In this week’s New Statesman: The Tory Conference Special

Andrew Gimson on Boris Johnson, Neil O'Brien on the Tories' challenges, David Blanchflower on Osbourne's "porkie pies", and a collectors cover from David Young. PLUS: Sophie Elmhirst profiles Hilary Mantel.

Andrew Gimson: The man who would be king

In our cover story this week:  Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson, takes a look at one of the most fascinating relationships in British politics. The “rivalry” between Boris Johnson and David Cameron - which dates backed to their shared school days at Eaton - may seem like a game but Gimson asserts it is deadly serious.

“Boris Johnson is trying to kill David Cameron,” begins Gimson:

“That may sound like an exaggeration, but the word “kill” was used by Johnson himself, in a column about “the basic drama of politics” written soon after the Labour landslide of 1997: “Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth – as Tony Blair would put it, new life for Britain.”

As a society who favours the “theatre of politics” with a taste for the melodramatic, the battle between Dave and Boris pits the establishment against an outsider. It hinges upon the wooing of Conservative backbenchers, many of whom are “fed up” with Cameron. Gimson writes:

I have been taken aback by the vehemence with which many Tories now dislike him. As one of his backbenchers, first elected in 2010 but involved in Tory politics for much longer, put it to me: “I’ve known the man for years. He’s just no good with his backbenchers, just doesn’t want to give them the time of day.

[...]

A third backbencher, first elected in 1992, said: “I regard Boris affectionately and wistfully, because he is someone who makes the party feel good about itself, feel loved. David Cameron seems to go out of his way to make the party not feel loved. I don’t know how Cameron thinks the army of Tories [in the constituencies] is going to fight for him at the next general election. Secretly I’m one of the people who hanker after Boris. He would make the thing such fun. It would be a white-knuckle ride.”

Despite parallel backgrounds, Gimson goes on to points out the differences between the two politicians. On the charm of Boris’ frazzled spontaneity against Dave’s flawless preparedness...

Like many Englishmen, Etonians are seldom inclined to risk making fools of themselves by trying out new activities in public. Cameron is a typical Etonian: he hardly ever looks unprepared. Johnson is, in this and other respects, untypical: he has attracted an adoring public by appearing never to be prepared.

On their alleged Oxford “rivalries”...

At Oxford, the pattern of school repeated itself. Johnson was a well-known figure, regarded by some as a future prime minister – by giving the wittiest speeches, he managed in 1986, at the second attempt, to get himself elected president of the Oxford Union...A friend of Johnson says he would have viewed the idea of going on holiday with Cameron’s set as “atrocious”, and one can be sure the feeling was, and is, mutual. For Johnson, it would have been absurd to regard the younger, less intellectual and seemingly not very dynamic figure of Cameron as a rival.

And on their respective careers in the Commons...

But while Cameron soon began to make a reputation at Westminster as one of the most astute and diligent members of the new intake, Johnson soon came to be regarded by his fellow MPs as lazy, unprofessional and irritatingly well known...The parliamentary path to power was blocked, and so Johnson decided to have a crack at a popularity contest that no other well-known Tory dared to enter. In 2008 he ran for mayor of London against Ken Livingstone and won. For the next four years, he let no chance go by to attack Cameron, and this May Londoners rewarded him with a second victory over Livingstone. Johnson had demonstrated that, unlike Cameron, he is an amazing campaigner who knows how to persuade Labour supporters to vote Conservative. The mayor celebrated his victory by repeatedly upstaging the Prime Minister at the Olympics.

 

Neil O'Brien: The challenge for the Tories is to find their own version of Blairism

In this week’s Guest Column, Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien numerates the “four main challenges” facing the Tories as their turn to take the stage approaches. First among them is a need to garner votes outside its “southern heartland”. Second is the issue of anti-Tory “urbanites” and the lack of elected councillors in cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle.

Third is the issue of the Tories’ “poor showing” amongst ethnic-minority voters (“Among black voters, fewer than one in ten vote Tory” O’Brien reminds us). All tie into the fourth and long standing issue that “the Conservative Party looks after the interest of the rich, not ordinary people.” He concludes:

In summary, a political consultant or a pollster would tell the party it needs to get less pale, less southern, more urban, and do better among ordinary people. That means changing the look and feel of the party on the one hand, and their policy platform on the other...

Voters want to know the Tories aren’t just going to look after their rich mates. At the next election, Tory candidates need a clearer offering for those who work hard on low incomes; something to say to the fifth of households who live in social housing; and an agenda that makes sense to people in areas of high-unemployment and to the millions who work in public services.

The brilliance of Blairism was to detach the popular parts of Labour’s wish list (such as the minimum wage) from the unpopular items (being soft on crime, defence and public spending). The challenge for the Tories is not so much to lurch right or left, but to come up with an equivalent of Blairism.

 

David Blanchflower: Osborne's lies

In the Economics Column this week, David Blanchflower wonders how George “Slasher” Osborne will “wriggle out” of his austerity mess at the Birmingham Conference this weekend. But before looking forward, he looks back to some of Osborne’s biggest “porkie pies”: 

It seems appropriate to go back and look at the claims Osborne made, in his speech in 2009, about what he would deliver. First, he said that the Tory party would “lead the economy out of crisis”. That could hardly be further from the truth, as the coalition has pushed us into an even deeper crisis. We are in the slowest recovery since the Second World War and are perhaps even headed for a triple dip.”

Second, Osborne argued in 2009 that the Tories would protect public services and claimed: “We are all in this together.” He had the audacity to repeat this phrase seven times. He went on to claim: “Our determination as compassionate Conservatives [is] to protect the most vulnerable.” In truth, the poor are all in it together and the rich are holidaying in the south of France.

He advises the Shadow Chancellor to avoid the similar pitfalls of mistruth:

My main advice to Ed Balls, though, is to stay away from the pork pies. We all know who told “shameful lies”.

 

Rafael Behr: Rumbles of discontent surround the chancellor and his sidekick

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr charts the Tories’ “line of attack” against their leader in opposition:

Tory strategists have let it be known that they intend to torture Ed Miliband to a slow political death with attacks on his personal authority and his party’s alleged addiction to dissolute spending.

It’s “peculiar”, points out Behr, considering Miliband’s explicit commitment to a future Labour’s fiscal restraint, not to mention the Chancellor’s own “moribund” fiscal strategy which has “led to public borrowing bursting out of its intended constraints”.  Discontent brews around George Osborne and his “sidekick” Steve Hilton:

As the Chancellor’s reputation as a strategist has collapsed, his reliance on a young sidekick to run the Treasury has fuelled charges of arrogance and complacency. They are seen as a double act, obsessed with political machination and uninformed about life on the front line of austerity. One senior Lib Dem aide is caustic: “They don’t know any normal people. They don’t know anyone who has claimed benefits."

Liberal Democrats have an obvious reason for presenting Osborne in such callous terms. They hope to fight an election as the guarantors of kind-heartedness in the coalition. However, that ulterior motive doesn’t mean the attack lacks resonance.


Sophie Elmhirst: The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

In the week’s NS Profile, Sophie Elmhirst meets the author Hilary Mantel at her home in Devon. Mantel’s novel Bring Up The Bodies is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, an award she already took home in 2009 for the first instalment of her Tutor trilogy Wolf Hall.  

Mantel speaks candidly about her life, her writing and her battles with physical ill health. Of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, she says, “it was a book in which I felt instantly at home. I felt I’d been waiting all my writing life to get there.”

Though some readers were put off by the book’s style and found its narrative voice confusing, Mantel decided against simplifying her writing, saying, “You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”. Although she knows she will lose readers, she doesn’t mind:

It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.

And what if she hadn’t become a writer? She says, she:

 ...would just have suppressed that part of my personality. I think I would have put it in a box that I never opened. I’m not sure I would have been happy doing that. Sometimes people ask, does writing make you happy? But I think that’s beside the point. It makes you agitated, and continually in a state where you’re off balance. You seldom feel serene or settled. You’re like the person in the fairy tale The Red Shoes: you’ve just got to dance and dance, you’re never in equilibrium. I don’t think writing makes you happy, not that you asked that question, I’m asking myself. I think it makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you’d be finished.

In The Critics

In the Critics this week, our lead book reviewer John Gray considers a new collection of interviews with the novelist J G Ballard. The conversations gathered in this book remind us, Gray concludes, that “Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible … [They are] creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.”

In the Books interview, Rachel Haliburton talks to A N Wilson about his new novel The Potter’s Hand, based on the life of Josiah Wedgwood. Wilson’s father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm and he tells Haliburton that the novel “did come from a deep part of myself. So in that sense, it was very easy to write.”

Also in Books, novelist Margaret Drabble reviews J K Rowling’s first work of fiction for adults, The Casual Vacancy ;Helen Lewis on Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre ; Rebecca Abrams on The City of Abraham by Edward Platt ; Hans Kundnani reviews Gunter Grass’s diary of the year 1990, From Germany to Germany ; PLUS: the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson assesses the shortlist for this year’s Man Book Prize.

Our Critic at Large this week is the Russian-born American writer and co-editor of n+1 magazine Keith Gessen. Gessen writes about the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, which was the laboratory for Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim, published in 1954.

Elsewhere: Rachel Cooke praises “Best Possible Taste”, the BBC’s Kenny Everett biopic, Ryan Gilbey reviews “Taken 2”, in which Liam Neeson confirms his transformation into an action hero, and Will Self talks bowel movements and wheat-free sausages in Real Meals.

 

Elsewhere in the magazine

 

  • Dan Hodges on a good speech by Ed Miliband
  • Samira Shackle on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
  • Jonathan Derbyshire on Eric Hobsbawm.

 

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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Nigel Farage's love for Dunkirk shows how Brexiteers learned the wrong lessons from WWII

Film has given Britain a dangerously skewed perspective on World War II

For months now it’s been hard to avoid the publicity for what seems like an epidemic of new World War Two films for 2017. June brought us Churchill (starring Brian Cox), which concerns Operation Overlord and the allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. A month later, in July we were pushed back four years, to Dunkirk, with Christopher Nolan’s film of the evacuation of Allied troops from French soil in the summer of 1940. April had already brought Their Finest, a comedy about making a - let us not let the irony go unacknowledged -  stirring film about the evacuation of Dunkirk in the event’s more or less immediate aftermath and November will bring us Darkest Hour, some events in which will predate all three earlier films, as Gary Oldman’s Churchill struggles through the earliest days of his war premiership.

This glut is peculiar. There are no significant round anniversaries to commemorate (e.g. Dunkirk is 77 years ago, the Normandy landings 73). More, we’re meant to be in the middle of a series of commemorations of the horror and waste of the Great War of 1914-18, but that seems to have slipped away from us in the political turmoil that’s engulfed this country since 2014. Instead, it’s to the Second World War we return yet again. To modern Britain’s founding myth.

It’s a coincidence, of course, that these films should come along together, and at a seemingly odd time. They were developed separately, and films takes so long to conceive and produce that no one could have anticipated them arriving together, let alone arriving in a toxic Brexit Britain where they seem like literally the least useful things for anyone in the UK to watch right now. As works that will inevitably, whatever their own creative intentions and merits, be hi-jacked by a press and political culture that is determined to gloss its opposition to the UK’s membership of the European Union, and its appalling mishandling of the process of exit with garbled references to, the conflict the films portray.

This is an impression that is not exactly dismissed by Nigel Farage posting to twitter of an image of himself standing next to the poster for Dunkirk, along with a statement in which he encourages all young people to see the film. For what reason, we’re entitled to wonder, does he make this encouragement? Does he admire the sound design? Or the aerial photography? Or is he just a big fan of Mark Rylance and Harry Styles? Or perhaps he is, inevitably, indulging in a behaviour that some might call "nostalgic"? Of pining for the past. Except, of course, nostalgia requires an element of pain. The suffix "algia" the same as employed when referring to chronic conditions. For Farage and his ilk there is no pain in this behaviour, just the most extraordinarily banal comfort.

Farage is asking us and asking the young who voted against his chosen cause by an overwhelming majority, and who are are sickened by where he and his ilk have brought us - to share in his indulgence. To enjoy, as he does, those fatuous analogies between the UK’s isolation between Dunkirk and Pearl Harbour with its imminent failures in European politics. To see that "escaping from Europe with nothing is at least better than not escaping at all". Or to believe, once again, in a "plucky little Britain, standing up against the might of a wicked mainland European tyranny, its back against the wall".

All this, confused, indeed nonsensical, as it is, is being invoked, as surely as the anti-EU right have always invoked Churchill. This is despite his own family recognising him, as the EU itself does, as the fervent pro-European he was. Indeed, he was one of the founding fathers of the whole post-war pan-European enterprise.

What Farage and his behaviour demonstrates, yet again, is that British culture, in many ways, learned not merely the wrong lessons from the war against Hitler, but exactly the wrong lessons. It’s a lesson that found its most enduring, poisonous expression in Margaret Thatcher’s breathtaking assertion that the European Union was a "third attempt" by Germany to take over the world.

In contrast to the rush of war films in cinemas, television has recently given us glimpses into theoretical worlds where Nazism did succeed in conquering the planet, in Amazon Prime’s The Man In The High Castle and BBC One’s SS-GB. There are lessons too, in these alternative histories, proper lessons that we have collectively failed to learn from the real one. Which is that fascism or authoritarianism are not diseases to which anglophone countries are somehow miraculously immune due to [insert misunderstood historical fetish of choice].

The Man in the High Castle, particularly in its more subtle first series, goes out of its way to show Americans that their lack of experience of collaboration with Nazi occupation is a result of circumstance, even luck. Not because collaboration is a peculiarly European tendency. SS-GB also worked hard to demonstrate the helplessness of occupation, and how that leads to the sheer ordinariness of collaboration. Both show the understanding that while fascism from the outside is funny accents and funny uniforms, fascism from the inside is your neighbours informing on you and the absence of the rule of law.

That experience of occupation, of subsequent complicity, and humiliation, felt by many other other European nations, is absent in Britain. Farage’s fellow Leaver Liam Fox, without anything resembling self-awareness, asserted that "the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history". Fox’s remark summed up, again seemingly unintentionally, the oafishness of the principle Brexiteers. A group who exemplify a culture that boils a vast and unimaginably complex conflict down to the title sequence of Dad’s Army - an animation in which a Union Flag is forced off the European continent by a trio of Nazi triangles, and after returning home bobs around defiantly. A group who, in a strange and witless inversion, have fantasised themselves into a position where they see the Britain’s membership of the European Union as the occupation the country once avoided.

This is the UK’s postponed tragedy. At a timethat European countries experienced national humiliations which fundamentally reconfigured their understandings of their place in the world, the UK got yet another excuse to shout about how much better it was than everyone else.

I’m a child of the very late Seventies. I grew up in a world where (British) boys’ comics were dominated by war stories rather than science fiction or superheroes, where literally everyone knew several people who had fought in World War Two - and almost everyone someone who could remember World War One. That war was the ever-present past. I am, as a friend who teaches history neatly phrased it "Of the last post-war generation." After me, the generations are post-post-war. They are free. The moral clarity of the war against Hitler has, in the end, been a curse on British culture - a distorting mirror in which we can always see ourselves as heroes. 

But, not, of course, all other generations. The war generation collectively (I make no claim that there were not exceptions) understood what the war was. Which meant they understood that the European Union was, and is, its antonym, not an extension of it. Unlike their children and the eldest of their grandchildren, they had real experience of the conflict, they hadn’t just grown up surrounded by films about how great Britain was during it.

The Prime Minister who, or so he thought, had secured Britain’s European destiny had also, as he related in his autobiography, seen the devastation wrought by that conflict, including by shells he himself had given the order to be fired. Like Helmut Kohl, whose worshipped, conscripted older brother died pointlessly fighting for Hitler, and Francois Mitterrand, himself captured during the fall of France, his experience was real and lived, not second hand.

This can be seen even in the voting in 2016 referendum. That the young principally voted Remain and the old voted Leave has been often noted. But if you break that over-65 vote up further, there’s a substantial flip to back towards Remain amongst the oldest voters, the survivors of the survivors of World War Two. After all, someone who is 65 today was born nearly a decade after the war ended. It was their parents’ war, not their own. A war that has been appropriated, and for purposes of which those who fought in it would, collectively, not approve.

Let’s return to Dad’s Army, after all, BBC Two does often enough. Don’t Panic! The Dad’s Army Story (2000) a cheerful history of the sitcom great written and presented by Victoria Wood contains a telling juxtaposition of interviewees. The series' surprising continued popularity is discussed and Wendy Richard (born 1943) expresses a nostalgia for the war years, and how people banded together during them. This is a sentiment which Clive Dunn (born 1920) bluntly dismisses. “Like most people I had a foul war,” he says, and disgust and horror briefly pass across his face.

It’s the difference between those who remember war, and those who only remember war films.