In this week's New Statesman: India - The economic miracle implodes

William Dalrymple on India: can it ever become a superpower? PLUS: Sophie Elmhirst profiles Ai Weiwei and an "Autumn Books" special in the Critics.

Rafael Behr: Cameron fantasises about the next big push while the troops struggle

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr rounds up lessons learned from the annual party conference season. From feel-good speeches to “pleb” badges, here are the takeaway messages:

Liberal Democrats miss the moral high ground

While the junior coalition party was meeting in Brighton, headlines were dominated by tales of Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative Chief Whip, allegedly calling a police officer a “fucking pleb”. Many Lib Dems didn’t seem to mind their demotion down the news agenda. They revelled in Tory discomfort at the episode. Ministers made “pleb” jokes in their speeches. “I’m a pleb” badges became a must-have conference accessory . . . The party is “battle-weary”, in the words of one senior adviser. “[Lib Dems] long to feel good about themselves again.”

Ed Miliband really is the leader of the Labour Party

Ed Miliband delivered his big speech in Manchester with a thespian fluency of which many had previously thought him incapable . . . It gave delegates hope that they might actively promote the idea of the Labour leader as a potential prime minister instead of dodging accusations that he doesn’t fit the part . . . The sceptics in his party are not entirely won over. They acknowledge that he has proved capable of raising his game but doubt that he can keep it up.

Morale is low on the Conservative front lines

The impatience of many Tory MPs… is well known . Such ingratitude is part of a cycle that began when David Cameron failed to win a majority in 2010 and that systematically erodes his authority. Common complaints are that the party machine is rusty, that its central office is staffed with lightweights and that Labour campaign teams are more motivated and better organised.

These are not gripes about ideological direction: they are the grumbles of a demoralised infantry whose commanding officers are miles from the front, fantasising about the next big push and apparently unaware that their ill-equipped troops are struggling just to hold the line.

Read the piece in full, published online here.

 

William Dalrymple: After the blackout

India has long been hailed as the world’s next great superpower, notes the historian William Dalrymple in this week's cover story:

For over a decade now, India has marketed itself as the coming superpower, placing itself in the same league as Europe and the United States, and hyphenated with China as the dominant force of the near future. Indian futurologists have projected that China will overtake the US in gross domestic product between 2030 and 2040, and that India will follow suit by roughly 2050.

Yet Dalrymple has doubts. He finds a country questioning if it will ever become the powerhouse many promise it will be. From the power outage this summer that left 700 million people in darkness, to larger issues of wealth imbalance and crippling poverty, he probes the issues in the way of India’s rise to superpower:

How far Shakti Dehra was typical of a much wider scenario in India became clear this August after the country suffered what the international media soon christened “the largest power blackout in human history”. India’s creaking electricity grid had finally collapsed in the middle of the hot summer, due to the load of supporting hundreds of thousands of air-conditioners, and had supposedly plunged 700 million people across 21 of India’s 28 states into darkness.

India carried on much as it usually did: it muddled through. It was able to do this as the government provision of power is always so inadequate that the rich all have their own generators or “inverters” – a sort of giant rechargeable battery that can keep the fans going until power returns – while most of the poor get so little electricity anyway that its disappearance was barely noticed: of the 700 million people allegedly left powerless, in reality only 320 million had electricity in the first place.

What the power failure did was expose to international scrutiny the scandalous state of Indian infrastructure and the failure of the Indian state a full 65 years after independence to provide even the basic necessities for modern life across most of the country. It also highlighted the growing sus­picion that India’s dream of a rapid rise to the international top table might be just that – a dream.

 

Ai Weiwei: "If someone is not free, I am not free" - a profile of our next guest editor by Sophie Elmhirst

For the NS Profile, Sophie Elmhirst spent a week at the Beijing studio of the artist Ai Weiwei, the next guest editor of the New Statesman. Ai’s special issue will be published next week, 19 October.

Reacting to a Beijing court’s refusal last month of his appeal against a £1.5m fine imposed on his design company for “tax evasion”, Ai says the entire legal process has been deplorable. “The company could not place inquiries about the case or defend itself,” he says. “Our side of the story has not been heard in the trials. Not only did the authorities have no respect for the law and violate all the legal procedures as the case proceeded, they failed to provide any hard evidence for the charges they made.”

Ai also recalls that “from the beginning the tax case is doomed and everyone involved knows it”.
The police, he says, told him in private that “their aim was to discredit me because I criticised the government publicly”. When he challenged them about why the state couldn’t address his dissidence directly rather than impose a fine, they told him that people in China listen to him and often agree with him, and that imposing a fine would more “effectively damage my reputation and popularity”.

Of his reasons for continuing to protest against the actions of the Chinese government, Ai says:
“If someone is not free, I’m not free . . . If artists cannot speak up for human dignity or rights, then who else will do it?”

He is aware of the dangers to himself, but maintains that he will keep fighting injustice and oppression as long as he can:

“I always have to question myself . . . what happens if I spend the rest of my life in jail? Or what happens if I can never travel again? Can I afford to do that? I think, still, there is something I can do . . . As a living creature, you have to prove what you can do.”

 

Mehdi Hasan: Being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty

In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hassan sticks out his neck and declares: “I’m a lefty, but I’m with Jeremy Hunt and Christopher Hitchens on time limits for abortion.” He compares his stance with the liberalism of Hitchens, writing:

It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice.Yet Hitchens’s reasoning was not just solid but solidly left-wing. It was a pity, he noted, that the “majority of feminists and their allies have stuck to the dead ground of ‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism, an ideology that has more in common than it admits with the prehistoric right, which it claims to oppose but has in fact encouraged”.

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and “defending the innocent”, while left-wingers fetishise “choice”, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

He refutes the claim that being pro-life means being “anti-women” or “sexist”:

For a start, 49 per cent of women, compared to 24 per cent of men, support a reduction in the abortion limit, according to a YouGov poll conducted this year . . . Then there is the history you gloss over: some of the earliest advocates of women’s rights, such Mary Wollstonecraft, were anti-abortion, as were pioneers of US feminism such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton...

In recent years, some feminists have recognised the sheer injustice of asking a woman to abort her child in order to participate fully in society; in the words of the New Zealand feminist author Daphne de Jong: “If women must submit to abortion to preserve their lifestyle or career, their economic or social status, they are pandering to a system devised and run by men for male convenience.

I’m not calling for a ban on abortion; mine is a minority position in this country. What I would like is for my fellow lefties and liberals to try to understand and respect the views of those of us who are pro-life, rather than demonise us as right-wing reactionaries or medieval misogynists.

 

In the Critics: An Autumn Books Special

It’s the Autumn Books special in The Critics this week. Our lead book reviewer is Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995 to 2007. Powell reviews Kofi Annan’s memoir, Interventions. “I don’t think Annan has anything to apologise for,” Powell writes. “The problem is not with the man but with the international community.”

The former Conservative foreign secretary Douglas Hurd also considers the future of the international community in his review of Governing the World by Mark Mazower. “The UN has endorsed the notion of ‘the responsibility to protect’,” Hurd notes. “As on many similar occasions, the baptismal name is misleading. The responsibility to protect is not so much about protection as about intervention.”

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to D T Max about his biography of the late David Foster Wallace, and in her Personal Story, the American novelist A M Homes explains how growing up amid the tumult of Nixon-era Washington, DC shaped her fiction. “It was a strange time and place to be a child,” she writes. “A multilayered existence with shifting standards, exceptions and different rules for different people.”

 

Elsewhere in Autumn Books

The business editor of ITV News, Laura Kuenssberg, reviews John Gapper’s Wall Street thriller, A Fatal Debt;  the NS’s pop critic, Kate Mossman, reviews Philip Norman’s biography of Mick Jagger; the poet Christopher Reid on The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett; Linda Grant enjoys Colm Tóibín’s retelling of the story of Mary, mother of Jesus; and much more.

 

Elsewhere in the NS

Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Walter Salles’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Rachel Cooke reviews the BBC2 documentary I Was Once a Beauty Queen; and Antonia Quirke is entranced by a Radio 4 programme about the Irishness of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

PLUS: Will Self on Jimmy Savile in Maddness of Crowds

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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Lowering the voting age is the best way to protect the franchise we've fought so hard for

Empowering young people is the best way to renew civic and political engagement.

Too many believe that politics isn’t working for them. That those who make decisions are not acting in their interests. And too often, narrow interests win over the wider public interest. Our economy isn’t working either. It never will until we repair our fragile politics.

When I was leader of Oldham Council I recognised that to reform, it must open up. It needed to bring forward ideas and challenges from all those who are affected by decisions taken in their name.

We gave constitutional rights for the youth council to move motions and reports at our full council meeting. We opened up our meetings with live web-streaming and questions from all residents. And we embraced social media, combined with instant comments, which were shown in the chamber during debates.

It opened up democracy and gave councillors an insight into issues which affect young people. But two things stood out. The first was that many of these issues are the same ones which affect the wider public. But they are affected in different ways by decisions or the lack of action by government. Second, and most importantly, while we were engaging young people they had no say over who was making decisions on their behalf.

So of crucial importance to me is how we bolster democracy to weather the challenges it faces today and in the future. Recent events at home and abroad have convinced me of the importance of this. There are two separate approaches that parliament must take. Firstly, we must devolve more power from central government to local communities. And secondly, we must at all costs renew civic and political engagement here in the UK. I’ve come to believe that getting more and more young people engaged in politics is fundamental to realising this second point. And I see lowering the voting age as key to cementing this.

I hear the arguments against this loud and clear. Eighteen is the official age of independence. Eighteen is when someone forms their world view. And 18 is when reasoned, judgemental thought suddenly kicks in. On that basis, the years preceding that are presumably some kind of wilderness of rational thinking and opinion forming. Someone even tweeted at me this week to inform me that under-18s don’t know what they want for dinner, let alone how to vote.

Needless to say, I find all these points unconvincing and in some cases dismissive and patronising.

I speak with people even younger than 16 who have coherent views on politics, often a match for any adult. They even know what they want for dinner! And I am of the strong belief that empowering young people through a wider enfranchisement will speed up this development. Even better if votes at 16 is accompanied by compulsory political education in the preceding years.

So if your argument is that young people are too immature, that they lack political knowledge to be given the vote, or that they aren’t responsible enough – then I say to you, bring on lowering the voting age! As my argument is that empowering young people to vote will help overcome these challenges where they exist.

But where do other countries sit on lowering the voting age? Admittedly, among western democracies, the UK would be taking a bold step-forward. In Europe, it’s only Austria where all 16-year-olds can vote. There are some patchwork exceptions to this closer to home. For example, the voting age on the Isle of Man is 16. And this week we heard that the Welsh Assembly is considering lowering the voting age to 16 for local elections.

Outside of these scant examples, there is little precedent for change. However, we shouldn’t find ourselves cowed by this. Our past is littered with bold actions, proud speeches and even lives lost to win and defend the right to vote.

200 years ago on Tandle Hill in Royton hundreds of protestors, who had travelled from nearby mill towns like Oldham and Rochdale, gathered together. They were preparing to march on Peters Field in Manchester on a summer’s day in August 1819. What was at stake was a greater say in parliamentary decisions, at a time of famine and widespread poverty. Non-land-owning workers were entirely excluded from the franchise. By the end of the day, government cavalry had cut down 14 protesters, and injured hundreds more. In 1832 only men renting or owning valuable land were given the vote. And it wasn’t until 1918 that all men were included in the franchise.

This month we remember the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. The sacrifices made during the First World War by our working-class men and boys, 250,000 of whom were under 18, was a catalyst for extending the vote to all men.

Next year we celebrate 100 years since the start of women’s suffrage. In Oldham, Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst fought tirelessly. They would both be arrested before seeing that privilege granted to only some women in 1918. Today it is sobering to think that women didn’t have the vote before 1918.

And it was only in 1970 that the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, allowing teenagers to vote for the first time in the UK. Prevalent then were exactly the same arguments that stop 16- and 17-year-olds voting today.

While we recognise the fight of others, we fail in our duty if we believe the fight for democracy is settled.

So I draw inspiration from how the franchise has steadily grown throughout our history. And I reflect on the acts of courage, grit and determination that have won us that change. With the extension of the franchise have come the liberties, freedoms and values that make our society what it is today. It hasn’t happened of its own accord. Lives have been lost and bold steps have been taken for us to enjoy placing that cross alongside the candidate of our choosing.

This cannot be seen as a way to shift the political debate to young voters either. Many older voters, including many of my friends and family, feel that politics isn’t working for them either. Reducing the voting age isn’t the silver bullet to address that disconnect, but it is vital to strengthening connect between decision makers and those who pay taxes.

I welcome the debate on lowering the voting age. A debate about once again spreading the freedoms and responsibilities of our society to many more people. And I’ll match arguments against this every step of the way. Because I am clear in my mind that defending the franchise and extending the franchise are two sides of the same coin.

Jim McMahon is the Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton.

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