James Meek's new book concerns the wholesale privatisation of huge chunks of the British state. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Reviews Round-up | 9 September

The critics’ verdicts on Owen Jones’s The Establishment, James Meek’s Private Island and Emily Mackie’s In Search of Solace.

The Establishment: And how they get away with it by Owen Jones

Owen Jones takes on the establishment in this impassioned polemic against the powers that be. The Gu​ardian columnist explores the political injustice of British democracy, leading us from the boardrooms of Bishopsgate to the corridors of Whitehall and the newsrooms of Fleet Street. All the while, arguing that the establishment poses the greatest threat to democracy today. Jones defines the establishment as “the politicians who make laws; media barons who set the terms of debate; businesses and financiers who run the economy and police forces that enforce a law which is rigged in favour of the powerful.” In doing so, Jones argues that the modern-day establishment is even more powerful than its predecessors because of it’s acceptance of a neoliberal cross-party consensus.

Archie Bland of the Independent is impressed with Jones’s powerful polemic. He maintains that “the book’s great strength lies in the simple power of accumulation. Again and again, Jones connects the dots in parallel lines, so that the single examples that might in themselves be dismissed as circumstantial or overblown become more or less unanswerable”. Bland also praises Jones for “his position as the standard-bearer of a youthful alternative to Westminster’s suffocating consensus”. Since being dubbed “our generation’s Orwell” by Russell Brand, Jones’s political leverage has continued to grow. In turn, Bland argues that “this book will strengthen that group’s hope to build what you might see as an alternative establishment of their own”.

While the Financial Times's Philip Augar applauds Jones’s strength of conviction, he also argues that his “sweeping, controversial assertions require substantiation if they are to land”. In doing so, Augur criticises Jones for failing to analyse the history which preceded the post-Thatcher settlement. In addition to this, Augur argues that Jones falls into the trap of using simplistic stereotypes to describe members of the establishment. Augur says that “such bias is disappointing from an author who in a previous book, Chavs (2011), criticised the stereotyping of the working class and who regards prejudice as one of the Establishment’s deadly sins”.

In a similar vein the Times Higher Education criticises Jones’s somewhat tactless descriptions of his interviewees, which are revealed in “asides”. Apart from this, THE praise Jones for his commanding arguments and potent examples. In their words: “this is a book of revelations, and revelation was a necessary part of the process last time we became more equal”. Nevertheless, THE argues that while Jones manages to explain how the establishment “get away with it”, he fails to provide any viable or novel solutions. They conclude by arguing that while “revelations alone are unlikely to be enough, they are still essential”.

Private Island by James Meek

From the railways to postal services, energy companies, health services and social housing, Private Island maps the trajectory of privatisation in the UK. James Meek laments the marketisation that has occurred over the last three decades, as state-owned businesses have been moved into private hands and public services have been sold off. Not only does Meek explore the economic dynamics at work, he also gives voice to the human stories behind the privatisation of the state.

Writing in the Guardian John Gray praises Private Island, encouraging everyone to read it in order to “find out what has really happened in Britain over the past 20 years”. As “one of our finest writers”, Gray argues that Meek “couldn’t produce a dull sentence however hard he tried. The result is an unputdownable book that will leave you with a lasting sense of unease”. Nevertheless, he believes that Meek’s assertions about the similarities between British privatisations and the aggressive expropriations of the former Soviet Union are overstated. Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian is equally impressed, arguing that Private Island “stands as one of the most powerful critiques of the mess that is Britain’s economy”. Like Meek, Chakrabortty deplores the privatisation of British “public assets at rock bottom prices to the private sector”, arguing that while this has enriched private investors, it has led to public sector neglect, “poorer services for the public - and a downgrading of our entitlements as citizens”.

Emily Cadman from the Financial Times also applauds Private Island as “an energetic and colourfully told polemic against privatisation”. Nevertheless, Cadman is more critical because she believes that Meek fails to propose a solution to the problems he raises. In Cadman’s words, while “it is a book to read if you want vivid details of what went wrong; it is not a manifesto proclaiming how to put things right”. What’s more, Cadman argues that Private Island is rather “disjointed” in its feel and reads like a set of essays rather than a connected whole.

In Search of Solace by Emily Mackie

In Search of Solace explores Jacob Little’s journey to an isolated Highland town. After the relationship with his girlfriend Solace comes to an end, Jacob is overcome with existential angst and begins a journey to rediscover his identity. In doing so, he assumes a number of different identities, from Keith the archaeologist to Otto, the purple-bearded pagan to Isaac, the gardener and more. Jacob’s quest eventually leads him to his ex-girlfriend’s Scottish hometown.

Viv Watts from the Daily Express praises Mackie’s second novel for its “beautiful, clever, often funny prose that challenges conventions”. Watts also commends the complex layers of the narrative. Although Mackie “hops about, forwards and backwards, diverting from third-person to first-person, from years ahead to years before”, Mackie simultaneously manages to “subtly, layer by layer, peel away the preconceptions that she herself has introduced”.

The Independent’s Doug Johnstone, is less impressed with Mackie, concluding that although “In Search of Solace isn’t that bad, it could have been a lot better”. Johnstone argues that the themes of identity are “underdeveloped” and thus underwhelming. What’s more, Johnstone believes that the novel “seemed to lack confidence in its own voice throughout”. Despite the fact that Mackie exhibits “some skilful characterisation”, Johnstone argues that this is weakened by the book’s “heavy-handed faux-playfulness”.

Kate Clanchy from the Guardian is considerably more complimentary about “a writer as prodigious as Mackie”, praising her “toothsomb” character portraits. Clanchy praises both the description of the highland town and it’s inhabitants as “Mackie’s nouns are choice, her verbs are springy”. In mapping Jacob Little’s multiple identities, Mackie is able to exhibit the pasts and futures of one character. In turn, the fluid narratives of In Search of Solace allow “the reader to find enjoyment in the telling of the tale rather than its resolution”.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

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