In this week's New Statesman

Honey, I shrunk the Tories: Are the Conservatives still capable of thinking big?

Cover story: Honey, I shrunk the Tories

In this week’s New Statesman Leader, we ask if David Cameron is capable of restoring the Conservative Party to its former status as “one of the most formidable election-winning machines in Europe”. The portents for the Tories are not good: 

If Mr Cameron is to win a majority he will need to do what no prime minister has done since 1974 and increase his party’s share of the vote. One would not wager on him succeeding where Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher failed. But to do that, he will have to decide if he is a One Nation Tory pragmatist or a consensus-breaking radical. At the moment he is neither.

As Jason Cowley writes in his review of the updated edition of Francis Elliott and James Hanning’s 2007 biography of the Prime Minister, Cameron’s views are an incoherent “pick’n’mix of old-style shire Toryism, soft Thatcherism and Notting Hill social liberalism”. The comparison with Thatcher is unflattering:

Cameron has none of the originality of Thatcher, who was not constrained by class and tradition and had a story to tell the electorate of where she’d come from and how she intended to remake the nation through conflict. 

We search in vain, Cowley concludes, for evidence of a settled Cameroonian world-view, because “[he] has published nothing of significance”.

It makes a startling contrast with the torrential literary output of one of Cameron’s predecessors as Conservative leader. In his review of Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, the former Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd examines Winston Churchill’s literary career. In the 1930s, Hurd notes, “Churchill’s personal finances were in a state of crisis. His solution to the problem was simple: he had to step up his literary output.” Clarke’s book, Hurd writes, leaves the reader with “a vivid mental picture of Churchill working night after night in his study at Chartwell, brandy in hand, having played his nightly game of backgammon with Clementine [his wife] and packed her off to bed”.

Also in Books, Vernon Bogdanor considers the legacy of a man who sought but never claimed the Tory leadership, Enoch Powell. Reviewing Enoch at 100, a collection of essays edited by Lord Howard of Rising, Bogdanor writes: “Enoch Powell was, like Thatcher, a teacher of the right . . . But what did he teach?” Powell’s lesson, Bogdanor argues, was a pernicious one. The notorious 1968 speech in which he imagined “the River Tiber, foaming with much blood” because of immigration, “made Powell a hero”, Bogdanor observes: 

. . . particularly to the lumpenproletariat, astonished and gratified to discover a person of culture and refinement prepared to echo their fouler thoughts. There are signs in this centenary volume that Powell came to regard the speech as something of a mistake. It was, in truth, unforgivable.

And returning to the present day, Rafael Behr argues in the Politics Column that David Cameron and George Osborne are failing to rise to the challenge of multiple crises that will come to define our era:

Moral decay at the heart of the British economy and the fracture of our European relations – these are not ordinary political challenges. They are the stuff of epochal change. Yet the Prime Minister and Chancellor respond as if peeved by the inconvenience and impatient for normal service to resume. They loiter at the gates of history, sucking on the fag end of the old era, unable to conceive of the new one.

Neil O'Brien: "Milibandism" as seen from the right

The leading conservative thinker Neil O’Brien argues in a New Statesman essay this week that it’s time for the right to take Ed Miliband seriously. O’Brien, director of the political think tank Policy Exchange, looks to the Labour leader’s past to offer a right-wing perspective on “Milibandism”:

His story could keep a psychologist busy for years. Just think: your beloved father warns you that Labour are a bunch of sell-outs. You ignore him, and after the 1997 election it looks like you were right. But subsequent events might make it look (to someone who grew up on the left) like Labour were in hock to high finance and Rupert Murdoch all along. So what now, if Dad was right?

Torn between fierce “pragmatism and radicalism”, Miliband needs to resolve his “split-personality dilemma” soon, O’Brien writes:

[W]ill he use the midterm bounce he is experiencing as an opportunity to duck, or to embrace difficult decisions? Underlying everything is a bigger question of who Ed wants to be. The heir to his father and the great breaker of the Thatcher-Reagan consensus? Or just a slightly leftier version of Tony Blair?

Kenneth Branagh Interview

In the NS Interview the actor and director Kenneth Branagh tells Sophie Elmhirst how he responded to his recent knighthood:

I see it as an acknowledgement that makes you think about every person you’ve worked with. My experience is so collaborative. A moment like this just seems – at this end of my life – to be a very nice thing to happen if you’ve been lucky enough.

And he discusses his impressions of the Swedish landscape from his time spent in the country filming Wallander:

[Y]ou look around and there are no street lights and you think, ‘God, what is this like in the winter?’ That may be the product of a weirdly overanxious, overthinking mind, but there is a sort of deadly or dangerous element in the land as well. It’s unforgiving.

In The Critics: A jazz special

A jazz special in The Critics opens with an article by this week’s Critic at Large, Christopher Reid. The poet was “slow on the uptake where jazz was concerned”, but now, listening at home on YouTube to Billie Holiday, “backed by a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of jazz’s finest that included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge”, he finds himself transported to “another dimension”. 

Elsewhere in the package, the New Statesman republishes a piece from 1960 by the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who moonlighted as the NS jazz critic under the pseudonym Francis Newton (a name borrowed from a communist jazz trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”). Hobsbawm’s musical tastes were formed in the 1930s and 1940s, which might explain his disdain here for the “aimless” experiments of the “young modernists” of the 1950s.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • The NS economics editor and former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, David Blanchflower, weighs in on the Barclays market manipulation scandal and argues that Paul Tucker has to go
  • Mehdi Hasan and Maajid Nawaz debate whether political Islam, as a “conveyor belt” to terrorism, is to blame for Muslim extremism. Or is the real culprit western foreign policy?
  • Clive Stafford Smith on his 18-year fight to free Kris Maharaj from the failed US justice system
  • In Observations, Mehdi Hasan argues that testing makes a mockery of British citizenship; George Eaton on how the Qataris are snapping up prime London real estate; and Nelson Jones on Scientology’s credibility problem
  • Nicholas Wapshott analyses the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling in the NS Letter from America
  • The author and former cricketer Ed Smith describes the mysterious phenomenon of being “in the zone”
  • In Madness of Crowds Will Self expresses his horror at growing bald

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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.