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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle