Today's comment: Demolishing the Nuremberg Defence

Expenses

Last summer, during the period that was until recently considered Gordon Brown’s nadir, Fleet Street was astonished as two of the PM's biggest press supporters, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley, called for him to be replaced.

Both subsequently rescinded their demand as Brown eased himself into his new role as Chancellor to the world. But today there are signs that this story might have come full circle.

Writing on the expenses scandal, Ashley warns that: “This is the worst … It's almost certainly the end for New Labour, and it's a terrible moment for politics in general.”

And most crucially, predicting attempts at a summer putsch, she suggests that Brown may have to be removed. “Maybe all that adds up to a risk worth taking, to get Ed Miliband or Alan Johnson – in my view the party's best bets – into No 10. Either of these would have some moral authority when it comes to reforming the system,” she writes.

Ashley concedes that Brown has a record “for fighting on even when things look very black” but concludes that “This is his last chance, and he's in a very grim place.”

Meanwhile, the Times’s chief political columnist Peter Riddell, devotes his column to demolishing what some have sardonically described as the “Nuremberg Defence”-the claim by embarrassed MPs that they acted “within the rules”.

“The real test for anyone in public life — journalists as well as politicians — is not merely whether their actions are legal, but whether they can be publicly defended,” he writes.

He warns that MPs caught out will suffer the same consequences as the worst offenders during the dying days of the Major government.

“Those MPs revealed as being greedy may suffer the same fate in the coming general election as those tainted with sleaze did in 1997 when they had above-average swings against them,” he writes.

The Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh prefers to launch a series of staccato blasts against MPs, declaring that Westminster has been turned into “a rats’ nest of skulduggery, deception and petty larceny.”

Elsewhere, perhaps the newly apologetic David Cameron and Gordon Brown took their cue from today’s Telegraph leader which laments that “in recent days it seems not to have occurred to a single MP involved to even consider using the S-word: sorry.”

The paper, which continues the series of revelations begun last Friday, has been accused by Labour MPs of exploiting the scandal for political purposes but it refuses to handle the Tories with kid gloves.

“Any illusion that Tory values would have restrained Conservatives from playing the same game as their Labour opponents has been banished by today's revelations,” the leader observes.

Away from the furore over expenses, columnists are thankfully prepared to explore the major constitutional and foreign policy questions that the political class largely neglects.

Afghanistan

Following a close reading of Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent, the Independent’s Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders of the paper, writes that the phrase “war on terror” has acquired a hitherto non-existent relevance for him.

Previously sceptical of the notion that any sort of “war” could be fought against a non-state actor, he notes that Bobbitt neatly evades this obstacle by redefining al-Qaeda as a pseudo-state.

“For al-Qaeda has a standing army. It has a treasury and consistent sources of finance. It has an intelligence collection and analysis cadre. It runs a rudimentary welfare programme for its fighters, their relatives and their associates. It promulgates a recognisable system of laws, the sharia. And it declares wars,” Whittam Smith writes.

On the subject of the battleground itself, Max Hastings, writing in the Financial Times, identifies a coherent strategy towards Pakistan as the lacuna in western policy. The irony of the continued military presence in Afghanistan is that it masks the growing presence of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, he says.

He identifies a settlement over Kashmir as the necessary preliminary to a successful Pakistani counter-insurgency but concedes “it is much easier to identify this reality than to change it.”

Devolution

While at the Times, ten years on from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, Magnus Linklater examines the balance sheet of devolution. He rejects the claims that devolution would either rouse or destroy nationalism as equally hyperbolic. Instead nothing the irony of a nationalist government in power while “support for independence is down to one of the lowest levels on record.”

Linklater offers a refreshing reminder of the benefits of devolution-it “overturned a democratic deficit that had become destabilizing.”-but fears that increasing support for an English Parliament may yet upset the new constitutional balance.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The age of China's female self-made billionaires – and why it could soon be over

Rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common.

Elizabeth Holmes, 33, was the darling of Silicon Valley, and the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Then, after a series of lawsuits, the value of her healthcare firm plummeted.

Holmes might have abdicated the billionaire crown, but another tech queen was ready to take it. Only this time, the self-made female billionaire was not a blonde American, but Zhou Qunfei, a 47-year-old from China. She dropped out of high school and began working at a watch lens factory as a teenager. In 1993, when she was in her early twenties, she founded her own company. Her big break came ten years later, when Motorola asked her to develop a glass screen for smartphones. She said yes.

Zhou is in fact more typical of the SMFB set than Holmes. Of those listed by Forbes, 37.5 per cent come from China, compared to 30 per cent from the United States. Add in the five SMFB from Hong Kong, and the Middle Kingdom dominates the list. Nipping at Zhou’s heels for top spot are Chan Laiwa, a property developer who also curates a museum, and Wa Yajun, also a property developer. Alibaba founder Jack Ma declared his “secret sauce” was hiring as many women as possible.

So should the advice to young feminists be “Go East, young woman”? Not quite, according to the academic Séagh Kehoe, who runs the Twitter account Women in China and whose research areas include gender and identity in the country.

“I haven’t seen any of these self-made female billionaires talking about feminism,” she says. Instead, a popular narrative in China is “the idea of pulling yourself up by your boot straps”. So far as female entrepreneurs embrace feminism, it’s of the corporate variety – Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has been translated into Mandarin.

In fact, Kehoe believes the rise of the self-made woman is down to three historic factors – the legacy of Maoist equality, and both the disruption and the opportunity associated with the post-Mao economic reforms.

Mao brought in the 1950 Marriage Law, a radical break with China’s patriarchal traditions, which banned marriage without a woman’s consent, and gave women the right to divorce for the first time.

In Communist China, women were also encouraged to work. “That is something that was actively promoted - that women should be an important part of the labour force,” says Kehoe. “At the same time, they also had the burden of cooking and cleaning. They had to shoulder this double burden.”

After Mao’s death, his successor Deng Xiaoping began dismantling the communist economy in favour of a more market-based system. This included reducing the number of workers at state-owned enterprises. “A lot of women lost their jobs,” says Kehoe. “They were often the first to be laid off.”

For some women – such as the SMFBs – this was counterbalanced by the huge opportunities the new, liberal economy presented. “All this came together to be a driving force for women to be independent,” Kehoe says.

The one child policy, although deeply troubling to feminists in terms of the power it dictates over women’s bodies, not to mention the tendency for mothers to abort female foetuses, may have also played a role. “There is an argument out there that, for all of the harm the one child policy has done, for daughters who were the only child in the family, resources were pushed towards that child,” says Kehoe. “That could be why female entrepreneurs in China have been successful.”

Indeed, for all the dominance of the Chinese SMFBs, it could be short-lived. Mao-era equality is already under threat. Women’s political participation peaked in the 1970s, and today’s leaders are preoccupied with the looming fact of an aging population.

“There has been quite a lot of pushback towards women returning to the home,” says Kehoe. Chinese state media increasingly stresses the role of “good mothers” and social stability. The one child policy has been replaced by a two child policy, but without a comparable strengthening of maternity workplace rights.

Meanwhile, as inequality widens, and a new set of economic elites entrench their positions, rags to riches stories like Zhou Qunfei's are becoming less common. So could the Chinese SMFBs be a unique phenomenon, a generation that rode the crest of a single wave?

“Maybe,” says Kehoe. “The 1980s was the time for self-made billionaires. The odds aren’t so good now.”

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.