Kevin Cummins interview: "There were right-wingers in the arts, with Rod Stewart and Phil Collins and all those Thatcherites."

Rob Pollard interviews one of the world’s most renowned music photographers.

Kevin Cummins is one of the world’s most renowned music photographers. He has photographed David Bowie, Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, The Happy Mondays and Patti Smith, as well as working as an NME photographer from 1977-1997. However, it’s the time he spent photographing post-punk band Joy Division - where he created the defining images of a band still hugely influential today - that produced the best examples of his work. I met him in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, where we discussed the art of photography, his time working with Joy Division, and his lifelong association with the Labour Party.

When you work with a band, what is it that creates the right environment for producing lasting images?

I find it difficult photographing musicians if I don’t like them. I think there has to be a mutual respect because I think it tends to fall apart if there isn’t. I think band shots these days can be quite formulaic. I usually tell musicians that, if I was forming a band, I’d have three people in it because you can always pose three people quite well. I think four is acceptable but beyond that it’s really unwieldy; it tends to look like just a bunch of mates hanging around together. 

I think time is important as well. If you’re working with musicians you haven’t worked with before, or you haven’t seen them for a while, it’s nice to have the luxury of time on your side, and I think a lot PR and record company people don’t understand that. I’ve been on shoots where you’ll go to LA with a band for three or four days and you get introduced to them, and the PR person is prodding you and saying ‘you should take a picture of this,’ and I think ‘no I shouldn’t.’ I like to spend a couple of days without a camera so that they’re used to having me around. People work in different ways but I like to work in short bursts.

It’s interesting you mention band photography being formulaic. I was going to ask you about the band promo shot. It seems like an exhausted art form. What’s the future of that type of shot and how can it be freshened up and continued?

I don’t think it’s a valued art anymore because, at the moment, we’re in a period where everybody documents every second of their lives. Everybody’s taking photographs of everything they do. So they’ll sit there with a pint, take a picture of it, and put it on Twitter. Or they’ll have a meal somewhere and they’ll put it on Facebook, and it’s really not that interesting. And it’s also not that interesting, however fascinating musicians think they are, for them to take their own pictures on their camera phones. In the past, dressing room shots were really rare, and they were always really valued if you were able to do some pictures of a band in their dressing room. Now they do it themselves. 

I think everybody is too open with what they’re doing; there’s no mystery anymore. Consequently, there’s no musical underground because if you chance upon a band not many people have heard of, by the end of the first two numbers it’s all over Twitter and Facebook, and people have uploaded it to YouTube. It’s a very odd world at the moment, and I don’t want to sound like somebody just saying ‘I don’t understand it’ because I do understand it, but I just don’t see it’s value. I don’t understand people going to a gig and watching through an iPhone. Your experience of a gig is the vastness of it and that collective energy, it’s not standing there in your own little world viewing it on a two inch by 3 inch screen. It makes no sense to me. I went to Jack White at the Roundhouse - it was one of the itunes festival gigs - and before the gig started, the tour manager came out and said ‘put your camera phones in your pockets because we’re filming this and it’ll be better than anything you can do. We’ll also be recording it which is better than the microphone you’ve got on your camera. And we’ve got a professional photographer and you can download the pictures tomorrow and pretend you took them yourself. Just enjoy the gig.’

Can I ask you about Ian Curtis? What was he like to work with?

Quite shy. You have to remember he was young and he didn’t have a lot of experience outside of his own world. It was only when he was in the band that he went abroad. I think he’d been abroad to Paris for his honeymoon and that was it. He didn’t have any idea of what ‘abroad’ was like. 

For me, he was a bit of a lost soul. He knew what kind of stuff he was into and he couldn’t find that many people who were into the same thing. So when he went to Belgium and France, or wherever, he started to meet people who were into the same kinds of things as him, and I think that’s why he liked Annik [Honoré] and why that relationship developed. Ian was the same as a lot kids that age, he liked drinking, he liked talking about girls and liked talking about football or music. 

Why has Joy Division’s impact on music been so lasting?

Two-fold really. I think Ian died young, so automatically people have a strong interest in the legacy. And, when you read his lyrics, there was a lot of tortured, teenage angst there. When you’re a teenager you identify with that bleakness. When I was in my teens I really identified with Leonard Cohen and the kind of lyrics he was writing because you want to sit up all night analysing them and making them mean something to you. So there’s that side of it. And also Martin Hannett’s production made it timeless and because of that you can play it now and it sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday. 

Morrissey, Manchester Sept 1989

If you were just starting your career now, which bands would you be looking to attach yourself to?

It’s quite a difficult question because I don’t live in Manchester anymore and it’s a different world. I think it must be very difficult now to leave art school and get into photography and actually earn a living from it. Not that I earned a living from it initially, it took a long time before you could do that. The thing is, it’s very easy to give up because you’re not earning enough but if you want something you have to keep at it and work hard. You’ve got to put a thousand hours in and suddenly you’ll start to reap the benefit. People say to me ‘you were in the right place at the right time’ but so were 2 million other people at that time as well. I made a lot of sacrifices to do what I did. If I went to a gig, I couldn’t drink or take drugs. I had a darkroom which I used that was ten miles outside Manchester where I’d have to go after the gig and process and print the film, then drive back in to Manchester and put it on Red Star Parcels at Piccadilly station so that the NME got them for the following morning, go home have about an hours sleep, and then go back to the darkroom and print all day for them. 

Your images are often very dark and dramatic. Is there a film noir influence in your work?

No, not really. When I was studying photography I was really into Bill Brandt. Bill Brandt had a printer who printed very harshly. His earlier prints are quite normal but then in the 60s and 70s he chose to change the way he printed and printed very, very starkly and that influenced me a lot. I was really into Diane Arbus as well. When I stared studying photography, Diane Arbus had just committed suicide, which I thought was impossibly romantic. I was very interested in her work and how she approached it and a lot of the stuff she did was very dark. So they were my two main influences really. 

That dark element in your work seems like the perfect fit for Joy Division doesn’t it?

Yeah, it does. You look at those photographs and you know what they’re going to sound like. Those pictures couldn’t have been taken of The Clash, for instance, or the Jam, or any of their contemporaries, it wouldn’t have made any sense. If you look at the picture of them on the snowy bridge, it’s not even a band shot, the band are just there in the background. It’s a picture of a snowy bridge in Manchester but it defines their sound to me and it’s great that that’s how people feel about them too.

I spoke to Martin Parr earlier in the year and we were discussing the coalition’s attitude towards the artistic fraternity. What’s your opinion of their approach to the arts?

The Tories have never been interested in art have they? They’re interested in collecting it as an investment but they’re not interested in the arts and how it works. We’re in the middle of a really critical time for copyright and most of the arts bodies who protect people like me, such as the NUJ, are desperately fighting Google, who basically want to destroy copyrighting. The problem is people think everything should be free. Musicians have their work ripped off all the time, photographers do, writers do. Novelists are finding their books available to download for free, and they’re not getting royalties - none of us are. Royalties is how we earn our living but people think it shouldn’t exist. 

With that in mind, how did you feel about the contract that The Stone Roses drew up for the Heaton Park gigs in the summer?

I think it’s a disgrace. I think anything like that is absolutely disgraceful because what they’re doing is a restriction of your trade, and they’re telling you they want to own and they don’t want to pay for it. I was commissioned to photograph the German band Rammstein for the Times. They sent a seven page contract through which basically said that for €1 they would own everything I shot - I could have it published once in the Times for the piece I was shooting it for - and they could use them on their website, merchandising, album sleeves and publicity, in return for me standing there and photographing them. So I didn’t sign it. I won’t sign anything like that. It shows such a lack of respect for us and our art.

Ian Curtis / Joy Division, Leeds Sept 1979

I’ve been trying to think why it is that images aren’t as highly valued by musicians anymore. Do you think the fact that we’ve gone from LPs to CDs and now primarily to downloading means the image has been squeezed out and become less important?

No, I don’t, I think the only reason is they think that you’re earning money from their image and they want earn it, and I think it’s as basic as that. What they don’t seem to understand is that, if you treat people properly, you’ll be treated properly in return. They are trying to impose restrictions on the way we work. This doesn’t apply to me particularly because I’ve got a huge archive of work, but people who are starting now have got to earn a living. There’s a lot of antagonism between the two sides of the industry. I don’t see how anyone could earn a living from it these days. 

So, you’re a lifelong Labour member aren’t you?

Yeah. My dad took me to see Harold Wilson talking on the back of a truck prior to the 1964 election. I thought it was the most powerful thing I'd ever experienced. After the talk Wilson came over and ruffled my hair and asked me who I "voted" for. I said Labour and he gave me a Labour Party badge and told me to make sure I always did. I wore it all the way through school.

What’s you opinion of the direction the party has travelled in during your time as a member?

I think it’s gone from being a party that worked closely with the trade union movement, to one that has to compete with the Tories. It’s glib to say there’s very little difference between Labour and the Conservatives because there is a lot of difference between the parties, but I think the backgrounds of a lot of the politicians is very similar these days. If you look back to Harold Wilson’s government, how many of his top table were ex-Etonians or public school boys? Not a great many I would wager. It has a changed a lot and it changed around the time of Neil Kinnock. It had to change because the Labour Party were never, ever going to get back in to power. 

Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of people in this country who like to be told what to do, and they always think the Tories tell them better. They’ve had it throughout their schooling with teachers telling them what to do. They like the discipline and I think they felt Labour were very indisciplined. So we got to a point with the Labour Party where we were always going to be a marginal party and it had to change. I’m not saying it changed for the better. In an ideal world I’d like them to all be hardcore socialists but they’d be unelectable because that’s not what the people in this country want. I think most people are centre-ground veering slightly to the right, and they don’t like left because the media doesn’t like the left, and the media virtually dictates the policy of this country. It tells people how to behave. If you don’t read a tabloid in England it’s like you’re living in a different world. I deliberately don’t buy them but occasionally on a Saturday when I’m on a train coming up to Manchester from London for a match I’ll read one and just think: what is this they’re talking about? I’ve got absolutely no idea. It’s like the Jimmy Saville thing at the moment, Andrew O’Hagan wrote a brilliant piece for the London Review of Books, and you compare that to the screaming headlines in the tabloids. It’s dreadful. 

It’s interesting you mention a right-wing media because an idea exists that the BBC are in fact a left-wing organisation, pedalling left-wing bias, something many commentators find a bizarre suggestion.

Well, there are left-wing journalists in the BBC and there are at most newspapers. If you’ve studied English or History at University and you want to get into journalism, then I think you’re natural leaning is left. There are left-wing journalists at the Times and the Telegraph, and even the Mail, but the proprietor isn’t. That’s the difference. I’d like to think I haven’t got a single friend who votes Tory but I possibly have!

Artists tend to be left-wing. There seems to be hardly any right-wingers in the arts.

No. Well, there were, with Rod Stewart and Phil Collins and all those Thatcherites. I’m not sure how many musicians are that into politics these days. It’s become a bit of a dirty word hasn’t it, and they don’t want to upset their record buying public. There aren’t many political lyricists anymore. 

New Order, Manchester Nov 1985

What do you think Labour’s chances are at the next election?

I like Ed Miliband. I think he is an old-school labourite because that’s how he was brought up. He understands that the Labour Party has to be modern as well; it has to be progressive. I think that was part of Labour’s problem in the 70s, they had such a small majority over the Conservatives that all their energy was going into hanging on to power rather than actually getting policy through. The unions were incredibly powerful. They could just withdraw all their votes and Labour knew it, and so there was a lot of blackmail rather than bargaining going on. In terms of 2015, I think it very much depends on the newspapers. With certain newspapers, everything is just one big fucking laugh and there are certain things they should start being serious about. They like to turn everything into some kind of cartoon strip - everyone is there to be pilloried and have the piss taken out of them - so I think it very much depends how the papers treat it. There’s a certain number of people who make their own mind up, but there’s a massive amount of people who don’t, and they’ll vote the way the paper tells them to vote. 

It’s interesting that the media opinion on Ed Miliband has shifted slightly.

Yeah, it has. I think his speech at conference was really good; I think he proved himself there. The problem for the Labour Party is the Blair years because people felt so taken in by that. We had this new dawn, and it was the most fantastic day in 1997, because, for a lot of people, to have a Labour prime minister, they’d never had that in their lives. A lot had never had the opportunity to vote for a Labour Party that had won an election. And then for Blair to do what he did was unforgivable for a lot of people in this country, certainly hardcore Labour voters. It really split the party. 

Did you attend conference?

I have been in the past but I’m not very active within the party now. My local party have asked me to be a councilor but it’d interfere with my football too much!

Can you give me a sense of what Manchester was like under Thatcher?

Well, she’ll hate to hear this, but if it wasn’t for Thatcher I don’t think acid house would have happened. Because the tories were so intent on massaging the unemployment figures, they had all these initiatives where they’d give you 45 quid a week to stay off the dole. For musicians that was perfect because you could squat in Hulme and get your 45 quid. It meant Shaun Ryder, or whoever, didn’t have to have a job so they could spend all day sleeping and smoking weed and then playing music in the evening. A lot of bands have a lot to thank Thatcher for even though neither side would probably like to admit it. 

Manchester was terribly grim. There was very little investment in the city, and Manchester was, pretty much all the way through the Thatcher years, a Labour council, so they were alway, always having to battle to get anything and being turned down for most of it. When I show people in America those Joy Division shots, they ask if it’s in Poland. They don’t think that’s how Britain looked.

For more information on Kevin’s work visit his website or follow him on Twitter. All photos are from Kevin's books, available for purchase here.

Kevin Cummins, self portrait.

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain