Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Janan Ganesh, Philip Norman and Anne Applebaum.

George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor by Janan Ganesh

While George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor has an "inside feel" owing to the "generous access to the Chancellor’s inner circle" afforded to Janan Ganesh, it is ‘sometimes at the cost of independent judgment,’ writes Peter Oborne in the Telegraph. Perhaps a more pertinent criticism, given the implicit promise of the book’s title, is the omission of a substantial analysis of the Chancellor’s economic views and political manoeuvres: "This book lacks any serious exploration of Osborne’s economic ideas or his relationship with the Treasury." John Hanning, writing in the Independent, begins his review by advising those depressed by David Cameron to steer clear of his chancellor’s biography. After outlining their remarkably similar trajectories, Henning shows how the two differ: "Osborne's heritage – Notting Hill, St Paul's, a mother who works for Amnesty, a father with an ultra-fashionable shop in South Kensington – is much more that of the metropolitan sophisticate than Cameron's." Hanning reminds us on more than one occasion of the author’s relationship with his subject. Osborne is a "close political friend", and Ganesh a "long-standing admirer". Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the author deftly treads the path between "getting access to the subject and a willingness to criticise or chase uncomfortable truths". Read a review of George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor in the New Statesman later this week.

 

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman

Julie Burchill sees the publication of this Jagger biography as an opportunity to review the rock star himself, bypassing the book almost completely. "It's his attitude to money, I suppose, as much as his idiot-dancing which renders Jagger so unattractive to me; stinginess is the halitosis of the soul, and MJ reeked of it," she writes in the Guardian. It’s obvious where her affections do in fact lie: "Casting the biggest shadow of all, like some epic scarecrow, is Keith Richards, a man whose glamour and charisma increase at the same rate as the wrinkles on that beautiful Red Indian face. Ask yourself if any reigning film star would have dreamed of basing the hero of a hit film on Jagger – as Johnny Depp did on Richards in Pirates of the Caribbeanand you would have to say no." John Walsh, writing in the Independent, identifies the same negative traits that Burchill does (stinginess, misogyny, arrogance) but notes that Norman "radiates sympathy for the old devil". Perhaps this sympathy derives in part from the gentle debunking of aspects of the Jagger legend: "Rather than a randy, rebellious extrovert, [young Mick] was shy and slow to show affection," "he was thought too ugly to succeed," and "he wept over Chrissie Shrimpton". But while these more vulnerable sides of Jagger are revealed, so too is a cold, driving professionalism: "Mick’s robotic ability to go 'on with the show' just seems chilling," wrote Kate Mossman in last week’s New Statesman. ‘It’s hard to believe that, hours after Brian Jones was found dead, he went ahead with a Top of the Pops appearance and then attended a ball at the home of Prince Rupert Lowenstein.[...] This book re-examines the notion of what it takes to be a true 'rock star'."

 

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 56 by Anne Applebaum

In 1945, the Red Army was briefly welcomed when it marched into eastern Europe. "Yet goodwill towards the liberators soon gave way to horror at the looting, random violence — and worse," writes Peter Conradi in The Sunday Times. Making use of never-before-seen documents from recently opened archives, Anne Applebaum re-examines the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe. "Iron Curtain is modern history writing at its very best; assiduously researched, it wears its author's considerable erudition lightly," writes Roger Moorehouse in the Independent. "Pending large-scale revelations from still-closed Soviet archives, it sets a new benchmark for the study of this vitally important subject." Moorehouse notes that, in Applebaum’s assessment, communism was always doomed to fail: "Communism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, not only in its disastrous economic performance, but also in its relentless desire to control every aspect of human activity." "The chief problem was the failure of the Soviet economic model — which created a growing gap in living standards with the West," asserts Conradi. "In this exhaustive and entertainingly written account, Applebaum, a former Pulitzer prize winner, captures well the absurdities of communist life familiar to anyone who experienced the system first hand."

 

George Osborne holds up the Budget Box as he leaves No. 11. Photo: Getty Images.
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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times