"More and more people realise austerity is not viable. There is no other way but to radicalise further"

An interview with Alexis Tsipras of Syriza.

In the past few months, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left-wing movement Syriza and widely tipped as the country's next prime minister, has been on an international tour, trying to build a broad coalition of support for his party's anti-austerity policies - and, perhaps, to convince the world's political elite that a Syriza government is not such a terrifying prospect. Last week was London's turn. The New Statesman caught up with him at the end of a busy schedule of meetings and talks, en route to see Tottenham Hotspur play Fulham.

NS: You’ve just given two lectures in London: one at the LSE, and one at Friends House, a well-known venue for left-wing events. How did you find the audiences?

Tsipras: Both at LSE, where I expected the audience to be a bit colder but it turned out that most were friendly, and at the [Friends House] one organised by Syriza London, the participation was amazing. At the second one I was surprised to see that almost 600 hundred people turned up. And not just Greeks either, many were British.

And I think this means that Syriza is not just a party with interesting positions, but a force that can bring change to the political landscape of Europe – not just for Greece, but for all the people who now need to reclaim their right to a decent society, justice and hope; against those who want to see them subjugated to this austerity that doesn’t just kill wages and pensions, but democracy itself.

Would you say you have political allies in Britain?

I had the opportunity to meet with two teams from the Labour Party: an official one headed by [Jon] Cruddas, the party's head of policy-making, and another one with four to five Labour MPs. I got the impression that the Labour party today is in soul-searching mode, and the debate around austerity is on, so Greece is for them an interesting case study. Bearing in mind that in previous years they followed neoliberal policies, today Labour are deeply troubled about everything that has happened in Greece and especially by the collapse of PASOK [Labour's social-democratic Greek sister party]. They're following the situation closely and I dare say they are one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication.

So Syriza can find common ground with Labour?

It will depend upon how daring [Ed] Miliband intends to be and especially when it matters most: during the next elections when pressure from the mainstream media and oligarchs in Britain start speaking of the "red dragon" that has come to drive away the City and submerge us in inflation and poverty. Of course this will depend not only on Miliband's endurance but also on the circumstances under which this duel will take place. Because if elections are held in 2015, the two years in between will be apocalyptic as to the effects of neoliberalism in Europe. Britain is already in depression. Nothing is getting better. More and more people in Europe realise that austerity is not a viable prospect. I hope people realise that there is no other way but to radicalise even further.

Do you think there is potential for something similar to Syriza in Britain? A party emerging from outside the mainstream that will oppose austerity?

I can’t really know that. Every country has its own characteristics and in Britain there's a long tradition of a two-party system. If of course Labour wins the next elections and opts to continue along Cameron’s tracks, then it’s almost certain that they will lose every bond with the social classes that support them. The void left there will certainly be filled by something new. That’s the way it works in nature and that’s the way it works in politics.

At your lectures, you spoke of the need for a "European people" in order to find a way out of the crisis. Do you find the conditions are here for this to happen?

I think we are running a grave danger: to focus our thoughts on the Greek people, on the British people, on the Italians, like separate entities. The crisis threatens to drive us backwards, back to the idea of the nation-state, and to the antagonism between those states that will come about as an extension of neoliberalism, with false ideas of competitiveness and so on.

On the other hand, we need to see the actual solution: that in common problems, we need common answers. Europeans have nothing to fight over. This stand-off is not between the British and the French, the Greeks and the Germans. This is between the working class, the unemployed and part of the middle class against predatory capital.

This brings us to something current and highly relevant to what you were saying. What do you think about what’s happening in Cyprus?

I think it’s unbelievable and self-destructive.

I believe that in the next few days panic will spread to the rest of southern Europe. It is a very risky choice they [the troika] have made, and it proves they have no understanding of the objective dangers facing the eurozone. They've chosen to have a Eurozone operating under their rule, with the people subjugated, threatened with blackmail like this. I think the only chance Cyprus has, like other countries, is if the political system rejects this blackmail. If they accept it, then there is no way back. Cyprus's economy will be ruined, its banking system will bleed capital as depositors will fear a second haircut, and this will spread throughout Europe.

On the contrary, if Cyprus resists, and rejects this deal by protecting its banking system, it would send a strong message of trust and credibility to the rest of the southern European countries as well.

One of the first things your opponents in the government said when details of the Cyprus bank levy came up was to claim that one of your own MPs, Manolis Glezos, suggested something similar recently.

Their claims are ridiculous.

They're made, though.

They [the Greek government] can claim anything they want in their PR war. It’s the same team of people that has ruined the country and they can use what they want to attack us.

Of course Manolis [Glezos] never said anything like that. He spoke once about the possibility of a voluntary loan via bonds exchange. His idea has nothing to do with the proposed involuntary haircut imposed on Cypriot deposits.

Those who now govern us under the neoliberal dogma, under the dogma of subjugation, will go for anything, they’ll ask for no one's permission to take measures like that one. They will turn us into Argentina [circa 2001] while at the same time proclaiming that their target is to avoid exactly that. De la Rua [the former Argentine president] was their ideological cousin anyway, and it’s likely a helicopter will carry them away too, when the time comes for the Greek people to reclaim their rights and bring back balance to our society, economy and lives. There’s no other possible outcome.

But your opponents will claim you are no longer that radical, and that you now resemble a centre-left party.

Well, it’s ridiculous that the same people who claim that we aid terrorists, accuse us of becoming more timid at the same time. They just spin it any way they can and hope it catches on.

So are you still radicals or have you become a party of the centre-left?

Syriza is what it is: a radical, left-wing party that feels the pulse of the times, knows what’s at stake and is after a wide consensus and unity for political change in Greece. This is something that departs from the narrow limits of the radical left.

And what of the transformations Syriza is going through? Because there is certainly something changing.

We are going through a process, as democratic as ever, and with the people’s participation it can only get better. We already accomplished much. Last year no one would have thought that Syriza could achieve this. Instead of factions, we are now a solid democratic party, that operates with the same freedom of opinions as it used to. This will lead to the formation of a new shape for us that will come about after our next conference which is taking place soon.

Are you making moves in the European scene as well?

We are looking into the new conditions now forming. Our aim is for an international summit on the re-negotiation and the cancellation of the debt of peripheral European countries. For this, we are open to co-operation with forces outside the European left as well.

So you still claim you'll "tear up the memorandum" and not just repay Greece's lenders at any cost?

Our reasoning is that the memorandum has already failed. It’s a disaster. We’ll put an end to it and replace it when in parliament. We’ll proceed to renegotiate with our lenders with the prospect of a reasonable, viable agreement that won’t just concern Greece, because this is not just a Greek crisis. We’ve seen that the problem is systemic. This means that when negotiations take place it won’t be Greece against the world but rather, the European South against Ms Merkel.

Let's leave Europe for a moment; what about the rest of the world? What came out of your recent tour of South and North America, for instance?

This happened in the context of carrying a message to the outside world: That Greece is going through a humanitarian crisis and that it needs alliances with those powers that realise the danger austerity carries for the entire planet. It’s in their best interests to support Greece, not out of charity, but rather because they understand that this catastrophic tragedy needs to stop. Through these contacts we've had the chance to create such alliances, for today and for tomorrow.

Was something more specific discussed in terms of trade? Cheap oil from Venezuela, maybe?

Well, I don't think there is any point to get into so much detail. What matters is that a number of countries both in South and in North America understand the the Greek program is not working and a government of the left can provide a way out of it not just for Greece but also for Europe. It will give a prospect of balance for the world economy as well, because the real threat right now is the spreading of austerity and depression.

Is the rumour true, then, that the US is positive towards the possibility of Syriza coming to power?

That’s a comment I'd leave for you journalists to make. The point is that the US are following a policy line radically different from that which Angela Merkel follows and enforces throughout Europe. The US have printed money, they intend to tax the rich in order to avoid the fiscal cliff.

These are things that sees anyone who dares to propose them in Greece and Europe, labeled an extremist, when at the same time it's what Obama does. In that sense there are common elements, at least more than in the past, in the applied economic policy. Geopolitics are more complicated than that, I'm afraid.

One subject you seemed to leave out of your talks was immigration, an issue that the far right has exploited to frightening extent. What is Syriza's policy on this?

Immigration is one of the most important issues on our agenda. The European South is an entry point and we need to look into a wider solution. It's unfair for entrance countries to be forced into taking all the weight of the issue. Dublin II [the EU-wide agreement on asylum seekers] strips away the right of immigrants and refugees, to leave the country with proper documentation. They don't want to stay in a country where they can't get a job, but they are forced to.

So we need to examine what kind of Europe we want from now on: Do we want a Europe based on solidarity where hardships are equally distributed? Or do we want a Europe where the south is used as storage space for poor souls and the north lives on comfortably? We are approaching this both on an institutional level, trying to force a treaty change, but also through a humanitarian perspective. We can't treat those people who arrive to our country like second-class citizens.

And especially for those kids who are born in Greece, we say nothing different than what Britain does: they should be able to get Greek citizenship. They take part in Greek education, they speak Greek and they know no other home. We need to see the future in a multicultural Greece, much like the way Britain worked it out, successfully in my opinion.

So, for a last question: how important is your role as the face of Syriza?

Faces and personalities are important sometimes, but it's social conditions that create the context for them to act. I’ve been saying the same things for three to four years. The people accepted the message now, not because I changed it. I believe history will be written by those people, not leaders, despite the role leaders have to play in this.

Follow Yiannis Baboulias on Twitter @YiannisBab and Daniel Trilling @trillingual

Alexis Tsipras (centre), after a speech outside Athens University in June 2012. (Photo: Getty.)
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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt