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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage