Editor's picks: Jason Cowley on the best pieces from 2013

The New Statesman editor selects some of his favourite reviews, essays and comment published in the magazine in 2013 - from John Gray on Edmund Burke to Will Self's tribute to pessimism.

One of the many pleasures of being editor of the New Statesman is the opportunity it allows to commission and publish writers I admire writing about subjects that interest me.

Let’s call it a higher form of self-indulgence. Anyway, here are 25 articles published in the New Statesman in 2013 which are worth reading if you missed them. If you didn’t, they are worth reading again.

John Gray - "What Machiavelli Knew" (July)

John Bew on Alex Ferguson - "The last great Briton" (December)

Hedley Twiddle - "The last days of Nelson Mandela" (October)

Jemima Khan on Julian Assange - "How the Wikileaks founder alienated his allies" (February)

Michael Barrett on the remarkable travels of David Livingstone - "Presumed innocent" (July)

Vince Cable on the Great Stagnation - "When the facts change, should I change my mind?" (March)

John Gray on Edmund Burke and the Tories - "History has no author" (May)

Brendan Simms on the German Problem - "Cracked heart of the old world" (March)

Robert Skidelsky - "Creative Destruction: Keynes, Hobson, Marx – and the crisis of capitalism" (May)

Will Self - "In praise of pessimism" (April)

Peter Wilby - "A Dissenting Tradition: the New Statesman and the left"

Simon Heffer - "Margaret Thatcher was not right-wing" (May)

Richard Mabey - Writing on nature

Ian Bremmer From G20 to G-Zero - "Why no one wants to take charge in the new global order" (June)

John Bew On the Geopolitics of the Syrian War - "Las Vegas rules don't apply in Syria" and "The west humiliated" (July and September)

Rachel Cusk - "On narcissim: the mirror and the self" (August)

Danny Dorling - "Why aren’t young people working?" (August)

Simon Kuper - "I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic: ghetto superstar" (September)

John Bew - "Clement Attlee: An unromantic hero" (September)

David Marquand on Britain and the EU - "First Brexit, then break-up" (October)

Steven Poole - "The pseudo-profundity of Malcolm Gladwell" (October)

David Pilling - "Shinzo Abe’s second coming" (October)

Russell Brand on revolution - “We no longer have the luxury of tradition” (October)

Rupert Everett - "Bring on the guillotine: Rupert Everett on the gay rights revolution" (October)

Bryan Appleyard - "Is this the death of Apple?" (November)

And here’s something by me – "Eton Eternal: How the old ruling class became the new ruling class" (May)

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.