In the Critics this Week

An attack on Gove's education reforms, Vernon Bogdanor on David Runciman, and Tom Watson plays Batman: Arkham Origins.

The book section this week begins with Vernon Bogdanor’s review of The Confidence Trap: a History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman. Bogdanor explains that the path to democracy has been a difficult one, and that it hasn't always been certain that representative democracy would represent a global norm. However, as waves of democritisation have swept over the globe on the 20th century, Runciman sets himself the difficult task of "analysing the crises facing modern democracies and how they have been overcome". The eponymous 'Confidence Trap' is the tendency for democracies to rest on their laurels:

…because democracies are so adaptable and know that they are adaptable, they allow problems to escalate. Confident that they will be able in the end to meet the problems, they defer resolving them… comforted by the knowledge that the system remains resilient.

Bogdanor is initially impressed; Runciman illustrates Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory about democracy in a "fresh and convincing way". Nonetheless, from the introduction onwards the book loses its steam and the structure of the book, a "tour d’horizon of seven crises of democratic uncertainty", fails to impress. The crises “amount to little more than a dusting over fairly familiar episodes from 20th century history and on occasion lack perception.” All in all, Bogdanor is left unimpressed; the book fails to address, according to the reviewer, the real confidence trap: "the tension in many advanced democracies between the inherited forms of democracy and the new ideological forces of modern society".

Educational reform is the name of the day in Francis Beckett’s review of Peter Mortimore’s book Education Under Siege: Why There Is a Better Alternative. This is a book that challenges the reactionary policies of Michael Gove and New Labour’s education secretaries. Beckett is thoroughly impressed by Mortimore’s prose and seems even more impressed and surprised by his restraint to descend into polemic. In relation to Gove adopting a history curriculum that, in his words, "portray[s] Britain as a beacon of liberty", Beckett writes:

As a historian, I’m horrified by this. History teaching worth the name doesn’t celebrate anything, any more than mathematics does; nor does it portray Britain in a particular way. That sort of history teaching belongs in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, not here. Mortimore, again, is more restrained than I am…

Ultimately, Beckett produces an illuminating review on a crucial ongoing debate.

Our critic at large this week is Craig Raine who has looked at the work of Paul Klee at the Tate modern. He finds both magic and mechanism in the paintings:

In Klee, function meets fantasy. We learn from the Tate’s unusually helpful and interesting catalogue that when Klee was 50, his birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

The review brilliantly depicts the plurality of Klee’s methodology: his invention of the oil-transfer drawing, the use of pointillism and the fine watercolour sprays at the edges of drawings. Raine produces an insightful review to an extremely interesting artist.

The “single actor” movie is the crux of Ryan Gilbey’s review of Gravity, a film in which the majority of screen time is taken up by Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone. Gilbey sees this type of performance - an extended soliloquy - as the pinnacle of any actor's career. He notes that “such films are partly about the currency of the star” but goes on to argue whether Bullock “will be vital in bringing to the movie a type of viewer not statistically attracted to science fiction extravaganzas". That type? "female."

For Tom Watson, games represent nostalgia, and a comfort blanket. However, the new Batman game Arkham Origins was none-too-comforting and left him frustrated and grumpy. While being impressed by the combat system and Batman’s entire tech he just found the game too hard. "Cognitive science may be rebalancing the argument in favour of video games being good for humanity, but I’m afraid Batman: Arkham Origins is not."

This week’s critics section also features:

  • A review of Morrissey's Autobiography by Andrew Harrison
  • Douglas Hurd’s critique of Robert Harris's An Officer and a Spy 
  • Fiona Sampson on The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox and The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior by a book by Cristopher Howse
  • Norman Mailer: a Double Life written by J Michael Lennon analysed by Daniel Swift
  • Yo Zushi examination of Paul Robeson: a Watched Man by Jordan Goodman
  • Radio 4's Open Country reviewed by Antonia Quirke
  • Rachel Cooke looking at the depiction of Iceland on BBC2
Francis Beckett is not a fan of history according to Gove. (Oli Scarff/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