Smog in Beijing. Photo: Getty
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Life after west: Influencing Tomorrow by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns

The era of global liberalism ended in crisis and retreat and world power is now shifting east. How does our foreign policy adapt?

Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges for British Foreign Policy
Edited by Douglas Alexander and Ian Kearns
Guardian Books, 224pp, £12.99

The era of liberal globalism that spanned the two decades between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Lehman Brothers was supposed to usher in a post-historical utopia of expanding wealth and freedom based on the spread of western norms. Instead it will be remembered as an age of hubris in which the faith of our leaders in their ability to remake the world using free markets and military power ended in crisis and retreat. The world taking its place is one in which power is migrating east and the basic principles of political and economic organisation are once again ideologically contested.

Western leaders have been reluctant to acknowledge the scale of this shift, preferring to talk about the rise of Asia and the developing world generally as if it was an interesting new business opportunity rather than the systemic challenge it truly is. So, it’s refreshing to find in Douglas Alexander, Labour’s foreign secretary in waiting, a politician willing to grapple with the more unsettling implications of this emerging world order.

The essays presented in Influencing Tomorrow, edited jointly by Ian Kearns, set out a daunting list of challenges. The US is pulling back from traditional commitments and pivoting towards Asia. A more assertive Russia is “leaving the west” and rejecting its values. The Arab spring has enfranchised Islamist forces, exposing the narrowness of the UK’s regional alliances and its dependence on declining military power. The EU remains beset by political and economic crisis and increasingly dominated by Germany. Dangerous climate change is already unavoidable and there is no agreed plan to prevent it reaching catastrophic levels.

The highlight is Mark Leonard’s analysis of China, in which he punctures the liberal assumption that rising prosperity and deeper integration into the world economy would lead ineluctably to democratic change. China has instead found new ways to shore up its authoritarian model, channel popular sentiment and turn the internet to its advantage. Even at an international level, “China’s participation in global institutions has hollowed out many of the progressive norms rather than ‘socialising’ China.”

Leonard’s solution is to “China-proof” the UK and the west by working more closely with allies, pressing ahead with Euro-Atlantic integration and, in a departure from free-trade orthodoxy, insisting on tougher conditions in trade deals with Beijing. Alexander falls short of endorsing Leonard’s more provocative conclusions but is right to focus on the need for more multilateral engagement. Even this presents difficulties in a country where the two loudest voices are currently the anti-European right pressing for disengagement and the post-Iraq left that remains suspicious of the US.

There are, the editors concede, significant gaps in their coverage. Given that they acknowledge the importance of “developing a model of capitalism that generates wealth, promotes fairness and protects the environment” in restoring lost western influence, it is a shame they could find no space to explore the scope for global economic reform to contribute to that goal.

Economic recovery on its own will buy limited additional influence if conditions of social recession persist because soft power comes from being the kind of country others wish to emulate. With economic stagnation, social division and political disillusionment the new western norm, we are a long way from the time when George W Bush could declare democratic capitalism to be the “single sustainable model for national success”. Now that Ed Miliband has made responsible capitalism a major political dividing line, this should be natural territory for Labour to explore. Perhaps a further volume could take this as its starting point.

David Clark is the editor of and served as Robin Cook’s special adviser from 1997 to 2001

David Clark is the editor of Shifting Grounds.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.