2012 in review: The New Statesman . . . Abroad

From a portrait of Ai Weiwei to fascist rallies in Athens, the best foreign reporting, analysis and interviews of the year from the New Statesman.

Tidings of comfort and joy! With a bumper double issue of the magazine - guest-edited by Brian Cox and Robin Ince - sent to press, it's time to reflect on the year. 

Over the Christmas and New Year period, the NewStatesman.com team will be bringing you the 12 Days of Blog-mas, with links to some of the best content of 2012 that you might have missed the first time round. (Please forgive the fact that there are actually only 11 days of Blog-mas, and that they have started too early).

Today's theme is The New Statesman Abroad. Foreign reporting is - compared with domestic news and opinion - difficult, expensive and sometimes dangerous. It's also vital. 

In some of the places we've covered this year, the country's own media are unable to report honestly because of corruption or censorship. In others, the stories which usually reach Britain are simplistic and one-dimensional. Here are six stories which we hope get close to uncovering the truth about some fascinating parts of the world.

 

The cold choice - jobs or jihad

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the NS has commissioned Olivier Roy, a professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence, to write a series of essays on the uprising. His first piece of 2012, The Cold Choice, looks at the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt in the wake of the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. 

His most recent piece for the NS, The Myth of the Islamist winter, was published this month.

Greece: The austerity laboratory

The NS assistant editor, Daniel Trilling, has written several longform pieces for the magazine this year after completing his book on the British National Party. In a recent dispatch from Greece, he considers the rise of Golden Dawn and the social effects of austerity. In a final coda, he visits a food bank near his house in London and asks: what can Greece's example tell us about Britain's austere future?

India after the blackout

William Dalrymple considers the contradiction at the heart of India: that its seemingly meteoric rise has divided the country even more sharply between the haves and have-nots.

For, even at the height of India’s boom, amid talk of space missions to Mars and fleets of nuclear submarines, and as the country tripled its defence budget to become one of the world’s top ten military spenders, it has also been home to one-third of the world’s poor. A full quarter of its population – about 310 million people – live in poverty.

Mexico's drug war: the battle without hope

Malcolm Beith, author of the book Narco, reveals the incredible toll of drug violence in Mexico and wonders why the one solution the US won't consider to the "war on drugs" is decriminalisation.

In 2009, a man nicknamed El Pozolero – “the stew-maker” – was arrested and confessed to dissolving the remains of more than 300 people in vats of caustic soda for a drug kingpin. Later that year, a man working for rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was found; he had been beheaded and his face had been carved off and delicately stitched on to a football.

Israel's endless war

In November, the New Statesman's editor Jason Cowley visited Israel, just as it began a renewed assault on Gaza. He found a country unwilling to question its actions.

The message from inside Israel was one of profound and unyielding unity. “There can be no peace,” it is said, “until Hamas stops trying to kill us,” irrespective of the context in which Hamas acts or the suffering of the Palestinians inside Gaza.

Earlier in the year, the NS had looked at the fading possibility of a peaceful two-state solution, with Jonathan Freeland's essay Yearning For the Same Land, and Ali Abunimah's response

Ai Weiwei: If someone is not free, I am not free

In October, the NS was guest-edited by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who wanted to draw attention to the routine censorship of dissenting voices by the Chinese state. 

Features editor Sophie Elmhirst visited him in his studio, just outside Beijing, and wrote a long profile of a complex man: 

Ai lives like a king, though not in the clichéd sense. It’s more that he lives like an embattled medieval monarch, trapped in a palace that is half power base, half prison. Every day, visitors pass through to pay their respects or in the hope of finding favour. In the week I’m there, journalists, fans, gallerists, film-makers, photographers, artists, old friends and new all make their pilgrimage to the studio, and Ai patiently entertains them, having his picture taken or answering the same questions he has answered in the scores of other interviews he has done this year. One asks him to play “Water” in an experimental art film; Ai shrugs and agrees.

If Ai’s studio is his court, then Twitter is his kingdom. He might not be able to leave China, and rarely leaves his neighbourhood, but he can encounter his population directly through the social media site. He tweets to his 170,000 followers continuously; commenting on the latest political twists, retweeting support from followers and championing the causes of fellow dissidents. In 2005, he was invited to set up a blog by the internet company Sina Weibo, to which he contributed regularly until it was shut down four years later. Since then Twitter has been his platform of choice.

In his guest-edited issue, Ai used his leader column to issue a call to China to "recognise itself". "Right now, in China, we are living in conditions that no other generation has ever experienced – of great economic growth and expansion, but also great oppression of freedom of speech and human rights," he wrote. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle