Pet Shop Boys' text to David Cameron: "Sorry to bug you, but could you pardon Alan Turing?"

In the New Statesman this week, the Pet Shop Boys talk age, political apathy and lobbying David Cameron.

The culture pages of the New Statesman this week feature an exclusive interview with synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe spoke to Jude Rogers in the wake of their most recent album, Electric, which debuted at number one in the album charts earlier this year.

There is a subtle, political strain to the album’s “upbeat mix of disco, house and pop”, Rogers writes, though the pair have consciously avoided letting their opinions bleed into the music, as Neil Tennant reflects: “We never wanted to preach or anything like that, because politics in pop music is a very tricky thing.”

In 1988 the Pet Shop Boys played a gig to protest Section 28. Now, the band, “which has always supported gay rights, albeit sometimes subtly”, are increasingly concerned by Vladimir Putin and Russia’s new anti-gay “propaganda” laws. Tennant believes the Russian Orthodox Church is behind the legislation:

It’s regained its position in Soviet society and Putin has schmoozed them as a result. He schmoozes everyone, actually, doesn’t he?

Tennant adds that he finds our modern apathy towards political matters worrying. On digital privacy, for example, he says:

The public couldn’t care less about being snooped on and that’s very odd. Imagine a politician saying they were going to open your post before they delivered it to you, photostat it, then deliver it. On the internet, it doesn’t feel like crime because you can’t feel the crime happening. It’s the same way that people think of stealing music, to turn to that hoary old argument.

Chris Lowe, who arrived to the interview wearing a mirrorball hat, finds the modern pop industry frustrating, too:

I’ve realised recently just how ring-fenced pop music is. Pop music wasn’t like that before. It’s now a very closed world.

Tennant agrees the system is “unbelievably conservative and enclosed … radio people actually say to us now, ‘Oh, we won’t ever play your records, because you’re too old.’”

But the pair, who are working on a song cycle about the life of celebrated cryptographer Alan Turing, still retain some influence. They recount how, having done David Cameron a favour by performing at the Olympics winners’ parade on the Mall, they lobbied the Prime Minister by text message to get Turing – who was prosecuted for homosexual acts in the 1950s – pardoned:

Tennant texted David Cameron’s assistant to say so. His message read as follows:

“Thanks for asking us – actually it was really worth doing. And sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing, inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”

The same week that Electric was released, the government announced that the third reading of the bill pardoning Turing had been tabled for October. Sometimes pop and politics do shimmer together, after all.

Elsewhere in the magazine’s back half, John Gray writes at length about Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), whose Notebooks are being published in English for the first time. Areté assistant editor Claire Lowdon reviews the new Booker-shortlisted novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. “The Lowland is satellite prose,” she writes, “placidly panning from Calcutta in the 1950s to Rhode Island in the early part of this century.” NS arts editor Kate Mossman reflects on the evolution of Elton John, who recently presented his new album, The Diving Board, at London’s Roundhouse, and Amanda Levete, principal of the architectural studio AL_A, discusses the structural changes at the V&A.

The latest issue of the New Statesman is out on Thursday 19 September.

Hat trick: Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant. Photograph: Leo Aversa.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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