In this week's New Statesman

Clegg the martyr: will the Lib Dems sacrifice their leader?

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The Martyr Complex: Rafael Behr on Nick Clegg

In the New Statesman Cover Story, Rafael Behr travels up to Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency to investigate whether the Deputy Prime Minister is vulnerable to leadership decapitation by the Liberal Democrats. As Labour and Conservative MPs “gloat in private that Clegg cannot possibly fight the next general election as Lib Dem leader”, Behr finds members of Clegg’s own party increasingly speculating along the same lines:

“It is the topic that people talk about most in the party,” says a prominent activist. “But it’s a whispered conversation because people find the whole thing a bit difficult.”

Behr looks back on the weight of expectation that British voters attached to Clegg in the run-up to the 2010 general election to explain how he has become the emblem of weakness and false promises in politics:

[T]he act of compromise, without which two-party government is impossible, reinforces the Lib Dems’ reputation for weakness and cynicism. It is a terrible fix – the device that defines coalition has become, in Clegg’s hands, also the practice that debases it.

Richard J Evans: Europe on the verge of a nervous breakdown

In the NS Essay, Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and author of The Third Reich in Power 1933-39, asks whether soaring youth unemployment and a resurgence of the far right signal that Europe is on the brink of repeating the catastrophe of the 1930s:

Where extremism flourishes, political violence is never far away, and the desire for a restoration of public order can often play into the hands of right-wing politicians who, as Hitler did, promise to end the chaos on the streets, even though, like Hitler, they were one of the main forces behind it in the first place. It is no surprise to learn that a large proportion of the police force in Athens – perhaps as much as 50 per cent – voted for Golden Dawn in the 6 May election.

Top independent school headmaster attacks Gove

In the Politics Interview, the Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, Tim Hands, talks to Alan White and slams Michael Gove’s plans for education reform:

“I simply don’t understand what Michael Gove is doing. He seems to be stuck on a Scottish moor, shooting off rockets in different directions which look brilliant in the night sky but are actually beacons of distress.”

With which reforms does he have a problem? “Gove seems to be a reversionist . . . The idea we have to go to terminal exams is wrong. That’s not how you’ll be judged at work or at university. So, almost de facto, you should have continuous assessment in school.” He shakes his head sadly. “Idiotic.”

Tim Montgomerie: Cameron needs a new emblem

The editor of the ConservativeHome website, Tim Montgomerie, offers a view of David Cameron in this week’s NS Politics Column. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who chose to brandish a shopping basket to show that she understood the needs of ordinary families, and John Major, with his little wooden soapbox, the current Tory Prime Minister, Montgomerie notes, chose a “very different defining moment”:

Climate change was just one of the metrosexual issues that Cameron chose to suggest that the Conservative Party had changed. More women candidates and the concept of the “big society” were two others. The [danger] for Cameron was always that he wouldn’t be as committed to these changes as he needed to be and that he would run the risk of Tory modernisation appearing shallow and inauthentic. And so it has come to pass. Cameron has in fact played fast and loose with each of his great change factors.

Montgomerie warns that, as the next general election approaches, Cameron needs a new defining image – something like that of his predecessors – which will “pull him closer to blue-collar Britain”.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • In Observations, Laurie Penny warns that David Cameron risks incurring the wrath of Britain’s young people; Dan Hodges on the change in Ed Miliband’s fortunes, brought about by his “moody and acerbic spin doctor” Tom Baldwin; and, following last week’s New Statesman cover story, Mark Leonard argues that Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is Europe’s only possible saviour.
  • In the Diary, the Irish comedian Patrick Kielty offers some words of advice to his “mate” Jimmy Carr and considers the Queen’s handshake with Martin McGuinness (“For the jubilee girl, it’s just another backstage meet-and-greet on the ‘Sorry one’s ancestors came’ world tour”).
  • Grayson Perry talks rubbish art, cross-dressing and running around with guns in the NS Interview with Jemima Khan.
  • In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hasan asks if the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should worry us.
  • In the Critics, poet Craig Raine writes about Tate Liverpool's exhibition of late work by J M W Turner, Monet and Cy Twombly; Helen Lewis is engrossed in Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams and Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson.

For all this and more pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, available from today on newsstands around the country. Single issue copies can also be ordered online here

Original cover artwork by Chris Price

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution