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Laurie Penny on opinion journalism: Columnists now are like street performers – collecting coins in a hat and dodging angry racists

By 70, will I be screeching about immigrants from an enormous throne made of my clippings?

People keep asking me when I’m planning to sell out. Over the past 100 years of British punditry, the trajectory of the angry young leftist columnist growing up to develop a taste for smart dining, Botox and bigotry has been well established. I’m told that it’ll happen whether I want it to or not: no matter how many communiqués I read or marches I go on, by 35 I’ll be voting for the Liberal Democrats and by 70, presuming my hate-hardened arteries make it that far, I’ll be screeching about immigrants froman enormous throne made of my clippings, clutching a set of pearls that once belonged to Maggie Thatcher. This is nonsense. Even if I had the inclination, there won’t be a Liberal Democrat party to vote for when I’m 35.

The New Statesman’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, believed in 1913 that sincere political writing could move hearts and minds and bring about social change. The European tradition of radical opinionating has deteriorated since the days when George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf wrote for these pages and expected to make a positive difference. In 1968 Ulrike Meinhof wrote: “Columnism is a personality cult. Through columnism, the left-wing position . . . is reduced to the position of one individual, an isolated individual, to the views of an original, outrageous, nonconformist individual, who can be co-opted because, in being alone, they are powerless.”

It’s worth noting that, a few years later, Meinhof decided that armed insurrection was a more efficient route to the revolution she wanted to see and helped form the militant Red Army Faction. For Meinhof, the pen may have been mightier than the sword but home-made explosives got the job done quicker.

She was wrong about at least one thing: columnists do still have power.

Unfortunately, it is easier to wield that power in the service of lazy reaction than use it to change the world for the better. Right now, as the British newspaper industry panics about its vanishing returns, “star” writers are encouraged to abandon nuance and say the most shocking, hateful things they can think of to attract controversy. They target welfare claimants, women, minorities, immigrants, disabled people, single parents and, if all else fails, each other.

This produces casualties. It spreads suspicion in communities, provokes incoherent violence and murders compassion. Last month, Lucy Meadows, a woman hounded by the media and attacked for being transsexual in an article by Rod Liddle or Richard Littlejohn – forgive me, I can never tell the difference – took her own life.

Hate and empty controversy are used to titillate readers and advertisers. The rightwing and centre-right press is dominated by largely indistinguishable, middle-aged bigots, most but not all of them men, who know each other and are paid handsomely to make prejudice palatable. When they bother to engage with their readers, they do so with deep distaste, outraged that mere civilians have dared to answer back. Fortunately, a change is coming.

On 4 April, Kelvin MacKenzie, the former Sun editor responsible for, among other things, the front page that blamed victims of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster for the tragedy, started a new online column for the Telegraph. A day later, the column was cancelled. Editors have begun to realise that their readers have the power to coordinate their disgust.

The elitism and entitlement that have long poisoned the British commentariat are beginning to disappear and, despite itself, the industry is becoming more ethical. Eventually, one hopes, the Littlejohns and MacKenzies of this world will be relegated to a time loop of irrelevance in which they can attend the same awards ceremonies, drink the same champagne and eat the same olives for ever while more competent people get on with capturing the public consciousness.

I count myself extremely lucky to have grown up as a political writer in the age of the internet. Suddenly, where once there were only a few privileged pundits talking to each other and expecting the proles to listen, there are writers from all walks of life producing dazzling, meaningful prose and finding their audience. I’m part of a growing cohort of reporters and columnists who are not surprised when our readers chat to us like old friends, correct our mistakes or call us unprintable things in the comment section – because we started out online and have never experienced anything else.

The most forward-thinking “dead-tree” magazines and papers, including the New Statesman, have recruited hard from this new cohort, treating the internet as an extension of their editorial mission. They have understood that the age in which middle-aged white men pontificated from rarefied platforms and expected to be listened to is over.

To be a columnist today is no longer to stand on a stage alone, reciting marvellous soliloquies while a paying audience waits to applaud. Apart from anything else, few publications can now afford to fork out the kinds of salaries that make principled writers lose perspective. Being a columnist today is more like being a street performer – collecting coins in a battered suitcase, telling stories about a better world and understanding that the audience might change the story.

It’s hard work, because you’re competing with everyone else on the block, including the drunk, deranged old racist shouting abuse and the naked exhibitionist who does - n’t ask for money, and you have to move fast to avoid the pelted sandwiches and, occasionally, the police. In other words, it’s an exciting time to be a writer.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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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