Minnesota's miseries

The government of the northern state shut down on 1 July following a disagreement over the budget de

It's party time across America today as the nation celebrates Independence Day -- but in the state of Minnesota, it's political fireworks lighting up the sky. That's because for the second time in six years, party leaders have failed to agree a budget because they can't decide how to tackle the deficit, so the entire government has shut down. That's only happened in a handful of states before -- and Minnesota's the only place to go through it twice.

Today at least is still a holiday of sorts -- leaders won't hold any more talks until tomorrow. But for local people looking to spend some time outdoors over the holiday weekend the shutdown means that state parks are all closed, along with historic sites, rest-stops on highways, and even two racetracks run by the state.

In an ironic twist, state troopers are still handing out tickets for traffic violations -- but you can't get a fishing licence, buy a lottery ticket or claim on a winning number.

And more seriously, among other closures: a women's refuge, reading services for the blind and a helpline for elderly people and their carers. Parents say they're having to stay home from work because childcare facilities aren't operating. And the 22,000 employees who work for the state aren't getting their pay cheques.

Both parties, naturally enough, are blaming each other for the impasse. The Republican chairman Tony Sutton accused the (Democratic) Governor Mark Dayton of causing "maximum pain" for political reasons -- while Dayton is blaming much of the $5 billion deficit on his predecessor-turned Presidential candidate Tom Pawlenty. Left wing activists have set up a "shutdown shame'" website which invites users to "share the impacts of the GOP's reckless political game with your friends".

Pawlenty was in charge last time the state shut down in 2005, but this time he's saying it could have a positive outcome: forcing Minnesota to live within its means. Tackling it has come down to an ideological battle between Democrats, who want to raise taxes on the highest earners -- while Republicans are demanding sweeping cuts in spending, including heath and welfare.

The breakdown in negotiations shows quite how far apart these two sides have become: bipartisan spirit is precious thin on the ground. This was the state which was once home to high-minded liberals like Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone. Now politicians on both sides have grown ever more radical. On the left, Al Franken's bitterly fought campaign for the Senate in 2008 won him the seat with the slimmest of majorities -- just 312 votes. Minnesota's representatives in the House include Democrat Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the progressive caucus, and on the right, the darling of the Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann. Polarised parties -- where the zone of possible agreement is growing ever more thin.

Today at least the politicians are back in their districts, the acrimony on hold for now, as they celebrate the 4th of July. But one thing they're unlikely to escape is their constituents -- who'll no doubt have their own views on how the two sides should reach a budget deal. And it's a fight with national implications too, as President Obama and Congress wrestle with that little budget defict problem of their own...

Felicity Spector is a senior producer at Channel 4 News

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt