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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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood