The students boycotting Shakespeare

If you teach us, do we not learn?
Jewish students at Yesodey Hatorah school who boycotted an exam on the Merchant of Venice because they found it anti-Semitic, were backed by their head teacher, despite damaging their key stage 3 assessment results and demoting the school from 1st to 274th place in performance league tables. An ex-teacher of the school blogging on the Talkback message board for the online edition of Israeli newspaper Haaretz opposed Rabbi Pinter’s decision to support the students’ veto, advocating instead closer textual reading, but there were plenty more who supported the students.

The play David Jays once called a "nasty piece of work" here in the New Statesman was pronounced “one of the liveliest, toughest and most necessary conversations about art, prejudice and performance in Western culture” by Boyd Tonkin in the Independent. "What could be more pitiably prejudiced than to refuse to engage with it?" he asked, a view shared by Haaretz’s editor,
Simon Spungin.

Tonkin cited playwrights Harold Bloom and Arnold Wesker as examples of how Jewish engagement with the text could rescue the play from pound-of-flesh stereotyping.

‘Off’ to the Proms?

In the government’s quest to promote British values, Culture Minister Margaret Hodge declared the Proms an arcane cultural event with an exclusive audience that's "still a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease" in British cultural life. Although Gordon Brown was quick to clarify that the Proms are "a wonderful, democratic and quintessentially British institution", ex-Lambeth Councillor blogger
Gertsamtkunstwerk translated Hodge’s comments thus: "We can't begin to understand how you little people without our obvious advantages need anything more challenging than Coronation Street. Just crawl back to your hovels please." Over on the Guardian blog, South African-born David Juritz explained why Hodge was wrong for pronouncing the Proms an inclusive failure, and there were one or two sheepish souls grappling with an illiberal guilt for disliking so-called “alternative” cultural events: "I'm not comfortable at the Notting Hill Carnival. I went once and once it got dark I was really scared," StuartP conceded in a post. Telegraph blogger Rick, meanwhile, was quick to suggest a more temperate climate for "Comrade Hodge": "If La Hodge and her ilk do not like the Proms, Cuba still offers what they may have in mind, I'm sure expenses will cover their trip there."

The New Statesman had of course already probed the issue of cultural exclusivity last August, when Tory politician Brian Coleman railed about the sea of white faces that swathe the Promtime Albert Hall.

When life gets in the way…

- Died – Pavarotti - with debts of around £7 million (or £12 million, if the Daily Mail’s “official document” figure is to be believed). Properties worth considerably more than either sum may be sold to settle the debt providing daughters from the tenor’s first marriage cease inheritance-wrangling with second wife Nicoletta Mantovani.

- Revived - Bolshoi Ballet boss 81-year-old Soviet-era Yuri Grigorovich for a new 3-year directorship.

- Awakened - young people by pop music, and that’s sexually awakened by the way. A survey conducted by Jamaican researchers found that music rather than alcohol or peer pressure is the main instigator of sexual activity in young people aged between 9 and 17. A list of the top lust-inducing tunes has not yet been released.

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.