Morning call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from the Sunday papers.

1. The Tories have the answers, but not the strength to deliver (Observer)

David Cameron and George Osborne are creating a new Tory philosophy, says Will Hutton, without drawing on any great thinker. They are doing some things right, but are ultimately unconvincing.

2. A jittery January -- but the Tories need some perspective (Sunday Telegraph)

Meanwhile, Matthew d'Ancona looks at the problems in the Conservative camp from the right, arguing that although the Cameron team's nerves are easy to explain, they need to take a reality check.

3. U-turn if you want to -- they certainly do (Sunday Times)

Martin Ivens says that both Labour and the Tories are engaging in frequent U-turns. Cameron must show a firm political purpose that can withstand events.

4. Cameron, the Houdini of Westminster (Independent on Sunday)

John Rentoul weighs into the debate, too, saying that it looks like Cameron is shackled by a falling poll lead, policy muddles and photoshopped posters, but in reality he is still poised to glide into power.

5. Parliament is finally cleaning up its act? Don't count on it (Observer)

Optimists in politics hope that public trust can be regained, says Andrew Rawnsley. But it'll take more than a few MPs in the dock and an election.

6. MPs' expenses: Our MPs still aren't getting the message (Sunday Telegraph)

The editorial argues that the Rotten Parliament, as future historians may know it, must be replaced by one whose ethos is different from those of its predecessors.

7. The sisterhood is costing us our jobs (Sunday Times)

Eleanor Mills argues that working mothers want very different things, and it is women who suffer from a law that forbids employers to ask them about their intentions.

8. Sceptics have their uses (Independent on Sunday)

Taking an unexpected stance, the leading article says that climate-change sceptics have done us all a favour -- their challenges have tested the flabbier assumptions of that consensus and forced proponents of the majority view to sharpen their arguments.

9. Libel tourists will love the tales of Lord Hoffmann (Observer)

Nick Cohen bemoans the hypocrisy of England's libel courts, saying that judges are now using slogans coined by the left.

10. Anti-Semitism is at the limits of irony (Independent on Sunday)

Racism against Jews is on the rise, writes Anne Karpf, but some of it masquerades as comedy, and that makes it complex and difficult to address.


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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia