Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Evgeny Morozov, Gillian Shephard and Diana Pinto.

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

In his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov looks at how “big data” and “smart” technologies may not be the ideal solution to human problems. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers says Morozov is at his most compelling when discussing politics and the dangers of what he terms “technological solutionism”. “He quotes some unsettling statements from various figures in the tech world promising to do for politics what did for books”. Morozov points out that we can’t rate politicians on a five-star scale: politics is a messy business, with no “right” way of doing things. Written as a follow-up to his previous book The Net Delusion, in which he dispelled the notion that the internet was an ally of political freedom, Morozov argues that perfection is neither achievable nor desirable for politics. Chivers, while accepting his argument, criticises his “hyperactive, shouting tone” and says it makes it difficult to trust him: “I haven’t read, or even heard of, half the people whose internet 'solutionism' he decries, but it’s hard to believe they’re the simple-minded fools that he claims; some suggestion that he has taken their arguments seriously would make his own that much more forceful.”

Writing in the Guardian, Steven Poole stresses that although Morozov is quick to attack other “new-media cyberhustlers”, his attacks go deeper than righteous ridicule. “He also interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cyberhustler, and finds that, often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields.” Adding that Morozov “admirably and triumphantly” fulfils the purpose of the book, which is to warn against running politics like a start-up based on “big data”,  Poole praises Morozov as “one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism”.

The Real Iron Lady: Working with Margaret Thatcher by Gillian Shephard

Whether or not you agreed with her, everyone in Westminster recognised that Margaret Thatcher was a force to be reckoned with. Gillian Shephard attempts to reveal the hidden personality of the first female Prime Minister, speaking to everyone from trade unionists to her eventual successor John Major. The Independent’s Sonia Purnell calls the book “clumsily assembled and, at times, repetitive”.

Despite pointing out these shortcomings, Purnell goes on to say that “it paints a compelling picture of how the disrespect of male colleagues in her early days of power contributed to the creation of the warrior-queen version of Thatcher demonised ever since.” First-hand accounts are used to re-construct the dramas of her political life; from the Falklands war through to the miners’ strike.

The Guardian’s Tristram Hunt describes the book as “clumsily written, shoddily edited, and often embarrassingly reverential". Going on to say it is “too hagiographical” and “offers little sense of the ideology of Thatcherism, or a truthful analysis of the breakdown between prime minister and parliamentary party.” He argues that it simply serves as a retort to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher as a “dotty old pensioner” in last year’s The Iron Lady and is an act of “beatification for the blessed Margaret.”

Both critics see a pervasive comparison with today’s Conservative-led coalition lingering beneath the surface, as Purnell describes the parallels between Thatcher’s own rise to power and the apparent leadership ambitions of current Home Secretary Theresa May. Hunt believes it to be “a marked critique of David Cameron's premiership”, suggesting that  “everything the heroic Mrs T was in office, the callow Old Etonian is not.”

Israel Has Moved by Diana Pinto

In this revealing portrait of the new Israel, Diana Pinto presents a country simultaneously moving forward and backward, looking outward and turning in on itself. Writing in the Financial Times, John Reed says Pinto “offers broader reflections on shifts in the nation’s psyche, sometimes to brilliant and startling effect”. Reed describes the book as “more travelogue and philosophical musing than reportage”, owing to its author being a policy analyst. The “effect is of enjoying an engaging and trenchant dinner party conversation with an intelligent traveller brimming with impressions from a trip”.

Pinto takes the reader on a journey from desolate, occupied Palestinian territory tocosmopolitan Tel Aviv, a wealthy bubble of business and nightlife, only a few kilometres from the site of conflict.

The Independent’s Linda Grant says Pinto’s strength as a writer is “her penetrating understanding of what lies beneath the surface of the clichés”. Grant praises her ability to “describe a recognisable Israeli mindset which owes nothing to the discourse of post-colonial narratives but rather a unique viewpoint, developed out of centuries of statelessness”. Nevertheless, she finds Pinto's inability to maintain the reader’s interest a serious shortcoming, and wishes the book had instead been “a lengthy article in a magazine like Foreign Policy, for Pinto's ability to think entirely trumps her capacity to describe and engage”.

Margaret Thatcher in 1974. (Photo by Michael Ward/Getty Images)
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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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