the mental torture that indefinite detention inflicts. Like David, a quiet Ghanaian who has never really been free. He was kept as a slave on a plantation until traffickers brought him to Britain aged 13. Here he spent five years locked in a house, when not being forced to work 14-hour days in a warehouse. He finally escaped only to spend 11 years waiting for his asylum application to be processed - still ongoing despite clear medical evidence of his torture during imprisonment. He has spent two years in immigration detention centres. And as he waits he now has to register his presence with the authorities every Tuesday. He is terrified that when he does he won’t return to his four-year-old daughter, but instead be returned to captivity by the Home Office, without explanation.

Another former detainee Daniel, a tailor from Iran who fled five years ago, spent five months in detention when he first arrived in Britain. He describes being locked up with no time limit as "one of the worst times of my life", and still needs anti-depressants. “It really damaged my mind,” Daniel told me. “You don’t know when the process will be finished and you’re just waiting, waiting. You don’t know what’s going on.”

I heard from detainees who have had medical appointments they have waited months for cancelled because the centre wouldn’t pay for transport. Some kept three in a room with a toilet between the beds. Others woken in the middle of the night to see their friend dragged from their bed and assaulted by guards before being taken for deportation. Detainees employed to clean the centre for an exploitative £3 a day, just to afford necessities like toiletries. Or they stay trapped by fear in their rooms because they are afraid of the ex-prisoners, many who have committed serious crimes, locked up around them. I heard too of solitary confinement used routinely as a punishment for those considered not to be compliant. More than one detainee said immigration centres are worse than prisons. And they are right.

Britain is the only place in Europe which still locks people up with no time limit. Despite the government’s promise to reduce both the numbers - and the time spent there - progress is still far too slow. Last year 27,819 people entered detention. Some have been there more than five years.

Barely a week passes without a new report of violence or suicide or rape or abuse, inflicted on those who came to our country for help. The government should hang its head in shame. The Home Office must stop turning a blind eye to what it must know what is happening to those in its care. It’s clear that this is a broken and barbaric system. After seeing it for myself, I’m more convinced than ever that the use of indefinite detention has to end.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed for this article.

Photo: Getty
Michel Barnier is Britain's best friend, but the Brexiteers are too shallow to notice
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

The right's obsession with humilating a man who should be a great British asset is part of why negotiations are in a mess. 

Sam Coates of the Times has the inside track on what Theresa May is planning to say in her big speech in Florence tomorrow: a direct appeal to the leaders of the European Union’s member states over the head of Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator.

I explained some of the problems with this approach in my morning briefing earlier today, but just to reiterate: the major difficulty is that Barnier’s mandate as a negotiator hasn’t emerged fully formed from the mind of some scheming bureaucrat in the European Commissio, but after discussion and agreement by the heads of member states. There are problems with the EU approach to sequencing talks, but the chances of changing it by appealing to the people who set it in the first place seems unlikely, to put it mildly.  

Barnier seems to occupy a strange position in the demonology of right-wing Brexiteers, I suspect largely due to ignorance about how the EU works, and in some cases Francophobia. The reality is that Barnier is the single politician outside of the United Kingdom with the most to lose from a bad Brexit deal.

If the Brexit talks end badly, then that will be the first line of Barnier’s obituary. Back in his native France, the centre-right is in opposition and none of the candidates vying to lead the Republicans are are going to give him a big domestic job to save his reputation.

His dream of parlaying a successful turn as the EU27’s chief negotiator into running the Commission relies not only on the talks succeeding, but him cultivating a good relationship with the heads of government across the EU27. In other words: for Barnier to get what he wants, he needs both to secure a good deal and to keep to the objectives set for him by the heads of member states. A good deal for all sides is a great deal for Barnier. 

As a result, the Brexit elite ought to see Barnier as what he really is: their best friend on the other side of the table. Instead, they are indulging in fantasies about tricking Barnier, undermining Barnier, and overcoming Barnier. In short, once again, they are bungling Brexit because they don’t want to think about it or approach it seriously. 

Photo: Getty
Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network

Photo: Getty
At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Getty
NS#235: The Circle of Boris
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

The New Statesman podcast with Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush.

Helen and Stephen are joined by satirist and Private Eye writer Craig Brown to discuss the royal family and his new book about Princess Margaret. Then they analyse the way that Boris Johnson's Brexit intervention was amplified by the right-wing media. Finally, they answer a vital question: will Corbynism dominate the Labour party forever?

You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed: http://rss.acast.com/newstatesman, or listen using the player below.

Further reading:

Helen's column about Universal Credit.

Craig Brown's book: Ma'am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.

“People want the shiny stuff. We’re a bit too real”: the rise, fall and return of Tricky
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Two decades ago, he captured the dark side of Cool Britannia and was set for global stardom. What happened?

When Maxinquaye, the debut album by the Bristolian rapper and producer Tricky, was nominated for three Brit Awards in 1996, he nearly came to blows with Liam Gallagher in a toilet at Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London. “I had to keep them apart,” said Julian Palmer, who worked for Tricky’s then record label, Island. “I told Liam he didn’t want to try any of that working-class macho stuff around someone like Tricky.”

Many years later, Tricky, whose real name is Adrian Thaws, visited an old acquaintance in London for the first time in a decade. Thaws was living in Paris. Both men went to a pub in west London. At one point, Thaws glared over his friend’s shoulder at four men in business suits, before leaping to his feet and yelling, “What are you fucking staring at?” His friend stood up to calm the confrontation. Finally, they explained that they were staring because they were trying to work out if he was Tricky. “I think that rage is always there,” Thaws’s friend told me. “It is a part of him and the music.”

All artists ultimately live out the story of their environments, but Thaws has faced daunting personal obstacles to sustain nearly three decades of activity as a musician. His Jamaican father left home before he was born in Bristol in 1968. His mother, Maxine Quaye, an epileptic, committed suicide by overdosing on drugs when he was four years old. Thaws was raised in Bristol’s deprived Knowle West neighbourhood by his grandmother. As a child, Thaws rarely attended school. When his grandmother was working, he stayed at home and watched horror films.

By the age of 15, he had developed a deep interest in hip hop, clubs and marijuana and was working with a local sound system called the Wild Bunch and a group of DJs and musicians called Massive Attack. Thaws made his musical debut on Massive Attack’s 1991 album, Blue Lines. But his relationship with his friends was strained by disagreements over his input and membership. He met an untested teenage singer called Martina Topley-Bird and left the group in acrimony in 1993.

Photo: Mustafah Abdul-Aziz

More than 25 years after its release, Blue Lines occupies a high orbit in British culture – the 1990s stepchild of Pink Floyd and Public Image Ltd. At the time, however, it only reached No 13 in the charts. Yet its effect was outsized as labels sought out Bristol-based groups such as Portishead and Earthling. Thaws was signed to Island Records for a five-album deal; two self-released white-label singles produced with Howie B quickly sold out and in 1994 he began work on a series of recordings that concluded with the release of his debut masterpiece, Maxinquaye.

I met Thaws recently on a sunny morning in Neukölln, south-east Berlin, where he had been living for 18 months. Since leaving Bristol, he has also resided in London, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Paris. He was dressed in baggy gym pants and a loose T-shirt and carried a satchel. His head shaved, he looked relaxed and younger than I had expected. He turns 50 years old  next January, has two daughters in full-time employment and is now signed to his fifth record label. He cycles and takes panantukan classes – Filipino boxing – three times a week. We walked past a local train station in a neighbourhood filled with Turkish coffee shops and bakeries.

Thaws has a reputation for being taciturn and occasionally volatile. A former collaborator told me, “He shouldn’t be a musician. He should be employed as one of those guys in the US army who blows up bridges and leaves nothing behind him.” Cally Callomon, the former creative director at Island Records who conceptualised Thaws’s early album imagery, described him as daring but wary. “In those days, he was suspicious because of his background. And though he had an adventurous spirit, you didn’t know which Tricky you were meeting on any given day. He can be an affable, bouncing energy ball of ideas. He can also see people as rivals or competition.”

In Berlin, Thaws was expansive in conversation and generous with his time. He chatted to fans who recognised him and grinned at passers-by. “It is so relaxed here. You’re in a major city, but they’re not crazy about money,” he said, sitting down with a coffee outside a supermarket. “You see a lot of people working here two or three days a week. In London, Paris, you gotta get the money. In LA, New York, you gotta get the money. Not here.”

Released on 22 September, ununiform is the 13th album by Thaws and his fourth in the past five years. It is also his first to feature a song with Topley-Bird in 15 years. His relocation to Berlin was prompted by a need to focus. “I prefer to do an album here than in London, New York or LA,” he said. “Here, there are definitely less distractions. I’ve only been to a club twice here. If I do have a beer, I go to a little corner shop where they have tables outside. I go out by myself and sit outside and watch people.”

***

In the atomised world of music in 2017, it can be hard to recall an era when pop was tribal. But on its release in 1995, Maxinquaye was like a super-strand of three decades of accumulated musical DNA. The album’s influences were multi­genic and widespread: hip hop, reggae, dance music, punk and dub. Thaws sampled Public Enemy, AR Rahman, Isaac Hayes and Michael Jackson. In a year when there was no shortage of blockbuster albums – Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Blur’s The Great Escape and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis – Maxinquaye sounded pioneering yet fully formed. It was also a rare non-white moment during “Cool Britannia”.

The album was a harbinger of tectonic shifts in the music industry, with the pathways between rock, hip hop and dance being erased. Much of the most successful British rock music of the past 50 years has evoked national pride, working-class nostalgia and melancholy. Maxinquaye, on the other hand, was the apotheosis of a  risky modernism also found in the work of Aphex Twin, Björk and Leftfield.

But if Maxinquaye was a record of angst and foreboding, mixing skeletal tracks such as “Ponderosa” and “Hell Is Round the Corner” with the audacious fury of his cover version of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, it was also a collection of intimate love songs. While Britpop, grunge, dance and rap were loud and often exultant – the work of extroverts – Maxinquaye, in its whispered tone, implied the hidden struggles of residents of Britain’s towns and cities. It was also a solemn tribute to the mother Thaws never knew: “It’s my mum speaking through me,” he has said of the album.

If Maxinquaye spoke of inertia, late nights, drugs and ambivalence, this was largely the result of Thaws’s turbulent relationship with his co-singer, Martina Topley-Bird. They first met in 1991 when she was sitting on a wall near his house, singing to herself. A few weeks later, after sitting her GCSEs, she visited his house with some friends. Their daughter, now 22, was born in 1995, by which time they had already split – but they continued to live together until 1998. During their seven years together, they were a couple for no more than six months in 1994. These days, they communicate mainly by text.

“He’s grown up with a non-traditional family set-up, and he lost his mum when he was four,” Topley-Bird told me. She currently divides her time between Baltimore and London. “He adores our daughter and he’s done good in terms of being a parent. It is easy to make snap judgements about him, and it is a tall order for anybody to be a perfect parent. It was a turbulent time.”

Thaws’s relationship with Topley-Bird was complex and public. In promotional photos from the time, he cut an imposing, androgynous figure in lipstick and dresses. Thaws was also, at times, impassive and unpredictable. Topley-Bird, who had been pregnant throughout the album’s recording, was unprepared for the scrutiny. After we spoke, she emailed to explain: “It was difficult, stressful, demanding. But fun, too.”

Seven years his junior, Topley-Bird is the emotional rejoinder to Thaws on Maxinquaye. When he is angry, she is sullen; while he is intermittently boastful, she hides behind self-doubt. “The magic moments for me were when Martina would sing,” said the album’s co-producer, Mark Saunders. “She blew me away every single time. A lot had to do with her relationship with Tricky. She shuffled around like a 90-year-old lady with no energy. But then this amazing stuff would come out completely unrehearsed.”

Recording sessions were usually scheduled for 11am but would typically begin after 8pm. “I had certainly never worked with someone with such limited knowledge in the studio,” said Saunders. “He also had no sense of days of the week. I couldn’t see anything in his house that might be used to tell the time. I remember he didn’t turn up for a couple of days. I was told he’d gone to New York. But his cheekiness and charisma made up for a lot of that stuff.”

“It was a bit of a mess, but an organised mess,” said the former Island A&R Julian Palmer. Thaws spent entire days in Palmer’s office, smoking weed and listening to music. “He was definitely working through issues from his childhood. That was what added the underlying menace and anger and the cathartic side. It was a form of self-therapy.”

Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird in 1995

One indication of Maxinquaye’s resonance was the ease of its passage into the popular press: Thaws was featured on the cover of the New Musical Express twice in 1995. The following year, he and Topley-Bird were photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino for The Face. His music was used in films such as Strange Days in 1995 and Lost Highway in 1997. He acted in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) and collaborated with Grace Jones and Björk, with whom he had a relationship in the mid-1990s. Thaws was asked to produce albums for Alanis Morissette and Madonna (his lack of enthusiasm for the Madonna project was shown when he refused to get out of bed to meet her in his hotel lobby), and he remixed singles by the Notorious BIG, Yoko Ono and Elvis Costello. David Bowie was so impressed that he wrote a surreal fictionalised account for Q magazine about an imaginary meeting with Thaws, in which they smoked marijuana and flew over Bristol using balloons.

Tricky did not win the Mercury Music Prize in 1995 nor the three Brit Awards he was nominated for in 1996 – “Best British Male”, “Best British Breakthrough Act”, “Best British Dance Act”. The lack of industry recognition clearly rankles more than 20 years later: Thaws is now approaching an age when he is more likely to be honoured for his longevity than any new piece of music. “Me and Shaun Ryder were at the Brits,” he said. “If anyone should have won a Brit, it should have been me and Shaun Ryder. But people wanna see the shiny stuff and we’re a bit too real.”

He later returned to the subject: “Look at Massive Attack. One time they were the golden boys, they could do no wrong. They don’t even get invited to the Brits now. What the fuck is that about? I’ve had my differences with Massive Attack, but you can’t deny what they’ve done. They’ve changed the face of music. They should make up an award for them even if there ain’t one.” He laughed and added: “If I won a Mercury tomorrow, someone else would have to go and pick that up. I don’t give a fuck about that shit. My manager told me that a kid who was in a coma woke up after ten days when they played him one of my songs. That now means more to me than winning any award.”

Thaws followed Maxinquaye with even darker albums such as Pre-Millennium Tension and Angels with Dirty Faces. A more accessible sound emerged in Blowback (2001), featuring collaborations with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Cyndi Lauper. But by the early 2000s, pop music had changed. Faced with declining sales and a looming digital cliff, musicians pursued hit singles, crossover appeal, homogeneity and multiple verticals. Thaws, living in the US, released a number of uncommercial records and disappeared from view.

Much of his restlessness can be attributed to his search for a home. During our interview, he revealed the growing detachment of the expat. “How many people died in that fire in the tower?” he asked. “If I’d lived in Bristol, I’d probably be doing building site stuff, plastering.” He laughed. “Probably not the plastering. It would have been mixing. I could always get work from friends who did construction. But I wasn’t into getting up at seven in the morning.”

He last lived in London two years ago for six months. “I got really bored. There’s so much to do there, and nothing to do there. There’s no outdoor life there. People seem to work, get a sandwich, go back to work. It’s not the sort of life I want to lead. England is very regimented. Go to work, come home from work, go to the pub.”

Tricky’s new album, ununiform, shows off Thaws’s lean, mid-career phase. He is a talented photographer, and his Instagram feed is full of distractions, as well as pictures of British influences such as the Jam. He has posted the same photo of his mother on several occasions: she wears a gold top and a striking smile. In recent years, his music has gradually hardened into a sinewy fusion of beats, strings and keyboards. Whereas earlier albums were claustrophobic but bleary-eyed – and reliant on expensive samples – ununiform is taut and sparse.

The record also demonstrates a new-found economy with his songwriting: it  rests on the kind of efficient minimalism you might expect from an artist approaching 50. Two songs in particular – a shape-shifting ballad called “Blood of My Blood” and the searing “The Only Way” – rank among the finest compositions of his career.

***

Throughout our interview, Thaws had the polite but impatient manner of someone who wanted to move on to other tasks. When we met, the release of ununiform was more than a month away, but he had completed six songs for his next album. As we stood on a platform at Neukölln station, waiting for a train to take us to the city centre for lunch, he chatted with a photographer who recognised him. On the train, he talked about his changed relationship with marijuana, which had exerted a huge influence over his adult life, with days and even weeks passing by in inactivity.

“I smoked weed for years. When I was young, I enjoyed it,” he said. “Then it became self-medication. It is hard to give up, but once you do it, it is easy. This last weekend, I had my first spliff for three months. I think about that when I get back to Bristol. If you’re living in a council flat, weed isn’t going to get you out of there.”

In a Middle-Eastern restaurant, Thaws suggested sharing a plate of grilled seafood, including octopus and prawns. He adheres to a gluten-free diet. As the cook prepared the seafood and assembled a green salad, Thaws rolled a cigarette.

I pointed out that his music had defied race and geography for two decades. As a British citizen in Berlin, would Brexit affect his relationship with the UK? “Politicians are not here to change things, they’re here to keep the status quo,” he said. “Any politician who wants to change things is either going to have a scandal or will get murdered. I know enough to know that Blair ain’t any different to Cameron. These people have had it sewn up since the days of the Egyptians.”

Twenty years after Cool Britannia, its protagonists have pursued divergent careers. The Gallagher brothers make Oasis-esque solo records; Jarvis Cocker is a curator and radio host; Damon Albarn is a multidisciplinary British ambassador to the world. Thaws left Bristol in search of continuity. “This album might as well as be old as Maxinquaye to me. I’ve done it, I’ve moved on.” He put on his sunglasses and walked off into the late afternoon. 

Photo: MUSTAFAH ABDUL AZIZ
Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.

 

Iain Cameron
The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Photo: Getty
Why is the government's Brexit approach so inconsistent?
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

It's her own time – and the United Kingdom's – that Theresa May is wasting.

Life comes at you fast. Just a fortnight ago, defenestrated Downing Street aide Nick Timothy wrote in his Telegraph column that "despite briefings that suggest otherwise, there is agreement in government about the Brexit strategy". 

This week, we're all at risk of a bad deal because Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond are at odds with the government's approach, says Nick Timothy in his Telegraph column. "Treasury 'talking down Brexit'" is their splash. 

At this rate we can look forward to a column from Timothy explaining why he backed a Remain vote on 23 June 2016 early in the New Year. The inconsistency and essential lack of seriousness typifies the government and his former boss's overall approach to Brexit.

Downing Street is hoping to keep a tight lid on what's in the speech but speculation is everywhere. In the Times, Sam Coates and Bruno Waterfield say that the PM will try to go over Michel Barnier's head to get a breakthrough in the talks. The flaw in this approach isn't that the EU's sequencing of talks between the first stage and the second doesn't create problems. It does, particularly as far as the Irish border is concerned. It's that Barnier's mandate already comes from the heads of member states, and while there are potential areas where the EU27's unity might be tested, on the issues currently holding up the talks – money and citizens' rights – there isn't a divide to be exploited. It's her own time – and the United Kingdom's – that Theresa May is wasting.

But as with Timothy's somewhat confused oeuvre, the underlying reason for both his contradictions and May's blind alleys over Brexit is that most of the government treats Brexit as a secondary concern, to either easing their path to Downing Street or taking revenge on those who helped chuck them out of it. 

Photo: Getty
The lure of Lexit must be resisted – socialism in one country is a fantasy
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes.

Lexit, the left-wing case for leaving the EU, is rising from the dead. Its hopes were best captured in 1975. In the run up to the first referendum on EU membership, E P Thompson, the historian of the early English working class, published his clarion call to leave what was then called the Common Market. Doing so would see “Money toppled from power” as Britain moves “from a market to a society”.

“As British capitalism dies above and about us”, Thompson asserted, in a revealing passage worth quoting at length, “one can glimpse, as an outside chance, the possibility that we could effect here a peaceful transition – for the first time in the world – to a democratic socialist society. It would be an odd, illogical socialism, quite unacceptable to any grand theorist…  But the opportunity is there, within the logic of our past itinerary. 

"The lines of British culture still run vigorously to that point of change where our traditions and organizations cease to be defensive and become affirmative forces: the country becomes our own. To make that leap, from a market to a society, requires that our people maintain, for a little longer, their own sense of identity, and understanding of the democratic procedures available to them…”

Thompson spoke for the majority of the British political left at the time, from the then numerous Communists and Trotskyists through to the conservative-wing of the Labour Party and trade unions via the Bennites. All were hostile to sharing sovereignty with the capitalists running the rest of our continent. All believed that just as Britain was the birth-land of the industrial revolution so it could create a unique socialism across its land by going it alone.

I expected a resurgence of a similar left anti-Europeanism in last year’s referendum, and a renewed advocacy of a British road to world progressive leadership. Instead, with few exceptions, the inherently right-wing nature of Brexit bore down on advocates of left-wing politics. Owen Jones, with his family roots in that past history, flirted with Lexit. He has described how his comrades across Europe, such as those in Podemos in Spain, were appalled at the prospect and he wisely backed away.

Labour Leave was mainly business-oriented in its call for UK democracy. The decisively working class vote for Brexit was neither socialist nor social democratic. It simply and understandably rejected the all-party consensus that things should carry as hitherto. Given a chance to say what they thought of ‘the whole lot of them’, millions of Labour voters displaced their disgust with Westminster onto the EU.

The event that resuscitated the Anglo-Lexiteers was not the referendum result but this year’s UK general election. On the summer solstice, two weeks after its astounding outcome, the Lexit-Network posted its first blog entry. It’s aim to help steer a future Corbyn government. In parallel, the New Socialist website, with its strapline for “robust debate and intransigent rabble rousing”, launched a week before the election, also gives voice to Lexiteers.

Prominent among them are sirens from across the Atlantic: Joe Guinan and Thomas M. Hanna and Harvard’s Richard Tuck. They draw on the outstanding work of Danny Nicol who has shown how the EU’s constitutional structures embed neoliberalism. Their arguments – often published in the New Statesman and openDemocracy – pre-existed the referendum. But only as opinions. Now they are gathering energy with the prospect of a Corbyn-transformed Labour Party taking power.

The underlying dream of ‘socialism in one country’ may be potty. But it is essential to recognise the core issue that could give legitimacy a left-wing call for Brexit, a democratic argument anchored on the moment that changed British politics, the launch of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.

The June 2017 general election was a political watershed. The outcome was due to combination of the 5 “M”s. The man, the movement, the manifesto, May and McDonnell. Of the five, the keystone was the manifesto, whose architect was John McDonnell. In the first place, however, it was “the man” who was crucial.  

Jeremy Corbyn was the personal embodiment of unbroken resistance to the military and financial priorities of Blairism. His personal vision, however, is mostly limited to opposition to tangible injustices and he is not a natural leader. But the outrageous presumption of his unsuitability by a failed New Labour establishment and the torrid injustice of the media contempt unleashed a surge of support. The blowback to the ruthlessness of the assault upon him generated the credibility of the call for a halt that he personified. With poetic justice, the elite aura of entitlement provoked a wave of solidarity that crystallised around Jeremy. A movement was born that took a new form suitable to the age of the platform capitalism of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Thanks to Momentum, Corbynism became a social-media driven ‘social movement’ independent of Labour officials and MPs. The confinement of politics to parliamentary routines permits the corporate acquisition of policy. The hysteria around Momentum signalled the pain of a genuine threat to its domination.

Even so, the combination of the man and the movement was incapable of moving public opinion. Especially when it seemed that the Tories under May, with the Brexit breeze filing their sails, were now a party of ‘change’. The local election results on 4 May this year saw Labour crash to 27% support, with the Tories establishing an 11 per cent lead and making gains after seven years in office. The general election had already been called. What turned things around was Labour’s Manifesto. It was leaked shortly after the local elections (probably to ensure it was not filleted by the party’s executive) then published. It turned the tables on a Tory party whose leader had foolishly decided to present herself as the allegory of ‘stability’.

After two decades of the wealthy stealing from the rest of us, Labour set out how it proposed to take a little from the rich to help the poor. After decades of rip-off privatisation, it proposed nationalising railways and water to remove them from what are in effect a publically subsided form of taxation by profiteering monopoly suppliers. In the face of an acute rise of indebtedness among the young, it proposed free university education. A neat contrast of the winners and losers was posted by the New Statesman’s Julia Rampen.

The key to its success was that Labour’s manifesto was not an opportunist response of unfunded promises concocted in response to the surprise challenge of a general election that the government had repeatedly pledged it would not call. McDonnell told Robert Peston on the Sunday following: “We geared up last November. As soon as the Prime Minister said there would not be a snap election we thought there would be”. The result was a fully-costed, professional challenge to the outrageous inequity of the neoliberal consensus. By contrast it was Theresa May’s manifesto that was composed in secret, bounced on the Cabinet, contained amateurishly formulated commitments and had to be promptly disowned by the Prime Minister herself.

The outcome was the most dramatic upset in the history of general election campaigns and, more important, a reversal of the terms of Britain’s domestic politics, grounded on Labour’s well-judged pledges. As Jeremy Gilbert argues, “The June 2017 UK General Election was a historic turning point not just because it marked the full emergence of the Platform Era. It also marked the final end of neoliberal hegemony in Britain” – although not he emphases, neoliberalism itself.

It follows that quite exceptionally for the platform of a losing party, Labour’s manifesto has an afterlife. This poses a fundamental question with respect to Brexit. If the UK were to remain in the EU would a Labour government be allowed to carry out the nationalisations and redistribution that its manifesto promises? If the answer is ‘No’ then the democratic case against continued membership is immeasurably strengthened. Whatever the immediate costs, it would be essential to leave the trap of an EU in order even to start to build fairer and more just 21st century society. 

The Lexiteers claim exactly this. That the EU would prevent Labour from renationalising, under its rules favouring the private sector. The argument quickly becomes technical and clearly there are ways that EU membership restricts a government’s freedom of action. But it does not prevent the exercise of all self-interested national economic measures.

In July, to take the most immediate example, the still fresh President Macron nationalised shipyards about to be taken over by an Italian bidder. In the same month, in his barbaric speech in on how Europe should belong to Europeans, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban claimed he had achieved, “clear majority national ownership in the energy sector, the banking sector and the media sector. If I had to quantify this, I would say that in recent years the Hungarian state has spent around one thousand billion forints on repurchasing ownership in strategic sectors and companies which had previously been foolishly privatised."

Both the French and Hungarian measures are right-wing forms of national takeover to which the Commission will be naturally less opposed than a Corbyn one. But the Lexiteer argument is not that there will be resistance, there will be plenty of that here in the UK as well, but that EU membership makes nationalisation illegal and therefore impossible as beyond politics. The only response to the EU, therefore, is Leave!

The tragic reality is that the UK political-media class, especially the Tories, made the EU a scapegoat for their domestic policies. They hid behind the EU to claim they were powerless to prevent unpopular policies they were in fact themselves pursuing. The most egregious example was immigration. But the UK is not powerless within the EU. Brussels would not be able to prevent Labour from implementing a social-democratic reorientation of the economy to ameliorate the gung-ho marketisation that is the legacy of Cameron and Osborne’s six disastrous years.

But what about red-bloodied socialism? Could this be allowed by the corporatist constitution of the European elite? Of course not. But, however much this might be McDonnell’s and my own dream, it is hardly on the immediate agenda. The stated priority for Labour is securing jobs, preserving the benefits of the EU’s single market and reversing the acute regional inequalities that have made the UK the most territorially unbalanced society in the whole of the EU (mapped by Tom Hazeldine in New Left Review).

Absurd as it may seem, however, the lure of Lexit is a belief that a Corbyn majority can unleash British socialism while the EU groans under the austere regimentation of the Eurozone.

For example, Guinan and Hanna writing in New Socialist assert that Labour can “seize upon the historically unique opportunity afforded by Brexit to throw the City under the bus”. Apparently the ‘opportunity’ of a Commons majority created by first-past-the-post means a Labour government can snap its fingers at the House of Lords and the monarchy not to speak of the media and the banks, to use the imperial British state to “assert public control over finance, and rebalance the UK economy”. No consideration is given the fact that the ‘opportunity’ is likely to be based on considerably less than 50 per cent support amongst the voters. Meanwhile, the country’s largest export market will, apparently, despite its ineradicable neoliberal character, sit idly by as the path to socialism is pioneered on its largest island.

Perhaps we should be grateful to brazen Lexiteers for being carried away when others, such as the Guardian’s Larry Elliot are less candid about the logic of their views.

It hardly needs the genius of a Varoufakis to grasp that the UK is made up of European nations and when it comes to the dominant economic system this will be changed only through a shared European process that defies EU corporatism, or not at all. Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes and will never be the instrument for their delivery.

Back in 1975 when E. P. Thompson hurled his diatribe against the ‘grand theorists’ of socialism he had Tom Nairn in his sights, whose fine polemic, The Left Against Europe had recently scorched every corner of anti-European prejudice. Against the fantasy of socialism in one Britain, Nairn had argued:

“The Common Market—Europe’s newest ‘constitutional regime’—represents a new phase in the development of bourgeois society in Europe. To vote in favour of that regime ‘in a revolutionary sense alone’ does not imply surrender to or alliance with the left’s enemies. It means exactly the opposite. It signifies recognizing and meeting them as enemies, for what they are, upon the terrain of reality and the future. It implies a stronger and more direct opposition to them, because an opposition unfettered by the archaic delusions of Europe’s anciens regimes”.

Nearly 50 years later the terrain of reality and the future is still shunned by the Lexiteers as they cling to the fetters of the old regime. 

Anthony Barnett’s “The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump” is published by Unbound

Photo: HANNAH MCKAY/REUTERS
Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.

Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.

Getty
Commons Confidential: The moderates won’t be happy with Corbyn's new recruit
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Andrew Murray is sharp, strategic and steely.

The wobbly Theresa May faces a revolt by her party’s Chris Mullin types, should she seek to inject fresh blood into the Conservatives to banish the Boris blues. The tamed Labour mischief-maker Mullin was humiliated after Tony Blair charmed him into abandoning the lofty chair of the home affairs select committee for a piddling post in the Department of Folding Deckchairs. May, a Tory snout whispered, would struggle to prise the likes of the former army officer Tom Tugendhat from a backbench foreign affairs perch rated several rungs above a junior job issuing paperclips. Nor is the money worth the aggravation for the next generation. When a committee chair pays £15,000 on top of an MP’s £76,000 salary, the snout added, an extra £7,000 isn’t worth the workload or abuse.

I hear that Unite’s chief of staff, Andrew Murray, is to split his time between Jeremy Corbyn’s office and Len McCluskey’s trade union after the Labour party conference. The veteran Communist Party member joined Labour last year and was praised by Southside staffers for reinforcing the party’s election drive. Murray is sharp, strategic and steely. The militant moderates won’t be happy.

Corbyn and John McDonnell are mulling over what to do about the South Shields constituency Labour Party after hearing lurid tales of the bullying of Emma Lewell-Buck, the shadow minister for children. This dirty scrap is about power, not politics, with a faction determined to oust my home town’s first woman MP. A revival AGM following the lifting of a 16-month CLP suspension included – an eyewitness recounted – a prominent local opponent yelling, “Fat Scottish c***!” at the Labour North director, Fiona Stanton, before ripping up membership forms. Hardly the straight-talking, honest politics promised by Corbyn.

The revelation by Tessa Jowell’s family that the former Olympics minister has brain cancer and Nick Clegg’s public statement on his son’s winning battle with Hodgkin lymphoma put on record two personal struggles that the media responsibly didn’t expose. The word in Westminster is that a former Labour minister responds to inquiries about a child attending a very posh school near Slough with threats of legal action. Perhaps it’s best not to go there.

For some inexplicable reason, I’ve been put on the mailing list of Vicky Ford, the Tory MP for Chelmsford. I trust that she enjoyed her tour of an Anglian Water sewage treatment plant. Ford’s diary – she is evidently flushed with success – makes Charles Pooter look like a shrinking violet.

Inspired by the BBC’s two-wheelin’ Jeremy Vine, the Labour heavyweight Tom Watson has taken up cycling. That’s a lot of Lycra. 

Photo: Getty
Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him
September 21st, 2017, 01:37 PM

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Photo: Getty
Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
The price of accessing higher education
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm. 

SHUTTERSTOCK / MONKEY BUSINESS IMAGES
Nigel Farage spectacularly mocked for delivering a letter of complaint to BBC
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Ukip, we Photoshop.

Like a solitary pensioner finally taking action over Robertsons jam changing its logo, Nigel Farage decided to march in person to the BBC’s New Broadcasting House to deliver a letter of complaint.

He (or some poor assistant behind him) took a ludicrous video of him walking there, then holding up a piece of blank-looking paper:


A moving and defiant act of protest, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Unfortunately for the former Ukip leader – but happily for the entire internet – this was extremely easy to Photoshop:


…and also easy to parody:


Your mole should inform you that Farage’s complaint is about a voxpop of a member of the public taken by a BBC journalist. When interviewed, the resident of Harlow, Essex, claimed the Brexiteer had “blood on his hands” for the death of a local Polish man last year.

Rather ironic for Nigel “voice of the people” Farage to be complaining about a voxpop by a member of the public – especially considering how often he pops up as a talking head on the BBC himself. Speaking of which, perhaps he can do some filming while he waits for a response to his complaint, as he’s in the area…

Still from Twitter
8 statistics proving that the housing market eats millennials for breakfast
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

It used to take three years to save up a deposit. Now it takes 19. 

Labour’s most popular manifesto promise in the 2017 snap election, according to YouGov, was not scrapping tuition fees or nationalising the railways. It was capping rents in line with inflation. 

There is a reason it captured the imagination. The average house costs 7.6 times the average salary, according to the Office for National Statistics – a figure that disguises the swollen property markets in the cities where aspiring buyers are most likely to find work. In a society that values home ownership, workers in their 30s and 40s are still sharing rented flats – often part of a portfolio of buy-to-let properties owned by babyboomer landlords. 

And yet, at the same time, the housing market shows up our collective lack of imagination. Millennials are still instructed to "get on the housing ladder", as if renting was just another peculiar fad, or to stop drinking lattes, as if the nation's coffee habits kept up with the 259 per cent increase in house prices between 1997 and 2016. 

A new report from the Resolution Foundation shows how the housing market is widening inequality. Here are some of the most startling facts: 

1. 30 somethings

Half a century ago, only one in ten 30 year olds lived in private rented accommodation. Today, four in ten do. 

2. That saving feeling

A generation ago, the average young family could save up a typical deposit for a house in three years. Today, that same family would have to save for 19 years. 

3. The rents

Today’s families headed by 30 year olds are only half as likely to own their home as their parents were at the same age.

4. A tuppence on a mortgage

In the 1960s and 1970s, homeowners with a mortgage spent about 5 per cent of their income on housing costs, while renters spent 10 per cent. In 2016, mortgage borrowers pay around 12 per cent of their income on housing costs. But here’s the biggie – private renters were paying 36 per cent of their income on housing costs. 

5. Generation commute

Resolution estimates that by the time millennials turn 40, they will spend close to three more full days commuting than their parents did at the same age. 

6. Gradual improvements

According to the first National House Condition Survey in 1967, one in five properties did not have a sufficient supply of hot water, and one in ten was deemed unfit for habitation. Fast forward 50 years, and one in ten homes still have no central heating, and one in five fail the decent homes standard. Both in 1967 and 2017, the worst cases could be found in the private rented sector. 

7. Cosy times

On average, a household member in private rented accommodation has seven square meters less today than they did in 1996. By contrast, homeowners have an extra seven square meters. 

8. Antisocial housing

In 1981, nearly one in three families lived in relatively affordable and secure social rented housing. Today, just 14 per cent of families do. 

 

Getty
What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Photo: LYNSEY ADDARIO
Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Photo: Getty
Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Why are Moby, Ed Sheeran and Laura Mvula putting on gigs in the living rooms of total strangers?
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Billy Bragg, The National and Nothing But Thieves are all doing the same.

Depending on your personal taste, Ed Sheeran turning up at your house, guitar in hand, to sings some earnest tunes could be a dream come true or a living nightmare. But what about The National? Or Moby? Or Laura Mvula? These are just some of the artists that have agreed to put on shows today in people’s homes around the world – from Washington DC to Cape Town.

Today, over 1,000 artists will play “living room shows” in 60 countries as part of Give a Home, “the largest global festival ever held”. Organised by Sofar and Amnesty international , the concerts are being held to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and as a guesture of solidarty with the 22 million refugees worldwide: fans were given the chance to donate to Amnesty when applying to win tickets.

British rock group Nothing But Thieves have always injected a level of political consciousness into their songs. Their second album, Broken Machines, was released earlier this month, charting at number two in the UK album chart. I spoke to guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown about Give A Home and their concert tonight in London.

Why did you agree to be a part of Give a Home?

It’s just something that we’re passionate about. We write songs about the refugee crisis, and this is what we talk about as people: in the band, on the bus. My girlfriend works at NGOs like Care and Amnesty, so it’s something that we’re passionate about. When we got this opportunity to play we jumped at the chance - anything we can do to even marginally help, we will. This is going all around the world, Ed Sheeran’s doing one in Washington, and The National are doing one. It’s amazing how many bands and artists have got involved.

Any you’re particular fans of?

Well, I mean, Conor [Mason, lead singer] really likes the National – but they just beat us to number one album!

Have you done a gig like this before?

Yeah, absolutely. We like playing these stripped back sessions, it makes the song come alive a bit more in a way, because they’re really raw, and some of them were written like that: just acoustic guitar and voice.

Do you think musicians and celebrities have a responsibility to engage with politics and issues like the refugee crisis?

We feel that way. I feel like we would be letting ourselves down and neglecting some sort of duty to use your platform for good and for things that you believe in. I get that it’s not for every artist, and I don’t think every artist should be pressured into doing it. But personally, for us, we’re writing an album and we want it to say something. It wouldn’t represent us if it didn’t.

What do you hope people who go to the gig will get from it?

Hopefully it will give people a sense of community, that’s what this whole thing is about. Its about raising awareness for the refugee crisis: I mean, it affects 22 million lives. It’s important to do something that just lets refugees know that they’re welcome and safe. Anything we can do to help in that way would be a positive thing.

What can people do to support refugees?

You might have to ask my girlfriend! Just talking about it in a way that is compassionate is important. I think one of the problems we have, especially at the moment in the age of Facebook, is that although social media has done a world of good in some areas, it also creates an “us v them” enviroment, and I think that’s really dangerous for humanity. I don’t think that way of thinking is positive at all. If this can do anything to bring a sense of community and togetherness, then that would be amazing.

Getty
Theresa May's speech is just the latest in politicians wilfully misunderstanding the internet
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

How the threat of terrorism is used to justify censorship and surveillance. 

As is so often the case, The Daily Mail started it. After the Parsons Green attack last week, the newspaper wasted no time in allocating blame. A day after the tube bombing, the Mail's front page headline read: WEB GIANTS WITH BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS. 

This isn't a new line of argument for the paper, which labelled Google "the terrorist's friend" after the Westminster attack in March. As I wrote in the magazine back in April, the government (with the aid of particular papers) consistently uses the threat of terrorism to challenge tech giants and thus justify extreme invasions of our online privacy. This year, Amber Rudd condemned WhatsApp's privacy-protecting encryption practices, the Snoopers' Charter passed with little fanfare, the Electoral Commission suggested social media trolls should be banned from voting, and now - just today - Theresa May has threatened web giants with fines if they fail to remove extremist content from their site in just two hours. 

No one can disagree with the premise that Google, YouTube, and Facebook should remove content that encourages terrorism from their sites - and it is a premise designed to be impossible to disagree with. What we can argue against is the disproportional reactions by the government and the Mail, which seem to solely blame terrorism on our online freedoms, work against not with tech giants, and wilfully misunderstand the internet in order to push through ever more extreme acts of surveillance and censorship.

It is right for May to put pressure on companies to go "further and faster" in tackling extremism - as she is due to say to the United Nations general assembly later today. Yet she is demanding artificially intelligent solutions that don't yet exist and placing an arbitrary two hour time frame on company action.

In April, Facebook faced scrutiny after a video in which a killer shot a grandfather remained on the site for two hours. Yet Facebook actually acted within 23 minutes of the video being reported, and the delay was due to the fact that not one of their users flagged the content until one hour and 45 minutes after it had been uploaded. It is impossible for Facebook's team to trawl through everything uploaded on the site (100 million hours of video are watched on Facebook every day) but at present, the AI solutions May and other ministers demand don't exist. (And incidentally, the fact the video was removed within two hours didn't stop it being downloaded and widely shared across other social media sites). 

As Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, told me after a home affairs committee report accused Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube of "consciously failing" to tackle extremism last year:

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism. But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

At least May is in good company. Last November, health secretary Jeremy Hunt argued that it was up to tech companies to reduce the teenage suicide rate, helpfully suggesting "a lock" on phone contracts, referring to image-recognition technology that didn't exist, and misunderstanding the limitations of algorithms designed to limit abuse. And who can forget Amber Rudd's comment about the "necessary hashtags"? In fact, our own Media Mole had a round-up of blunderous statements made by politicians about technology after the Westminster attack, and as a bonus, here's a round-up of Donald Trump's best quotes about "the cyber". But in all seriousness, the government have to acknowledge the limits of technology to end online radicalisation.

And not only do we need to understand limits - we need to impose them. Even if total censorship of extremist content was possible, does that mean its desirable to entrust this power to tech giants? As I wrote back in April: "When we ignore these realities and beg Facebook to act, we embolden the moral crusade of surveillance. We cannot at once bemoan Facebook’s power in the world and simultaneously beg it to take total control. When you ask Facebook to review all of the content of all of its billions of users, you are asking for a God." 

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#2: The Confession Tapes, Tricky's ununiform and Deep Blue Something
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The new NS culture podcast with Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman.

On the New Statesman's new culture podcast, The Back Half, Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss the Netflix true crime series The Confession Tapes and Tricky's new album ununiform. Plus, for their next noniversary, they celebrate "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Deep Blue Something. Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

The RSS feed is rss.acast.com/thebackhalf.

Get in touch on Twitter via @ns_podcasts.

The theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Creative Commons
The New Statesman Cover: The revenge of the left
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

A first look at this week's magazine.

22 - 28 September issue
The revenge of the left

As long as the Tories fail to solve the housing crisis, they will struggle to win
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The fall in the number of homeowners leaves the Conservatives unable to sell capitalism to those with no capital. 

For the Conservatives, rising home ownership was once a reliable route to government. Former Labour voters still speak of their gratitude to Margaret Thatcher for the Right to Buy scheme. But as home ownership has plummeted, the Tories have struggled to sell capitalism to a generation without capital. 

In Britain, ownership has fallen to 63.5 per cent, the lowest rate since 1987 and the fourth-worst in the EU. The number of private renters now exceeds 11 million (a larger number than in the social sector). The same policies that initially promoted ownership acted to reverse it. A third of Right to Buy properties fell into the hands of private landlords. High rents left tenants unable to save for a deposit.

Rather than expanding supply, the Tories have focused on subsidising demand (since 2010, housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since 1923). At a cabinet meeting in 2013, shortly after the launch of the government’s Help to Buy scheme, George Osborne declared: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. The then-chancellor’s remark epitomised his focus on homeowners. Conservative policy was consciously designed to enrich the propertied.

A new report from the Resolution Foundation, Home Affront: housing across the generations, shows the consequences of such short-termism. Based on recent trends, less than half of millennials will buy a home before the age of 45 compared to over 70 per cent of baby boomers. Four out of every ten 30-year-olds now live in private rented accommodation (often of substandard quality) in contrast to one in ten 50 years ago. And while the average family spent just 6 per cent of their income on housing costs in the early 1960s, this has trebled to 18 per cent. 

When Theresa May launched her Conservative leadership campaign, she vowed to break with David Cameron’s approach. "Unless we deal with the housing deficit, we will see house prices keep on rising," she warned. "The divide between those who inherit wealth and those who don’t will become more pronounced. And more and more of the country’s money will go into expensive housing instead of more productive investments that generate more economic growth."

The government has since banned letting agent fees and announced an additional £1.4bn for affordable housing – a sector entirely neglected by Cameron and Osborne (see graph below). Social housing, they believed, merely created more Labour voters. "They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters," Nick Clegg later recalled. "It was unbelievable." 

But though housebuilding has risen to its highest levels since 2008, with 164,960 new homes started in the year to June 2017 and 153,000 completed, this remains far short of the 250,000 required merely to meet existing demand (let alone make up the deficit). In 2016/17, the government funded just 944 homes for social rent (down from 36,000 in 2010). 

In a little-noticed speech yesterday, Sajid Javid promised a "top-to-bottom" review of social housing following the Grenfell fire. But unless this includes a substantial increase in public funding, the housing crisis will endure. 

For the Conservatives, this would pose a great enough challenge in normal times. But the political energy absorbed by Brexit, and the £15bn a year it is forecast to cost the UK, makes it still greater.

At the 2017 general election, homeowners voted for the Tories over Labour by 55 per cent to 30 per cent (mortgage holders by 43-40). By contrast, private renters backed Labour by 54 per cent to 31 per cent. As long as the latter multiply in number, while the former fall, the Tories will struggle to build a majority-winning coalition. 

Photo: Getty
How Gossip Girl changed the way we talk about television
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Recappers Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler reminisce about the Best. Show. Ever.

If you watched Gossip Girl from 2007-2012, then you’ll know it was The Greatest Show of Our Time. Silly, ridiculous, insider-y, and deeply New York, Gossip Girl was a show that lived and died on its in jokes. For so many of the show’s viewers, talking about this ridiculous Rich Kids of The Upper East Side drama was as important as watching it. But, premiering in 2007, Gossip Girl aired at a time just before social media dominated television conversations. Now, every viewer has a channel to make memes about their favourite show as soon as it hits screens. Gossip Girl was a show about bitchy teenagers mocking each other that cried out for audiences to tease them, too. They just needed a space to do it in.

Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler caught on to that fact early. TV recaps were still a fledgling genre when the Gossip Girl pilot emerged, but the New York Magazine writers could tell that this was a show that needed in-depth, ironic analysis, week on week. The most popular Gossip Girl recaps were born. These included the Reality Index (points awarded for, to take one episode, being “More Real Than Serena Sleeping With a Teacher After Less Than One Semester”), the cleavage rhombus (in tribute to Serena’s fashion choices), and the Most Obnoxious Real-Estate Conundrum of Our Time. If this is all second nature, you might even know what I mean when I say “No points, just saying.” It is these kinds of inside jokes that made New York Magazine’s Vulture recaps of the show so irresistible, and so influential. Each week, Rovzar and Pressler would run down the most absurd and the most spot-on New York moments of the episodes, and soon developed a cult following with a very devoted audience. Their recaps were became so popular that the creators responded to their burning questions, and the two were given a cameo on the show itself. They even also wrote recaps of the recaps, to include the best observations from hundreds of commenters.

Now the show is over, their work has spawned a thousand similarly tongue-in-cheek TV blogs: from ever-popular Game of Thrones power rankings to new versions of the Reality Index for other shows. A decade after Gossip Girl first aired, I reminisced with Rovzar and Pressler about their contributions to the Best. Show. Ever.

How did you come across Gossip Girl? Was it love at first watch?

Jessica: I had just moved to New York. Chris and I were thrown together at New York Magazine vertical Daily Intelligencer. He was much more of a seasoned New York person who knew what things were cool, and I was this yahoo from a different city. I was basically Dan Humphrey, and he was Serena. He got the pilot from a publicist, and he said there was a lot of a hype. The O.C. had been a huge show. So the fact the creators [were] coming to New York, doing all these real location shoots, and it was going to be a New York-y show was exciting, especially to us, because we were in charge of covering local New York news at that point. And it was really boring in 2007! Everything exciting happened the following year, like the Eliot Spitzer scandal, but in 2007 there was nothing going on. And Sex in the City had just ended, so there was a void in that aspirational, glamorous, TV space. So we were like, we’re going to hype this up, and then we’ll have something really fun to write about. And it was fun!

Chris: The CW needed a new hit, and it was the show that they were hoping would define the programming they would make going forward, so they really hyped it up before it aired. They sent us a screener. We watched it and realised that because they filmed it in New York, they were going to really use the city. It checked the boxes of Sex in the City and The O.C., with a young beautiful cast out in real world situations.

Jessica and I decided that this show was going to be a show that we wanted to write about, because it was so New York-y. I don’t think our bosses cared either way. Our bosses were grown-ups! They didn’t watch Gossip Girl! But from the very beginning, we called it The Greatest Show of Our Time, because we knew it was going to be a really iconic New York show. And it was very good at making these running jokes or gags, like Blair with her headbands, or Serena with her super tight dresses.

And the cleavage rhombus?

Chris: And the cleavage rhombus! We eventually got to know the costume designer and the producers and the writers. Once they recognised the things that we were writing about in the show, they would adopt them. The cleavage rhombus came up a few more times because they knew the audience knew about the cleavage rhombus.

Do you have an all-time favourite character or plot line or episode?

Chris: Our favourite character was Dorota. She was very funny and the actress, Zuzanna Szadkowski, was very well used. I think we were all rooting for Chuck and Blair. Sometimes with shows like Friends, by the end, when Ross and Rachel finally get together, you think, “Hm, I’m not sure I wanted Ross and Rachel to get together.” But the show was good at making Chuck and Blair the central romance, and you were psyched about how that ended up.

Jessica: Well, now, of course you look back and the Jared [Kushner] and Ivanka [Trump] cameo was, like, the best thing ever. It’s so nice to remember a time when those two were extras in our lives, instead of central characters. And then Nate, of course, went and bought that newspaper, which I believe was called The Spectator, which was a thinly veiled Observer. There was this succession of blonde temptresses brought in to tempt Nate. I don’t even know what he was supposed to be doing! I don’t know why they were there, or what their purpose was! But that was an ongoing theme, and that was kind of amazing. One was a schoolgirl, one was a mom. Catherine, and Juliet – and yes, I do remember all their names.

But for us, it was the real stuff that was really fun. They put in cameos of people only we would know – like Jonathan Karp, the publisher at Simon & Schuster. Or the couple who run The Oracle Club [a members’ club in New York] – I saw them recently and we talked about how we still receive $45 royalty cheques from our cameos because an episode aired in Malaysia. And Armie Hammer! They really went out of their way to involve real New Yorkers.

How did it work each week? Did you have screeners and write it leisurely in advance?

Jessica: No, no, we had to do it live! We had a screener for the pilot. We got them probably three times in the whole course of the show. We would normally be up till three in the morning.

Chris: My husband eventually stopped watching it with me because I was constantly pausing and rewinding it, asking: “What did they say? What was that? Did you see that street sign? Do you think that dress is Balenciaga?” It becomes very annoying to watch the show with someone who’s doing that. Each of us would do our own points and we would email them to each other and mix them up. That way you could cover a lot more stuff.

What made you decide to do the Reality Index? Did you ever really disagree on points?

Chris: It always more about wanting to say something funny than about the actual points. Very occasionally we would disagree over whether something was realistic or not. We were both adults, and there was a lot of trying to figure out what kids would do. Like in the first episode, they sent out paper invites for a party, and we said, “Oh, no, kids would use Evite!” And then a lot of readers were like “Are you kidding me? Kids would use Facebook cause this is 2007.” And we were like, “Oh yes, we’re not actually kids. We don’t know.”

Jessica: We came from different places of expertise. He had been in New York so much longer than me. In a cotillion scene, he knew the name of the band that was playing, because he knew which bands people had come to play at cotillion. I was more like, “This is realisitic in terms of the emotional lives of teenagers.” But the Reality Index stopped being about reality early on, and we had to just had to comment on the cleavage rhombus instead.

The comments were really important – how did you feel about all these people who seemed to have as intense feelings about the minute details of this show as you did?

Chris: We definitely weren’t expecting it, more so because internet commenters on the whole are awful. They’re mean and they’re angry and they have an axe to grind. Our commenters were very funny and wanted to impress each other and wanted to make each other laugh. They were really talking to each other more than they were talking to us. We decided, a couple of years in, to start rounding up their comments and do a recap of the recap. This was one of the most rewarding parts about it, because they were just so smart and on top of it. And they definitely disagreed with us. A lot!

Jessica: It did feel like people liked the Reality Index because of the participatory aspect of it. We became more like the moderators of this little world within a world. We couldn’t believe it - we thought it was amazing and bizarre. There would be hundreds of comments as soon as you put it up, it was like people were waiting. And sometimes people would email us, if one of us had overslept or been out to dinner the night before so couldn’t watch the show until the morning. And you got to know people through that – actual humans. I know some of the commenters now!

You wrote the “Best Show Ever” cover story on Gossip Girl for New York Magazine, which reads like it was incredible fun to write, and is now immortalised as a key moment in the show’s history. Every fan of the show remembers that cover image. What’s your favourite memory from working on that piece?

Jessica: Oh my God! It was so fun! We split them up – I interviewed Chace Crawford and Jessica Szohr and Blake Lively. Those kids were in New York living this vaguely Gossip Girl-esque lifestyle at the same time as the show was on, being photographed as themselves, but often in character during filming. So the overlap was fun. Ed Westwick and Chace Crawford lived together in a dude apartment! I think Sebastian Stan moved in. And Penn Badgley would hate me saying this, but he was and is Dan. He just never wasn’t Dan. He lived in Brooklyn and dated Blake Lively and girls who looked like Vanessa. It was so fun to have this show within a show going on in New York.

Chris: The fun thing about the kids, is that they were all really excited. For almost all of them, it was their first brush with fame. Blake Lively was the only one who had an acting background. So they were really excited to be in the city. It was very fun to hang out with them, and they all liked each other. It was fun to be out in the world with them. Leighton Meester is very funny, and a really fun person to be around, and after we did the story someone sent in a sighting to Page Six of us, where we had lunch. And when I went out for lunch with Chace Crawford, who’s also very nice, it was the first time I’d been in a situation where somebody tries to subtly take a cellphone photo of you. I was like: “Wow, I have done this, as a New Yorker, and it is so obvious.” You think you’re being slick and it’s very, very plain to see. And Chace was very gracious with everybody. I wasn’t there for the photoshoot but Taylor Momsen’s mom had to be there, because I think she was 16. And I remember when the photos came back, thinking, “Errr... we have some very young people in underwear on the cover!” But I guess everyone was OK with it! It was a really striking cover, and a really great choice with the white virginal clothes and the implication of the opposite. I love how it came out.

Can you talk about your cameo on the show? How did that work, what was it like?

Chris: That was really fun. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect it to be so interesting and fun. They wanted someone from New York [Magazine], they wanted someone from Vanity Fair, and they wanted someone from another magazine, and I think they’d asked a lot of magazines if they would send an editor. I was at Vanity Fair, and they asked Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief, if he would do it – and he said no. One of my friends from college was by that point a writer on the show, and she said to the producer: “You know, if you want a Vanity Fair editor, I know one guy who will definitely do it!” And then they asked me and I had to ask the publicist for Vanity Fair if I could do it. And she laughed! And I said, “No, I’m serious, can I do this?” And she said “Oh! Uhh… Yeah, OK.”

It was me, Jessica, and Katrina vanden Heuvel from The Nation. Katrina was the only one working the whole time: tweeting and writing stuff. Jessica and I were like kids in a candy store. We were running around checking out the set, opening drawers! They had us wear our own clothes, which was stressful.

Jessica: They put fun clothes on me! It was so nice, I got to wear a really good outfit! Which I wish I had stolen, actually. But we got to the set and they had made up our offices. We sent them pictures of what they looked like and they recreated it.

Chris: They completely recreated it, right down to the Post-It notes that I had all along my bookshelves. Some of the books that I had on my desk were there. It was really surreal. Sitting there with Michelle Trachtenberg and Penn Badgley was completely surreal. They were funny, we joked around, it took probably 15 minutes.

Jessica: My scene was with Penn, and I had a line that made absolutely no sense. And we were all like, “That line makes no sense!” And they were like, “Oh it’s fine, just say it anyway.” And I thought: “Ok, well they’ll cut it out later.” But no, it just… went in.

Chris: But so many cool people had done cameos already, like Jared and Ivanka and Tory Burch, and just a million New Yorkers you’d heard of. So it was cool to join that crew.

You had this cameo, and plenty of people who worked on and starred in the show confessed to having read your recaps religiously. Stephanie Savage even emailed in over the exact location of Dan’s loft – whether it was Dumbo or Williamsburg. What was it about these recaps that allowed them to enter the world of the show in a way that TV writing normally doesn’t?

Chris: It was a very early recap. There wasn’t the endless recapping that there is now, of every show. It was kind of a silly show to recap – it wasn’t like Game of Thrones, where there’s all this politics to analyse. So it was an unusually devoted account of the show, with a ton of attention to detail – and then all the commenters also had a ton of attention to detail. So it was a great way for the show to get a sense of what the audience was thinking. And I think it was just funny for them. When they made a joke, we would catch the joke and laugh at it and make a joke back. It became a fun game for them too.

Jessica: The creators were definitely trying to foster the same atmosphere that we picked up on. They said early on that their goal for the show was “cultural permeation”. So they did what they could to encourage us, in some ways, and responded to us when we had questions.

Do you think your recaps changed television writing? Have you seen anything by other writers in recent years that has made you think, “Oh, we influenced that!”? For me, the Reality Index was very influential, and I feel like it was instrumental in this tone that was, yes, snarky and mocking, but the kind of mocking that can only come out of genuinely, truly loving something – now, that’s how most TV writing sounds.

Chris: I think we definitely were early on the trend of having the audience feel like they had the right to have their opinion on the show known, that they could voice an opinion – and maybe at some point the creators of the show would hear it. I think also having a very specific structure to a recap was new. Over the past ten years you’ve seen a lot of people do Power Rankings or try different ways of doing recaps other than just repeating what happened. I’d like to think that the recaps helped break the mould and create a new format.

Jessica: I definitely see things that are called Reality Indexes, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a thing before us, because it doesn’t even totally make sense as a concept. As far as tone, I think that came both from the combination of Chris’s and my personalities – Chris was more of the fan, and I was more of the snark. But also that was Vulture’s thing – I think the site’s tagline was “heart of a fan, mind of a critic”. It came after the early 2000s era of pure snark and sarcasm. But I just met Rebecca Serle, who wrote the series Famous in Love, and she said the Gossip Girl recaps helped inspire her career. I was like: “That’s amazing!”

Looking back, why do you think Gossip Girl and the conversation around captured the zeitgeist?

Chris: It had a lot of elements of the great shows. It had a core ensemble cast like Friends. It had a very soapy way of running the plots, that just meant that a lot happened in every episode, and not all of it was believable! And that’s really fun to watch. But unlike Ugly Betty, which was making fun of telenovelas, it took itself seriously, which let the audience take it seriously too, while at the same time laughing about it and appreciating how over the top it was. And I also think the cast was very key to it. They were so young and attractive and good, and you could tell they were all going to go on to bigger and better things. You were watching them at the very start of their careers. And they all stayed through the whole thing, and that was great. You knew the show was going to end the way the creators wanted, which made it feel like a great, rare moment in TV.

Jessica: That show captures that era of socialites in New York City, when it was like Olivia Palermo and Tinsley Mortimer and everyone was running around going to parties and being photographed. It was like an education about New York as I was arriving there. And they did an amazing job, especially now, when you look back at it. All those location shots! I don’t think people can afford those any more, they just aren’t happening. And the costumes! All of that was so enjoyable and fun. I’m not sure I fully appreciated how fun it was, like I do now, when everything is much more drab and Brooklyn-centric. But I felt a real kinship with Penn Badgley because we talked a lot over the course of things, occasionally about how we didn’t expect the show to go on this long! He wanted to go and play other roles and I wanted to do… other things, and we were both stuck with Gossip Girl.

And finally: looking back, how do you feel about Dan being Gossip Girl?

Chris: I was talking to someone about this the other day! I still don’t know if in the books, Dan was Gossip Girl. At the time, we didn’t really devote a lot of time to thinking about who Gossip Girl would be. It felt like they were just going to pick somebody in the last season – which they did. But I thought they did a good job of backing up that decision.

Jessica: Oh my God, I was just talking about this! I feel like, you know… It’s just a total disappointment, there’s no getting around it. They tried to play it like they had been planning for it to be Dan all along, and that was clearly false. So it was annoying that they postured in that way. But I remember maybe even just the season before, a character said “Gossip Girl is all of you! Look at you all, on your phones!” That should have been the ending, that Gossip Girl was everyone. That would have been the cleverer ending, in a way. But Dan as Gossip Girl gets a minus from me in the Reality Index. -100

SRSLY #111: The Problematic Faves Live Show
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Live on stage at the London Podcast Festival, Caroline and Anna discuss one of the biggest dilemmas in pop culture: what to do when you discover that your fave is problematic.

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

Listen to our previous discussion about "Your Fave Is Problematic" culture.

Dylan Farrow's piece for the New York Times.

Bethany Rose Lamont's piece for Rookie about Woody Allen.

For next time:

We are listening to the album Lighthouse by the Russian prog chamber duo iamthemorning. Listen to it on bandcamp here.

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]gmail.com, 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!

PS If you missed #110, check it out here.

Donald Trump tweets he is “saddened” – but not about the earthquake in Mexico
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Barack Obama and Jeremy Corbyn sent messages of sympathy to Mexico. 

A devastating earthquake in Mexico has killed at least 217 people, with rescue efforts still going on. School children are among the dead.

Around the world, politicians have been quick to offer their sympathy, not least Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose wife hails from Mexico. He tweeted: "My thoughts are with all those affected by today's earthquake in Mexico. Pensando en todos los afectados por el terremoto en México hoy" in the early hours of the morning, UK time.

Barack Obama may no longer be an elected politician, but he too offered a heartfelt message to those suffering, and like Corbyn, he wrote some of it in Spanish. "Thinking about our neighbors in Mexico and all our Mexican-American friends tonight. Cuidense mucho y un fuerte abrazo para todos," he tweeted. 

But what about the man now installed in the White House, Donald Trump? The Wall Builder-in-Chief was not idle on Tuesday night - in fact, he shared a message to the world via Twitter an hour after Obama. He too was "saddened" by what he had heard on Tuesday evening, news that he dubbed "the worst ever".

Yes, that's right. The Emmys viewing figures.

"I was saddened to see how bad the ratings were on the Emmys last night - the worst ever," he tweeted. "Smartest people of them all are the "DEPLORABLES."

No doubt Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto will get round to offering the United States his commiserations soon. 

Photo: Getty
Will Corbynites be in charge of the Labour Party forever?
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

What yesterday's important rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team.

Corbynism forever? That's the general verdict on the consequence of Jeremy Corbyn's big victory on Labour's ruling executive yesterday, as the NEC passed proposals to reform the party's structures. The big ticket items: an expansion of the number of trade union and membership places on the NEC, and a reduction in the number of parliamentary signatures required for candidates for the party leadership, from 15 per cent to 10 per cent of the PLP. (That's 28 MPs and MEPs or 26 MPs if the next leadership election takes place if/when Brexit has happened and there are no MEPs.)

"Forever" is an awfully long time, and you don't have to remember that far back to a time when one member, one vote was meant to ensure that the likes of David Miliband would be elected leader forever. "Forever" turned out to mean "not at all". Labour has an amusing tradition of its constitutional quirks not quite working out the way its architects hope, and it may well happen the same way this time.

The far more interesting story is what these rule changes say about Jeremy Corbyn and his senior team. They're getting better at games of "you scratch my back, I scratch yours" with the trade unions. The leadership also backed the Jewish Labour Movement's motion giving the party tougher powers to kick anti-Semites out and released a statement about it, too. As well as being the right thing to do, there's a crude electoral argument here – if Labour can repair its relationship with the community, its dominance in the capital and elsewhere will only increase.

All in all, the Labour leader is taking the challenge of winning more seriously and his team are increasingly streetwise. His internal opponents, well, they seem to be going in the opposite direction.

You don't have to agree with it to see that there is a good principled case to be made against weakening the right of MPs to help select the party's leader. Making it might even help Labour's Corbynsceptics, as one of their biggest problems is that Labour members see them as unprincipled. Yet instead of making it, they're criticising the move as "a power grab", and one that divides Labour when they should be uniting against the Tories. Bluntly, Corbyn grabbed power once in September 2015 and again in September 2016 and consolidated it in June 2017.  And the problem is, it's only divisive because Corbynsceptics are opposing it.

(Also, let's face it, if June 2017 had ended in a Labour rout, you better believe that whichever Corbynsceptic MP emerged as leader would be changing the hell out of the Labour party rulebook right about now rather than focusing on beating the Tories.)

Although there are significant exceptions – Bridget Phillipson's recent longread for the New Statesman is one – it's all too rare to hear a senior Corbynsceptic argue from principle rather than expediency. And until that changes, Corbynites will, indeed, remain in charge of Labour forever.

Photo: Getty
Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.

Getty
A clinically-approved birth control app is changing the way we think about contraception
September 20th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The particle physicist Elina Berglund has created an app that is 99 per cent effective. 

Women around the world using the contraceptive pill have long complained to their friends about its perceived side effects – weight gain, acne, mood swings to name a few. Some more recent studies have verified that anecdotal evidence – a Danish study from 2013 confirmed that there was a 40 per cent increased risk of depression for women who were on the pill, compared to those who weren’t.

Frustration around the inadequacy or ill-suitability of certain methods of contraception is rife. One woman, Elina Berglund, decided to do something about it.

Formerly a particle physicist at CERN (and a member of the team responsible for the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle), Berglund co-founded Natural Cycles, a contraceptive app, with her husband Raoul Scherwitzl. Approved as a contraceptive app earlier this year, it is downloadable on a smartphone and relies on a relationship between body temperature and fertility to tell women when they're fertile.

But contraception campaigners have viewed the concept with caution. Widespread use of the pill, condoms, and diaphragms comes after decades of campaigns against reliance on "natural methods" – not to mention the opposition of religious organisations like the Catholic church. 

At first glance, Natural Cycles might not seem all that different from the Vatican-approved "rhythm method", which is based on observing the exact stages of a woman's fertility cycle and avoiding sex during ovulation. This can be, according to the NHS, up to 99 per cent effective – but in reality it is closer to 75 per cent, because "people can make mistakes". 

Users of Natural Cycles take their temperature daily and input it into the app (which costs £6.99 a month). The app then compares the figure to its own dataset and uses an algorithm based on Berglund's days from CERN. It also asks for other data, such as the dates of user's periods and whether they are planning for a pregnancy or not, to create a personalised calendar.

If it’s safe to have unprotected sex, then the in-app calendar will show up as green. If not, the in-app calendar will show up as red. On those red days, users should find methods of contraception if they aren’t seeking pregnancy.  

Menstrual tracking apps are all the rage (there are around 1,000 of them on the current Apple app store). But recent studies have shown that those apps are often inaccurate and lack any scientific basis. 

Natural Cycles, by contrast, carried out three clinical trials, each time expanding the dataset to reduce errors. The most recent, written up in Contraception, involved 22,785 women across 37 different countries in settings that mimicked real life. The co-authors pointed out that in instances of perfect use, one out of 100 women become pregnant accidentally. However, in instances of typical use, seven out of 100 women had the same result.

When Natural Cycles first gained publicity, Berglund pointed out to the press that “now they (women) have a new, clinically verified and regulatory approved option to choose from”. Berglund and Scherwitzl are looking into getting Natural Cycles prescribed on the NHS, like the pill.

So is Natural Cycles the future of family planning? The first thing to make clear is that the app cannot actually function as physical contraception – on “red” days, the app advises users to use a condom if they’re having sex and don’t want to get pregnant. It cannot prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases either. 

Nor is the app really marketed to those who may benefit from the most information about their sexual health – 16 to 25-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. 

A spokesperson for Marie Stopes, the reproductive health NGO, said: "Apps to track fertility are a high-tech version of what women have been doing for years with a diary and a thermometer.

"For anyone trying to get pregnant, they might well help. However, if you want to avoid pregnancy, it’s much better to choose a reliable, long-acting modern method of contraception like an IUD or implant. Traditional methods, including tracking fertility, carry a much higher risk of unintended pregnancy."

The app relies on an algorithm, meaning it is only as effective as the data that it receives from users. It is also not free, which may exclude its usage by certain sections of society. A blog written for NHS Choices emphasised that the data collected in all the trials was collected from women who were already signed up for the product, making it likely that they had an incentive to continue with this specific additional contraceptive, as opposed to looking elsewhere. Even so, a third of users who had signed up still dropped out, potentially because of the maintenance required to get results from it. 

All the same, Natural Cycles has 380,000 users and counting. It has received clinical approval to be marketed as a medical device, and it seems to be meeting a need – 70 per cent of Natural Cycle's users come from hormonal contraception, according to Berglund. In her account of Natural Cycles in the Evening Standard, Kate Wills highlighted that the Apple Watch had all sorts of health inputs, but no way to track periods.  All kinds of apps exist to make modern life easier – why has it taken so long for one that addresses a concern for so many women to make its way into the mainstream?

The history of contraception is littered with examples of women being ignored. Early birth control studies vastly underplayed the potentially debilitating side effects of hormone fluctuations on women’s mental health and physical appearance, often treating users as though they were hysterical. Add into the equation the stigma around accessing contraceptives safely and non-judgementally, and it’s easy to see why a relatively painless and private form of contraception might be appealing. 

Natural Cycles may well work for some women – those who are in stable relationships, hoping to get pregnant and fastidious enough to note their temperature every morning. But it doesn’t prevent diseases, requires a steady commitment and – here's the clincher – can't take measurements when you’re hungover as alcohol can affect your temperature. There's also a big difference between the "perfect" use of the app, and the likelihood of pregnancy when used in a "typical" fashion. So long as that's the case, old-fashioned contraception seems unlikely to be swept away by a digital revolution. 

Photo: Getty
Soggy spun sugar and complete and utter Poopwafels: disaster hits the Bake Off tent in week four
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

“The tricky thing about caramel is… everything.”

It’s caramel week on The Great British Bake Off, so obviously the episode begins with the self-consciously zany Noel Fielding wistfully wondering what would happen “if we were wasps right now”, and introducing the first challenge mere seconds later with the phrase, “Now, as you know, I’m part wasp”. Will he adopt a croaking wasp accent? Or some comedy antennae? Only time will tell.

This week, the signature challenge is millionaire shortbread, which sounds fairly simple and easy, but it’s not, because of things like ratio and layering and a very hot humid tent. Liam and Julia boldly illustrate the two possible reactions to a week based entirely around caramel. Liam grins fondly and says, “I love caramel. I’m not saying I’m good at it, but I love it.” Julia grimaces and says, “The tricky thing about caramel is… everything.”

Sophie makes her shortbread with strange acetate rings around them, and Prue flares her nostrils as she asks why she doesn’t have the precise tins that would make this easier. Sophie admits she couldn’t afford them, and I am momentarily truly outraged that Channel 4 forks out for overpriced pastel mixers but can’t provide the bakers on this baking show with baking tins. Meanwhile, adorable James is getting gold leaf all over his teeth and sounding the most out-of-touch any baker ever has (which is saying something) when he says, “I might take up rapping.”

Some bakers, perhaps misguidedly, are trying to have “fun” with their shortbread. Yan spray paints the Queen’s face on hers in a damning comment on the sickly, overdecorated status of the Royal Family. Noel asks her if she is the real Banksy, which she denies. “Only a true Banksy would say he wasn’t Banksy.” A good joke from Noel! Well done Noel.

When it comes to the judging, Prue bangs on about how she doesn’t like overly sweet things and can’t eat too much caramel at once – Mary Would Never. “How can you eat that much caramel, Paul!” she moans, and for the first time in my life, I am on the side of Paul Hollywood.

The technical challenge this week is “Stroopwafel” which is basically those caramel wafery waffles you get in high street chain cafes. Bake Off nerds will be delighted to learn that the fourth week sees the return of The History Bit, which is as charmingly dull as ever, introduced in the only way Noel Fielding knows: “The Stroopwafel is a Dutch national treasure, the biscuit equivalent of Rutger Hauer. But it had humble origins, before racing to success with the film Blade Runner. Oh, no, that was Rutger Hauer. Here’s a film about Stroopwafels.” Then he does a comedy fall into a bush. Cool.

Liam sums up everyone’s approach to this caramel treat with a shrug and two words: “Waffles, innit”. Sandi and Stephen chat about caramel’s original use in waxing, leading Sandi to, with mock surprise, say she likes that Stephen knows about waxing. “Of course I know about leg waxing,” he says with a wink. I know about lots of things.” I love this sexy Stephen and wish we’d caught a glimpse of him before now.

Everybody fails resoundingly at the Stroopwafel. The caramel is pure Goopwafel. The bakers’ faces Droopwafel. The judges have been Dupewafeled. They are complete and total Poopwafels, if you will.

Stacey wins the technical for the second week in a row, but it’s a hollow win, a prize for being the Least Worst, and she’s not overly pleased with it.

Begrudgingly we move on to the showstoppers: in Stephen’s words, “caramel is obviously a sensitive subject for everybody” right now. But ambition abounds regardless, with bakers working on animal scapes, elaborate crowns, and statuesque tricks with spin sugar. There're more lascivious comments than have featured so far in this series – with James babbling about “dipping” his” nuts” and Stephen calling his mirror glaze “sexual”. Everyone struggles with the caramel and spun sugar elements of their bakes in the humidity of the tent.

Ultimately, Stephen’s crown jewels cake shocks everyone when it is labelled “disappointing” – but it’s Tom who royally fucks his up. Kate, perhaps surprisingly, does the best of the lot. Liam builds his reputation as a wizard with spices – after a series of disasters last time, it’s a great week for him.

But what will next week offer? Noel and Stephen’s sugarspun ponytails, £3.99 a piece? We can only hope.

Channel 4
Toys R Us defined my childhood – 6 of the toys I won't forget
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Memories of a now-struggling toy shop. 

For my family, visits to Toys R Us usually took place around Christmas time. Since it was invariably freezing, this first meant being wrapped up by fussy parents in the cheapest and scratchiest of woolly hats, gloves and scarves. 

My Toys R Us was on Old Kent Road in south east London. It has a stupidly big car park, and was opposite a sofa-store which changed its name every few years. 

The store itself was as well-lit as a supermarket, but instead of cabbages, the shelves were lined with colourfully-packaged toys. 

On a street with few constants, Toys R Us has remained ever present. Now, though, the firm is filing for bankruptcy in the US and Canada. UK branches will not be affected for now, but the trends behind its demise are international - the growth of online retailers at the expense of traditional toyshops. 

Each year at Toys R Us is different as each is defined by a different set of best-sellers - the toys which defined my childhood are unlikely to define yours.  

Here is a retrospective catalogue of my Toys (and yes, they deserve capitalisation):

1. Beyblades

Perhaps my most treasured toy. Beyblades were in essence glorified spinning tops. 

The hit TV show about them however, made them anything but. 

On the show, teenagers would battle their spinning tops, which for some reason were possessed by ancient magical monsters, against each other. 

These battles on TV would last for multiple (surprisingly emotional) episode arcs. Alas, in the real world battles with friends would be scuppered by the laws of physics and last no longer than 30 seconds. 

Not so with the remote-controlled Beyblade. An electric motor provided an extra minute or so of flight time. 

It was wild. 

2. Furbies

At aged eight years old, I thought Furbies were stupid. I was wise beyond my years.

3. Barbies

Trips to Toys R Us inevitably also meant buying something for my younger sister. I would choose the ugliest looking doll from the shelves to annoy her. She was always annoyed.

4. Talking Buzz Lightyear

A toy which I will always remember as it led me to the epiphany that Santa Claus wasn't real. How did I figure it out? The Christmas tag was written by someone who had the distinctive handwriting of my father. I for one, am not looking forward to Toy Story 4. 

5. Yu-Gi-Oh Cards 

Yu-Gi-Oh was a card game about magical monsters that actually required a lot of strategy. It was cool to like them for a bit. Then we quickly realised that those who were actually good at the game were the losers and should be made fun of.

I was one of those losers. 

6. Tamagotchi

The first birthday present I ever bought my sister (with my hard earned birthday money, no less). She didn't care for it. Who did?

As much as all these playthings, Toys R Us itself has defined a specific part of childhood for millions. But for those growing up in the US however, that may not be the case any longer.

Photo: Getty
In defence of the BBC Front Row presenters who don’t like theatre
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Giles Coren, Amol Rajan and Nikki Bedi of the new BBC Two arts show are getting stick for not being playgoers.

When I heard last month that BBC Radio 4’s Front Row will be expanded to a TV slot on BBC Two, I was a bit unsure about its presenters. The restaurant grouch Giles Coren and the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan – both respected commentators but on completely different subjects – didn’t feel the same as the radio version’s current hosts (though The Arts Hour and Loose Ends radio journalist Nikki Bedi made more sense).

Now, all three presenters have given an interview to the Radio Times, picked up by the Telegraph, in which they lay into theatre as an art form.

Coren revealed he hadn’t been to the theatre much in the past seven years, due to parenting duties – and also his stress over the idea that the actors would forget their lines. He believes it “has to be such a good production” for modern audiences to suspend their disbelief, and also complained about the seats:

“In the theatre they’re all so uncomfortable and old, and it feels like they’re trying to throw you out. I’d also like easier access to the loo.”

His co-presenters also didn’t seem particularly enthused. Bedi admitted, “I resent going to the theatre and not having an interval for two hours and 45 minutes. I want more intervals”, adding that she prefers film, and “tight, fast-paced, creative theatre that moves away from tradition”.

Rajan also mentioned that being a father makes it difficult to go (he has a young baby), but he saw the musical Dreamgirls last week and the School of Rock musical two years ago. He added that his favourite place is the Globe, which only seemed to rile the theatre world more.

The Telegraph’s theatre critic Dominic Cavendish seethed:

“What is the BBC doing, given the world-envied pre-eminence of our theatre culture, handing over the invaluable job of informing the TV-viewing public about what’s on stage, what's good, what's not and why, to a Come Dine With Me melange of lightweights who between them seem to have quite liked going to Shakespeare’s Globe and School of Rock IN NEW YORK!”

The playwright Dan Rebellato tweeted:

“Imagine if BBC’s art critics said novels were ‘too long’ or poetry ’too difficult’ or classical music ‘too boring’. Fucking OUTRAGEOUS.”

The editor of The Stage Alistair Smith added:

“It’s great the BBC is putting arts and theatre coverage front and centre, but I’m sure the industry will be hoping it will include some slightly more incisive criticism than ‘the seats are uncomfortable and there aren’t enough loos’.”

But many theatre fans (including this one) won’t feel outraged by the presenters’ comments. Even the theatre critic and associate editor of The Stage Mark Shenton admitted that, “yes, these matters sometimes vex professional theatregoers too – I routinely go to the theatre six or seven times a week – but the rewards far outweigh the inconveniences and irritation.”

The first layer of outrage was at the presenters’ focus on practicality: Coren’s comments about the uncomfortable seats and sparse loos, and Bedi’s complaint about duration and lack of intervals. Yes, it might seem banal, but it’s true.

In those old Victorian theatres, try being above average height, below average height, having a disability, elderly, or with children. And for any production, try being someone who works early morning shifts or night shifts. Most mainstream theatre is pretty impractical – both timewise and seating-wise – and that makes it pretty inaccessible to lots of people. Maybe not to BBC presenters, but the programme is for the public, not just for their fellow journos who get press tickets and seats in the stalls.

Then the second, far worse, layer of outrage focused on Rajan’s comments. “The Globe!” The theatre world giggled. “Musicals!” It corpsed some more. This is nothing but snobbery. As if Shakespeare’s Globe is too obvious and musicals are too low-brow to be critiqued on, uh, an entertainment show. But then they can’t stomach Bedi’s enthusiasm for more avant-garde pieces. So which is it?

If the presenters’ comments give away a little too much about their attitude to the arts, the theatre world’s response says far worse about its own.

BBC
Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

Photo: Getty
Jeremy Corbyn secures big victory on Labour's national executive committee
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The NEC has approved rule changes which all-but-guarantee the presence of a Corbynite candidate on the ballot. 

Jeremy Corbyn has secured a major victory after Labour’s ruling executive voted approve a series of rule changes, including lowering the parliamentary threshold for nominating a leader of the Labour party from 15 per cent to 10 per cent. That means that in the event of a leadership election occurring before March 2019, the number of MPs and MEPs required to support a candidate’s bid would drop to 28. After March 2019, there will no longer be any Labour MEPs and the threshold would therefore drop to 26.

As far as the balance of power within the Labour Party goes, it is a further example of Corbyn’s transformed position after the electoral advance of June 2017. In practice, the 28 MP and MEP threshold is marginally easier to clear for the left than the lower threshold post-March 2019, as the party’s European contingent is slightly to the left of its Westminster counterpart. However, either number should be easily within the grasp of a Corbynite successor.

In addition, a review of the party’s democratic structures, likely to recommend a sweeping increase in the power of Labour activists, has been approved by the NEC, and both trade unions and ordinary members will be granted additional seats on the committee. Although the plans face ratification at conference, it is highly likely they will pass.

Participants described the meeting as a largely low-key affair, though Peter Willsman, a Corbynite, turned heads by saying that some of the party’s MPs “deserve to be attacked”. Willsman, a longtime representative of the membership, is usually a combative presence on the party’s executive, with one fellow Corbynite referring to him as an “embarrassment and a bore”. 

Photo: Getty
The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Photo: Getty
Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Getty.
Everything wrong with the Electoral Commission’s suggestion to ban trolls from voting
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Today in terrible ideas.

Social media trolls could be banned from voting under legislation suggested by Britain’s election watchdog. The Electoral Commission said yesterday that introducing new offences around trolling could reduce the amount of abuse faced by politicians. Let he who has not trolled cast the first ballot.

Here’s the thing about this idea: it’s what we call a bad one. Although it is in its infancy, it should not be allowed to grow old. As it stands, the Electoral Commission have suggested building on existing electoral laws, dating back to the 1800s, which rule that certain electoral offences can result in the offender being disqualified from voting or running in an election.

“In some instances electoral law does specify offences in respect of behaviour that could also amount to an offence under the general, criminal law. It may be that similar special electoral consequences could act as a deterrent to abusive behaviour in relation to candidates and campaigners,” the Electoral Commission stated.

Here are two truths: 1) MPs face a shocking amount of abuse on Twitter that must not go on unchallenged, and 2) this is not the way to stop it. Dianne Abbott – who incidentally was statistically proven to be the most abused MP during the 2017 general election – disagrees with the policy. Yesterday, she tweeted: “Don't agree. Their abuse should be stopped, not their votes.”

The first issue is that banning a large group of people from voting is a direct attack on our democracy, laws-dating-back-to-the-1800s or not. But even leaving that big old clunky Orwellian nightmare aside, there are a multitude of problems with the proposal.

What is a troll? What is abuse?

Most people think they know the answers to these questions – most people are wrong. There is no firm definition of an internet troll or internet abuse, and the terms are often thrown around incorrectly. In August, political journalists were mocked for assuming the internet slang “corncobbed” was a homophobic slur. “Kys” – an initialism for the words “kill yourself” – is used as a joke by teens, but can be a disturbing message to be on the receiving end of. Just over a year ago, Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire was ruthlessly mocked for reporting a student who tweeted at her to “get in the sea”, another popular online slang phrase.

It is clearly hard to define what constitutes abuse – and this is problematic not just because people could end up wrongly accused, but because such flexible definitions would easily allow abuse of the system.

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that many true trolls take pains to hide their identity online. While it could be argued that people who are serially abusive deserve to have their privacy invaded, allowing the police to investigate the identity of anyone they deem abusive is clearly problematic (although it would just be one addition to the UK’s ever-increasing list of shockingly dystopian surveillance laws).

And how can the public trust that such laws really are intended to stop trolls? Over the last year, newspapers and policy makers have suggested encroaching on our privacy and democracy in order to put an end to terrorism. The Daily Mail has called Google “the terrorist’s friend”, while The Sun similarly blamed Whatsapp’s encryption policies for the Westminster attacks. On the surface, it’s hard to disagree with these ideas. You want to stop terrorists, don’t you? Trolls are bad, aren’t they? But in reality, security and privacy are not a binary, and this is a moral panic designed to manipulate the public into agreeing with anti-democratic laws.

But finally, the Electoral Commission’s suggestion is simply disproportionate to the problem. At present there is no real “warning” system to deter an online troll from engaging in abusive behaviour, and it seems a huge leap to go from the occasional email from Twitter to a real-life “block” button in the form of banning votes. MPs can mute a person on social media, that doesn’t mean they should be able to mute them from public life.

The root of this new suggested policy is agreeable, as it is undeniable that abuse is unacceptable. Yet this is a proposal designed to be abused. 

Flickr: Hoboh Official
Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Photo: Getty
Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Getty
Boris Johnson “will resign before weekend” if Theresa May defies his Brexit wishes
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The Foreign Secretary is against paying permanently for single market access.

It turns out Boris Johnson’s 4,000 word piece in the Telegraph on Friday on his post-Brexit “vision” is exactly what we thought it was: a threat cushioned by patriotic fluff. Which is a good way of describing the man himself, really.

Because the same paper has just published an exclusive story that the Foreign Secretary will resign from cabinet before the weekend if Theresa May doesn’t follow his desired plan for Brexit.

He wants to put pressure on May not to follow the “EEA minus” option, which would see the UK paying the EU permanently for access to the single market and other benefits. The Telegraph reports that he “could not live with” that arrangement and would quit.

Johnson is trying to distance himself from the story, which allies are calling “nonsense” and blaming on his enemies, suggesting they’re spreading it as revenge against his Telegraph essay.

This is the problem for Johnson. His intervention was co-ordinated with the same paper, which now has an exclusive on his resignation threat. Anyone watching his mischief-making over the weekend would assume it had come from him. Then again, his enemies would know that, too.

But the Prime Minister has a bigger problem. She is about to make a set-piece speech in Florence on Friday, outlining the government’s approach to Brexit. She was planning on showing a draft to cabinet on Thursday.

Up against a Tory party and cabinet divided over how hard or soft Brexit should be, it was always going to be a difficult task. With the threat of a high-profile cabinet resignation, it will be even harder. It shines the light on ideological divisions that she hoped to push out of the way of conference season. With Brexit addressed in the Florence speech, she could have used Tory party conference to focus on domestic policy (ie. looking like a Prime Minister in control for a bit). Now, it’ll be all about the party’s divides – and leadership challengers.

Photo: Getty
I discovered the secret poetry of Donald Trump – and it's tremendous
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

A person who is very flat chested is very hard to be a ten / We're going to make America great again.

Confession: in the past year I've been far more exercised by the words of Donald Trump than by any number of iniquities far more consequential (and closer to home). I'm not proud of this hold he's exerted over me, but I know I'm not the only one. So rather than just impotently fuming after each new verbal transgression, I decided to do something with his quotes.

Where the idea of assembling them into fully footnoted poems came from is hard to say, but I do remember entertaining – after an especially brash debate performance against Hillary Clinton – the perhaps unlikely idea that there might be more to Trump than he lets on. Perhaps this bravado hides a secret sensitive side.

The first poem came easily. I typed the indispensable Trumpian adjective “beautiful” into a few online search tools, collected some quotes and citations, and started arranging them. I tried to make the second poem rhyme – a much harder task, especially as I'd made the decision not to alter Trump's original words in any way.

As the poems became more formally ambitious, the hunt for source material took me deeper into the archives. I bought his books, looked up interviews from the 80s and 90s, viewed a string of campaign speeches, transcribed his paid appearances on wrestling shows and McDonald's commercials, and trawled through his seemingly infinite Twitter feed.

This research provided the material for compositions including haikus and one narrative poem that nearly fell apart when I could not verify a source. (It eventually turned out better, if more surreal, than I'd expected.) I did have to abandon an attempt at a sonnet - finding enough effective 10-syllable rhymes turned out to be beyond me – but in the end I completed more than enough poems for a collection.

At times I convinced myself (perhaps in order not to give up) that there was a higher purpose to this labour. The comedian Peter Serafinowicz’s Sassy Trump videos gave Trump a comically camp voice, allowing us to listen to Trump's patter anew in isolation from his normal baritone. Maybe my poems could defamiliarise his words in a similar way, by packaging them as poetry not news content. Maybe I could help readers get out of the well-worn grooves of response that tired media formats have created.

Having got some distance from the project, I can gladly accept now that the poems are 90 per cent nonsense. But I still believe that taken as a whole the collection reveals something interesting about Trump. It's a snapshot of his verbal output through the ages and across his guises (as washed up playboy, as reality TV star, as political Messiah). It captures the flavour of how he speaks and thinks.

Having read so much of Trump's oeuvre, the thing that struck me most was how consistent he has been stylistically. The choppy short sentences, pared down vocabulary and preoccupations are always there, as is his ability to sense what his core audience wants, give them slightly more than they asked for, and make them think they wanted that, too. I found very few moments where he “breaks character” or reflects on his strategies for manipulating an audience or dominating an opponent. He just does it.

So having wondered at the start if there was another Trump hidden beneath the surface of the one we know, I arrived at an answer. No, there probably isn't. As he's repeatedly said himself, he is who he is. And who he is is a weirdly authentic bullshit artist.

MAGA!1

Will Smith did a great job by smacking the guy “reporter” who kissed him2
Together we're going to fix our rigged system3
Sarah Jessica Parker voted “unsexiest woman alive” – I agree4
We must keep “evil” out of our country5
A person who is very flat chested is very hard to be a ten6
We're going to make America great again7

1 Tweet criticising Hillary Clinton, 21 December 2015
2 Tweet referencing Will Smith's red carpet incident, 21 May 2012
3 Campaign rally in St Augustine, Florida, 24 October 2016
4 Tweet criticising Sarah Jessica Parker, 26 October 2012
5 Tweet, 3 February 2017
6 Discussing female beauty in an interview on The Howard Stern Show, 2005
7 Hardball with Chris Matthews, MSNBC, 22 April 2016

Pittsburgh, not Paris1

Kate Middleton is great – but she shouldn't be sunbathing in the nude
It's really cold outside3
NBC News just called it the Great Freeze4
Thus, as of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord5
We want global warming right now!6

1, 5 Paris Climate Accord exit speech, 1 June 2017
2 Tweet, 17 September 2012
3 Tweet, 19 October 2015
4 Tweet, 25 January 2014
6 Tweet, 27 May 2013 

Rob Sears is the author of The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump (Canongate, out now). He's previously written fiction and comedy for McSweeney’s and Audible.

Photo: Getty
Does her small majority mean Amber Rudd's hopes of becoming PM are already over?
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The Home Secretary is well-liked at Westminster, but has a narrow hold on her seat.

Among Conservative MPs, there is only one politician at cabinet level who arouses any enthusiasm: the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. As I wrote in my morning briefing yesterday, at present, she is in the box seat as far as first place among Tory MPs is concerned.

But Rudd has a problem: her wafer-thin majority. Her constituency of Hastings and Rye has gone with the national winner at every election since its creation, and appropriately in 2017 it was on a knife-edge: just 346 votes separated Rudd from her Labour challenger.

Although in some ways the problem is secondary – as if Rudd loses her seat, then Labour will be heading into power, whether in some form of minority government or as a majority one, at which point, the Conservatives would seek a new leader in any case. But as the Liberal Democrats have frequently found, the problem with having a leader in a marginal seat is it takes your biggest gun off the field of battle if they are continually having to pop back to their constituency to defend it.

At the last election, neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn had to campaign extensively in Maidenhead or Islington North, while Tim Farron had to fight a rearguard action to hold onto his seat, which was solidly Tory until he won it in 2005 and nearly flipped back to the Conservatives in 2017.

It also adds a note of soap opera to your general election campaign that no one wants or needs if your Prime Minister-designate is having to fend off questions about what happens in their own seat.

But there are two factors at play that are not commonly discussed. Firstly, it’s not as if Hastings (or Rye for that matter) are a particular part of the Rudd brand and she could very easily pop up in a safe seat elsewhere. Not least because you can easily finesse an argument about having been an MP in a marginal seat for seven years but now as Prime Minister you need to focus on the whole country, and so forth. Her supporters at Westminster are already discussing potential berths.

The second is the possibility of a wholesale boundary review on the basis of 650 seats not 600. Whatever happens, the current 600-seat review is dead in the water: neither the DUP, nor Conservative MPs who might lose out, will sign it off in its current form. But as the current constituency boundaries are so old and out-of-date, any review will be fairly destabilising, which would also allow Rudd to discreetly move to another, safer seat.

But as I've also said, the matter may not arise. Rudd’s pro-Europeanism and privately more liberal stance both mean that while she is well-placed to be the carrier of the Cameroon flame in the next Conservative leadership election, she faces an uphill battle to actually win.

Photo: Getty
“I’m frightened, genuinely frightened”: how London terror attacks affect the rest of the country
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

What happens to tourism after terrorism? 

Like many children his age, Adele Pillinger’s six-year-old son is “obsessed” with dinosaurs. Last year, the mother of two from Silsden, West Yorkshire, booked a family trip to London so her two sons could visit the fossil-filled Natural History Museum. They were to go in October 2017 – next month. But last week, Pillinger cancelled the trip.

“I feel it’s too much of a risk,” says the 38-year-old, who made the decision to cancel after the Parsons Green tube attack last Friday. “I’ve got two young children… I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way and that’s what I feel like I’d be doing by taking them to London at the moment.”

Pillinger is not isolated in her decision. Although it is difficult to count the precise impact of terrorism on London tourism, the Westminster Bridge attack in March and London Bridge attack in June saw school trips being cancelled and many changing their plans to visit the capital. Headlines after terror often speak of resilient city-dwellers keeping calm and carrying on, but the effect of terrorism on the psyche – and plans – of others in the country is little discussed.
Adele's son, via Adele Pillinger
“I’m frightened. I’m genuinely frightened,” says Pillinger. “I feel genuinely sorry for you guys [Londoners] because you kind of have to crack on with it. I’m sure if it was happening on our doorstep we’d probably feel the same way… but I wouldn’t visit for pleasure at the moment, I can make a decision to not do it.” Instead, Pillinger plans to take her family mountain-biking in Wales.  

Cori Clarke, a 30-year-old teaching assistant from York, has recently decided against taking her six-year-old son Jude to visit his great-grandmother, who lives in London. “Last summer I took my daughter for a few days in London, a sort of girls’ weekend, and this year was going to be my son’s turn. But with what’s happened, I’m just not going to take him.”

Although she’s aware it may sound hypocritical, Clarke does agree with people who say that cancelling plans is “letting the terrorists win” – and she even persuaded her mother against cancelling her own separate trip, planned for November. “I would say you can’t let these people stop your plans, which I know is contradictory,” explains Clarke, “but I don’t want my son seeing anything; I think he’d be absolutely terrified if anything happened… I just thought it’s not worth it basically.”

Many other parents face similar decisions to Pillinger’s and Clarke’s. Primary school children were trapped in the Houses of Parliament during the Westminster attack in March, and schools across the country have been reassessing their planned trips to London. If schools go ahead with their plans, mums and dads then face the difficult decision of whether or not to isolate their children by pulling them out of the trip.

“I just said no, it just seemed too recent,” says Milli Brazier, a 27-year-old from Southend, Essex, who pulled her nine-year-old daughter out of a trip to visit the Science Museum after the Westminster attack. Though the school originally intended to cancel the trip, it went ahead after parents complained. Brazier and a few other parents decided against letting their children go.

“To be honest the school’s not the most organised school and the thought of if anything did happen… the idea of the school not being able to organise the children and keep them safe…” Brazier trails off. “I think as a parent if you’re not comfortable sending your child anywhere… if it’s not right for you as a parent, then you shouldn’t do it.”
Milli and her family, via Milli Brazier
Like Pillinger, the mother from Silsend, Brazier feels that the rest of the country doesn’t have to “carry on” like Londoners do after attacks. “If you live in London you have to carry on, but if you’re making an unnecessary trip to me it just seems a little bit pointless to take that risk when you don’t need to,” she says. “If I didn’t have children I’d probably do it myself but it’s different when you have children.”

Neither Pillinger, Brazier or Clarke know when they will feel comfortable enough to visit the capital again. “I don’t feel the government is doing enough to make people feel safe,” says Pillinger. When people accuse her of letting the terrorists “win” by changing her plans, she has a succinct reply.

“I would say that I think they’re already winning,” she says, “because we’re not doing anything about it. Everyone’s entitled to feel how they feel about it but I think they’re already winning because I’m frightened…

“It’s not normal what’s happening, it’s not normal and it’s not right and I do think the government needs to get a grip on it and do something more about it.”

By the end of the year, it will perhaps be easier to see the financial impact terrorism has had on London’s tourist industry. It's worth noting that, at present, you're more likely to be killed by a dog or by hot water than by a terrorist. But regardless, it is clear that some families' perception of the capital has changed. 

Photo: Getty
How Jeremy Corbyn and an Arsenal player roasted Piers Morgan… in Spanish
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Muy burn.

As if politics in the UK wasn’t spicy enough, watch what happens when you do it in Spanish.

It all started when backward ham Piers Morgan complained in a piece for the Mail that Jeremy Corbyn and his wife froze him out of a conversation with the Arsenal player Héctor Bellerín at the GQ Awards:

“Later, fellow Arsenal fan Jeremy Corbyn came over to speak to him. When I tried to interrupt, the Labour leader – whose wife is Mexican – promptly switched to fluent Spanish to shut me out of the conversation.

‘What did you tell him?’ I asked.

Corbyn smirked. ‘I told him to please send Arsène Wenger my very best and assure him he continues to have my full support, even if he’s lost yours, Piers. In fact, particularly because he’s lost yours…’

A keen-eyed tweeter picked up the passage about speaking Spanish, and the anecdote went viral:


So viral, in fact, that Bellerín himself commented on the story in a tweet saying, “Come on mate, don’t take it personally” to Morgan – punctuated masterfully with a crying laughing emoji.


Then the Labour leader himself joined in the great burning ceremony, replying to the thread in full Spanish:


His response translates as:

“It was nice to meet you. It’s better that we don’t tell him what we were talking about, he wouldn’t understand. Well-played in the game on Sunday.”

And muy buen juego to you too, El Jez.

Getty
Meet the megabots – how scientists turned robots into a swarm
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Researchers have discovered how to make one robot “the brain” of the others. 

Alexa is an automated butler that tells you what the weather is like and gives you the film showing times. Roomba is a robot that can clean your floors (and provide entertainment). They are designed to have a harmonious relationship with their human owner. But imagine if you accidentally step on your Roomba one day, or get frustrated if Alexa doesn't recognise your question. For now, it seems like those actions might have no consequences, except you venting your rage. 

But in future, you might watch your words. According to recent research from Nature Communications, it’s entirely possible that in the future, all those autonomous robots could merge together to form one kind of megabot, capable of carrying out commands and actions as a cohesive whole.

Researchers from three different centres in Lisbon, Brussels and Lausanne were able to effectively program very simple robots to be able to move together, reminiscent of a swarm of bees. This study opened the door for future, mildly terrifying possibilities, like weaponised robots being used to disperse tear gas through huge groups of people.  

Robotic units have been seen before. Programmers have been able to put robotic units together to form a “megabot” of sorts – think putting Wall-E and R2-D2 together. But if you wanted that hybrid to do something, you would have to reprogramme the robots individually, which is trickier than it seems. A merged Wall-E and R2-D2 wouldn’t really be able to do much, because the robots do not share a central unit, like a brain.

Over the course of 10 years, the researchers from three different countries worked together to build a megabot. This meant finding a way to create a mergeable nervous system that would enable modular robots to act as one, the first of its kind. 

As shown in this video, under this system, one of the smaller robotic units touches another one, and a mechanism will make one of  the robotic units will surrender its authority to the other one, and so on. The “winner” will become the brain of the two units, and so on until those smaller robots become a bigger swarm.

Pointing an LED light at one swarm of robots will make the whole group move. It designates one unit, which glows red, as the “brain unit” and enables it to co-ordinate the action of other robotic units, which glow blue.  But as the swarm splits apart, each individual unit then carries that same knowledge and processing ability to coordinate the censors and actuators of the robotic units. If a brain unit develops a fault, the other components can come together to disengage the faulty unit.

This study is only a baby step in the creation of megabots. The robots used in this study were not the complex, almost human-like robots we’re used to seeing in pop culture, but basic models with relatively uncomplicated “robot nervous systems”.Watching these robots bump into each other and light up doesn’t really invoke the same fear as the popular images of megabots like the Decepticons tearing up everything in their sight. 

As with most other investigations into emerging technologies, the results of the study are exciting. However, the implications might be cause for alarm. Creating a mergeable nervous system for robots is completely unprecedented. It could open the door for all kinds of other robotic developments that might not be as easy to regulate. 

Programming robots to merge nervous systems together was the most probable way to achieve the researchers' end goal. The other way to develop working megabots would be to code robots to function like “higher order “ animals. "Higher order" animals would refer to beings such as ourselves. We respond to stimuli based on the context we’re gaining information in, and then work together in groups to carry out tasks.

That requires the ability to "think" autonomously for robots, which remains years away at least. But if that breakthrough occurs, it's possible to imagine sex robots that turn murderous, or co-ordinated explosive robots, of the kind already sent to warzones. If that were the case, a swarm of Roombas would be the least of our problems. 

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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Photo: Getty
Forget gaining £350m a week, Brexit would cost the UK £300m a week
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Figures from the government's own Office for Budget Responsibility reveal the negative economic impact Brexit would have. 

Even now, there are some who persist in claiming that Boris Johnson's use of the £350m a week figure was accurate. The UK's gross, as opposed to net EU contribution, is precisely this large, they say. Yet this ignores that Britain's annual rebate (which reduced its overall 2016 contribution to £252m a week) is not "returned" by Brussels but, rather, never leaves Britain to begin with. 

Then there is the £4.1bn that the government received from the EU in public funding, and the £1.5bn allocated directly to British organisations. Fine, the Leavers say, the latter could be better managed by the UK after Brexit (with more for the NHS and less for agriculture).

But this entire discussion ignores that EU withdrawal is set to leave the UK with less, rather than more, to spend. As Carl Emmerson, the deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, notes in a letter in today's Times: "The bigger picture is that the forecast health of the public finances was downgraded by £15bn per year – or almost £300m per week – as a direct result of the Brexit vote. Not only will we not regain control of £350m weekly as a result of Brexit, we are likely to make a net fiscal loss from it. Those are the numbers and forecasts which the government has adopted. It is perhaps surprising that members of the government are suggesting rather different figures."

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, to which Emmerson refers, are shown below (the £15bn figure appearing in the 2020/21 column).

Some on the right contend that a blitz of tax cuts and deregulation following Brexit would unleash higher growth. But aside from the deleterious economic and social consequences that could result, there is, as I noted yesterday, no majority in parliament or in the country for this course. 

Photo: Getty
What's happened to the German left?
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.

Photo: Getty
“I don’t want to burst into tears on stage”: The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The cult chamber pop curmudgeon on the process of writing a song for every year of his life – and how he avoided soul-searching.

Stephin Merritt has a stye. Sitting in a hushed greenroom at London’s Barbican, he presses a hot mug of tea against his left eye and winces.

An enormous Steinway grand piano shimmers by the wall, reflecting the room’s sparse glow from an electric candle and mirror framed in fairy lights.

“Have you ever had one?” asks the 52-year-old musician, after bowing in his chair in greeting (to avoid germ contact).

No, I reply.

“Don’t.”

Set against the grandeur of his surroundings, it’s a fitting introduction to The Magnetic Fields frontman and cult chamber pop curmudgeon.

Medical complaints are just one theme in his painfully personal new album, 50 Song Memoir. It’s an epic, genre-bending variety show with a song for each year of his life, performed in two halves. The 1992 track “Weird Diseases” cites an ear condition that confines him to a soundproofed shelter from his band onstage – and means he covers his ears when applauded by the Barbican audience later that evening.

Waiting for his soundcheck in his signature brown flatcap, a beige and turquoise argyle jumper and fawn trousers (he only wears brown – it’s hard to get dirty, and matches his eyes, hair and beloved late chihuahua Irving), he’s about to perform the last show in The Magnetic Fields’ first tour in five years.

“I hate touring,” he tells me in his baritone drawl, his head cupped in one hand. “I can’t wait to get home.”

Before he returns to Hudson, New York, he’s taking a week’s holiday in London, which he first visited at 15. As he wrote in the song for 1980, “London By Jetpack”, its blossoming New Romantic scene passed him by.

“I was here at the right time, but I was not in the right places to experience it,” he sighs. “So I was doing touristy things and going to Madame Tussauds. Eating English pizza. I bought a Sherlock Holmes hat and London trenchcoat for my costume, I guess which was fun.”

Merritt went to high school in Boston, where he founded the revolving gaggle of musicians that make up The Magnetic Fields in 1989. The album 50 Song Memoir is their 11th. It’s an eccentric, dizzying journey from Merritt’s nomadic childhood of cults and communes with his bohemian mother, via a cockroach-infested ménage à trois and the 9/11 aftermath, to writing a silent movie score for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

But it has the regular stuff too. Break-ups, unrequited love, absent fathers and all too present ex-boyfriends. In scope and ambition, it’s similar to The Magnetic Fields’ most famous work, 69 Love Songs (what it says on the tin), but it’s the first time Merritt has written a first-person, autobiographical album.

We hear bitterness and mockery in equal measure about his beatnik upbringing (“My mama ain’t no nudist/Except around the pool/She’s a Tibetan Buddhist/Like Catholic only cool”), dark musings on the AIDS crisis (“We expected nuclear war/What should we take precautions for?”), and the final song, 2015’s “Somebody’s Fetish” – like a filthier version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” – acts as Merritt’s self-deprecating justification for finding love (“Nothing’s too strange for somebody’s palate/Some spank the maid and some wank the valet”).


Stephin Merritt. Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

Like the Stephen Sondheim of New York’s underground scene, or a rock ‘n’ roll Noël Coward, Merritt’s acerbic observations and camp brand of miserablisim have established him as an extraordinary lyricist over a quarter century of music-making.

Throughout the 25 albums he’s made with different bands and as a solo artist, Merritt’s words are brought to life by theatrical scores and an experimental use of instruments – but nowhere more celebrated than with The Magnetic Fields.

“I keep wondering if this album has been so well-reviewed partly because people think it would be boorish to question bearing my soul,” he says. “Because reviewing it is like reviewing a person.”

Although 50 Song Memoir seems like a highly revealing “audio-biography”, Merritt insists: “I am against soul-searching in general. I don’t believe in souls in the first place – and if I did, I don’t know how one would search them.”

He points out that these songs are more likely to provoke laughter than tears. The “psychoanalysing” by critics annoys him. “I have to perform these things and I do not want to burst into tears on stage,” he says, his eyes widening. “I don’t want to stand on stage humiliating myself and the audience.”

Merritt recalls crying while performing The Magnetic Fields’ classic ballad “The Book of Love” at the funeral of a friend who died suddenly. “That is the last time I will ever do that,” he smiles drily.

The 50 Song Memoir show is more of a revue, with wry narration by Merritt between each song, and band members playing everything from the omnichord to a saw. The singer himself sits in his pastel-hued soundproof booth, surrounded by 16 dolls houses and other trinkets from his own home – Hooty, his stuffed owl, little wooden animals, quirky instruments and “some of my lunchbox collection”. It makes him feel “weirdly” at home.


Before releasing these songs, Merritt contacted every person he names to run the lyrics by them – including his mother, who burst into tears when he played the music for her in his studio.

“What I’m saying about her is not necessarily criticism on her terms,” he says. “So she should not feel insulted, and I said that. She agreed and said in fact [she didn’t] feel insulted.”

You get the impression Merritt enjoyed the mechanics of writing 50 Song Memoir more than the emotional vulnerability. It pieces together lyrics and music he had written back in the Eighties and never released, and even a guitar solo he wrote at the age of 11. It features 100 instruments, many from his own collection. He also notes the challenge of finding rhymes for so many proper nouns. “I usually let the rhymes lead the narrative,” he says, calling them, “the automatic plot generator”.

Merritt mostly wrote this album at a couple of bars in his neighbourhood, filling around five notebooks overall. He buys expensive pads – to try and guard against losing them – which look as different from each other as possible, “in the hope I will be able to find a song or a thread more easily with visual help: ‘this was the piece of music I wrote in the flowery notebook with a robot on the cover’”.

A useful system for when he returns at the age of 100 to fulfil his vague ambition of adding another 50 songs to the piece (“I have quite a while to decide.”)

It’s soundcheck time. After admiring my rucksack (it’s brown), Merritt says goodbye without getting up, apologising again for his stye.

Never mind, perhaps we’ll hear about it in a song in 50 years’ time?

He gives a rare chuckle. “48, actually.”

The Magnetic Fields performed both halves of 50 Song Memoir at the Barbican. Listen to Stephin Merritt discussing the show on the Barbican podcast here.

Marcelo Krasilcic
These are the two options for Brexit – which will Theresa May choose?
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

It doesn't really matter if the Tories are unified around a position that doesn't work. 

Has Theresa May taken control of the Brexit talks or lost it? On the plus side you have the poaching of Olly Robbins, from his post as chief mandarin at the Brexit department to Downing Street. He will retain his role as the UK's top civil servant in the Brexit negotiations, increasing May's involvement in the talks. Jim Pickard and Henry Mance have a good account of the consequences across Whitehall in the FT.

On the minus side, you have, well, everything else really. "Boris is Boris," was the PM's lukewarm response to his big intervention in the Brexit talks, an acknowledgement that she is too weak to move him. In the Times, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates report on May's plan to try to bind Johnson into her Brexit approach a meeting of the cabinet on Thursday, before her big speech in Florence at the end of the week.

May's predecessor-but-three, William Hague, has used his Telegraph column to warn her that she must unite the Conservatives on Europe or lose the next election to Labour. (He would know, to be fair.) "May must unite Tories on Brexit or lose election, warns Hague" is their splash.

The big divide, James Forsyth explains in the Spectator, is between those favouring a Canada-style loose arrangement with high levels of freedom but a low standard of participation in the single market, and those backing a Norway-esque close arrangement with a low level of freedom and a high level of participation in the single market. Which will May pick?

As one senior Conservative observed yesterday, political reality means that May will likely tilt towards the cabinet's Canada tendency, as Tory Remainers are reluctant to be "suicide bombers" against their own government. The PM has a lot less to lose by moving away from Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Damian Green than she does from Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel.

There's a small problem here, though: which is that the United Kingdom can't negotiate a Canada-style deal in the time set out by Article 50, and will struggle to put one together even with a period of transition. There isn't really an off-the-shelf model here, as far and away the biggest part of the British economy is services and most big trade deals have done comparatively little for services.

That only compounds May's difficulties. The first problem is that unifying her party around a common position on Europe is easier said than done (just ask, say, anyone who has led the Conservatives since 1970). The second is, as her clash with Boris Johnson shows, she can't unify anything as she doesn't have the power any more. The third and the most important is that it doesn't really matter if the Conservative Party is unified around a Brexit position that doesn't work. 

Photo: Getty
Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

Photo: Getty
“We have lost our birth place”: the long, slow persecution of the Rohingya Muslims
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Mohammed Ilias was a school teacher. Then the government dismissed Muslims from their posts. 

The first time the Myanmar army came to his door to ask about the militants, in early August, Mohammed Ilias, a softly-spoken Rohingya teacher in his mid-forties, invited them in. “My little child welcomed them into the house,” he said. “They said: ‘The teacher’s child is very good. Very nice. He’s welcoming us! How well-behaved he is!’”

Maybe it was the kindness of his son. Maybe it was luck. But that day, Ilias wasn’t among the hundreds he said were rounded up in the village of Doe Tan in Maungdaw township, for interrogation about the new Rohingya insurgency. “At least 400 of them they took to the schools and tortured very badly,” he said.

The next time the soldiers came to Doe Tan, they were on a rampage. Insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked dozens of police posts two days earlier, on 25 August. In response, homes were set alight and shots fired indiscriminately, Ilias said.

His eyes welled up with tears. “In that gunfire, one of my elder sisters – 75 years old – died in her home,” he said. “I decided: ‘They killed my sister. They may kill us.’” That day, he left the village with his wife and six children, carrying only a piece of plastic to use as shelter on the road.

The chaos that has engulfed Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state over the past three weeks, pushing an estimated 400,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, has awoken the world to the plight of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority estimated to number around one million.

Soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists are accused of slaughtering civilians and razing villages in a campaign of indiscriminate violence, terrifying in its intensity. But to Rohingya like Ilias, this is the culmination of a lifetime of persecution. It is only the latest brutal chapter in a story of oppression that has deprived an entire people of freedom, education and opportunities over the course of generations.

“They have been torturing us for years,” say many of the Rohingya now living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The events of August were the final straw.

In the muddy, cramped camp outside the port town of Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi fishing port close to Myanmar, where many of the Rohingya have sought refuge, Ilias sat with his hands folded on his lap. He wears a black watch on his left wrist and a brown checked longyi, the sarong worn by Burmese men. “My name is Mohammed Ilias. I am 46,” he said quietly, beginning his story.

He was born in 1972 to a well-known and respected family, he said. His grandfather, Abdul Aziz, was an influential local leader who had been decorated by the British for fighting alongside them in World War II. During the colonial era, the British had encouraged migration into Rakhine from neighbouring Bengal, supplementing the existing Muslim population.

At the time of Myanmar’s independence, in 1948, the first Prime Minister, U Nu, recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group. Families who had lived in the country for at least two generations could apply for a green card granting them full citizenship. Abdul Aziz was among them. “My grandfather had a card which was green,” said Ilias. “Green like the colour of leaves.”

But in 1962, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup and introduced sweeping new rules governing national identity. The 1982 Citizenship Act, which excludes Rohingya from a set of accepted races, effectively rendered them stateless.

The junta began issuing Rohingya with temporary registration certificates, or “white cards” that made them “residents” rather than citizens. “My family had so much status, so much honour,” said Ilias. “My grandfather was like a king. He helped the British. He got a green card from the Myanmar government, so why would we take the white card?”

Before Ilias’s father died, when his son was still small, he expressed a wish that at least one of his children follow in his footsteps. But it was becoming more difficult for Rohingya to access decent jobs. They were barred from higher education. “He told my sister: ‘Somehow, please make a teacher from my family,’” Ilias recalled.

Ilias couldn’t go to university, but he managed to get a job at a state-run school, teaching maths and science. It didn’t last long. “After that Myanmar decided not to take Muslim teachers,” he said. “They forced us to resign and took lots of Rakhine people into the schools for teaching.”

He continued teaching informally, he said, sometimes taking payment from parents but more often working for free. But few Rohingya in the village could see the benefits of sending their children for an education rather than to work as farmers or labourers, he said. “Our children were getting an education but they can’t do anything,” said Ilias. “They can’t get a government job. If you are an educated man, but you can’t do anything to earn money, how can you cover the expenses for your family?”

To make ends meet, Ilias ran a small shop in the village. But getting supplies required hiring Rakhines to bring them. Even farmers relied on Rakhines to bring fertiliser for their fields. Relations between the two communities had been tense for years but worsened dramatically after outbreaks of communal violence in 2012.

And then, in 2015, voting rights for Rohingya were withdrawn ahead of the anticipated election in November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. But it was quickly apparent that advocating for Rohingya was not on her agenda. In late 2016, ARSA militants launched their first attack on police posts.

The ensuing months in northern Rakhine, the center of the new insurgency, were fraught. Imams – accused of lending religious legitimacy to the violence – and community leaders like Ilias were suspect.

In early August, the military called a meeting with educated Rohingya in Doe Tan, Ilias said. They were told to sign a paper promising the tackle the insurgency. “It was a paper given by the military, like a peace contract,” he said.

But the militants attacked again on 25 August and soldiers were soon back in Ilias’s house. They saw bottles of medicine – used to stock his shop, he said – and accused him of treating ARSA fighters. “You are not a teacher, you are a doctor for ARSA,” they told him.

“There were four or five of them,” recalled Ilias. “They pushed me to the ground, then with the pliers they took away my nails. They beat me with a bamboo stick.” 

He was saved when a commander recognised him and reprimanded the soldiers. “I saw you, you are a teacher in the school, you are not a bad man,” Ilias recalled the commander saying. “He was just trying to convince me to give information about ARSA. But actually I don’t know about ARSA. How can I give him any information without knowing?”

After fleeing the village, leaving behind the body of his sister Basuma, who he described as a pious and well-liked widow, Ilias heard the whole area had been looted and razed. “The wealth was gone, the houses empty, no people... Then they started to burn from the outside part of the village. They were burning our houses for three days at least,” he said.

The United Nations’ top human rights official has called the recent violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Auu Kyi, on the other hand, has attracted international condemnation for failing to speak out. She decided not to attend the UN General Assembly this week, and has limited her comments to saying she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict. 

“You start systematically weakening a maligned group in order to make their existence either so fragile that they leave of their own accord, or to ensure they fail to put up much of a struggle when a military operation such as this gets underway,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.

Like many Rohingya, Ilias spent years finding ways to work within a system that ground him down. Now in Bangladesh, which has reluctantly accepted the new arrivals but has said it plans to keep them in camps, he is staring into an uncertain future (he was photographed for this article, but from behind, as he did not want to show his face for fear of retribution). “We have lost our homeland. Our birth place,” he said. “We are now here in Bangladesh but we don’t want to make any trouble. We don’t want to be destroyed, like waste.”

Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist reporting on South East Asia, mainly Myanmar

Photo: Poppy McPherson
The science and technology committee debacle shows how we're failing women in tech
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

It would be funny if it wasn’t so depressing.

Five days after Theresa May announced, in her first Prime Minister’s Questions after the summer recess, that she was "particularly keen to address the stereotype about women in engineering", an all-male parliamentary science and technology committee was announced. You would laugh if it wasn’t all so depressing.

It was only later, after a fierce backlash against the selection, that Conservative MP Vicky Ford was also appointed to the committee. I don’t need to say that having only one female voice represents more than an oversight: it’s simply unacceptable. And as if to rub salt into the wound, at the time of writing, Ford has still not been added to the committee list on parliament's website.

To the credit of Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP who was elected chair of the committee in July, he said that he didn't "see how we can proceed without women". "It sends out a dreadful message at a time when we need to convince far more girls to pursue Stem [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects," he added. But as many people have pointed out already, it’s the parties who nominate members, and that’s partly why this scenario is worrying. The nominations are a representation of those who represent us.

Government policy has so far completely failed to tap into the huge pool of talented women we have in this country – and there are still not enough women in parliament overall.

Women cannot be considered an afterthought, and in the case of the science and technology committee they have quite clearly been treated as such. While Ford will be a loud and clear voice on the committee, one person alone can’t address the major failings of government policy in improving conditions for women in science and technology.

Study after study has shown why it is essential for the UK economy that women participate in the labour force. And in Stem, where there is undeniably a strong anti-female bias and yet a high demand for people with specialist skills, it is even more pressing.

According to data from the Women’s Engineering Society, 16 per cent of UK Stem undergraduates are female. That statistic illustrates two things. First, that there is clearly a huge problem that begins early in the lives of British women, and that this leads to woefully low female representation on Stem university courses. Secondly, unless our society dramatically changes the way it thinks about women and Stem, and thereby encourages girls to pursue these subjects and careers, we have no hope of addressing the massive shortage in graduates with technical skills.

It’s quite ironic that the Commons science and technology committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap was costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.

Read more: Why does the science and technology committee have no women – and a climate sceptic?

Female representation in Stem industries wasn’t addressed at all in the government’s Brexit position paper on science, nor was it dealt with in any real depth in the digital strategy paper released in April. In fact, in the 16-page Brexit position paper, the words "women", "female" and "diversity" did not appear once. And now, with the appointment of the nearly all-male committee, it isn't hard to see why.

Many social issues still affect women, not only in Stem industries but in the workplace more broadly. From the difficulties facing mothers returning to work after having children, to the systemic pay inequality that women face across most sectors, it is clear that there is still a vast amount of work to be done by this government.

The committee does not represent the scientific community in the UK, and is fundamentally lacking in the diversity of thought and experience necessary to effectively scrutinise government policy. It leads you to wonder which century we’re living in. Quite simply, this represents a total failure of democracy.

Pip Wilson is a tech entrepreneur, angel investor and CEO of amicable

Photo: Getty
What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany
September 19th, 2017, 01:37 PM

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
Vote Leave can't hide their responsibility for the Brexit mess
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Dominic Cummings has become the latest Vote Leave official to try to muddy his part in the unfolding disaster. 

Dominic Cummings, formerly a special advisor to Michael Gove and one of the key backroom figures in Vote Leave, has made one of his periodic interventions in the post-referendum debate with a very long Twitter thread – containing a link to an even longer article.

The headline-grabbing line – though he has said it before – is that in triggering Article 50 when it did, the government committed a “historic and unforgivable blunder”, which has jeopardised the country’s chances of making Brexit a success. Squarely in his sights for the blunder: David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, and Britain’s top civil servant, Jeremy Heywood. Is he right?

Particularly attentive readers will know that I have been banging on about this precise point at considerable length both before and after Article 50 was triggered. (Unlucky followers of my Twitter feed will be even more sick of this point.)

And in Cummings’ defence, so was he. In one particularly colourful remark, before the referendum, he described using Article 50 to facilitate leaving as putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. Vote Leave’s campaign literature advised against immediately triggering Article 50, so he has half a point. But crucially, only half.

Why only half? Well, here follows a list of people and publications who called on the government not to use Article 50 to facilitate its exit from the European Union: the Financial Times, the New Statesman, the blogger FlipChartRick, the lawyer Jolyon Maugham, and Cummings himself.

You’ll note something that is immediately missing from that list: any senior politicians who backed a Leave vote, including Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Labour’s Gisela Stuart, the three frontline figures who did more than almost anyone else to ensure that Britain voted to leave the European Union.

In neither of their short-lived leadership bids did Johnson or Gove use their platforms to argue against triggering Article 50, nor did either of them use their considerable clout in the pro-Brexit press to do the same. Stuart, one of Labour’s most impressive operators, who helped negotiate and write Article 50, and therefore knew full well that the mechanism was designed to disadvantage the departing nation and hand maximum leverage to the remaining members of the European Union, not only said nothing to discourage it but like Johnson and Gove actively voted to trigger on May’s timetable.

May has made a series of unforced errors in the Brexit talks, but as far as the disastrous decision to trigger Article 50 when she did goes, politically, she had no other choice but to trigger early due the demands of Brexiteers on her own backbenches.

If you want to be generous you can say that this only occurred because some Remainers were talking about an indefinite transition or overturning the referendum result which meant that Brexiteer MPs were less cautious than they should have been. But you can’t absolve Vote Leave on this metric, as anyone who knows anything about politics or human nature should have expected that at least some Remainers would behave in that way and that at least some Brexiteers would respond in that way and they did nothing, nothing at all, after the campaign to prevent it from happening.

Cummings is right that triggering Article 50 was a historic and unforgivable blunder that has made the chances of a bad Brexit considerably more likely. But he’s wrong to say that the architects of Vote Leave can escape at least a share of the blame. 

Photo: Getty
These two quotations show just how weak Theresa May has become
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

What a difference an election makes. 

“Boris is Boris.” It’s the kind of remark one associates with the ineffective owner of a pet hound that has just urinated over a beloved family couch rather than of a Prime Minister in reference to her Foreign Secretary, but here we are.

Theresa May was being asked to respond to a Telegraph article written by Boris Johnson that appeared to ride roughshod over the government’s position on Brexit. It’s strange to think that a little over a year ago, May, then merely a candidate for the premiership, mocked Johnson, talking about how the last time he “negotiated in Europe, he did a deal with the Germans [and] came back with three nearly-new water cannon”. It’s stranger still to think that just 13 days after that quip, May appointed Johnson as Foreign Secretary and immediately drastically shrunk both his and the Foreign Office’s power.

(Although the Department of International Trade shares a building with the Foreign Office, the Department for Exiting the European Union is based in the Cabinet Office – the psychological impact on morale at the FCO in removing its control over the largest foreign policy challenge in British history is large.)

Now Johnson has undermined her big Brexit intervention, which means that anything she says in Florence on Friday will either be seen as a capitulation to Johnson or at best a provisional statement of British foreign policy, and her response is “Boris is Boris”.

It’s a reminder of just how much May lost along with her parliamentary majority on 8 June.

Photo: Getty
Boris Johnson has a problem: he doesn't have any friends
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The Foreign Secretary's difficulty is that he doesn't have a natural faction, and can count on the unstinting service of just a few MPs. 

In the dying days of the Second World War, the subject of the future of eastern Europe came up. Winston Churchill interjected to warn Joseph Stalin, the ruler of the Soviet Union, that the sensibilities of the Pope had to be listened to. Stalin paused, then asked: “How many legions does the Pope have?”

His point was that while the Pope might have political influence, when it came down to cold, hard numbers, he had no military and therefore no real political power. There are not many comparisons to be drawn between Boris Johnson and the Pope, but this is one. The Foreign Secretary retains a significant degree of influence due to his supporters in the press, including his old stomping grounds of the Spectator and the Telegraph.

But as far as firm support among Conservative MPs go, the number of actual “divisions” he commands is significantly smaller. During the years of coalition, his support had two roots among the party’s MPs: the fondness in which he was held by Conservative activists, and the belief that he, having won London, was a “Heineken Tory” who could win in places where other Conservatives could not.

MPs buying stock in Johnson then tended to have a low view of David Cameron’s chances in the 2015 election. Their assumption was that the next leadership election would take place in the shadow of an Ed Miliband-led government, in which the Conservatives would have gone 23 years and four leaders without winning a parliamentary majority, and Johnson, at the time the most popular politician in the country, would be the logical frontrunner.

As a result, MPs we thought of as being in the Johnson camp tended to be from the party’s right, not because of any particular right-wing convictions on Johnson’s part, but because the further to the Conservative right you were, the more likely you were to think that Cameron’s approach was doomed to failure in 2015. The biggest brain of that tendency was probably Kwasi Kwarteng, the MP for Spelthorne. But Cameron’s unexpected success in 2015 and the emergence of new candidates on the Conservative right means that these MPs can now shop around, with the natural choice for many of them being Dominic Raab, a justice minister and the MP for Esher and Walton.

Bolstering Johnson's support from the right were parliamentarians of the most valuable and dangerous commodity in any political party: MPs Who Want Jobs. This group were of the opinion that Johnson’s popularity meant that he would win any leadership election, and they wanted to get in on the ground floor. But the difficulty with this group, as George Osborne and Andy Burnham could both tell you, is that like nervous traders, they might bolt at any point; and they did, the second that Michael Gove chose to mount his own bid for the leadership in 2016 rather than support Johnson’s campaign. (Theresa May was the biggest net beneficiary.)

That Johnson’s USP – being able to win in parts of the country the Conservatives cannot usually reach – was holed below the waterline after Cameron’s win in 2015 only furthered the drop in support: the former Mayor of London simply didn’t have enough support to stay the course on his own, though the likes of Ben Wallace, MP for Wyre and Preston North, remained loyal.

Adding to his misery since then, though Theresa May has shown that being able to win a majority is harder than it looks, is that Ruth Davidson has taken some of his oxygen as a leader who can win in places the Conservatives tend to struggle. Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg has supplanted him as the activists’ darling.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a path to power, or at least a second-placed finish among Conservative MPs, after which point he has, as one Johnson-supporting MP puts it, “a puncher’s chance” of beating whoever he faces among members.

Just as in the last leadership election, where the top two candidates were MPs who had campaigned for Remain (Theresa May) and for Leave (Andrea Leadsom), it is likely that the top two will again be a choice between two sides of the party’s referendum divide. And although Johnson is not the first choice of many committed Brexiteers, he has the advantage that he is not their last choice, either. 

Photo: Getty
Sean Spicer's Emmys love-in shows how little those with power fear Donald Trump
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

There's tolerance for Trump and his minions from those who have little to lose from his presidency.

He actually did it. Sean Spicer managed to fritter away any residual fondness anyone had for him (see here, as predicted), by not having the dignity to slip away quietly from public life and instead trying to write off his tenure under Trump as some big joke.

At yesterday’s Emmys, as a chaser to host Stephen Colbert’s jokes about Donald Trump, Sean Spicer rolled onto the stage on his SNL parody podium and declared, “This will be the largest audience to witness an Emmys, period.” Get it? Because the former communications director lied about the Trump inauguration crowd being the largest in history? Hilarious! What is he like? You can’t take him anywhere without him dropping a lie about a grave political matter and insulting the gravity of the moment and the intelligence of the American people and the world. 

Celebs gasped when they saw him come out. The audience rolled in the aisles. I bet the organisers were thrilled. We got a real live enabler, folks!

It is a soul-crushing sign of the times that obvious things need to be constantly re-stated, but re-state them we must, as every day we wake up and another little bit of horror has been prettified with some TV make-up, or flattering glossy magazine profile lighting.

Spicer upheld Trump's lies and dissimulations for months. He repeatedly bullied journalists and promoted White House values of misogyny, racism, and unabashed dishonesty. The fact that he was clearly bad at his job and not slick enough to execute it with polished mendacity doesn't mean he didn't have a choice. Just because he was a joke doesn't mean he's funny.

And yet here we are. The pictures of Spicer's grotesque glee at the Emmy after-party suggested a person who actually can't quite believe it. His face has written upon it the relief and ecstasy of someone who has just realised that not only has he got away with it, he seems to have been rewarded for it.

And it doesn't stop there. The rehabilitation of Sean Spicer doesn't only get to be some high class clown, popping out of the wedding cake on a motorised podium delivering one liners. He also gets invited to Harvard to be a fellow. He gets intellectual gravitas and a social profile.

This isn’t just a moment we roll our eyes at and dismiss as Hollywood japes. Spicer’s celebration gives us a glimpse into post-Trump life. Prepare for not only utter impunity, but a fete.

We don’t even need to look as far as Spicer, Steve Bannon’s normalisation didn’t even wait until he left the White House. We were subjected to so many profiles and breathless fascinations with the dark lord that by the time he left, he was almost banal. Just your run of the mill bar room bore white supremacist who is on talk show Charlie Rose and already hitting the lucrative speaker’s circuit.

You can almost understand and resign yourself to Harvard’s courting of Spicer; it is after all, the seat of the establishment, where this year’s freshman intake is one third legacy, and where Jared Kushner literally paid to play, but Hollywood? The liberal progressive Hollywood that took against Trump from the start? There is something more sinister, more revealing going here. 

The truth is, despite the pearl clutching, there is a great deal of relative tolerance for Trump because power resides in the hands of those who have little to lose from a Trump presidency. There are not enough who are genuinely threatened by him – women, people of colour, immigrants, populating the halls of decision making, to bring the requisite and proportional sense of anger that would have been in the room when the suggestion to “hear me out, Sean Spicer, on SNL’s motorised podium” was made.

Stephen Colbert is woke enough to make a joke at Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, but not so much that he refused to share a stage with Spicer, who worked at the white supremacy head office.

This is the performative half-wokeness of the enablers who smugly have the optics of political correctness down, but never really internalised its values. The awkward knot at the heart of the Trump calamity is that of casual liberal complicity. The elephant in the room is the fact that the country is a most imperfect democracy, where people voted for Trump but the skew of power and capital in society, towards the male and the white and the immune, elevated him to the candidacy in the first place.

Yes he had the money, but throw in some star quality and a bit of novelty, and you’re all set. In a way what really is working against Hillary Clinton’s book tour, where some are constantly asking that she just go away, is that she’s old hat and kind of boring in a world where attention spans are the length of another ridiculous Trump tweet.

Preaching the merits of competence and centrism in a pantsuit? Yawn. You’re competing for attention with a White House that is a revolving door of volatile man-children. Trump just retweeted a video mock up where he knocks you over with a golf ball, Hillary. What have you got to say about that? Bet you haven’t got a nifty Vaclav Havel quote to cover this political badinage.

This is how Trump continues to hold the political culture of the country hostage, by being ultra-present and yet also totally irrelevant to the more prosaic business of nation building. It is a hack that goes to the heart of, as Hillary's new book puts it, What Happened.

The Trump phenomenon is hardwired into the American DNA. Once your name becomes recognisable you’re a Name. Once you’ve done a thing you are a Thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re known for or what you’ve done.

It is the utter complacency of the establishment and its pathetic default setting that is in thrall to any mediocre male who, down to a combination of privilege and happenstance, ended up with some media profile. That is the currency that got Trump into the White House, and it is the currency that will keep him there. As Spicer’s Emmy celebration proves, What Happened is still happening.

Photo: Getty
There is no Commons majority for Boris Johnson's low tax, low regulation Brexit
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The loss of the Conservatives' majority denied the party the option of pursuing a free market route. 

In his leadership bid Daily Telegraph Brexit article, Boris Johnson resurrected the vision of a low tax, low regulation UK. Many Conservatives have long aspired to use EU withdrawal as a Trojan Horse for a smaller state. 

Back in January, Chancellor Philip Hammond warned that Britain would change its "[economic] model" if the EU refused to grant the government's preferred deal. But after Hammond later ruled out "unfair competition in regulation and tax", Johnson has sought to claim this mantle. "It [Brexit] means simplifying regulation and cutting taxes wherever we can," the Foreign Secretary wrote.

Before the EU referendum, Johnson's ally, International Development Secretary Priti Patel, declared: "If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs."

But there is one decisive obstacle to this programme: parliament. Had the Conservatives won the large majority they expected, the possibility of a free market Brexit would remain. But without a majority at all, it is inconceivable. The Tories simply do not have the votes they need to slash taxes and regulation (there would be enough rebels to eradicate the government's slim working majority of 12). Britain will not become the Hong Kong of the West (the oft-cited Singapore is a hotbed of interventionism.)

It was precisely for this reason that Hammond retreated in July. Though the hard Brexiteers blame the "soft" Chancellor for repudiating this path, the true blame lies with the voters. Had the Tories stood on the libertarian manifesto proposed by some, they would likely have fared worse, not better. As Labour's performance demonstrated, many voters crave a larger state.

Indeed, if the government is ever to raise the revenue required to deliver £350m a week extra for the NHS (as promised by Johnson), it will need to increase, not reduce taxes (indeed, Labour has considered embracing the policy itself). Since the UK's net EU budget contribution was, in fact, £252m a week last year, the government could not meet the £18.2bn pledge simply by ceasing EU payments. 

Were Johnson, or another Tory, to soon replace May, the Conservatives could of course seek a new mandate from the electorate. But as long as the risk of allowing Labour into power remains, Tory MPs will not vote for an early contest. 

Photo: Getty
Boris Johnson's £350m mistake – and 6 other statistical errors we all fall for
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Boris Johnson was publicly scolded by a statistics boss for resurrecting a Brexit campaign claim.

Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote an open letter to Boris Johnson on how he was "surprised and disappointed" by the foreign secretary restating that Brexit will lead an extra £350m per week being made available for public spending.

Norgrove went on to say that "it is a clear misuse of official statistics". Johnson is not the first Conservative cabinet minister to be reprimanded by the Stats Authority. Six others have as well, as detailed by George Eaton

Johnson made a classic statistical mistake - if we can call it that - by confusing net and gross contributions to the EU. He failed to mention that the EU made payments back to the UK to support the likes of agriculture and scientific research. 

For the benefit of present and future cabinet ministers, here are some other statistical mistakes to watch out for:

1. P – hacking

P-hacking is a scientific term used to describe the practice of collecting data until non-significant results become significant. You can call it playing the system, unintended human biases or just the realities of working in a field

Take the classic Derren Brown special on horse-racing (spoiler alert). In the special, Brown picks a random woman who bets on a new horse in subsequent races based on Brown's recommendation.

She wins everytime and makes a lot of money. How did Brown known who would win? The theory online is that he bet on every single horse in every single race, and only aired the footage of when he and the woman won. Do an experiment enough times and you're bound to get the results that you're looking for. 

2. Conflating a lower chance, with no chance

Most polls said Hillary Clinton had a higher chance of winning the US presidential election in 2016, but that didn't mean Donald Trump had no chance of winning. The 45th president is the epitome of the saying: "if you don't try, you won't succeed."

3. Confirmation Bias

We believe stats more readily when they confirm our prior prejudiced beliefs. Numerous studies have found that even if the evidence for your beliefs has been refuted, you are still unlikely to change your mind

4. Unrepresentative sample

One reason cited for why pollsters did not predict Trump a higher chance of winning the 2016 election was that without the ubiquity of landline phones (where pollsters could randomly pick people from a phone-book), pollsters struggled to find a truly representative sample of the population. 

In the run up to the UK 2017 general election, most polls predicted a Tory majority and a minority a hung parliament. The difference was down to the polling methodology. YouGov, a pollster which concentrated on improving its sample, was one of those closest to the mark. 

5. Understanding significance

In most scientific literature, the statistical Holy Grail is the p-value of 0.05. A p-value tells you how likely the results of the experiment are due to chance alone.

For example, if you missed the bus every morning for two weeks, the p-value would tell you how likely that this was due to chance. The smaller the p-value, the more likely it wasn't due to chance and was due to some other factors such as a new bus schedule or you waking up too late.

A p-value of 0.05 is arbitrary. Sure, five times in a hundred days you slip on a puddle, but the real reason you're late is your alarm clock isn't loud enough. But why are we interested in 5 per cent of cases? Why not 3 per cent? Better still 1 per cent? 

This is what many now argue, especially in an era of big data, where sample sizes can number in the hundreds of thousands. They say that even if a pattern is deduced 95 per cent of the time, results which seem significant may simply be false positives, something which is due to chance. 

6. Meaningless correlations

A press release from Labour's grassroots movement Momentum boasts that their viral videos on social media reached far beyond their usual base. It says: “These people are more likely to follow Maximum Respect for the British Armed Forces and the Royal British Legion, Ant and Dec and Match of the Day than Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party or Momentum.”

This is a standard statistical error. More people in Britain generally like Ant and Dec and football more than any politician or political party. The more people who watch a video, the more Ant and Dec fans among them. 

Johnson argued in his response to Norgrove that he was talking about "control" of the money and not about extra money. The never-ending battle between number-crunching and terminology continues...

Women’s stories triumph at the Emmys
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Winners were original stories told by diverse voices, that shone a light on society's injustices, or engaged with the current political landscape in the USA head on.

The 69th Emmy Awards was a great night for stories about women, starring women, and written by women. The biggest winners of the night, which celebrates excellence in television, were The Handmaid’s Tale (with five awards) and Big Little Lies (also with five awards). Both are female-fronted series tackling wider issues of patriarchal violence in a sexist political climate. Black Mirror: San Junipero and Veep also picked up multiple awards.

The Handmaid’s Tale won the biggest award of the night: Outstanding Drama Series. But it also picked up awards in every category it was nominated. That meant awards for drama writing and direction, while Elisabeth Moss won the Emmy for a lead actress in drama. Ann Dowd won the best supporting role award for the terrifying Aunt Lydia, while Alexis Bledel picked up the award for best guest performance, announced at the Creative Emmy Awards last week.

Big Little Lies won Outstanding Limited Series, with Alexander Skarsgård, Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman all picking up acting awards: Kidman delivered a powerful speech on the importance of representing stories of domestic abuse.

Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for her work on Master of None, thanking her “LGBTQIA family”. Black Mirror won Outstanding TV Movie and a writing award for its love story between two women, “San Junipero”.

It was a night of firsts more generally: Donald Glover became the first black winner of Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, and Riz Ahmed became the first man of Asian decent, and the first Muslim, to win an acting Emmy.

Firsts aside, Julia Louis-Dreyfus made Emmy history for the most awards won by a single performer for one role, picking up her sixth consecutive award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Veep. Reed Morano of The Handmaid's Tale became the first woman to win the award for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series in 22 years, while Sterling K Brown from This Is Us became the first black man to win Outstanding Lead Actor In a Drama in 19 years.

All in all, the winners, be it The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Saturday Night Live, Veep, The Night Of, This is Us, Black Mirror: San Junipero, or Atlanta, were generally original stories that placed diverse voices at the centre, shone a light on societal injustices, or engaged with the current political landscape in the USA head on.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks were snubbed: they weren’t eligible.

The full list of winners can be found here.

Photo: Getty
Andy Burnham: Labour must not be a “London-centric” party
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

After being denied a speech at Labour conference, the Greater Manchester mayor warns Jeremy Corbyn that he must demonstrate his commitment to the north.

On the evening of 22 May, Andy Burnham was at home watching Newsnight having just returned from a game of five-a-side football. When he was called by his friend Steve Rotheram, the mayor of Liverpool City Region, Burnham initially ignored his phone. “But then he called again and I realised it must be something important.”

The Manchester Arena, where Rotheram’s daughters were that evening, had been targeted by a suicide bomber. “Like everybody, I felt sick to the pit of my stomach,” Burnham recalled when we spoke recently. “You feel it every time you hear of a terrorist attack, but to have one so close to home...”

At the time of the attack, which killed 22 people, Burnham had only been in office for two weeks. The incident, the worst the UK had endured since the 7 July 2005 bombings, was a severe test of the Greater Manchester mayor’s leadership. But he was prepared.

“On day one in the job I’d sat down with the chief constable and asked him outright: ‘Are we ready? Are we prepared for another terrorist attack?’” Burnham told me. “The reason I did that, I suppose, comes out of my background at shadow home... If you look back, a big theme of mine during that period was challenging Theresa May [then home secretary] about whether regional cities were as prepared as London for a terrorist attack.”

He added: “I got assurances on day one and they were real assurances because Greater Manchester (GM) had been planning. The NHS had, in fact, planned for an attack on the arena a few weeks before. While I did feel sick to my stomach and anxious about what was happening, the strength of GM was immediately apparent to me.”

Burnham described the city as “recovering” (the arena reopened with a concert on 9 September) and emphasised that it was “a long process”. “I’m meeting the families on a fairly regular basis. We’re beginning discussions about appropriate ways to create a memorial to the victims.”

The mayor has established a new commission on tackling violent extremism, led by Labour councillor Rishi Shori, the leader of Bury Council, and believes that Prevent, the government’s counter-terrorism programme, is critically flawed. “It doesn’t have the confidence of the people it needs to have at the moment. If the flow of information isn’t coming up from families and communities and faith organisations then it won’t work”.

The last time I interviewed Burnham, in August 2015, he was struggling to put a brave face on his inevitable defeat to Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election. In the ensuing period, Burnham was pilloried by former allies for his subsequent loyalty to Corbyn (he did not join the mass shadow cabinet resignation in June 2016). But as mayor, the 47-year-old former health secretary is a politician reborn.

On the morning I was due to meet Burnham, a fire on the London-Manchester line had halted all trains. We arranged to speak by phone. “Devolution can really change politics, it could begin to provide an answer to the alienation we’ve seen growing over many years and that culminated in the EU referendum result,” the mayor told me as he reflected on his opening months in office.

Burnham, who was MP for Leigh from 2001-17, and previously a special adviser to culture secretary Chris Smith, spoke disdainfully of his former workplace. “The Westminster system is set up institutionally to promote point-scoring, isn't it? It’s built into the foundations of the place. It is quite liberating to leave that totally behind and just focus on place and people and making a difference.”

One of Burnham’s policy priorities has been tackling homelessness in Greater Manchester (which has quadrupled since 2010 to 4,428 people). He donates 15 per cent of his £110,000 salary to a homelessness fund and will do so as long as he is in office.

Though Burnham has vowed to end rough sleeping in the region by 2020, he conceded that “the problem seems to be getting worse”. “But my commitment doesn’t diminish. I’m not going into that mode of saying: ‘It’s all somebody else’s fault’”. On the morning we spoke, Burnham wrote to all public bodies demanding “immediate steps” to address the crisis.

The mayor spoke of his desire for further devolution, such as the transfer of the welfare budget. “Steve [Rotheram] and I were in New York earlier in the summer, with mayors from the US and Europe. And in the States, where there’s a long tradition of mayors, there’s a clearer analysis that Washington has always been dysfunctional, to a degree, and that it’s become more so under Trump and, therefore, change is going to be driven by city regions.”

In the case of the UK, Burnham believes that “our antiquated, London-centric system” is similarly cumbersome. “The Brexit debate has brought that out and I feel strongly that it’ll be city regions that drive the quickest and most progressive change in the future ... Manchester has an incredible history of radical forward-thinking, of social disruption, industrial innovation. We’re being absolutely true to our roots in being at the forefront of this movement towards devolution.” I am reminded of the words of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson: “This is Manchester, we do things differently here.”

Burnham joined Labour as a 14-year-old having been “radicalised” by the 1984-85 miners’ strike. On 4 May this year, he was elected mayor by a landslide, winning 63.4 per cent of the vote and achieving support in Conservative areas such as Bolton West and Altrincham & Sale West.

I asked Burnham, who finished second to Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election (winning 19 per cent to his opponent's 59.5 per cent), whether he ever contemplated how Labour would have performed under him. “No, that’s in the past, as far as I’m concerned,” he replied. “I feel I’m in the right job at the right time. I genuinely don’t spend time on that.”

Burnham did not join Corbyn at the victory rally that followed his mayoral election, explaining that he was too busy (he was later pictured drinking champagne with his team at The Refuge restaurant). At this year’s Labour conference, Burnham, like his London counterpart Sadiq Khan, has not been accorded a speaking slot.

“Well, it’s a matter for the party and the powers that be ... I’ve always respected that,” Burnham said when I raised the subject. But he added: “What I would say, and it’s no divine right of mine to be there, is that if elected mayors aren’t to be given any role, I think the party needs to think long and hard about how it demonstrates its commitment to devolution.

“And its commitment, more directly, to the rest of the country, the regions. I’ve criticised the party in the past for being too London-centric and I will always challenge it. There is a tendency to be London-centric in the Labour Party and that tendency needs to be constantly challenged.”

Four of Labour’s keynote speakers represent north London seats that border each other: Corbyn (Islington North), Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington), Emily Thornberry (Islington South) and Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras). A fifth, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, is another London MP (representing Hayes and Harlington).

Burnham did not disguise his displeasure with the arrangement. “Obviously the shadow cabinet needs a prominent role, but Angela Rayner [shadow education secretary], what a fantastic voice. Andrew Gwynne [shadow communities secretary], what a fantastic ambassador for the party, rooted in his home region. Debbie Abrahams [shadow work and pensions secretary] doing tremendous work.

“I’m all in favour of more grassroots involvement, and fewer set-piece speeches, I understand why the party may want that. But I think it is important that the voices of all regions ring out at conference. I don’t think it’s mine or anyone’s right to expect a platform but I do think the party needs to demonstrate both its commitment to devolution and to the regions more broadly. If it’s not to do that through inviting someone like me, then it needs to do it a different way.”

Burnham also warned the Conservative government not to marginalise the UK’s regions during the Brexit negotiations. “After a lot of challenges, we’ve finally been offered a meeting with David Davis [the Brexit secretary], this is Steve Rotheram and I, and the Teesside mayor [Ben Houchen], on the Friday after the Tory conference. Well, OK, I’m grateful for the meeting but that isn’t a good enough response, I have to say.”

He continued: “There could be trade-offs here, couldn’t there? The City of London is something that the government will want to protect; are other industries going to pay the price for that?” With a view to strengthening the regions’ voice, Burnham is discussing the formation of a “council of the north” which would assemble twice a year.

Burnham backed Labour’s support for EU single market and customs union membership during a “transitional period” but emphasised: “We also have to demonstrate, and continually stress, that we respect the result and will respond to the concerns that clearly were articulated by many Labour voters up and down the country in the referendum.”

I end by asking Burnham whether he would ever consider returning to Westminster to seek a national leadership role.

“I don’t see this as a stepping stone,” he insisted. “People might think, ‘he’s just biding his time up in Manchester’. I don’t think of it like that at all. For me, this is a new chapter in my political life, which I’m very fortunate to have. I’m devoting myself to it wholeheartedly, I don’t do anything by halves. I’m not really a tactical politician in that way. If I do something I try and embrace it wholeheartedly. I’m doing it in that spirit and I hope to be here for the long-term.”

Photo: Getty
Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

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

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

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

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

Picture: STAVROS DAMOS
Both the UK and EU are falling into the Brexit negotiations trap
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The more the negotiators struggle, the more complicated the negotiations get. 

How are the Brexit negotiations going? That is a deceptively easy question with a fiendishly complicated answer. After the latest round of negotiations, Brexit is quickly becoming synonymous with words like "impasse", "deadlock", and "blockage". Yet, in another sense, it was never going to be any different. In particular, the fault lines keep re-emerging precisely where the unstoppable force of Brexit meets the immovable object of the EU – notably, budget contributions. As both sides pull harder, loose negotiation threads become tangled into what the Greeks call a Gordian knot - the legendary bundle that nobody could untie.

Worse, the current approach by David Davis and his team appears, if anything, to be tightening the knot further for two main reasons. First, while the British press and politicians focus on Brexit every day, nudged by a constant stream of leaks, this is not the case on the continent. Part of this is understandable - untangling 44 years of European law is fiendishly complicated, as the EU Withdrawal Bill demonstrates.

However, this creates the impression that these negotiations are followed closely by national leaders and that, perhaps, the UK can bypass the "inflexible" European Commission and talk directly to the "decision-makers". This is unlikely to work. Simply put, Brexit is down the EU's pecking order of challenges, behind topics such as migration and neighborhood policy, rule of law in some member states, security challenges, and managing the transatlantic relationship. Indeed, in the recent German electoral debate between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, Brexit was mentioned exactly zero times.

The second reason why the Gordian knot keeps tightening, as the third round of negotiations last month made clear, is the UK's contribution to the EU budget. Its refusal to engage on the issue and discuss a possible methodology has angered many in Brussels. The reason why this is proving so tricky lies in the conception of the infamous Article 50. Brits should be aware of this, given the leading role of Lord Kerr in the process.

In short, Article 50 was never intended for a big member state, but rather as a quick procedure to terminate relations with a recalcitrant member state that had drifted far apart in matters of rule of law and democracy. The candidates in mind at the time were all among the new members in Central and Eastern Europe - and they are net recipients rather than contributors to the EU budget. Therefore, Article 50 did not explicitly envisage any rules for what to do if the leaving country is actually a contributor, not to mention one as large as Britain, which is responsible for roughly 12 per cent of the overall EU budget.

For Brussels, Britain is still pushing and poking for ways to "have its cake and eat it too". The barrage of position papers, while welcome, shows that London is still aiming at a bespoke deal that preserves the benefits of membership (frictionless trade, free-flowing capital) without its obligations (European Court of Justice jurisdiction, movement of people, and budget contributions). Hence the oft-repeated invocation "no cherry-picking" that reflects, simply, the fact that the EU is not going to consciously break its own social contract to satisfy Davis.

Therefore, in this first few months of negotiations, Britain has continuously tried to push against the fundamental reasons for the existence of the EU. This has meant EU leaders have had the relatively easy task of dismissing such attempts. Anyone who has closely followed the EU over the last decade cannot fail to note that the 27 member states and the Commission have been more united on Brexit than perhaps any other topic during this period.

To begin to untie the Gordian knot, Britain should accept that trying to recreate membership outside of the EU is a non-starter. Instead, it should focus on outlining certain trade-offs - these do not yet need to be fully spelt out, but would be an important signal that the UK grasps the reality of being a "third country". To a slight extent this has happened on the topic of ECJ jurisdiction,. It is possible that within the next two negotiation rounds '"sufficient progress", in the EU jargon, can be claimed in this area. However, it has decidedly not happened on the topic of budgetary contributions.

In response to such acknowledgment from London, the EU should also act. In October, it is increasingly likely that the European Council, composed of national leaders, will deem there has not been "sufficient progress" to move to what Britain really wants to talk about - trade and transitional arrangements. In response to a British acknowledgment of inevitable tradeoffs, the Council should move to loosen the strict split of "separation" and "future relationship" issues currently embedded in Barnier's negotiation strictures.

In this new phase - we might call it phase 1.5 of the negotiations - the focus should be on a narrow set of issues. It is increasingly clear that keeping "separation" issues apart from the framework of future relations is counterproductive. In particular, this should open the way to discuss the linking of British payments into the budget with transitional arrangements, marking a step back from exacting an up-front settlement.

This time should also be used to flesh out additional details on the current ideas surrounding the rights of EU citizens, notably acknowledging the significant administrative challenges and discussing tricky areas such as the right to bring in family members. Given the negotiation timeline, this phase however should be strictly limited to December 2017. At this point, the European Council should make its decision on "sufficient progress".

In the end, the Gordian knot in Ancient Greece was severed - not by carefully unpicking loose ends, but by Alexander the Great deciding to cut through it with his sword. On Brexit, Britain should show that it recognizes the need for trade-offs and Europe should reciprocate via a phase 1.5 of the negotiations. Just maybe, this can be the decisive action needed to get things moving.

Ivaylo Iaydjiev is a a DPhil student at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. He is a former adviser to the Bulgarian government.

Getty
Paleoart: the evolution of dinosaur paintings, from watercolours to Soviet visions
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Zoë Lescaze's book is a hulking great sauropod.

In 1830, an English geologist named Henry Thomas De la Beche painted a watercolour of Dorset. The scene it portrayed was not a conventional one. Cows and green fields were notable by their absence. Instead, palm trees sprouted from otherwise bare lumps of rock. Shark-like reptiles with bristling teeth and giant eyes swam in a sinister, monster-filled sea. Overhead there soared strange creatures, half-dragon, half-bat. Bucolic it was not.

De la Beche’s theme was Duria Antiquior: a more ancient Dorset. As a young man, he had become an associate and admirer of Mary Anning, the daughter of a cabinet-maker from Lyme Regis whose unrivalled eye for fossils had brought to light a whole host of astonishing discoveries. The seas and skies of Dorset, it appeared, had once teemed with remarkable creatures. Geologists made their names presenting Anning’s finds to learned societies in London. Anning herself, meanwhile, as someone who stood outside the scientific establishment, was denied both the credit and the financial rewards that were properly her due. De la Beche, outraged on her behalf, painted Duria Antiquior to make amends. Reproduced as a lithograph, it proved wildly popular. Anning’s discoveries were introduced to a fascinated public, and her celebrity assured. De la Beche, meanwhile, had initiated an entire new genre: what Zoë Lescaze, in her hulking great sauropod of a new book, terms “paleoart”.

Laelaps by Charles R Knight, 1897. Picture: American Museum of Natural History, New York

The ambition to put flesh on prehistoric bones did not originate in 19th-century Britain. The Roman emperor Tiberius, presented with a fossilised tooth over a foot long, is said to have commissioned the model of a human head proportionate to the scale of the artefact. At Klagenfurt in Austria, the statue of a dragon sculpted in 1590 was given a head modelled on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros. Only with the emergence of palaeontology as a science, though, were artists at last able to portray what long-extinct creatures might have looked like with a reasonable degree of accuracy – and, what was more, to situate them within landscapes thrillingly different to those of the present day. This is why De la Beche ranks as such an innovator.

Few genres of art were more authentically representative of the industrial age than portrayals of the prehistoric past. As the artist Walton Ford puts it in his preface: “This is a book brimming with images born in the heat of startling discovery, urgent works of first contact and of handcrafted time travel.”

As such, they are images not just of prehistoric life, but of how different people at different times have imagined prehistoric life. Hence, perhaps, why the earliest illustrations compiled in the book tend to be the most agitated and unsettling of all. They are the expressions of an entire upheaval in sensibility, of the shock felt by complacent humanity at the discovery of just how immense were the cycles of geological time, and of how brutal had been the repeated cullings of creatures that were now only to be found entombed in rock.

“Prehistory,” as Lescaze puts it, “could not help but engender uncomfortable musings on a benevolent God’s capacity to annihilate entire species.” A shadow of the apocalyptic hung over the earliest works of paleoart. Volcanoes exploded, oceans seethed, beast preyed on beast. In Duria Antiqua, such was the terror of one plesiosaur that the wretched animal was shown voiding proto-coprolites on to the sea floor.

Pteranodon by Heinrich Harder, reconstructed by Hans Jochen Ihle, 1982. Picture: Taschen

This conviction, that life in prehistory had been nothing but endless competition, achieved its most iconic expression in America – fittingly, in 1928, just a year before the Wall Street Crash. Charles Knight’s illustration of a Tyrannosaurus rex confronting a Triceratops established a template for dinosaur-on-dinosaur action that has never been superceded. It was an image bred of American mythology – and specifically of the mythology of the lands across which both species of dinosaur had once roamed. In Knight’s rendering, they advance through the haze, as Lescaze nicely puts it, “like gunslingers outside a saloon”.

Different cultures, though, could imagine the Mesozoic in different ways. In an early Second World War Soviet painting by Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, the ceratopsians are altogether less individualistic. Banding together into a collective, three of them see off a tyrannosaur which, like the Nazis in Stalingrad, proves unable to breach a determined defence. Almost fauvist in its use of colour and abstraction, Flyorov’s paintings will prove revelatory to anyone brought up, as I was, on an exclusive diet of Western paleo-illustrations.

“The art form,” Lescaze argues, “reached its apogee under the Soviet regime, flourishing in a society that not only prized science, but craved glory and international prestige.” As she brilliantly demonstrates, prehistory provided artists under Stalin with a theme that could legitimately encompass ambivalence, mystery and doubt. “There is no single narrative, no blatant message impressed upon the viewer.” The startling images that Lescazes has assembled from the former Soviet Union, justify the price of this sumptuous, beautiful book alone.

So too, though, do the studies of better-known paleo-artists, whose work will be instantly familiar to anyone who enjoyed a dinosaur-obsessed childhood in the 1970s or 1980s: Rudolph Zallinger, who toiled in Yale’s Peabody Museum throughout the Second World War over a colossal fresco of Mesozoic megafauna; the troubled, ghoulish Czech, Zdenek Burian, whose mammoths, brachiosaurs and Neanderthals “burn with the artist’s obvious fascination with fur, flesh, scales, and skin”; Neave Parker, a beer-drinking, self-proclaimed clairvoyant who worked at the Natural History Museum, and had a taste, when drawing dinosaurs, for “hyperarticulated muscle”.

Tree of Life by Alexander Mikhailovich Belashov, 1984. Picture: Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS​

The only real disappointment of the book is that it stops when it does: for there is no room, in Lescaze’s otherwise panoramic study of paleoart, for more recent developments in the genre. The work of contemporary paleo-artists such as Julius Csotonyi or Mark Witton bear comparison with anything in the field that has gone before: true to palaeontology, but true as well to the traditions of eeriness and inventiveness that have been constants in paleoart since De la Beche settled down to paint Jurassic Dorset.

Tom Holland’s most recent book is “Dynasty: the Rise and fall of the House of Caesar” (Little, Brown)

Paleoart
Zoë Lescaze
Taschen, 286pp, £75

Picture: Taschen
Has Boris Johnson ruined his chances of leading the Tories?
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

His Telegraph article has strengthened rather than weakened the fears MPs have about him.

Heavy weekend? You and Boris Johnson both. The Foreign Secretary is nursing one hell of a hangover after he kick-started his Friday evening with a couple of Jägerbombs and a 4,200-word article for the Telegraph laying out his vision for Brexit. As one does with an article that is categorically not a leadership bid, he put the whole thing on his Facebook page in order to circumnavigate the Telegraph's paywall.

In the article, he did three things. The first was to re-open the row over that £350m bounty for the NHS, earning a sharp rebuke from the head of the UK Statistics Agency, David Norgrove. "Johnson in 'distortion' row after £350m Brexit claims" is the Guardian's splash while "Number-crunchers take Johnson to task over revived £350m pledge" is the FT's.

The second and more important aspect as far as the Brexit process goes was to set himself against continuing payments to the European Union after we leave, a stance which, if committed to by the government, would necessitate an immediate exit in March 2019 with no transition and a significantly worse standard of access to the single market than the one we currently enjoy.

But Johnson has been left isolated after the Cabinet's big beasts – not Amber Rudd or Damian Green, as you'd expect, but also Michael Gove – declined to back the stance. That any final deal will be the choice between May's deal-with-payments and an exit without will mean that any Brexit ultras who rebel will surely be outnumbered by opposition MPs doing what they can to avoid a cliff-edge Brexit. "Johnson cut adrift after Brexit ploy backfires" is the Times' splash.

The decision to relitigate the £350m row tells you a lot about the Foreign Secretary. There's a reason why some Remainers obsess over it: it was a politically effective deception that they failed to counter. But almost alone on the winning side, Johnson is incapable of shrugging his shoulders and saying, yes, it was a lie, but that's politics for you. As Francis Elliott explains in his excellent analysis of the whole row, Johnson's bruised feelings about the £350m for the NHS as well as a sense that he was being cut out of the Brexit talks drove his unexpected intervention.

The third thing Johnson did of course was re-open the discussion of life after Theresa May. As far as SW1 goes, it's Amber Rudd who is in pole position – she used her appearance on Marr yesterday to remind viewers of her credentials as a steely operator, accusing Johnson of "back-seat driving" and adding that she hadn't read the piece as she had "rather a lot to do" responding to the terror attack at Parsons Green.

It's certainly true that Rudd is the candidate that Labour would least like to face and the only Cabinet-level successor to May that generates any spontaneous enthusiasm among MPs. It's also true that, on the whole, Johnson has strengthened rather than weakened the fears that MPs have about him: that his vanity and poor sense of timing make him an ill-suited replacement to the PM.

There's a big "but", though, which is that precisely the reasons that Rudd worries Labour and is well-thought of in Westminster make her vulnerable among Conservative members. It may be that the real golden ticket in the next Tory leadership race is whoever can come second, and with that face Rudd among ordinary Tory members. And that second-place could, still, end up being Boris Johnson's.

Photo: Getty
The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
The Welsh Assembly is yet to achieve its founding ideals
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

After 20 years, it's hard to imagine life without devolution. But there's more to do. 

On 18 September 1997, the Welsh people just about voted to create a National Assembly. This narrowest of endorsements was delivered despite some highly favourable political winds for devolution. It had support from the highly popular new Prime Minister Tony Blair, while the correspondingly unpopular Conservatives opposed it. Even so, only 50.3 per cent of those voting, on a 50.1 percent turnout, said Yes. This was no tidal wave of Welsh national sentiment.

Two decades on, the National Assembly is an established part of Welsh life. There have been five sets of elections to the chamber, which now enjoys a (rather fine) home in Cardiff Bay. The proportion of people in Wales who cannot remember life without devolution grows by the day.

Part of the reason that the Assembly has become more established is that attitudes changed after September 1997. Opposition to devolution fell away surprisingly quickly, both among the public and the political elites. First the Conservatives, and then Ukip, dropped their anti-devolution stance – although a tiny Abolish the Assembly party won 4.4 percent of the list vote in last year’s Assembly election, demonstrating that there remains a constituency of support for such a position. Nonetheless, repeated studies since 2001 have shown consistent and clear majority support for devolution in Wales. New survey evidence published today suggests that were the 1997 referendum being held now, the Welsh would vote by around two-to-one in favour of establishing the Assembly.

Indeed, significant public sentiment behind extending devolution has helped underpin substantial changes in the status of the National Assembly since it was first elected, and first convened, in 1999. There is now a formal division between a Welsh government (headed by Labour First Minister Carwyn Jones) and an Assembly that is a primary law-making parliament. The Assembly is developing taxation and borrowing powers. And an inquiry currently under way may even help the body expand in size from its current, and absurdly under-powered, 60 members.

Yet weaknesses persist. An argument frequently heard in 1997 was that greater support would follow from the success of devolution in delivering tangible improvements in people’s lives. That has not been born out. Wales’s economic record during the past two decades, plus its delivery of key devolved public services like schooling and the NHS, has not obviously been better than England’s – and the public have noticed. The one respect in which politicians in Cardiff Bay are unambiguously favoured by the Welsh public over those in Westminster is in being trusted to care about Wales’ problems. But they are no more likely to be seen as competent in delivering answers to those problems. “It’s crap, but it’s our crap” seems a fair assessment of the attitudes of many in Wales to their devolved institutions.

There also remains substantial public confusion about the scope of devolved government in Wales. In truth, the public have some fairly legitimate excuses for this. The powers of the Assembly have been under almost continual revision for the last two decades: the devolution settlement has most definitely not been settled. The weakness of the severely under-resourced Welsh media is another contributory factor to public ignorance, while the political parties have played their part as well. In this year’s general election, Carwyn Jones (who was not actually a candidate) fronted a Welsh Labour campaign that focussed heavily on the NHS – which, as a devolved issue should have been irrelevant to a Westminster election in Wales. No wonder people are often confused.

A third weakness is diversity. The Assembly was established amidst lots of talk about a "new politics" that would do things differently from Westminster. In some respects there has been progress. Wales’s representation at Westminster was long very heavily male dominated, but the Assembly has been much closer to gender balance (although, if anything, things have slipped backwards in recent elections). Yet only two black, Asian, or minority ethnic AMs have ever been elected – both of them men. As for partisan diversity: well into the fifth Assembly term we are no closer than at any point to a non-Labour government. The entire menu of governmental options for the Welsh people thus far has been Labour on its own or a Labour-led coalition.

On 18 September 1997, Wales had its Sliding Doors constitutional moment. Had the vote gone against devolution then, this would have been the second time that the Welsh people had rejected an Assembly. The idea would surely have been killed off permanently, and it would have been quite understandable for Whitehall to interpret such a verdict as indicating that the Welsh really didn’t want a governmental manifestation of their national identity and thus look to wind up much of the limited apparatus of administrative devolution that then existed. As it is, Wales has its Assembly and it is not going away. Devolution is now the settled will of the Welsh people to an extent that was difficult to imagine 20 year ago. But the national mood is more indifferent than celebratory - which is perhaps as it should be.

Getty
How the modern addiction to identity politics has fractured the left
September 18th, 2017, 01:37 PM

This partisan, divisive form of liberalism alienated the working class and helped create the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is the president of the United States. His election in November 2016 turned our campuses in America upside down. The day after his victory, some professors held teach-ins, some students asked to be excused from class, and now many have been joining marches and attending raucous town hall meetings. This warms the heart of an impassioned if centrist liberal like myself.

But something more needs to happen, and soon. All of us liberals in higher education should take a long look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we contributed to putting the country in this situation. We must accept our share of responsibility. Anyone involved in Republican politics will tell you that our campus follies, magnified by Fox News, mobilise their base as few things do. But our responsibility extends beyond feeding the right-wing media by tolerating attempts to control speech, limit debate and stigmatise and bully conservatives, as well as encouraging a culture of complaint that strikes people outside our privileged circles as comically trivial. We have distorted the liberal message to such a degree that it has become unrecognisable.

After Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, liberals in the US faced the challenge of developing a fresh and truly political vision of the country’s shared destiny, adapted to the new realities of American society, chastened by the failures of old approaches. And this they failed to do. Instead, they threw themselves into the movement politics of identity, losing a sense of what we share as citizens and what binds us as a nation. An image for Roosevelt-era liberalism and the unions that supported it was that of two hands shaking. A recurring image of identity liberalism is that of a prism refracting a single beam of light into its constituent colours, producing a rainbow. This says it all.

The politics of identity is nothing new, certainly on the American right. And it is not dead, as the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, remind us. The white nationalist march that set off the conflict and then led to a counter-protester’s death was not only directed against minorities. It was also directed at the university and everything it stands for. In May 1933, Nazi students marched at night into the courtyard of the University of Berlin and proceeded to burn “decadent” books in the library. The alt-right organisers were “quoting” this precedent when they flooded Thomas Jefferson’s campus, looking for blood. This was fascist identitarianism, something liberals and progressives have always battled in the name of human equality and universal justice.

What was astonishing during the Reagan years was the development of an explicit left-wing identity politics that became the de facto creed of two generations of liberal politicians, professors, schoolteachers, journalists, movement activists and officials of the Democratic Party. This has been disastrous for liberalism’s prospects in our country, especially in the face of an increasingly radicalised right.

There is a good reason that liberals focus extra attention on minorities, since they are the most likely to be disenfranchised. But the only way in a democracy to assist them meaningfully – and not just make empty gestures of recognition and “celebration” – is to win elections and exercise power in the long run, at every level of government. And the only way to accomplish that is to have a message that appeals to as many people as possible and pulls them together. Identity liberalism does the opposite and just reinforces the alt-right’s picture of politics as a war of competing identity groups.

Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people – African Americans, women, gays – seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilising and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights. By the 1980s, it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow, exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.

The main result has been to turn young people back on to themselves, rather than turning them outward towards the wider world they share with others. It has left them unprepared to think about the common good in non-identity terms and what must be done practically to secure it – especially the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort. Every advance of liberal identity consciousness has marked a retreat of effective liberal political consciousness.

Campus politics bears a good deal of the blame. Until the 1960s, those active in liberal and progressive politics were drawn largely from the working class or farm communities and were formed in local political clubs or on shop floors. Today’s activists and leaders are formed almost exclusively at colleges and universities, as are members of the mainly liberal professions of law, journalism and education. Liberal political education, such as it is, now takes place on campuses that, especially at the elite level, are largely detached socially and geographically from the rest of the country. This is not likely to change. As a result, liberalism’s prospects will depend in no small measure on what happens in our institutions of higher education.

***

Flash back to 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan. Republican activists are setting out on the road to spread the new individualist gospel of small government and pouring their energies into winning out-of-the-way county, state and congressional elections – a bottom-up strategy. Also on the road, though taking a different exit off the interstate, are former New Left activists in rusting, multicoloured VW buses. Having failed to overturn capitalism and the military-industrial complex, they are heading for college towns all over America, where they hope to practise a very different sort of politics aimed at transforming the outlook of the educated classes – a top-down strategy. Both groups succeeded.

The retreat of the post-1960s left was strategic. In 1962, the authors of The Port Huron Statement – the manifesto of the activist movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) – wrote: “We believe that the universities are an overlooked seat of influence.” Universities were no longer isolated preserves of learning. They had become central to American economic life, serving as conduits and accrediting institutions for post-industrial occupations, and to political life, through research and the formation of party elites.

The SDS authors made the case that a New Left should first try to form itself within the university, where they were free to argue among themselves and work out a more ambitious political strategy, recruiting followers along the way. The ultimate point, however, was to enter the wider world, looking “outwards to the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice”.

But as hopes for a radical transformation of American life faded, ambitions shrank. Many who returned to campus invested their energies in making their sleepy college towns into socially progressive and environmentally self-sustaining communities. These campus towns still do stand out from the rest of America and are very pleasant places to live, though they have lost much of their utopian allure. Most have become meccas of a new consumerist culture for the highly educated, surrounded by techie office parks and increasingly expensive homes. They are places where you can visit a bookshop, see a foreign movie, pick up vitamins and candles, have a decent meal followed by an espresso and perhaps attend a workshop to ease your conscience. A thoroughly bourgeois setting without a trace of the demos, apart from the homeless men and women who flock there and whose job is to keep it real for the residents.

That’s the comic side of the story. The other side (heroic or tragic, depending on your politics) concerns how the retreating New Left turned the university into a political theatre for the staging of morality plays and operas. This has generated enormous controversy about tenured radicals, the culture wars, political correctness – and with good reason. But these developments mask a quieter, far more significant one.

A young protester at a march in California in June 2017. Photo: Getty

The big story is not that leftist professors successfully turn millions of young people into dangerous political radicals every year. Some certainly try, but that seems not to have slowed the line of graduates shoving their way towards professional schools and then moving on to conventional careers. The real story is that the 1960s generation passed on to students a particular conception of what politics is, based on its idiosyncratic historical experience.

The experience of that era taught the New Left two lessons. The first was that movement politics was the only mode of engagement that changes things (which once was true but no longer is). The second was that political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, making compromise seem a self-betrayal (which renders ordinary politics impossible).

The lesson of these two lessons, so to speak, was that if you want to be a political person, you should begin not by joining a broad-based party but by searching for a movement that has some deep personal meaning for you. In the 1950s and early 1960s, there were already a number of such movements – about nuclear disarmament, war, poverty, the environment – that engaged the self, though they were not about the self. Instead, engaging with those issues required having to engage with the wider world and gain some knowledge of economics, sociology, psychology, science and especially history.

With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self. This new attitude has had a profound impact on American universities. Marxism, with its concern for the fate of the workers of the world – all of them – gradually lost its allure. The study of identity groups now seemed the most urgent scholarly and political task, and soon there was an extraordinary proliferation of departments, research centres and professorial chairs devoted to it.

This has had many good effects. It has encouraged academic disciplines to widen the scope of their investigations to incorporate the experiences of large groups that had been somewhat invisible, such as women and African Americans. But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins, so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present – a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.

***

Imagine a young student entering such an environment today – not your average student pursuing a career, but a recognisable campus type drawn to political questions. She is at the age when the quest for meaning begins and in a place where her curiosity could be directed outward towards the larger world she will have to find a place in. Instead, she is encouraged to plumb mainly herself, which seems an easier exercise. She will first be taught that understanding herself depends on exploring the different aspects of her identity, something she now discovers she has. An identity that, she also learns, has already been largely shaped for her by various social and political forces. This is an important lesson, from which she is likely to draw the conclusion that the aim of education is not progressively to become a self – the task of a lifetime, Kierkegaard thought – through engagement with the wider world. Rather, one engages with the world and particularly politics for the limited aim of understanding and affirming what one already is.

And so she begins. She takes classes in which she reads histories of the movements related to whatever she determines her identity to be, and reads authors who share that identity. (Given that this is also an age of sexual exploration, gender studies will hold a particular attraction.) In these courses she also discovers a surprising and heartening fact: that although she may come from a comfortable, middle-class background, her identity confers on her the status of one of history’s victims. This discovery may then inspire her to join a campus group that engages in movement work. The line between self-analysis and political action is now fully blurred. Her political interest will be genuine but circumscribed by the confines of her self-definition. Issues that penetrate those confines now take on looming importance and her position on them quickly becomes non-negotiable; those issues that don’t touch on her identity (economics, war and peace) are hardly perceived.

The more our student gets into the campus identity mindset, the more distrustful she becomes of the word “we”, a term her professors have told her is a universalist ruse used to cover up group differences and maintain the dominance of the privileged. And if she gets deeper into “identity theory”, she will even start to question the reality of the groups to which she thinks she belongs. The intricacies of this pseudo-discipline are only of academic interest. However, where it has left our student is of great political interest.

An earlier generation of young women, for example, might have learned that women as a group have a distinct perspective that deserves to be recognised and cultivated, and have distinct needs that society must address. Today, the theoretically adept are likely to be taught, to the consternation of older feminists, that one cannot generalise about women since their experiences are radically different, depending on their race, sexual preference, class, physical abilities, life experiences, and so on. More generally, they will be taught that nothing about gender identity is fixed, that it is all highly malleable. This is either because, on the French view, the self is nothing, just the trace left by the interaction of invisible, tasteless, odourless forces of “power” that determine everything in the flux of life; or, on the all-American view, because the self is whatever we damn well say it is. (The most advanced thinkers hold both views at once.)

A whole scholastic vocabulary has been developed to express these notions: fluidity, hybridity, intersectionality, performativity, and more. Anyone familiar with medieval scholastic disputes over the mystery of the Holy Trinity – the original identity problem – will feel right at home.

What matters about these academic trends is that they give an intellectual patina to the narcissism that almost everything else in our society encourages. If our young student accepts the mystical idea that anonymous forces of power shape everything in life, she will be perfectly justified in withdrawing from democratic politics and casting an ironic eye on it. If, as is more likely, she accepts the all-American idea that her unique identity is something she gets to construct and change as the fancy strikes her, she can hardly be expected to have an enduring political attachment to others, and certainly cannot be expected to hear the call of duty towards them. Instead, she will find herself in the hold of what might be called the Facebook model of identity: the self as a home page I construct like a personal brand, linked to others through associations I can “like” and “unlike” at will. Intersectionality is too ephemeral to serve as a lasting foundation for solidarity and commitment.

***

The more obsessed with personal identity campus liberals become, the less willing they are to engage in reasoned political debate. Over the past decade, a new, very revealing locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: “Speaking as an X…” This is not an anodyne phrase. It tells the listener that I am speaking from a privileged position on this matter. It sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned.

So classroom conversations that once might have begun, “I think A, and here is my argument,” now take the form: “Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.” This makes perfect sense if you believe that identity determines everything. It means that there is no impartial space for dialogue. White men have one “epistemology”, and black women have another. So what remains to be said?

What replaces argument is taboo. At times, our more privileged campuses can seem stuck in the world of archaic religion. Only those with an approved identity status are, like shamans, allowed to speak on certain matters. Particular groups are given temporary totemic significance. Scapegoats are duly designated and run off campus in a purging ritual. Propositions become pure or impure, not true or false.

And not only propositions but simple words. Left identitarians who think of themselves as radical creatures, contesting this and transgressing that, have become like buttoned-up schoolmarms when it comes to the English language, parsing every conversation for immodest locutions and rapping the knuckles of those who inadvertently use them.

It’s a depressing development for professors who went to college in the 1960s, rebelled against the knuckle rappers and mussed the schoolmarm’s hair. Things seem to have come full circle: now the students are the narcs.

That was hardly the intention when the New Left, fresh from real political battles in the great out there, returned to campus in the hope of encouraging the young to follow in their footsteps. They imagined raucous, no-holds-barred debates over big ideas, not a roomful of students looking suspiciously at one another. They imagined being provocative and forcing students to defend their positions, not getting emails from deans suggesting they come in for a little chat. They imagined launching their politically committed and informed students into the world, not watching them retreat into themselves.

***

Conservatives are right: our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. Yet they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force. The liberal pedagogy of our time, focused as it is on identity, is actually a depoliticising force. It has made our children more tolerant of others than certainly my generation was, which is a very good thing. However, by undermining the universal democratic “we” on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end, this approach just strengthens all the atomising forces that dominate our age.

It’s strange: liberal academics idealise the 1960s generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: what was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the left’s “Greatest Generation”, you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding – young people who were eager to engage in “the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice” for everyone in the great out there beyond the campus gates.

The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don’t touch on identity in the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King, Jr (who studied Christian theology), nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy), received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervour of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had widened their horizons and developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the 1960s generation, its members were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt that America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like “Yankee Doodle” than Wagner.

That they received a relatively non-partisan education in an environment that encouraged debates over ideas and that developed emotional toughness and intellectual conviction surely had a great deal to do with it. You can still find such people teaching in our universities and some are my friends. Most remain to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get, the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for political activity on campus.

It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us.

Any professor who teaches these things is engaged in the most important political work: that of building effective, and not just right-thinking, democratic citizens. Only when we have such citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path.

Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia University, New York. His new book is “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” (Harper), from which this essay is adapted

Picture: KEVIN HAUFF
Statistics authority delivers polite but firm smackdown to Boris Johnson over £350m EU figure
September 17th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Claiming we will get back £350m a week is a "clear misuse of official statistics", says Sir David Norgrove.

Boris Johnson has been accused of a "clear misuse of official statistics" by the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove.

On Friday, the Foreign Secretary laid out his vision for Brexit in a 4,000 word Telegraph article. The intervention was widely interpreted as an advertisement of his interest in replacing Theresa May, and was condemned by Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson for coming on the day of a terror attack on the London Tube.

Johnson wrote:  "Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week. It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

"I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350 million per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union," wrote Sir David Norgrove. "This confuses gross and net contributions. It also assumes that payments currently made to the UK by the EU, including for example for the support of agriculture and scientific research, will not be paid by the UK government when we leave. It is a clear misuse of official statistics."

During the referendum campaign last year, the previous head of the statistics authority, Andrew Dilnot, made the same criticisms of the £350m figure. It was a key part of the Leave campaign, making the case that quitting the EU would leave Britain with more money to spend on the Health Service. However, fact-checking websites pointed out that it used our total contribution, ignoring the rebate we receive. It also assumed that the UK would make no budget contributions to the EU once we were no longer members. This is extremely unlikely, as Theresa May has already signalled her intention to remain part of several pan-European schemes, and maintain close security links. 

The polite, but brutal, letter from Sir David Norgrove is a rare direct criticism of a senior politician by the non-partisan Statistics Authority. It signals quite how irritating statisticians find the continued misuse of the £350m figure. Johnson's intervention - which has already attracted negative comments from several Tory MPs - now looks even more misguided.

Boris Johnson. Photo: Getty
The rocks under our feet shape every aspect of human existence
September 17th, 2017, 01:37 PM

From agriculture and art to our emotional and psychological weather.

The only image that remains in my mind from school is a map on my geography teacher’s wall showing, as its title elegantly proclaimed: “A delineation of the strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland; exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names.”

I loved this map, though only as an object of beauty and of some strange knowledge that I knew I would never possess.

At 15 I was too foolish to take an interest in geography; if I had, I would have known that this beautiful object was “the map that changed the world”, paving the way for Darwin’s theories and revolutionising the study of geology. It was created by William Smith, a blacksmith’s son whose life was dogged by betrayal and poverty (including a spell in debtors’ prison), but who, in later life, gained something of the recognition he deserved.

I was prompted to remember Smith while reading Fiona Sampson’s lyrical and highly insightful Limestone Country, in which she describes four limestone landscapes – in England, France, Slovenia and Jerusalem – and the various ways people live with and relate to them. The book reveals how the rocks under our feet shape every aspect of human existence, from agriculture and art to our emotional and psychological weather.

Sampson concentrates not on the chemistry and physics of what she calls “the cannibal earth reconsuming her own”, but on how the geological terrain governs our imaginings and our potential – and how an engagement with limestone landscapes offers all manner of rewards, from the fine wines of the Périgord, to the spiritual revelations of the Holy Land and, most importantly, a deeper appreciation of the environment as a whole. “Really living in these landscapes means paying radical attention to how they behave,” she says.

It means knowing their wildlife as well as ways of farming, observing how water and vegetation respond to the mineral facts of rock and soil as much as how humans live in and with them… Such attention is patient and detailed. It’s a kind of ‘slow knowledge’ that is the opposite of generalisation.

Limestone Country does not avoid the painful and tragic aspects of the landscape; indeed, it ends in one of the world’s most troubled places, where the earth is “the colour of rust, of fire, of blood. Apt coincidence that here, in Jerusalem, the limestone ground rock should produce terra rossa or red earth.” Eerily, the land seems to echo human activity everywhere Sampson turns, but the slow knowledge and wisdom of her Périgord neighbours, and the gorgeous passages, set in Oxfordshire, where she celebrates what American poet Randall Jarrell calls “the dailiness of life”, offer a healing alternative to that red earth, a sign that, when we are humble and attentive enough to learn from the earth how to live, we may begin, as Auden suggests at the close of his great poem “In Praise of Limestone” to “imagine a faultless love”.

I wish now that I had paid more attention in geography lessons at school; I might have learnt how to appreciate the land around me better, to understand how utterly we depend on rocks and stones and trees and to know, where that land is most threatened, how I might best help to defend it.

Photo: JOHN FINNEY PHOTOGRAPHY
In The Age of Decadence, Simon Heffer leaves his comfort zone
September 17th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The writer explores the rise of class warfare in Victorian Britain.

The late Victorians inhabited a social structure that many at the time considered to be ripe past rottenness and ready to drop. Simon Heffer has set himself the task of chronicling this decadent period of Britain when the wealth built up by previous stoical generations was squandered by the ruling class in rich living. He starts with William Gladstone’s second administration in April 1880 and ends in July 1914 with Ireland on the brink of war over Home Rule, taking in widespread industrial unrest and the militancy of the suffragettes.

At the beginning of his story are the landed interests, 10 per cent of the population that owned 92 per cent of the nation’s wealth. Their citadel was breached by the introduction of death duties by a Liberal administration in 1894, which Heffer says “derailed a class that had for centuries regarded wealth and privilege as its right”.

The ruling class had always behaved badly: the difference in the 1890s was the end of the assumption that they had the right to rule; and the amount of wealth now available for ostentation at this high point of empire and industrialisation. Suspicion of the aristocracy was accelerated in the 1890s by a combination of the new popular press, mass literacy, and a middle class that (perhaps rather comically) actually believed in “Victorian morality” and delighted in persecuting those who deviated from it.

Heffer has particular ire for members of the ruling class who let the side down, describing the Prince of Wales as “the personification of the manners and morals that caused the age in which he prevailed and later reigned to be regarded as one of decadence”. Heffer is so preoccupied with old Tum-Tum’s “setting an atrocious example” that he misses the contention that Queen Victoria’s pro-German sentiments damaged Britain’s interests at a time when Germany was in the ascendant. By contrast, as King, Edward VII’s association with France, and his command of the language and manners of that country, led to a smooth ride for the Entente Cordiale with the French in 1904.

Down the scale, there was so little security of employment that people who had managed to climb the ladder lived in fear of falling back down it, so they served their interests by aping what they considered to be the virtues of their social superiors. It is this grasping after an ephemeral “respectability” that enriches the novels of HG Wells and Arnold Bennett in describing the determination of the lower-middle class to become the middle-middle class.

Heffer calls this the “most socially divisive and disruptive period since the rise of Chartism in the late 1830s” with labour unrest, Irish nationalists, Ulster unionists and suffragettes. In chronicling it, he is somewhat limited by his lack of natural sympathy for the masses in revolt as he leaves what the talent-show judges would call his “comfort zone”.

Heffer, a Daily Telegraph columnist as well as a New Statesman contributor, shows a love for the landed gentry, an affectionate joshing of the middle class – keep at it, you’ll get there, chaps – but a caution bordering on bewilderment for the working class. He sees unrest not as a positive working out of aspirations, but as the failing of “a ruling class whose decadence had provoked the often successful challenges of the Labour movement”.

He recognises that both Liberalism and Conservatism had failed the state, but views the evidence of this failure with incomprehension. He writes:

One of the paradoxes about the birth of socialism as a doctrine in Britain is that few of its early apostles were working class and many working men were happy with what the Liberal party (or even, in some cases, the Tories) offered them, until enlightened by their betters.

The idea that workers were misled into socialism by middle class agitators was indeed a contemporary view (and Heffer quotes The Times expressing it) but it was not true. Working-class people had developed class consciousness over the industrial revolution and incorporated socialist ideas over most of the century (the term was first used in 1835). They sometimes chose leaders of better education to articulate their feelings, but the feelings were genuine. The notion that middle-class left wingers were “often fuelled by class guilt” is more pencil-sucking than analysis.

Skilled workers might have been happy with the lot that their trade unionism had brought them, including the election of Liberal MPs, but the match girls, gas workers and dockers who made the big waves at the end of the century were unrepresented by Liberals. It was the impetus of the dissatisfaction of unskilled workers, along with legal attacks on unions (including those of the skilled workers such as the engineers) that gave birth to the Labour Party in 1900.

One of the problems of this account is too much reliance on received wisdom – Heffer is not sufficiently familiar with the terrain of Labour activism, as he is with the machinations of parliamentary grandees. He accepts without question that middle class Annie Besant led the match girls’ strike. In fact, as Louise Raw’s research for her 2009 book Striking a Light shows, Besant was nowhere near the match factory when the strike began, and unaware of it until a deputation of strikers came to her office days later. She then did invaluable work in publicising the dispute and the working conditions that gave rise to it. Heffer is never inside meetings of the socialists or the suffragettes as he is in those of Chamberlain, Rosebery and Salisbury. He is at home in the corridors of power, but absent from the streets of unrest.

Age of Decadence appreciates the near-disaster of the Boer War of 1899-1902 as a key event in the development of national uncertainty and imperial decline. The larger event of the First World War has concealed from us how powerful the shocks of the early defeats at the hands of the Boers were to a nation that had no doubt of its superiority in all things. Heffer is sensitive and thoughtful about the empire, noting it is “hard to find evidence that the mother country made an overall profit”. It is probable that by the end of the 1890s the empire was costing more than it was worth in monetary terms.

There is much to enjoy in this long account, packed with detail about such things as stamp-collecting mogul Stanley Gibbons’s five wives; the Marconi scandal; Asquith pining over his daughter’s best friend; and Beatrice Webb’s dismay at the Fabians’ failure to find a workable standard for sexual relations for the left (good luck with that one). There is welcome attention paid to the literary as evidenced in chapter headings “The Decline of the Pallisers” (referring to Anthony Trollope’s parliamentary novels) or “The Rise of the Pooters” (a nod to the clerk narrator of The Diary of a Nobody); and discussion of now neglected writers such as Arthur Wing Pinero and John Galsworthy.

At around 325,000 words it is an enormous, spine-straining work. This bulk shows its cost in the quality of writing, which is never poor, but lacks the vigour of, say, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England covering a part of this period and which Heffer cites approvingly.

This was a time of excess and exuberance and was undoubtedly decadent in that sense. For some it was also decadent in the sense of decline, as Victorian certainties tumbled. Other ideas were on the rise, however: women, the working class and nationalists could celebrate this period as one not of decadence but ascendancy.

The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914
Simon Heffer
Random House Books, 912pp, £30

Picture: GRANGER HISTORICAL ARCHIVE/ALAMY
How US states are fighting inequality with a “millionaire tax”
September 17th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The rise of progressive taxation has coincided with the rise of the super-rich.

Donald Trump is often characterised as an “economic populist”. Many attribute his election victory to voters disillusioned with free market capitalism and the Republican mainstream. Yet his recent tax proposals represent an intensification of Reaganomics.

The US president has promised to reduce the top rate of income tax (levied on earnings over $418,400 a year) from 39.6 per cent to 35 per cent and corporation tax from 35 per cent to 15 per cent, and to eliminate progressive measures such as the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax (which ensures that high earners who benefit from tax exemptions contribute to the US treasury).

Should the proposals receive congressional approval – a significant hurdle – they would serve to increase both the deficit and inequality. The Tax Policy Center estimates that the programme would increase borrowing by $7.8trn over the next decade, with 60.9 per cent of the lost revenue accruing to the top 1 per cent of earners.

This approach contrasts with that advocated by Trump’s recently departed political strategist Steve Bannon. The alt-right nationalist argued for a new top tax rate of 44 per cent on earnings over $5m a year. For Bannon, Trump’s refusal to embrace the idea was a betrayal of his campaign promise to prioritise middle-class tax cuts. (“It’s going to cost me a fortune,” the president once erroneously boasted of his plan.) The divergence reflects the tensions inherent to the Republican coalition of libertarians (such as the house speaker, Paul Ryan) and interventionists.

Beyond the White House, the cause of progressive tax reform is advancing. State legislators in Massachusetts recently voted by 134 to 55 to hold a referendum in 2018 on a “millionaire tax”: a surtax of 4 per cent on annual earnings over $1m (the current flat rate is 5.1 per cent). The “fair share amendment”, as it is known, is designed to raise $1.9bn for education and transport.

US citizens are taxed significantly less than their European counterparts (tax revenue represents 26 per cent of GDP, compared to the EU average of 35.7 per cent), but America is far from a bastion of pure libertarianism. At present, three states levy millionaire taxes – California (a 13.3 per cent rate), Connecticut (6.99 per cent) and New York (8.82 per cent) – as does Washington, DC (8.95 per cent). In addition, New Jersey imposes an 8.97 per cent rate on earnings over $500,000 and Maine a 10.15 per cent rate on earnings over $200,000 (the measure was approved in a 2016 referendum by 50.4 per cent to 49.6 per cent, giving the state the second-highest rate after California).

Though opponents of the Massachusetts proposal warn of tax flight, this phenomenon has not occurred elsewhere. As Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, observed: “We just have not seen… the kind of mass migration of millionaires that people keep predicting.”

The rise of progressive taxation has coincided with the rise of the super-rich. Since 2001, the number of households with an income greater than $1m has doubled. Most of the gains from the US recovery (GDP is now 13 per cent above its pre-crisis peak) have flowed upwards.

Recently published research by the economists Thomas Piketty (the author of Capital in the 21st Century), Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman found that inequality is even greater than previously assumed. Between 1980 and 2014, the share of income held by the bottom half of earners fell from 20 per cent to 12 per cent, while, in a mirror-image trend, that enjoyed by the top 1 per cent rose from 12 per cent to 20 per cent.

In the UK, where the top rate of tax on earnings over £150,000 was cut from 50 per cent to 45 per cent in 2012, a similar pattern has emerged. The share of income held by the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1980 to 12.7 per cent.

The US has often served as a laboratory for future UK policies (such as tax credits and free schools). As the Conservatives grapple with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, ambitious Tory MPs may yet alight on the “millionaire tax”. 

Photo: Getty
On Form: how do athletes and performers unlock the secret to being “in the zone”?
September 16th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Psychoanalyst and former cricketer Mike Brearley asks this intriguing question.

Mike Brearley’s new book began as at talk he gave at the London School of Economics in 2012 on what it means to be “in the zone” – the mental state of intense focus and absorption in the task at hand, experienced by athletes and other performers at moments of peak performance. Afterwards, encouraged by friends, he wrote up his thoughts, and the more he wrote, the more he thought. The result is a book that roams far beyond its starting point, without getting anywhere in particular.

Brearley is a psychoanalyst, a career for which he prepared by captaining the England cricket team. Between 1977 and 1981 he led England in 31 Test matches, of which only four were lost. Brearley was a very good though not outstanding batsman. His success as captain was down to his astute tactical brain, and above all to his ability to bring the best out of an England team which included brilliant, sometimes headstrong talents such as David Gower and Ian Botham.

Brearley read classics and moral sciences at Cambridge, and pursued a career as a philosophy lecturer before giving it up for cricket (he was a late developer, in sporting terms, first selected for England at the age of 34). Silver haired, softly spoken and undemonstrative on the field, he provided an alternative to the Churchillian archetype of a leader. On retiring from cricket in 1983 he trained in psychoanalysis and became a professional therapist, while maintaining his interest in sport. In On Form, Brearley combines sport, psychology and philosophy to draw some lessons for life. This is his second book: his first, The Art of Captaincy, was published in 1985.

A prerequisite for being on your game seems to be a freedom from deliberation. Brearley quotes Australian cricketer Greg Chappell, who wrote that a batsman at the crease should simply watch the ball and respond to what he sees: “The conscious mind can be involved with the big picture stuff such as strategy, but once the bowler approaches, one must trust the subconscious and the years of training to do the rest.”

Those years of training are crucial. A sportsman can only rely on instinct when he stands on what Brearley calls the “secure base” of technique. Freedom must be earned: the more meticulously that performers work to improve their skills, the greater ability they have to make good decisions unthinkingly. My favourite expression of this principle comes from the conductor, Carlos Kleiber, who told a student: “With good technique you can forget technique.”

Brearley draws a comparison between Greg Chappell’s advice and that offered by the postwar British psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, who said that an analyst should strive to be “without memory or desire”. In life, as in sport, worrying about what might happen or has happened comes at the expense of attentiveness to the present and its satisfactions. Psychologists who study insomnia refer to the problem of “rumination”: when the would-be sleeper can’t sleep, he worries about the consequences of not sleeping, which means he can’t sleep. Over-deliberation is recursive.

That makes it difficult to fix. If you were impatient with Hamlet you might tell him to get over himself, but of course, that’s exactly what he is trying to do. In Robert Icke’s recent production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Andrew Scott gave a heartbreaking portrayal of the Danish prince as a man unable to escape the frenzy of his own brain. I was unexpectedly moved by the moment of respite Scott’s Hamlet found in the embrace of an old friend: “Horatio? Or I do forget myself?” To forget yourself, it helps to have a task to which one’s mind must be fully applied. Hamlet can’t throw himself into work. One difficulty of being a royal heir is that there’s so little to do to take your mind off the question of what to do.

When an athlete is playing badly it’s often because they are trying too hard to be in form. Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, first published in 1974 and popular ever since, argued that players who are out of form are clenched too tightly, physically and mentally. He proposed that each person is divided inside themselves between a “teller” and a “doer”. The problems begin when the teller, instead of productively directing the doer, scolds, harasses and berates it, which turns the doer into a sulky rebel, or a nervous child.

Brearley recalls an encounter he had as a young man with Tiger Smith, the legendary English cricketer and coach, then in his nineties and nearly blind. After playing an innings for Middlesex at Edgbaston, Brearley asked Smith, who had been watching, if he had any tips. In the players’ dining room, Smith stood with his walking stick and watched Brearley swing his bat through a few strokes. “Do you think frowning helps you hit the ball harder?” Smith asked, before pointing out how tense Brearley was in the face, hands and arms. A few years later, Brearley inspected a batting glove of Ian Botham – never guilty of under-hitting the ball – and was amazed to see its fingers almost unmarked by the bat. Botham played fast and loose.

“Choking” is a spike of nerves, experienced by performers on the brink of a success, which distracts the mind and constricts action. One trick used by athletes to cope with it is to develop mantras, or simple mental routines, to be deployed at high-pressure moments. The content of the mantra (“Stay focused”, “Be strong”) is less important than the mental space it takes up; its function is to shut out stray thoughts. But the most powerful antidote is enjoyment. Roger Federer struggled with choking in his early thirties – he threw away double match points against Novak Djokovic in the finals of both the 2010 and 2011 US Opens. His return to the pinnacle of his sport at the age of 36 has seen him playing more freely than ever. “He just seems to enjoy the feeling of having the ball on his strings,” said the former world number one Mats Wilander, in wonderment.

If you are planning to act on instinct you had better ensure that your instincts are compliant with your plan. The philosopher David Papineau, who spoke at the same LSE event as Brearley (his thoughts also developed into a book: Knowing The Score, on philosophy and sport, was published earlier this year), tells a story about the former England batsman Mark Ramprakash. It’s a pity that Brearley doesn’t explore the same story in On Form – perhaps he felt that Papineau had claimed it – because it touches on the core psychoanalytic question of how much we know about what we desire.

In a series against Australia in 2001, England lost the first two Tests but were in a strong position in the third, having built a lead of 120 with six wickets in hand. Ramprakash had been batting calmly and steadily for an hour. He looked set to take England to victory, and keep his team in the series. But then he did something almost inexplicably rash. Facing a delivery from the great spin bowler Shane Warne, Ramprakash danced recklessly towards the ball, swung at it and missed, and was easily stumped from behind. England went on to lose the match, and the series. Ramprakash never played Test cricket again.

Papineau argues that there are no conscious decisions in batting: the ball moves too fast, and the intentional system of the brain too slowly, for the batsman to do anything but react instinctively. The brain’s reflex, or “action-control” system is in charge. The same is true when a tennis player faces a serve, at least in professional tennis. What the batsman can do is prepare his instincts by deciding on a strategy before stepping up to the crease.

In other words, he can calibrate the parameters of his action-control system to respond aggressively, or defensively, or whatever he thinks necessary. For this to work, the batsman must already have trained himself to perform reflexively in those modes – otherwise known as the acquisition of technique. He must also be able to stick to his strategy, and execute on it precisely under pressure – an ability known as mental focus.

For Papineau, this is what being “in the zone” is all about: the precise alignment of intention to instinct. It requires immense willpower, because our instincts are unruly, capricious, and easily distracted by passing stimuli. There is always something tugging at the brain, seducing it with the prospect of a pleasurable digression from the plan.

Or someone: for several overs before Ramprakash’s dismissal, Warne had been goading him into a dramatic, showboating stroke. “Come on Ramps, you know you want to,” he said, over and again, until, eventually, he succeeded in hacking his adversary’s action-control system. Ramps knew what he intended; Warney told him what he wanted.

On Form refuses to settle on a theme, or to develop an over-arching argument. Instead, it wanders aimlessly from topic to topic, each of which has a vague connection, if you have the patience to identify it, to the question of what it means to be in or out of form, although what they really seem to have in common is that the author has given some thought to them over the thirty or so years since his last book.

Brearley amasses a dizzying amount of references: every one of his 26 chapters is stuffed with, well, stuff. There are stories from his careers in cricket and therapy, and anecdotes from sportspeople, businesspeople, politicians and psychiatrists. There are quotes from philosophers, passages from novels, remarks made by friends, observations of his grandchildren, newspaper stories that caught his eye, notes on films, and a Taoist parable.

In form, On Form is a little like an 18th-century commonplace book, a bricolage that doesn’t build into something greater than its sum. Much of the material he assembles is interesting; I just wish Brearley had been more discriminating in its selection, and bolder in shaping it. He seems hesitant about imposing his point of view on the reader. Like a batsman changing his mind about a dash for a single, he is always doubling back on himself, balancing each point against another, with the effect that they cancel each other out.

He recalls how his pride in being selected by England improved his performance as a batsman for Middlesex; in the next paragraph he reflects that pride can beget carelessness. In life, he says, “we need both security and challenge, safety and adventure”. A successful team requires its members to be selfish and unselfish. Some people need to be more spontaneous; others should pause for thought. Antitheses bounce endlessly off theses without making it to synthesis.

Brearley is not unaware of these problems. The penultimate chapter contains a long, self-lacerating discussion of whether he should have left more out, the better to avoid a book that is “undisciplined, vague, jumping from one thing to another, incoherent…”. Well, quite. It is a painful passage to read, a digression on whether his digressions should have been cut that ought itself to have been cut, and is itself full of digressions. At one point (more than one point, actually) Brearley reminds us of how much effort he has put in:

I worried at the text like a dog at a bone. Did you know that the word “worry”, originally the Old English wyrgan, derives from the Proto-Germanic wurgjan, meaning “strangle”? I don’t suppose you did, and nor did I, till, worrying at it, I looked up the word in the online etymological dictionary.

After more than 360 pages in this mode, I slightly wanted to worry the author in the Proto-Germanic sense. Maybe the best way to read On Form is as a performative exercise in the mental affliction that knocks people off their game: over-thinking.

On Form
Mike Brearley
Little, Brown, 416pp, £20

Picture: BORIS LUYBNER
Boris Johnson resurrects the Leave campaign’s £350m for NHS fantasy
September 16th, 2017, 01:37 PM

A sign of desperation from the Foreign Secretary, as the mess of Brexit threatens his reputation.

In a column for the Telegraph, Boris Johnson has repeated the false claim that Brexit will result in £350m a week for the NHS.

“Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350 million per week,” he writes. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This notorious pledge – its place on the side of the Vote Leave battle bus now a symbol of the misleading campaign – was dropped even by the most ardent Brexiteers in the aftermath of the EU referendum.

Just a few hours after the result, Nigel Farage himself was on Good Morning Britain, merrily calling the claim “a mistake”. Change Britain, the Vote Leave campaign’s successor group, abandoned the promise in September last year.

The figure is inaccurate, because it doesn’t account for the UK’s rebate, which is removed before it sends any money to Brussels.

After the rebate, the money it paid the EU in 2014 was £276m per week – not the £350m claimed – and that money is sent back to Britain for farming subsidies, underdeveloped regions, science and universities, etc. On some projects, this funding is matched by private investors.

So we wouldn’t be getting £350m or £276m a week extra by leaving. Also, Britain’s contribution to the EU has been decreasing since 2014. The Leave campaign’s figure is simply wrong.

Johnson, a fairweather Brexiteer, knows full well that it’s inaccurate. Perhaps he thinks the insertion of the craven adverb “roughly” into his column protects him. But he’ll need more than that to rescue his reputation.

As Brexit becomes increasingly messy, his future career looks ever more precarious. He has staked his political standing on Brexit working out, and reached the Foreign Office because of this gamble.

But now it’s going wrong, he has to resort to a desperate and shallow “vision for a bold, thriving Britain” in column inches to put pressure on Theresa May (while distancing himself from her course of action), and remind people that he still exists as a potential successor.

With plummeting personal ratings, it looks less likely he’ll succeed. From being Britain’s most respected politician in 2012, with 58 per cent of voters onside, he’s now disliked or really disliked by 53 per cent of the British public, according to YouGov. Even the most masterful “roughly” won’t help you with those stats.

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Parsons Green: Does the UK’s sustained terror threat affect our psychology?
September 16th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The mental health implications of living in the most sustained period of terrorist activity in England for 50 years.

On Friday morning, the fifth terror attack in Britain this year hit the London Underground at Parsons Green Tube station, southwest London. Twenty-two people are injured, and the previous four incidents saw 36 people killed.

This means that England is now living in the most sustained period of terrorist activity since the early Seventies IRA bombings, according to BBC analysis.

There was one attack, in which the MP Jo Cox was murdered, last year, and one at Leytonstone Tube station in east London the year before that. The UK has certainly seen a stark change in terrorism activity this year, so when does that begin to affect a nation’s psychology?

The general public

Although the flurry of the 24-hour news cycle and social media coverage can create panic – and Donald Trump has been publicly jumping to exclamation mark-pocked conclusions – repeated terror incidents can actually have the opposite effect on a population.

“There is often an assumption that society could crack under the strain of terrorist attack,” says Professor Andrew Silke, the Director of Terrorism Studies at the University of East London, who has studied this subject. “[But] the general psychological research is that society overall is surprisingly resilient in the face of terrorism.”

Professor Silke has looked into the psychology of Israel and Northern Ireland during times of sustained terror, and found that people develop an even stronger resilience in these circumstances. He says there is a “threshold”, after which the “resilience factor kicks in”.

“Once terrorist attacks start becoming more frequent, people become habituated and almost treat them as normal, to an extent,” he says. “It’s when terrorist attacks are actually very infrequent, so quite rare and quite unpredictable that an individual terrorist attack tends to have a bigger psychological impact.”

Britain has not yet reached this threshold, but after five attacks in a year by September, it’s in a middle ground. Certainly the element of surprise when an attack such as the one at Parsons Green happens has diminished.

The psychology behind resilience is partly because of the “community impact” of being under sustained threat. “It’s what was referred to as the Blitz Spirit type thing,” says Professor Silke. “People feel more tied into their communities, there’s a shared sense of threat, and there’s a shared sense that we need to pull together.”

An increased sense of community has a “fantastic impact on psychological health”, according to Professor Silke, and this outweighs the negative psychological impacts of living through a period of terror.

The victims

The Chairman of Psychiatry at NYU Dr Charles Marmar, who has worked as a consultant to the Metropolitan Police and citizens in the London area on stress, law enforcement and terrorism, finds that “the natural course following such an incident” at Parsons Green is “towards recovery with time, not towards illness” – for both people directly involved and Brits generally.

“Most people in London are sufficiently stress-inoculated, if you will, Londoners are strong people and British culture is very strong when dealing with trauma,” he tells me.

However, he stresses that the “greatest concern” remains for those injured, their families, fellow passengers, people in close proximity, and the emergency services involved. “The people who are in the immediate event, or directly linked, are the ones who need to have support, psychological first aid, monitoring, and care to make sure they don’t go on to develop acute stress symptoms.”

Dr Marmar also warns against “indifference to the suffering” of those in the general population whose mental health problems are exacerbated by incidents like terrorist attacks.

While he points out that the UK has a “very strong culture for dealing with terrorism”, he says this “stoicism which is part of British culture” is not always helpful. “Sometimes it makes it harder for people to express their vulnerability, or there might be more stigma associated with having emotional problems,” he warns.

Ultimately, he finds the UK’s “population strategy” in dealing with terrorism impressive, and calls on the media to reflect this, rather than scaremongering. “The big picture is resilience, stoicism, and the ability to accept the reality of the dangerous world we live in. You had it during the IRA attacks, and in World War II with German rocket attacks.”

If you're affected by any of the mental health issues mentioned in this piece you can call the Mind helpline on 0300 123 3393.

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Anna of the North's Lovers feels like being submerged in cold, clear water
September 16th, 2017, 01:37 PM

Anna Lotterud’s brand and sound are deeply Norwegian.

Anna Lotterud was raised in the small town of Gjøvik, which sits on the banks of the Mjøsa, Norway’s largest lake. It’s a place where, as she told the Fader magazine, “everything is so safe”. She has been making music since she was 20 years old; legend has it that she was working in a clothes shop when a stranger urged her to leave her homeland (and her relationship) behind. Lotterud booked a flight to Melbourne, where she met her future collaborator Brady Daniell-Smith, and started making music as Anna in the North..

Since then, she has carved out her own place in the current wave of young women creating synth-heavy pop with a whiff of the Eighties (see also: Carly Rae Jepsen, Shura, Christine and the Queens). Her 2014 song “Sway” led to a collaboration with Tyler, the Creator on this summer’s “911/Mr Lonely” alongside Frank Ocean. Her debut album, Lovers, was released on 8 September.

Lotterud’s brand and sound feels deeply Norwegian: from her cool, airy electronics to her crisp style (the artwork for this album and its singles sees her in bright white athleisure cradling different snowy animals: a bull terrier, a fluffy cat, a cockatoo). Lotterud acknowledges that she loves “space, clean colors, air, and white”. Her time in Australia encouraged her to embrace her identity of Anna of the North (a name that started as a joke, “because I was living in Australia so it was like Anna from Norway”), and Lovers was recorded in Oslo. 

Listening to Lovers feels a bit like being submerged in cold, clear water. There’s a buoyant, gliding quality to the record’s slow jams, and while ballads abound, there’s something in their catchy hooks and Phil Collins-esque drumbeats that makes them flirt with danceable pop. “Someone”, with its hints of  “Bette Davis Eyes”, sounds like it should be in a movie starring Molly Ringwald, while “Always” carries the sentiments of Robyn’s hit “Dancing on My Own” (“I’m tired of being in love / Always in the background”). Even when Anna of the North sounds heartbroken, she is irresistible. 

Photo: Anna of the North
I must have spent £20,000 on TV subscriptions since the Premier League began
September 16th, 2017, 01:37 PM

I have continued to fork out knowing only too well I am being taken advantage of.

Since the Premiership began 25 years ago, I have blamed myself for the worst of the madnesses. Oh, there are loads. Not all of them my fault. Why are they such shite at taking free kicks? And corners? What do they do all week in training? I would sort them out, no question. Like all fans, I am a total expert and know what the manager should do.

The madness for which I take the blame is the madness of money, the obscene amounts now floating around, being gorged upon by those lucky enough to receive it.

It does not personally upset me that Harry Kane earns so much – he does not compared with stars at Man City, Man United and Chelsea. They don’t worry me either; those at the top in the City, the law, universities and media also get enormous fees. Footballers have relatively short careers and their salaries are just another reflection of the capitalist system. What does start me frothing is the size of transfer fees. How can Pogba be worth nearly £100 million, or Neymar £200 million?

Then I calm down and think: all my fault. Obviously, not totally mine, but shared with fans worldwide. If we had not been so daft and craven we would not have willingly handed over more money each year on season tickets and TV subscriptions. You can tell yourself your £1,000 season ticket is helping your club, but who are you helping by paying so much to Sky or BT? I must have spent £20,000 on TV subs since the Prem began, just to watch football.

What an eejit, so in love with football, and my team, that I have continued to fork out knowing only too well I am being taken advantage of. If all fans like me refused to go to a game, or watch one on telly, for just one season, the clubs would soon appreciate us more and change their ways. Oh, yes.

Shirt sponsors depend on fans to buy their junk. Giving money to satellite TV companies means they can pay clubs fortunes for the rights to show games, which clubs then spend madly on players, assuming it will never dry up.

Hence all these years I have been stripping naked and flaying myself with ancient satellite dishes, hoping for absolution, before continuing my wicked ways. Well, it turns out this explanation for the mad money in football is bollocks. Everything has changed. I, and all the fans, are not to blame.

Since 1885, when professionalism arrived, rich individuals have always owned clubs, sometimes out of a duty to put something back, sometimes in recent decades to make a fast buck. Now foreign countries, or investment agencies backed by their governments, are increasingly becoming involved in leading football clubs, and apparently neither to make a fast buck nor out of duty.

The Gulf Arabs have been at Man City for some time. A Qatari investment group is behind Paris Saint-Germain and the purchase of Neymar. Qatar is the main sponsor of Barcelona and for the first time ever, Barça have a shirt sponsor, Qatar Airways. Qatar also has football interests in other European countries, such as Belgium, as well as in South America and Africa. The Arabs have now been joined by the Chinese, who were trying to buy into Liverpool a while back but now seem to have taken over the main clubs in the West Midlands – West Brom, Wolves, Birmingham and Aston Villa.

Why are these countries doing this? Because they can. They have money to burn. But even more because they want prestige before profit – to look good around the globe, attract friends, make fans believe they are lovely people, especially if they pour money into our particular club. Qatar hopes that by the time the World Cup arrives in 2022, its world image will be up there with Marie Curie hospices.

So I will now stop blaming myself. In fact, the opposite. It is because of me and all the fans who have helped create such a popular, entertaining, exciting product, loved around the world that this new money is coming in. So hurrah for us! 

Photo: Getty
Freaked out about artificial intelligence? Remember what's in your pocket
September 16th, 2017, 01:37 PM

In reality, we don’t need to welcome our robot overlords for our private information to be made public. 

When the iPhone X was unveiled this week, its facial recognition feature immediately made headlines. Owners of the £1,000 phone can bypass the pesky password and just use their face to unlock their device. Aside from the obvious pitfalls (even the Apple demonstration didn't work seamlessly), it’s evident that a world where facial ID software becomes commonplace is one that could spiral out of control.

For researchers Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang, the dangers of such kinds of technology are paramount. In order to make their point, they shared the results of a study. They had trained a machine learning programme to identify from a series of photographs whether the face in them was gay or straight.

The study itself had some methodological idiosyncrasies, but despite the simplistic headlines the researchers generated, their general concerns resonated. In a later interview with the Guardian, Kosinski said that he had been carrying out preliminary work into determining whether facial features could give away an individual’s political views. So far, the initial results indicated they could. Predictably, people on various social media networks and in the comments section were more than a little perturbed.

Many of the narratives around artificial intelligence paint it as a nebulous, amorphous entity that will soon change the fabric of reality. AI, according to these theories, will take our jobs, drive our cars, and in some distant dystopian hellscape, control our lives after overpowering human intelligence. This slow creep of automation into the most complex aspects of our lives is more than a little unnerving.  

Forget the finer points of Kosinski and Wang’s algorithm. The mere fact that they were able to create it from software, technology and information that are publicly available is what’s terrifying.

After all, facial recognition may capture the imagination, but it is hardly necessary to work out who we are. Glued to our hands, on our bedside tables, in our pockets, our smartphones carry so much of the information that anyone would already want to know about us. We don’t need to welcome our robot overlords before our private information is made public; we already, often willingly, have shared that information ourselves.

If you – like the majority – are reading this on a smart device, the object you hold in your hand is far more useful to a government or company than your face. Social networks, auto-fill forms and browsing histories build up a profile of our personalities without anyone necessarily needing to look us in the eye. 

We download dating apps like Grindr and Tinder and let them access our locations even as we roam. We put our debit card details into our phones to make buying concert tickets easier. We create a digital footprint of what kind of food we buy, we let mapping apps know where our home is so we can return to it, with fewer taps of our fingers.

Meanwhile, large corporations are making a killing out of uploading our lives – our holiday pictures, our music tastes, what we secretly find funny – into their own servers. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram already sell to third parties, such as law enforcement agencies.

Publicly available data has been used in the past to crack down on dissent. Facial recognition software has long since been a hindrance for activists and protestors – new artifical intelligence programs can recognise protestors' faces even if they're covered. 

Read more: Ranking the features of the £1,149 iPhone X from “why” to “sweet lord why”

In the early days of the internet, we were quick to denounce programs, software and companies that ask for too many details of our lives – my dad still maintains a deep distrust of putting his card details into online forms. As time has worn on and as concepts like Amazon's Alexa, one-click shopping, and autofill forms have made the little inconveniences disappear, we are, collectively, forgetting the parts of our privacy we sacrifice. The iPhone X may recognise your face, but it isn’t really that much more dangerous than the models which came before.

In the last decade, as artificial intelligence technology has accelerated, we have made a trade-off between privacy and a more connected world. It's a trade off we have to make, but we can be smart about it – and remember that some of these predictions around privacy have already come true. 

Photo: Getty
The marathon fight to overturn Brexit: Jo Swinson on her party's future
September 16th, 2017, 01:37 PM

“The only way to secure our place in the EU,” she notes, “is a change in public opinion.”

When Jo Swinson announced in June that she would run for deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, rather than leader, she used a vivid analogy: “Creating lasting political change is a marathon, not a sprint.” (She also noted: “Most blokes in my shoes would run for leader like a shot.” Sir Vince Cable, 74, duly did so.)

At 37, Swinson is a veteran of several marathons, starting with one around Loch Ness in October 2007, when she spent the journey to the course preparing posters for the “election that wasn’t”. It began a tradition of her running being interrupted by political life.

This year, at least, she felt she had plenty of time to prepare for the Stirling marathon on 21 May. After losing her East Dunbartonshire seat to the SNP in 2015, she had spent time thinking about her life, helped by Herminia Ibarra’s 2003 book Working Identity, which describes unusual career changes, such as a psychiatrist who became a Buddhist monk. Swinson’s own transformation was less eyebrow-raising: she began writing a book on gender inequality, to be released next year, which draws on her time as minister for women and equalities in the coalition government.

Then Theresa May called a snap election on 18 April. “I knew in a heartbeat what I wanted to do,” she tells me in her office in Portcullis House, looking out on to Big Ben. “And I knew I could do it.” (On 8 June, she reclaimed her seat from the SNP with a 5,339 majority.)

The election was less brutal than she expected – “or maybe I’ve just got a thicker skin” – with no repeat of 2015, when her mum's car was vandalised in the run-up to polling day. “Was that because of the election, because she had a Swinson poster in the window?” she asks now. “Was it coincidence? It’s never been vandalised in the three decades before.” She adds: “There’s a level of vitriol in Scottish politics where I hope we can put the genie back into the bottle, but it’s hard. It’s unhealthy for democracy.”

Now, as deputy leader, Swinson will need all of her stamina as she tackles two connected issues: first, the slow, grinding process of scrutinising Brexit in the Commons, and second, getting a hearing for the Liberal Democrats, given the party has just 12 MPs. It is one of the strange quirks of the election that many anti-Brexit voters went to Labour, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s own Eurosceptic inclinations.

Swinson believes the Remain campaign failed because of its lack of emotional resonance; the only time she felt moved, she said, was in the last days of the campaign when the actor Sheila Hancock “talked about the experience of living through the Second World War, and what that meant, and what Europe meant”.

She says the Lib Dems need to find that register again to convince people that we need a second vote on the terms of the deal – in the country, not just in parliament; and on continued EU membership v the proposed deal, rather than comparing it with no deal at all. “The only way to secure our place in the EU,” she notes, “is a change in public opinion.”

Over the summer, she talked to an academic from Birkbeck University who told her that one question predicted a voter’s attitude to the EU better than any other metric, even income. It is this: “Do you think it’s more important that children should be well-behaved, or considerate?”

The question has been around since 1992, and it measures an axis not picked up by conventional ideas of left and right. Rather than economic and social issues, it suggests the big split in modern politics is between authoritarians and liberals. However, she adds: “I’m the mother of a toddler; frankly, either would do.”

One problem with this axis – which is also described as “open v closed” – is that “it’s not like there’s one economic or social policy that’s going to sort it out”. Another might be, on the evidence of the Lib Dems’ dire poll ratings, that there are far fewer liberals about than we assumed.

Swinson’s party is also hamstrung by its time in coalition with the Tories. Echoing Nick Clegg, who has called the vote to raise tuition fees a “mistake”, she says that it was inexperience that led her party to agree to the measure. “The mistake was before we got to the vote,” she says. “We should have reopened the comprehensive spending review.” (There’s a parallel here with Harriet Harman’s exit from the first Blair cabinet for pushing through welfare cuts; she wishes, she says in her autobiography, that she’d had the courage to tell Gordon Brown to find the savings elsewhere.)

The Lib Dems also suffered during the election campaign because of the relentless focus on Tim Farron’s Christianity – specifically, whether he thought gay sex was sinful. Given that Jacob Rees-Mogg has just had the same pushback for saying that abortion is always wrong, isn’t there a case for saying that it is impossible to be a high-profile politician if you have strong Christian views?

“There is a big difference between Tim Farron and Jacob Rees-Mogg in that regard,” she says. “Tim Farron voted for gay rights and Jacob Rees-Mogg has voted to restrict abortion.” Swinson, a humanist, says that having experienced pregnancy herself, she finds it hard to understand how “to force someone to go through all that… not to see how that isn’t itself a massive ethical quandary.”

Swinson has just finished Naomi Klein’s polemic No Is Not Enough. However, she is resolute in her belief that we are currently too tribal – and too cynical. Trying to overturn the current anti-politics mood, however, will definitely be a marathon, not a sprint. 

Photo: REBECCA REID / EVENING STANDARD / EYEVINE
One step closer to the brink – how US diplomacy failed in North Korea
September 15th, 2017, 01:37 PM

A policy of isolation and containment has left the North Korean regime convinced that its nuclear deterrent is the only way to guarantee survival. 

At around 7am on Friday, loudspeakers in the town of Kaimaishi, northern Japan blared into action, warning of an inbound North Korean missile. The missile passed over Japan and splashed down in the Pacific approximately 2,000 kilometres east of Hokkaido. This is only the fourth time North Korea has directed a missile over Japan. The first was in 1998 and the second 2009. The last two times have only been a matter of weeks apart.

North Korea’s latest missile test comes in response to a new round of sanctions imposed on the country after it conducted its sixth nuclear test on 3 September 2017. Heralded by the US as the toughest yet, the measures include an embargo on North Korean textile exports, a bar on North Korean workers overseas obtaining new work permits and reducing oil imports by 30 per cent. Whilst the resolution was passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the support of Russia and China was only won after the original proposal from the US was diluted heavily.

This latest response, as well as the detonation of a high-yield nuclear device following the first round sanctions in August, have not swayed the US conviction that imposing ever tougher sanctions on North Korea will force the regime to abandon its nuclear programme. Already there are calls for fresh sanctions. The United States (US) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is pressing for Russia and China to take "direct action of their own" ahead of the emergency UNSC meeting later today.

However, both Russia and China have expressed scepticism over US policy preferences on North Korea. Prior to the last UNSC meeting, at a Brics summit in China, Russian president Vladimir Putin remarked: “The sanctions regime has run its course…they will rather eat grass in North Korea than abandon this programme.” Putin was also reluctant to support the US demands for an oil embargo, arguing that Russian oil exports to North Korea are negligible.

Signalling a shift in attitude, China has been more open to pursuing sanctions against the North Korean regime. Crucially though, Beijing has stressed the need to accompany this with moves to resume negotiations and attempts to de-escalate the crisis. A key step towards this goal, Beijing argues, is for the US to cease its joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for North Korea agreeing not to carry out further missile tests.

Even among the US and its allies, there is a marked difference in their respective policy objectives. The Republic of Korea’s (ROK) new president, Moon Jae-In, was elected following a campaign which promised a softer stance towards the country’s northern neighbour, with the aim of promoting dialogue and resume negotiations. Given that South Korea would bear the brunt of any conflict with North Korea, its government is keen to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The US, on the other hand, has displayed a far more aggressive stance towards North Korea. In stark contrast to the calm and considered policy of de-escalation usually favoured by previous US presidents, Donald Trump has promised "fire and fury" if North Korea does not cease its threats against the United States. Trump caused controversy for describing Moon Jae-In's approach to North Korea as a policy of "appeasement". Alluding to the use of force, Trump claims that, “they only understand one thing!” and has repeatedly stated a military option is still available.

Japan is also becoming less tolerant of the threat North Korea poses to its national security. This morning the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said that North Korea’s provocative acts "threaten world peace" and called for the international community to unite against the recalcitrant regime. Abe’s support for the remilitarisation of Japan is, in part, due to the need to counter North Korean aggression. The Japanese Defence Ministry’s plans to acquire the land-based Aegis Ashore missile-defence system is also a reflection of the new types of threat the country faces.

The fact North Korea has carried out a sixth nuclear test demonstrates a significant failure in policy on all sides. Central to this failure, is a complete lack of understanding of Pyongyang’s motives. The US, as well as the wider international community, have relished the opportunity to portray North Korea as a pariah state headed by an irrational dictator with bellicose tendencies. By doing so, the US is able to justify its policy of isolation and containment. This places the onus on North Korea to resume negotiations, whilst also retaining the option for US military action.

But despite Washington's attempt to depict North Korea as the sole aggressor, Pyongyang views its position in the crisis as defensive. Both North and South Korea have declared reunification to be their ultimate goal. However faced by the overwhelming military strength of the US-ROK alliance, Pyongyang's short-term priority is regime survival.

Seen from Pyongyang, brinkmanship-based diplomacy is necessary to compensate for the imbalance of power. Should North Korea seek to initiate negotiations, it would be at an immediate disadvantage. This is particularly true as Washington insists on North Korean nuclear disarmament as a precondition for negotiations, which the regime considers its strongest bargaining chip.

For this reason, the North Korean regime employs hyperbolic rhetoric and limited acts of aggression, such as missile tests, to increase tensions. In doing so, the regime hopes to achieve a two-fold effect. Firstly, to deter the US from pursuing a pre-emptive attack. Secondly, to raise the threat level to a point where the US is forced to abandon its precondition of nuclear disarmament and initiate negotiations on terms more favourable for North Korea.

Crucially, if neither side can commit to the other’s preconditions, nor can see any chance of gaining significant concessions, the logic of brinkmanship falls apart. Pyongyang is caught in a Catch-22 situation. It believes attaining a credible nuclear deterrence to be the strongest protection against regime change and a means to be treated as an equal on the international stage. However, the US refuses to negotiate with North Korea unless it is prepared to discuss nuclear disarmament. Similarly, Washington will not tolerate North Korea obtaining the ability to strike the US homeland, but Pyongyang cannot provide a credible deterrent without this capability.

In these terms, the closer North Korea comes to developing missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, the more the situation becomes a zero-sum game for both countries. North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear programme as it approaches its goal. The US does not want to risk losing the opportunity of a pre-emptive attack. Here, negotiation is in neither party’s interest. The real currency of diplomacy becomes military might, where the emphasis is placed on acting first.

Worryingly, we are already at this point. North Korea has declared it possesses nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting the US’s West Coast. Although this claim was met with scepticism by North Korean analysts, most agree this reality is now likely less than a year away. In North Korea’s sixth nuclear weapons test, a suspected 100 kiloton bomb was detonated, which is the largest yet. Doubt remains as to whether this was a genuine hydrogen bomb, or simply an atom bomb boosted by a secondary explosion. What is clear is that North Korea's nuclear weapons technology is advancing much faster than previously predicted.

Trump’s “they only understand one thing!” comment reflects growing frustration and impatience in the US with the ongoing North Korea crisis. Prior to commencing his presidency, Trump was warned by Barack Obama that North Korea represents the greatest threat to US security. Trump is eager not repeat the same mistakes as Obama, having chastised him for his policy on North Korea during the US election run. Other members of the Trump’s government, such as James Mattis, are still unwilling to rule out diplomacy. However, a recent poll shows that, for the first time, a majority of Americans support military action if South Korea is attacked.

Barack Obama came to office promising a tougher stance on North Korea than the previous Bush administration. In particular, Obama aimed to break a cycle in which North Korean provocations lead to concessions, as means to secure agreements, which later collapse, causing the cycle to begin anew. Although Obama had criticised the Bush administration’s policy of containment and isolation, he failed to deliver on his promise of sincere and lasting engagement with Pyongyang. In actual fact, he was criticised for sitting on the fence. He did not bring North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks, but nor did he adopt a more aggressive policy line against the rogue state. This had the effect of further isolating the North Korean regime and disconnecting Pyongyang's own policy of brinkmanship with the necessary channels to pursue de-escalation.

Trump has not only returned to the Bush administration’s policy of containment and isolation, but has also adopted a far more hawkish approach to North Korea. In addition to his "fire and fury" comments, this has included a sharp rise in the number of joint military exercises with South Korea and Japan, in addition to the three US aircraft carriers now anchored in Korean waters.

With each successive breakdown in negotiations, the likelihood of further talks diminishes as the crisis cap is raised higher and higher. This creates a situation in which North Korea is required to make ever greater threats and pursue even bolder acts of aggression in a bid to force the US to negotiate on more favourable terms. As a result, the crisis edges closer to war with each new incident. 

The failure of US diplomacy is in large part to blame for North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and continuing missile tests. A policy of isolation and containment has left the North Korean regime convinced that its nuclear deterrent is the only way to guarantee survival.

The international response to this latest missile test will be crucial in avoiding hostilities. Imposing further sanctions without any engagement will only put North Korea in a situation where it has nothing to lose from a surprise attempt at reunification. It is highly unlikely that North Korea will shut down its nuclear weapons programme. Therefore the US will need to come to terms with this, in the same way it did with India and Pakistan. In fact, North Korea attaining a credible nuclear deterrence will curtail the need for brinkmanship-based diplomacy and may make the US more amenable to negotiations.The irony of this would surely be lost on the Trump administration.

Photo: Getty
Parsons Green terror attack: Metropolitan Police condemn Donald Trump tweet
September 15th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The US president is accused of tweeting irresponsibly about the incident on the London Underground.

The Metropolitan Police have called the US president’s tweet about a terror incident on the London Underground “unhelpful” and “pure speculation”.

Responding to a blast at Parsons Green Tube station, south-west London, which is now being treated as a terror incident by the authorities, Donald Trump tweeted:

“Another attack in London by a loser terrorist.These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!”

A police spokesperson told CNN that Trump’s tweet was, “pure speculation given we don’t know who is involved. Any speculation is unhelpful.”


The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he hasn’t “had a chance to look at Twitter, let alone tweet”, in response to questions about Trump’s comments.


The two have clashed before over terrorism in the UK, when Trump quoted Khan out of context in a tweet following the London Bridge attacks. “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed’!” he tweeted, when the mayor’s remarks were actually about increased police presence in the capital.

Photo: Twitter screengrab and Getty
Laying the foundations for conflict-free construction
September 15th, 2017, 01:37 PM

If the UK’s construction industry is to flourish in the years to come then it will need a fair, fast and flexible system for avoiding disputes

The construction industry is immense. It contributes around 10 per cent of the UK GDP, and employs over two million people in over 180,000 businesses. It is a complex and innately competitive industry, where many of its diverse participants maintain priorities which often do not align. The truth about the UK construction industry for many years is that complex inter-relationships and competing interests routinely creates discord between employers and their supply chains. When disagreements are not addressed early, and effectively, they inevitably turn into disputes.

Resolving disputes can be extremely slow and costly. The disputes themselves can also cause tremendous damage to commercial relationships and put brand reputations at risk. They are a major reason why projects fail to complete
on time and on budget.

The UK construction industry’s recovery from the 2008 financial crash has been slow and prospects are still precarious. The shape and timetable for Brexit is still unknown but it is inevitable that the UK, once outside the European Union, will rely heavily on the construction industry as a major contributor to the future success of the economy. Ensuring the industry is economically successful brings into sharp focus the need to improve the way participants manage their relationships and deal with differences of opinion.

Employers and contractors in UK rail and transport are at the head of a growing movement within the construction and engineering sector. This movement is fundamentally changing the way employers and contractors work and how they resolve disputes. 

With support from professional and membership bodies such as RICS, ICE, CIArb, ICES, DRBF, RIBA and ICC, Transport for London (TfL) and Network Rail (NR) are creating a major shift in the culture of the construction industry, to make harmful and expensive disputes a rare occurrence. The key objectives of this coalition are to promote a more collaborative working culture in the UK construction space, help reduce legal spend in the industry and protect brand reputations, which would be at risk if businesses were to gain reputations for generating disputes with their suppliers, and/or not dealing with them effectively. Ultimately, the coalition aims to create a step change in the culture of the UK construction industry, away from combative and dispute-heavy business relationships to a more collaborative partnership approach.

The campaign presents some major challenges, including the necessity to eliminate the standard mindset that has existed in the industry for many years, and which encourages and perpetuates conflict.

Two key messages emanating from the coalition are: conflict situations should be avoided where possible and, where differences of opinion do arise, they should be dealt with early and effectively, ideally in the boardroom.  The coalition has now embarked on a campaign to persuade employers, contractors and professionals working in the industry to signal their support for conflict avoidance by signing up to the “Conflict Avoidance Pledge” (www.rics.org/capledge). 

The pledge, which will be formally launched in London in January 2018, has already been signed by leading employers and contractors, including TfL, Network Rail and many of their suppliers.

When an organisation or individual signs the pledge, it indicates they are committed to:

  • Working proactively to avoid conflict and facilitating early resolution of potential disputes.
  • Developing their capability in the early identification of potential disputes and in the use of conflict avoidance measures.

The strategies for collaborative working and improved conflict management, which have been adopted  by TfL, Network Rail and many in their supply chains, is evidence of a sea change in the industry. Employers and contractors are increasingly adopting innovative methods to prevent conflict situations developing. When opinions diverge and before matters become irreconcilable, bespoke dispute resolution systems are being applied to tackle the developing issues early and cordially.

 

How TfL steers clear of conflict

In 2013, TfL was looking for a suitable form of alternative dispute resolution for use on its major Capital Delivery contracts, to resolve emerging issues before they turned  into full disputes. TfL approached a number of professional bodies for advice. When no suitable process was found, RICS offered to work with TfL in developing one, and the Conflict Avoidance Process (CAP) was formed. The CAP not only enables issues to be resolved without the parties becoming combative, but actually promotes collaboration and trust to such an extent that it improves the ongoing client-supplier relationship.

Case study: Victoria station upgrade

This major upgrade is being delivered by one of TfL’s key delivery partners, Taylor Woodrow – BAM Nuttall JV (TWBN). An issue arose on the project relating to a difference in how the contract was interpreted, which led to a disagreement on TWBN’s entitlement to certain costs. Both the TfL and TWBN project teams agreed to work together in preparing a joint submission to the CAP. This enabled common ground to be established, and the disagreement was narrowed and focused to the root of the issue. This was achieved before the CAP was involved and this collaborative approach ensured that the CAP recommendation led to an outcome that was successfully accepted by both parties. This instance of CAP was extremely quick and provided exceptional value, with CAP costs amounting to just 0.2 per cent of value of the issue.

Shutterstock / Ant Clausen
The vote against tuition fees is more than symbolic – our democracy is at stake
September 15th, 2017, 01:37 PM

The Tories tried to bypass parliament for the latest fees hike. 

I thought I had seen it all from this government. But this week in the House of Commons we have reached a new and deeply alarming moment, not just for education policy but for the functioning of parliamentary democracy itself.

Labour won two votes in the Commons on Wednesday, including my motion against the latest rise in tuition fees. This rise - of up to £1,000 extra for an undergraduate course - was engineered through statutory instruments, rather than primary legislation. 

Few people outside the Westminster bubble have heard of statutory instruments ("secondary legislation" in parliamentary jargon) but we will all be hearing more about them under this government. They allow ministers to change the law without needing to pass a whole new Act through parliament.

They are meant for relatively minor changes that Parliament has allowed ministers to make without needing a full parliamentary process. But they were never meant to be a way of dodging Parliament entirely.

In the case of tuition fees, the Tories quietly wheeled out an increase in fees on the last day before a parliamentary recess, tabling so-called "statutory instruments" bringing the fees hike in to force.

The rules give MPs 40 days to lodge an objection to any new regulations under this process, which should lead to a vote on them – and that is exactly what I did. It took some months, but eventually the government conceded a vote on 18 April 2017 – only to immediately call the snap general election and dissolve Parliament before it could be held.

After losing her majority, you would have thought that the Prime Minister might assess where she went wrong. After all, the surge in young people voting showed that tuition fees were an important issue. Clearly, she didn’t. The leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, instead decreed that there would be no parliamentary time on the issue. This was despite her predecessor promising the House of Commons we would have a debate and a vote just weeks before.

We called an emergency debate, in effect forcing time on the Commons floor. When the universities minister Jo Johnson tried to say the time limit had passed, the Speaker had to slap him down, making clear we had done everything within the rules to call a vote. But still they refused.

Which brought us to this week. The Opposition is allowed time of our own on the floor and we can also table motions. So we did: a resolution of the House revoking these specific regulations.

I warned the government that the debate we were having went beyond policy differences on tuition fees. This was about the role of the House of Commons and, ultimately, our democracy. But not only did they refuse to address the point, they even refused to vote, so the motion to scrap the fees rise passed unanimously.

Ministers dismissed the votes as symbolic. They even told their own MPs not to bother voting on it. But I was very clear that the motion I tabled was far from a simple statement of opinion. It was a resolution revoking the regulations that increased the cap on fees. Far from being symbolic, this was the legislature doing its job: legislating. 

Since then, ministers have indicated that they will simply ignore it. In an argument straight out of the pages of a Kafka novel, they argued that we had not held the vote within the 40 days. That, of course, was because they would not give us the time. So the government can now just refuse to allow the Commons to vote within the time limit, then tell us that any vote won’t count because we’re out of time.

This is not a dry, constitutional point for lawyers, professors and bewigged clerks to debate in legal textbooks. It is a serious attack on the role MPs have in checking government power. The Commons Speaker said he cannot recall a recent example of such behaviour, setting a "very worrying" precedent.

I said this week that the government are not just running scared, but dragging us in to a constitutional crisis. The details may sound complicated by the fundamental point is simple. In a parliamentary democracy, it is the job of parliament to decide the law, not the government. In this case, the government has changed the law. It has done so not just without parliament agreeing but despite parliament actually voting against it.

Once we allow this principle to slide, parliamentary democracy itself is undermined. It is even worse when you look at the government’s Brexit Bill. This allows ministers sweeping powers under the very same mechanism that they used to change tuition fees – statutory instrument. They even want the power to change full-blown Acts of Parliament that way – the so-called "Henry VIII" power.

The Brexit secretary David Davis told us we didn’t have to worry about these because they couldn’t be used to change the law without parliament having a say. But even as he was promising us that, his colleagues were proving him wrong. They decided that they can govern by simply ignoring elected MPs and ruling by decree – not so much Henry VIII as Charles I.

Thankfully we have moved on from the times when wars were fought to settle the balance of power between the executive and legislature. But the battle over our democracy has just begun.

Getty