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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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