In this week's New Statesman: Spring Double Issue

100 page Easter special | Alexander McCall Smith story | Alex Crawford interview | Richard Mabey on

This week's New Statesman is a double issue featuring 100 pages of the finest writing. For this Easter special the NS commissioned the artist David Young to create a bespoke oil painting, based on Anthony van Dyck's original, with a cheeky nod to Raisa the retired police horse.

 

Ed Davey: Cameron's famous veto was a "blip" in Britain's EU relations

In the Politics interview, Ed Davey, the Climate Change Secretary, says he is not discouraged by the Euroscepticism of his Tory colleagues. Davey tells Rafael Behr:

In due course, this government might well turn out to be seen as more constructive, more engaged, indeed, more pro-European than its Labour predecssors.

In what is sure to be taken as a challenge to his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrat says that both David Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague are following a pro-European approach; what Davey deems "the old Heseltine line". 

Alex Crawford interview

Last August during the Libyan civil war, Alex Crawford made the news as well as reported it. The Sky News foreign correspondent was widely praised for her front-line reporting on the Battle of Tripoli, shooting live footage as she rode into the city in a convoy of rebel fighters. In this week’s NS Interview, Crawford tells Samira Shackle that, in doing her job:

You have to be a bit scared, because otherwise you’re not careful enough.

On reporting in patriarchal environments – both close and far from home – Crawford says:

The most difficult thing was operating as a woman in a western newsroom and getting the job. Operating in the dictatorial regimes across the Middle East and North Africa was a breeze in comparison.

South Sudan: photo essay

At the centre of this special Easter issue of the New Statesman is an exclusive photo essay from South Sudan by the photographer Cédric Gerbehaye.

Images from the war-ravaged borderlands in the Nuba Mountains between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan show a people proud to have won their freedom, but ill-equipped to resolve old tensions over oil or to hold their own against Khartoum. Words by the Sudanese journalist Nesrine Malik accompany the pictures.

A religion is born: Tom Holland and Nabeelah Jaffer

Tom Holland’s new book, In the Shadow of the Sword, explores the questionable historical origins of the Quran. Nabeelah Jaffer asks: is he expecting a backlash? Holland responds:

"I think it is one measure of the effect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word ‘fatwa’ has invariably surfaced."

"That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? . . . Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.”

In the Critics: Richard Mabey, Craig Raine, A L Kennedy

In an extended Critics section for Easter, the leading nature writer Richard Mabey offers the second in a series of “seasonal diaries”. The first premonition of spring this year, Mabey writes, "happened on 2 March . . . and, guessing where the action would be, I sped to the vast liminal marshland of north Norfolk"

Our Critic at Large is the poet Craig Raine, who visits the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern but is not impressed."“Hirst has so few ideas he tends to milk them. The spot paintings are a case in point. Null and repetitive, with the artist apparently unable to decide which pieces work best." Elsewhere in Critcs, the novelist A L Kennedy contributes an essay on her belated embrace of Scottishness.

Also in the magazine

  • In an long-form Science Essay, “Riddle of the wandering stars”, Ian Stewart, emeritus professional of mathematics at the University of Warwick, shows how much the idea of the “clockwork universe” is an illusion. We live in a chaotic solar system, Stewart writes, as he explains and illustrates the complex, riotous maths that guides the motions of the planets.
  • For an Easter treat, we publish “The Director”, a new short story by The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency author, Alexander McCall Smith.
  • The author and journalist John Cornwell asks whether the Catholic Church is heading for the sort of schism that appears to be the destiny of the Anglicans.
  • Mehdi Hasan asks how much longer Sayeeda Warsi will remain as Conservative party chairman as she tells Tories they won't win without black and Asian votes. 
  • In Observations, Abi Miller, an atheist, embarks on an Alpha course, attending a “Holy Spirit Weekend Away”; Samira Shackle meets Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica; and the New Statesman’s science columnist, Michael Brooks, explains how a leaking well in Chipping Norton could extend our lives and that of the government.
  • As Britain faces a double-dip recession, George Osborne will have to follow Ted Heath’s 1972 lead and flip his economic policy, David Blanchflower argues in the Economics Column.
  • Edward Platt visits Newcastle on his third English Journey for the New Statesman.

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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Single parent families are already struggling - universal credit is making things worse

Austerity and financial hardship are not inevitable – politicians have a choice.

“I don’t live, I merely keep existing”. So says one single parent in Gingerbread’s final report from a project tracking single parent finances since 2013. Their experience is typical of single parents across the country. The majority we surveyed are struggling financially and three-quarters have had to borrow from friends, family or lenders to make ends meet.

This is not the story that the government wants to hear. With a focus on a jobs boom and a promise to "make work pay", a relentlessly positive outlook shines from the DWP. The reality is somewhat different. Benefit cuts have taken their toll, and single parents have been among the hardest hit. Estimates suggest over six per cent of their annual income was lost through reforms under the 2010-15 government. The 2015 Summer Budget cuts will add another 7.6 per cent loss on top by 2020, even after wage and tax gains.

What’s more, for all the talk of tackling worklessness, working families have not escaped unscathed. Single parent employment is at a record high – thanks in no small part to their own tenacity in a tough environment. But the squeeze on incomes has hit those in work too. The original one per cent cap on uprating benefits meant a single parent working part-time lost around £900 over three years. Benefits are now frozen, rapidly losing value as inflation rises. On top of stagnant and often low pay and high living costs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that we found working single parents surveyed just as likely to run out of money as those out of work – shockingly, around half didn’t have enough to reach the end of the month.

Single parent families – along with many others on low incomes – are being pushed into precarious financial positions. One in eight single parents had turned to emergency provision, including payday lenders and food banks. Debt in particular casts a long shadow over families. A third of single parents surveyed were behind on payments, and they described how debt often lingers for a long time as they struggle to pay it off from already stretched budgets.

All of this may be depressingly familiar to some – but it comes at something of a crossroads for politicians. With the accelerated roll-out of universal credit around the corner, the government risks putting many more people under significant strain – and potentially into debt. Encouragingly, the increasing noise around the delays to a first payment is raising red flags across political parties. Perhaps most alarming is that delays are not purely administrative, but deliberate – they reflect in-built, intentional, cost-saving measures. These choices serve no constructive purpose: they risk debt and anxiety for families the government intended to help, and costs for the services left to pick up the pieces.

But will the recent warning signs be enough? Despite new data showing around half of new claimants needed "advance payments" (loans to deal with financial hardship while waiting for a first payment), the Department for Work and Pensions stuck doggedly to its lines, lauding the universal credit project that “lies at the heart of welfare reform to help “people to improve their lives”.

And, as valuable as additional scrutiny is, must we wait for committees to gather and report on yet more evidence, and for the National Audit Office to forensically examine and report on progress once again? The reality is glaringly evident. Families have already been pushed to the brink without universal credit. Those entering the new system – and those supporting them, including councils – have made it abundantly clear that moving onto universal credit makes things worse for too many.

This is not to dismiss universal credit in its entirety. It’s hard to argue with the original intention to simplify the benefit system and make sure work pays. It was always going to be an ambitious (possibly over-ambitious) project. But salami slicing the promised support – from the added seven day "waiting period" for a first payment, to the slashed work allowances intended to herald improved work incentives – leaves us with a system that won’t merely overpromise and under-deliver, but endanger many families’ already fragile financial security. The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

With increasing political and economic uncertainty, with Brexit looming, this is not the time for petty leadership squabbles, but a time to reassure voters and revitalise the government’s promises to the nation. The DWP committed to a "test and learn" approach to rolling out universal credit – to pause and fix these urgent problems is no U-turn. And of course, the Prime Minister promised a transformed social justice agenda, tackling the "burning injustices" of the day. Nearly all of the UK’s 2 million single parent families will be eligible for universal credit once it is fully rolled out; making this flagship support fit for purpose would surely be a good place to start.

Sumi Rabindrakumar is a research officer at single parents charity Gingerbread.