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Yanis Varou­fakis's retelling of the Greek debt crisis will galvanise Eurosceptics

Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe's Deep Establishment also reveals a curious bond between the former Greek finance minister and Norman Lamont.

Halfway through this book my mind drifted to Arthur Dent, the hapless hero of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Seeking enlightenment, Arthur is directed to a half-blind crone battling giant flies in a cave. She gives him a pile of paper and tells him to photocopy every sheet. Confused, he asks if this is her advice. No, she replies – it’s the story of my life. Do the exact opposite of what I did, and then you won’t end your life in a smelly old cave.

It is tempting to interpret Yanis Varou­fakis’s account of his tempestuous period as finance minister of Greece in the same vein. The “erratic Marxist” spent his brief time in office, in the first half of 2015, locked in battle with Greece’s eurozone creditors as he vainly attempted to convince them to release his country from “Bailoutistan”, the debtors’ prison it had occupied since 2010. Confronting his adversaries with grand reforms and exotic debt-swap proposals, Varoufakis encountered a dogmatic refusal to engage. He resigned amid capital controls (not yet lifted), a chaotic referendum and the Greeks’ final capitulation. Some will see his gambit as an honourable attempt to restore dignity to a nation battered by years of austerity. But few could argue that his efforts amounted to anything other than ignominious failure, though he finds little room here to interrogate his own decisions.

It is hard to gainsay Varoufakis’s critique of the bailouts. The fiscal measures they entailed sucked demand from a shrinking economy and saddled Greece with unpayable debt. But if Varoufakis was a reasonable economist, he made for an appalling politician. As his minutely detailed accounts of meetings of the Eurogroup (the 19 eurozone finance ministers) indicate, he treated the gatherings as quasi-academic exercises, in which he would subject his counterparts to hectoring. It is hardly surprising that few were minded to play along. Greece’s perilous situation – Varoufakis took office just a few weeks before the bailout was due to expire – left him with little time for the patient coalition-building that is the only way to get business done in Brussels. But a good negotiator calibrates his approach to the circumstances. Varoufakis merely lectured.

How could Varoufakis, representing a nation worth just 2 per cent of eurozone GDP, have hoped to win his detractors over? First, by the power of his arguments; this is not a man crippled by self-doubt. But if that failed, he had in his back pocket credible threats he thinks would have forced Germany, the European Central Bank and, by extension, the rest of the eurozone to offer Greece better terms. (One wacky scheme involved an electronic payments system that could have served as a temporary parallel currency, should the ECB have shuttered Greece’s banks.) Whether his outlandish plans would have brought Angela Merkel to her knees we will never know. Ultimately Varoufakis’s humiliation lies in the treachery of his own side: notably Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, whose early promises to support him crumble, we are told, in the face of looming default and Grexit.

It is Tsipras’s referendum, on a final offer made by the creditors as a hard deadline approached, that does for Varoufakis. Outside observers saw clearly that the referendum was a gun pointed at Greece’s own head. No electoral mandate, however thumping (over 60 per cent of Greek voters followed their government’s suggestion to reject the bailout proposals), will nudge the other side into compromise if they hold the better negotiating hand – as Theresa May will soon learn. Greece’s mighty Oxi (“No”), celebrated by Varoufakis, led directly to Tsipras’s capitulation at an all-night summit in Brussels in July 2015, and the signing of a third bailout on worse terms than the creditors were previously prepared to offer. (A fourth is now heaving into view.)

It’s not clear what audience ­Varoufakis has in mind for this carefully written but overlong book. Its value as a record for historians hinges on the minister’s often-questioned reliability as a narrator. The blow-by-blow accounts of his battles with the hated “troika” (the IMF, ECB and European Commission) are of nostalgic interest only to the small number of us who were immersed in the drama in 2015. Eurosceptics, at least, will find much to confirm their hunch that the EU is a bureaucratic monster incapable of brooking democratic dissent. And one curiosity of the book is the enduring bond Varoufakis forms with Norman Lamont, today a gung-ho Brexiteer. It is also fun to see Emmanuel Macron, then France’s economy minister, make the odd cameo as a pro-Greek rebel powerless to shape events.

Greece was the first sign that all was not well in the eurozone, and it remains the last country in the sickbed today (though Italy is looking a little green). Its detractors say that its governments never tried seriously to tackle Greece’s deep-rooted ills of clientelism, corruption and tax evasion. Their critics, like Varoufakis, argue that the crushing austerity forced on Greece made it impossible to do anything other than struggle to stay afloat. Lost in the middle are the millions of Greeks dumped into poverty or forced to emigrate by an endless recession in which GDP slumped by a quarter after 2008. Varoufakis’s input is useful in weighing the balance of blame for Greece’s woes. But when it comes to negotiating, his is an example of what not to do. 

Tom Nuttall writes the Economist’s Charlemagne column

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear