2012 in review: The New Statesman on... identity

From the new patriotism to Ed Miliband's Jewish heritage, the best NS writing on identity.

Welcome to the fifth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best writing on the media, is here.) 

After a year in which the Olympics revived the debate around patriotism and Britishness, today's theme is identity. Here are a selection of our best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

The Olympics changed what it means to be a winner

A week after the opening of the Olympics and in the wake of the euphoria that greeted Mo Farah's first victory, the author and former England cricketer Ed Smith asked what the Games told us about modern Britain. Arguing that our vision of "a champion" was no longer defined by Thatcherite notions of "aggressive individualism", Smith held out the possibility that the Olympics could provide a basis for national renewal. 

The Olympics, however, is no longer really a sports tournament. Sport provides the surface and the pretext; the real point is the opportunity to reboot a city, perhaps even a country.

Olympics sceptics once used that fact as a criticism: look how detached the Games have become from sport, they complained. Yet if the Olympics aren’t about sport, the logic follows that Britain must have succeeded at something much more important. Perhaps we can’t yet be sure exactly what that is. But the prospect of finding out is thrilling.

Ed Miliband: the patriotism of a refugee

In a piece for our special issue in May on the British Jewish experience, Ed Miliband reflected on how his Jewish heritage helped shape his political beliefs.

Above all, what I see in so many parts of the Jewish community is a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it. Whatever people’s politics, that is so familiar from the upbringing my parents gave me.

I was not indoctrinated with Marxism. Nor was I brought up with religion. But I was given a sense that the world could be a better, fairer and different place. And we all have a duty in our own way and our own time to seek to make it so. 

Tale of a city: From hell to hipsville

A lifelong east Londoner, Bim Adewunmi explored how Hackeny, the borough that her mother warned her never to go to unaccompanied, became a playground for hipsters. 

There are still the distinctive Caribbean and African accents I remember but there are lots of younger Home Counties ones, too: it’s no coincidence that the Office for National Statistics reported an increase in Hackney’s white population between 2001 and 2007. Hackney is a very young London borough – second only to Newham – and it shows. Come Christmas, the streets empty as the non-natives go back to their parental homes for the break. They leave behind all her old people; and the lifelong Hackneyites come out to play.

"Plastic Brits" - and the Mail's struggle to decide who isn't British

Back in March, after the Daily Mail took to describing some foreign-born British athletes as "plastic Brits", British Future director Sunder Katwala probed the inconsistencies in the paper's approach. His prediction that the crowds at the Olympic stadium would "cheer for every athlete representing Team GB" proved prophetic.

If Team GB is only nine-tenths British-born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.

Twelve per cent of people in Britain today are foreign-born. Because that percentage is twice as high in London, the Olympic host city, the team of Olympic volunteers will probably have more multinational roots than Team GB. As a newspaper that celebrates patriotism and integration, the Mail could celebrate that 70 per cent of those born abroad feel a strong sense of belonging to Britain, even slightly outscoring those born in this country (66 per cent), as a State of the Nation poll found.

They don't think they are Plastic Brits; instead, they fly their flags with pride.

The NS Profile: Tim Soutphommasane

In May, Ed Miliband transferred responsibility for Labour's policy review to Jon Cruddas, who has since invited a range of international thinkers to address the party on the subject of national identity. One of those was an Australian political philosopher, Tim Soutphommasane, whom I profiled for the NS in August. His call for Labour to develop a "nation-building story" and to "reclaim patriotism" from the right was a key influence on Miliband's "one nation" speech to the Labour conference. 

In Soutphommasane’s view, Ed Miliband could yet succeed where his Australian counterparts failed and develop a convincing “nation-building story”. “The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project,” he says.

In 1945, Clement Attlee campaigned on the promise of building a “new Jerusalem” in postwar Britain. Nearly 70 years later, a patriotic vow to “rebuild Britain” has the potential once again to sweep Labour to power.

Girls with toy guns and boys with doll's houses - what on earth is the problem?

After Swedish toy chain Top Toy produced a gender-reversed toy catalogue, Glosswitch explored the controversy and fear that the subject provokes. 

I don’t have particularly strict ideas about which toys my children should or shouldn’t play with, although I prefer it if said things are one, cheap and two, not mind-numbingly boring. I buy some things which are deemed to be for boys and some things which aren’t. This shouldn’t be a big deal, yet it is. Giving your children gifts that transgress “accepted” gender boundaries can be surprisingly controversial. Even so, those who object the most tend to be the same people who’ll tell you “but they’re only toys!” the minute you point out how rubbish the gender stereotyping that goes into all the advertising can be.

Ed Smith wrote of Mo Farah in the New Statesman: "When he crossed the line first, blowing a kiss to the crowd, we knew it for certain: London had a triumph on its hands." Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser