In this week's New Statesman: How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

Hans Blix cover story | Patrick Stewart's "contempt" for the coalition | Why it's time to ban breast

Iran cover

Hans Blix: How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

In this week's New Statesman cover story, the former chief UN weapons inspector and ex-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Hans Blix offers a diplomatic alternative to military action against Iran - and warns that any such attack by the west would be illegal and catastrophic:

If Iran were to be bombed, it would be another action in disregard of the UN Charter. There would be no authorisation by the Security Council. Iran has not attacked anybody and despite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's wild, populist declarations that Israel should be wiped off the map there is no imminent Iranian threat that could be invoked to justify pre-emptive action.

Blix says he does not believe that the Iranian regime is trying to build or acquire nuclear weapons:

It is possible - but is denied by Iran and not evident to me - that there is a determination to make a nuclear weapon.

The former director of the IAEA points out that the much-discussed report on Iran released by the UN's nuclear watchdog in November 2011 "did not . . . conclude that Iran was making a weapon or had taken a decision to make one". And he issues a stark warning on Iran to the agency's current head:

In my view, the agency should not . . . draw conclusions from information where the supplier is not ready also to show evidence. Both Mohamed ElBaradei and I were careful on this point and I hope the present director general of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, follows that line. The agency should not risk its own credibility by relying on data that it cannot verify fully.

Blix says "bombing Iranian nuclear installations may be a path to disaster rather than to a solution" and condemns the "outrageous, gangster-style" killing of Iranian scientists. He writes:

Iranian leaders are not going to sit quietly and twiddle their thumbs . . . A war in the Gulf and skyrocketing of oil and gas prices are not exactly what a financially troubled world needs right now. Furthermore, not all relevant installations in Iran would be destroyed. Some may not be known. The capacity and know-how to produce more centrifuges will survive and after armed attacks the Iranian government, which many now hate, may get broad support in a nation feeling humiliated by the attack. If there was not already a decision to go for a nuclear weapon it would then be taken.

The former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq calls for the establishment of a "nuclear-weapon-free zone" in the Middle East as a solution to the impasse over Iran:

To many, the idea of an agreement between the parties in the Middle East - including Israel and Iran - to renounce not only the possession, acquisition or development of weapons of mass destruction, but also the means of their production, might seem very remote. It does not seem far-fetched to me.

It would, to be sure, call for many difficult arrangements, including verification going beyond IAEA safeguards, as well as outside security guarantees and assurances of supply of nuclear fuel for civilian reactors. It would require that Israel give up its nuclear weapons, stocks of fissile material and capability to produce enriched uranium or plutonium. It would require Iran to do away with its enrichment plants and a number of other installations. All states in the zone would agree between themselves not to acquire or develop capabilities for the enrichment of uranium or production of plutonium.

And he explains why this arrangement would appeal to all sides.

Exclusive: Senior Lib Dem MPs warn against war with Iran after Clegg says no options are "off the table"

In a partner piece to the article by Hans Blix, the New Statesman's George Eaton asks if the Lib Dems will break their manifesto pledge opposing military action against Iran. Nick Clegg recently told the House Magazine that "you don't in a situation like this take any options off the table".

Speaking to Eaton, senior Lib Dem MPs express their opposition to military action and urge Clegg to uphold the party's manifesto. Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader and foreign affairs spokesman, tells Eaton:

"Military action would have the effect of setting fire to the Middle East. Anywhere you go in the United States or any senior policy figure that you speak to certainly believes that. The anxiety is about the possible actions of Israel. It's a damned close-run thing."

The recently knighted backbencher Bob Russell invokes his party's opposition to the "illegal war" against Iraq and warns that "it is vital that we do not get involved with a similar outrage against Iran". He adds:

"We should condemn - now rather than after the event, should it happen - any moves by Israel of a pre-emptive strike against Iran."

Asked if he opposes military action, Martin Horwood, co-chair of the Lib Dem parliamentary party committee on international affairs, says:

"Yes - and that was a Lib Dem manifesto commitment. Events move on and of course if British minesweepers were attacked in the Gulf or something like that, we would have to respond. But as things stand, the answer is clear."

And Eaton wonders: If the Iraq war was the making of Charles Kennedy, could an Iran war be the breaking of Nick Clegg?

Michael Brooks: Time to ban breast implants

In Observations, the New Statesman's science writer and author of Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science, Michael Brooks, argues that we don't need new medical research to know the effects of putting silicone into the body -- and that after half a century, the time to ban breast implants is long overdue:

Next month, the journal Psychological Medicine will publish a study of almost 1,600 Norwegian adolescent girls who were monitored over a 13-year period. They were asked about their satisfaction with their personal appearance, sexual behaviour, drug use, behavioural issues and attitudes towards cosmetic surgery. The finding is that women who use cosmetic surgery do not have lower opinions of their general attractiveness than women who do not opt for surgery. However, they display more symptoms of depression and anxiety, use more illicit drugs and have stronger histories of self-harm and suicide attempts. And the surgery is likely to make things worse.

Post-surgery, these women became more depressed and anxious, with greater alcohol consumption and more problems with eating disorders. As the researchers conclude: "A series of mental health symptoms predict cosmetic surgery. Cosmetic surgery does not in turn seem to alleviate such mental health problems" . . . Cosmetic breast implantation is a flawed and ethically corrupt psychological experiment, carried out for commercial profit on vulnerable women. And it should now be halted.

Peter Mendelson on the left, capitalism and the deficit

The former Labour cabinet minister and EU commissioner Lord Mandelson warns the left not to lose the debate over the future of globalisation and capitalism:

Our long-term strategy has to include a credible plan for deficit reduction and public-sector reform on a realistic timetable. It needs to include a growth plan that spends Europe's structural funds better on building future competitive capabilities and a medium-term prospect for collective liability of eurozone debts . . . The left has arguments to win this debate if it can overcome the instinct to lose it.

He adds:

Reducing deficits at an appropriate pace will help keep the bond market off our backs. But the most important focus for the left should be on equipping people to live in an uncertain economic world, not shutting that world out. Railing against globalisation misses the target.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

All this, plus the actor, Patrick Stewart, says he has "nothing but contempt" for the coalition in the NS Interview; in the Economics column, David Blanchflower writes that treasury ministers are like "rabbits in headlights"; Mehdi Hasan argues that Gove's school reforms could become as toxic as the government's health bill; former Europe minister Denis MacShane profiles the French Socialist leader François Hollande; in Critics, Colin McGinn, Alain de Botton, Jennie Erdal and Charles Taylor contribute to a Philosophy and Ideas special, and Sarah Waters, Alexandra Coghlan and Sophie Elmhirst share their appreciations of three great female artists: Angela Carter, Whitney Houston and Adele.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.