Harry Palmer reads the New Statesman

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Now a rather embarrassing confession. I'm reading a book by Len Deighton.

I've always rather liked the Harry Palmer films starring Michael Caine, particularly Funeral in Berlin. Anyway I came across a rather nice hardback edition of the Ipcress File at a National Trust house. Don't worry it was legally acquired, not snatched while my pregnant wife distracted an elderly steward...

Anyway I digress. At the start of Chapter 2 Palmer is walking down London's Charlotte Street towards Soho when he purchased "two packets of Gauloises, sank a quick grappa with Mario and Franco at the Terrazza, bought a Statesman, some Normandy butter and garlic sausage".

Now this got us thinking. The Ipcress File was first published in 1962 - easy to find out if you've got a first edition - so just what could HP have been reading about?

A quick email to walking New Statesman archive, rain expert and media guru Professor Brian Cathcart and we thought we'd worked it out...

To a spy the Vassall affair would have been particularly interesting. John Vassall was a gay civil servant who got photographed in some rather compromising situations with a Soviet citizen enabling the Russians to recruit him as a spy.

He then became a secretary to Tory minister Tam Galbraith which gave him access to all sorts of classified documents which he passed over to the USSR.

Eventually someone realised that Vassall had a rather high standard of living for his salary and it was a top news item for most of autumn 1962.

In a thundering editorial, Paul Johnson wrote about it in the 16 November edition of the NS.

In it Harold Macmillan is castigated by our former editor for regarding the "security chaos in the Admiralty as purely secondary to the political aspects of the affair".

But it can't have been the Vassall piece Palmer was reading. Nor could it have been the review of Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved me from the 11 May edition.

We know this because Deighton refers to Palmer's stroll down Charlotte Street taking place on "that sort of January morning that has enough sunshine to point up the dirt without raising the temperature".

So what could our spy have been reading? Was it Bertrand Russell's defence of unilateral disarmament in the letter pages? Or Johnson's profile of the Cold War Earl - foreign secretary Alexander Douglas-Home? A review of such titles as Lenin's Collected Works and Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx? All were in the 5 January edition. Or perhaps an item on Soviet ideology in the 12 January edition?

Personally I think the clue is in some of the other items Palmer bought.

Deighton wants us to know Palmer is a sophisticate and the reference to the NS indicates that just as surely as the normandy butter shows he is a gourmet.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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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