Shakespeare’s Globe

Bill Oddie declared he was an atheist and told me women were drawn to nature because they like big f

Last week I was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend a Christmas drinks reception at Lambeth Palace. Anyone stumbling into the party by accident could have been forgiven for thinking they were attending a weirdie-beardie convention. In one corner of the Guard Room was the birdwatcher Bill Oddie, in another the arch-luvvie Dickie Attenborough, and then in walked the religious affairs writer Christopher Howse, resembling a genial Santa. I found myself chatting to Professor Robin Cormack, curator of the Royal Academy’s “Byzantium” exhibition. He may be unwhiskered but is married to the classicist Mary Beard.

Many of us, beardies and non-beardies alike, wondered why we merited such an invitation. Bill Oddie thought he might be there because of his environmental work. Perhaps the archbishop wanted to talk to a him about the damage being wreaked on Anglican churches by bats. While at university, I once attended a lecture by Dr Rowan Williams on Zeno's paradoxes, but that seemed a pretty tenuous connection. The archbishop then got up to say a few words and told us that someone had rung him up prior to the party expressing qualms. "Should I come?" asked the unnamed guest: "I am an atheist." Oddie told me he was an atheist, too, and then fulminated about the dearth of women at the party. Oddie may be renowned as a great birdwatcher, but he failed to spot that we were surrounded by numerous women, including our hostess. Was this because they weren't birds he fancied ? He then waxed lyrical about the BBC Natural History Unit, where the female quota is exceptionally high. "I think women are drawn to nature because they like to hug big furry things," he said. Might this explain his beard?

Dr Germaine Greer has just written a highly charged polemic, On Rage, for the Melbourne University Press, which is about the ongoing blight suffered by the Aboriginal men and women at the hands of colonialists. “People now talk of establishing an annual sorry day, as if it would do Whitey good to remind himself how magnanimous he was on 13 February 2008,” she says. “More useful would be an annual angry day.” I agree. We need a rage day if only to express our fury against the bankers and politicians who got us into the financial mess we find ourselves in. Alternatively, I suppose we could save our rage for the ballot box.

When a Times sub-editor had the temerity to query an article written by Peter Jay, he grandly replied: “I only wrote this piece for three people – the editor of the Times, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Do the current incumbents of these offices, namely James Harding, Mervyn King and Alistair Darling, still pay any attention to the wise words of Peter Jay? Perhaps they should. The former BBC economics editor and former son-in-law of Jim Callaghan has a cunning plan to stave off financial depression. And if the man whom Time magazine once dubbed England’s brightest bulb has a solution, surely this triumvirate should take note. The Jay plan is a variation of Milton Friedman’s helicopter drop. Rather than drop money out of helicopters, as Friedman advocated, Jay thinks the helicopters should drop vouchers. The public might hoard cash, whereas vouchers with an expiry date attached would be spent quickly. After Jay was anointed the cleverest man in England, one wag responded: “If he’s so clever, how come he got the au pair pregnant?” Blackadder would ridicule Baldrick’s cunning plans and sometimes end up using them in desperation. We will know the chips are really down when Jay’s plan is put into effect.

Am I other? The Office for National Statistics will now collect information about your sexuality in its surveys. You can tick heterosexual/straight, gay/lesbian, bisexual or “other”. According to the ONS, 1 per cent of the population reject standard categories, hence the “other” classification – whatever “other” entails. I am always dubious of statistics. Where did they come up with this 1 per cent figure, for a start? Thank goodness respondents will be entitled to refuse to answer the question or put themselves down as “don’t know”.

The move has been welcomed by Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, which campaigns for gay equality. "Getting the Office for National Statistics to take this issue seriously has been like pulling teeth," he says. But should it be taking the issue seriously? Summerskill argues that the survey is confidential and is about public service delivery. Nevertheless, it strikes me as yet another unwarranted intrusion into our private lives. Yes, we should wage war on sexual discrimination, but not at the expense of privacy.

Summerskill once worked for me on the Evening Standard as a loyal and able deputy. But never once did I ask him if he was gay or heterosexual or other. If I had, I am sure he would have told me to mind my own business. Or my other business.

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times