The New Towns have made us a better nation

If Labour wants something to be proud of, it should look no further than Britain's New Towns.

Very rarely, I go to a political event in SW1. One of the (many) reasons I don't like them is the disappointment I see etched onto the face of people when I answer their question: "And where do you work?". They don't like the corporate answer (I don't work in politics, the law, or journalism, and whatever people say on radio phone-ins, they don't really want to listen to a disquisition about "science") but they particularly dislike the literal, geographical answer: Stevenage. I work in Stevenage. What's more, I think it's a beautiful town.

Would you like to live or work in a New Town? I bet I can guess the answer to that question. Yet I have a fondness for the ones I've known, and I wonder why the Labour movement doesn't make more of these creations of the Left. Those of us on the Tory side of things make a big and constant noise about the failure of the very concept of central planning, particularly, of course, when it comes to the economy, but also with regard to provision of health care, policing strategies, and increasingly educational services (I can't believe I just typed "educational services". I meant "schools". I'm going to leave it unchanged as a warning to my future self). But you'll notice we never talked much about New Towns. It's not just, I think, because the original corporations have long been wound up. Maybe it's also true that they are the left-wing exception that proves the Tory rule.

The centre of Stevenage is beautiful: pleasing, not fearful, symmetries abound. It's clear you're not in Bath, but neither are you on Pluto. It still feels like a town centre, and if the fountain in the main square is a little forlorn, well and so what? It's a kinetic link to a more optimistic decade. You can walk from the train station, past an Arts Centre and theatre, through a bus station, past the shops (chains and independents), take an underpass and arrive at one of the country's best swimming pools - in ten minutes. Yes, Stevenage town centre was centrally planned; yes, the decades might not have been kind to concrete. But it works. As a living town centre, it works.

Before Stevenage, I worked in Harlow, and lived there too, and once was proudly elected to its council (biggest swing in Essex you know), and I love the town, the centre of which has enjoyed a facelift in recent years. It's a town of neighbourhoods. Potter Street is a different place, with a different feel, to Katherines or Sumners. Islands of houses surrounded by lots of green space and cycle lanes. There are probably too many cars in Harlow now for maximum comfort, but you can still sense what Gibberd saw in his mind's eye, and it still makes sense.

Something about New Towns created a spirit of - well, I hate to use the word "solidarity" [Yes, but it's what you mean - Ed]. But a town without an inbuilt squirearchy is made to be at ease with itself. I'm delighted (understatement of the year) that Rob Halfon represents Harlow in Parliament now, after a near decade of street-level campaigning, but I remember fondly too his predecessor, the Labour MP Bill Rammell, approachably sweaty in the town gym. Part of being "Harlow" is to judge incomers fairly, because nearly everyone "came in", not that long ago. I had fewer negative comments there about my sexuality, or Scottish accent, than anywhere else I've lived. Neither was there any sectarian hatred of the sort I grew up with in Scotland. That didn't make the political culture anodyne. The Labour-Tory battle in Harlow is constant and intense but strangely decent. It is of Harlow. I once had a furious row about Margaret Thatcher with a man in the swimming pool sauna. That we were both naked at the time seemed fitting: in New Towns, it's what you make of yourself that matters, not the clothes you dress up in.

New Towns are not Utopias, as my cold Tory eye couldn't fail to notice. Hierarchies (at least of the architectural or postcode form) have begun to evolve, whatever the planners intended. But these towns don't deserve the press they've received over the years. Much as I love Angus Wilson, the neuroticism he depicts in the protagonists of his novel Late Call do not deserve to be ascribed, as the subliminal sense of the plot suggests, to the New Town in which they find themselves living. More fitting are the words of Alasdair Gray: Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation. The New Towns have made us a better nation; they are the still-young proof that it is, despite everything, possible to obey Gray's dictum with the bricks and fields of a man-made town. Were I of the Left, I would never shut up about them.

Graeme Archer is the 2011 Orwell Prize winner for blogging.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder