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