Does the world really want a credible United Nations?

No more mediocrities for the post of secretary general would be a good start.

The post of UN secretary general is a prestigious but frequently thankless role. It also tends to be filled by men (it has always been men so far) who achieve their global status through their office, not on their own merit, and who appear to be wearing a suit slightly too big or too grand for them – they don't quite live up to the job, in other words.

In recent years we have had Kofi Annan – saintly, but ineffectual – and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose chippiness would have been amusing, were it not so serious. (He wondered whether British criticism of him, you will recall, was "because I'm a wog".)

And now we have Ban Ki-moon. Leave aside that he looks like the mild-mannered provincial bank manager of ancient stereotype. Here is what he's been up to recently.

Yesterday he opined of the elections in Burma, scheduled for 7 November, that unless the military regime released all political prisoners, "then there may certainly be some issue of legitimacy or credibility". Well, you don't say, Mr Secretary General.

Next he ended a trip to Cambodia after being ambushed by Prime Minister Hun Sen's announcement that the current UN-backed tribunal trial of four leading Khmer Rouge leaders will be the last. No more of Pol Pot's followers will face justice. Hun Sen – himself ex-Khmer Rouge – doesn't believe in turning over any more stones. You don't know what you might find underneath. Oh, and would Mr Ban mind shutting the UN's Cambodian human rights office while he's at it? There's a good fellow.

Where else has he been of late? Thailand, where, according to the Bangkok Post, he courageously declared that the country's long-standing and bloody confrontations between the Red and Yellow Shirts was really none of his business. That was "an internal affair and the Thai people must settle the problem on their own", apparently.

Regular readers will know that I'm not much in favour of western politicians jetting in to developing nations and giving them the benefit of their callow advice (cf: David Miliband in India last year). But for those of us who hope against hope that the UN can be a credible body and an influence for the good, the role of secretary general is crucial.

He – or maybe, eventually, she – has to inject the role with clout through the force of his own personality. The secretary general has to be so impressive that, in future, a Mandela, say, will consider the job an important one, and not a step down from having been chief executive of their own state.

If Ban secures another five-year term – his current one concludes at the end of next year – that day will be even further off. Until then, it's all hail the mediocrity-in-chief.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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