Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Andrew Mitchell isn't the only Tory for whom this saga bodes ill. David Cameron is rightly worried too (Independent)

With elections for police commissioners on the horizon, the timing could hardly be worse for the Tories, says Steve Richards. Their new Chief Whip's job just got much harder.

2. Tax on wealth is true to Tory principles (Financial Times)

There is nothing Thatcherite about backing established wealth and there are not many votes in it, writes Janan Ganesh.

3. Osborne is sharpening his axe – but will Cameron let him use it? (Daily Telegraph)

Ministers wonder whether Cameron will be ready to defy those who insist that the economy cannot withstand any further reduction in demand, writes Benedict Brogan.

4. Mitt Romney and the myth of self-created millionaires (Guardian)

The parasitical ultra-rich often deny the role of others in the acquisition of their wealth – and even seek to punish them for it, says George Monbiot.

5. India is part of an upside-down world (Financial Times)

With more poor than Africa and more billionaires than Britain, the country is both rich and poor, writes Gideon Rachman.

6. Police v Mitchell: this looks a lot like revenge (Times) (£)

Regardless of who is right about ‘plebs’, just look at the track record of the police and you see the need for reform, says Hugo Rifkind.

7. This pleb jibe exposes the Tories' Flashman thinking (Guardian)

David Cameron and Andrew Mitchell rule for 'people like us', writes Polly Toynbee. The Lib Dems should never be complicit in their attacks on the poor.

8. The pensions revolution arriving by stealth (Daily Telegraph)

Half the country may not know it, but a huge change is coming in the way we pay for old age, says Philip Johnston.

9. The rich are paying their fair share (Independent)

The Lib Dems say we should tax the rich more, writes Dominic Lawson. But the numbers prove that would not address the real problem.

10. Hands off our homes (Guardian)

From London to the Lake District, the wealthy are buying properties they rarely use, writes Simon Hughes. Councils need powers to prevent this.

Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage