In this week's New Statesman: Putin's reign of terror

Oliver Bullough reports from Chechnya. PLUS: A Poetry Special in The Critics.

Oliver Bullough: Far beyond Moscow

In this week’s cover story, Oliver Bullough authors a sweeping piece from Chechnya, the “flat, tawny grasslands” situated at the heart of Putin’s “trail of fear and repression”. It was here, in this year’s presidential election, that Vladimir Putin swept more than 99 per cent of the vote. Bullough writes:

In the presidential election on 4 March this year, this scrubby patch of steppe soared above not only the rest of Chechnya, but the whole of the Russian Federation. Here, Vladimir Putin achieved his single best result in the country – 99.89 per cent. Of 28,616 votes cast, Putin won 28,584. No other candidate got anything higher than single figures, and had there not been nine spoiled ballots, Putin would have breached the 99.9 per cent mark.

Bullough - author of Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus — reveals the story of a region with conflicting narratives: both of economic growth and restored nationalism under Putin’s premiership, but also a “more sinister story too: of arbitrary detention, of murder and of fear.”

“It is Putin’s Russia in microcosm”, writes Bullough.

 

Graham Brady: “I owe my career to grammar school”

In The Politics Interview this week, our online editor Caroline Crampton sits down with Graham Brady, official host of the recent “Friends of Grammar Schools” reception at the House of Commons, chair of the Conservative Party’s influential 1922 Committee of backbench MPs and a powerful campaigner for more selection in state education.

Brady defends his stance on grammar schools despite the critical backlash again him and fellow Tories who support selective education — the people who David Cameron called “inverse class warriors” in 2007. In Brady’s own words:

“The more I’ve been involved in the debate about the selective system, the more it becomes clear to me that, for a great many people discussing this issue, [they] are doing so in a time warp – they are debating the selective system as it was 40 years ago . . . It’s not just the quality of the grammar schools, it’s the outstanding quality of the [non-selective] high schools as well which I think brings us closer to a genuine selective system.”

Crampton writes that Brady stands by his argument that academic selection in schools is “an unequivocal good” despite powerful counterarguments: that it benefits only a small pool, that it privileges the middle class over the working poor. He argues that the solution to underperformance among disadvantaged children is an education system with more selection, not less.

“In my view, it’s about the quality of the other schools. There’s something tragically British in the way we approached this when the postwar settlement was implemented. If the weakness was the secondary moderns, it was tragic that what we did was abolish most of the grammar schools rather than improve the quality of the secondary moderns . . .

“The logic of what the government is doing with education – and I very strongly endorse it – is actually to transfer the power and the choice away from the government and give it far more genuinely to communities and parents to choose the kind of schools they want.” He pauses. “It’s in that context that it is more perverse than ever that the government then prohibits [one of the choices].”

 

Rafael Behr: Unlike Brown, Balls knows he can’t fulfill his ambition by plotting

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr take a close look at the relationship between “the two Eds” — the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. Despite frequent comparisons with the “machinations” that undermined Tony Blair’s tenancy, Behr asserts that Balls has everything to lose by “plotting alone”.

Balls has tested his leadership appeal in an election and lost. For now, his ambitions are limited to becoming chancellor and, confident though he might be of his intellectual primacy, he knows that to sabotage Miliband’s bid for No 10 would be to rob himself of the Treasury.

Despite a 20-year working partnership, differences between the two still “niggle”, especially on points of economic idealism.

Balls . . . is no evangelist for Miliband’s signature economic theme – “responsible capitalism”. The shadow chancellor is not by nature a moral philosopher. He stares down lofty abstractions with a cold, utilitarian eye trained in the Treasury. He won’t put his political muscle behind the Big Idea until he knows what it involves in practice.

In The Critics: A poetry special

In The Critics this week, Sophie Elmhirst reaffirms the New Statesman’s commitment to publishing original verse. Since the NS was founded in 1913, many of the finest poets in the English language have had their work published in its pages. “Poetry in Britain,” she writes, “is rich, energetic and varied.”

The New Statesman is again doing its bit to ensure that some of that energy finds its way into print. In an accompanying opinion piece, Fiona Sampson, the author of Beyond the Lyric: a Map of Contemporary British Poetry, takes the measure of the contemporary poetry scene. “British poetry is, as it has been for a very long time, cantankerous, quarrelsome, fascinating and extraordinary,” Sampson writes. Her essay is followed by original work by Samuel Beckett, James Lasdun, Rachel Boast, Azfa Ali and John Burnside.

Our Critic at Large this week is Alwyn W Turner, who considers the enduring charm of the BBC’s best-known baddies – the Daleks. Anticipating their return in a new series of Doctor Who, Turner examines the way the Daleks, when they first appeared on TV screens in the mid-1960s, drew on fears of Nazi occupation. Now, however, the “sigh of Daleks in London . . . evoke[s] the Swinging Sixties”.

Elsewhere in The Critics: Rachel Cooke on British crime drama and BBC1’s Good Cop; Ryan Gilbey on David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature, The Myth of the American Sleepover; Antonia Quirke is bored by a radio interview with the composer John Williams; Alexandra Coghlan goes to the Proms; and Will Self discovers that Las Vegas has become child-friendly.

 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

For Observations, Jonathan Wynne-Jones visits the Chicago neighbourhood where Barack Obama began his political career. Alex Hern reflects on Neil Armstrong and the future of space exploration. Michael Brooks reports on climate change and protecting wildlife. PLUS: Jonathan Derbyshire on Niall Ferguson Inc., Nelson Jones on atheism, and our columnist Martha Gill on the psychology of decision-making.

In Books, Daniel Swift reviews Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D T Max’s biography of the late David Foster Wallace. What is most moving in Max’s book, Swift writes, is the “spectacle of care . . . [Wallace] cared about writing because he believed in its offer of transcendence, community and touch.”

John Sutherland also reviews Miriam Gross’s memoir An Almost English Life; Rebecca Abrams reads Naomi Alderman’s novel The Liars’ Gospel; David Shariatmadari reviews The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind by Daniel Pick; and Robert Ronsson explores the secret life of the Glaswegian socialist and publisher John Wheatley.

All this and more in this week's New Statesman, on newsstands around the country and available for purchase here

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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