Crash and burn

Greece is engulfed in crisis – and its battles have only just begun.

Greeks do a good job of cleaning up. Over the past month, municipal workers have been on a mission to rid Athens of the angry slogans that appear overnight. These range from "Ugly cities burn beautifully" to "Let the plutocracy pay for the crisis" or, simply, "Destroy".

But graffiti is not all the cleaners have to contend with. Demonstrators leave a trail of debris: slabs of broken marble prised from pavements, smashed shop windows, wrecked bus stops, burned rubbish bins and leaflets denouncing the government's harsh economic austerity measures.

No amount of cleaning up can hide the scale of the crisis engulfing Greece. Economically, politically, socially and, some say, even spiritually, the country has reached a dead end. The failings of a near-bankrupt state built on cronyism, corruption, nepotism and greed have been exposed.Greeks, I think, always knew that things were going this way - a culture in which citizens strove to have at least two houses and three cars, but evaded tax collectors and often the law, couldn't be maintained for ever. The state had become as overstretched as its citizens; the bloated public sector, used by successive governments to trade jobs for votes, was always going to prove unsustainable.

Yet the current crisis has still shocked many. Financial turmoil hit soon after the socialist government revealed the real size of the public deficit in late 2009. At 12.7 per cent of GDP, the hole in Greece's finances is almost twice as big as the conservative government had claimed before its electoral defeat last October. This discovery and what it may mean for the eurozone's stability have left many Greeks reeling.

Now, Greece is being held up by the world's press as an example of how not to run a country. Some of its EU partners have accused the country of intentionally misleading the Union about its finances in order to enter the eurozone. Worse still, the crisis has exposed the inner workings of a society with little concern for meritocracy. Not since the collapse in 1974 of Greece's military government, the "colonels' regime", has the body politic been so shaken.

The ascent to power of the socialist Pasok party, led by George Papandreou, one of Europe's most progressive politicians, is a relief for those who want change. He has pledged financial reform, and to combat the country's "systematic corruption". But even senior government cadres seem overwhelmed by what must be done. On the seventh floor of an Orwellian building erected by the military junta, I met Michalis Chrysohoidis, the minister in charge of counterterrorism. The son of farmers from northern Greece, Chrysohoidis is a down-to-earth politician who was instrumental in bringing members of the notorious "17 November" guerrilla group to trial in 2003. Yet he was downbeat. It wasn't just that the previous government had undone Greece's recent progress, he said - its modernisation, the improvements to law and order. It was also how the public administration had been left. Political patronage meant civil servants had hidden a great deal. Files and figures on state finances had either gone missing or been fabricated. It was only when Pasok came to power that they discover­ed how serious the situation was.

The draconian economic policies announced in an effort to appease the EU and the markets (where Greece must raise roughly €54bn - £46.8bn - this year to service the country's €300bn debt) have stoked anger and fear. Chrysohoidis thinks that social unrest may get worse in the months ahead. "When people feel the effects of the measures in their pockets, the situation could deteriorate," he said.

Clawing back credibility

In Athens, the mood has become increasingly edgy, at times even violent. On 5 March, after a particularly nasty rally, protesters tried to storm the parliament. And there are concerns that armed extremists, exploiting the economic tumult, will also strike. In the same week, police narrowly thwarted an attack in a shoot-out with a man believed to be a prominent member of the far-left guerrilla group Revolutionary Struggle. Over the past few years, Greece's network of terrorists has grown. "There is a whole new generation, many from well-heeled families, who like to plant bombs and kill people," Chrysohoidis told me.

Papandreou realises it will take a revolution to reform Greece. The good news is that he is honest, decent and without doubt the most cosmopolitan politician to have led the country. The son and grandson of former prime ministers, he was brought up in the US, Sweden, Canada and the UK. Also the president of Socialist International, he has used his global connections to claw back some of Greece's lost credibility. Better still, he sees the crisis as an opportunity for change.

On 25 March, as Greece celebrates its 189th anniversary as an independent state, EU leaders in Brussels will decide whether to provide financial support for Athens. Aid is crucial to lowering the country's borrowing costs on the international markets. But Germany is reluctant to back EU assistance, without which Greece may be forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for help. Many in the bloc would regard that move as a breakdown in European solidarity, a blow to the Union's pride.

Whatever the outcome, this is only the beginning of Greece's battle - and it is one that will require much more than mopping up.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496