This week's New Statesman: The new patriotism

What the Olympics tell us about modern Britain + Fiction special

The Olympic Afterglow by Ed Smith

In this week’s New Statesman cover story, the former England cricketer and NS columnist, Ed Smith, considers how the Olympics can “reboot” Great Britain. Sceptics, writes Smith, once argued that the Games have become detached from sport; in which case “the logic follows that Britain must have succeeded at something much more important”.

While “[a]rguing that a sports tournament could heal the scars [of last summer’s riots] sounds quixotic,” the Olympics has provided the “surface and the pretext . . . the opportunity to reboot” the capital – or even the country. One logic, at least, has been left underexplored:
Team GB could not have won many of its medals without the support of the state. Only a few sports can nurture elite athletes (and their coaches, equipment and nutritionists) in a free market; most require handouts from the taxpayer.

And Smith draws a parallel between the success of the Olympic champion Mo Farah and that of London itself, host city of the Games:

[C]oldly calculating, London should be able to stage a great Games, just as Farah was favourite to win the 10,000 metres. But somehow that only exacerbated the tension. It was hard, watching the race, not to imagine all the ways in which it could go wrong . . . We had all imagined similarly disastrous scenarios for the whole Games . . . Farah’s victory brought to life what we had hoped these Olympics would be about.

David Blanchflower: The recession deniers are wrong. Build now!

Following the Q2 reports of a 0.7 per cent drop in GDP – confirmation that Britain is in a double-dip recession – the New Statesman’s economics editor, David Blanchflower, predicts growth for the year of below -1 per cent: “a long way from the 2.8 per cent predicted for 2012 by the Office for Budget Responsibility in its cloud-cuckoo-land ‘emergency’ Budget forecast of June 2010”.

The data from the quarter, writes Blanchflower, points to “a collapse in construction, driven by the coalition’s decision to kill off public investment”. Data from the ONS and RICS survey show no sign of private-sector recovery to offset the cuts, “leaving little optimism for recovery in the near future.”

Employment data is also consistent with this trend. Blanchflower notes, through comparison of the UK and US’s labour markets of the last two years, that “in job-creation terms, Barack Obama and his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, easily beat Cameron and Osborne”.

Summer fiction special with a new short story by Adam Foulds

This week’s Critics opens with “A kindness”, a new short story about hope, charity and a chance encounter in Britain’s bleak winter by Adam Foulds, the award-winning author of 2009’s The Quickening Maze.

Elsewhere in this Fiction special, Leo Robson, the NS’s lead fiction reviewer, explores the lofty ambitions of first-time novelists; Claire Lowdon is only faintly amused by Nicola Barker’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, The Yips; Jonathan Coe admires Javier Marías’s attempts to reimagine the novel and Sophie Elmhirst meets the essayist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson

The Quiet Australian: Tim Soutphommasane

Ed Miliband’s new political guru, Tim Soutphommasane, is the subject of this week’s NS Profile. Speaking to George Eaton, Soutphommasane explains why “liberal patriotism” holds the key to Labour’s success at the next election:

“The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project.”

He argues that the success of the Olympics and the praise for Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony is an opportunity for Ed Miliband to redefine the debate over national identity:

“Sometimes political parties can let these moments do the work for them. But the patriotic goodwill generated by the Olympics does provide an opportunity for Labour. It is almost as though Boyle has managed to pave the way for a new chapter of British nation-building.”

Elsewhere in the magazine

  • Peter Wilby on Lords reform, work-life balance and snacking on salad in First Thoughts

  • In the Politics Column Rafael Behr explores whether the coalition is tearing itself apart 

  • In the NS Essay, Malcolm Beith reports from the vicious drug war in Mexico

  • John Burnside on Berlin’s wild wasteland in the Nature column

 

All this and more in this week's issue of the New Statesman, coverdated 13 August 2012, and available on newsstands around the country from today or for purchase online here

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

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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. 

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