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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit