Let’s begin by stating the problem: there’s a lack of long-term investment in the UK economy, both in infrastructure and in the capital needed to run productive businesses. That counts double at a regional level across the country. This is an old song to be sure, but that doesn’t detract from its reality. And with the main fallout from Brexit likely to be a decline in foreign direct investment, the investment gap is only going to get worse.
For example, the OECD think tank estimates an annual infrastructure investment of 3.5% of GDP is necessary in developed economies to maintain competitiveness, never mind boost it. Currently, public sector infrastructure investment in the UK is forecast to reach to be 1.4% of GDP in 2020/21 – and that’s with the increase in capital spending offered in the Autumn Statement.
The curious thing, though, is that there is no actual shortage of capital. In fact, in the City, there is probably the world’s biggest pot of footloose cash just looking for an investment opportunity. Which suggests that the failure to invest in UK Plc has more to do with the financial plumbing that anything else. Which brings us to investment banks and their role in the economy.
Today’s high street retail banks – the sort you keep your current account with – make their money from mortgage lending and hidden charges on overdraft facilities. The last thing they do is risk lending money to industry or for long-term infrastructure projects. That’s where dedicated investment banks come in. Their job is to organise the financial plumbing that channels risk capital from its owner through to companies or infrastructure projects, using any means necessary: underwriting share issues, creating consortia to build windfarms, brokering mergers, managing funds, or selling advice.
To cut to the chase: the UK is suffering a blocked financial pipeline. Our local investment banking system is in crisis. Post the 2008 Credit Crunch, domestic banks in the UK – Barclays excepted - have been in wholesale flight from investment banking, which is perceived as having been the cause of their ruin. Certainly derivatives trading allied to insane levels of inter-bank lending formed the detonator of the 2008 implosion. And some institutions – notably HBOS – leveraged themselves to unsustainable levels in order to invest in the latter stages of a commercial property bubble whose eventual collapse was obvious to anyone but a banker.
But the retreat from investment banking activities by UK firms brings problems. First it implies handing over the keys to investment banking and capital supply to Wall Street. Second, if Donald Trump launches his proffered $1trillion infrastructure investment plan for America, there will be a capital flight from the UK and Europe. All of which suggests that Britain needs to make its own arrangements for capital provision through a reformed and expanded domestic investment banking sector or see UK productivity continue to flat-line.
That’s not to say there aren’t questions still to be asked about the ethical behaviour of investment banks. The five biggest global investment banks operating in the UK regularly contrive to pay no corporation tax locally, despite making billions in profits. Name and shame: I mean JP Morgan, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank AG, Nomura Holding and Morgan Stanley. But without a domestic UK investment banking sector, we are still going to be ripped off.
There is even more of a problem in the regions and nations that make up Britain. If anything, regional inequality in the UK has worsened since 2010, with London becoming more, not less economically dominant despite the financial crash. The most recent data show that London’s share of Gross Value Added (GVA) increased from 21.5% in 2010 to 22.6% in 2014, while GVA per head also grew quicker in London than elsewhere. But regional stock exchanges have long since vanished meaning that what capital is available – for growing companies or local infrastructure needs – is stashed in London and won’t go north in a hurry.
There is no single solution to this set of problems so let’s experiment with trying to create various new bits of financial plumbing. First, accept we need an investment banking sector. Next, let’s create some domestic competition in the sector. RBS has spent too much time chasing its tail and downsizing. It’s time RBS recovered its mojo and went back into the investment banking business. Besides, that is probably the only way it is ever going to start generating real profits again. All it takes is for UKFI, its public owner, to tell CEO Ross McEwan to change course.
We can also unlock domestic capital specifically for safe, long-term infrastructure projects. Here the problem is Solvency II, the new EU regulations governing the capital requirements for the insurance sector and the pension funds they manage. UK pension funds invest an estimated 1% of their total assets in infrastructure. But this is very low compared with funds in Australia and Canada, where 8-15% of assets are invested in infrastructure. The problem, complain UK insurers, is that the Prudential Conduct Authority is over-interpreting Solvency II and treating the industry as if it were a dodgy bank. If capital requirements imposed by the PRA on UK insurers were eased, there would be more capital to invest in local infrastructure.
One possible hard solution to the regional investment gap comes from the New Economics Foundation in conjunction with Common Weal, a pro-independence Scottish think tank. They are pushing the SNP Government at Holyrood to create a Scottish National Investment Bank and have published a detailed blueprint as to how it could work. Using Scottish Government figures for job creation from capital investment, their joint report states that such an investment bank could directly support the creation of 50,000 jobs “within just a few years of being established”.
Investment banking has become a dirty word since 2008. It’s actually a necessary part of the financial furniture. The trick is to make it work properly. And for that to happen, politicians and regulators have to be pro-active.
Barclays has commissioned a report ‘‘What have the Capital Markets ever done for us? And how could they do it better?’’ by New Financial with the hope to start a debate about the value of capital markets to the economy, especially in the UK. Many thanks go to those who joined us at our events with New Statesman so to examine the report’s findings in detail.
For the previous feature in the series, see Alison McGovern’s Why we must maintain the highest standards in banking in the new political landscape.
There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.
Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)
Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.
Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.
In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?
Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.
Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.
The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.
If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.
There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.
Theresa May has set out her Brexit objectives in a speech. Stephen Bush explains the key sections.
Dear President Tusk,
On 23 June last year, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.
Translation: it’s not me, it’s 17 million other buggers. Don’t blame me, I voted to Remain.
But that Theresa May backed the status quo means two things. The first is that as Britain leaves the European Union, not a single living person to hold the office of Prime Minister sincerely believes that Brexit is a good idea. The second is that she semi-continually has to reassure the Conservative right that she is a Proper Goth. That’s one of the recurring themes of this letter.
As I have said before, that decision was no rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans. Nor was it an attempt to do harm to the European Union or any of the remaining member states. On the contrary, the United Kingdom wants the European Union to succeed and prosper.
Translation: please don’t destroy our economy. The difficulty for the United Kingdom is that it’s in both Britain and the European Union’s economic interests to continue to have a close a relationship as possible.
For the United Kingdom in general and Theresa May in particular, the economics and the politics are in aligned. If the economy goes to the wall, everyone will be poorer and May’s position is at risk.
But for the EU27, there’s a political imperative: to strengthen the European Union by demonstrating that exit comes at a price. That conflicts with the economics, yes, but no-one has lost money betting against economics as far as either British or EU politics are concerned, particularly where the two are related to one another.
So one important message from the British government has to be: our success is not your failure. We have no interest in triggering a rush to the exits. That’s another recurring message.
But May’s difficulty is that not everyone in her party likes this message, which is why you get this next bit:
Instead, the referendum was a vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe – and we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.
Earlier this month, the United Kingdom Parliament confirmed the result of the referendum by voting with clear and convincing majorities in both of its Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill was passed by Parliament on 13 March and it received Royal Assent from Her Majesty The Queen and became an Act of Parliament on 16 March.
Translation: blah, blah, blah, I am a Proper Goth, honest. That Dido record was a gift from my mum. I haven’t even listened to it.
This letter sets out the approach of Her Majesty's Government to the discussions we will have about the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union and about the deep and special partnership we hope to enjoy – as your closest friend and neighbour – with the European Union once we leave. We believe that these objectives are in the interests not only of the United Kingdom but of the European Union and the wider world too.
Translation: seriously, Donald, we are not looking to destroy the EU. Did I mention that?
I would like to propose some principles that may help to shape our coming discussions, but before I do so, I should update you on the process we will be undertaking at home, in the United Kingdom.
Translation: Donald, I’m gonna get to you, but first I have to talk about some other things for the purpose of my domestic audience.
When it comes to the return of powers back to the United Kingdom, we will consult fully on which powers should reside in Westminster and which should be devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it is the expectation of the government that the outcome of this process will be a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration.
Translation: Alright, Nicola, I hear you.
Devolution is double-edged: for the Welsh government in particular, the loss of EU funding is likely going to result in heavy cuts. You can see why Conservative MPs in Wales would rather run against the Labour administration in Cardiff rather than the Tory one in London.
The United Kingdom wants to agree with the European Union a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation. To achieve this, we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.
Translation: I want both a deal on withdrawal and a longstanding agreement on future partnership. This won’t happen. If you’re being charitable, this is a clever way of going into the negotiations with something to give up on. If you’re being uncharitable, it shows how deeply unprepared the British government is for how fraught and difficult negotiating trade agreements is.
If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened. In this kind of scenario, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would of course cope with the change, but it is not the outcome that either side should seek. We must therefore work hard to avoid that outcome.
Translation: “I know what you're thinking: Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
It is true to say that no deal would hurt both the United Kingdom and the EU27. However, the “cutting off your nose to spite your face” is apt here: it hurts like hell to cut off your nose and you’re never the same afterwards. But while you will see people without noses living successful lives, to date, no nose has managed to carry on without a person.
The bad news is that Britain is the nose in this analogy.
It is for these reasons that we want to be able to agree a deep and special partnership, taking in both economic and security cooperation, but it is also because we want to play our part in making sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and able to lead in the world, projecting its values and defending itself from security threats. And we want the United Kingdom to play its full part in realising that vision for our continent.
This paragraph is doing a lot of things: reiterating that the British government wants to leave the European Union stronger not weaker, and setting out the outline of how the future relationship might look.
Now let’s get onto the real red meat:
“Since I became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom I have listened carefully to you, to my fellow EU Heads of Government and the Presidents of the European Commission and Parliament. That is why the United Kingdom does not seek membership of the single market: we understand and respect your position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no "cherry picking".”
This paragraph is doing a lot of work. First, it is reassuring her fellow politicians and the EU’s institutions that she gets it and that Britain can’t be a member of the single market and opt out of the free movement of people. Secondly, she is telling every British politician who has suggested that a special deal or a “reformed free movement” is doable to STFU.
On this, she’s entirely correct. There is no economic imperative for the EU27 to abandon the free movement of people and while other EU politicians are experiencing Ukip-type uprisings, the biggest cause is opposition to refugees and hostility to Islam, not movement from the eastern bloc to Western Europe. It’s a nonsense idea, not least because no-one has yet devised a persuasive reason why those nations with large emigrant populations would ever want to sign a deal limiting their people’s rights, but there you go.
We also understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU: we know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We also know that UK companies will, as they trade within the EU, have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part – just as UK companies do in other overseas markets.
This is, once again, a paragraph with two audiences. Firstly, it’s a move away from the nonsense threats about “becoming a tax haven”. But it’s also a rebuke to the “leave the EU and slash red tape” brigade. The reality is that when you trade with other nations, your regulations are set de facto by whoever your most stringent buyer is. In Britain’s case, that will remain the EU. To use the phrase that Amber Rudd, now Home Secretary, used during the referendum campaign, we are switching from being a “rulemaker” to a “ruletaker”, but there is no future for the United Kingdom in which it can free itself of European regulation, or, at least, not one in which we sell anything at all to the nations of the European Union.
There is obvious complexity in the discussions we are about to undertake, but we should remember that at the heart of our talks are the interests of all our citizens. There are, for example, many citizens of the remaining member states living in the United Kingdom, and UK citizens living elsewhere in the European Union, and we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights.
Theresa May is under pressure to domestically to guarantee the rights of EU citizens and this paragraph aims to do two things: firstly to reassure people back home that she will, and secondly to secure the same guarantee for British residents abroad.
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not unilaterally guaranteeing the rights of EU migrants here would put the status of British expatriates in jeopardy. I’ve written at greater length why I’m not sold on that here, and that May has essentially all-but-confirmed here that Britain will extend that guarantee to EU citizens living here highlights how much an opportunity was missed in not making a big generous offer in her first days as Prime Minister. There is no leverage in withholding guarantees that have already been made.
“We want to agree a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, taking in both economic and security cooperation. We will need to discuss how we determine a fair settlement of the UK's rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the United Kingdom's continuing partnership with the EU.”
This outlines the Brexit deal that May wants, the shape of which I first revealed back in November 2016: we pay to play, essentially. By paying an outsized amount for the parts of EU co-operation the government wants to keep, they may secure the standard of single market access that the British economy needs to function.
But we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.
Again, May wants the future deal to be part of the exit process. No-one who knows anything about this process thinks that is likely. If you are a glass-half full kind of person, this is a deliberate ploy. If your glass is half empty, we are all going to hell in a handcart.
We should work together to minimise disruption and give as much certainty as possible
Investors, businesses and citizens in both the UK and across the remaining 27 member states
May now wants a transitional deal, a major breach with the Brexiteer ultras, though David Davis, who has quietly impressed many of his civil servants – I know, I’m as surprised as you – has flipped on this in private, having gone from being sceptical about the merits of a transitional deal to supportive, I’m told.
In particular, we must pay attention to the UK's unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland
One of the biggest areas with the potential for disaster is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It’s hard to see how this could be done without bending some of the EU’s rules, but rules are not always rules in Brussels. There is agreement on all sides that a way forward needs to be found. That doesn’t necessarily mean there is one out there, particularly as May’s allies in Northern Ireland, the DUP, would likely resist the easiest workaround – that the island of Ireland remain in the customs union with customs checks at ports, not at the land border – but this the area where May has the best chance of success.
We should begin technical talks on detailed policy areas as soon as possible, but we should prioritise the biggest challenges
Basically, if you are a large bank or have business or personal interests in the Irish border, good news! You are likely to be well-served by this process. If you are a British citizen, married to an Italian, and living in France, I wouldn’t bet the farm on your domestic arrangements being looked after in this process.
We should continue to work together to advance and protect our shared European values
Perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe.
Translation: I’m just a girl, standing in front of a trade bloc, asking them to love her.
The city where Khalid Masood used to live tries to shake off its "hotbed of radical Islam" label.
For young Muslims living in Birmingham, this is a routine that has become all too familiar. A madman claiming to practice the same religion as them commits a heinous crime; during their investigation authorities discover he has spent some time in the UK’s second biggest city. A media circus, albeit temporary, descends upon town. It has happened before. It is happening now.
A day after Khalid Masood drove his car into a crowd at Westminster Bridge, killing four people and injuring dozens of others, I too jumped on a train from London heading to the West Midlands. According to the Met Police, Masood was born in Kent but had most recently been living in Birmingham.
During my stay in the city no one I spoke to, Muslim or otherwise, had anything remarkable to say about the man. “He used to come in often to get some Red Bull and cashew nuts,” Raviyar Sedighi, whose shop sits under Masood’s former flat, told me. “He was a body builder.”
Farhad Makanvand, the owner of the flat where Masood used to live, told me he didn’t even know who he was renting his property to. “Everything was done through an agency,” he said.
Birmingham’s population is 22 percent Muslim. For years the city has fought against the label of “a hotbed of radical Islam,” after a number of religious extremists were found to have lived or spent some time in the area. Still, for Muslims born and bred in Birmingham, the city’s infamous reputation as an epicentre of jihadism doesn’t match the community they know.
“Nah, that’s absolutely wrong,” says Shazad Ahmed after Friday prayers at Birmingham’s Central Mosque. “I totally disagree with that. You can’t paint everyone with the same brush. I would say 99 percent of the Muslims are totally opposed to that, but then you have that one percent who are out there and they do what they do in the name of Islam and that’s totally wrong.”
Although they spoke openly to journalists in the mosque’s parking lot, they bemoaned a media narrative which continues to perpetuate stereotypes. “No chopping and changing, yeah.” One of them shouted. “I know that’s what you guys like to do.”
Inside, Imam Hafiz Ahmed Ibrahim Patel, flanked by a number of local faith leaders as well as police representatives, was about to give a news conference. The mosque’s personnel already knows the drill. With the unwanted spotlight of terrorism hovering once again over their community, it is essential to allay the fears of the wider public.
“Birmingham is a very peaceful city, it has a very diverse community,” said Chairman Mohammad Afzal. Sat a couple of chairs away, Bishop David Urquhart read from a statement: “We completely reject any attempt to see an opportunity of blaming a particular widespread community group, or faith, or any other community in this city for the perverted actions of an individual.”
According to a study by the Henry Jackson Society, West Midlands comes second on the list of UK regions with the most Islamism-related offences between 1998 and 2015, at 18 percent. Of these, 80 percent (14 percent overall) were living in Birmingham.
But for those working on the ground, statistics don’t tell the full story. Jahan Mahmood is a historian and counter-extremism expert who used to work for the government but resigned over its counter-terror strategy. He now works freelance, going around the country giving counter-extremism talks – an initiative, he says, has previously put young men off going to fight in Syria.
“We’ve had a drastic fall in convictions since 2013,” he tells me. “That’s promising, but it doesn’t seem to have been picked up [by authorities]. So I don't buy this idea that we are some kind of hotbed because I have yet to meet an individual who is at that level of thinking.”
Back at the Birmingham Central Mosque I asked Scotland Yard Commander Mak Chishty, who drove all the way from London to be present at the press conference, about the criteria used for classifying Masood as a terrorist with potential links to radical Islam, as opposed to a violent criminal who set out to commit mass murder.
“I don't think it’s an ordinary crime,” he said. “I don’t think it is someone who has just driven across the bridge and randomly said ‘I will just crash into people, kill people, then get out of the car and try maim people.’ But by classifying it as a terrorist attack doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that we are pointing the picture at Muslim communities — that is wrong.”
In spite of the reassurances given, the tension between police and Muslims, specially the younger ones, is palpable. The government’s Prevent program, which, among other things, works in schools to spot and report signs of radicalisation in pupils has been a “significant source of grievance” among British Muslims, encouraging “mistrust to spread and to fester”, according to an independent review of terrorism laws.
Jahan tells me the relationship between the two sides is in such a state, that if he were seen to be working with the government again his credibility with the local youth would go down the drain.
“I can’t bee seen going around giving these talks too often,” he tells. “People would start asking questions, wondering if I had an agenda and who I was working for.”
A first look at this week's magazine.
March 31 - April 6
Wanted: An opposition
I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts.
It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.
I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and educational exchanges.
I voted Remain, too, because, though ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.
The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.
Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.
A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.
A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!
“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.
Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.
What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.
Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “European Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.
The brightest possible future for him now involves joining one of those sinister US think tanks.
On a muggy day in August 2014, Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton in Essex, defected to Ukip, saying that he hoped to see “fundamental change” in British politics. He won the ensuing by-election comfortably, becoming the first person elected to parliament on the purple ticket. The next day, in a column in the Daily Express, his new leader, Nigel Farage, asked how many more Tory MPs would follow suit: “Two, seven, ten?”
Farage wasn’t alone. There were rumours that other Tory right-wingers were poised to follow Carswell over the top. The bookies started laying odds on who would go next. In the end, just one did: Mark Reckless, the MP for Rochester, who defected on 27 September 2014, donning the chain mail and gormless expression of a particularly unthreatening crusader for an ill-judged Sunday Times photo shoot. (Reckless, unlike Carswell, lost his seat in the 2015 general election; he now fights the good fight as a Ukip member of the Welsh Assembly.)
Not only did Farage’s predicted flood never happen, it has now gone into reverse. On 25 March, Carswell quit the party to sit as an independent. This time, oddly, he seems unconcerned that the “only honourable thing” to do would be to call a by-election. Ukip, once again, is left without an MP.
The party’s grandees are delighted. Farage has dismissed Carswell, without irony, as a “Tory party posh boy”, too much of a wuss to talk about immigration. Arron Banks, formerly Ukip’s main donor, was even threatening to stand against him – an interesting approach to take to the only man ever to win your party a seat at a general election.
It’s hard to imagine that Carswell feels too heartbroken, either. He claimed that he only defected in the first place to pressure David Cameron into promising a referendum and to stop Ukip from wrecking the Leave campaign’s chances of victory. On both counts, he succeeded: the referendum was included in the Tories’ 2015 manifesto; official recognition as the voice of the Leave campaign went to the cross-party Vote Leave group, rather than the Ukip-dominated (and Banks-funded) Leave.EU. In this version of events, Carswell was never really a Ukip man at all: the reason so few Tory MPs followed him is that he made sure they didn’t need to.
So has Carswell won? He has achieved his big goal of getting Britain out of the European Union. Yet there’s a measure of pathos in this victory, because he was wrong. It wasn’t his liberal, free-trading vision of Brexit that swung the referendum. It was Banks’s and Farage’s warnings that 70 million Turks were going to move in and take over.
More than that, the tone set by the referendum has put the rest of Carswell’s agenda out of reach. The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain, the 2008 book that he co-wrote with the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, painted a liberal picture of Brexit, all Norway model and free trade. It spoke of other libertarian pipe dreams, too: moving powers from prime minister to parliament, local democracy and (God forbid) more referendums.
This now looks quaintly irrelevant. It’s hard to see Theresa May’s newly authoritarian Conservative Party embracing these ideas. If Ukip is dying, that’s largely because the ideas that it espoused have been adopted by the governing party.
As for Carswell, he has given up any influence he once had. May, not one to forget betrayals, is unlikely to welcome him back. The Tories will probably throw everything at retaking his seat in 2020 to show that they have conquered the Ukip threat.
How the Clacton MP, aged just 45, will fill the second half of his life is an open question. His CV is not one that points towards a career as a well-paid City adviser. He has neither the passion nor the charm (nor, frankly, the looks) for a broadcast career. The brightest possible future for him involves joining one of those sinister US think tanks that talk a lot about freedom while plotting to make poor people poorer.
Carswell joined Ukip to drag it in a more liberal direction. He ended up pushing the Tories in a more Farageist one. Today, he is best described by an epithet that he once reserved for the EU: obsolete.
The Brexit victors aren’t addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.
The weirdest thing about Brexit is how angry the victors are. You would expect the losers to be sore – but open any British newspaper and it’s as if getting what they wanted has rendered the winners yet more snappish. At any time, you can guarantee that the medium least likely to offer principled opposition to any assault on democracy is the British press. Even so, it’s astonishing to open a copy of the Daily Telegraph and find that a byline has become a mere technicality, a breakwater for the eye. Page after page, countless squads of identical bald clones drone on – all chorus, no counterpoint – ranting about the evils of a Europe, which, in theory, they are supposed to have vanquished.
What is the point of having so many writers when they all write the same article? It turns out that it wasn’t Europe they wanted to leave. It was contemporary Britain. They’re not addicted to independence. They’re addicted to hatred.
In the United States, television and newspaper reporters have understood that their president is out to get them. So they are fighting back, challenging him on his lies in a way that the BBC does not dare. Women, African Americans and Latinos have all staged impressive demonstrations to disrupt the idea that the current state of affairs in the US is either necessary or, more important, normal. Republican senators aiming to take away their voters’ rights to health care have been facing impassioned town-hall meetings. There is exhilarating satire on television.
But over here, the 48 per cent of people who feared a loveless future of cringing isolation, austerity and social backwardness have been largely content to take defeat on the chin, as though cowed by the fact that so many of the poorest among us don’t agree.
In Britain, the silence is eerie. We know from experience that it takes time for artists and film-makers to respond to sudden changes of temperature.
Margaret Thatcher was first elected in 1979, but it wasn’t until 1982 that we were enlightened by Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff; My Beautiful Laundrette didn’t arrive until 1985; and it was 1987 before Caryl Churchill gave us Serious Money – a full eight years after Thatcher’s election.
All three works may enjoy an enduring power and authority denied to the collected speeches of Norman Tebbit. They define the era. But they all came too late to do anything more than raise morale. The damage had been done. You may feel that the musical of Billy Elliot nailed Thatcher’s government definitively, but it began to offer its insights 15 years after her resignation.
Politics in the West is in a mess because no one can answer the question of why Western labour should continue to enjoy its relative privileges when labour in the rest of the world can offer to do our work so much more cheaply. The standard answers from left and right are equally unconvincing and polluted by residual imperialist attitudes to race. Conservatives swing wildly. On some days, they behave as if they can continue to enjoy the free movement of capital while planning to forbid the free movement of labour. On others, they pretend that they still believe in the same market that failed so spectacularly ten years ago.
Neither position is coherent, and the mix of the two is crazy. But the left has done little better to explain how social justice can be advanced in the face of an international buffeting that has no care for workers’ rights.
In 2015, Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Labour Party, went into the general election without having decided whether he was or wasn’t going to defend the Keynesian public spending that had saved Britain from the corruption of the banks. The present leader of the Conservative Party, always marching fearlessly behind a thick cladding of popular prejudice, is implementing a European divorce against which she campaigned only a year ago. Small wonder that people have so little hope of Westminster.
Historically, we have always been taught that change comes from below. When people suffer intolerably, they overturn the cause of their suffering. Yet they still need representatives who can articulate their needs. Revulsion has to bubble up soon, but so do policies.
In our daily lives, we all meet people who are thoughtful, kind-hearted, efficient and serious. We encounter such people in medicine, in education, in law enforcement and in social care, and it is their generosity and foresight that make life worth living. Yet Theresa May is content to hug close individuals who would be thrown out of any job but politics. Her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was sacked by the Times for lying. Her Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was accused of trying to interfere with a prison inspection report while he was justice secretary, and he banned sending books to prisoners.
Most inexplicable of all was the elevation of Liam Fox, her International Trade Secretary, who is in permanent disgrace because he has refused fully to admit wrongdoing for overclaiming expenses and using public money to pay a close friend who attended 57 per cent of his Ministry of Defence engagements without security clearance.
Why on earth are such people promoted by a vicar’s daughter who boasts of her moral values? It is in that disparity between who we are and how we are represented that the best hope of opposition lies.
Disbelief will shade into outrage, even if Labour continues to be led by a man blithely indifferent to the practicalities of getting anything done. Confronted with the ascendancy of scoundrels such as Fox, Grayling and Johnson, anyone, from any part of the UK, will agree with Karl Marx: shame is the only revolutionary emotion.
David Hare is a playwright
As the Prime Minister adopts a more conciliatory stance, she risks becoming caught between party and country.
She may have been a "reluctant" one but a Remainer Theresa May was. The Prime Minister's first mission was to reassure her viscerally anti-EU party that Brexit meant Brexit. Today, by invoking Article 50, she has proved true to her word.
In this new arena, it is not Britain that has "taken back control" but the EU. When Brussels drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising its influence. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has a vote.
While keeping her famously regicidal party on side, May must also charm her 27 EU counterparts. In her Commons statement on Article 50, she unmistakably sought to do so. The PM spoke repeatedly of a new "deep and special partnership" between Britain and the EU, consciously eschewing the language of divorce. In contrast to Donald Trump, who pines for the EU's collapse, May declared that "perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe" (prompting guffaws and jeers from Tim Farron's party and the opposition benches). Indeed, at times, her statement echoed her pro-Remain campaign speech.
Having previously argued that "no deal is better than a bad deal", the Prime Minister entirely ignored the possibility of failure (though in her letter to the EU she warned that security cooperation "would be weakened" without an agreement). And, as she has done too rarely, May acknowledged "the 48 per cent" who voted Remain. "I know that this is a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others," she said. "The referendum last June was divisive at times. Not everyone shared the same point of view, or voted in the same way. The arguments on both side were passionate."
Having repeatedly intoned that "we're going to make a success" of Brexit, May showed flashes of scepticism about the path ahead. She warned of negative "consequences" for the UK: "We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that." May also acknowledged that any deal would have to be followed by a "phased process of implementation" (otherwise known as transitional agreement) to prevent the UK falling over what the PM once called the "cliff-edge".
In Brussels, such realism will be welcomed. Many diplomats have been stunned by the Brexiteers' Panglossian pronouncements, by their casual insults (think Boris Johnson's reckless war references). As the UK seeks to limit the negative "consequences" of a hard Brexit, it will need to foster far greater goodwill. Today, May embarked on that mission. But as the negotiations unfold, with the EU determined for the UK to settle a hefty divorce bill (circa £50bn) at the outset, the Prime Minister will find herself torn between party and country. Having delighted the Brexit-ultras to date, will she now risk alienating the Mail et al? The National Insurance debacle, which saw the government blink in the face of a small rebellion, was regarded by Remainers as an ominous precedent. May turned on the charm today but it will take far longer to erase the animosity and suspicion of the last nine months.
Leavers walked out of a meeting of Hilary Benn's "gloomy" committee yesterday. Their inability to accept criticism could have disastrous consequences
“Hilary Benn isn’t managing a select committee. He’s managing an ecosystem.” That was the stark verdict of one member of the Commons' Brexit committee on its fitness for purpose yesterday. If its meeting on the eve of Article 50 is anything to go by, then Benn’s fragile biome might already be damaged beyond repair.
Unhappy with the content of its “gloomy” provisional 155-page report into the government’s Brexit white paper, leavers on the committee walked out of its meeting yesterday. The committee is a necessarily unwieldy creation and it would probably be unreasonable to expect it to agree unanimously on anything: it has 21 members where others have 11, so as to adequately represent Leavers, Remainers and the nations.
Disagreements are one thing. Debate and scrutiny, after all, are why select committees exist. But the Brexiteers’ ceremonial exodus augurs terribly for the already grim-looking trajectory of the negotiations to come. “As I understand it, they don’t like analysing the evidence that they have,” another pro-Remain member of the committee told me.
Therein lies the fundamental weakness of the Brexiteers’ position: they cannot change the evidence. As was the case with the 70 MPs who wrote to Lord Hall last week to accuse the BBC of anti-Brexit bias, they assume a pernicious selectivity on the part of Remainers and their approach to the inconvenient facts at hand. None exists.
On the contrary, there is a sense of resignation among some Remainers on the Brexit committee that their reports will turn out to be pretty weak beer as a consequence of the accommodations made by Benn to their Eurosceptic colleagues. Some grumble that high-profile Brexiteers lack detailed understanding of the grittier issues at play – such as the Good Friday Agreement – and only value the committee insofar as it gives them the opportunity to grandstand to big audiences.
The Tory awkward squad’s inability to accept anything less than the studied neutrality that plagued the Brexit discourse in the run-up to the referendum – or, indeed, any critical analysis whatsoever – could yet make an already inauspicious scenario unsalvageable. If they cannot accept even a watered-down assessment of the risks ahead, then what happens when those risks are made real? Will they ever accept the possibility that it could be reality, and not the Remain heretics, doing Britain down? How bad will things have to get before saving face isn’t their primary imperative?
Yesterday's pantomime exit might have been, as one committee member told me, “hysterically funny”. What’s less amusing is that these are the only people the prime minister deigns to listen to.
In our gender revolutionary times, people still seem to find it easier to accept the existence of a “female penis” than of little boys who like princesses and pink.
I’ve never tried being a man, but the writer Norah Vincent did in a year-long experiment for her book Self-Made Man, and she found out two things. Firstly, that people were amazingly eager to accept her as a man on the basis of a bound chest, a flat-top haircut, masculine clothing and some ersatz stubble. Secondly, that while it was easy to get classed as a man, living in that class meant being subject to constant scrutiny: “Someone is always evaluating your manhood [...] everybody is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy”. In the end, Vincent suffered what she calls a “crack-up”, attributing it to the pressure of her restrictive alter-ego.
The best way to think about gender is as a kind of hell. Men occupy the narrow centre, with various degrees of “non-men” expanding outward in concentric circles, every region bristling with demons ready to prod deviants back into line or cast recalcitrants into the outer darkness. A man who falls out of manliness can only fall so far. A woman who fails at femininity, as Glosswitch describes, has failed doubly by gender’s underworld logic: first of all to be male, and secondly to be a woman, a low enough condition on its own even before you get banished to the far fringes of the inferno.
In the last few weeks, comments from Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray (“Be trans, be proud — but don’t call yourself a ‘real woman’”) and novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (“transwomen are transwomen”) have led to furious debates about what a “real woman” actually is. What is not discussed is what a “real man” is and why particular male people might not meet the criteria. This is frustratingly obvious once you’ve noticed it, and yet it largely does pass unnoticed, because this is how gender works: a man is the thing that never has to ask what he is, because everything out in the emasculated penumbra is defined with reference to him.
For an extraordinarily blatant example of this, see Saira Khan’s Mirror column responding to Murray. Khan has a transwoman friend, she writes, who has “now found love with an amazing man who wants to marry her and doesn’t care about her past. And if he accepts her as a real woman, where does Dame Jenni get off thinking she can tell her she isn’t one?” It’s an appeal to the authority of the penis that has the curious effect of defining a “woman” as “whatever a man wants to have sex with”. He is the subject, she is the object. And according to this argument, a male sufficiently objectified becomes by definition a she.
A man can fail at masculinity and fall out of the rank of the manly in many ways. The Ancient Greeks thought a small penis implied the desirably masculine quality of restraint, hence the adorable mini-wieners on their idealised statues of men (the corollary stereotype of well-hung animalistic hypersexuality is alive and well in modern racist porn on the “big black cock” theme). Twentieth-century anti-Semitism portrayed Jewish men as dangerous precisely because they were allegedly unmanly: the Blood Libel is linked to a belief that Jewish men were so womanly, they menstruated, and needed to replenish their circulation. Byron, and other upper-class critics, dismissed Keats as a “Cockney”, a word which implied both low breeding and effeminacy.
The rules of being a man are arbitrary, racialised and entwined with class. And men defend them, even when the rules are used against them. Being teased over his masculinity did nothing to make Keats sympathetic to women: in an 1817 letter, he described himself to be “vexed and teased by a set of Devils, whom I detest so much that I almost hunger after an acherontic promotion to a Torturer”. These “Devils” were women writers. Life in the middle of hell is tightly packed and overheated, with little room to move; but nevertheless, it’s better to be the masculine One than the non-man Other. Satan might be the most damned, but he’s still in charge.
Masculinity is rigid and impenetrable, obsessively exiling its impure elements. Critics of Murray and Adichie have accused them of “biological essentialism” and attempting to “restrict womanhood”. There is no reciprocal accusation against men for violently excluding feminine males from manhood, because manhood is supposed to be exclusive, while womanhood should be (in the memorable words of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts) “like the blob that ate Detroit” – able to accommodate anything that masculinity rejects. In our gender revolutionary times, people still seem to find it easier to accept the existence of a “female penis” than of little boys who like princesses and pink.
If we understood that a “real man” can be any human male, and that human maleness encompasses a whole range of personalities, aptitudes and preferences – if we could do that, then men would be free from their narrow circle of gender hell. But if that happened, the hell of gender would collapse entirely, and men would lose their position of dominance. The demand that womanhood be unbounded is really a demand that male authority be unquestioned. So ask the question: not what is a woman, but what is a man? Who gets to decide? And why is it so important that the “un-manly” be bundled elsewhere?
On the day Article 50 is triggered, the Labour leader neglects to hold the Prime Minister to account on the UK’s future outside the European Union.
The entirety of British politics since the EU referendum campaign began was symbolised in today’s bout of PMQs. Theresa May’s studied banality, Jeremy Corbyn’s missed opportunities, and the SNP triumphantly filling the vacuum.
Today’s weekly round of questioning fell on the same day as Article 50 being triggered. A historic move by our government, notifying the European Union that the UK will be departing after more than 40 years of membership. A decision that lobs Britain’s future into the unknown – the country’s history, culture, economic stability, and price of a pint of milk, teetering on a cliff-edge.
BBC Parliament screengrab
Yet Jeremy Corbyn decided not to ask Theresa May about her plan for Britain’s exit. Yes, he will get a chance to give his view to the Commons following the Prime Minister’s imminent statement on Brexit. Yes, the subjects Corbyn chose to bring up – real-terms cuts in police spending, and the daft hacking away at schools budgets – are worthy.
But PMQs is a chance for opposition parties to very publicly hammer the Prime Minister on policy failings of the day. To have the first word and put her on the spot, to put her in an uncomfortable political position, in a way that is more difficult to do in a response to a Commons statement. And the PM should be given as few free passes as possible on this subject.
This was a chance for the Labour leader to at least create the façade of opposition to the hard Tory Brexit that most progressive voters in this country are desperate for our politicians to counter, and to which Labour is ostensibly opposed.
Instead, it was – as ever – left to the SNP to attack the Prime Minister on Brexit. The party’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, was the first MP in PMQs to challenge May on her lack of a Brexit plan. Not a good look for Corbyn.
Even if he will respond to May’s Commons statement, he missed the opportunity to unpick the deplorably political and reckless approach the PM is taking to Brexit via the first-word direct questioning afforded by PMQs. Yet more proof that Labour has never been wholly serious about holding the government to account on Britain’s post-EU future, preferring the comfort of passively watching the mess unfold.
A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018.
So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.
Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not.
But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.
For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.
But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.
May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.)
That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.
By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.
All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.
All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50.
Working with those you disagree with is a better solution than letting extremists win.
Despair is understandable, but deep down we know determination to act is the best response to how the world is moving. Rage if you wish against those you consider culpable – whether direct instigators of the difficulties ahead or those who simply didn’t fight back- but it’s a dead end if you actually want anything to be different. Reviving our ability to be a force for good when everything seems to be going to pieces will be brutal. But it is also possible.
Theresa May is triggering Article 50 and setting us all on a course to we know not what. Throughout the last nine months, British politics has jettisoned respect for fact or reason, and instead become a battleground of slogans and symbolism. Legs, flags, sunny optimism and hashtags receive more credence than the dull difficulties of detail. But little will actually change as a result of today, as the Brexiteers still won’t say what they plan - because in truth they don’t really know.
Today is about prodding other governments to start responding. It is not the sign of a strong negotiating strategy but a Cabinet still unsure how to deliver on having its cake and eating it.
What we do know is whether we do end up leaving the EU, whatever deal is finally agreed and however long this takes, our nation will never be the same again. And whether you voted leave or remain, predicting what will happen is nigh impossible. That is unsettling - and holds the prospect of surprises too. This sense of uncertainty isn’t just about the detail of the deal – it is existential and internal too. It reflects the hesitation which with countries now view us, and whether they choose to work with us or not on any future issue.
It is also about the kind of country we are becoming - one where division, derision and desolation spill from all quarters towards others. Whether these wounds will be healed is another unknown. Too many are becoming accustomed to the fear and hurt this has created.
In such a mess, the first thing we need to do is admit that we don’t know what we can do as yet – but we do know what we want to do. The time for railing against the referendum has past. So has the time for Brexiteers gloating. Admitting Britain’s fate is up in the air is the first step to being open to do something about it- and asking how we can each be part of it.
Politicians are not well known - or indeed respected - for their willingness to say they don’t have all the answers. If we want the kind of politics Britain will need as Europe responds to the Brexit vote formally, that needs to change. A total of 27 countries hold our fate in their hands. We need the maturity to listen without acting as if their scepticism about our choices is a declaration of war. The same is true of the British people. Now is a time for all of us to step up and ask how we can help, not to stand on the sidelines simply shouting somebody should do something.
Being honest that we don’t know will happen is just the start. In such uncertainty, clarity about direction matters because it reflects what we came into politics to do whatever the conditions we faced. So our second step is to show we have purpose, not just a grievance. As progressives the course we chart must be one in which we strive to ensure everyone gets the chance to achieve their potential - and so one which is not defined by Brexit. The inequalities which hold too many back existed long before the referendum. While Brexit will no doubt make these challenges harder to tackle, neither can it be an excuse not to act.
How we do this will have to change, not just because Brexit will suck up so much of our time, but also because inequality in the modern world demands more creative responses – and that will include working with those who you may disagree with to stop the extremes in all political parties cannibalising the prospects of the British public.
The third thing we need to do now is pull ourselves together – literally and figuratively. Just because some reject co-operation and collaboration, this does not mean we should give up on the idea we can make an argument for a different kind of politics, country and world. It does not mean we cannot find others to work with to win it.
Today may feel like we have jumped off a cliff. But tomorrow can be better, if we are willing to graft. The fight for the future of this country was in our bones long before Brexit- and it will be in our hearts until the end too. Remember how you feel today and channel it not into anger but answers and action. Britain needs and deserves nothing less.
The Brexit negotiations centre on a trade deal. But Labour is divided on the benefits of free trade.
On Wednesday 29 March, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 and the process of leaving the European Union will begin. The Prime Minister and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, have made a commitment to “pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union.” On 24 January in Parliament, Davis went even further and committed the government to negotiating “a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have".
As Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer set out earlier this week, it is critical that we hold the government to account on Davis' pledge. But it is also crucial that the Labour movement gets to grips with the new reality of trade deals with the EU and other countries, resists any knee-jerk protectionist instincts and makes the right progressive demands on workers’ rights and environmental and consumer protections.
The successful negotiation of a free trade deal with the EU is essential. Together, the remaining 27 EU countries are by far and away our largest export market. And we import more from the EU than from any of our other trading partners. A UK-EU trade deal will therefore be the single most important free tree agreement the UK will ever have to strike, and if it covers both goods and services it will also be the most comprehensive deal that any country has ever negotiated with Europe.
The stakes are high. Our EU membership has given us unfettered access to the single market which is so much more than a free trade deal. It is a vast, integrated factory floor across which goods conform to the same regulations and standards. At the border with the EU, goods are not subject to customs duties, onerous rules of origin or time-delaying checks. Given that services make up 80 per cent of our economy, the government must seek much greater access for our services than the EU has been willing to grant to other countries in the free trade deals it has negotiated so far.
Retaining the exact same benefits is going to be a huge challenge. Indeed, there is no guarantee that such a deal will be achieved, particularly within the two-year period set out under Article 50. The government has already struck the wrong tone with our European partners. The Foreign Secretary seems intent on needlessly upsetting them. The PM parrots the mantra “no deal is better than a bad deal”, effectively threatening to walk away. It is crucial that a new positive dynamic is established to create mutual goodwill and help deliver an ambitious UK-EU trade deal.
There is a substantial risk that the government’s mishandling of Brexit could see the UK fall out of the EU with no trade deal at all, thereby falling back on to World Trade Organisation tariffs and barriers. Furthermore, we would do so with none of the technical agreements in place - such as financial services equivalence agreements and mutual conformity of assessment agreements - that other major countries around the world enjoy. As Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, recently asserted in his evidence to the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, on which I sit, “no other major player trades with the EU on pure WTO-only terms”.
The Prime Minister asserts that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, but it is increasingly clear that no deal is the worst possible deal. It would do considerable damage to our economy. And yet, we have learnt that Cabinet members have been told to plan for the no deal scenario. In recent weeks, Davis has admitted to the Brexit Select Committee that the government has conducted no analysis of what this would mean for the British economy. Labour will fight strongly against such a reckless step which would hit jobs, living standards and growth.
As Starmer said in his speech to Chatham House, the government must agree a strong and collaborative relationship with the EU. If it does not, it will not be acting in the best interests of the UK and it will not have Labour’s support.
I believe that Labour must champion the right free trade deal with EU over the next two years. We must demand that the government accepts meaningful transitional arrangements that will be necessary to successfully complete such negotiations. A successful EU-UK deal could then become a template for future agreements. After all, our country’s future economic prosperity rests on striking free trade deals not just with the EU but with other G20 economies and developing countries around the world. So Labour must become a champion for striking progressive free trade agreements.
Yet this poses a challenge to the Labour party. Within our movement, there is currently a heated debate about what our approach to trade should be. This was exposed by the recent votes in the UK Parliament and European Parliament on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) between the EU and Canada when Labour MPs and MEPs were divided. I fear Labour risks sliding into a dangerous position: one of perpetual opposition to trade deals that puts us the wrong side of the public interest and history. Globalisation cannot be stopped but it can be regulated. So the real challenge is how to make it work for people so that they can benefit from an increasingly globalised world.
No trade deal is ever perfect. Each is inevitably the result of negotiation and compromise. However, if we followed the advice of some on the left and refused to ratify any trade deals, no matter how progressive, the UK would be isolated, poorer and left behind. Of course we need assurances that public services will be safeguarded, that workers’ rights are protected and environmental and consumer protections are in place in any deal, but we also need to open up markets. Trade deals are not the threat to public services that some claim, but a failing economy facing trade barriers that puts a squeeze on the public finances is a clear and present danger.
Labour’s values place us in a strong position to lead the way in rejecting the Tory right-wing approach of unfettered globalisation, a race to the bottom and unchecked markets. We must show that we are the party of work and workers, looking to both create jobs and protect the rights of workers in our future trading relationships. Our internationalism can be expressed by establishing progressive global rules and opening up markets, using trade to bind nations together in a way that prevents conflict and opens minds.
As these historic negotiations begin, Labour must hold the government’s feet to the fire and champion regulated and progressive free trade deals with the EU and other countries. Turning our backs on properly regulated free trade will not further social justice or economic prosperity on our shores, it will only serve to do harm to both. Labour has to reject the defeatism of protectionism and instead embrace progressive free trade agreements if we are to truly succeed in building a fairer and more prosperous economy for the people we represent.
For all the tough mood music, Theresa May has left room for concessions.
I'm sad and dismayed, but that's democracy for you.
The Mail is in a cheerier mood. "Freedom!" is their splash. "Dear EU, We're Leaving You" cheers the Express' while "Dear EU, it's time to go" is the Mirror's splash. "Dover & Out!" roars the Sun, who have projected those same words on the white cliffs of, you guessed it, Dover. "May Signs Us Out!" is the Metro's take.
The bigger story isn't the letter but its content, which leads the FT: "May signs historic Brexit letter and opens way for compromise". The government is finessing its red line on the competence of the European Court of Justice. (The word in Whitehall is that Theresa May hadn't grasped the importance of the ECJ as an arbitration mechanism after Brexit and for cross-border matters such as flights when she made her conference speech.) And the PM has done a good job of not ruling out continuing payments to the European Union, her best path to the deal Britain needs.
A lot depends on what happens to the British economy between now and March 2019. The pound is down still further today but whether that's a minor eruption or the start of sustained losses will have significant consequences on how painful Britain's best path to the access we need to the single market - paying over the odds for the parts of membership that the British government wants to keep and swallowing that £50bn divorce bill - is doable or not.
For all the mood music emanating from May, she's quietly done a good job of clearing the obstacles to a deal where Britain controls its own immigration policy, continues to staff Europol and to participate in European-wide research, the bulk of our regulation is set by Brussels de facto if not de jure and we pay, say £250m a week into Brussels.
Our new relationship with the EU may be rather closer to our old one than we currently expect.
But as well as handing over a letter, Theresa May hands over control of the process.
So the starting gun will be fired, and the Brexit process will begin. The delivery of the letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk is a highly symbolic moment. It is also, crucially, the moment when the Prime Minister loses control of the process.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Brexit process to date has been the remarkable degree of control exercised over it by Downing Street. Brexit means Brexit, declared the Prime Minister, and since that day it has been her who has defined what precisely it does mean. After a quarter century of bitter division over Europe, culminating in a referendum where the Parliamentary party was split down the middle, she has managed to unite the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party for a “hard Brexit” that very few claimed to support a year ago. As an impotent opposition and ineffective Tory opponents watched on, she has made it clear from the first that Britain will leave the single market and, almost certainly, the customs union. Rumours from Whitehall suggest that, whatever the concerns or doubts of line departments, these have been ignored or over-ruled.
Now, however, the Prime Minister has lost control of the process. Inevitably, given the relative strength of the parties’ negotiating positions, both the agenda and outcome of the talks will be determined largely by our European partners. It is of course true that they have an interest in preserving trade with us, as do we with them; nor do they have any interest, either economic or political, in “punishing” us for the sake of it. That being said, our interests and theirs are far from aligned. They have other priorities. Not allowing cherry picking among EU rules is one. Ensuring Britain pays its fair share is another.
And, while it is in neither side’s interest for the talks to collapse, we have considerably more to lose. May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” may play well with the Daily Express, but is has not gone down well with UK business. As the economics professor Jonathan Portes sets out here, the consequences of “no deal” would go far beyond the mere imposition of tariffs; the economic impacts would be significant for other EU countries, and very severe indeed for the UK. There are increasing signs that ministers are, belatedly, appreciating the risks, and are anxious to avoid such an outcome.
So both sides want a deal – and the UK, at least, needs one. But several hurdles stand in the way. In the first place, there is the vexed question of money. Britain, as our partners are concerned, has outstanding liabilities that must be paid. The British government may accept some of these, but is sure to quibble about the sums. Discussions of money are never easy in the EU, and the task of figuring out what a net contributor to the budget might owe at a time when discussions over the new 5 year funding programme are about to start will be no exception. Nevertheless, if it were simply left to the civil servants, no doubt an acceptable compromise would be reached. The bigger issue is whether Mrs May is prepared to take on some of her own backbenchers – and, more importantly, sections of the UK press – to sell a deal that will inevitably mean that the UK writes a sizeable cheque.
Second, there is the question of how to ensure the "frictionless" trade of which the Prime Minister has spoken. This makes eminent sense on one level – why make trade more difficult with the partner that buys 44 per cent of our exports? On another, though, it is hard to see how she can deliver.
I for one simply lack the imagination to see how we can be sufficiently out of the customs union to allow us to sign our own trade deals, while sufficiently in it to avoid customs checks and tariffs. For another, it is difficult to foresee conditions under which the EU would allow us to enjoy any of the benefits of the single market – whereby states accept each other’s rules and standards – without the oversight provided by the European Court of Justice.
And finally, since all parties now seem to accept that the prospects of concluding an “ambitious and comprensive” trade deal by March 2019 are vanishingly, there is the question of what happens then. The government has talked about an “implementation phase”; but how do you have an “implementation phase” when you do not know exactly what you are trying to implement?
It could just be me. I may simply not have fathomed the subtle devices that might allow these circles to be squared. But it does seem clear to me that doing so would be far from straightforward.
And then, of course, whatever is negotiated needs to be approved. Forget for a moment the continent, where there has probably never been a worse time to try to get a free trade deal approved by 27 European parliaments. The Prime Minister will almost certainly have parliamentary problems here in the UK.
The Labour party has adopted a position whereby they will vote against any deal that does not provide the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union,” to quote Keir Starmer. If the other member states are to be believed, the full benefits of membership are, and will be, only available to members, so this is will simply not be the case.
Labour, then, will probably end up voting against the bill. What Tories opposed to either Brexit or to leaving the single market might then do is anyone’s guess. It may be that, by autumn of 2018, they feel sufficiently empowered - either because of a shift in public opinion, or because of indications of falling economic confidence, or, conceivably, because of declining faith in the Prime Minster – to make common cause with the opposition.
Under such circumstances, May might face the real possibility of defeat in Parliament. Which in turn poses the question as to why she would she risk putting a deal that might be rejected to a vote?
It seems to me that she would have very little incentive to do so. If she cannot get the kind of deal that seems, on the surface, impossible to get anyway, surely better, from her point of view to simply walk away? Blaming the Europeans for failure would be all to easy. And holding a snap election on a patriotic ticket and opposed by the current Labour party would guarantee a healthy majority.
Two years is a long time in politics. And much that is unexpected will doubtless transpire during the negotiations to come. Do not, however, discount the possibility that it might all go wrong.
Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London.
The SNP has a different set of questions to answer.
"But Spain", is the common response to a discussion of whether, by voting for independence, Scotland could effectively reverse Brexit. "Disaster for Sturgeon as Spain BACKS May over plans to block Scottish independence vote," declared the Brexiteer's favourite, The Express, this month. Spain, according to this narrative, would unilaterally puncture the SNP's bubble by vetoing readmission to the EU. An independent Scotland would be cast adrift into the North Sea.
I just don't buy it. I have put this question to everyone from former EU member state ambassadors to the former World Trade Organisation head and the answer has been the same: "It can be managed."
There is also a crucial difference between Spain vetoing Scotland entering the EU, and considering its application on its own merit. Spain is indeed nervous about encouraging Catalonian separatists. But read between the lines. Spain's position on Scotland has so far been to say it would have to exit the EU, become independent and reapply.
Last time I checked, that's not a veto. And from an EU perspective, this isn't as arduous as it might sound. Scotland's regulations would be in line with EU regulations. It would not upset the balance of power, nor fuel an identity crisis, in the way that Turkey's application did. Spain could justify acquiesence on the basis that the circumstances were extraordinary. And for a club struggling to hold together, an eager defector from the renegade Brexit Britain would be a PR coup.
Where it is far more arduous is for the Scottish National Party, and the independence movement. As I've written before, roughly a third of SNP voters also voted Leave. Apart from the second-glass-of-wine question of whether quitting one union to join another really counts as independence, Scotland's fishing industry has concrete concerns about the EU. SNP MP Joanna Cherry has observed that it is "no secret" that many Leave voters worked in fishing.
Then there are the questions all but the most diehard Remain voters will want answered. Would Scotland take the Euro? Would a land border with England be an acceptable sacrifice? Would an independent Scotland in the EU push for reforms at Brussels, or slavishly follow bureacracy's lead? The terms of EU membership for an independent Scotland may look quite different from those enjoyed by the UK.
Rather than continuing to shoot down the idea that an independent Scotland could join the EU - a club happy to accept other small countries like Ireland, Austria and Malta - opponents of the Scottish independence movement should be instead asking these questions. They are far harder to answer.
His chief rival, Marine Le Pen, was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics.
It was a wet night in Paris, but hundreds of people were queuing outside the Antoine Theatre. It was standing room only to see Emmanuel Macron tonight, as it has been for weeks.
The 39-year-old former investment banker gave his usual energetic performance, delivering a well-practised pitch for a progressive, business-friendly and unabashedly pro-European France. His reward: a standing ovation and chants of Macron, président!
This theatre appearance on 8 March was an appropriate stop for a campaign that has been packed with more political drama than a series of House of Cards. Ahead of the first round of voting in the French presidential election on 23 April, the centrist independent has gone from underdog to the man most likely to beat the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. His other main rival, François Fillon of the right-wing Republicans, has been hampered by allegations that he paid his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, despite scant evidence of them doing any work.
Macron, meanwhile, has been attracting support from disenchanted voters on both left and right.
“It’s a new party, a new movement, a new face,” said Claire Ravillo-Albert, a 26-year-old human resources student and ex-Socialist in the queue outside the theatre. “We’re worlds away from the old Socialists and the Republicans here.”
Macron is not a typical outsider, having made millions in banking before serving as an advisor to François Hollande and as economy minister from 2014 to 2016. Nor can his ideas be described as radical. He is “of the left”, he says, but “willing to work with the right”.
For many he seems to embody an enticing alternative to the tired political class. Macron has never run for office before and if successful, would be the youngest president of the modern French republic. Many recruits to his one-year-old party En Marche! are young and relatively new to politics.
“I think he’ll change the French political landscape, and we need that,” said Olivier Assouline, a bank worker in an immaculate grey suit. “He knows business, he knows the state. I think he’s the right person at the right moment,” said the 44-year-old, who previously voted for right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy.
Many queuing for the rally were underwhelmed by Socialist achievements over the past five years – not least the dismal state of the economy – and had little enthusiasm for Fillon, a social conservative and economic Thatcherite.
Macron’s manifesto sticks firmly to the centre-ground. He has promised tax cuts for companies and millions of poor and middle-class families, as well as a few offbeat ideas like a one-off 500-euro grant for each 18-year-old to spend on books and cultural activities.
“With his central positioning, Macron is taking from everywhere – he has the capacity to seduce everyone,” says Frédéric Dabi, deputy director at the polling company IFOP. They estimate that Macron will take half the votes that went to Hollande when he won the last presidential election in 2012, and 17 per cent of those that went to runner-up Sarkozy.
Outside the theatre, the line was split between voters from the left and the right. But there was one word on almost everyone’s lips: Europe. At a time of continental soul-searching, Macron’s converts have chosen a candidate who backs the European Union as a guarantor of peace and celebrates free movement.
“He’s unusual in that he puts that centre-stage,” said Emma, a 27-year-old legal worker who preferred to be identified by her first name only. “Macron offers a good compromise on economic issues. But for me it’s also about Europe, because I think that’s our future.”
With Fillon and Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon both languishing behind in the polls, the second round of the presidential vote, on 7 May, is likely to be a contest between Macron and Le Pen. These are both candidates who claim to have moved beyond left-right politics, and who are both offering opposing visions of France.
This is also a tale of two electorates. Le Pen was campaigning as the “candidate of the forgotten” years before Donald Trump entered politics, traipsing around deindustrialised towns appealing to those who felt left behind by globalisation.
In the queue to see Macron were lawyers, PR consultants, graphic designers; students, gay couples and middle-class Parisians of multiple ethnicities. These are the representatives of a cosmopolitan, successful France. It was hard not to be reminded of the “metropolitan elite” who voted against Brexit.
Macron has called for investment in poorer communities, and his campaign staff pointedly invited onstage a struggling single mother as a warm-up act that night.
Yet his Socialist rival, Benoit Hamon, accuses him of representing only those who are doing pretty well already. It is hard for some to disassociate Macron from his education at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration – university of choice for the political elite – and his career at Rothschild. One infamous incident from early in the campaign sticks in the memory, when he told a pair of workers on strike: “You don’t scare me with your t-shirts. The best way to pay for a suit is to work.” For Macron, work has usually involved wearing a tie.
IFOP figures show him beating Le Pen soundly in when it comes to the voting intentions of executives and managers – 37 per cent to her 18 per cent. But when it comes to manual workers, she takes a hefty 44 per cent to his 17. He would take Paris; she fares better in rural areas and among the unemployed.
If Frédéric Dabi is to be believed, Macron’s bid for the centre-ground could pay off handsomely. But not everyone is convinced.
“He’s the perfect representative of the electorate in the big globalised cities,” the geographer Christophe Guilluy told Le Point magazine in January.
“But it’s the peripheries of France that will decide this presidential election.”
If it's really about staying in touch with the real world, how about something menial and underpaid? Or reforming parliamentary rules on second jobs...
There she stood outside Number 10 on 13 July last year, the new Prime Minister pledging with earnest sincerity her mission to fight injustice and inequality, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.
“When it comes to opportunity,” she promised the ‘just managing’ millions, “we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few". Another new day had dawned
But predictably since then it’s been business as usual. If we needed proof, George Osborne has provided it: those who have so little must continue to go without so that the man with so much can have it all.
What would it take for Tory backbenchers to trouble Theresa May’s serenity? Not her u-turn on Brexit. Nor her denial of Parliament’s right to scrutinise the terms of the UK's uncertain future. Certainly not a rampant Labour opposition.
But were she to suggest that they give up their adventures in the black economy and focus on the job their constituents pay them for, she would face a revolt too bloody to contemplate.
Fifteen years ago, I introduced the short-lived Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification) Bill. My argument was simply that being an MP is a full-time job for which MPs are paid a full-time salary. If they can find time to augment an income already three times the national average, they can’t be taking it seriously or doing it properly.
Imagine the scandal if other public servants - teachers perhaps or firefighters – were to clock off whenever they fancied to attend to their nice little earners on the side. What would become of Britain’s economy if employers were unable to prevent their workers from taking home full pay packets but turning up to work only when they felt inclined?
But that’s what happens in the House of Commons. Back in 2002, my research showed that a quarter of MPs, most of them Conservatives, were in the boardroom or the courtroom or pursuing lucrative consultancies when they should have been serving their communities. And it was clear that their extra-curricular activities were keeping them from their Parliamentary duties. For example, in the six month period I analysed, MPs with paid outside interests participated on average in only 65 per cent of Commons votes while MPs without second jobs took part in 91 per cent.
I doubt that much has changed since then. If anything, it’s likely that the proportion of moonlighting Members has risen as the number of Tory MPs has increased with successive elections.
Their defence has always been that outside interests make for better politicians, more in touch with the "real world". That’s entirely bogus. Listening to people in their surgeries or in their local schools, hospitals and workplaces provides all the insight and inspiration a conscientious MP could need. The argument would be stronger were absentee MPs supplementing their experience and income in the menial, insecure and underpaid jobs so many of their constituents are forced to do. But, they aren’t: they’re only where the money is.
It’s always been this way. The Parliamentary timetable was designed centuries ago to allow MPs to pursue a gentleman’s interests. Until relatively recently, the Commons never sat until after noon so that its Members could attend their board meetings – or edit the Evening Standard - and enjoy a good lunch before legislating. The long summer recess allowed them to make the most of the season, indulge in a few country sports and oversee the harvest on their estates.
The world has changed since Parliamentary precedent was established and so has the now overwhelming workload of a diligent MP. There are many of them in all parties. But there are also still plenty like George Osborne whose enduring sense of entitlement encourages them to treat Parliament as a hobby or an inheritance and their duty to their constituents as only a minor obstacle to its enjoyment.
Thanks to Osborne’s arrogance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life now has the unflunkable opportunity to insist on significant, modernising reforms which remind both MPs and their electors that public service should always take precedence over private interest. And if sitting MPs can’t accept that principle or subsist on their current salary, they must make way for those who can. Parliament and their constituents would be better off without them.
Peter Bradley was the Labour MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005.
The desire to slash "employment red tape" is not supported by evidence.
The Daily Telegraph has launched a campaign to cut EU red tape. Its editorial they decried the "vexatious regulations" that "hinder business and depress growth", demanding that we ‘throw regulations on the Brexit bonfire’.
Such demands are not new. Beyond immigration, regulation in general and employment protection in particular has long been one of the key drivers of frustration and fury among eurosceptics. Three years ago, Boris Johnson, decried the "back breaking" weight of EU employment regulation that is helping to "fur the arteries to the point of sclerosis". While the prospect of slashing employment rights was played down during the campaign, it has started to raise its head again. Michael Gove and John Whittingdale have called on the CBI to draw up a list of regulations that should be abolished after leaving the EU. Ian Duncan Smith has backed the Daily Telegraph’s campaign, calling for a ‘root and branch review’ of the costs of regulatory burdens.
The Prime Minister has pledged to protect employment rights after Brexit by transposing them into UK law with the Great Repeal Bill. Yet we know that in the past Theresa May has described the social chapter as a sop to the unions and a threat to jobs.
So what are these back-breaking, artery-clogging regulations which are holding us back? One often cited by Brexiteers is the Working Time Directive. This bit of EU bureaucracy includes such outrageous burdens as the right to paid holiday and breaks, and protection from dangerous and excessive working hours.
Aside from this, many other workplace rights we now take for granted originated from or were strengthened by the EU. From protection from discrimination and the right to equal treatment for agency workers and part time workers; to rights for women and for working parents; and rights to the right to a voice at work and protection from redundancy.
The desire to slash EU-derived employment rights is not driven by evidence. The UK has one of the least regulated labour markets among advanced economies. The OECD index of employment protection shows that the UK comes in the bottom 25 per cent on each of their four measures.
Even if the UK was significantly more regulated than similar countries – which it is not – there is no reason to expect that slashing rights will boost growth. There is no correlation between the strictness of employment protection – as measured by OECD – and economic success. France and Germany both have far more restrictive employment protection than the UK, yet their productivity is far higher than ours. The Netherlands and Sweden have higher employment rates than the UK, yet both have greater protections for those workers. And if EU red-tape was so burdensome, so constraining on businesses, then why has the employment rate continued to increase, standing as it does at a record high?
While the UK certainly doesn’t suffer from excessive employment regulation, too many employees do suffer from insecurity, precarity and exploitation at work. We’ve seen the exponential growth of zero-hours contracts, as well as the steady rise of agency work and self-employment. We’ve seen growing evidence of endemic exploitation and sharp practices at the bottom end of the labour market.
Instead of evidence, it seems the desire to slash employment rates is driven by ideology. Some clearly see Brexit as an opportunity to finish what Margaret Thatcher started, as Lord Lawson, who served as her Chancellor admits. He claims the deregulation of the 1980s transformed the economy, and that leaving the EU provided "the opportunity to do this on an even larger scale with the massive corpus of EU regulation. We must lose not time in seizing this opportunity".
The battle that is to come over employment regulation is just part of a wider struggle over what future Britain should have as we leave the EU. At the start of the year, the Chancellor warned our EU neighbours that if the UK did not get a good deal, we would be forced to abandon the European-style taxation and regulation and "become something different". In a thinly veiled threat, he said that the UK would ‘do whatever we have to’ to compete with the EU. To be fair, the Chancellor said this was not his preferred option. But we know that many see this as the future for the UK economy. Emboldened by both their triumph in Brexit and by an enfeebled and divided opposition, many Brexit-ultras want to build a low-tax, low-regulation, offshore economy that would seek aggressively to undercut the EU. This turbo-charged, Brexit-boosted Thatcherism would not just be bad for our continental neighbours, it would be bad for UK workers too.
Britain faces a choice on leaving the EU. We can either seek to compete in what the last Chancellor called the "global race" by driving up productivity, boosting public and private investment, and improving skills. Or we can engage in a race to the bottom, by slashing rights at work, and making Britain in the words of Frances O’Grady the "bargain basement capital of Europe".
Joe Dromey is a senior research fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think tank.
On the pop culture podcast this week, the racially-charged horror film Get Out, teen drama Riverdale and the mobile game Prune.
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The UK government was quick to respond.
The Scottish Parliament has voted for a second independence referendum by a margin of 10 votes on the eve of Westminster triggering Article 50.
After hours of debate - postponed after last week's terrorism attack at Westminster - the MSPs voted 69 to 59 to back the First Minister's call to trigger Section 30 of the Scotland Act.
MSPs voted for a Green amendment which demands votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, but amendments by Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were defeated.
Nicola Sturgeon took Westminster by surprise in early March when she announced she would be seeking a second independence referendum for Scotland to decide before it was "too late to choose a different path".
The Scottish Parliament can vote to demand a second referendum, it still needs permission from Westminster to hold one. So far, the Prime Minister has refused to countenance one before Brexit. After the vote, Scottish secretary David Mundell reinforced this message, suggesting a vote could not take place until the 2020s.
However, some unionists quietly fear that a tussle between Westminster and Holyrood over powers will only play in the nationalists' favour.
A Kent landlord tried to ban "coloured people" from his properties.
Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy."
When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner responded with the claim "we're getting overloaded with coloured people". (He later denied he was racist and said it was a matter of economics.) The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal.
The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.
Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord's request. One manager was filmed saying: "99% of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans."
Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall.
First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this - but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked "where do your parents come from?", the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.
Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord's tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he'd had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.
My friend suspected he'd been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads).
Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion "it's already taken".
Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot - when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down.
Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it's impossible to know for sure.
With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.
As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.
But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.
If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.
Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.
This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.
In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.
In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.
This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.
In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.
To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.
Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.
The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.
This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.
Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.
This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.
This paternalistic approach needs to change. As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.
Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.
We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.
Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.
Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.
This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy.
In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts. This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view.
Carswell's personal vote is spoken of fondly in Westminster. There's little evidence it actually exists.
You cannot talk about Douglas Carswell for long in Westminster without hearing about his “personal vote”, the supposed popularity with which he is uniquely blessed and without which, whichever party he was currently a member of would certainly have lost.
That issue is front and centre now that Carswell has defected, this time quitting Ukip to sit as an independent. That leaves May with the question of whether to let him back into the Conservatives again.
There are lots of political reasons why that probably isn’t a great idea – it would annoy Conservative MPs who have stayed loyal, for one thing – but what if there is an electoral reason? What if Carswell’s personal vote is so large that he has to be accommodated?
Well, I’ve been looking at the numbers, and the long and the short of it is that talk of Carswell’s personal vote is mostly talk.
The idea that Carswell has a personal vote seems to rest on two, incredibly shaky foundations. The first is that he is uniquely popular in Clacton. I’ve visited Clacton, albeit some time ago, and it’s clear that, for all he doesn’t live in the seat, Carswell works it fairly hard and is respected for doing so. There were far more people who saw him as someone who put a shift in than when I did the same exercise for Zac Goldsmith.
But being respected for working hard and being a decent bloke isn’t the same as a personal vote. I found about the same level of gratitude towards Carswell on the doors as I did for Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North. Corbyn actually lives in his seat, unlike Carswell, and is widely agreed to be an exemplary constituency MP. But despite that, and despite being chair of the Stop the War coalition, he suffered the exact same Labour-to-Liberal-Democrat swing against him in 2005 as every other Labour MP in a seat of those demographics did. Being appreciated by the voters isn’t the same as the voters being beholden to you. (Just ask Winston Churchill.)
That’s the anecdotal stuff. It is true that Carswell increased his share of the vote and had a swing towards him in 2010 after his first term as an MP. There are a couple of things to note here: the first is that when Carswell ran for the seat of Clacton (then called Harwich), the Conservatives were led by Michael Howard, when he ran for re-election, they were led by David Cameron. Cameron had quite a big effect on the Conservatives’ electoral performance. They gained more parliamentary seats in 2010 than they did at any other election since 1931. There is a politician with the initials “DC” with something to brag about, but it ain’t Douglas Carswell.
It is true to say that Carswell slightly overran the national swing and the nationwide increase in the Tory vote from 2005 to 2010. But that was true of all but one of the 26 Conservatives who won seats from Labour in 2005 and contested the same seat in 2010. Psephologists call this the “sophomore swing”, and most politicians seeking re-election for the first time benefit from it, slightly overperforming colleagues who have served for longer.
Carswell’s performance was boosted by favourable boundary changes in which he lost Labour-leaning wards and gained Conservative-tinted ones, but he still finished middle of the pack, with the seventh-best swing. The biggest second-term swing was that secured by Peter Bone, who won his seat of Wellingborough by 687 votes in 2005 but had a majority of 11,787 in 2010, though like Carswell he benefited from favourable boundary changes. The best performers in materially unchanged seats: Justine Greening, Stephen Hammond, Philip Hollobone, and Philip Davies.)
Carswell also underperformed most of the 2005 Conservative intake on his first go-around, so his slightly larger than average 2010 performance may just have been reversion to the mean.
As for his heroics under Ukip colours, his seat had the most Ukip-friendly demographics of any constituency in the country, and he still managed a less impressive increase in his share of the vote than Mark Reckless, his fellow defector, pulled off in the Rochester and Strood by-election. In the following general election, he also suffered a bigger fall-off than Reckless did. (The Ukip vote in Clacton fell by 15 points, and by 12 in Rochester and Strood.)
So if you’re a frugal marker, you can make a persuasive case that Carswell has no personal vote at all, though I personally would shy away from that. It feels more likely to me that he has a small personal vote of about 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of the vote – which is more impressive than it sounds. Around 67,000 people vote in Clacton, so that’s still potentially a thousand people who would vote for Carswell regardless of his party. That’s not bad as it goes.
But that highlights the slight pointlessness of the debate about “personal votes” – even a really impressive personal vote of say, four per cent would only be about 2700 votes in Clacton. That’s not something you can win a parliamentary seat with or anything like it.
All of the evidence suggests that he has kept his seat thanks to the popularity of the party leaders he has consistently undermined and worked against, be they Michael Howard, David Cameron or Nigel Farage, not from his own appeal. If he retains it now he has left Ukip, it will be because it was in the gift of Theresa May.
Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.
Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.
For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.
But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon.
When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.
Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."
Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."
As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”
The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.
The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely.
The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.
Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).
Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.
So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.
The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.
Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015.
But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).
There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.
Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.
The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes.
Though Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.
The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.
In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.
Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.
Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Many in the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do some in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion.
Three new books reflect on the complexities, and challenges, faced by Muslims in Britain.
Fresh arrivals to any country feel blind and weakened: they seek jobs, housing and familiarity. Newcomers yearn for memories of their old nation state – Italian olive oil, south Indian dosas or Turkish kanafeh. Laws that appear foreign, and values that were never particularly strong at home, are slowly adopted through experience and navigation. Faith provides a shelter from tumultuous change.
In recent years, in no regard has the narrative about immigration and values proved more volcanic than in addressing the role of Muslims. Three new books attempt to cast a light on modern Islam’s contract with the West. Letters to a Young Muslim is a collection of missives written by the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Russia to his elder son, Saif, now aged 16. The author, Omar Saif Ghobash, was six years old when his own father, the UAE’s first foreign minister, was shot and killed by a teenage Palestinian assassin at Abu Dhabi International Airport in 1977. The intended target was the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s foreign minister, who was visiting the UAE; the 19-year-old gunman was later executed.
Ghobash’s book is part memoir and part instructional guide to the liberal values he would like to see flourish in conservative Islamic societies. He gives special prominence to educated imams, higher education and a greater tolerance of antithetical views. In the 40th-anniversary year of his father’s death, Letters to a Young Muslim is also a synthesis of grief and purpose. As he writes, “For me . . . it has been impossible to leave my father behind. I have carried his memory with me through the years, always imagining what he might have said to me, or done in my place.”
Like many formally educated religionists, Ghobash sees faith in all contexts. The book is informed by his experiences during the Gulf’s oil-led boom of the 1980s, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the permanent wars after the 11 September 2001 attacks, including the regional turmoil caused by the Arab spring in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. His tone is patriarchal and diplomatic, occasionally hopeful, but also resigned to disappointment when he writes of the unfamiliar world before him and the challenges his children will inherit.
In the years since Ghobash’s childhood, the borders beyond Abu Dhabi’s golden shores have grown knotted and violent with failing regimes, joblessness and war. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the newly independent United Arab Emirates existed in relatively uncomplicated isolation, relying on trade links with Asia for food and services. Emirati life was conservative but informal. Tribes moved between cities and the desert in summer and winter. Families spent weekends fishing and drinking sweet tea in the souk in the evenings. Men drove to Iraq and Jordan to practise falconry and enjoy camel racing.
Much of the security and free movement enjoyed by Ghobash’s generation has disappeared in his lifetime. He offers some social statistics that are symptomatic of the decay. Seventy per cent of Muslims globally are illiterate and 8.6 million Arabs are not enrolled in primary or secondary school, including five million girls. The unemployment rate is equally dire: roughly 28 per cent of the 100 million Arabs who are between the ages of 15 and 29. Out of several hundred Arab universities in the Middle East, not one was included in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2016-2017.
While Ghobash presents Islam as a guiding set of principles, he concedes that its interpretation, put into the wrong hands, is open to abuse. The book is less revealing about the author’s own upbringing. He was raised in Abu Dhabi and the UK: but if any encounters with other ways of life or the rituals during his teenage years at a boarding school in Rugby left any marks of liberal culture, he doesn’t show them here.
As Ghobash explains it, Arabs and Muslims need to rethink their relationship with the West. He pays much attention to the role of women in Islam, interfaith dialogue and tolerance. Arabs, he suggests, would benefit from more self-critical thought:
Unfortunately in today’s Arab world, and in the Arabic language, the word falsafah, which means “philosophy”, is a dirty word. It is seen as a distraction from the importance of keeping the faith pure and unsullied by questions that will only serve to divide and separate the Muslims.
A more alarming set of ailments is diagnosed in the body politic of British Muslims in The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism by Sara Khan and Tony McMahon. Khan, who is from Bradford, is a long-time human rights activist who, from her home, co-founded Inspire, a non-governmental organisation that promotes counter-extremism, in 2009. Inspire works with the government’s problematic counterterrorism strategy, Prevent. Critics say Prevent’s monitoring of Muslims for any sign of controversial views by local authorities, community groups and schools is tantamount to spying.
Counterterrorism is a game of poker in which the players can take years to show their hand. But as we learned from decades of violence in Ireland, harsh counterterror measures are often hidden from view and politicians are quick to make political capital out of gains that few can judge. Prevent’s mission is opaque and its outcomes indeterminate, and it has cost the British taxpayer approximately £40m a year since 2011. It places enormous responsibility on ill-equipped teachers and community workers to be gatekeepers of national security.
Much of Khan’s work is done in public, in community groups and schools around the country, warning staff and students about the risks of extremism and groups such as Isis. And though Inspire is just one element of the Prevent strategy, Khan has been associated with its numerous failures around overzealous reporting.
In one incident last year, staff at a nursery in Luton threatened to refer a four-year-old boy to Prevent after he drew pictures of what was considered a cooker bomb. He had in fact drawn his father cutting a cucumber with a knife. In 2015, out of the nearly 4,000 referrals of named individuals to the programme, 1,319 reports came from the education sector. Paranoid reporting leads to profiling and classroom stigma. Prevent’s methodology also reiterates a neoconservative, Blairite world-view that the absence of terrorist attacks is a victory, no matter how egregious the damage to our liberty.
Khan is undoubtedly sincere in her mission, but too much of The Battle for British Islam reads as a self-defence. She seems oblivious to the difficulties of integration in poorer Muslim communities and overlooks just how long it takes – ask any second or third-generation offspring, and they will tell you that it’s at least a lifetime. She also fails to give context to how, although most of the UK’s three million Muslim citizens demonstrate largely the same successes and failures as any other faith group, for nearly 30 years since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses they have also had their beliefs harshly scrutinised.
Some facts about British Muslims living in the British isles are well established. In surveys, they have shown themselves to be more patriotic than their fellow citizens. A 2013 report found that London had 13,400 Muslim-owned businesses, which had created more than 70,000 jobs. According to an ICM poll conducted that same year, Muslims also donate more to charity than any other faith group. (Organisations such as Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief – whose work is focused in south Asia and the Middle East – received most of this money, but Cancer Research and the British Heart Foundation also benefited.)
Most British Muslims living in cities such as Leeds, Manchester or Glasgow would not recognise the picture painted by Khan. She believes that a black cloud of Islamist terror hangs over Britain. “Ever since I was a teenager, I have witnessed how Islamist extremism has wreaked havoc on the lives of British Muslims,” she writes. In the course of 250 pages, she offers a roll-call of her detractors, mostly groups such as CAGE and the Salafist Muslim Research and Development Foundation. A more thorough look at the government’s counterterrorism strategy might have initiated a valuable debate.
A sharper view of the British Muslim diaspora can be found in The Enemy Within: a Tale of Muslim Britain, by the former Conservative Party chair Sayeeda Warsi. Born one of five sisters to immigrant Pakistani parents in Yorkshire, the former solicitor first ran for parliament in 2005 in Dewsbury. Unsuccessful in her election bid, she served as an adviser to Michael Howard before David Cameron appointed her vice-chair of the Conservative Party.
In cabinet, Warsi always seemed like an unwelcome guest whose outspokenness was being tolerated by her hosts. Veteran Tories such as Norman Tebbit viewed her with suspicion and she spoke too plainly for younger Conservatives who were in thrall to remaking “Brand Britain” after the recession. In The Enemy Within she writes fondly of her time in office, but given that her portfolio as minister of state for faith and communities wasn’t a priority of the coalition government, her legacy is symbolic (she was the first Muslim woman to attend cabinet) and a first draft for future generations.
Where Warsi might be considered a trailblazer is her shift from the conventional left-wing and working-class politics of most second-generation Asians to modern Conservatism. Her world-view coincides with much of Cameron’s: she dislikes interventionism. So does her style: she has a propensity for chatty phrase-making. Warsi writes about inviting the then prime minister to a community event at a mosque in Manchester in 2013 called “the Big Iftar”. Of Britain’s relationship with its Muslims, and vice versa, she says: “It’s time to use the restart button.” And on her first official visit to Pakistan she spoke out about the Islamic republic’s failure to live up to the founding principles of its architect, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. “It was what I termed Heineken diplomacy – reaching the parts other diplomacy cannot reach,” she writes.
In the many sections of the book where she turns away from front-line politics and focuses on British Muslim history and the pathways to integration, Warsi writes with conviction. As a child of the Thatcher years, she is at her most energetic when describing the West Yorkshire of her youth, her white neighbours the Goodlads and fruit-picking in the apple and pear orchards of Kent. She describes how, at that stage of Asian migration, working-class neighbours were respectful and polite to each other – common bonds had not yet been established, but her childhood was untainted by racism and Islamophobia. Equally vivid are her memories of the year she spent living in Pakistan as an expat immigrant. Many first- and second-generation Asians in the UK, who view themselves through the prism of their British identity, will nod in recognition at the reasons behind her return to the UK: “Once the challenges of everyday bureaucracy, corruption and family feuds kicked in, Britain once more beckoned.”
Appointed the minister of state for faith in September 2012, Warsi was expected to reach out to all religions in the UK, but focused on highlighting moderate Muslims as agents for change. She could have done more in government to highlight the endemic poverty that plagues areas of Bradford and the likes of Newham in London. The Enemy Within offers little insight into or criticism of the Casey review of 2016, which presented the challenges to integration in the UK and outlined recommendations for a new government strategy.
A more tactful politician might have pointed out gently that mosques built with donations (known as chunda among south Asian Britons) are – like other places of worship in poor communities – in need of rehabilitation. She could have appealed to local authorities and architects to help. Instead, she said in 2016, “A lot of mosques are quite ugly – but they don’t need to be,” and suggested new ones could be built without minarets in order to integrate with their surroundings. But Warsi was prescient when she observed in 2011 that Islamophobic chatter had “passed the dinner-table test” and become widely socially acceptable.
She resigned in 2014, describing the government’s unwillingness to condemn Israel for the conflict in Gaza as “morally indefensible”. She is critical of the Prevent strategy, arguing that it has alienated ordinary Muslims and Muslim community workers. “Let’s acknowledge that Prevent as a brand is ‘toxic’ and at the very least needs to be reworked and reworded,” she writes.
British secularists, Christians and Jews often wonder why some Muslims display a level of devotion to their faith that, to them, seems incomprehensible. Warsi is right to point out that three centuries after Muslims first arrived on this island, the questioning of their loyalty to the UK is largely attributable to a resurgent Islamophobia following the 9/11 attacks. Last year Demos, the British think tank, found over 215,000 instances of Islamophobic tweets in July alone. Amid the rancour over Brexit, and with Labour in disarray, which political party will overhaul the state’s contract with those “citizens of nowhere”, its isolated Muslims?
Burhan Wazir is an award-winning journalist and a former head of opinion at al-Jazeera
Letters to a Young Muslim by Omar Saif Ghobash is published by Picador (245pp, £16.99)
The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism by Sara Khan with Tony McMahon is published by Saqi Books (256pp, £14.99)
The Enemy Within: a Tale of Muslim Britain by Sayeeda Warsi is published by Allen Lane (416pp, £20 )
The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.
The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other.
Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.
Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.
According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.
If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).
So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general?
Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.
Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.
But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.
The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.
So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover.
But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.
There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”
And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters.
With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry. Yet as migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says.
At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.
So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.
But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).
It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.
The former deputy Prime Minister argued Brexiteers were trying to silence the 48 per cent.
On Wednesday 29 March, at 12.30pm, Britain's ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, will hand deliver a letter to the European Council President, Donald Tusk. On that sheet of paper will be the words triggering Article 50. Nine months after Britain voted for Brexit, it will formally begin the process of leaving the EU.
For grieving Remainers, the delivery of the letter abruptly marks the end of the denial stage. But what happens next?
Speaking at an Open Britain event, former Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg had an answer. Responding to the concerns of a scientist in the audience, he declared:
“The most important thing of all is people like you make your voice heard. What the hysterical aggression from the Brexiteers means is they want to silence you.
"That’s why they attack everyone. The Bank of England - how dare you speak about the British economy? How dare judges make a judgement? How dare Remainers still believe they want to be part of the EU?
"What they systematically try to do is bully and delegitimise anyone who disagrees with their narrow world view.
"It’s a ludicrous thing when 16.1m people - that’s more than have ever voted for a party in a general election - voted for a different future, when 70 per cent of youngsters have voted for a different future.
"It is astonishing these people, how they give themselves the right to say: 'You have no voice, how dare you stick to your views how dare you stick to your dreams and aspirations?'
That’s the most important thing of all. You don’t get bored, you don’t get miserable, you don’t glum, you continue to speak up. What they hope is you’ll just go home, the most important thing is people continue to speak up."
He urged those affected by Brexit to lobby their MPs, and force them to raise the issue in Parliament.
After Article 50 is triggered, the UK positioning is over, and the EU negotiators will set out their response. As well as the official negotiating team, MEPs and leaders of EU27 countries are likely to give their views - and with elections scheduled in France and Germany, some will be responding to the pressures of domestic politics first.
For those Remainers who feel politically homeless, there are several groups that have sprung up to campaign against a hard Brexit:
Open Britain is in many ways the successor to the Remain campaign, with a cross-party group of MPs and a focus on retaining access to the single market and holding the government to account.
Another Europe is Possible was the alternative, left-wing Remain campaign. It continues to organise protests and events.
March for Europe is a cross-Europe Facebook community which also organises events.
The People's Challenge was a crowd-funded campaign which, alongside the more famous Gina Miller, successfully challenged the government in court and forced it to give Parliament a vote on triggering Article 50.
The3million is a pressure group set up to represent EU citizens in the UK.
Former Conservative minister Nicky Morgan argued Cabinet members were onside for a better deal.
Theresa May should free her “inner Remainer” and turn away from the “Brextremists” to the silent opponents of a hard Brexit, a cross-part y group of MPs have declared.
Conservative MP and former government minister Nicky Morgan said “there are absolutely members of the government who very much want a deal who were staunch Remain campaigners”. Asked if she would stand as a Conservative MP at the next election, she merely answered that the questions for future elections were "several years hence".
Morgan, who was sacked by May and has emerged as one of her most outspoken Tory critics, was speaking at the launch of Open Britain’s accountability tests for the Brexit negotiations. Article 50 will be triggered on Wednesday 29 March.
Chris Leslie, a Labour MP and former shadow Chancellor, said there were large numbers of parliamentarians “who are willing to be constructive, to go beyond party political lines and do the best deal for the country”.
Former Lib Dem leader and onetime deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg praised a “very good speech” by the Prime Minister before the Brexit vote, in which she reflected on the limits of sovereignty and made the case for remaining in the EU.
He said: “Either she didn’t believe a word she said or there is an inner Remainer struggling within her soul to come out.”
The MPs also warned against the rhetoric of former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson, who has repeatedly argued that “no Brexit deal is better than a bad deal”, arguing that this would be chaotic and exploited by ideologues.
Clegg, who was an MEP before he became an MP, said EU negotiators were alert to the threat that the UK would try to turn itself into a “low taxation, low welfare dumping ground”.
He said: “A German leader can’t go to German voters, a Spanish leader can’t go to Spanish voters, and say: ‘We are giving the UK extensive access to our markets to compete with our jobs but at the same time they are going to be like Switzerland on stilts.’”
Referring to Brexit secretary David Davis’ admission that immigration may continue to rise after Brexit, Clegg said the Leave campaign had promised lower immigration and access to the single market. Instead: “The government we know now is going to deliver exactly the opposite.”
Look, some of you just aren't treating this question with the seriousness it deserves.
This morning, the Daily Mail front page dared to look past the minutiae of Brexit - can my EU partner still live here? Why is my holiday so expensive? Should we be worried that David Davis looks like a man who's ended up a minister because he lost a bet? - to ask the really big question.
Yes, indeed. Who is Top of the Tibia? Who shines in the shin department? Which of these impressive, powerful women has lower limbs which best conform to our arbitrary beauty standards?
In the accompanying article, Sarah Vine (herself the owner of not one, but TWO lower limbs) wrote that the women put on a show of unity with "two sets of hands clasped calmly on the arms of their respective chairs", disdaining the usual diplomatic practice of accompanying discussions about Article 50 with a solemn, silent re-enactment of the Macarena.
Vine adds: "But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show. There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed." That's right, people: Theresa May has been unafraid to wear a skirt, rather than a pair of trousers with one leg rolled up like LL Cool J. A departure for Mrs May, to be sure, but these are uncertain times and showing off just one calf might see the stock markets plunge.
The prime minister has come to the bold decision that her legs are the "finest weapons in her physical armoury", when others might argue it's the sharp, retractable venom-filled spurs on her fore-limbs. (Oh wait, my mistake. That's the duck-billed platypus.)
As ever, the bien-pensant left is squawking about sexism and avoiding the real issue: who really won Legs-it? Well, there will be no handwringing over how this is a belittling way to treat two female politicians here, thank you very much. We shall not dwell on the fact that wearing a skirt while doing politics is not really remarkable enough to merit a front page, oh no. Instead, we shall bravely attempt to answer that Very Important Question.
Who really won Legs-it?
We might not know who won Legs-It, but let's be honest - we all know who lost. David Cameron here has clearly concluded that, much like Andrew Cooper's pre-referendum polling results, his legs are best hidden away while everyone politely pretends they don't exist.
Legs-It Rating: 2/10
Fun fact: Michael Gove's upper thighs are equipped with sharp, retractable claws, which aid him in knifing political rivals in the back.
Legs-It Rating: 8/10
Mr Davis's unusually wide stance here suggests that one leg doesn't know what the other is doing. His expression says: this walking business is more difficult than anyone let on, but I mustn't let it show. Bad legs are better than no legs.
Legs-It Rating: 6/10
Real talk: these legs don't really support Boris Johnson, they're just pretending they do to advance their career.
Legs-It Rating: 6/10
Take in these long, cool pins. These are just two out of George Osborne's six legs.
Legs-It Rating: 9/10
In the past, Liam Fox has faced criticism for the way his left leg follows his right leg around on taxpayer-funded foreign trips. But those days are behind him now.
Legs-It Rating: 10/10
So great are the demands on the former Ukip leader's time these days, that his crotch now has a thriving media career of its own, independent from his trunk and calves. Catch it on Question Time from Huddersfield next month.
Legs-It Rating: 7/10
After fearlessly looking at nine billion photos of legs in navy trousers, we can emphatically conclude that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME LEG. Life is great as a male politician, isn't it?
The Prime Minister risks raising unrealistic expectations among Leave backers.
For Leavers, there's only one more sleep before Christmas: tomorrow Tim Barrow will moonlight as a courier and hand-deliver Theresa May's letter triggering Article 50 to Donald Tusk and Britain's Brexit talks will start.
Well, sort of. That we're pulling the trigger in the middle of, among other things, the French elections means that the EU27 won't meet to discuss May's exit proposals for another month. (So that's one of 23 out of 24 gone!)
The time pressure of the Article 50 process - which, its author Colin Kerr tells Politico was designed with the expulsion of a newly-autocratic regime in mind rather than his native country - disadvantages the exiting nation at the best of times and if there is no clear winner in the German elections in October that will further eat into Britain's negotiating time.
That Nigel Farage has announced that if the Brexit deal doesn't work out he will simply move abroad may mean that Brexit is now a win-win scenario, but heavy tariffs and customs checks seem a heavy price to pay just to get shot of Farage.
What are the prospects for a good deal? As I've written before, May has kept her best card - Britain's status as a net contributor to the EU budget - in play, though the wholesale rejection of the European Court may cause avoidable headaches over aviation and other cross-border issues where, by definition, there must be pooling of sovereignty one way or another.
That speaks to what could yet prove to be May's biggest mistake: she's done a great job of reassuring the Conservative right that she is "one of them" as far as Brexit is concerned. But as polling for BritainThinks shows, that's come at a cost: expectations for our Brexit deal are sky high. More importantly, the average Brexit voter is at odds with the Brexit elite over immigration. David Davis has once again reiterated that immigration will occasionally rise after we leave the EU. A deal in which we pay for single market access, can strike our own trade deals but the numbers of people coming to Britain remain unchanged might work as far as the British economy is concerned. May might yet come to regret avoiding an honest conversation about what that entails with the British public.
The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.
A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”
We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.
What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.
Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.
Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.
As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.
Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.
There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.
When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.
So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.
The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.
So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.
The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.
Those two qualities – first, instinctive try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.
Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.
In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.
Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.
How the ideas of two pre-war intellectual refugees – the radical Herbert Marcuse and the reactionary Eric Voegelin – are influencing the new culture wars among Trump and his acolytes.
Even after Donald Trump’s more conciliatory address to Congress, American politics seems set to become a battle between the president’s joyless autocracy and a carnival of protest that could end up evoking the anti-war movements of the 1960s. There will be more draconian executive orders and more marches in pink hats. There may well be violence.
The intellectual battle that will be played out in the months and years to come, however, was foretold by two German refugees from Nazi persecution: Eric Voegelin, the doyen of Cold War reactionary conservatives, and Herbert Marcuse, the inspiration behind the revolutionary student activism of the 1960s. Voegelin argued that society needed an order that could be found only by reaching back to the past. Marcuse argued that refusal to accede to tyranny was essential to give birth to a revolutionary politics that would propel progress to a new kind of society. Marcuse the radical and Voegelin the reactionary could not seem further apart, and yet they share a common intellectual root in Germany in the 1920s, from which came a shared critique of modern society. Their ideas may well inspire some of the political conflicts to come.
The culture wars of the 1960s are very much alive for Trump’s acolytes. Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News and Trump’s chief strategist, blames the counterculture of the 1960s – the drugs, the hippies, the liberal reforms – for America losing its way and, eventually, succumbing to economic crisis in 2008. Bannon set out his ideas in Generation Zero, a 2010 documentary which blamed the financial crash not on greedy, under-regulated bankers but on the moral and cultural malaise that started in the 1960s. He is still fighting people who might have been inspired by Marcuse. “The baby boomers are the most spoiled, most self-centred, most narcissistic generation the country has ever produced,” he told an interviewer in 2011.
Bannon’s thinking, set out in several speeches over the past few years, is that America’s working and middle classes have been betrayed by an elite in Washington, DC (the “Imperial City”, he calls it) which oversees insider deals so that the insiders can profit from global capitalism. Bannon wants to return America to traditions rooted in Judaeo-Christian values and to reassert national sovereignty. Most worryingly, on several occasions he has said that the crisis will only be resolved through the catharsis of conflict and national mobilisation through war.
America has always been a work in progress. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were very different presidents but they shared a belief that progress was America’s calling. The reactionary turn in US politics is not just a shift to the right but an attempt to displace progress as the common creed.
Instead, Bannon and his ilk want America to become a work in regress, as the historian Mark Lilla argues in his recent book on reactionary philosophy, The Shipwrecked Mind. Much of the new reactionary thinking echoes Voegelin’s idea that, in order to renew itself, a society must first go backwards to find where and how it lost its way.
Eric Voegelin defies easy categorisation. Born in 1901 in Cologne and brought up in Vienna, he was brave and principled. After a visit to the United States in the 1920s, he wrote two books criticising Nazi racial politics, which got him sacked from his teaching position at the University of Vienna. When the Germans arrived in Austria following the Anschluss in 1938, Voegelin and his wife fled on a train as the Gestapo ransacked their apartment.
After a brief stay in Switzerland, he moved to America and in 1942 took up an academic post at Louisiana State University. He then embarked on a prolific career, the centrepiece of which was his sprawling, multi-volume work Order and History.
Voegelin’s philosophy gave expression to the dark and powerful forces that had shaped his life. He believed that modern society was prey to flawed utopianism – he called this “gnosticism” – in which an elite of prophets takes power, claiming special insight into how heaven could be created on Earth for a chosen people. Gnostic sects in the Middle Ages had their modern equivalents in the Nazi proclamation of a racially pure utopia and the Marxist promise of equality for all. Voegelin’s catchphrase was: “Don’t immanentise the eschaton!” (meaning: “Do not try to build heaven on Earth”).
Marxism and Nazism, Voegelin argued, were political versions of religion: we get rid of God only to reinstall him in the form of an elite of reformers with all the answers. In his recent bestselling book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that we are entering a new stage of the process that Voegelin identified. We have become as powerful as gods, he argued, but now need to learn how to be wise and responsible gods.
Today Voegelin’s attack on overreaching perfectionism echoes in reactionary criticism of Obamacare and in the yearning for national certitude. Voegelin thought the role of philosophy was not to change the world, but to understand its underlying order and help us tune in to that, rather than being diverted by the lure of the false prophets of political religion.
He was influenced by the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, who said that “origin is the goal”, by which he meant that the point of the future was to restore the ancient past. For Voegelin, order comes from a sense of harmony, of everything being in its place. This is a position that opens itself up to deeply conservative interpretations.
When, in his presidential inauguration address, Trump spoke of American “carnage”, he was echoing Voegelin’s account of decay and disorder. When he talked of “one people, one nation, one heart” he was evoking the kind of order that Voegelin spoke of. Trump and his acolytes see their mission as the need to restore a natural order, under which illegal immigrants and aliens are kept well away and white people can feel at home once more in a society where everyone signs up to Judaeo-Christian beliefs.
Nothing could be further from the ideas of Herbert Marcuse.
Born in 1898 in Berlin, Marcuse became a member of the celebrated Marxist Frankfurt School, which included Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and, tangentially, Walter Benjamin. Marcuse emigrated to the United States in 1933 as Hitler came to power. By 1940, he had become a US citizen and, while Voegelin was starting work at Louisiana State, Marcuse was working as a researcher for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. He continued working for the government after the war and resumed his academic career only in 1952. His best-known book, One-Dimensional Man, was published in 1964.
One of Marcuse’s big ideas was the “Great Refusal”: progress had to start with refusing to accept an unacceptable reality. One should say “no” to a world of alienating work, dominated by corporations and impersonal systems, which allow little room for people to explore their deeper sense of humanity. Marcuse saw the student and anti-war protests of the 1960s and 1970s, which adopted him as their intellectual mentor, as evidence that the Great Refusal was gaining momentum.
Trump has given the Great Refusal new life. The documentary film-maker Michael Moore has called for cities to become “regions of resistance” by offering sanctuary to immigrants threatened with deportation. Angela Davis, the once-jailed Black Panther revolutionary who was close to Marcuse, told the Women’s March in Washington that people had to be ready for “1,459 days of resistance: resistance on the ground, resistance on the job, resistance in our art and in our music”. In a lecture at the Free University of West Berlin published in 1970, Marcuse said demonstrations and protests were an essential first step towards a “liberation of consciousness” from the capitalist machine:
“The whole person must demonstrate his participation and his will to live . . . in a pacified, human world . . . it is . . . harmful . . . to preach defeatism and quietism, which can only play into the hands of those who run the system . . . We must resist if we still want to live as human beings, to work and be happy.”
The Great Refusal was a capacious idea capable of embracing anyone who wanted to say, “No, enough!” It could embrace trade unions and workers, African Americans and feminists, students and national liberation movements, those who were on the margins of society and those professionals – technicians, scientists, artists, intellectuals – who worked at its centres of power and who chose to refuse as an act of conscience.
As a new generation prepares to embark on a period of resistance, what lessons should they learn from the wave of protest that Marcuse once helped to inspire?
Protest is a way to bear witness, to make voices heard and to make it possible for people to bond. Yet the fire of protest can easily die out as the Occupy movement did, even if its embers are still glowing. The carnival-type atmosphere can be uplifting but fleeting. Creating common programmes to be taken forward by organisations demands hard work. The Arab spring showed how quickly a popular revolution can turn sour when a movement is not ready to take power.
Since the protests that Marcuse was involved in, no comparable movement of the left in the United States has mobilised such a broad support base. Instead, that period of resistance was followed, at the end of the 1970s, by a shift to the right in the US and the UK. It was reactionaries, not revolutionaries, who set off forward to the past.
Now we seem to be in for an intensifying cycle of conflict between the adherents of Marcuse and Voegelin: between the Marxist revolutionary and the mystic conservative; between resistance and order; between those who want to live among a cosmopolitan, urban multitude and those who want a society of provincial oneness and sameness; those who want change, innovation and creativity and those who crave simplicity, stability and authority.
That much is obvious. Yet what is striking is not how different Marcuse was from Voegelin, but how alike they were. The best way to respond to the rise of Trump might be to blend their ideas rather than set them against one another, to create a new intellectual and political combination. Indeed, they could be seen as different branches of the same intellectual tree.
Voegelin was influenced by the German- Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas, who studied with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg in the 1920s. Jonas joined the German Jewish Brigade, which fought against Hitler, before emigrating to the US, where he became a professor at the New School in New York. He was one of the foremost scholars of gnosticism, which became Voegelin’s focus. Towards the end of his life, Jonas took up a chair at the University of Munich named after Voegelin.
Voegelin did not study at Freiburg, but one of his closest friends was the social theorist Alfred Schütz, a student of Edmund Husserl’s who applied his phenomenological thinking to the sociology of everyday life. Marcuse studied with Husserl and Heidegger at Freiburg, at the same time as Jonas and Hannah Arendt. From that shared intellectual root have emerged some powerful ideas that could unite progressives and conservatives.
Only at moments of profound crisis – of the kind we are living through – do we see just how contingent, vulnerable and fragile our society is. Voegelin warned: “In an hour of crisis, when the order of society flounders and disintegrates, the fundamental problems of political existence in history are more apt to come into view than in periods of comparative stability.”
A crisis should be a time for profound reflection, yet leaders are more likely to resort to “magical operations” to divert people’s attention: moral condemnation, branding enemies as aggressors, threatening war. “The intellectual and moral corruption,” Voegelin wrote, “which expresses itself in the aggregate of such magical operations may pervade society with the weird ghostly atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, as we experience it in Western society.”
Welcome to the Trump White House.
Voegelin is a timely reminder of how unconservative Donald Trump is and of how conservatives should be a vital part of the coalition against him. Conservatism comes in several strains: laissez-faire conservatives such as George Osborne want small government, free trade, low taxes and freedom of choice. Status quo conservatives such as Angela Merkel want stability and continuity, even if that entails sticking with social welfare programmes and liberal democracy. Authoritarian conservatives, however, are prepared to use the big state to engineer change.
One important question for the future is whether the laissez-faire and status quo conservatives will realign around the ascendant authoritarian camp promoted by Trump. Merkel is the world leader of the conservative-inspired opposition to the US president. But his most profound critic is Pope Francis, who uses language similar to Voegelin’s to condemn the “material and spiritual poverty” of capitalism, and the language of Marcuse to condemn the process of dehumanisation embarked upon by Bannon and Trump.
“As Christians and all people of goodwill, it is for us to live and act at this moment,” the Pope has said. “It is a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off a process of dehumanisation which would then be hard to reverse.”
The challenge for progressives is to reframe resistance in terms that can appeal to conservatives: to use conservative ideas of character and spirituality for progressive ends. We will spend a great deal more time trying to conserve things. The swarm of legal challenges against Trump will hold him to the principles of the US constitution and the rule of law. Many of the young people attracted to Bernie Sanders and the Occupy movement yearned for the restoration of the American dream.
Building bridges with the conservative opposition is not merely a tactical manoeuvre to widen support. It has deeper roots in shared doubts about modernity which go back to Freiburg and the man both Marcuse and Jonas renounced in 1964 for supporting the Nazis: Martin Heidegger.
For Heidegger, modernity was a restless, disruptive force that displaced people from jobs, communities and old ways of life, and so left them searching for a sense of home, a place to come back to, where they could be at one with the world. Technology played a central role in this, Heidegger argued, providing not just tools for us to use, but an entire framework for our lives.
Marcuse, writing four decades before Facebook and Google, warned that we needed to resist a life in which we freely comply with our own subjugation by technical, bureaucratic systems that control our every thought and act; which make life rich but empty, busy but dead, and turn people into adjuncts of vast systems. We should “resist playing a game that was always rigged against true freedom”, he urged, using language that has been adopted by Trump.
Writing not far from what was to become Silicon Valley, Marcuse pointed to a much larger possibility: the technological bounty of capitalism could, in principle, free us from necessity and meet all human needs, but “. . . only if the vast capabilities of science and technology, of the scientific and artistic imagination, direct the construction of a sensuous environment; only if the world of work loses its alienating features and becomes a world of human relationships; only if productivity becomes creativity are the roots of domination dried up in individuals”.
Writing in the 1960s, when full employment was the norm and advanced society was enjoying a sense of plenty, Marcuse foreshadowed the debates we are having now about what it will mean to be human in an age of machines capable of rapid learning. Mark Zuckerberg’s argument in his recently published manifesto that Facebook creates an infrastructure for a co-operative and creative global civil society is a response to concerns that Marcuse raised.
Just as Marcuse saw that capitalism was a union of contradictions – freedom created on the basis of exploitation, wealth generated by poverty – Voegelin thought modern society was self-defeating: it declined as it advanced. Giving everyone wages to buy stuff from the shops was not progress, he said, but a soulless distortion of the good life, an invitation to spiritual devastation. The gnosticism that Voegelin so hated, the effort to design a perfect society, was also the source of the technological and rational bureaucracy that Marcuse blamed for creating a one-dimensional society. Voegelin would have regarded the apostles of Silicon Valley as arch-gnostics, creating a rational order to the world with the insights gleaned from Big Data and artificial intelligence.
Marcuse and Voegelin point us in the same direction for a way forward. People need to be able to find a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Both would have seen Trump’s ascendancy as a symptom of a deeper failure in modern society, one that we feel inside ourselves. The problem for many of us is not that we do not have enough money, but that we do not have enough meaning.
For Voegelin, living well involves “opening our souls” to something higher than buy and sell, work and shop, calculate and trade, margins and profits. Once we detach ourselves from these temporary, Earthly measures of success, we might learn to accept that life is a mysterious, bubbling stream upon which we cannot impose a direction.
A true sense of order, Voegelin argues, comes from living with an open soul and a full spirit, not being part of a machine manufacturing false promises. If we cannot manage to create order from within, by returning to the life guided by the soul, we will find order imposed, more brutally, from without. Marcuse, likewise, thought that turning the Great Refusal into a creative movement required an inner renewal, a “liberation of consciousness” through aesthetics, art, fantasy, imagination and creativity. We can only escape the grip of the one-dimensional society, which reduces life to routines of buying and selling, by recognising that we are multidimensional people, full of potential to grow in different ways. It is not enough merely to resist reality; we have to escape it through leaps of imagination and see the world afresh.
Václav Havel, the leader of the Czech resistance to communist rule, called this “living in truth”. Havel’s most influential essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, written in 1978, is about how to avoid the slow spiritual death that comes from living in an oppressive regime that does not require you to believe in what it does, merely to go along with “living within a lie”.
The greengrocer who is the central figure and motif in Havel’s essay eventually snaps, and stops putting in his shop window an official sign that reads: “Workers of the world, unite!” Havel wrote: “In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”
Human beings by nature long to live in truth, even when put under pressure to live a lie. In language evocative of Voegelin and Marcuse, Havel writes: “In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.”
In communist Czechoslovakia that meant taking a wide and generous view of what counts as resistance as people sought their own ways to “live in truth”. Under President Trump, many Americans are finding they are living within a regime of lies, and they will be drawn back, time and again, to find ways, large and small, personal and political, to live in truth.
Resistance to Trump and Trumpism will succeed only if it mobilises both conservative and progressive forces opposed to authoritarianism, and it needs to stand for a better way to live in truth, with dignity.
Charles Leadbeater is the author of the ALT/Now manifesto, which is available to read at: banffcentre.ca
The French Presidential candidates are sounding more and more like the President across the pond.
The first round of the French presidency is less than one month away (it takes place on April 23rd). Yet no one can say for sure who will win – or who will reach the run-off. Hard-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist independent Macron are tied in most polls.
In this unpredictable race, the two right-wing candidates, Le Pen and Conservative François Fillon, are fighting their own duel – not only over the presidency, but also, it seems, to be the best Donald Trump impersonator.
Indeed, both have recently used campaign tactics in the style of the controversial US President, including, but not limited to, repeated claims that other parties (the media, the justice, the government, other candidates) are plotting against them, regular uses of the term “fake news”, a tendency to re-arrange facts to fit their narrative, and a marked interest in communicating and meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Russian authorities.
Both candidates share with Trump a deep dislike of the press. Marine Le Pen regularly criticises journalists and claims that media reports are biased against her and her campaign. Reporters have been violently thrown out of her meetings. Le Pen’s party, the National Front, has created a platform, called “Alerte Fausses Infos” – literally “Fake news alert” – to offer its own “fact-check” of Le Pen’s media coverage and TV appearances to party members.
François Fillon, too, has blamed the press reporting on his “fake jobs” scandal and called it an “attack”, “never seen before in the French Republic”.
It has slightly backfired for the Trump campaign team, but the two French presidential candidates have shown great enthusiasm at the prospect of warming up the country’s relationship with Russia.
“I see no reason that would justify the current hostile attitude of French authorities toward Russia,” Le Pen declared last Friday during a visit in Moscow. “We have always believed that Russia and France need to maintain and develop the ties that have bound us for a long time.”
In the never ending series of scandals that have engulfed François Fillon’s campaign since late January, a recent one also includes a close relationship with Russia. French newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné reported last week that Fillon was paid $50,000 to organise a meeting in St Petersburg with the Lebanese billionaire Fouad Makhzoumi and Putin, without declaring it (Fillon's lawyer says he repaid it). Here is the official photo, from the Kremlin’s website:
François Fillon, centre, with Fouad Makhzoumi (left) and Vladimir Putin (right.) Source: Kremlin.ru
This kind of behaviour has led French centrist politician François Bayrou to accuse Le Pen and Fillon of “swearing allegiance to Putin and Russia”.
Donald Trump famously insulted an insanely high number of people and institutions on the campaign trail, among them his own party, judges, the FBI, and then incumbent President Barack Obama.
Facing an investigation into “fake” jobs at the European parliament, Marine Le Pen had accused the institution of “fumus persecutionis” (persecution for political ends) and is suing the EU’s anti-fraud chiefs.
While Donald Trump, now President of the United States, recently claimed without presenting any proof that Obama had organised the “wiretapping” of his campaign, François Fillon is certain: François Hollande is plotting to prevent him from winning the Élysée palace.
In a TV interview last week, Fillon accused Hollande of leading a “black room” (an intelligence service collecting diplomatic secrets) against his campaign, citing a recently published book about Hollande’s government. Fillon then called it a “state scandal”. The problem? The authors of the book, Didier Hassoux, Christophe Labbé and Olivia Recasens, who, ironically, are journalists for Le Canard Enchaîné, deny finding any black room during their investigation into the presidency. “The only person who believes in a black room at the Élysée is François Fillon,” said Hassoux. (If you speak French, the authors are interviewed here, from 16:44). Hollande has denounced Fillon’s “false allegations”, which he said lacked “dignity”.
Seen the success such behaviour has brought to Donald Trump, it’s no wonder why Marine Le Pen and François Fillon are trying to channel his campaign tactics. But while it seems to fit Le Pen’s broader "anti-establishment candidate" narrative, Fillon’s claims sound more desperate by the day.
“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.
So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).
I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.
A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.
Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.
Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.
“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.
“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”
He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.
“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”
“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.
“So’s Fondane,” he says.
I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.
“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.
“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”
He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.
“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”
“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.
In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.
I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out.
The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists.
You’ve seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kourtney and Kim Take Kyoto, and Kylie and Kendall Klarify Kommunications Kontracts, but the latest Kardashian show might take a step away from reality. Yes, Kartoon Kardashians could be on the way. According to TMZ, an animated cartoon is the next Kardashian television property we can expect: the gossip website reports that Kris Jenner saw Harvey Weinstein’s L.A. production company earlier this month for a pitch meeting.
It’s easy to imagine the dramas the animated counterparts of the Kardashians might have: arguments over who gets the last clear plastic salad bowl? Moral dilemmas over whether or not to wear something other than Balenciaga to a high profile fashion event? Outrage over the perceived betrayals committed by their artisanal baker?
If this gives you déjà vu, it might be because of a video that went viral over a year ago made using The Sims: a blisteringly accurate parody of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that sees the three sisters have a melodramatic argument about soda.
It’s hysterical because it clings onto the characteristics of the show: scenes opening with utter banalities, sudden dramatic music coinciding with close-ups of each family member’s expressions, a bizarre number of shots of people who aren’t speaking, present tense confessionals, Kim’s ability to do an emotional 0-60, and Kourtney’s monotonous delivery.
But if the Kardashians, both as a reality TV show and celebrity figures, are ripe for ridicule, no one is more aware of it than the family themselves. They’ve shared teasing memes and posted their own self-referential jokes on their social channels, while Kim’s Kimoji app turned mocking viral pictures into self-depreciating in-jokes for her fans. And the show itself has a level of self-awareness often misinterpreted as earnestness - how else could this moment of pure cinema have made it to screen?
WHY IS THIS SO FUNNY pic.twitter.com/6q72nujHhS
— mean plastic (@meanpIastic) 29 December 2015
The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists, and they’ve perfected the art of making fun of themselves before anyone else can. So there’s a good chance that this new cartoon won’t be a million miles away from “Soda Drama”. It might even be brilliant.
In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.
In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.
The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.
Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.
Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.
The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.”
Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”
Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.
Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”
There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”
A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)
“The web is an international worldwide phenomenon.”
It’s a bit like realising the country is run by your mum trying to use iMessage for the first time. “Why has it turned blue?” Her Majesty’s Government cries in unison, scrunching its eyes up and holding the nation’s security a metre away from its face.
Yes, this is the horrifying reality of Britain’s counter-terrorism response being in the hands of people who type “www.” into the search bar and bestow iPlayer with an unnecessary “the”.
As government ministers express concerns about encryption – asking WhatsApp to let them in, among other misguided endeavours – following the attack on Westminster last week, they have revealed a worrying lack of any form of technological literacy.
Here are the most terrible bits, which your mole found by surfing the web on doubleyew doubleyew doubleyew dot google dot com:
“The best people who understand the technology, who understand the necessary hashtags to stop this stuff ever being put up, not just taken down, but ever being put up in the first place are going to be them.”
Watch out, all you hashtag-happy potential perpetrators of atrocities. If you tweet #iamaterrorist then the government will come down on you LIKE A TONNE OF TETRIS BRICKS.
“We don’t want to go into the cloud”
“If I was talking to Tim Cook, I would say to him, this is something completely different, we’re not saying open up, we don’t want to go into the cloud, we don’t want to do all sorts of things like that.”
The Home Secretary definitely thinks that there is a big, fluffy, probably cumulonimbus cloud in the sky where lots of men in thick-framed glasses and polo necks sit around, typing content and data and stuff on their computer machines.
“New systems and algorithms”
“They need to develop new systems and algorithms to detect this stuff and remove it.”
Fire up the algorithms, boys! Don’t spare the horses!
“Good men do nothing, and that’s what’s happening here”
“Evil flourishes when good men do nothing, and that’s what’s happening here.”
First they came for the YouTube stars, and I did not speak out – because I was not a YouTube star.
“The web is an international worldwide phenomenon”
“We need to explore what we can do within the realms of the web. The web is an international worldwide phenomenon, and businesses and servers are based all over the world.”
Wait, what? The world wide web is both international and worldwide, you say? Is it global and transnational and intercontinental too? Maybe he got technology confused with tautology.
I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.
I was going to give up the Daniel Hannan thing, I really was. He’s never responded to this column, despite definitely being aware of it. The chances of him changing his views in response to verifiable facts seem to be nil, so the odds of him doing it because some smug lefty keeps mocking him on the internet must be into negative numbers.
And three different people now have told me that they were blissfully unaware of Hannan's existence until I kept going on about him. Doing Dan’s PR for him was never really the point of the exercise – so I was going to quietly abandon the field, leave Hannan to his delusion that the disasters ahead are entirely the fault of the people who always said Brexit would be a disaster, and get back to my busy schedule of crippling existential terror.
Told you he was aware of it.
Except then he does something so infuriating that I lose an entire weekend to cataloguing the many ways how. I just can’t bring myself to let it go: I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.
I never quite finished that book, but I’m sure it all worked out fine for Ahab, so we might as well get on with it*. Here’s what’s annoying me this week:
And here are some of the many ways in which I’m finding it obnoxious.
1. It only counts as libel if it’s untrue.
2. This sign is not untrue.
3. The idea that “liars, buffoons and swivel-eyed loons” are now in control of the country is not only not untrue, it’s not even controversial.
4. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who now dominate our politics, are 70 per cent water and 30 per cent lies.
5. For starters, they told everyone that, by leaving the EU, Britain could save £350m a week which we could then spend on the NHS. This, it turned out, was a lie.
6. They said Turkey was about to join the EU. This was a lie too.
7. A variety of Leave campaigners spent recent years saying that our place in the single market was safe. Which it turned out was... oh, you guessed.
8. As to buffoons, well, there’s Brexit secretary David Davis, for one, who goes around cheerfully admitting to Select Committees that the government has no idea what Brexit would actually do to the economy.
9. There was also his 2005 leadership campaign, in which he got a variety of Tory women to wear tight t-shirts with (I’m sorry) “It’s DD for me” written across the chest.
10. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is definitely a liar AND a buffoon.
11. I mean, you don’t even need me to present any evidence of that one, do you? You just nodded automatically.
13. Then there’s Liam Fox, who is Liam Fox.
14. I’m not going to identify any “swivel-eyed loons”, because mocking someone’s physical attributes is mean and also because I don’t want to get sued, but let’s not pretend Leave campaigners who fit the bill would be hard to find.
15. Has anyone ever managed to read a tweet by Hannan beginning with the words “a reminder” without getting an overwhelming urge to do unspeakable things to an inanimate object, just to get rid of their rage?
16. Even if the accusation made in that picture was untrue, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t count as libel. It’s not possible to libel 52 per cent of the electorate unless they form a distinct legal entity. Which they don’t.
17. Also, at risk of coming over a bit AC Grayling, “52 per cent of those who voted” is not the same as “most Britons”. I don’t think that means we can dismiss the referendum result, but those phrases mean two different things.
18. As ever, though, the most infuriating thing Hannan’s done here is a cheap rhetorical sleight of hand. The sign isn’t talking about the entire chunk of the electorate who voted for Brexit: it’s clearly talking specifically about the nation’s leaders. He’s conflated the two and assumed we won’t notice.
19. It’s as if you told someone they were shit at their job, and they responded, “How dare you attack my mother!”
20. Love the way Hannan is so outraged that anyone might conflate an entire half of the population with an “out of touch elite”, something that literally no Leave campaigners have ever, ever done.
21. Does he really not know that he’s done this? Or is he just pretending, so as to give him another excuse to imply that all opposition to his ideas is illegitimate?
22. Once again, I come back to my eternal question about Hannan: does he know he’s getting this stuff wrong, or is he genuinely this dim?
23. Will I ever be able to stop wasting my life analysing the intellectual sewage this infuriating man keeps pouring down the internet?
*Related: the collected Hannan Fodder is now about the same wordcount as Moby Dick.
Politicians' lack of understanding leads to the wrong laws - and leaves real problems unchecked.
Amber Rudd’s interview with Andrew Marr yesterday is not going to feature in her highlights reel, that is for certain. Her headline-grabbing howler was her suggesting was that to fight terror “the best people…who understand the necessary hashtags” would stop extremist material “ever being put up, not just taken down”, but the entire performance was riddled with poorly-briefed errors.
During one particularly mystifying exchange, Rudd claimed that she wasn’t asking for permission to “go into the Cloud”, when she is, in fact, asking for permission to go into the Cloud.
That lack of understanding makes itself felt in the misguided attempt to force tech companies to install a backdoor in encrypted communications. I outline some of the problems with that approach here, and Paul Goodman puts it well over at ConservativeHome, the problem with creating a backdoor is that “the security services would indeed be able to travel down it. So, however, might others – the agencies serving the Chinese and Russian governments, for example, not to mention non-state hackers and criminals”.
But it’s not just in what the government does that makes ministers’ lack of understanding of tech issues a problem. As I’ve written before, there is a problem where hate speech is allowed to flourish freely on new media platforms. After-the-fact enforcement means that jihadist terrorism and white supremacist content can attract a large audience on YouTube and Facebook before it is taken down, while Twitter is notoriously sluggish about removing abuse and hosts a large number of extremists on its site. At time of writing, David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, has free use of YouTube to post videos with titles such as “CNN interview on Bannon exposes Jewish bias”, “Will the white race survive?” and “Stop the genocide of European mankind”. It’s somewhat odd, to put it mildly, that WhatsApp is facing more heat for a service that is enjoyed by and protects millions of honest consumers while new media is allowed to be intensely relaxed about hosting hate speech.
Outside of the field of anti-terror, technological illiteracy means that old-fashioned exploitation becomes innovative “disruption” provided it is facilitated by an app. Government and opposition politicians simultaneously decry old businesses’ use of zero-hours contracts and abuse of self-employment status to secure the benefits of a full-time employee without having to bear the costs, while hailing and facilitating the same behaviour provided the company in question was founded after 2007.
As funny as Rudd’s ill-briefed turn on the BBC was, the consequences are anything but funny.
The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement
The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.
In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year.
Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete - a process which could take up to a year to complete.
“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”
Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.
Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.
“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”
Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.
“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”
Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”
In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.
“It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.
Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.
The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.
“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”
Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”
From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?
Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?
These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?
“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”
Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”
Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.
— Ranj Singh (@DrRanj) March 23, 2017
“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”
Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.
Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”
Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?
— Benjamin Cook (@benjamin_cook) March 22, 2017
“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”
Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.
“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”
Thoughts and atheist prayers with everyone in Westminster right now. What a horrifying situation.
— Laurie Penny (@PennyRed) March 22, 2017
Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.
“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”
Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.
Is it a rubber dinghy rapids style attack? #Westminster
— Neil Kirke (@NeilKirke) March 22, 2017
“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”
If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.
“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”
“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”
The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.
makes me so mad that people think of taking photos of victims before helping them - absolutely disgusting #PrayForLondon
— sam carr (@saamcarr) March 22, 2017
Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.
Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.
Those who are actually taking selfies and photos of injured people should be found and prosecuted. It's absolutely disgusting. #Westminster
— Sara Dunn (@saradunn86) March 22, 2017
Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”
Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”
The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.
“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.
“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”
Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”
Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation.
The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.
There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.
(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)
But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.
Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.
But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime. That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.
The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”.
Who will be France's next president? Here's a guide to the most unpredictable French election in decades.
Never has a French presidential election captivated so many international commentators before. And the stakes of the race are high. The incumbent President, François Hollande, who has been trailing in opinion polls for years, is not a candidate. His Socialist party is divided over its candidate Benoît Hamon, designated by a primary vote but judged too left-wing. Votes on the centre of both left and right are being swept up in the campaign of the maverick candidate, Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister with no party but a “political movement” with great momentum. The centre right candidate, François Fillon, is engulfed in a fraud scandal for which he has been charged, has lost most of his supporters as a result and leads a party in disarray. And on the far-right end of the spectrum, Marine Le Pen, the anti-EU leader of the populist National Front, is gaining ground. For the first time, the far-right could win France – no one can predict the outcome of this election.
To elect the new French president, voters go to the polls twice. Unless one can get a majority of more than 50 per cent of the vote in the first round (held on April 23rd this year), the two candidates who receive the highest scores face each other in the run-up (May 7th).
Here are the five candidates who have been regularly polling at more than 10 per cent of the vote.
Marine Le Pen, 48, is the leader of the hard-right party Front National (FN). She has rebranded the jackass party of her father, Jean-Marie, which had a reputation for xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, into a populist, nationalist movement that is playing with the French people’s anxieties – namely the sluggish economy and immigration. The FN has made major gains in the polls in recent years, winning 14 city councils in 2014 and massively seducing the young. The party does very well in rural and post-industrial areas like the Northeast, the East and the Southeast.
Le Pen is strongly anti-European Union and promises a referendum on France’s EU membership. Her main pledges include drastically reducing immigration, reinstituting border controls and ditching the Euro for a national currency. Her nationalist, populist vision puts her in direct opposition to Macron’s globalism.
She is being investigated into “fake” jobs at the European Parliament.
She is currently leading the polls in the first round with 26 per cent of the vote. Current polling suggests she would make it to the run-up.
Read the NS’ profile of Le Pen here.
François Fillon, 63, is the candidate of the centre-right party Les Republicains (previously UMP, previously RPR – the party of former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac likes to change its name every decade.) Since late January, the French media has been covering Fillon in great detail, but not to his advantage: he has been placed under formal investigation in a fake job scandal after it emerged that his wife had been paid as his parliamentary assistant for years, but no proof of actual work could be found. Fillon has lost many supports after he decided to keep running while being investigated.
His main pledges include liberalising the French economy and reducing the number of civil servants. Ironically, he has promised to ban the hire of relatives as parliamentary assistants.
He is currently third in the polls in the first round with 20 per cent of the vote. In the current polling, he would not make it to the run-up.
Read the NS’ profile of Fillon here.
Emmanuel Macron, 39, was François Hollande’s economy minister until 2016, when he created his own political movement, En Marche! (matching his initial letters) and entered the presidential race. He has worked as a banker and has never been elected before.
Although he has served under a Socialist government, Macron is seen as a centrist politician and is supported by François Bayrou, who has run as the centre’s candidate in past elections.
Macron has been widely criticized for his “lack of experience” and for not publishing a programme until a few weeks ago. His main pledges include the liberalisation of the French job market and reforming the education system. His globalist, international vision puts him in opposition to Marine Le Pen’s nationalism.
He is currently second in the first round with 24 per cent of the vote. He would make it to the run-up.
Read the NS’ profile of Macron here.
Benoît Hamon, 49, is the candidate of the Socialist party and has been the education minister under Hollande. But the party hasn’t rallied behind him, judging his policies too left-wing. Some Socialists have officially declared they will vote for Macron instead. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said he “could not vote” for Hamon.
Hamon has been compared to Jeremy Corbyn, though he is strongly pro-Europe. His main pledges include taxing robots and creating a basic universal income.
He is currently fifth in the first round, with 11 per cent of the vote. He would not make it to the run-up.
Read the NS’ profile of Hamon here.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, 65, is the candidate for the hard-left with his movement France Insoumise. A lot closer to Jeremy Corbyn than Hamon on Europe and nuclear weapons, his main pledges include withdrawing France from Nato and European treaties, increasing the minimum wage and setting the age of retirement at 60. (He is most famous for having been the first French politician to appear as a hologram during simultaneous rallies in Paris and Lyon.)
He is currently fourth in the first round with 13 per cent of the vote. He would not make it to the run-up.
The candidates most probable to reach the second round are currently Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Some polls put Macron leading the first round, but Le Pen has a stronger base: her voters are much less likely to change their minds.
In the run-up, polls currently put Emmanuel Macron winning against Marine Le Pen with 61 per cent of the vote against Le Pen’s 39 per cent. If Fillon is facing Le Pen, polls put him winning with 58 per cent, against Le Pen’s 42 per cent.
Anything can still happen before May 7th: Fillon may be forced to step down if he is charged; Macron may lose momentum; polls may be highly underestimating Le Pen's ratings, as they did for the EU referendum and the US election. And that's without Russia in the picture. So, who will be the next French president? It may well be Emmanuel Macron. But it's far too early to tell for sure.
Poll source: OpinionWay / Orpi pour Les Echos et Radio Classique, 27 March
This article was last updated on 27 March. We will keep updating the candidates' poll ratings until the election.
Iran's imprisonment of my constituent breaches the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I grew up with a very paranoid mother. She had tragically lost members of her family as a teenager and, as a result, she is extremely fearful when it came to her children. I used to laugh at her growing up – I indulged it but often scoffed at her constant need to hear from us.
A few days ago, I was in Parliament as normal. My husband, his parents and our baby daughter were all in Parliament. This rare occasion had come about due to my mother in law’s birthday – I thought it would be a treat for her to lunch in the Mother of Parliaments!
The division bells rang half way through our meal and I left them to vote, grabbing my phone of the table. “See you in ten minutes!” I told them. I didn’t see them for more than five hours.
The minute the doors bolted and the Deputy Speaker announced that we were indefinitely being kept safe in the chamber, all I could think about was my daughter. In my heart of hearts, I knew she was safe. She was surrounded by people who loved her and would protect her even more ferociously than I ever could.
But try explaining that to a paranoid mother. Those five hours felt like an eternity. In my head, I imagined she was crying for me and that I couldn’t be there for her while the building we were in was under attack. In reality, I later found out she had been happily singing Twinkle Twinkle little star and showing off her latest crawl.
That sense of helplessness and desperate impatience is hard to describe. I counted down the minutes until I could see her, as my imagination ran away with me. In those 5 hours, I started thinking more and more about my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Here I was, temporarily locked in the Parliamentary chamber, surrounded by friends and colleagues and door keepers who were doing all they could to keep me safe. I knew I was going to be let out eventually and that I would be reunited with my daughter and husband within hours.
Nazanin has been detained in the notorious Evin prison in Iran for nearly a year. She only gets an occasional supervised visit with her two-year-old daughter Gabriella. She’s missed Christmas with Gabriella, she missed Gabriella’s second birthday and no doubt she will be missing Mother’s Day with Gabriella.
But it’s not just the big occasions, it’s the everyday developments when Gabriella learns a new song, discovers a new story, makes a new friend. Those are the important milestones that my mother never missed with me and the ones I want to make sure I don’t miss with my daughter.
Unfortunately, Nazanin is just one of many examples to choose from. Globally there are more than half a million women in prison serving a sentence following conviction, or are awaiting trial. Many of these women are mothers who have been separated from their children for years.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Bangkok Rules - the first international instrument to explicitly address the different needs that female prisoners have. It was also the first instrument to outline safeguards for the children of imprisoned mothers.
The Bangkok Rules apply to all women prisoners throughout all stages of the criminal justice system, including before sentencing and after release. However, Nazanin’s case has seen a wilful flouting of the rules at each and every stage.
Rule 23 states that ‘Disciplinary sanctions for women prisoners shall not include a prohibition of family contact, especially with children’. Tell that to her daughter, Gabriella, who has barely seen her mother for the best part of a year.
Rule 26 adds that women prisoners’ contact with their families shall be facilitated by all reasonable means, especially for those detained in prisons located far from their homes. Tell that to her husband, Richard, who in almost a year has only spoken to his wife via a few calls monitored by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Iran has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and supported the Bangkok Rules, yet it is breaching both with its treatment of Nazanin. It is therefore incumbent upon our government to take the formal step of calling for Nazanin's release - it is staggering they have not yet done so.
As I pass the window displays in shops for Mother’s Day, most of the cards have messages centred around ‘making your mother happy’. If there’s one mother I’d like to make happy this year, it’s Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Tulip Siddiq is Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn
Unionism may be in greater immediate danger in Belfast than Edinburgh.
Sinn Féin have announced that they will not put forward a candidate for deputy first minister, and barring a miracle, that means today's 4pm deadline for a new power-sharing executive will come and go. What next for Northern Ireland?
While another election is possible, it's not particularly likely. Although another contest might change the political composition at Stormont a little, when the dust settles, once again, the problem will be that the DUP and Sinn Féin are unable to agree terms to resume power-sharing.
That means a decade of devolved rule is ending and direct rule from Westminster is once again upon us. Who benefits? As Patrick explains in greater detail, a period of direct rule might be good news for Sinn Féin, who can go into the next set of elections in the Republic of Ireland on an anti-austerity platform without the distracting matter of the austerity they are signing off in the North. The change at the top also allows that party to accelerate its move away from the hard men of the north and towards a leadership that is more palatable in the south..
Despite that, the DUP aren't as worried as you might expect. For one thing, a period of devolved rule, when the government at Westminster has a small majority isn't without upside for the DUP, who will continue to exert considerable leverage over May.
But the second factor is a belief that in the last election, Arlene Foster, their leader, flopped on the campaign trail with what was widely derided as a "fear" message about the consequences of the snap election instead of taking responsibility for involvement in the "cash for ash" scandal. That when the votes were cast, the Unionist majority at Stormont was wiped out means that message will have greater resonance next time than it did last time, or at least, that's how the theory runs.
Who's right? Who knows. But for Theresa May, it further ups the stakes for a good Brexit deal, particularly as far as the Irish border is concerned. A lot of the focus - including the PM's - is on her trip to Scotland and the stresses on that part of the Union. It may be that Unionism is in greater immediate danger in Belfast than Edinburgh.
Steve Bannon, the US president’s chief strategist, wants to destroy the state.
In 2013 and 2014, Steve Bannon organised “The Uninvited”, an event on the fringes of the Conservative Political Action Conference which gave a platform to right-wing thinkers deemed too extreme for the largest annual gathering of American conservatives. But on 23 February this year, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist took to the CPAC stage in his trademark uniform of an open-necked shirt, boxy jacket and rumpled chinos and greeted the audience with the self-satisfied swagger of a game-show host. Having surveyed the room with a smile, he quickly revealed a flash of malice. “Is that the opposition party back there?” he asked, gesturing towards the press corps, before jutting out his chin and nodding his head, like a brawler preparing to exchange blows.
Bannon, a 63-year-old former naval officer, Goldman Sachs banker and propagandist film-maker who owes his fortune to an early investment in the hit comedy Seinfeld, has rarely spoken in public since he joined Trump’s inner team, but on this occasion he was expansive. He hailed the president for ushering in a “new political order” and described the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal as “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history”. Asked to list the new administration’s priorities, he cited three “lines of work”: first, the protection of “national security and sovereignty”; second, the promotion of “economic nationalism” by renegotiating US trade deals; and third, the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. The crowd applauded.
Bannon usually outlines his end goal using less bureaucratic language but the message is unchanged. He has described himself as a “Leninist” who shares with the Bolshevik leader a desire to “destroy the state”. “I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment,” he told the historian Ronald Radosh in 2013. (Bannon has since said he does not recall their conversation). Described by one ally as a “walking bibliography”, Bannon is fiercely intelligent and ruthlessly ambitious, and believes that America is facing an existential crisis that can be averted only through radical action. He was one of the most widely anticipated speakers at CPAC this year and, by many accounts, is the chief manipulator and mastermind behind the Trump presidency, yet he is resolutely anti-conservative: Bannon wants to break things.
Last August, he took leave from Breitbart, the provocative, far-right news organisation he began leading in 2012, to become the chief executive of the Trump campaign. Bannon’s influence has grown since then. On 28 January, eight days after Trump’s inauguration, the president gave him a full seat on the principals committee of the National Security Council, a body made up of senior military officials and top policymakers that discusses the most pressing foreign policy issues. Although presidential aides have occasionally attended NSC meetings in the past, many see Bannon’s formal presence as demonstrating an unprecedented politicisation of national security decisions and an alarming rise to power of a man with no previous experience of government.
In an editorial following his appointment to the NSC, the New York Times suggested that Bannon was positioning himself as “de facto president” and expressed concern about his “penchant for blowing things up”. A week later, the paper published an investigation alleging that Trump was angry that he had not been fully briefed before he signed the executive order granting Bannon this exceptional access. The suggestion that Bannon may be taking advantage of the president’s short attention span and thin policy knowledge to serve his own interests is not far-fetched. Trump is “a blunt instrument for us”, Bannon told Vanity Fair last year, seemingly referring to American nationalists. “I don’t know whether he really gets it or not.”
Former colleagues have described Bannon as a “bully”, a “nasty human being” and a “monster”. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, has repeatedly slammed him as a “white supremacist”, and he has faced accusations of anti-Semitism, misogyny and Islamophobia. From an office at the White House that he calls “the war room”, he has driven, reporters say, some of Trump’s most contentious policy decisions, such as the ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States (subsequently reduced to six). He is also reported to have been one of the authors of Trump’s dystopian inauguration address, with its vision of “American carnage”.
Described in a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek profile as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, Bannon delights in his evil overlord persona. “Darkness is good,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in November. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Stephen K Bannon was born in 1953 to a blue-collar, Irish Catholic, Democrat-voting family in Richmond, a city then of just over 230,000 people in the Southern state of Virginia. His father, Martin “Marty” Bannon, started out repairing telephone lines for AT&T and eventually moved into management. Bannon was the middle of five children and attended the all-boys’ Benedictine High School (now Benedictine College Preparatory), a Catholic, military-type institution owned and run by the monastic order. The headmaster and some of his teachers were Benedictine monks. The pupils, or “cadets”, wore military tags and were known by their surname only.
“It was a very traditional education, if you will, and definitely a very conservative school. I remember when we did mock elections, they’d be 90 per cent for the Republicans,” John Pudner, who also attended Benedictine High School, told me.
Pudner now leads Take Back Our Republic, a group that aims to break the influence of big donors on campaign financing, and he has worked with Bannon on several occasions, serving at one point as the launch sports editor for Breitbart. He believes their schooling helped shape the contours of Bannon’s world-view: a commitment to small government and conventional family values, combined with a distrust of political and economic elites of all persuasions. Bannon maintained a close relationship with his alma mater. He served for a while on its board of trustees and in 2011 he joined a campaign, together with Pudner, to prevent the school from relocating from the diverse inner city to Richmond’s wealthy, all-white suburbs. Pudner says they were motivated by a sense of “Catholic mission”. “That’s part of what we understood our Catholicism to be, that you weren’t just kind of off in an elite spot . . . you mingle, and you convey ideas but you’re also part of the community,” Pudner said. They lost the campaign but not, Pudner was quick to point out, without claiming a few scalps: three county supervisors who supported the move lost their seats in that year’s election.
Bannon studied urban affairs at Virginia Tech university and was elected president of its student government association in 1975. On graduating, he joined the navy. Though he was not directly involved in the operation, he was serving as a junior officer aboard the destroyer USS Paul F Foster in 1980 when US forces launched a failed attempt to rescue 52 people held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran. “I wasn’t political until I got into the service and saw how badly Jimmy Carter f***ed things up. I became a huge Reagan admirer. Still am,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. After Ronald Reagan’s election that year, Bannon worked in naval operations at the Pentagon while taking an MA in national security studies at Georgetown University.
In 1983 he made the first of many career changes and enrolled at Harvard Business School. A classmate from those years told the Boston Globe that Bannon was “top three in intellectual horsepower in our class – perhaps the smartest”. After completing his MBA he joined Goldman Sachs but left in 1990 to set up his own investment firm, Bannon & Co, specialising in the media industry. He acquired his stake in Seinfeld in 1993, when the sitcom, centred on the lives of four highly strung New Yorkers, was in its fourth series and still drawing relatively small audiences. Within a year, the show became one of the most popular in America. It is not known how large Bannon’s stake is, but in 2013 the Financial Times reported that Seinfeld had earned $3.1bn through syndication in the previous five years. He continues to earn royalties today.
The Seinfeld windfall helped fund his career as a film-maker. Julia Jones, a screenwriter who worked with Bannon on and off for two decades, remembers first meeting him at a party in Beverley Hills in 1991; they spoke of his plans to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen. Bannon’s overgrown hair, pasty complexion and dishevelled clothing recently prompted the comedian Stephen Colbert to describe him as “Robert Redford dredged from a river”, but in the 1990s, Jones told me: “He dressed down, but he was still neat and clean. He was preppy. He was really very attractive, good-looking, charismatic – and he weighed a lot less.”
They struck up a close friendship. Jones describes him as “very, very smart, but not in an obnoxious way”, and an avid reader with a keen interest in ancient philosophy and military strategy. He was fun to be around, largely because he had “an idea a minute”, some quirkier than others. When he called one day to say he had written the opening to a rap adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus set in LA during the 1992 race riots, she agreed to work with him on it.
Bannon’s faith was evidently important to him – at one point he considered adapting St Mark’s Gospel for the cinema – but the writing partners rarely discussed politics. Jones, who considers herself left-of-Bernie-Sanders, told me that though he expressed “the usual GOP views” he usually ignored rather than confronted the opinions of liberals he worked with. The most overtly political project Jones and Bannon co-wrote was his directorial debut – In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed, released in 2004. The trailer splices Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech with footage from the Second World War, Communist-era Russia and the 9/11 attacks, intercut with pseudo-religious captions: “In mankind’s bloodiest and most barbaric century . . . came a man with a vision. An outsider, a radical with extreme views . . . of how to confront evil. Evil is powerless . . . if the good are unafraid.”
Jones says: “The Reagan documentary really launched Steve into the world of Washington politics. Before that he was a wannabe film-maker in Hollywood.” It was at an early screening of In the Face of Evil that he first met Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the eponymous news group. He later began making films with David Bossie, who leads the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. Bossie introduced Bannon to Donald Trump in 2011, when Trump was contemplating running for the Republican presidential ticket. Bossie and Bannon worked together on hagiographic documentaries of the Tea Party leaders Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, as well as Generation Zero (2010), which attributed the 2007 financial crash to a “failure of culture”, and Occupy Unmasked (2012), which promised to tell “the true story of the radicals behind the Occupy movement”.
“People have said I’m like Leni Riefenstahl,” Bannon told the Wall Street Journal in 2011, adding that he was a “student of” the Nazi propagandist, as well as the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and the liberal documentary-maker Michael Moore.
In his new incarnation as a crusading film-maker, he started to dress differently. Jones recalls how, while he was working on The Undefeated, his 2011 film about Sarah Palin, “I looked up one day and I couldn’t tell him from Michael Moore.”
After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Bannon’s world-view grew darker. He has consistently argued that Islam is at odds with Western values and civilisation. In a speech delivered to a conference at the Vatican in 2014, he argued that the West is “at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism”, using the phrase popularised by Christopher Hitchens. He sees the whole religion, and not just its violent fringes, as a threat. “If you look back at the long history of the Judaeo-Christian West’s struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world,” he said.
Pudner, his friend from Richmond, says Bannon first expressed an interest in entering politics after the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Bannon’s father, who is in his nineties and with whom Bannon is very close, lost almost all his life savings as the stock market crashed. “He felt like, ‘My dad’s working class, worked his whole life, put money away to save up and now he has no money to do anything, and all my old friends at Goldman Sachs are figuring out how all the rich people are not hurt in this recession,’” Pudner told me. “That was his first motivation, when he just said, ‘You know something? I’m going to have to get into politics because something’s wrong here.’”
Bannon’s anger at the financial elite did not forestall his profound hatred for the Occupy movement. While promoting Occupy Unmasked, he said, with characteristic crudeness, that the film would leave viewers wanting “to go home and shower because you’ve just spent an hour and 15 minutes with the greasiest, dirtiest people you will ever see”. He is also no champion of the poor. The focus of his concern is those in the middle, who he believes are hardest hit in an economy that provides “socialism for the very poor and the wealthy and a brutal form of capitalism for everybody else”.
He argues that the United States faces a threat to its existence, not only because of its financial vulnerability but also because capitalism has become separated from its “Judaeo-Christian” roots. The solution he proposes is a populist, middle-class revolt against the Democratic Party and the “apparatus on the left”, which includes the mainstream media and the education system, as well as the Republican leadership.
In a speech to the Liberty Restoration Foundation in 2011, Bannon described the challenge facing post-crash America as the “great fourth turning in American history”. The Fourth Turning is a 1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe which argues that history works in 80-to-100-year cycles, each culminating in a two-decade “turning” or “crisis”, in which the old civic order is replaced by a new one. “Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyse a Crisis mode. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire,” the book warns. The result could be war, civil violence, a break-up of the US, or authoritarianism, “Yet Americans will also enter the Fourth Turning with a unique opportunity to achieve a new greatness as a people.”
By 2012 Bannon had transformed himself again, this time from film-maker to far-right media chief. Two years earlier, he had begun offering free office space to Andrew Breitbart for his pugnacious news site. When Breitbart died of heart failure at the age of 43 in March 2012, Bannon, already a board member of the Breitbart group, was appointed chairman. Under his leadership, breitbart.com pursued an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda and ran such incendiary headlines as “‘Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?’”. Bannon has proudly declared that the website is “the platform for the alt right”; this term covers a broad spectrum of far-right ideologies that share a core belief that white identity is under attack. Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a civil rights group, told me that “alt right” is best thought of, in essence, as “a whitewashing rebranding of old-fashioned white supremacy, or white nationalism”. Among the writers Bannon championed was Milo Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter in 2016 for racially abusing the actress Leslie Jones and encouraging his followers to do the same, and who most recently made headlines for appearing to condone paedophilia.
Many of Bannon’s former colleagues, including some of his fiercest critics, have denied that he is racist or anti-Semitic. Yet he appears, at the very least, untroubled by the prejudices of those who write for Breitbart and comprise much of its readership. In July 2016, speaking to the progressive magazine Mother Jones, he conceded that some white nationalists, anti-Semites and homophobes were attracted to the alt right, but argued that the American left also attracts “certain elements”.
Ex-staffers at Breitbart have accused Bannon of exerting dictatorial control over the site’s content, using it to curry favour with friends and take down enemies, and ordering changes to articles he deemed not vitriolic enough. “Everyone who works with Steve in a position of subordination is scared shitless of him. Because he’s a bully and he yells at people and he harasses people and he’s a nasty human being,” Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart editor-at-large, told me.
In March 2016 several staff members, including Shapiro, left Breitbart. The trigger was the organisation’s refusal to stand by one of its reporters, Michelle Fields, after she was allegedly assaulted by Trump’s then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. But many also objected to Bannon transforming Breitbart into a “propaganda outlet” and “a whorehouse for Trump”, as Shapiro put it. Bannon’s media strategy was two-pronged: in 2012, as he built a growing audience on the fringe right through Breitbart, he co-founded the Government Accountability Institute, a non-profit organisation whose sophisticated investigations into subjects such as the Clintons’ finances were picked up by the wider media.
In November 2015, Bannon became the founding host of the Breitbart News Daily radio show. Donald Trump was a repeat guest. Here, the frequently offensive Bannon showed himself to be also an effective sycophant. “I know you’re a student of military history . . . ” he told the candidate who professed to have too little time to read books. The pair enjoyed an easy rapport, Bannon asking leading questions and pontificating on Trump’s wealth, the size of his rallies, his skill as a deal-maker.
“The way he gets in people’s ears is by telling them that they are the greatest geniuses he has ever met and he will make them famous and powerful,” Shapiro told me. “And then he proceeds to give the go-ahead to all of their worst instincts because if you’re the yes-man you never get fired.”
Bannon often boasts that he was among the first to recognise Trump’s political potential. The property tycoon and reality-TV star announced his candidacy in June 2015 with a speech in which he pledged to build a wall between Mexico and the United States to keep out immigrant rapists, drug dealers and other criminals. “The idea of somebody running for president – of all things – who talks about essentially ethnic nationalism was a wake-up call, an electrifying event for people like Bannon and in general what is called the alt right,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the Centre for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Even before Bannon formally joined Trump’s campaign the two men enjoyed a close relationship. Trump consulted Breitbart and other fringe websites for news and echoed their anti-foreigner, America First rhetoric.
“Bannon saw in Trump someone who could be a vehicle for realising at the presidential level those kinds of ideological tenets. While Trump saw in Bannon someone who was very effective at messaging along the lines of what Trump had already understood about nativism: anti-immigrant, that kind of nationalist rhetoric,” Rosenthal says. He believes that Bannon “reveals the ideological heart of Trumpism”.
An unnamed former associate described Bannon to Politico as “the Rain Man of nationalism” because of his speed-reading habits. The Politico site reported that he had urged White House staff to read books such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, a treatise on how to thrive in an age of chaos and uncertainty.
Public comments made by Bannon show his familiarity with writers who remain obscure beyond far-right circles. In his 2014 Vatican speech, he cited the work of Julius Evola, whose writings provided inspiration for the Italian Fascists. He has repeatedly described the European migrant crisis as mirroring The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel by Jean Raspail, in which France and the rest of Europe are overrun by dark-skinned, faeces-eating, sexually predatory refugees bent on
overpowering the white population. However, Bannon may read more widely: late last year a New York Times reporter spotted him at an airport poring over The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s account of foreign policy mistakes made by the brilliant young advisers who worked for J F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. He told the reporter he had asked several people in the Trump administration to read the book, saying it’s “great for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later”.
Bannon has been divorced three times and has three daughters, to whom he is reportedly devoted. During the presidential campaign, journalists uncovered police records showing that he was charged with domestic violence during his second marriage (he pleaded not guilty) as well as court records from after their divorce in which his ex-wife alleges that he didn’t want their twin daughters “going to school with Jews”, because he “doesn’t like Jews”. (He denies having said this.) Generally, however, those close to him say that the self-styled Prince of Darkness is enjoying his time in the spotlight and is thriving under the pressure of his new role.
The chief strategist had a glaringly obvious influence on Trump’s inaugural address, and is reported to have pushed for the administration’s hard line on immigration. Under Trump, the White House website no longer mentions climate change, nor does it have a section on LGBT rights. Bannon has described global warming as a “manufactured crisis” (implying it isn’t real); Breitbart similarly dismisses climate change as a “hoax” and a “scam”. He has little patience with left-wing identity politics but is obsessed with right-wing identity politics. On his watch, Breitbart published several articles under the tag “Black Crime” and stories on “immigrant” and “illegal alien” crime before Trump landed on the same theme.
He is also reported to have been responsible for some of Trump’s more reckless executive orders, such as the so-called Muslim ban, overturned by the courts again this month. His rash approach to policymaking may be a product of his combative personality. “Any time there’d be a sort of controversial move his first instinct was always: go for it . . . and that’s what blows up in his face,” Shapiro told me. Having made the transition from outsider agitator to ultimate political insider, Bannon may find his long-term success depends on an ability to curb his attack-dog instincts and to compromise.
Bannon once compared himself to “Cromwell in the House of Tudors”, the history buff perhaps having forgotten that ultimately Thomas Cromwell was executed for treason. The Trump administration having spent its first weeks in near-permanent crisis mode, that boast may yet come to haunt him. Yet the master of reinvention could equally outlast Trump. “If they all get swept out of the White House, Bannon’s still going. He’s still got an agenda; Trump isn’t all he’s interested in,” Julia Jones told me.
It is not clear where he might end up, should Trump no longer serve his interests, but this much is evident: the right-wing Leninist is unnaturally good at getting what he wants and to where he wants to be.
Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer
For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?
There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.
It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.
“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.
The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.
Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.
Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.
This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.
Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.
“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.
There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.
Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.
As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.
“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”
Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators.
If Labour can unite around a compelling vision of the country we aspire to become, the path back to power may not be as long as we sometimes fear.
The triggering of Article 50 initiates the formal process of leaving the European Union, but it should also lead to a debate about the kind of country we aspire to be. In this paper, I offer thoughts on the government’s approach to Brexit, on the wider challenges facing post-Brexit Britain, and a contribution to the debate on how Labour should approach both. I am confident that if we meet these challenges, and do so on the basis of a core set of ideas around which the Labour movement can agree, we can shift the mood of division and uncertainty to one of unity and national renewal.
What we need from the Brexit negotiations is a trade deal that works for the whole of the United Kingdom and the preservation of close cooperation with EU partners on counter-terrorism and crime. We need a deal that protects labour and environmental standards for workers and consumers, and that clarifies the rights of UK and EU citizens living in member states other than their own.
What we have is a Prime Minister who has argued for a pick and mix customs union that would contravene WTO rules; a Brexit Minister with no plan to deliver a fall back to the WTO; complacency with regard to the negotiations; and no plan to hold the UK together, other than to assert that everything will be fine in Northern Ireland and that Scotland must come to heel. Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary spends his time fantasising about restoring a role East of Suez and agitating for the purchase of a new Royal yacht.
The Prime Minister has a mandate to negotiate a good Brexit deal for the country. If it becomes clear during the course of negotiations that she is failing to deliver, it will be Labour’s job to exert influence in parliament to ensure that she does.
Our Future Challenges
But our national challenges go wider than this.
By 2030, the population aged 65 or over will be 33% higher while the working age population will be 3% higher. Without change, a gap will open up in the public finances as an aging population delivers lower tax receipts while spending pressures rise.
The 4th industrial revolution is also transforming the world of work. I had a glimpse of this on a recent visit to Japan where I saw technology replacing care workers in a residential home. It is possible that automation could lead to the increased productivity we need, but according to a recent McKinsey Global Institute study, it could also mean almost half of today’s jobs are made obsolete. It is in this context that business leaders like Bill Gates are suggesting a need to levy a tax on robots.
We are going to have to seize the opportunities of this technological change while addressing its implications for taxation, employment, welfare, education and skills policy.And we are going to have to do that while recognising we are coming up against the natural limits of the planet.
If you step back from the immediacy of the debates over Brexit and Scotland’s future, the full scale and character of the challenge facing the country looks something this. We have to:
Reset our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world;
Increase our productivity to both generate more wealth and support an aging population;
Prepare for the opportunities and challenges that new technology will bring;
Respond to the demand for wealth, power and opportunity to be spread more fairly around the country, as clearly expressed in the Brexit vote;
And lock environmental sustainability into everything we do.
We will need to meet these challenges in fiscal circumstances that will be tough, and do so while bringing people together, because seven years in to a Tory Britain, we remain one Kingdom in the formal sense but few would say we are United. In Tory Britain Leavers are pitted against those who prefer to Remain; the poor are pitted against the rich; the young against the old; the Scots against the English; the north against the south; men against women; and British born residents against immigrants. Outside of important but isolated moments of national unity in the face of incidents like the recent tragic terrorist attack in Westminster, solidarity in our country is too often overshadowed by social disharmony while the country hovers on the brink of fracture.
Meeting these big challenges facing the country means overcoming significant barriers, not least the current government’s failure to prepare us for them. On coming to power in 2010, the Tories said the economic priority was to get the deficit down and the debt under control. George Osborne stated that a sustainable recovery would require more investment, more savings and higher exports.
He was right.
But seven years in, there’s not a balanced budget in sight, the national debt is still rising, and the savings ratio is not up but down from 11% in 2010 to 6.5% now. Seven years in, exports as a share of GDP aren’t up, but down, and capital investment remains among the lowest in the OECD, with only Greece and Portugal investing less.
We are doing no better when it comes to preparing our people for the challenges ahead. In the last decade, 500,000 children from the most deprived neighbourhoods were not ‘school ready’ by the age of five. In 2015, only 53% of school leavers in England achieved five good GCSE passes that included English and Maths. Attendance levels in further education are flat-lining and drop-out rates are too high. Although the number of apprenticeships has been growing most are in low-skill sectors with little chance of progression. And for those in work and on low pay, Britain has no comprehensive programme of vocational education and training to help people move on from a job to a better job.
It’s no wonder that productivity levels in Germany are 36% higher than they are in the UK.And no wonder that the Local Government Association has forecast that by 2022 there will be 9.2 million low-skilled people chasing 3.7 million low skilled jobs while we suffer a shortage of three million high-skilled workers.
The government’s record isn’t any better on fairness.
The Prime Minister would like us to think she leads a new government focused on the burning injustices of Britain but seven years into a period of Tory government a child living in England’s most disadvantaged area is still 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than a child in the most advantaged. We are witnessing the biggest increase in child poverty in a generation. Economic projections indicate we will soon see the biggest increase in inequality since the Thatcher years. And attendance at private school is still the best predictor of a child’s chances of becoming a barrister, a doctor, or even an Olympic athlete.
The Tories never have and never will deliver a fairer Britain, which is why it is so important that the Labour Party exists to do so.
A Greater Truth
But if we are to do so, we in the Labour Party have to ask ourselves some searching questions because the uncomfortable truth is that we can’t lay all the problems facing the country today at the door of the Tories alone. Despite the very considerable achievements of the last Labour government, and there were many, the roots of our national predicament were planted well before 2010.
It is fashionable these days to talk as though industrial strategy has been absent in Britain for many years, only just returning in the more recent past. But this isn’t true. The truth is we have been running an industrial strategy in this country for the best part of four decades, just not calling it that, and it has been a bad one. This strategy has consisted of the simplistic, flawed, but nonetheless powerful idea that only the private sector creates wealth while the public sector spends it. It has been manifest in the use of public procurement budgets to pump tens of billions of pounds into opaque PFI deals and outsourcing contracts, some of which have worked, but many of which have delivered dubious results and lower wages for workers. It is reflected in reluctance to do anything about the vast amounts of unearned and untaxed income on wealth that has been used not for long-term productive investment in great British businesses but for speculative share-trading in a model of British capitalism that is plagued by short-termism. And its signature is visible in decisions by governments of both persuasions to prioritise cuts to corporation tax over more ambitious public investment in physical infrastructure and people.
This has all left us with an economy that is over-reliant on finance and the south-east, with a persistent trade deficit, and not enough innovative companies for an economy of almost 70 million people. It has bestowed poor productivity, the asset stripping of many of our best companies and a growth model that to this day, is fuelled by excessive and still growing consumer debt. The public realm, defended and enhanced in many ways by the Labour government when times seemed good, has since withered and is now being savagely attacked as a result.
Poverty pay and inequality stalks this scene not only as a mark of injustice but as an essential driver of what has been going on, because when credit is cheap and people can’t earn enough to give themselves and their families a decent life, they borrow. Both Labour and Tory governments allowed them to do so and failed to rein in the easy credit, contributing to the onset of the financial crisis in the process. Letting it go on was easier than doing the heavy lifting required to re-think the entire economic model.
The crisis of trust we face in our politics is also not unconnected to this economic picture. People feel their politicians are too close to vested interests. Access to decisions and decision-makers is easier for those with wealth or connections. Too little government action appears to be in the public interest, and too much in the private interest of those already doing well.
All this seems set to get worse. Because the age of automation is going to see huge accumulations of capital in the hands of relatively few businesses and the people who own them. While this will mean high wages for some, it is going to mean not only job losses but downward pressure on wages for many others unless we upskill and ready our people and institutions for the challenges ahead.
If Labour wants to be heard again by the millions of working people we exist to represent, it needs not just to challenge the Tories on Brexit and to hold them to account for their record of failure over the last seven years, but to break with the industrial strategy of recent decades and chart a new course.
Reuniting and Renewing the Kingdom
In the context of Britain today, this means developing an ambitious programme of reform in pursuit of a reunited and renewed country while giving some indication of how we would pay for it. It means setting out a programme that addresses the flaws and injustices of Britain’s current economic model in pursuit not just of prosperity, but of a radically fairer distribution of wealth, power and opportunity.It means building a more transparent and accountable democracy, while addressing divisive issues in our politics and meeting the greatest areas of unmet need. And it means a programme that understands if Britain is not active in helping to shape the world beyond our shores that world will come to shape us here, and not always in ways that we might welcome.
At the heart of this programme must be an idea around which the Labour Party itself can unite, namely a belief in the power of the democratic state to do good. Without the state, there is little to stand between the maelstrom of neo-liberal globalisation, Brexit, the 4th industrial revolution, and a growing level of unemployment, inequality and insecure and low paid work for our people.
To deliver what we need, the state itself must also be renewed and used in different and more creative ways, its role not seen as anti-business but as influential and powerful in partnership with business and citizens.
A Civic Capitalism in the Public Interest
If we are to move down this road in pursuit of a reunited and renewed country, the power of the state must be used more creatively and assertively to build a civic capitalism that serves the public interest. It is time to ask not what we can do for capitalism, but what capitalism can do for us.
The starting point has to be to address the weaknesses in our national infrastructure and the inequalities in levels of infrastructure investment across the different nations and regions of the country. Far more investment is needed outside of London and the south-east without leaving London and the south-east short of the investment they need.
The National Infrastructure Commission should be tasked with identifying all projects that could pay for themselves over time, and we should take advantage of historically low interest rates to mobilise a mix of public and private capital and get on with them as quickly as possible.
Our digital infrastructure must be singled out for special treatment and be radically improved. Given the power of digital to connect people with markets, ideas and each other, its improvement is not just about national productivity and innovation but also about fairness, the radical redistribution of opportunity and social inclusion.
To deliver a genuinely civic form of capitalism that serves the public interest, however, we must do far more. We must bury the myth that only the private sector creates wealth while the public sector spends it and breathe life into the idea of the entrepreneurial state. A state that invests in areas of potential growth and the development of intellectual property, but also shares in the rewards of that growth and intellectual property when it comes.
We need an industrial strategy that doesn’t seek to pick individual corporate winners but sets ambitious public interest goals and catalyses and coordinates action to achieve them. If we are to decarbonise the economy for example, as we must, this is going to need not just clear long term carbon reduction targets but required investments in the car industry, construction, energy generation and distribution technologies, and the setting of standards and regulations across each of these industries to make sure the targets are met. To get this done, to put Britain at the cutting-edge of the low-carbon economy and position it to benefit from the jobs that can be created in this industry in future, government must not only invest but work with a network of businesses, universities, trade unions, auto manufacturers, construction companies, technology entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and others. The idea that this will just happen if we leave it to the market is nonsense.
The powerful role of the state as the procurer of goods and services must also be used to better effect. Every public contract must be transparent, and clear lines of accountability and redress need to be in place for when a service provider fails to deliver. The workers being employed to deliver public contracts must be on decent wages and terms and conditions and sometimes the state may need to specify a preferred location for any new jobs being created. If the free hand of the market doesn’t produce jobs where our communities need them, the guiding hand of the state will have to do so.
Civic capitalism also requires an end to the endemic short-termism that characterises our economy today. This means examining changes to corporate law to make sure companies focus on long-term purpose not short-term shareholder value. It means making sure the tax system favours long-term equity ownership, not asset stripping and debt. And it means examining the rights of shareholders, so that those who own shares for longer have greater rights.
And to really lock in a commitment to the long-term, we need to take action to spread ownership of the economy to more of our people. The people who call Britain home are the ones with most to gain from the country’s long-term economic success.We not only need a major expansion of social housing, but more people need a chance to own their own home or own a small but growing share in their home. We need a major increase in employee share ownership and to give people help to set up mutual organisations and cooperatives. In a new civic capitalism, asset ownership must be widely dispersed, not concentrated to excess.
We must support the important work being done by Frances O’Grady at the TUC, to make sure workers have a say on company boards and remuneration committees and more have recognised rights whether they are self-employed, work in the gig economy, or in more traditional forms of employment. More must be done to tackle excessively high pay, to link that pay to performance and to get more employees on a real living wage. And we must learn from countries like Norway, and use pay transparency to help end the scandal of lower rates of pay for women doing the same jobs as men. The power of government must also be used to stop consumers being ripped-off or badly let down by some private sector providers.
A renewed state acting in all of these ways to reject an ideologically bankrupt Tory capitalism in pursuit of one that serves the public interest can deliver prosperity and fairness and spread both more equitably around the country. It can be a decisive break from the industrial strategy of the last four decades and help Britain to avoid the dangers while seizing the opportunities of what lies ahead.
For too long Labour has been fearful of pursuing this agenda out of concern for being called anti-business. But from the World Economic Forum to the OECD and to individual business leaders the talk today is all about how we can create inclusive growth. No-one believes it can be done by the market and private sector alone. It is clear too, that more and more business leaders understand that current levels of inequality are unsustainable and if allowed to persist and grow, may even threaten the legitimacy of capitalism itself. The weaknesses and inequities of our current economy are related to the rise of populism.
Labour must be for a form of civic capitalism that serves the public interest, the interests of the working people and families we represent, as well as the interests of the planet. If we do not acknowledge and fight for the necessary role of the state in building that civic capitalism at this point in our country’s history, then we will have little of meaning to offer the people who need our help.
Opportunity For All
And let’s be clear about something else. While the Tories talk of setting up the UK as a tax haven we must warn of the dangers of a race to the bottom. We cannot make Britain beyond Brexit a land of opportunity for our people by being cheaper than the rest of the world but only by being smarter. A successful civic capitalism will be built on the talents of our people.
Theresa May said recently that we have to do more to help the brightest amongst the poor and her strategy is to re-introduce grammar schools for a limited few. But she doesn’t know how many of the brightest there are among the poor, and her belief that they will be few in number is telling. The fact that not a few, but countless potential doctors, diplomats, teachers, scientists, engineers, software developers, and creators of world beating businesses are slipping by the way-side because we’re not investing in their talent appears not to have occurred to her. But it has occurred to many of us in the Labour Party.
So instead of a few more grammar school places my proposal is this: that the next Labour government declares an excellent education is a right of citizenship, not a privilege of birth or wealth. To make that right real, to make sure that all can contribute to our future national success and that the daughter of a cleaner in Barnsley can have the same life-chances as the son of a banker in Belgravia, Labour should make the historic national commitment to deliver educational excellence everywhere in Britain, within a decade. Excellence at every level and in every community, from early years provision to life-long learning, from the White Cliffs of Dover to the islands of the Outer Hebrides.
There will be some who say this is too ambitious. I have no doubt the Prime Minister will be one of them. But we should let her confront the parents of ill served children in this country with the proposition that their children deserve something less, while Labour gets ready to deliver a historic change in educational standards. Because whether our concern is to help someone already in a job to get a better job, to tackle the productivity gap, to generate more innovation, to meet the automation challenge or, most importantly of all, to respond to the timeless desire of parents to give their child a better future, education is the key.
The measures I have outlined so far will help but they will not fully succeed if we don’t address the pervading sense that our politics and government is too remote from people and not responsive to their needs. And if our economy is to be run in the public interest then we must give more opportunities for the public to express what that interest is.
We need radical devolution of power and resources throughout the country to put decisions closer to those most affected by them.
If we are to save the union and face down Scottish nationalism, we must embrace the concept of a federal Britain and craft a version of that seen as fair by everyone.
And the debate over devolving power and resources in England cannot begin and end with the new Metro Mayors, important though they are. We may need to consider new forms of regional representation. In my own region, some have called for a Council of the North, some for a Yorkshire Mayor, and some for the creation of more city regions. Other parts of the country must have their own debates and decide what they think is best.
Above all, we need to change the way we do politics and put people at the heart of decision-making on how public money is used. We will only cut through the fog of cynicism about politics and its purpose by putting more power in the hands of people themselves. We need exercises in deliberative democracy and online consultation like those included in the Better Together programme in South Australia, and exercises in participatory budgeting that give people a sense of control.
It will be hard to reunite and renew our country if we don’t also address some of the most divisive issues in our politics and some of the greatest areas of unmet social need.
Immigration enriches our cultural life, helps to fill skills gaps, and is important to the flow of creative ideas and entrepreneurship that drives economic success. But it has also changed some communities too quickly and concerns about it are real.
There is inconsistency in the way some on the left think about this issue. It isn't my definition of internationalism to strip developing countries of brain power in order to make up for skill shortages here. And it shouldn't be Labour's approach to the 4th industrial revolution to tell millions of working people their jobs are going to be replaced by technology while simultaneously arguing high rates of immigration are inevitable indefinitely. We need an immigration policy that serves the public interest and commands public confidence.
We must also address the scandal of a crisis ridden social care service and the persistent failure to put mental health on an equal footing with other health problems. Injustice and indignity in both areas is a national failure, leaves people to face problems in isolation, causes financial and emotional stress, and feeds the politics of cynicism and division.
It fell to a Labour government to build the NHS after the Second World War. Every Tory government has damaged it, but none dare to abolish it. If the Tories won’t act to deal with crises in social care and mental health that seven years in, they have failed to address, it must fall to the next Labour government to address both with long-term, sustainable solutions.
Paying for Progress
None of this, of course, will come cheap.
While no one can write a budget for 2020 from the perspective of today, and attempting to do so would be foolish, it is also true that we cannot get through the next three years without saying something about our approach to paying for progress.
The first thing to say on this is that the tax and spending decisions of any government say something about its priorities. This government has cut services to the vulnerable, fostered a crisis in health, social care and education, and done so while giving away almost £60bn in corporation tax cuts since 2010. This, despite the fact that we already had one of the most competitive corporation tax rates in the world.
A Labour government reflecting the peoples’ priorities could have used that £60bn to move from deficit to balance more quickly, to address the crisis in the health service or social care, or to invest in the growth enhancing education, skills and infrastructure reforms that I have called for in this paper.
The whole country also knows that while Britain is too unequal, the Tories have been letting many of the richest in our society engage in tax avoidance. Which is why I have previously called for exploration of wealth taxes, particularly those on unearned income. There are many ways this could be done. A one-off wealth tax, for example, that could be used to help bring down the deficit. This would echo the unique contribution asked of the wealthy by the Attlee government after World War Two and the windfall tax on privatised utilities imposed by the incoming Labour government in 1997. There may be a case for going even further. There is no case for leaving things as they are.
Different tax and spending priorities; investments to lay the foundation for growth; and a fairer way of managing the public finances responsibly, these are the ways in which we can pay for progress.
And we must also address Labour’s wider reputation for economic competence. The 2008 financial crisis was a banking crisis pure and simple. But it was a banking crisis that took place in a regulatory context. I am watching President Trump’s moves to deregulate Wall Street so soon after that crisis with grave concern and believe regulators in the UK need to be alert to the possible consequences.
The last Labour government can be proud of the way it responded to the financial crisis in 2008/2009. But the job of the next Labour government is to prevent another crisis from happening. When Labour is next in office it must be vigilant in its regulation and management of the financial system. The message has to be: not on our watch.
In Defence of Internationalism
And President Trump’s deregulation of Wall Street is only one ongoing international development of concern. Beyond our shores, the climate is changing not just physically but politically and ideologically too. It’s not just that we have chosen to change our relationship with the European Union but that the European Union may not survive. It’s not just that American politics is changing but that US commitment to a liberal international order is weaker than for many decades. And it’s not just that trust in politics and politicians is declining but that illiberal powers and populist movements are the ones benefitting. Who can be re-assured amid all this, that beyond the task of managing Brexit, Britain has no discernible foreign policy to speak of?
In this context it is imperative that through the Brexit negotiations and beyond, we commit to a defence of internationalism. This is vital because of who we are: Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council; one of the world’s largest donors of development assistance; a leading member of NATO, the G7, and G20. It is vital because internationalism itself is under threat. And it is vital because if we don’t work with others to solve the problems the world faces, those problems will overwhelm us.
The truth is there is no way to tackle climate change without coordinated international effort; no path to a stable global nuclear order without multilateral efforts at arms control, disarmament and a strengthened non-proliferation regime; and no fall-back to the Brexiteer’s dream of WTO rules if the WTO itself does not exist. A commitment to internationalism is not a liberal nicety but a strategic necessity, because no state, not even Donald Trump’s America, can solve all the problems and challenges it faces by acting alone.
The Case for Optimism
As I stated at the outset, the triggering of Article 50 starts the process of departure from the European Union but also a period of reflection on the country we aspire to become. We know that significant challenges lie ahead. The history of our country tells us something important about how our people react when their backs are against the wall. At moments of great challenge, we look for leaders to inspire and unite us not for prophets of division and doom. We have a responsibility to confront people honestly with the scale of what lies ahead but in doing so we should remember this: the morale of a people is not insignificant to its fortunes. Labour’s job is to rally and harness that morale. It is to unite around a compelling vision of the country we aspire to become. And it is to offer that vision to the country on the basis of calm reflection and credible solutions. If we can do that, we can press on to deliver a country that is the very best we can be and a place we can all be proud to call home.
And as Labour itself rises to this challenge it must take heart from a Tory Party whose unity is more apparent than real. The Prime Minister framed her premiership on the steps of Downing Street in terms of fairness and an active state because she had no choice in the wake of the referendum vote. But as we can all now clearly see, she is going to struggle to deliver. The libertarian, small state, big business, tax haven wing of the Tory party is already preventing her from turning words into action. If we in the Labour Party can find the unity of purpose and direction of travel needed, the path back to power may not be as long as we sometimes fear.
I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.
At first, Grandpa was sceptical about the volcano. “I used to be into that kind of thing,” he said, “but not now.” He did not mention that he was 88.
The guidebook to Indonesia – which he disdained – described how, once you got to the crater, the mist would rise to reveal a shimmering lake. His fellow travellers, my sister and I, often joked about our family’s tendency to declare everything to be “just like Scotland”. This was a living, breathing volcano. It would be nothing like Scotland.
But as Grandpa reminisced about his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, he began to warm to the idea. We set off at 7am and drove past villages with muddled terracotta roofs and rice paddies spread across the valleys like glimmering tables. We talked excitedly about our adventure. Then it began to rain. “Perhaps it will blow over,” I said to my sister, as the view from the windows turned into smears.
Our driver stopped at a car park. With remarkable efficiency, he opened the doors for us and drove away. The rain was like gunfire.
To get to the crater, we had to climb into an open-sided minibus where we sat shivering in our wet summer clothes. Grandpa coughed. It was a nasty cough, which seemed to be getting worse; we had been trying to persuade him to go to a pharmacy for days. Instead, we had persuaded him up a cold and wet mountain.
Five minutes passed, and the minibus didn’t budge. Then another bedraggled family squeezed in. I thought of all the would-be volcano tourists curled up in their hotels.
“Look,” I said to the attendant. “My grandfather is not well. Can we please start?”
He shook his head. “Not till all seats are full.” We exchanged a glance with the other family and paid for the empty seats. The driver set off immediately.
The minibus charged up a road through the jungle, bouncing from puddle to puddle. Grandpa pulled out his iPhone and took a selfie.
The summit was even colder, wetter, rainier and more unpleasant. We paid a small fortune to borrow an umbrella and splashed towards the lake. My sister stopped by a fence.
“Where is it?” I said.
“I think . . . this is it,” she replied.
I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.
I thought remorsefully of the guidebook, how I’d put my sightseeing greed before my grandfather’s health. Then I noticed the sign: “Danger! Do not approach the sulphur if you have breathing problems.”
Grandpa, still coughing, was holding the umbrella. He beckoned me to join him. I didn’t know it then, but when we made it back to the car, he would be the first to warm up and spend the journey back telling us stories of surviving the war.
But at that moment, in the dreich rain, he gave me some advice I won’t forget.
“If anyone tells you to go and see a volcano,” he said, “you can tell them to fuck off.”
The cult author speaks on the sudden rebirth of American activism and writing “the book of his life”.
Not every author gets a trick from David Blaine as a birthday present – but then, Paul Auster himself knows a thing or two about magic. Auster’s work has always been distinguished by the seductive games its author plays with the art of writing. His first published prose book, The Invention of Solitude, was both a memoir and an interrogation of the art of memoir. There is the clever intertextuality of his now-classic New York Trilogy, the eccentric absurdism of The Music of Chance. City of Glass, the first volume of the New York Trilogy, has just been adapted for the stage, and will open at the Lyric Hammersmith in London next month. He is a writer who pushes the boundaries of whatever form he turns to: he is also a bestselling author with a cultish fan base. Blaine has been a fan, I learn, since Mr Vertigo – Auster’s novel of magic and illusion – appeared in the Nineties. A chance encounter at a restaurant not long after the book was published led to a friendship, and some real-life magic in honour of Auster’s 70th birthday last month.
But then chance has always been at the heart of his work – not least 4 3 2 1, which he tells me is “the book of my life”. Before I hear about Blaine’s turn, Auster and I return to his teenage years, to the moment he has said absolutely changed his life. He was 14 and at summer camp. A group of boys went out on a hike and got caught in a thunderstorm. As they tried to shelter from the weather, the boy right beside him was struck by lightning and killed.
It is a story he has written of in The Red Notebook, a collection of true tales which appeared in 1995; he returned to it in Winter Journal, a memoir published five years ago. In 4 3 2 1, the near-900-page epic he has just produced, the lightning strike appears again. When I mention that summer day nearly six decades ago, I misremember the story and say that the other boy was a few feet away from Auster. He swiftly corrects me. “Inches,” he says. “A few inches.” It’s no wonder that since then he has been fascinated by the power of chance. “It changed my life,” he says of that moment. “I mean, it opened up a whole chasm of reflection about the instability of the world, the precariousness of reality itself and the . . . lack of a line between life and death.
“You’re alive one second, you’re dead the next, struck down by lightning. Which has a kind of cosmic force to it, doesn’t it?”
That cosmic force is in full view in 4 3 2 1, which is not, in fact, a single novel, but four novels of four possible lives. Archie Ferguson is the protagonist of each book: but in each book, Archie takes a slightly different path early on – and the whole of the rest of his life changes as a result. He is the son of the energetic Rose Adler and the rather more staid Stanley Ferguson in every iteration of the story; every boy grows up in New Jersey, the metropolis of Manhattan beckoning in the near distance. His father is an appliance salesman, but in one story he is successful and Ferguson’s life goes one way; in another he is unsuccessful, and Ferguson’s life goes another way; and so on. The stories are interwoven, so the reader must keep all four Fergusons in her head at once. It is this layered effect that demonstrates how easily fractured a life can be. One Ferguson is held up against another, creating a palimpsest of voices and sensibilities.
Auster’s connection to 4 3 2 1 runs deep but the attachment is emotional rather than actual, he says. One of the Fergusons is killed by a bolt of lightning; in another thread, the protagonist’s dearest friend, Artie Federman, dies of a brain aneurism at summer camp. And, Auster admits, “You combine those two things, and they carry the emotional weight of the real story for me. And I think that event is what’s at the heart of the book. I mean, that’s the autobiographical source: being haunted by the death of that boy when I was 14. And I think this is what the whole novel is ultimately about.”
Ferguson is born in the same year as Auster, and in the same state; but this is not, the author stresses, an autobiographical novel. “It’s my chronology and my geography, but except for physical traits, it’s not really autobiographical in that sense.” Yes, he was athletic as a kid, as all the Fergusons are; they share a love of music and gravitate towards writing. “But so what?” he shrugs. “I mean, needless to say, a writer’s always drawing on his own experiences, so I could not have written the passages of Archie 3 going to London in 1967 without myself having been here then and smelled the smells of that London which doesn’t exist any more – because coal is not burning in the air the way it was then; Player’s cigarettes are not permeating the atmosphere; I don’t smell the damp wool that I used to smell.” He sounds perhaps a little regretful when he mentions cigarettes; a long-time smoker, he has turned to vaping. It’s been a while since he and I have met, and there’s a little more silver in his swept-back hair. In photographs Auster can look forbidding; in person, he has a quick laugh and a warm and easy manner, even when he’s still getting over jet lag.
Archie Ferguson is just hitting his teens when John F Kennedy is elected as president; in his first iteration, he is gripped by Kennedy from the first time he sees him on television and his fascination fuels a career as a journalist, one who reports from the front lines of the tumultuous Sixties, from the student protests on college campuses across the United States to the riots in Newark and at Attica Prison in upstate New York. Now, in 2017, a time of political turmoil, 4 3 2 1 offers a vivid reminder of the activism of those years – though that was never in its creator’s plan. He began the novel in spring 2013 “just two months”, he notes, “after Obama started his second term. So the next election was really far off. No one was thinking about it yet.” The book began life with a different title, too: Ferguson. A year later, however, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and the title, Auster says, became “unusable”. It was as if history was running to catch up with him as he wrote. But that, he says, was always the point.
“I was trying to show how simultaneous all these things were,” he says of those tumultuous days. “I mean, everybody knows about the Selma-to-Montgomery march; there was the 50th anniversary a couple of years ago, and it’s a part of American history that we’re all familiar with. Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. But what everyone forgets is that the very next day, [Lyndon B] Johnson sent the marines in to Vietnam, and the real escalation began. That’s what’s interesting.” Auster’s political consciousness was awakened. “I watched it growing,” he says of the build-up to the Vietnam War. “It was quite extraordinary. I graduated from high school in ’65, but even before the Gulf of Tonkin [when a US destroyer exchanged fire with North Vietnamese torpedo boats in August 1964], before the real declaration of hostilities, we were there and we were doing things.”
He recalls what sounds like Sixties anti-communist propaganda. “A woman came to our high school to talk, a photographer named Dickey Chapelle. I remember her – she was giving a very pro-American, anti-communist speech about the importance of fighting in Vietnam. It was really a rabble-rouser speech. Within two or three years, she was dead. She was blown up, covering the war.” Chapelle, the first female war photographer to be killed in action, died in November 1965 when one of the US marines with whom she was patrolling triggered a tripwire that sent shrapnel flying. She was buried with full military honours. “It was a jolt,” Auster says now of her death; his tone is still shocked. “I mean, I knew things were going on, but she was so specific.”
Vietnam is a flashpoint in 4 3 2 1, as is the issue of race. Just after the US bombing of North Vietnam begins, Ferguson 1 – the one who becomes a journalist – asks a girl called Rhonda Williams out on a date; Rhonda turns him down, because she’s black and he’s white. As Auster writes, it was Rhonda who “politely kicked him in the face and taught him that the America he wanted to live in didn’t exist – and probably never would”. Auster points to America’s present predicament (for surely we must call it that) as a sign of Ferguson’s despair. The election of Barack Obama, he says, “revived racism in America in ways that we couldn’t have predicted, but that was the ultimate effect – that they couldn’t stand the idea that a black man was in office. And I tried to understand that those people hated him as much as I hate Trump. It’s true; and it’s very hard to understand that.” Wistfully, he recalls the 44th president of the United States. “Such a dignified, intelligent, graceful, worthy man, who always acquitted himself with the most elegant poise: really, a remarkable human being. We’d never had anybody like that. And a scandal-free administration for eight years. Everything above board. No crooks in there. No one on the take. But they hated him, and this gave us Trump, in the long run.” For a while, he says, he was one of those who held out hope for a Hillary Clinton victory, but: “Brexit was the jolt that made me understand that there was a good chance Trump would win.”
Auster has been vocal in his criticism of the new administration. It’s one of the reasons he is glad to be in Europe, because he sees the trip as an opportunity to raise his voice publicly against Donald Trump: “In America nobody cares what writers think about anything,” he says. He traces Trump’s mendacity back to the “birther” lie: the new president’s former insistence that Obama was born in Kenya.
“You know, in retrospect we can see this as Trump’s first great venture into political life using the big lie techniques of Joseph Goebbels. You just keep saying the same lie again and again and again, and people will start to think there’s something to it. And it’s frightening to know how weak-minded people are. Not everybody, but huge swaths of the population start to soften. ‘Why does he keep saying it? Well, there must be something to it, then.’”
Auster says he is “throwing his hat in the ring” to become president of PEN America, a post held at the moment by Andrew Solomon. Auster has been vice-president and secretary of the organisation, which defends free expression and promotes international literary fellowship, but never felt he wanted the top job, until now. He has been inspired by “the sudden rebirth of political activism in the United States. We haven’t seen the likes of these demonstrations and this pushback since the Sixties. I think it’s real: it’s profound and it’s here to stay. This is not Occupy Wall Street, something that’s going to blow away in a year or two. I think these people – Siri and myself included – we’re committed for the long haul, and we’ll do anything we can to keep fighting it.”
His wife is the writer Siri Hustvedt; they have a daughter, Sophie, a singer. Auster is keen to stress Hustvedt’s own commitment to political resistance, recalling with energy a rally on the steps of the New York Public Library the week before Trump’s inauguration. It was a gathering of writers at which many people read poems; Hustvedt chose “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, the verse engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. “But she also gave a speech, which other people weren’t doing, and it was, I don’t know, about a page and a half of wonderfully tuned rhetoric. People were cheering after every sentence. So I knew I’d married this brilliant writer, but I didn’t know I’d married Rosa Luxemburg also!”
There is time for enjoyment as well as activism: which brings us back to the prestidigitations of David Blaine. Auster happened to be in Miami for his milestone birthday. The bookseller Mitchell Kaplan, a co-founder of the Miami Book Fair, threw a party for him that included performances by Blaine and Auster’s daughter. Leaning forward in his chair, he describes Blaine’s finale with the enthusiasm of a teenage Archie Ferguson. There was a huge jigsaw puzzle, made from a photograph of Auster, but it had a single piece missing. A volunteer from the audience then miraculously picked the one necessary piece from a box of hundreds of others – all of which, Auster assures me, were different. “I don’t know how he did this,” he says, shaking his head. “I don’t know, I don’t know how he did it. It could have been sleight of hand – but we were all watching, and you saw nothing. So I don’t know, I don’t know how he did it.” Which isn’t a bad description of the novelist’s art, when you come to think of it.
“4 3 2 1” is published by Faber & Faber
“City of Glass” will open at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, on 20 April
Across the top of the screen floated a banner, pulled by a little aeroplane: IN ARSENE WE TRUST.
Last weekend, during the West Brom-Arsenal game, I began to think my hearing was playing up again. I’ve been given hearing aids but don’t wear them. No, not vanity, it’s just a faff to put the things in and the quality of my life, which is excellent, is not being impaired. Anyway, as I live on my own, if the sound on the telly is too low, I put it up. No one knows or cares.
When I’m out entertaining lady friends at my local bistro, I always get a quiet table in the corner and sit facing them, all rapt attention, totally focused on them, so they think. It’s really just to help my hearing.
On the TV screen, I suddenly heard an aeroplane, which was weird, as there was no sign of it, but then hearing problems are weird. Children talking sounds deafening. Some consonants disappear. Could it be a helicopter on the Heath, taking some injured person to the Royal Free? At our Lakeland house, I often heard helicopters: the mountain rescue team, picking up someone who had collapsed on Grasmoor. So I do know what they sound like. But this sounded like Biggles.
Then across the top of the screen floated a banner, pulled by a little aeroplane: IN ARSENE WE TRUST. The score at the time was 1-1, Arsenal having just equalised. They eventually got beaten 3-1. Oh, the shame and irony.
Apparently, earlier in the game, according to newspaper reports the next day, there had been an anti-Wenger aeroplane banner: NO CONTRACT, WENGER OUT. I didn’t see it – or Sky TV didn’t show it.
Where do the fans or supporter groups get all the money? And how do they organise it? There is a theory that IN ARSENE WE TRUST was paid for by Arsène himself. Another, more amusing theory is that it was a group of Spurs supporters, desperate for Arsène to stay on at Arsenal and continue getting stuffed.
There have been a few similar aeroplane banners at football matches in recent years. There was one at Newcastle, when they were playing Sunderland, which read 5 IN A ROW 5UNDERLAND. Sunderland won, so it came true. Sent the Geordie fans potty.
Everton fans flew one in 2015 which read KENWRIGHT & CO TIME TO GO. He is still chairman, so it didn’t work.
Millwall fans did an awfully complicated one in 2011 at Wigan, during the Wigan-West Ham game, which resulted in West Ham going down. They hired a plane to fly overhead with the banner AVRAM GRANT – MILLWALL LEGEND. Now you have to know that Grant was the West Ham manager and Millwall are their rivals. And that they couldn’t fly it at West Ham itself, which could have caused most fury to West Ham fans. There’s a no-fly zone in London, which stops rival fans hiring planes to take the piss out of Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham. The Millwall supporters who organised it later revealed that it had only cost them £650. Quite cheap, for a good laugh.
There’s presumably some light aeroplane firm that specialises in flying banners over football grounds.
I do remember a few years ago, at White Hart Lane and Highbury, walking to the grounds and looking out for blimps flying overhead – small, balloon-like airships mainly used for promotional purposes, such as Goodyear tyres or Sky’s aerial camera. The results were pretty useless, showing little. I haven’t seen any recently, so presumably blimps aren’t allowed over central London either.
I am surprised drones have not been used, illegally, of course, to display obscene messages during games. They could drag a few pithy words while on the way to drop drugs at Pentonville Prison.
The history of aeroplane advertising goes back a long way. Before the Second World War, Littlewoods and Vernons football pools were fighting it out for dominance, just as the online betting firms are doing today. In 1935, Littlewoods sent planes over London pulling banners that proclaimed LITTLEWOODS ABOVE ALL. Jolly witty, huh.
The Clacton MP quits his party but insists he will not rejoin the Conservatives or trigger a by-election.
Douglas Carswell has long been a Ukip MP in name only. Now he isn't even that. Ukip's sole MP, who defected from the Conservatives in 2014, has announced that he is leaving the party.
Carswell's announcement comes as no great surprise. He has long endured a comically antagonistic relationship with Nigel Farage, who last month demanded his expulsion for the sin of failing to aid his knighthood bid. The Clacton MP's ambition to transform Ukip into a libertarian force, rather than a reactionary one, predictably failed. With the party now often polling in single figures, below the Liberal Democrats, the MP has left a sinking ship (taking £217,000 of opposition funding or "short money" with him). As Carswell acknowledges in his statement, Brexit has deprieved Ukip of its raison d'être.
He writes: "Ukip might not have managed to win many seats in Parliament, but in a way we are the most successful political party in Britain ever. We have achieved what we were established to do – and in doing so we have changed the course of our country's history for the better. Make no mistake; we would not be leaving the EU if it was not for Ukip – and for those remarkable people who founded, supported and sustained our party over that period.
"Our party has prevailed thanks to the heroic efforts of Ukip party members and supporters. You ensured we got a referendum. With your street stalls and leafleting, you helped Vote Leave win the referendum. You should all be given medals for what you helped make happen – and face the future with optimism.
"Like many of you, I switched to Ukip because I desperately wanted us to leave the EU. Now we can be certain that that is going to happen, I have decided that I will be leaving Ukip."
Though Ukip could yet recover if Theresa May disappoints anti-immigration voters, that's not a path that the pro-migration Carswell would wish to pursue. He insists that he has no intention of returning to the Conservatives (and will not trigger a new by-election). "I will simply be the Member of Parliament for Clacton, sitting as an independent."
Carswell's erstwhile Conservative colleagues will no doubt delight in reminding him that he was warned.
Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.
In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.
He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?
Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.
Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.
The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.
Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.
This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.
The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.
But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.
Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.
In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.
Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.
Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.
He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.
Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified modernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.
The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.
Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?
"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)
"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.
"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."
John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.
Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign.
"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important.
Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."
Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response.
Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."
Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real.
"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."
Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable.
"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.
"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."
Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud".
"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."
Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.
At 4.02am on 2 November 1892 near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly 100 years later, at 1:23am on 28 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, killing two people instantly followed by multiple deaths from radiation. Highly radioactive fallout was sent into the atmosphere and the long-term cancers are still being assessed. Understanding how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires an understanding of biological time.
Our lives are ruled by time. But the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently-arrived chronometers. Life answers to more ancient beat that probably started to tick early in evolution. Embedded within our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian clock” that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure and much more. Normally we experience a 24 hour pattern of light and dark, and this signal is used to align our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine tune physiology and behaviour in advance of the changing conditions. Temperature, blood pressure, cognitive performance all decline in anticipation of sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.
The daily cycles of sleep and waking are the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex. Such apparent pointlessness has relegated sleep to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we grudgingly tolerate sleep and at worst we regard it as an illness that needs a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.
Although sleep may be the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it coordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.
Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, combined with entertainments including social media, have eroded sleep time by up to two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Night shift workers work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust to the nocturnal regime and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.
Shortened sleep, along with working against biological time, has been linked to multiple health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsivity and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of infection and cancer; increased cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes; weight gain; and the susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability are all associated with disrupted sleep.
In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we are going to stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will surely help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive and more likely to become ill. Why not introduce higher frequency health checks and provide advice for those at risk? As night shift workers are more likely to have heart disease, type two diabetes and be obese, why not provide food that reduces these risks? Finally, why not use emerging technologies to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home?
So what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters, and many other like them, were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time, and a break-down in procedure. Tiredness and circadian disruption do not cause such tragedies; they simply make them much more likely. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter who subsequently died, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. Holmes fell asleep, and forgot that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through. After the crash, Holmes was charged with manslaughter and found guilty, but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring Holmes, and for failing to use procedures that would have detected he had fallen asleep.
Professor Russell Foster CBE, FRS is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, Chair of the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology, Director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute and Fellow of Brasenose College at the University of Oxford, and co-author of the new book “Circadian Rhythms: A Very Short Introduction”.
Russell gave the keynote speech “Sleep – Freedom to Think” at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead on Friday 17 March, broadcast that day at 10pm on BBC Radio 3
Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed.
After weeks of hype, the Love, Actually Comic Relief short sequel, Red Nose Day, Actually, finally aired tonight. It might not compare to Stephen’s version of events, but was exactly what you’d expect, really – the most memorable elements of each plotline recreated and recycled, with lots of jokes about the charity added in. So what did Red Nose Day, Actually actually teach us?
Andrew Lincoln’s character was always a creep
It was weird to show up outside Keira Knightley’s house in 2003, and it’s even weirder now, when you haven’t seen each other in almost a decade. Please stop.
It’s also really weird to bring your supermodel wife purely to show her off like a trophy. She doesn’t even know these people. She must be really confused. Let her go home, “Mark”.
Kate Moss is forever a great sport
Judging by the staggering number of appearances she makes at these things, Kate Moss has never said no to a charity appearance, even when she’s asked to do the most ridiculous and frankly insulting things, like pretend she would ever voluntarily have sex with “Mark”.
Self-service machines are a gift and a curse
In reality, Rowan Atkinson’s gift-wrapping enthusiast would have lasted about one hour in Sainsbury’s before being replaced by a machine.
Colin Firth’s character is an utter embarrassment, pull yourself together man
You’re a writer, Colin. You make a living out of paying attention to language and words. You’ve been married to your Portuguese-speaking wife for almost fourteen years. You learned enough to make a terrible proposal all those years ago. Are you seriously telling me you haven’t learned enough to sustain a single conversation with your family? Do you hate them? Kind of seems that way, Colin.
Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed
As Eleanor Margolis reminds us, a deleted storyline from the original Love, Actually was one in which “the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid).” Of course, even in deleted scenes, gay love stories can only end in death, especially in 2003. The same applies to 2017’s Red Nose Day actually. Many fans speculated that Bill Nighy’s character was in romantic love with his manager, Joe – so, reliably, Joe has met a tragic end by the time the sequel rolls around.
Hugh Grant is a fantasy Prime Minister for 2017
Telling a predatory POTUS to fuck off despite the pressure to preserve good relations with the USA? Inspirational. No wonder he’s held on to office this long, despite only demonstrating skills of “swearing”, “possibly harassing junior staff members” and “somewhat rousing narration”.
If you get together in Christmas 2003, you will stay together forever. It’s just science.
Even if you’ve spent nearly fourteen years clinging onto public office. Even if you were a literal child when you met. Even if you hate your wife so much you refuse to learn her first language.
Now listen to the SRSLY Love, Actually special:
While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents.
I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.
I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.
These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.
While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents.
The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.
We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.
Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.
Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.
Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.
Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.
Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.
Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.
Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.
Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.
Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents.
The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.
Although Khan, an MEP, was one of the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.
For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat; their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.
But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.
Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.
In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs. Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.
But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim. The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.
Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.
They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)
But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs. That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”
Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.
France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.
Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.
Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.
In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.
In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.
2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.
What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham.
I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.
Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.
If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.
I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).
Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).
I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.
I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.
After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.
I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.
I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.
I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.
I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.
James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.
Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.
Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.
Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.
Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.
Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.
And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)
And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.
Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar.
I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.
Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.
Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.
Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite.
So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.
There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.
At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.
Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.
Where do I even start?
Hello. Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that if you have seen today’s Daily Mail cover, you no doubt immediately turned to the person nearest to you to ask: “Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong.”
— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) March 23, 2017
But just how wrong is the wrong Mail cover? Let me count the ways.
It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.
On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?
“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.
So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.
But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the Michael Bublé of hip-hop?
Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.
It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.
Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.
The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.
Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”
She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.
The appearance of weakness is less electorally damaging than actually removing healthcare from millions of people.
Is it all over for Donald Trump? His approval ratings have cratered to below 40%. Now his attempt to dismantle Barack Obama's healthcare reforms have hit serious resistance from within the Republican Party, adding to the failures and retreats of his early days in office.
The problem for the GOP is that their opposition to Obamacare had more to do with the word "Obama" than the word "care". The previous President opted for a right-wing solution to the problem of the uninsured in a doomed attempt to secure bipartisan support for his healthcare reform. The politician with the biggest impact on the structures of the Affordable Care Act is Mitt Romney.
But now that the Republicans control all three branches of government they are left in a situation where they have no alternative to Obamacare that wouldn't either a) shred conservative orthodoxies on healthcare or b) create numerous and angry losers in their constituencies. The difficulties for Trump's proposal is that it does a bit of both.
Now the man who ran on his ability to cut a deal has been forced to make a take it or leave plea to Republicans in the House of Representatives: vote for this plan or say goodbye to any chance of repealing Obamacare.
But that's probably good news for Trump. The appearance of weakness and failure is less electorally damaging than actually succeeding in removing healthcare from millions of people, including people who voted for Trump.
Trump won his first term because his own negatives as a candidate weren't quite enough to drag him down on a night when he underperformed Republican candidates across the country. The historical trends all make it hard for a first-term incumbent to lose. So far, Trump's administration is largely being frustrated by the Republican establishment though he is succeeding in leveraging the Presidency for the benefit of his business empire.
But it may be that in the failure to get anything done he succeeds in once again riding Republican coattails to victory in 2020.
"Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie, Open unto the fields, and to the sky" - things to help remember the best of Westminster Bridge.
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by,
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare ...
When I think of Westminster Bridge, I always think of these lines by Wordsworth. But whenever I turn on the news this week, the thought of them makes my chest seize. Other images come to mind instead.
On Wednesday 22nd March, the bridge turned into a death trap. An assailant driving a rented car drove up onto the pavement and straight into the path of passersbys. Four of those people are now dead. Tens of others are severely injured.
The two associations now sit alongside each other in a grotesque marriage.
But as those present become able to share what they saw and felt, we will likely learn more about the acts of compassion that unfolded in the minutes and hours after the attack.
The bridge itself is also becoming a site for remembrance. And just as laying flowers can become marks of defiance against an act nobody wanted or condones, so too can memories. Not memories of horror stumbled upon on social media. But of the brave actions of police and paramedics, of the lives the victims led, and of Westminster's "mighty heart" that these events have so entirely failed to crush.
So if you find yourself upon the bridge in coming weeks, perhaps commuting to work or showing visitors round the city, here are some other thoughts had upon Westminster Bridge which no man in an estate car will ever take away:
Tourists taking photos with friends:
The end of the film Pride - and the 1985 march on which it is based
Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway’s “moment in June”
One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can't be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.
Brilliant Boudicca guarding the bridge's Northern end
Penis Shadows! (I say no more)
— Caroline Beneš (@CarolineBenes) January 25, 2017
Sci-fi scenes from 28 Days Later
The “Build Bridges Not Walls” protest from January this year
And “Upon Westminster Bridge” by William Wordsworth (1802)
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.
The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.
If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.
More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.
Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.
When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.
“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.
Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.
The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.
After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.
My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.
Many LGBTQ homeless people cannot ask their families for help.
Ascania is a 41 mother with a 24 year-old son, who came to the UK from Jamaica in 2002. “I was raped at gunpoint in the area I lived in Jamaica," she says. "They’d found out in the community that I’m a lesbian. They hit the back of my head with a gun- sometimes it is still painful. I had to move from that area, then I went to another part of the island. I lived there for 18 months. People in these communities start to watch you – to see if there are men coming to see you. They begin to be suspicious. Luckily I had a chance to come to the UK before something else happened."
A friend, who was also gay, paid for a ticket for her to reach the UK. She started a relationship, and moved in with her girlfriend, but the girlfriend turned abusive. "It was a nightmare," she remembers. "It ended then I started to sofa surf. Sometimes I would go into pubs meet different girls, go back with them, and sleep over just so I had somewhere to spend the night."
Eventually, Ascania received help from St Mungo's, a homelessness charity, after the LGBT charity Stonewall put her in touch. The charity helped her get food from a food bank, and find somewhere to stay.
While all homeless people can struggle with physical and mental challenges, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people face extra stigma, discrimination, and rejection by their families.
“That’s why I think LGBTQ projects are important," says Ascania. "From being on the gay scene, I meet all these people and they don’t know about the support available. They’re out there having a really rough time. They don’t know where to turn."
She feels that in shared accommodation, people like herself can be judged for their friends.
Homeless charities point out that transgender people are particularly at physical risk due to a lack of acceptance and are sometimes turned away from shelters.
Melissa is a trans women in her early 40s. She is now living in transgender accommodation in London provided by the charity St Mungo’s and says she is successfully engaged with drug and alcohol services and rebuilding relationships with her family.
Before beginning her transition she was married with two teenage children and had been in trouble with the police.
She says the stress of denying her true self led to self-destructive behaviour.
She said: “I was sleeping rough, in graveyards and stairwells. In 2012 I went to prison for nine months. My probation officer put me in touch with St Mungo’s and now I have a really nice place and I hope to become a project worker with the charity. I can see a path forward.”
According to Homeless Link, a national membership charity for organisations working with people who become homeless in England, the causes of homelessness include poor and unsuitable housing, insecurity in the private rented sector, transitioning/leaving accommodation or institutions such as prison, and loss of employment. These circumstances are often coupled with mental health issues, experience of trauma, relationship breakdown, and fleeing domestic violence or abuse.
Awareness of the specific needs of LGBT homeless people is starting to enter mainstream politics. Last month, LGBT Labour passed a motion at its AGM to affiliate to the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness (LCEH). The two organisations will hold a joint event at Labour's annual conference in the autumn.
Sam Stopp, a Labour councillor in Wembley, is chair of LCEH. He said party activists launched the campaign two years ago, because they wanted to do more than talk about the problem. He said: “LGBT homelessness has some specific aspects. If your parents do not support you and you are thrown out of your home that may require a different approach to help people rebuild their lives. There’s not just an economic reason but your sexuality has closed them off.”
Stopp hopes that by aligning Labour activists with homelessness charities, his organisation will be able to provide practical support to people who need it.
Chris Wills from LGBT Labour’s National Committee, and chair of LGBT Labour North West, said: “The homelessness crisis is worsening. I live in Manchester, where every day I see more and more people sleeping rough – and that’s just the ones we know about, let alone the “hidden homeless”, who are reliant on hostels or going from one friend’s couch to another’s floor night after night.
“This year marks fifty years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and huge advances were made for LGBT equality under Labour between 1997 and 2010. Society as a whole has become more tolerant. Yet even now, coming out as LGBT to your family can still often result in you being kicked out onto the streets, or forced to flee the family home due to verbal and physical abuse.”
Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.
A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.
Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.
Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.
Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.
But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.
As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.
Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.
Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.
Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.
At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.
“Limehouse” runs until 15 April
A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.
At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.
At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.
Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).
In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.
Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.
What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.
If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.
Based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, the film is a beautiful, diligent portrait. Plus: Aquarius.
Two ravishing new films with a Brazilian flavour are generous not only in length (two and a half hours apiece) but in wisdom and wonder. The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who embarked in 1906 on a Royal Geographical Society expedition, only to become entranced by the legend of an advanced Amazonian civilisation. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam, delivering his lines in a mesmerising whisper) is drawn repeatedly to the jungle with his aide-de-camp, Henry (Robert Pattinson), interrupting these quests only to fight on the Somme or to return to England to impregnate his patient wife, Nina (Sienna Miller).
Fawcett raises hackles by arguing against the characterisation of the indigenous people as savages and the film repeats this democracy of spirit visually, making no distinction in mystique and allure between the various locations. Devon looks as delicious as Bolivia or Brazil; the mood in the wood-panelled conference room where Fawcett is reprimanded for abandoning one of his party is as treacherous as the depths of the jungle. This creates a continuity between the various worlds, rather than making one exotic at the expense of the other.
James Gray, who writes and directs, retains the unfashionable preference for film over digital which has defined his previous work (moody, mumbly dramas such as We Own the Night and Two Lovers). The picture was shot by Darius Khondji on 35mm, even though that added over half a million dollars to the budget and meant the footage had to be flown thousands of miles from the Colombian rainforest locations to be processed. It was worth it. The dense colours are soaked deep into the grain of the filmstock. They tell a story not available in pixels.
Gray’s screenplay weighs Fawcett’s bravery against his intolerance of fallibility, his racial progressiveness against the short-sightedness of his sexual politics. When Nina asks to accompany him, it’s more than he can stomach. “Men and women have performed their roles since the beginning of time,” he fumes. All at once a man fighting social orthodoxy takes cover beneath its privileges. Nina is framed against the tangled blue flowers of the wallpaper; that’s the closest she will get to his adventures. And yet it is she who invokes Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” to urge her husband on: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?”
The diligent direction hints that Gray was aiming for the level of scrutiny found in Barry Lyndon, an impression supported by a talismanic cameo from Murray Melvin, who starred in Kubrick’s 1975 film. Barry Lyndon pops up, too, in Aquarius: the distinguished music writer Clara (the incredible Sônia Braga) has a poster for the movie in her Recife apartment. She lives alone but not lonely, visited by her adult children and attended to by a long-serving maid, Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto). A more unwelcome interruption comes in the shape of the property developers who want Clara, the last resident in her block, to sell up and move out.
We already know she is formidable. She wears her mastectomy scars defiantly, and the opening scene establishes that her anthem is Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. With her black hair scraped severely into a bun, and her lips on the verge of a wicked laugh or a vinegary screw-you sneer, Clara is a tenacious warrior. Yet in these businessmen who hide their desires behind tight smiles and veiled threats, she may have met her match.
Aquarius is a leisurely character study that is also urgently political in its treatment of race, class and commerce. Its Brazilian director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, who started out as a critic, has a gift for translating psychological states into cinematic language. His
use of dissolves is haunting, his placement of figures in the frame expressive, and his zooms make you swoon. No detail escapes his eye, from restless feet jiggling under the table on a girls’ night out to strands of hair caressed by the breeze at a late-night party.
The film’s main symbol is a chest of drawers, crammed with layers of memory to which only we have been given access. It represents the sort of history that is in danger of being trampled by people who believe every principle has a price tag. The beach outside warns of shark attacks but the deadliest predators come in human form.
The DUP leader's decision to attend Martin McGuinness' funeral was much more than symbolic. But is Gerry Adams willing to make a deal?
After some prevarication, DUP leader Arlene Foster chose to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry today. Her decision to do so cannot have been an easy one.
A substantial part of her loyalist base has noisily resisted attempts to memorialise the late deputy first minister as anything other than an inveterate killer. Foster herself notes in today’s Belfast Telegraph that the former IRA commander was responsible for the deaths of “many neighbours and friends”. And in 1979 – aged just eight – she bore witness to the bloody aftermath of an IRA attack in her own home: her father, a reservist police officer, was shot in the head by a gunman later eulogised by McGuinness.
Her attendance at today’s funeral is thus noteworthy and has been the subject of due praise. She was twice applauded by the congregation: as she took her seat, and after Bill Clinton singled her out in his eulogy. It is, however, much more than the symbolic gesture it might appear.
Last month’s election, which saw the DUP lose 10 seats and unionist parties lose their Stormont majority for the first time in nearly a century, proved Foster to be damaged goods. She was – and remains – tarnished by the RHI scandal but also by her crass behaviour towards the nationalist community, particularly on Irish language issues.
Her carelessly won reputation as a truculent bigot will therefore not be easily lost. Her departure remains a red line for Sinn Fein. But with just four days until the deadline for a new devolution settlement, Foster’s presence at McGuinness’ funeral is the clearest indication yet of the DUP’s carefully calculated strategy. It isn’t quite a resignation, but is nonetheless indicative of the new manner in which Foster has carried herself since her party’s chastening collapse.
She has demonstrated some contrition and offered tacit acknowledgement that her election shtick was misjudged and incendiary. Her statement on McGuinness’ death was delicately pitched and made only oblique reference to his IRA past. In the absence of a willingness to allow Foster to step down, the decision instead has been taken to detoxify her brand.
The conciliatory Foster the DUP will nominate for First Minister on Monday will as such at least appear to be apart from the dogwhistling Foster who fought the election – and her attendance today is the superlative indication of that careful transition. There has been talk that this increases the chance of a deal on a new executive. This is premature – not least because the onus is now almost entirely on Sinn Fein.
Theirs is just as much a mandate to reject Stormont as we know it as it is to return and right the DUP’s wrongs. Gerry Adams, the last member of the Armalite generation standing, has made this abundantly clear – and has hardened his line just as Foster has made sure to be seen magnanimously softening hers. He said last night that he would not tolerate any extension of power-sharing talks beyond Monday’s deadline, and called on Dublin to prevent the UK government from re-instating direct rule.
Though Adams also maintained a deal was still possible in the coming days, his statement augurs badly. As the former UUP leader Lord Empey told me on the day McGuinness died, the Sinn Fein president – the ideologue to McGuinness’ Stormont pragmatist – is now entirely without equal within his party. Though he has set the transition to a new generation of female leaders in train, he remains in total control.
The demand for Dublin’s involvement is also telling: as the leader of the third-biggest party in the Dail, his is an all-Ireland long game. Enda Kenny will soon depart, offering Fianna Fail – riding high in the polls – a useful pretext to renegotiate or scrap their confidence and supply arrangement with his minority government. Sinn Fein are on course to make gains, but implementing Brexit and austerity as partners in a Stormont executive would undermine their populist anti-austerity platform.
As such, Empey predicted McGuinness’ death would allow Adams to exert a disruptive influence on the talks to come. “I don’t think it’ll be positive because for all his faults, Martin was actually committed to making the institutions work,” he said. “I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed – and it was obvious from the latter part of last year that Gerry was reinstating his significant influence in the party. For that reason I think it will make matters more difficult. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.”
He is not alone. There was, earlier this week, growing confidence in Westminster that some fudge could be reached on the most contentious issues. It isn't impossible - but Adams’ renewed dominance and rejection of the extended timeframe such negotiations would undoubtedly require suggests a new executive is as unlikely a prospect as it has ever been. With Foster quietly reinventing herself, the DUP could be the big winners come the next election (which could come this year and reinstate a unionist majority) – and the resurgent republicans might well rue the day they squandered their big chance.
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The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.
During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.
One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.
The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent. Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.
One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.
As I’ve written before, though there are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence. We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies.
Very quickly, it becomes clear that loneliness doesn’t suit me.
I’ve been on my own for the past ten days. I mean, there’s a 15-year-old in the house with me, and a 19-year-old, too, but teenagers live in their bedrooms, emerging only occasionally to announce that they’ve gone vegetarian, or want a Pink Floyd poster, so they’re not much in the way of company. And it doesn’t take long before I start to feel that I’ve become a slightly different person, that I’ve changed or reverted to type. I get a glimpse of the person I’d be if I were alone all the time.
I rattle around the house and I don’t sit in my normal corner seat of the sofa watching telly: I sit at the kitchen table instead and watch it on my laptop, and at night I creep back into the rumpled sheets of the unmade bed, refilling the impression I made last night. And like Joni said, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide”.
Ben usually keeps up a constant soundtrack in the house, which is fine by me, a perk of living with a DJ, but now I’m in charge. I listen to Roxy Music, and Solange, and Elastica, and Liza Minnelli, and then I start on Rickie Lee Jones, and remember being a teenager listening to Pirates, always with a cigarette in my mouth, and when that’s done I watch the eight-hour O J Simpson documentary, and Mean Streets, and then Catastrophe, and then I sit up late reading The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson.
Twenty years ago I wrote a song called “Single” in which I asked myself: “And how am I without you?/Am I more myself or less myself?/I feel younger, louder/Like I don’t always connect . . .” I wonder the same things now. There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Being in company, or with a partner much of the time, involves constant tiny adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift in order to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed off. You mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.
In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Olivia Laing writes about how loneliness makes people hypervigilant about social threat, always on the lookout for rudeness and rejection, which inevitably leads to lonely people becoming more isolated and suspicious. “What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact . . .”
That isn’t going to happen to me in ten days, I realise, but on the other hand I can sense very quickly the creeping isolation that comes upon you. You can feel not just odd, but invisible. As I sang in “Single”, “. . . if no one calls and I don’t speak all day,/Do I disappear?”
I don’t want to disappear and I don’t want loneliness to grow around me like fur, so after a few days I kick against it, and decide that the antidote is going out. I go walking with one friend, and have coffee with another, and dinner with three more, and then go to see The xx at Brixton Academy. It proves to be the perfect evening. Their songs revolve endlessly around the difficulties inherent in bonding with other people, trusting and believing, loving and being loved.
Everything about them hints at isolation: unshowy on stage, they look a little lost in the lights and mirrors, Romy’s guitar lines inhabit an empty, echoey space, and images of loneliness recur – “I can’t hold on/To an empty space”, “I go to those places where we used to go/They seem so quiet now/I’m here, all alone”.
They capture something specific about human awkwardness, especially during that youthful phase when you’re all elbows and feelings, but their music luxuriates in the experience, and out of it all they create a kind of desolate euphoria, so that by the end of the gig the balcony is shaking and we’re all dancing and singing, hands in the air, united and comforted, all of us alone together.
Next week: Kate Mossman
Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.
“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.
Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.
The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?
The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Everybody’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems.
With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.
“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.
Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.
According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.
Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.
Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.
“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”
“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.
More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.
As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”
While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.
As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”
But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)
Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”
Tom Watson says it is destroying Labour. Its supporters say it is a vital force for change. Our correspondent spent six months following the movement, and asks: what is the truth about Momentum?
The bus to the Momentum conference in Liverpool leaves at seven on a Sunday morning in late September from Euston Station, and the whole journey feels like a parody of a neoliberal play about the failings of socialism. We depart an hour late because activists have overslept and we cannot go without them. As we wait we discuss whether Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party this very day. One man says not; a young, jolly girl with blonde hair cries: “Don’t say that on Jezmas!” She is joking, at least about “Jezmas”.
A man walks up. “Trots?” he says, calmly. He is joking, too; and I wonder if he says it because the idea of Momentum is more exciting to outsiders than the reality, and he knows it; there is an awful pleasure in being misunderstood. Momentum was formed in late 2015 to build on Corbyn’s initial victory in the Labour leadership election, and it is perceived as a ragtag army of placard-waving Trots, newly engaged clicktivists and Corbyn fanatics.
We leave, and learn on the M1 that, in some terrible metaphor, the coach is broken and cannot drive at more than 20mph. So we wait for another coach at a service station slightly beyond Luton. “Sabotage,” says one man. He is joking, too. We get off; another man offers me his vegan bread and we discuss Karl Marx.
A new coach arrives and I listen to the others discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s problems. No one talks about his polling, because that is depressing and unnecessary for their purpose – which, here, is dreaming. They talk about Corbyn as addicts talk about a drug. Nothing can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault. “There are problems with the press office,” says one. “Perhaps he needs better PAs?” says another.
One man thinks there will be a non-specific revolution: “I hope it won’t be violent,” he frets. “There have been violent revolutions in the past.” “I stuck it out during Blair and it was worth it,” says another. “They’ve had their go.” “We don’t need them [the Blairites],” says a third. “If new members come in, it will sort itself out,” says a fourth.
I have heard this before. Momentum supporters have told me that Labour does not need floating voters, who are somehow tainted because they dare to float. This seems to me a kind of madness. I do not know how the Labour Party will win a general election in a parliamentary democracy without floating voters; and I don’t think these people do, either.
But this is a coach of believers. Say you are not sure that Corbyn can win a general election and they scowl at you. That you are in total agreement with them is assumed, because this is the solidarity bus; and if you are in total agreement with them they are the sweetest people in the world.
That is why I do not tell them that I am a journalist. I am afraid to, and this fear baffles me. I have gone everywhere as a journalist but with these, my fellow-travellers on the left, I am scared to say it; and that, too, frightens me. MSM, they might call me – mainstream media. What it really means is: collaborator.
The man beside me has been ill. He talks sweetly about the potential renewal of society under Corbyn’s Labour as a metaphor for his own recovery, and this moves him; he has not been involved in politics until now. I like this man very much, until I mention the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger and the anti-Semitism she has suffered from Corbyn supporters and others; and he says, simply, that she has been employed by the state of Israel. He says nothing else about her, as if there were nothing else to say.
We listen to the results of the leadership election on the radio; we should be in Liverpool at the Black-E community centre to celebrate, but the solidarity bus is late. Corbyn thanks his supporters. “You’re welcome, Jeremy,” says a woman in the front row, as if he were on the coach. She nods emphatically, and repeats it to the man who isn’t there: “You’re welcome, Jeremy.”
In Liverpool, some of the passengers sleep on the floor at a community centre. The venue has been hired for that purpose: this is Momentum’s commitment to opening up politics to the non-connected, the previously non-engaged, and the outsiders who will attend their conference in a deconsecrated church, even as the official Labour conference convenes a mile away. But never mind that: this is the one that matters, and it is called The World Transformed.
Later that day, outside the Black-E, a man comes up to me. Are you happy, he asks, which is a normal question here. These are, at least partly, the politics of feelings: we must do feelings, because the Tories, apparently, don’t. I say I’m worried about marginal seats, specifically that Jeremy – he is always Jeremy, the use of his Christian name is a symbol of his goodness, his accessibility and his singularity – cannot win them.
“The polls aren’t his fault,” the man says, “it’s [Labour] people briefing the Tories that he is unelectable.” I do not think it’s that simple but it’s easy to feel like an idiot – or a monster – here, where there is such conviction. As if there is something that only you, the unconvinced, have missed: that Jeremy, given the right light, hat or PA, could lead a socialist revolution in a country where 13 million people watched Downton Abbey.
But the man does say something interesting which I hope is true. “This is not about Jeremy, not really,” he says. “It is about what he represents.” He means Momentum can survive without him.
There is a square hall with trade union banners and a shop that sells Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a Corbyn-themed colouring book. When I am finally outed as a journalist, and made to wear a vast red badge that says PRESS, I attempt to buy one. “That’s all journalists are interested in,” the proprietor says angrily. That is one of our moral stains, apparently: a disproportionate (and sinister) interest in colouring books.
I go to the Black Lives Matter event. A woman talks about the experience of black students in universities and the impact of austerity on the black community. Another woman tells us that her five-year-old son wishes he was white; we listen while she cries. I go to the feminism meeting and change my mind about the legalisation of prostitution after a woman’s testimony about reporting an assault, and then being assaulted again by a police officer because of her legal status. Then I hear a former miner tell a room how the police nearly killed him on a picket line, and then arrested him.
This, to me, a veteran of party conferences, is extraordinary, although it shouldn’t be, and the fact that I am surprised is shameful. Momentum is full of the kinds of people you never see at political events: that is, the people politics is for. Women, members of minority communities (but not Zionist Jews, naturally), the disabled: all are treated with exaggerated courtesy, as if the Black-E had established a mirror world of its choosing, where everything outside is inverted.
When Corbyn arrives he does not orate: he ruminates. “We are not going to cascade poverty from generation to generation,” he says. “We are here to transform society and the world.” I applaud his sentiment; I share it. I just wish I could believe he can deliver it outside, in the other world. So I veer between hope and fury; between the certainty that they will achieve nothing but an eternal Conservative government, and the ever-nagging truth that makes me stay: what else is there?
There is a rally on Monday night. Momentum members discuss the “purges” of socialist and communist-leaning members from Labour for comments they made on social media, and whether détente is possible. A nurse asks: “How do we know that ‘wipe the slate clean’ means the same for us as it does for them? How on Earth can we trust the likes of Hilary Benn who dresses himself up in the rhetoric of socialism to justify bombing Syria? The plotters who took the olive branch offered by Jeremy to stab him in the back with another chicken coup?” I am not sure where she is going with that gag, or if it is even a gag.
The next man to speak had been at the Labour party conference earlier in the day; he saw Len McCluskey, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis on the platform. “Don’t be pessimistic, folks,” he cries. “On the floor of conference today we owned the party. Progress [the centrist Labour pressure group] are the weirdos now. We own the party!”
A man from Hammersmith and Fulham Momentum is next. “The national committee of Momentum was not elected by conference,” he says. “It’s a committee meeting knocked up behind closed doors by leading people on the left, including our two heroes.” He means Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is explicit heresy, and the chair interrupts him: “Stan, Stan . . .” “I’m winding up!” he says. “We need a central committee of Momentum elected by conference,” he says, and sits down.
The following day Corbyn speaks in the hall in front of golden balloons that spell out S-H-E-E-P. It may be another gag, but who can tell, from his face? This is his commitment to not doing politics the recognisable way. He is the man who walks by himself, towards balloons that say S-H-E-E-P. (They are advertising the band that will follow him. They are called, and dressed as, sheep.) The nobility of it, you could say. Or the idiocy. He mocks the mockers of Momentum: is it, he was asked by the mainstream media, full of extremists and entryists? “I’m not controlling any of it,” he says calmly, and in this calmness is all the Twitter-borne aggression that people complain of when they talk about Momentum, for he enables it with his self-satisfied smile. “It’s not my way to try and control the way people do things. I want people to come together.” He laughs, because no one can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault.
I meet many principled people in Liverpool whose testimony convinces me, and I didn’t need convincing, that austerity is a national disaster. I meet only one person who thinks that Momentum should take over the Labour Party. The maddest suggestion I hear is that all media should be state-controlled so that they won’t be rude about a future Corbyn government and any tribute colouring books.
Momentum HQ is in the TSSA transport and travel union building by Euston Station in London. I meet Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former fixer and the founder of Momentum, in a basement room in October. Lansman, who read economics at Cambridge, lived on the fringes of Labour for 30 years before volunteering for Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership.
The terms are these: I can ask whatever I want, but afterwards James Schneider, the 29-year-old national organiser (who has since left to work for Corbyn’s press team), will decide what I can and cannot print. Momentum HQ wants control of the message; with all the talk of entryism and infighting reported in the mainstream media, the movement needs it.
There is a civil war between Jon Lansman and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and other far-left factions, which, I am told, “wish to organise in an outdated manner out of step with the majority of Momentum members”. Some of the Momentum leadership believe that the AWL and its allies want to use Momentum to found a new party to the left of Labour. Jill Mountford, then a member of Momentum’s steering committee, has been expelled from Labour for being a member of the AWL. It screams across the blogs and on Facebook; more parody. We don’t talk about that – Schneider calls it “Kremlinology”. It is a problem, yes, but it is not insurmountable. We talk about the future, and the past.
So, Lansman. I look at him. The right considers him an evil Bennite wizard to be feared and mocked; the far left, a Stalinist, which seems unfair. It must be exhausting. I see a tired, middle-aged man attending perhaps his fifteenth meeting in a day. His hair is unruly. He wears a T-shirt.
The last Labour government, he says, did one thing and said another: “Wanting a liberal immigration policy while talking tough about refugees and migrants. Having a strong welfare policy and generous tax credits while talking about ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ unfortunately shifted opinion the wrong way.”
It also alienated the party membership: “Their approach was based on ensuring that everyone was on-message with high levels of control.” It was an “authoritarian structure even in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Even in the cabinet. It killed off the enthusiasm of the membership. They never published the figures in 2009 because it dropped below 100,000. We’ve now got 600,000.” (The membership has since dropped to roughly 528,000.)
And the strategy? “If you have hundreds of thousands of people having millions of conversations with people in communities and workplaces you can change opinion,” he says. “That’s the great advantage of having a mass movement. And if we can change the Labour Party’s attitude to its members and see them as a resource – not a threat or inconvenience.”
That, then, is the strategy: street by street and house by house. “We can’t win on the back of only the poorest and only the most disadvantaged,” he says. “We have to win the votes of skilled workers and plenty of middle-class people, too – but they are all suffering from some aspects of Tory misrule.”
I ask about polling because, at the time, a Times/YouGov poll has Labour on 27 per cent to the Tories’ 41 per cent. He doesn’t mind. “It was,” he says, “always going to be a very hard battle to win the next election. I think everyone across the party will privately admit that.” He doesn’t think that if Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader they would be polling any better.
Upstairs the office is full of activists. They are young, rational and convincing (although, after the Copeland by-election on 23 February, I will wonder if they are only really convincing themselves). They talk about their membership of 20,000, and 150 local groups, and 600,000 Labour Party members, and the breadth of age and background of the volunteers – from teenagers to people in their eighties. One of them – Ray Madron, 84 – paints his hatred of Tony Blair like a portrait in the air. He has a marvellously posh voice. Most of all, they talk about the wounds of austerity. Where, they want to know, is the anger? They are searching for it.
Emma Rees, a national organiser, speaks in the calm, precise tones of the schoolteacher she once was. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the status quo, of politics as usual, and I think trying to do things differently is hard because there isn’t a road map and it’s not clear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she says. She adds: “It is a coalition of different sorts of people and holding all those people together can sometimes be a challenge.”
Is she alluding to entryism? One activist, who asks not to be named, says: “I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you rounded up all the members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Socialist Party and any other ultra-left sect, you could probably fit them in one room. Momentum has 20,000 members.”
The SWP were outside at The World Transformed in Liverpool, I say, like an ambivalent picket line. “Well,” James Schneider says pointedly, “they were outside.”
Momentum, Emma Rees says, “is seeking to help the Labour Party become that transformative party that will get into government but doesn’t fall back on that tried and failed way of winning elections”.
They tell me this repeatedly, and it is true: no one knows what will work. “The people who criticised us don’t have any route to electability, either,” says Joe Todd, who organises events for Momentum. He is a tall, bespectacled man with a kindly, open face.
“They lost two elections before Jeremy Corbyn. It’s obvious we need to do something differently,” he says. “Politics feels distant for most people: it doesn’t seem to offer any hope for real change.
“The left has been timid and negative. More and more people are talking about how we can transform society, and how these transformations link to people’s everyday experience. Build a movement like that,” Todd says, and his eyes swell, “and all the old rules of politics – the centre ground, swing constituencies to a certain extent – are blown out of the water.”
Momentum sends me, with a young volunteer as chaperone, to a rally in Chester in October to watch activists try to muster support for local hospitals. They set up a stall in the centre of the shopping district, with its mad dissonance of coffee shops and medieval houses. From what I can see, people – yet far too few people – listen politely to the speeches about austerity and sign up for more information; but I can hear the hum of internal dissent when an activist, who asks not to be named, tells me he will work for the local Labour MP to be deselected. (The official Momentum line on deselection is, quite rightly, that it is a matter for local parties.)
We will not know what matters – is it effective? – until the general election, because no one knows what will work.
Now comes the result of the by-election in Copeland in the north-west of England, and the first time since 1982 that a ruling government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election. Momentum canvassed enthusiastically (they sent 85 carloads of activists to the constituency) but they failed, and pronounce themselves “devastated”. The whispers – this time of a “soft” coup against Corbyn – begin again.
Rees describes calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as “misguided. Labour’s decline long pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.”
This produces a furious response from Luke Akehurst, a former London Labour councillor in Hackney, on labourlist.org. He insists that Labour’s decline has accelerated under Corbyn; that even though Rees says that “Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in election after election in Copeland since 1997”, the majority increased in 2005 and the number of votes rose in 2010, despite an adverse boundary change. “This,” he writes, “was a seat where the Labour vote was remarkably stable at between 16,750 and 19,699 in every general election between 2001 and 2015, then fell off a cliff to 11,601, a third of it going AWOL, last Thursday.”
And he adds that “‘85 carloads of Momentum activists’ going to Copeland is just increasing the party’s ability to record whose votes it has lost”.
But still they plan, and believe, even if no one knows what will work; surely there is some antidote to Mayism, if they search every street in the UK? Momentum’s national conference, which was repeatedly postponed, is now definitively scheduled for 25 March. Stan who complained about a democratic deficit within Momentum at The World Transformed got his way. So did Lansman. In January the steering committee voted to dissolve Momentum’s structures and introduce a constitution, after consulting the membership. A new national co-ordinating group has been elected, and met for the first time on 11 March – although, inevitably, a group called Momentum Grassroots held a rival meeting that very day.
I go to the Euston offices for a final briefing. There, two young women – Sophie and Georgie, and that will make those who think in parodies laugh – tell me that, in future, only members of the Labour Party will be allowed to join Momentum, and existing members must join Labour by 1 July. Those expelled from Labour “may be deemed to have resigned from Momentum after 1 July” – but they will have a right to a hearing.
More details of the plan are exposed when, a week later, a recording of Jon Lansman’s speech to a Momentum meeting in Richmond on 1 March is leaked to the Observer. Lansman told the Richmond branch that Momentum members must hold positions within the Labour Party to ensure that Corbyn’s successor – they are now talking about a successor – is to their liking. He also said that, should Len McCluskey be re-elected as general secretary of Unite, the union would formally affiliate to Momentum.
Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the party, was furious when he found out, calling it “a private agreement to fund a political faction that is apparently planning to take control of the Labour Party, as well as organise in the GMB and Unison”.
There was then, I am told, “a short but stormy discussion at the away day at Unison” on Monday 20 March, where the inner circle of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry “laid into” Watson, but Shami Chakrabarti made the peace; I would have liked to see that. Watson then released a bland joint statement with Corbyn which mentioned “a robust and constructive discussion about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.
Jon Lansman, of course, is more interesting. “This is a non-story,” he tells me. “Momentum is encouraging members to get active in the party, to support socialist policies and rule changes that would make Labour a more grass-roots and democratic party, and to campaign for Labour victories. There is nothing scandalous and sinister about that.” On the Labour right, Progress, he notes, does exactly the same thing. “Half a million members could be the key to our success,” he says. “They can take our message to millions. But they want to shape policy, too. I wouldn’t call giving them a greater say ‘taking over the party’” – and this is surely unanswerable – “it’s theirs to start with.”
Correction: This article originally named Luke Akehurst as a Labour councillor. Akehurst stood down in 2014.
Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.
Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.
The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.
Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?
The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.
A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.
Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror
A critique with hindsight.
In 1991, Susan Faludi’s Backlash was published. A blistering attack on the co-opting and misrepresentation of feminism in US politics and popular culture, it made clear what many had long suspected: the second wave had already broken. That phase of thought and activism was in retreat.
One year later, Rebecca Walker, daughter of the writer and activist Alice, wrote Becoming the Third Wave for Ms magazine. A radical call to action, prompted by the confirmation of controversial judge Clarence Thomas by the US Senate, it provides a taste of what third wave feminism might have become: radical, intersectional, uncompromising.
“Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger,” wrote Walker. “Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”
It’s a powerful call to arms, and one to which many women, especially working-class women and women of colour, have responded and continue to respond on a grassroots level. Nonetheless, had we been looking for a predictor of how the third wave of feminism would play out in popular culture and the mainstream media, there’s something else we should have been studying – Disney’s animated film Beauty and the Beast, first released in 1991.
I was 16 at the time and certainly thought of myself as a feminist. I hadn’t read Faludi – or indeed any feminist literature – but immediately latched onto Beauty and the Beast as a feminist film. It seems strange to me now, but it tapped into a mixture of impulses – teenage vanity, a mistrust of older women, a need for reassurance that I was unique – that I mistook for feminist principles. Perhaps they were, in a way; in a world that doesn’t see women as human, I knew I wanted to be seen as human. Only I didn’t really push it any further than that. There was a feminism, I was finding, that didn’t ask you to think about women per se. Just being a woman, and acknowledging that you had desires, was enough.
I don’t think I’m the only woman who felt that way, and 26 years later, I’m not especially surprised to see a revamped, more explicitly “feminist” Beauty and the Beast being sold to a new generation. Today’s young women are nothing if not primed for it, with self-esteem and intergenerational trust at an all-time low. The original Beauty and the Beast helped capture and nurture the disappointment many of us felt at the feminism of our mothers’ generation, at least as it had been presented to us - humourless, rigid, tactically naïve. Second waver Adrienne Rich wrote of looking at her own mother and thinking “I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” We looked at women of Rich’s generation and thought the same. Beauty and the Beast was inspiring, not least because of its mainstream credentials. Second wavers were evil stepmothers with bad PR; we’d show them you could win the battle by playing the princess.
Last night I sat down with my eldest son and rewatched the film that inspired me all those years ago. I thought I might be surprised that I’d ever found it liberating, but in fact it all made sense. So much of it predicts the path that mainstream feminism would be about to take, drifting away from the shit-and-string-beans mundanity of everyday exploitation to be dazzled by the glamour of individual inner lives. We’d given up fighting the wolves that lurked in the dark and taken to gazing into magic mirrors. The future lay in false hope.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the 1991 film is that Belle is nothing like the “little people” in her “poor provincial town”. Then again, you would be unlikely to forget this because she never shuts up about it. She literally walks through the streets singing about how unique she is, painfully conscious that “there must be more to this provincial life” (unlike the boring old plebs getting on with their boring old work). “Papa, do you think I’m odd?” she humblebrags. “It’s just that I’m not sure I fit in here.”
What is so different and special about Belle? Like all the other young women of the town (charmingly dismissed as “the bimbettes”) she’s tall, white and thin, with large breasts and eyes. Unlike them, however, she has brown hair. You know, just like Andrea Dworkin. So far, so feminist.
Belle also reads books. This is feminist, even if said books are about “far off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise!” (hence not exactly the Scum manifesto). It doesn’t really matter what you’re reading, though, as long as you’re reading, preferably while walking through a busy market square, completely oblivious to other human beings and their pathetic little lives.
Like most fairy-tale heroines, Belle doesn’t have a mother. One presumes her mother must have died while engaged in some second-wave, biologically essentialist activity such as giving birth. Thankfully Belle doesn’t need an older female role model – or indeed any female role model – because most women are rubbish, lacking the imagination even to question their fate. If they’re not fancying Gaston, they’re faffing about with babies or getting old.
While I doubt the creators of Beauty and the Beast had been reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (published in 1990), I think the overall shift in mood is obvious. This is the beginning of a new style of feminism, which is not about one’s social position, but one’s inner identity. It’s not for rubbish women, who marry local heartthrobs and have babies and get old and shit. It’s only for special women, like Belle. This makes it more inclusive (no, I don’t know why, either). More importantly, it makes it more marketable. Sod the sisterhood; as long as you have the right accessories, liberation is yours.
In order to have this new feminism, you still need sexists. Fortunately, Beauty and the Beast provides us with the character of Gaston, who is your classic, out-and-out, unreconstructed chauvinist. Indeed, he’s so stereotypically chauvinist you might forget for an entire hour that he’s not actually the one keeping a woman prisoner until she falls in love with him. Gaston might attempt to use Belle’s father as a means of coercing Belle to be with him; the Beast is the one who bloody well does it.
Structurally, it turns out there’s very little Gaston wants to do to Belle that the Beast doesn’t actually do. However, the latter is excused because he does it while being a beast and hence has identity issues. Not only that, but the Beast’s sexism isn’t as clichéd and common as Gaston’s. If the latter reads FHM, the former reads Julia Kristeva. If Gaston stands for the easy-win, obvious, pussy-grabbing misogyny of the right, the Beast stands for the left’s more refined, complex, long-wordy woman-hating. It’s not for Belle to challenge it, but to listen and learn from it.
This is, I think, one of the most insidious aspects of Beauty and the Beast, and the one which marks it out as a fundamentally third-wave project: it remarkets femininity – by which I mean female accommodation, empathy, self-sacrifice on behalf of males – as not just a female, but a feminist, virtue. Belle is sneeringly dismissive of the Bimbettes’ adoration of Gaston, yet quite prepared to embrace self-effacement for a more unusual male in a more unusual setting. Why, then it starts to look like empowerment! Watching this now, I can’t help recalling my own feelings about leaving behind the “coarse and unrefined” men of my own town to go to university, where I met men whose sexism I chose not to see. I associated misogyny with a lack of education and an uncritical embrace of stereotypes. Surely men who looked different and read books couldn’t hate women, too? Perhaps all they needed was a woman who understood them.
Feminism makes no sense without a meaningful analysis of work and class. I didn’t realise this back in 1991. As far as I was concerned, sexism was simply a massive, global misunderstanding, the unfortunate outcome of the mistaken belief that women were inferior to men. It never crossed my mind that it might all be the other way round: that the dehumanisation of women could have arisen as a means to justify their exploitation, an exploitation upon which countless social, political and economic structures depended. That would just have been too depressing, not to mention terribly second-wave.
While my analysis made little sense, it did make solving the problem of sexism a whole lot simpler. We could explain to men that women were people, too. We could show them that we were people, too. Job done. It did occasionally strike me as oddly fortuitous that I should have been born at just the right time for feminism to succeed. I would have pitied the women of my mother’s generation, were it not for the fact that most of those I knew were not feminists anyway. They were, if not happy with their lot, then at least accepting of it, or so it seemed to me. Women my own age, on the other hand, were more enlightened (or at least the Belles among us were).
Belle rejects Gaston’s vision of her future as his wife: “A rustic hunting lodge, my latest kill roasting on the fire, and my little wife, massaging my feet, while the little ones play with the dogs.” As she keeps on reminding us, Belle wants more to life than unpaid domestic labour. While second-wave feminists had an annoying tendency to remind us that such work never actually goes away – someone still has to do it, and surely it should be everyone – third-wavers had a better idea: pretend there still exists a class of people who are born to do all the boring old tasks no one else wants to do, only this time, said class doesn’t have to include you personally. This is the solution to which Belle turns.
The likes of Betty Friedan may have fretted over how to liberate middle-class women from domestic servitude without piling the labour onto other women. One solution Friedan didn’t count on was an enchanted castle, with the staff who claim to “only live to serve”. In modern feminist terms we would call such people “cis women” (singular version: your mum). Such women’s relationship with their class status is not conflicted; on the contrary, they apparently identify it. This means feminists don’t have to challenge an exploitative hierarchy after all. Rather they only need ensure that they – as individuals wanting “more than this provincial life” – don’t find themselves wrongly positioned within it.
This was my kind of feminism, one based not on the world I wanted for everyone, but on the women I didn’t want to become. It was and remains incredibly appealing. It’s only now it strikes me that feminism as flight from stereotypical womanhood into one’s own perceived exceptionality isn’t reaping the rewards one might have expected, at least not for female people. It’s only now that I can’t help wondering whether Mrs Potts wasn’t such a happy teapot all along. Maybe she was seething with inner resentment. Maybe she and Babette the feather duster – tired of her unpleasant, Benny Hill-esque, rapey relationship with Lumière – dreamed of running away together. The sad fact is, we’ll never know.
I don’t take the view that Disney films are an unmitigated anti-feminist evil. Frozen (along with Tangled) is the film that inspired one of my sons to turn up to the school disco dressed as Elsa, to grow his hair long, to become the kick-ass, non-conforming seven-year-old he is today. The truth is I enjoyed watching Beauty and the Beast again. It’s comforting to be reminded of a time when sex-based inequality seemed like an easy problem to fix, when I believed I could identify my way out of my mother’s fate. But that is a fantasy. What’s worrying is the degree to which fantasy feminism is now winning out over reality, while real, live women continue to suffer.
“To be a feminist,” wrote Rebecca Walker, “is to integrate an ideology of equality and female empowerment into the very fibre of my life. it is to search for personal clarity in the midst of systemic destruction, to join in sisterhood with women when often we are divided, to understand power structures with the intention of challenging them.” In other words, it’s more than simply stepping beyond the barriers that still hold other women back. Let’s not spend the next 26 years pretending otherwise.
The attack, which left a police officer and bystanders dead, was an attack on democracy.
We had just wrapped up recording this week's podcast and I was on my way back to Westminster when it happened: the first terrorist attack on Parliament since the killing of Airey Neave in 1979. You can read an account of the day here.
Here's what we know so far:
The proximity of so many members of the press - including George, who has written up his experience here - meant that it was very probably the most well-documented terrorist attack in British history. But it wasn't an attack on the press, though I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't thinking about what might have happened if we had finished recording a little earlier.
It was an attack on our politicians and our Parliament and what it represents: of democracy and, ultimately, the rights of all people to self-determination and self-government. It's a reminder too of the risk that everyone who enters politics take and how lucky we are to have them.
It was also a reminder of something I take for granted every day: that if an attack happens, I get to run away from it while the police run towards it. One of their number made the ultimate sacrifice yesterday and many more police and paramedics had to walk towards the scene at a time when they didn't know if there was another attacker out there.
If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.
“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.
In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.
Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.
Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.
And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.
We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.
Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.
The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.
It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.
In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.
Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.
Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.
As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.
I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.
Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.
It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.
There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.
The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.
Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.
The latest tiff between toffs gives plenty of food for thought.
I don’t have siblings, so I was weirdly curious as a kid about friends who did, especially when they argued (which was often). One thing I noticed was the importance of superlatives: of being the best child, the most right, and the first to have been wronged. And it turns out things are no different for the Royals.
You might think selective breeding would be a subject on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne would share common ground, but when it comes to genetically modified crops they have very different opinions.
According to Princess Anne, the UK should ditch its concerns about GM and give the technology the green light. In an interview to be broadcast on Radio 4’s Farming Today, she said would be keen to raise both modified crops and livestock on her own land.
“Most of us would argue we have been genetically modifying food since man started to be agrarian,” she said (rallying the old first-is-best argument to her cause). She also argued that the practice can help reduce the price of our food and improve the lives of animals - and “suspects” that there are not many downsides.
Unfortunately for Princess Anne, her Royal “us” does not include her brother Charles, who thinks that GM is The Worst.
In 2008, he warned that genetically engineered food “will be guaranteed to cause the biggest disaster environmentally of all time.” Supporting such a path would risk handing control of our food-chain to giant corporations, he warned - leading to “absolute disaster” and “unmentionable awfulness” and “the absolute destruction of everything”.
Normally such a spat could be written off as a toff-tiff. But with Brexit looming, a change to our present ban on growing GM crops commercially looks ever more likely.
In this light, the need to swap rhetoric for reason is urgent. And the most useful anti-GM argument might instead be that offered by the United Nations’ cold, hard data on crop yields.
Analysis by the New York Times shows that, in comparison to Europe, the United States and Canada have “gained no discernible advantages” from their use of GM (in terms of food per acre). Not only this, but herbicide use in the US has increased rather than fallen.
In sum: let's swap superlatives and speculation for sense.
"We will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart."
I have just chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee, COBRA, following the sick and depraved terrorist attack on the streets of our Capital this afternoon.
The full details of exactly what happened are still emerging. But, having been updated by police and security officials, I can confirm that this appalling incident began when a single attacker drove his vehicle into pedestrians walking across Westminster Bridge, killing two people and injuring many more, including three police officers.
This attacker, who was armed with a knife, then ran towards Parliament where he was confronted by the police officers who keep us – and our democratic institutions – safe.
Tragically, one officer was killed. The terrorist was also shot dead. The United Kingdom’s threat level has been set at severe for some time and this will not change. Acting Deputy Commissioner Rowley will give a further operational update later this evening. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been affected – to the victims themselves, and their family and friends who waved their loved ones off, but will not now be welcoming them home.
For those of us who were in Parliament at the time of this attack, these events provide a particular reminder of the exceptional bravery of our police and security services who risk their lives to keep us safe.
Once again today, these exceptional men and women ran towards the danger even as they encouraged others to move the other way. On behalf of the whole country, I want to pay tribute to them – and to all our emergency services – for the work they have been doing to reassure the public and bring security back to the streets of our Capital City. That they have lost one of their own in today’s attack only makes their calmness and professionalism under pressure all the more remarkable.
The location of this attack was no accident. The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech. These streets of Westminster – home to the world’s oldest Parliament – are engrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe. And the values our Parliament represents – democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law – command the admiration and respect of free people everywhere. That is why it is a target for those who reject those values. But let me make it clear today, as I have had cause to do before: any attempt to defeat those values through violence and terror is doomed to failure.
Tomorrow morning, Parliament will meet as normal. We will come together as normal. And Londoners - and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great City - will get up and go about their day as normal.
They will board their trains, they will leave their hotels, they will walk these streets, they will live their lives.
And we will all move forward together. Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.
Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.
Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.
Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.
This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”
The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.
No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.
Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.
Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.
When the last shift ended at Kellingley Colliery, North Yorkshire, in December 2015, it marked the end of deep coal mining in Britain. Since the early 1980s, over 250,000 jobs were lost in the industry and whilst regeneration efforts over the last 30 years have reclaimed sites, creating new housing and the infrastructure for new businesses and jobs, the scale of these losses was huge, and deep-seated social and economic problems remain.
The Coalfields Regeneration Trust was established in 1999. When we launched our first grant programme we were overwhelmed by the demand, however, this was simply a reflection of the need out there in the coalfields. Our name resonated with people who were incredibly proud of their communities and the contribution made by the coal industry to Britain’s prosperity.
Our independence meant we could be more flexible and responsive, and this helped us direct resources into communities where other funders struggled. Over the last 17 years our programmes have evolved and we have achieved some fantastic results for the 2,000,000 people who have benefited from our support. We have also gained a better understanding of the underlying issues that still impact on the quality of life in the coalfields. There are 5,500,000 million people living in Britain’s former mining communities and many do not enjoy the opportunities afforded in non-coalfield communities. While this inequity exists, we still have a job to do.
The key challenges
The greatest challenge is the fact that there are only 50 jobs per 100 workingage people in the coalfields. when you compare this figure to London (79), and the South-East (68), it doesn’t take much to recognise that there is a major problem here. The key factor is the number of businesses; the coalfields have significantly fewer businesses than non-coalfield communities. Unless this fundamental problem is addressed at scale, we will continue to see high levels of unemployment in our communities.
We also need to raise skill levels, or at least align skills to the local labour market. There are significant numbers of people who don’t have a qualification or are low skilled and this is a major barrier to competing for jobs. If new jobs are created we want our communities to be able to access them. For many people, it means an introduction to learning again and to do this they need to be engaged. It takes time to develop these relationships and build this confidence in people and the resources to make this happen are often lacking.
We also have a real issue with health in our communities. We have significant numbers of people experiencing long-term health problems that limit their day-to-day lives. It’s a major barrier for some people in accessing a training course or attending a job club but there are often low-cost solutions, such as ‘social prescribing’, that can make a real difference to the health of a person.
What the Trust can offer the coalfields
Right now we’re delivering an ambitious range of activities across England, Scotland and Wales. Everything from safeguarding community assets, developing community plans, engaging people through sport, helping people into work, supporting community organisations and creating new industrial space. I can’t remember a more exciting time in terms of how we want to work with our communities and we’ve got some fantastic partnerships with the private, public and voluntary sectors in the mix to help us. All our future activities will be geared to address our strategic themes of employment, skills and health and we will continue to collaborate to leverage additional resources into the coalfields.
We know we could do more and welcome the continued support of the Scottish and Welsh governments. We do, however, have a new and compelling proposition. Our aim is to create a £40 million investment fund for the coalfields, and we are inviting the English government to become a partner with us and contribute £30 million to match our commitment of £10 million. This will enable us to build 400,000 square feet of new industrial and commercial space, creating 1,000 jobs. Over 25 years this will generate £50 million in income, which we will invest in social impact projects generating £500 million in wellbeing value. We see this as a real legacy project for a generation to come.
We know this might seem an ambitious proposition in the current climate, but it’s a truly enterprising approach. Collaboration is at the heart of this and is the essential ingredient for all our future work. Without it we will not achieve the results we want for our communities.
About The Coalfields Regeneration Trust
The Coalfields Regeneration Trust is dedicated to supporting and improving the quality of life for the 5.5 million people living in the former mining communities of Britain. We have worked at the heart of many of these communities since 1999 and have a track record of delivering targeted programmes that have reached over two million people helping many thousands; back into work; to develop new skills and participate in activities that have improved their health.
There is compelling evidence that recognises the significant challenges that still remain and shows how coalfield communities lag behind national averages on multiple indices of deprivation. Our enterprising and innovative responses will address these challenges but we need the support of government and regional stakeholders to help us achieve the scale of impact required.
The employment rate in the largest UK coalfields is consistently lower than the rest of the country. On average, 14 per cent of adults in the coalfields are out of work on benefits, which is 40 per cent higher than the national average and double that of south-east England. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has helped more than 25,500 people into work and created or safeguarded more than 5,500 jobs.
The proportion of the working-age population with low or no qualifications in the English coalfields is roughly 60 per cent higher than in London and 40 per cent higher than in south-east England. Thanks to the programmes The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has
supported, 1.3m people are now more highly skilled.
A worrying 11.7 per cent of people living in the coalfields report long-term health problems, compared to 8.6 per cent nationally. Incapacity benefit is claimed by 8.4 per cent of adults of working age in the coalfields, which is 35 per cent higher than the national average and almost double south-east England. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust has invested in projects that have improved the health of over 250,000 people
For more information, visit www.coalfields-regen.org.uk
McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.
In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.
McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.
In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.
Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.
His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.
Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.
What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.
The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.
Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.
Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.
McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.
More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might.
The Met Police is treating the events in Westminster as a "terrorist incident".
A terrorist attack outside Parliament in Westminster has left four dead, including the attacker, and injured at least 40 others.
Police shot dead a man who attacked officers in front of the parliament building in London, after a grey 4x4 mowed down more than a dozen people on Westminster Bridge.
At least two people died on the bridge, and a number of others were seriously hurt, according to the BBC. The victims are understood to include a group of French teenagers.
Journalists at the scene saw a police officer being stabbed outside Parliament, who was later confirmed to have died. His name was confirmed late on Wednesday night as Keith Palmer, 48.
The assailant was shot by other officers, and is also dead. The Met Police confirmed they are treating the events as a "terrorist incident". There was one assailant, whose identity is known to the police but has not yet been released.
Theresa May gave a statement outside Number 10 after chairing a COBRA committee. "The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech," she said.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has tweeted his thanks for the "tremendous bravery" of the emergency services.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also released a short statement. He said: "Reports suggest the ongoing incident in Westminster this afternoon is extremely serious. Our thoughts are with the victims of this horrific attack, their families and friends. The police and security staff have taken swift action to ensure the safety of the public, MPs and staff, and we are grateful to them."
After the incident this afternoon, journalists shared footage of injured people in the street, and pictures of a car which crashed into the railings outside Big Ben. After the shots rang out, Parliament was placed under lockdown, with the main rooms including the Commons Chamber and the tearoom sealed off. The streets around Parliament were also cordoned off and Westminster Tube station was closed.
Those caught up in the incident include visitors to Parliament, such as schoolchildren, who spent the afternoon trapped alongside politicians and political journalists. Hours after the incident, the security services began evacuating MPs and others trapped inside Parliament in small groups.
Group of school children from Birmingham just let out of public gallery, they got up 6am to be here, MPs waving them goodbye
— Steve Reed (@SteveReedMP) March 22, 2017
The MP Richard Benyon tweeted: "We are locked in Chamber of House of Commons." Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner tweeted: "I'm inside Parliament and me and my staff are safe."
We are locked in Chamber of House of Commons
— Richard Benyon (@RichardBenyonMP) March 22, 2017
ALL LOCKED UP IN chamber ! pic.twitter.com/Qxi5EywtVF
— Barry Sheerman (@BarrySheerman) March 22, 2017
The MP Jo Stevens was one of the first to confirm reports that a police officer had been attacked. She tweeted: "We've just been told a police officer here has been stabbed & the assailant shot."
George Eaton, the New Statesman politics editor, was in the building. He has written about his experience here:
From the window of the parliamentary Press Gallery, I have just seen police shoot a man who charged at officers while carrying what appeared to be a knife. A large crowd was seen fleeing the man before he entered the parliamentary estate. After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police. Ministers have been evacuated and journalists ordered to remain at their desks.
Police have just shot a man who was attacking officers at parliament's entrance.
— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) March 22, 2017
According to The Telegraph, foreign minister Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier, tried to resucitate the police officer who later died. Meanwhile another MP, Mary Creagh, who was going into Westminster to vote, managed to persuade the Westminster tube staff to shut down the station and prevent tourists from wandering on to the scene of the attack.
A helicopter, ambulances and paramedics soon crowded the scene. There were reports of many badly injured victims. However, one woman was pulled from the River Thames alive.
A woman was pulled alive from the River Thames and is being treated by paramedics on a nearby pier. It's thought she was on bridge at time
— Chris Ship (@chrisshipitv) March 22, 2017
MPs trapped inside the building shared messages of sympathy for the victims on Westminster Bridge, and in defence of democracy. The Labour MP Jon Trickett has tweeted that "democracy will not be intimidated". MPs in the Chamber stood up to witness the removal of the mace, the symbol of Parliamentary democracy, which symbolises that Parliament is adjourned.
I and my staff are all safe. Democracy will not be intimidated by terror. We owe our deepest thanks to police,the emergency services & nhs
— Jon Trickett (@jon_trickett) March 22, 2017
MP's stand as the mace, the symbol of our parliamentary democracy, is removed as the House adjourns
— Liam Byrne (@LiamByrneMP) March 22, 2017
Brendan Cox, the widower of the late, murdered MP Jo Cox, has tweeted: "Whoever has attacked our parliament for whatever motive will not succeed in dividing us. All of my thoughts with those injured."
Whoever has attacked our parliament for whatever motive will not succeed in dividing us. All of my thoughts with those injured.
— Brendan Cox (@MrBrendanCox) March 22, 2017
Hillary Benn, the Labour MP, has released a video from inside Parliament conveying a message from MPs to the families of the victims.
— Hilary Benn (@hilarybennmp) March 22, 2017
Former Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed his sympathy.
My thoughts with the families of those injured & killed. Those seeking to attack our democracy with these barbarous methods will never win.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) March 22, 2017
While many MPs praised the security services, they also seemed stunned by the surreal scenes inside Parliament, where counter-terrorism police led evacuations.
Armed officers ordered myself and Security Minister into lobby at gun point. Terrifying
— Anna Soubry MP (@Anna_Soubry) March 22, 2017
Those trapped inside Parliament included 40 children visiting on a school trip, and a group of boxers, according to the Press Association's Laura Harding. The teachers tried to distract the children by leading them in song and giving them lessons about Parliament.
Schoolchildren in high vis jackets being led in song by their teachers. Security yelling at people for taking photos.
— Laura Harding (@LauraSHarding) March 22, 2017
In Scotland, the debate over whether to have a second independence referendum initially continued, despite the news, amid bolstered security. After pressure from Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the session was later suspended. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that her "thoughts are with everyone in and around Westminster". The Welsh Assembly also suspended proceedings.
A spokesman for New Scotland Yard, the police headquarters, said: "There is an ongoing investigation led by the counter-terrorism command and we would ask anybody who has images or film of the incident to pass it onto police. We know there are a number of casualties, including police officers, but at this stage we cannot confirm numbers or the nature of these injuries."
Three students from a high school from Concarneau, Britanny, were among the people hurt on the bridge, according to French local newspaper Le Telegramme (translated by my colleague Pauline). They were walking when the car hit them, and are understood to be in a critical condition.
The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has also tweeted his solidarity with the UK and the victims, saying: "Solidarity with our British friends, terribly hit, our full support to the French high schoolers who are hurt, to their families and schoolmates."
Solidarité avec nos amis britanniques terriblement frappés, plein soutien aux élèves français blessés, à leurs familles et leurs camarades.
— Bernard Cazeneuve (@BCazeneuve) March 22, 2017
George Eaton, who was in parliament at the time of the attack, on what he saw.
From the window of the parliamentary Press Gallery, I have just seen police shoot a man who charged at officers while carrying what appeared to be a knife. A large crowd was seen fleeing from the man before he entered the parliamentary estate.
After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police.
Ministers have been evacuated and journalists ordered to remain at their desks.
More follows. Read Julia Rampen's news story here.
Armed police at the cordon outside Parliament on Wednesday afternoon. Photo: Getty
Osborne will use the Standard as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?
In his biography of the man who, in May, will become the new editor of the London Evening Standard while remaining as the MP for Tatton, the Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh described how from an early age George Osborne “possessed a searing ambition to be a person of consequence”. Ganesh called Osborne “a psychological seer” and a “perspicacious analyst of people, including himself”. Moving through the gears, he added: “He has been a Pauline, a Bullingdon boy and a Bilderberg panjandrum, but he now belongs to the most truly privileged elite: those who are happy in their work.”
The Austerity Chancellor was published in 2012 when Osborne, who is 45, was considered to be David Cameron’s inevitable successor as leader of the Conservative Party and thus a future prime minister. As we all know, it did not quite turn out that way, the small matter of the EU referendum disrupting even the best-laid plans. Since being unceremoniously sacked last year by Theresa May, Osborne, who is an unapologetic liberal globaliser (he once told me that the book that had influenced him the most was Mill’s On Liberty), has been assiduously plotting his return to public life while assembling a portfolio of well-remunerated stipends, including a four-days-a-month contract with the asset management firm BlackRock, for which he is paid £650,000.
Before Christmas, Osborne was telling friends that he felt “unrepresented” by May’s Conservative Party. Because of the collapse of the Labour Party, he had concluded that the Brexit debate amounted, in essence, to an argument within the conservative family, among the Tory party, the press and the business community. The Scottish National Party naturally had a different view.
The first significant conversation I had with Osborne was at a Notting Hill drinks party – where else? I found him congenial and candid, and soon afterwards he invited me to accompany him on tours of the Nissan plant and the Hitachi factory, both in the north-east of England. The private Osborne is quite different from the public Osborne, who was booed at the 2012 Paralympics and has been caricatured as a “sneering Bullingdon boy”. Those who have worked closely with Osborne, including the former Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, speak well of him – of his intellect and knowledge of and interest in history, but also of his decency and, most surprisingly, his shyness.
As chancellor, Osborne’s record was mixed. At least two of his Budgets unravelled calamitously, undermining his reputation for strategic intelligence. His dogmatic pursuit of expansionary fiscal contraction delayed Britain’s recovery from the Great Recession and his “fiscal surplus rule”, by which he attempted to bind future governments to a Budget surplus, was humiliatingly abandoned.
Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Standard is fascinating on many levels. For a start, it throws up any number of potential conflicts of interest between his role as an MP and his duty as an editor to challenge power, break stories and create mischief; between his being a champion of the “Northern Powerhouse” and a celebrant of all things London; between his advisory role at BlackRock and the integrity of the Standard’s City pages. There is, too, the conflict of interest between Osborne, the spurned Remainer, and the Prime Minister, who is thought to resent the insouciance of the Cameroon chumocracy.
It’s certain that Osborne will use the Standard, a free newspaper with a daily distribution of nearly 900,000 copies, as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?
As an editor, I was relaxed about his appointment, even excited by it. It used to be common for politicians to write more than party propaganda for newspapers and magazines and for there to be free movement between Westminster and Fleet Street. Nigel Lawson is a former editor of the Spectator, as is Boris Johnson, who attempted and failed to be both an editor and an MP. Richard Crossman, a long-time contributing writer for the New Statesman, was our (unsuccessful) editor from 1970 to 1972 while staying on as an MP. John Freeman was a Labour MP before becoming a journalist; he edited the NS from 1961 to 1965. Michael Foot edited the Standard in his twenties, as well as Tribune after he entered the Commons.
I’ve no doubt that Osborne can succeed as an editor. Credentialism is overrated. He understands power, he has great contacts, he can write and, as a former applicant to the Times and Economist graduate trainee schemes, he has a long-standing interest in journalism. Whether he can combine editing with his obligations as an MP is for his constituents and his own conscience to decide.
Editing the Standard is no sinecure. Evgeny Lebedev is a hands-on proprietor and his staff have endured deep budget cuts. Osborne will bring to the role a touch of what Saul Bellow called “event-glamour”, as well as serious political purpose. The former austerity chancellor does not lack self-belief and his searing ambition to be a person of consequence is undiminished. Downing Street will be watching him very carefully, and so will his fellow journalists.
Ever heard of the Open Skies agreement?
Ah, taking back control. Isn’t it marvellous? Only a week to go before Theresa May storms up to our soon-to-be ex’s lawyer and thrusts notice of divorce proceedings (demanding we keep the house, money, car, Costa del Sol holiday home, kids and dog) in the pocket of his shiny, European slim-fit suit. All sorted, yes?
Probably not, but panicking won’t help now - so why not take a moment to savour this blossoming (Great) British spring, enjoy some fresh air and take a few moments gazing to the heavens. Why not? Because the skies above us are a never-ending reflection of the Brexit nightmare we face on the ground.
Since the early 1990s air travel around Europe has become more simple and less expensive - the direct result of deregulation by the EU, which abolished rafts of bilateral deals between individual nations and instead merged them all into one agreement between member states. That movement removed numerous passenger and service restrictions, increasing competition and thus driving down prices. Low-cost airlines flourished, and Europe became more open than ever before. Damn that EU red tape, right?
Now the UK has chosen to veer off course, there are three main options for aviation deals with the EU - all of which are essentially mile-high versions of every other trade agreement now up for grabs.
Firstly, the UK can continue with its membership of the European Common Aviation Area, which would provide continued access to the European Single Aviation Market. Secondly, the UK can negotiate a bespoke deal with the EU, similar to the Open Skies agreement we are currently part of between Europe and the US. Like the deregulation of two decades ago, this resulted in pushing competition up and fares down, but post-Brexit the UK could end up on the outside of this deal.
Finally, there’s aviation’s own "nuclear option" - leaving the EU with no deal and starting the long process of individually-negotiated deals country by country.
Option one, retaining membership of the ECAA, also requires acceptance of all EU aviation law and the European courts - something Theresa May has already proclaimed to be a "red line".
Therefore option two would seem the next best deal, but would still leave us out the loop when it came to trans-Atlantic flights - we may have to wave goodbye to Ryanair’s budget flights to New York before we even got the chance to say céad míle fáilte (the fact they are in partnership with Norwegian Air could further complicate matters depending on the exit deal).
So what does it really mean for the industry? In the short-term, the best case scenario is to maintain existing arrangements until a new deal or deals are reached. But if opting for individual bilateral agreements in the long-term, the industry will not only have to undergo the costly and laborious process of negotiating deals with individual nations inside the EU and out, it will also have no influence on EU aviation regulations, which it will still have to comply with when flying into and out of the bloc.
And for holiday-makers? Like many scenarios post-Brexit the impact will not be immediately obvious, but rising fares are one unwelcome result, and a return to 1980s bilateral restrictions and regulations is surely bad for all concerned. Having said that, if the laptop and tablet ban spreads it might give air travel something of a vintage feel anyway. What’s showing on that big drop-down TV in the aisle?
PS - European aviation law is one of the strongest obstacles to airport expansion. Hillingdon, home to Heathrow airport, was one of the few London boroughs to vote leave. Just saying.
Glen Campbell’s daughter says, “Dad, she’s come 5,000 miles to see you!” I add, “How sad is that?”
I only became a journalist because I once travelled five thousand miles to see Glen Campbell do a concert, and a friend said that if I liked him that much, maybe I should write about it.
I was working for a children’s charity at the time. Consulting a seating plan of the venue on my work computer, I established that A15 was in the middle of the front row. If I sat there, I would be about 12 feet away from Campbell. The seat lay in suburban Los Angeles – so I saved pound coins in a Quality Street jar from August 2006, and in March the following year I set off.
I knew that LA was the size of Wales. I can’t drive, but planned to take buses from Santa Monica as far as they went and walk the rest of the 42.4 miles to the Haugh Performing Arts Centre at 1,000 W Foothill Boulevard, Glendora. On the appointed day, I marched along a motorway, Discman in hand, listening to “Wichita Lineman”. I was helped along by a wall of warm air from the side of passing trucks. My eyes streamed with wind and grit.
In the foyer of the venue, a man was talking on his mobile phone: “Dude – I’m here. The demographic is, like, deceased.” He was right to say the crowd was on the older side. Glen was 70 then, and yet to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
I watched him singing in that effortless way of his: the keyboard player once said, “It’s like a bird flying. It’s like someone breathing. It is easy for him.” His hands looked smooth and papery like the ones on the armrests next to me. His daughter, whom I’d chatted to on the Glen Campbell Fan Forum, took me into the wings and said, “Dad, Kate has come all the way from London to see you!”
“How sad is that!” I snapped at Glen. Embarrassment is one of the principal emotions associated with extreme music tourism, should you actually meet the artist.
On finding I had no means of getting back to my hostel that night, a middle-aged couple took me to their car for energy bars and bottled water. They went an hour and a half out of their way for me, making a detour by the campus of Pepperdine University at midnight and up to the floodlit memorial to Thomas E Burnett, Jr, one of the men who bust their way into the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11.
After that night, gigs became my access to Middle America, an excuse to get to towns and suburbs I’d never otherwise see. Stranded in the mountains of Colorado after the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, I hitchhiked back to Denver with five frat boys who passed around a Coke-bottle bong. I learned how to while away a night in picket-fence towns with unspoken curfews and venues that chucked out by ten. CVS Pharmacy and Dunkin’ Donuts are the places to go, if you’ve enough battery left on your phone to locate them.
I flew to America to see Bruce Hornsby in freezing Albany, upstate New York, two winters back. Hours on the train track after the gig, no other passengers. A police car watched at a distance till the Amtrak ground in at 1.30am.
I get a kick from the effort and uncertainty of it: the tight connections, interminable waits and the addictive, stoned state you slip into from travelling for far too long. The alienation is counterbalanced by the strange comfort of spending the night in a room with the musician who soundtracks your daily commute back home. On a deserted platform in a closed-up town, with everyone you know fast asleep across the Atlantic, you’re just a leaf edging across a vast continent. Anything could happen to you.
Hornsby played in Pennsylvania this month. I was the only non-Amish person on the bus to Intercourse. I fed on samples from the Amish relish factory, and at dusk I walked miles to find a motel down a strip of road with no sidewalk, past a jumble of old gravestones pushed together in the middle of a modern traffic island.
I dumped my bag and jogged down the dual carriageway to the venue, arriving as the band took to the stage. For them, it was just another gig.
The PM is facing resistance both to funding cuts and grammar schools.
After being floored by the Conservative's tax U-turn last week, Jeremy Corbyn was on stronger ground at today's PMQs. Education is an issue that unites Labour and divides the Tories and Corbyn spied a political opportunity. He warned that the new national funding formula left 1,000 schools facing cuts of 7 per cent in seeming breach of the Conservative manifesto (the gift that keeps giving for the opposition). "No wonder even the editor of the London Evening Standard is up in arms about this," Corbyn smartly quipped of George Osborne. May gave no ground in response but emphasised that "the National Funding Formula is a consultation and obviously there'll be a number of views".
It was the reliably combustible subject of grammar schools, however, that provided the political heat. After Corbyn denounced May's "vanity project" (the Budget gifted £320m to grammars), the Prime Minister delivered an unusually personal retort. May denounced Diane Abbott and Shami Chakrabarti for sending their children to private schools and Corbyn for sending "his child to a grammar school" (and for attending one himself). As the PM spoke, Corbyn vigorously shoke his head. Did May not know that he divorced his wife over the issue or did she not care?
"Typical Labour - take the advantage and pull up the ladder behind them," she concluded. Corbyn replied with his now familiar call for "a staircase for all, not a ladder for a few" (a policy which has not yet been costed). He again exploited Tory divisions on grammars, citing the opposition of former education secretary Nicky Morgan. "The prime minister and her government are betraying a generation of young people," Corbyn warned. "Children will have fewer teachers, larger classes and all the PM can do is focus on her grammar school vanity project that can only ever benefit a few children."
May, who regularly takes advantage of having the last word, ended with a full-frontal attack on Labour. "Earlier this week he recorded a video calling for unity, he called for Labour to think of our people first, think of our movement first, think of the party first - that's the difference between him and me - Labour put the party first, we put the country first." Today, May maintained that her schools reforms are best for the country. But in the face of significant opposition, and with a working majority of just 17, she may yet have to put her party first.
On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan.
The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.
“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”
Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”
More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.
“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”
According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.
“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.
Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”
Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.
Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.
Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.
During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.
But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”
To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.
“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”
In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".
A first look at this week's magazine.
24 - 30 March
Trump's permanent revolution
Leaving the UK would mean huge cuts to public services
Sometimes, what you don’t say is more revealing that what you do say.
When Nicola Sturgeon addressed SNP conference, we knew independence would be front and centre of her comments.
The First Minister is a nationalist. What drove her into politics was independence, not social justice.
But even then, it was a staggering oversight for the First Minister not to mention poverty in her keynote address once.
The speech came just days after new figures showed over a quarter of a million children in Scotland living in poverty, an increase of 40,000 on her watch.
That tells you everything you need to know about her priorities. She would rather divide our country with the arguments of the past, than get on with tackling the problems Scotland faces.
Another reason may be, grimly, more political – there is now no credible argument for independence ending austerity.
The paper-thin argument the nationalists tried to sell to the poorest in 2014 has been exposed as false hope.
The numbers are clear – leaving the UK would mean huge cuts to public services, which would hit the poorest hardest.
So the best way to make Scotland fairer is to stay in the UK and use the powers of the Scottish Parliament.
That’s why last month Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale set out our plan to use the new powers of our parliament to boost Child Benefit by an extra £240 per year by the end of the decade.
This move would lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty, and put money back into the pockets of families who have seen incomes flatline under the SNP.
Booting the private sector – that has delivered cruel and inhumane disability benefit assessments - out of the social security system is another. That’s why we will amend the forthcoming Social Security Bill to ensure, in law, that the private contractors are removed from the system
Rather than the system working against Scots, we want to see it work for people. That’s why we want a legal duty that the government ensures that everyone gets the benefits they are entitled to. Scots miss out on £2bn worth of social security payments a year. Getting that cash to families could make a huge difference to thousands.
When Scotland voted to stay in the UK in 2014 the powers we got over the benefits system should have meant we can make different decisions than the Tories.
Rather than more division, we’d like to work with the SNP to take those different decisions.
Mark Griffin is Scottish Labour’s social security spokesman
It is too late for the Republicans to replace their scandal-tainted candidate.
It's that time of the week again: this week's Le Canard Enchaîné has more bad news for François Fillon, the beleagured centre-right candidate for the French presidency. This week's allegations: that he was paid $50,000 to organise a meeting between the head of the French oil company Total and Vladimir Putin.
The story isn't quite as scandalous as the ones that came before it: the fee was paid to Fillon's (legitimate) consultancy business but another week with a scandal about Fillon and money is good news for both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.
The bad news for the Republicans is that Fillon is on the ballot now: there is no getting off the train that they are on. Destination: blowing an election that was theirs to be won.
Who'll be the ultimate beneficiary of the centre-right's misery? Although Macron is in the box seat as far as the presidential race is concerned, that he hasn't been in frontline politics all that long means that he could still come unstuck. As his uncertain performance in the first debate showed he is more vulnerable than he looks, though that the polls defied the pundits - both in Britain and in France - and declared him the winner shows that his popularity and charisma means that he has a handy cushion to fall back on.
It looks all-but-certain that it will be Macron and Le Pen who face each other in the second round in May and Macron will be the overwhelming favourite in that contest.
It's still just about possible to envisage a perfect storm for Le Pen where Fillon declares that the choice between Macron and Le Pen is a much of a muchness as neither can equal his transformative programme for France, Macron makes some 11th-hour blunder which keeps his voters at home and a terrorist attack or a riot gets the National Front's voters fired up and to the polling stations for the second round.
But while it's possible he could still come unstuck, it looks likely that despite everything we've thought these last three years, the French presidency won't swing back to the right in 2017.