In this week's New Statesman: Boris vs Ken

Jemima Khan interviews the rivals | Jonathan Powell and Mehdi Hasan on Syria | Alastair Sooke on Luc

boris ken

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Ken: "The world is run by monsters"

Boris: "I'll tell you what makes me angry -- lefty crap"

On Friday 3 February, the New Statesman's associate editor, Jemima Khan, sat down with both of the leading contenders for the 2012 London mayoral election - the incumbent, Boris Johnson, and the inaugural mayor, Ken Livingstone, who served from 2000-2008.

Over breakfast, Khan found the Labour challenger spoiling for a fight and offering opinions freely on everything from the "clinically insane" Maggie Thatcher to the "moral imbecile" who runs the BBC. But her lunch partner, the notorious "maverick" Boris, seemed "maddeningly cautious and unforthcoming . . . less fun than I had anticipated".

Read extracts from both interviews here and here

The Syria dilemma: Jonathan Powell and Mehdi Hasan

The crisis in Syria poses a stark dilemma for the west - intervene, or stand by while thousands are massacred. In this week's NS Essay, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1994 to 2007, makes the case that "we would be foolish" to rule out military intervention in Syria:

If such a civil war spreads across the whole arc of Middle East where Sunni and Shia communities rub up against each other, from Lebanon and Iraq to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the consequences for all of us will be profound.

Accusations of double standards by the west - "of turning a blind eye to Middle Eastern governments that did not share our values, because they were strategic allies or because of the dependence of our societies on the hydrocarbons their countries produced" - should not lead us to be neutral about what is happening in Syria, Powell writes:

Evil regimes are a threat to, not defenders of, long-term stability and prosperity - and they are best overturned.

Elsewhere in the issue, Mehdi Hasan argues that intervention in the country will not stop the violence and "could prove a moral and political catastrophe":

Syrians . . . should decide their own future. Yes, some are calling for foreign military intervention. But others don't want a rerun of Libya - or, dare I say it, Iraq.

There is no simple solution, Hasan writes, but he outlines the diplomatic alternatives to an attack from the air:

. . . options include exerting further pressure on the Chinese and (especially) the Russians to back a Security Council resolution isolating and condemning the Syrian regime; threatening Assad and his cronies with International Criminal Court indictments; and widening the range of targeted, multilateral sanctions on the regime.

Also in the New Statesman

In Observations, Laurie Penny delivers a scathing response to Andrew Marr's BBC1 series for the royal jubilee, The Diamond Queen:

The BBC's impartiality seems to have been suspended for this hour-long propaganda roll. Given that a substaintial proportion of us still think of the monarchy as an embarrassment at best and at worst, to quote [John] Cooke, "dangerous to the liberty, safety and public interest of the people", you'd think there would be some acknowledgement that not everyone is happy to be a subject . . . "We don't live in a Tory country or a coalition nation; governments are merely lodgers," says Marr, obsequiously describing the point of all this panting and groaning -- the desperate notion that royal pomp and circumstance can bring together a country that is, in reality, only growing more divided. Whether or not the Queen is a lovely old lady with a fantastic array of hats is beside the point. This is not history. This is masturbation. Britain is in too much trouble right now to sit around playing with itself.

Elsewhere, Rafael Behr considers Nick Clegg's prospects for survival in Westminster; Helen Lewis profiles Facebook's $1.6bn woman, Sheryl K Sandberg; Rebecca McClelland travels to Devon to meet the award-winning journalist-photographer Don McCullin; the Third Reich Trilogy historian, Richard J Evans, warns against comparing Germany today with what it was in 1933; Alastair Sooke rhapsodises about the early work of Lucian Freud on display in a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and we publish a new poem by the Austrlian writer, John Kinsella.

To purchase this issue or subscribe to the New Statesman click here

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

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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