Douglas Alexander's speech on the EU: full text

The shadow foreign secretary says that only Labour can "give voice to the national interest" in an address at Chatham House.

Good evening. It is a both a privilege and a pleasure to be here at Chatham House.

There could be few better settings in which to discuss the recent developments and future course of the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe.

Chatham House has developed a peerless standing as a venue for debate and discussion about international affairs, and the key challenges facing the international community.

So, ahead of the Prime Minister's speech in the Netherlands tomorrow, I want to explore why he finds himself where he does, with reference both to party pressures and public opinion, before setting out Labour's thinking both on why the United Kingdom should be part of the European Union and why and how the European Union needs to change.

Put simply, my argument this evening is that reform in Europe, not exit from Europe, is the right road ahead for the United Kingdom.

Let me start by acknowledging openly that my speech begins with a focus on the domestic politics of Europe – and not simply the foreign policy towards Europe.

On one level I regret this – but I can’t avoid it.

To understand both the why, and the what, of the speech the Prime Minister delivers tomorrow in fact demands an analysis rooted in politics.

So let me begin my remarks this evening with reference to last Friday, not this Friday, and with reference to America rather than Europe.

Where I want to start is not with the words of a US diplomat, but a film by a US director.

Because last Friday I attended a screening of Stephen Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln”.

It's a great film.

It tells the story of Lincoln's struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution banning slavery.

It describes vividly Lincoln's willingness to contemplate low politics in order to try and achieve historic change.

Now although I sit across from him each week at Prime Minister's Questions, I have to admit to you that I do not often find myself drawing a comparison between David Cameron and Abraham Lincoln!

But stick with the parallel - however unlikely - for a moment.

Because as I reflected on Spielberg's film it struck me that David Cameron's approach to politics is almost exactly the opposite of Lincoln's.

Here's why.

To really understand tomorrow’s speech you need to start from this understanding: that the Prime Minister really is willing to contemplate historic change purely to try and achieve low politics.

So significant are the potential consequences of this speech that it is tempting, indeed reassuring, to presume a degree of strategic thought or high public purpose in its preparation.

The truth, I fear, is both more prosaic and more worrying.
This speech is about politics much more than it is about policy.

And its origins lie in weakness, not in strength.
Let me explain.

One of the domestic political consequences of the Global Financial Crisis was that David Cameron never managed to complete the modernisation of his party – whether he ever had the desire, or intention to, is another question.

But a consequence of this failure to modernise, is that he failed to change his party’s approach to Europe.

And this failure to first challenge, and then unite his party on Europe means David Cameron has been living on borrowed time since the day he walked through the door of Number 10.

These longstanding internal pressures on David Cameron have only been exacerbated by recent external electoral ones.
Many Tory MPs now see UKIP as a dagger pointed at the heart of their electoral prospects.

Deep hostility to Europe is not a marginal feature of today’s Conservative Party - it is the mainstream philosophy – both on the backbenches and within the Cabinet.

For many in his Party, getting David Cameron to commit now to an in/out referendum is not about securing consent.
It is about securing exit.

Indeed it is worth noting quite how far the Conservative Party has shifted over the decades.

This is best demonstrated by recollecting the words of a previous leader of the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, when she set out her opposition to a referendum on Europe in the House of Commons on 11 March 1975. This is what she said then:

“What one Minister has used as a tactical advantage on one issue today, others will use for different issues tomorrow. This will lead to a major constitutional change, a change which should only be made if, after full deliberation, it was seriously thought to be a lasting improvement on present practice. This White Paper [on a referendum] has come about because of the Government's concern for internal party interests. It is a licence for Ministers to disagree on central issues but still stay in power. I believe that the right course would be to reject it and to consider the wider constitutional issues properly and at length.”

How accurate, indeed prophetic, a description of the judgement David Cameron now seems set to make.

So the roots of tomorrow’s speech lie much more in the politics of the Conservative Party, than in foreign policy.

And the real tragedy of tomorrow’s speech is that David Cameron’s Party won’t let him address the undoubted need for change in the EU in a sensible way.

We have a Prime Minster who simply cannot reconcile the demands of his party, with the needs of his country.

There is a very real risk that, in failing to meet the bar set by his own rhetoric, and by his own backbenchers, he stumbles into an in/out referendum and Britain stumbles out of Europe.

Unless he achieves total success in his negotiating objectives, his party will not back him.

If he demands a shopping list of unilateral repatriations by threatening exit, he will have no hope of success.
The gap between the minimum the Tories will demand and the maximum our European partners can accept remains unbridgeable.

And we will have a British Prime Minister sleepwalking towards exit, knowing he is letting down the national interest, but too weak to do anything about it.

So let me, in turn, be open with you as to where Labour stands.

Some commentators argue that Labour could make significant tactical gains, now and also at the time of an election, by being seen as a more euro sceptic party in general, and by outflanking the Tories by committing now to an in/out referendum.

They know that this might come the cost of the long term interests of the country - both in terms of the economic recovery and Britain’s place in the world – but would argue that ultimately, the electoral boost would make it worth the risk.

They argue this because they think it will help Labour to win.

I want to see Labour win.

And that is why I disagree.

Let me tell you why.

First, I don’t think it is right for any party to sacrifice what they think is in the national interest simply for the sake of advancing narrow party interest.

This is not my way of doing politics.

I don’t think this is right for a party of Government. But I also don’t think it is worthy of an effective and credible Opposition aspiring to be a Government.

But secondly, it would not work.

We don’t buy the simplistic assumptions about how the public would respond to such a shift in attitude and policy.
I think it would be to underestimate the voters if we are to assume that they judge politicians simply by what they say and not what they think they actually believe.

Were Labour to come out and call for a referendum the night before, or morning after, David Cameron makes his own speech, I think the public would see through it.

They would see the announcement for what it was – opportunistic political positioning rather than serious considered policy making.

So let me set out Labour’s position on the issue of an in/out referendum.

We are clear that to announce one in these circumstances will not serve Britain’s national interest.

As Ed Miliband set out in his speech at the CBI in November, Labour argues that the priority should be to promote growth at home and secure influence abroad.

And committing to an in/out referendum tomorrow will make it harder, not easier, to deliver on these two objectives.

It risks up to seven years of economic uncertainty which could deter potential investors and undermine the prospects for recovery.

Significant British business leaders have already come out to warn of this – and indeed, even the Foreign Secretary William Hague has told the House of Commons that "it would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.”

And it undermines our influence and political capital in Europe at a time when our leverage could be most significant and the changes being contemplated are so profound.

But let me say clearly - not agreeing with the Prime Minister’s approach – is not, and cannot, be a justification for ignoring the public’s very real concerns.
Who could deny that hostility towards the institutions of the EU has grown as a consequence of the Euro crisis?

Frankly that is no surprise.

But this public hostility is too often misunderstood.

Of course there are those that are in principle opposed to our membership of the European Union.

For them no justification in terms of enhanced power, status or security would be worth the pooling of sovereignty that a union of 27 member states inevitably entails.

Let me today be clear to these people.

Labour disagrees with you and will seek to win your vote by persuading you of our case.

Then there are those that form part of what is being described as a ‘UKIP surge’.

But let me say– in my view – the UKIP surge reflects not so much a European policy problem as a British political problem.

It is a symptom of a growing sense among some that British political parties simply don’t understand their lives or share their fears.

That is why to simply insult the Party and its voters – as David Cameron has done - is exactly the wrong thing to do.
I recognise that the Conservative Party – and indeed some within my own Party - are concerned about the impact of UKIP on their electoral prospects.

But the depth of concern about UKIP is not always matched by a depth of understanding.

The most comprehensive survey of UKIP voters yet undertaken - a huge poll of 20,000 supporters done last month by Lord Ashcroft found in his words "the UKIP threat is not about Europe" - and confirmed that issues like jobs, welfare, and immigration scored higher than Europe amongst these voters list of concerns.

The UKIP vote rising does not prove to me that more people are convinced we would be better off out – it proves to me that we have to be making the case for Europe, and so much else, differently.

Then there are those who count within the often used label of the ‘majority of the public’ who are anti-Europe.
In fact this bloc is far from homogenous.

Within this bloc, most people are willing to accept that there are areas where the EU is vital to protecting and promoting British interests.

Indeed, recent YouGov polling makes that case that despite overall levels of hostility to the EU as a whole, a majority still believe that the EU should do more to cooperate on issues like international terrorism/crime, tackling climate change, reducing poverty and immigration.

But they hold this view alongside a growing sense of frustration that the EU today is simply not meeting their expectations.

That is why Labour says clearly to them – yes, the United Kingdom's future lies in Europe, but in a Europe we will work to change and reform.

And we will not be alone: there are reforms that many across Europe support – reforms that can be secured without the risk of Britain being dangerously isolated.

I do not believe that an in/out referendum now is the right way to demonstrate to the public that you are not satisfied with the status quo in Europe.

It is simply wrong to suggest that rejecting the Prime Minister’s approach means Labour is accepting the status quo.

For Labour, unlike some Conservatives, being pro-reform is not a proxy for being anti-Europe.

Indeed, for Labour, the reform of Europe should not be seen a question mark over our commitment to Britain’s future within Europe.

Instead it not just the safest ground, but also the most solid foundation, on which a positive case about Britain’s membership of the EU can be made – and the concerns of the public addressed.

I believe the modern world provides the rationale both for the EU, and for its reform.

And it is by winning the case for reform, we can also win the case for the EU, and address the concerns of the public.
So today our commitment to Europe must be matched -

First by candour about the need for change;

And second by being clearer about its ultimate destination.
Let me address each of these in turn.

First, on the need for change:

I would argue that today there are two views that can encourage hostility towards Europe within the British public.

First, being Eurosceptic – where you firmly believe that nothing the EU does is right simply by virtue of it being done by the EU - and no amount of reforms or revisions will ever change that.

But there is another view that also risks encouraging hostility towards Europe.

And that is being uncritically pro-the status quo.

Those that believe that whatever the EU does is justified by virtue of it being done via the EU in fact pose a real threat to the future of the European project in a way that few of them would be willing to admit.

Those who believe Britain’s future lies within the European Union must see the case for change not as a threat to our politics – but as a foundation on which to win back support for that politics.

We must also, however, be clearer than in the past about the ultimate destination of the changes and reforms we seek.

For decades the EEC and then the EU have had as its goal "an ever closer union".

This goal has in turn led to talk of "a two speed Europe" implying differing speeds of travel towards a common destination.

Others have spoken about a two-tier Europe suggesting a permanent and inflexible division between the core of ‘real Europeans’ and the second class periphery of Europe.

None of these are, or should be, our desired destination.

The future of the European Union is not – and must not - be defined as uniform progress towards a common federal government or the merging of national identities into a United States of Europe.

Instead Labour’s vision of Europe is a flexible Europe with a common political framework that can permanently accommodate varying levels of integration amongst Member States.

This is not an a la carte Europe – but one where member states choose, collectively and collaboratively, to pool sovereignty in those areas where they judge that they can achieve more together than they can alone.

That means there maybe areas where member states will in future decide to do less together – but Labour are clear that it also means there could be areas where member states might start to do more together.

So let me set out for you key components of that reform agenda to you today.

First - Labour are clear that our agenda for change in Europe should start where the need is most urgently felt – and so the economy will be our focus.

Second – Labour believes that the institutional reform agenda is more relevant now than in the past because not only does the EU need to change, but it needs to be seen to change by the public – and reform of the way the EU itself works is relevant to achieving that.

Third – Labour will not shy away from making the case for Britain when we think our interests are being challenged in specific policy areas - but we will do this by building alliances and coalitions to secure reforms, not make undeliverable demands for unilateral repatriation.

In all three, it is the national interest, not party interest, that should drive change.

On the economy, there are two overlapping but separate agendas that we must now pursue.

There is an urgent reform agenda aimed at protecting the interests of the single market, and the UK in particular, in the face of an increasingly integrated Eurozone bloc adjusting itself in response to the recent euro crisis.

And a broader pro-growth and anti-austerity agenda that a Labour government would lead on with our partners in Europe.

Let me address first of these:

The design of the Euro needs to be revisited – not least because the fate of our own economy in part depends on that.

But the Prime Minister is wrong to imply that these changes inevitably threaten our interests.

Let’s be clear - some opponents of the EU in Britain would welcome the prospect of a two tier Europe – which sees Britain’s interests constantly being undermined and outvoted by a stronger and more integrated Eurozone bloc.

They warn against it – but in reality hope that convincing people it is inevitable will effectively put us on a conveyor belt to exit.

But they are wrong.

No one knows how the changes currently being contemplated within the Eurozone will affect Britain’s relationship with the EU, or indeed the nature of our membership.

As things stand today, it seems that they may not be as far-reaching as some had hoped and others feared.

But furthermore, it is simply wrong to suggest that this process is something that will happen to us – indeed we have the power – and indeed the responsibility - to decide what happens and how it happens.

And it is certainly wrong to reach the absurd conclusion that because countries in the Euro are going to cooperate more on managing that currency, that the UK somehow needs to cooperate less with our fellow Europeans on other issues like crime and policing.

Instead we should be seeking to secure protections and safeguards that continue to ensure that the interests of the euro-ins and euro-outs are appropriately balanced within the institutions of the 27.

It is also why it is crucial that we always ensure a British seat at the negotiating table when these decisions are being made – rather than walk away from talks before they have even really begun, as the Prime Minister did in December 2011.

Negotiating institutional safeguards, and not demanding unilateral repatriations, will be the best way to protect our interests through this process of change.

Of course, the present economic difficulties afflicting Europe have caused many to question their support for Europe.

And that poses a challenge for Labour, when so many governments in the EU are currently centre-right – because we believe that the synchronised austerity being pushed by them, only reinforces the sense of alienation and frustration among many voters.

But our response is not to reject Europe.

It is to advance a reform agenda to secure growth.

That is why we have consistently called for not just restraint but also reform of the EU budget.

It may only be 1 per cent of GDP, but it could be far better used.

It should focus on those items where spending at EU level can save money at national level, through economies of scale or by avoiding duplication.

Far too much money still goes on agricultural subsidies, instead of on policies to promote growth, cohesion and development or to support the EU’s vital role in international affairs.

The CAP is an obstacle to international trade liberalisation, creates too few jobs and introduces distortions so there is not a level playing field.

Neither we, nor Europe, can afford this waste.

EU structural funds — currently used to promote growth and investment in the EU — must also be reformed if they are to deliver the vital support that Europe now needs.

These funds make up around 35 per cent of annual EU expenditure but are distributed according to overlapping and, at times, competing objectives agreed decades ago – instead that money must be spent on promoting growth and jobs in deprived areas.

Alongside reform of the Budget, Labour have also called for a new Growth Commissioner – and a new mechanism embedded within the EU and tasked with assessing the impact of every new piece of legislation on the potential to promote growth across the EU – this will improve accountability and help sharpen the EU’s focus on this vital agenda.

The EU should also be looking to reform aspects of the single market – by extending into areas like the digital, energy and financial sectors.

And the EU must work much harder to reduce the burden on business by actively removing unnecessary regulation.

Rescue of the currency, protections for the single market, and revival of the prospects for growth should be Europe’s priorities for change.

But economic reform is not the limit of our ambitions for change in Europe.

So, Labour will seek to address issues around accountability by working for credible institutional reform.

Labour would seek to agree a mechanism for ensuring that national parliaments have more of a say over the making of new EU legislation.

Currently the ‘yellow card’ system – which the Lisbon Treaty initiated – gives national parliaments the ability to push legislation into review if there is significant opposition to it from a third of member states.
This is indeed welcome.

But we will look at extending this - arguing for the introduction of some form of collective emergency break procedure –that could further amplify the voice of national parliaments within the EU law making process.

Labour would also seek ways to make the European Parliament and Commission more streamlined and effective.

And, of course, our long standing commitment to abolish the second seat of the Parliament endures – but given opposition from the French and despite other’s best efforts, change will be difficult and should not prevent us from being prepared to looking at other areas of possible reform.

So we should be looking at ways to bring down the cost of the Parliament and how the workings of the Commission could be reformed to help it operate more effectively.

It makes no sense to divide up the functions of the Commission into 27 separate pieces if in doing so we undermine the Commission’s ability to operate effectively.

But reform is needed not simply in relations to the institutions of the EU, but also in its policies.

So through the Labour Party Policy Review, Labour is already looking at ways of addressing real concerns that the public have about the lived experience of the EU.

I want to be clear about how we will approach this.

Because it means change for my party, and has risks for our country if not done in the right way.

Change for my party, because the old approach of not talking about problems with the EU didn’t make those problems any less real or indeed mitigate them.

Instead we need a real dialogue with people and the honesty to hear their concerns and when we accept them to say so.

But rebuilding trust means not just recognising their concerns. It means too realising that you undermine public trust rather than enhance it by promising what you know you can’t deliver.

So our approach must be different from our past, but very different from this Government’s.

Let me touch on some examples.

We all hear about the perceived strain that certain aspects of the EU are putting on some local communities here in the UK.

For many, this relates specifically to the operation of the Free Movement Directive.

For too long, those wanting to make the case for the EU would shy away from talking about one of its most prominent components – the free movement of people.

This must stop.

We must be clear about the advantages that many British citizens get from this Directive.

Latest figures show that over 875,000 British people are officially registered as living in another EU country, and we can all tell personal anecdotes about the benefits this seemingly abstract principle has on our day to day lives – from retirement choices to work opportunities and study abroad schemes.

But we must also recognise that in some cases it is has put pressure on communities here at home – and this must not be ignored.

It is true that far more people are moving around Europe than ever before.

Enlargement brings enlarged freedom of movement, which underpins the many benefits of the single market but also creates certain pressures.

Labour has recently recognised these pressures in a way we haven’t in the past.

Back in June Ed Miliband set out the new approach we would need in this area.

Labour has already set out that it regrets not implementing the full transitional arrangements that were available to it during the last round of EU enlargement and would do differently now.

We believe the EU should look to go further than that and look at ways of giving member states more flexibility over the transitional arrangements that they sign up to – both to relax them more when those countries see fit, but also to include the possibility of tightening them further if necessary.

But we should not promise what we cannot deliver on immigration from within the European Union.

That is why we must also manage those impacts and reform our economy, to address people’s concerns on the likes of agency workers and workplace segregation.

We will also look at what else can help.

The EU does not currently collect data on the size of the flows of people moving between member states.

This data is vital to helping us better understand the implications of the Free Movement Direct – and therefore enable all member states – including the UK - to manage its consequences.

On this the EU needs to show increased responsibility.

The interplay of EU immigration and social security provisions are a source of real and legitimate concern.

Which is why our Policy Review is considering deliverable reforms to address these real concerns people have – specifically around family related entitlements.

But Labour’s approach to delivering these reforms is different to the Conservatives'.

Our candour about the challenge of delivering them is key to us convincing the voters that we genuinely want to make progress on these areas.

And we recognise our interests are intertwined – and because of that we must work to convince, rather than coerce, our European partners.

Unlike the Conservatives', we will argue that changes of this type are best for Britain – but we will also argue that they make sense for the EU.

This candour sadly looks set to be unmatched by the Conservatives' shopping list of demands.

His unilateralist approach to repatriation – that presumes changes will be agreed in Europe simply by making the case that they are ‘best for Britain’ – is not just bad politics, it is bad diplomacy.

It is the wrong approach because it will fail to deliver.
Opening the door to an a la carte EU – where member states defend change based on the narrowest definition of their own national interest – doesn’t just undermine the principle of European cooperation, it could in effect undermine the interests of the United Kingdom.

It would leave open the door to other member states repatriating, reforming and renegotiating vital components of the EU that the UK benefits from – not least the single market.

Indeed it would not be hard to draw up an equivalent list of demands to match David Cameron’s shopping list of powers that say, France, Poland, or others, would seek to pursue.
It won’t be accepted.

It won’t work.

And it denies the spirit of cooperation that we believe defines – and in part justifies our continuing commitment to the EU.

The EU was originally founded on the principle not only of cooperation, but also of promoting peace after decades of a continent savaged by war.

While this peace now seems assured, it must never be taken for granted, nor the importance of this achievement diminished – as the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize reminds us.

Today, the peace that it established allows the EU to today become an effective and vital vehicle for amplifying power.
This is true in economics, in trade, in defence, foreign policy and global challenges such as climate change.

It gives us a weight collectively that on our own we lack.
And it does so at a time in our history when this has arguably never been more important.

If we accept this is a central feature of the emerging age, then, in that context, it is worth listing a few basic facts:

As of today, China has a population three times that of the whole of the EU combined.

India has over a billion people.

Indonesia is three times the size of the largest European country - Brazil is two times bigger.

Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Vietnam, the Philippines and Egypt all have bigger populations today than any single EU nation.
Against this backdrop, the case for the UK’s future in Europe is not a matter of outdated sentiment.

It's not even a matter of party ideology.

It's a matter of simple arithmetic.

That is why the benefits of EU membership go beyond a simple ledger of accounts - an exercise of costs to the tax payer and benefits accrued.

Nor are the benefits simply about our ability to travel, work, study and live across Europe.

They have to do with Britain’s role in the changing world and place in the global race.

About what kind of nation we are.

And what kind of nation we aspire to be in the decades ahead.

In an age of countries the size of continents our membership gives us access and influence to the biggest global trading bloc – with a GDP of €12.6tn in 2011 - prizing open new frontiers that would be otherwise unreachable - including 46 vital EU trade agreements with other countries.

In an age of common threats that permeate through national borders, membership gives us the power of collective action and pooled resources that helps make us safer and more secure – whether that be through tackling climate change, cross border crime and terror, targeted EU sanctions on Iran or EU neighbourhood funds to help counter the spread of extremism.

And incidentally that is why specifically on Justice and Home Affairs – an area where the case for European cooperation is clear - it is so regrettable that the Prime Minister seems to have chosen the bloc opt out.

In a world where power is shifting eastwards, in what many predict will be the Asian Century, when the US is pivoting to Asia, the EU strengthens rather than weakens out trans-Atlantic relationship.

Britain is a top-table member of not just the EU - but also of NATO, the G8 and the G20, the Commonwealth and the United Nations Security Council – but these are overlapping and interdependent spheres of influence, not mutually exclusive power bases that we have to chose between.

On so many issues that matter – jobs, growth, trade, security in central Europe and the Middle East – the EU is an indispensable force-multiplier for all its members – including the UK.

Labour supports the EU not just as an instrument for amplifying power – but also because in the decades ahead it has the capacity to be a vehicle for promoting our values, as well as our interests.

From promoting a vision of responsible capitalism, to securing peace and security and defending democracy and human rights – Labour’s vision of the European cooperation is part of our progressive project, not distinct from it.

And as Labour, we have no illusions that part of what, in part, motivates the modern Conservative party when it comes to Europe is to bring powers home in order to take protections away.

We are proud that Labour signed up to the Social Chapter which introduced measures including four weeks’ paid holiday; a right to parental leave; extended maternity leave; a new right to request flexible working and the same protection for part-time workers as full-time workers – and we will fight to protect them.

In conclusion, let me simply say this.

Tomorrow the Prime Minister will make a speech that even before it has been delivered has caused warnings to be issued by business leaders at home and friendly governments abroad.

The warnings of the last week have been a timely reminder of the bigger issues at stake tomorrow.

Setting aside the immediate pressures of party politics and taking that longer view, Britain stands stronger in the world as part of the EU.

But the EU in changing and needs to change more.
In truth if an institution for regional co-operation like the EU did not exist today – as Labour, we would be arguing for it to be invented.

In the modern world neighbourhoods matter as well as networks.

The modern world provides both the rationale for the EU and for its reform.

It is a true tragedy that David Cameron’s party simply won’t let him address this task in a serious and sensible way.

And so it falls to Labour, and to many others, to give voice to the national interest.

We will make the hard headed, patriotic case, founded on the national interest, both for Britain in Europe and for change in Europe.

That is what we believe.

And that is where we stand.

And that is what, in the months and years ahead, we intend to do.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

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A first look at this week’s magazine | Summer double issue

All the highlights from the new issue.

29 July - 11 August 
Summer double issue

 

Special report: Stephen Bush visits three Labour heartlands.

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Xan Rice on the Met’s new weapon, the super-recognisers.

Martin Fletcher on abortion in Northern Ireland.

Notebook from Istanbul: Jeremy Bowen sees rough times ahead for Turkey.

Diary: Tim Farron on the battle between liberals and authoritarians.

Tanya Gold on Philip Green and Britain’s honours system.

Deborah Levy is taken back to her hero-worshipping teenage years by Paul Morley’s The Age of Bowie.

Kate Mossman on the multimillion-dollar world of Trans-Siberian Orchestra – the biggest band you’ve never heard of.

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Special report: Labour’s heartlands on the party’s future.

The NS’s special correspondent, Stephen Bush, visits Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North – three Labour heartlands that show much about the party’s future:

This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survive the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

 

The Politics column: George Eaton on the challenge facing Jeremy Corbyn.

The NS’s political editor, George Eaton, argues that Jeremy Corbyn’s race against Owen Smith is the start of a struggle with no obvious end.

In any discussion of Labour’s crisis, the 1980s are invoked. But the differences are as notable as the similarities. The left today controls the leadership, rather than merely the constituencies; the trade unions are no longer right-aligned; a “one member, one vote” system has replaced the electoral college. It was in less adverse circumstances, then, that 28 Labour MPs joined the break­away Social Democratic Party in 1981. For this reason, the possibility of a new schism endlessly recurs in media debate. Yet it is not one that MPs intend to pursue.

Labour’s tribalists have no intention of leaving their party, while the more tactically minded see little potential for a new grouping to flourish. The electoral marketplace is too crowded to achieve power without coalitions, merely replicating present divisions in a new form. Theresa May’s economic interventionism further limits the space for a centre-left insurgency to occupy.

Rather than retreating, Labour MPs intend to mount repeated challenges to Corbyn. As one told me, “We only need to get lucky once. He needs to get lucky every time.” Corbyn’s allies are hopeful that some rebels will emulate Sarah Champion MP and rejoin the front bench if he wins. One suggested that the proposed boundary changes, which will be published on 13 September, would encourage discipline in order to prevent deselection by local activists. Still, most MPs have no intention of rescinding their opposition to Corbyn.

It is deselection by the electorate at large, rather than by members, that some in Labour fear most. Though May has ruled out an early contest (having privately assured backers that she would not trigger one), the temptation could prove irresistible. An ICM poll published on 26 July gave the Tories their highest lead (16 points) since 2009. Prime ministers are rarely stronger than when they first enter office, a lesson that Gordon Brown neglected fatally. But such are Labour’s divisions that May could conclude that she need not show haste. Until the members reflect the MPs, or the MPs reflect the members, unity will remain elusive. As Corbyn and his opponents contemplate a struggle with no obvious end, the prize that both seek is rapidly diminishing in value.

 

The super-recognisers: Xan Rice on the new weapon in Scotland Yard’s kit.

The NS’s features editor, Xan Rice, reports on how a new, elite unit of the Metropolitan Police is catching some of London’s most prolific criminals:

Since the 19th century, doctors have known that some patients who suffer brain trauma lose the ability to recognise faces, a condition known as acquired prosopagnosia (from the Greek prosopon, “face”, and agnosia, “not knowing”). In the 1970s scientists discovered that a congenital form of the disorder affects a much wider segment of the population – ordinary functioning people who have never experienced head injuries and have perfect vision.

Studies suggest that two out of every 100 people have developmental prosopagnosia, meaning they have great difficulty recognising faces, sometimes even their own in the mirror. To identify someone familiar, a face-blind person relies on clues such as voice, gait, posture or unusual facial characteristics.

Among the best-known prosopagnosics was the late doctor and author Oliver Sacks, who became aware of his bewildering predicament as a schoolboy in London. He learned to pick out his best friends, Eric Korn and Jonathan Miller, by their specific features. “Eric had heavy eyebrows and thick spectacles, and Jonathan was tall and gangly, with a mop of red hair,” Sacks wrote in the New Yorker. When he looked at old photographs a decade after leaving school, Sacks could not identify a single classmate. Stephen Fry and Jane Goodall are other well-known sufferers of the disorder, which is associated with lesions in a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus.

In 2009 a trio of researchers led by Richard Russell published the results of their study, which aimed to determine if there was a third group of people when it came to face recognition, whose problem (or rather talent) was that they struggled to forget a face. Russell, a psychologist who was then based at Harvard, tested four people claiming to have superior face recognition abilities, including a 26-year-old female student who told him: “It doesn’t matter how many years pass. If I’ve seen your face before, I will be able to recall it.” Russell set his subjects and a larger control group two tasks, involving famous faces and unfamiliar faces. In both, the test group performed “far above average”, leading Russell to coin the term “super-recognisers”. “In both face recognition and face perception, the super-recognisers are about as good as many developmental prosopagnosics are bad,” he and his colleagues wrote.

Around the same time, Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the London Metropolitan Police was reaching his own conclusions about people with an exceptional ability to recognise faces. In 2007, Neville had set up a unit to collate and circulate images of unidentified criminals captured on CCTV. Officers were asked to check the Met’s “Caught on Camera” notices to see if they knew any of the suspects. “It became apparent that some officers were much better than others,” Neville told me. “For example, if I received 100 names, some officers would have submitted ten or 15, while in the main they were one-off identifications.”

At first, Neville assumed that the prolific officers simply knew more criminals than the rest. Then he realised that it had more to do with their ability to remember faces: the best identifiers could spot a suspect they had never met merely after viewing a photograph of them.

In early 2011, he discussed his findings at a conference attended by Josh Davis, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich. For his PhD, Davis had studied the use of CCTV identification in court proceedings. “Most of my research had shown that people were not very good at face-matching,” Davis told me one recent morning when we met at a cafeteria on campus. “So I was suspicious of the police claims.”

He agreed to test the facial recognition skills of 20 officers who excelled at Caught on Camera identifications. To Davis’s surprise, most of them scored much better than the norm, and a few were exceptional.

That August, the London riots broke out. Met officers trawled through tens of thousands of hours of CCTV footage, identifying 609 suspects responsible for looting, arson and other criminal acts. One officer, PC Gary Collins, made 180 identifications, including that of one of the most high-profile suspects, who had thrown petrol bombs at police and set cars on fire. During the riots, the man covered his mouth and nose with a bandana and pulled a beanie low over his forehead. Collins recognised him as a criminal whom he had last seen several years earlier. The man was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

Now convinced of the super-recogniser theory, Neville assembled a standby team of 150 officers who excelled at identification.

 

The unholy huddle: Martin Fletcher Northern Ireland and the problem with abortion.

Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws are supported by politicians
across the sectarian divide – and the province’s women are paying the price, as Martin Fletcher reports:

Officially 833 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortions in 2015, though the real number is probably double that. Most were aged between 20 and 35, and 62 per cent had partners, so few were the promiscuous teenagers of the politicians’ imagination.

Many people regard Northern Ireland’s wilful exporting of its problem as shameful. “We should look after our own women,” Professor Jim Dornan, one of the leading obstetricians in the province, said. But no political redress is imminent.

Although a more liberal assembly was elected in May, and though Sinn Fein – the second-biggest party – now favours a limited relaxation of the abortion law, the DUP retains what is in effect a veto over any change, thanks to a procedural device called a “petition of concern”, which was originally designed to safeguard minority rights in the power-sharing assembly. That is how the DUP thwarted a vote in favour of gay marriage last November.

Nor is any legal redress imminent. John Larkin, the attorney general, has appealed against Justice Horner’s ruling that the present law breaches human rights. Whatever the result of that appeal, the case is expected to go first to the Supreme Court in London, then to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Increasingly, however, the “abortion pill” offers women in Northern Ireland a way around the ban, especially for those too poor to go to England.

The pills, easily purchased online for as little as £50, are perfectly safe if administered properly, but not if taken secretly by women who may ignore the instructions, use them too late, have pre-existing medical conditions, or hesitate to seek help if they suffer complications for fear of prosecution. There is a danger of severe haemorrhaging, and if the foetal sac is incompletely discharged the remnants can become infected, leading to potentially fatal sepsis.

Though used worldwide, such pills are still illegal in Northern Ireland. In February an anonymous, 21-year-old woman was convicted and given a three-month suspended prison sentence after her Belfast flatmates reported her to the police for using them. Other prosecutions are pending.

But, like latter-day suffragettes, some women’s rights activists are starting to flout the law openly, defying the police to arrest them. Last year 215 women signed an open letter in which they said they had bought abortion pills, and invited prosecution. In May three others, hoping for a showcase trial, presented themselves at a police station in Derry and asked to be prosecuted for procuring the pills. In June pro-choice activists used a drone to fly abortion pills across the border from the republic to show that the law was absurd and unenforceable.

The activists argue that, by banning the pills, Northern Ireland’s politicians are merely driving abortion underground, with potentially fatal consequences of a sort that should belong to the past.

“Making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away. It makes it unsafe,” said a young woman called Cara, who once self-aborted in a Travelodge hotel room and now helps other women who need to have abortions. Over a drink at a pub in Belfast, she told me how, in her own caravan, she had helped a part-time shop assistant terminate her pregnancy. The woman couldn’t afford to go to England and was too ashamed to tell her family she was pregnant.

Health-care professionals are increasingly alarmed by the implications for women. “This is the modern equivalent of the backstreet abortion. It might not be coat hangers and knitting needles, but the outcome is the same,” said Breedagh Hughes, of the Royal College of Midwives. “My biggest worry is that women will be deterred from seeking the help they need, and that the old spectre of women dying from botched abortions will rear its ugly head again.”

 

Jeremy Bowen: Notebook from Istanbul.

The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, argues that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purge of Turkey’s armed forces and civil society was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed 15 July coup:

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

City of melancholy
The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-
shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

Down with the generals
Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason d was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately unstable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

Contagion of war
The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

 

Diary: Tim Farron.

In this week’s NS Diary, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, writes that the biggest divide in British politics today is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians. And he sees the Lib Dems resurgent:

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

Premature obituaries
Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

Breaking up is hard to do
Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

What I did on my holidays
Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

Preparing for the next fight
The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

Sitting Priti
David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

 

Lines of Dissent: Tanya Gold on Sir Philip Green.

Tanya Gold observes that although Philip Green (aka “Sir Shifty”), the former owner of British Home Stores, may eventually fall in disgrace, Britain’s ridiculous honours system will endure:

It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his [family yacht] Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

 

Deborah Levy on The Age of Bowie.

Deborah Levy, today longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, finds herself transported to the 1970s of her youth by Paul Morley’s new biography of David Bowie:

The starman stepped into my imagination and history – via Top of the Pops – when I was 13, and never left the building. It seemed right that when I was 50, Bowie asked the question I was asking myself, too: where are we now? I can’t think of a contemporary writer whom I have followed from teenage to middle age, and so, with all the humility, desire and delusion of being a fan, I am not going to take well to any biographer who claims to have a purchase on the “real” Bowie. I don’t want real. Nor do I need the enigma of Bowie’s various personae (beguiling and baffling in equal measure) to be nailed to Earth. And just to confirm how hard I am to get in this respect, I am also not that interested in personal anecdotes from people who knew him. No, I’m with the teenagers of my generation who had Saturday jobs at Dolcis and C&A so we could buy his albums. We did not have trust funds to put together an outfit, but we did make an effort to sparkle for the starman – just in case he landed somewhere that wasn’t inside our heads.

Fortunately, Paul Morley is a veteran rock journalist (I’m sure he can show you the scars) and has not attempted to write a calmly objective, sensible biography that manages to shatter the delusion and give us the man. His stream-of-consciousness critique of Bowie’s posthumous legacy from cradle to Blackstar is respectfully mournful, and slightly rhapsodic in tone. He understands that Bowie lifted many of his now orphaned fans “from suburbia to bohemia” (sort of) and opened up an imaginative space that was inside us anyway. If the writing can’t resist sliding into the sentimental, it’s also a bit mental, which is perfect.

Morley rightly points out how “those of us becoming teenagers in the early Seventies needed something of our own, having been too young to catch the Sixties. We’d missed the Beatles, we’d missed the Stones – as something that belonged and spoke directly to us.” At times he does that slightly creepy thing of speaking Bowie’s inner thoughts as a way of moving through the various decades, but it is tricky to pull this story through 1947 to 2016. Here is 1972: “. . . he is saying, the starman is saying, because he looks exactly like a starman, sexy but sexless, friend but alien: let everyone lost in a world of confusion and imminent devastation have a party.”

I was probably too young to think about the “devastation” (apart from Dad throwing away my silver platform boots) but the “party” was definitely an invitation to subvert the rigid femininities and masculinities that so pinned us boys and girls down in the early Seventies.

 

Critic at Large: Kate Mossman on Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

The NS’s pop critic, Kate Mossman, travels to Florida to meet Paul O’Neill, the eccentric, multimillionaire creator of Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO):

He calls it “whacking”. It began near his property on 12th Street, Manhattan. He’d get his driver to circle Union Square while he identified a suitable beggar; then he’d jump out, shove a hundred-dollar bill into their hand, jump back in and drive off. Soon, he realised that many of the people he was giving to were schizophrenic and he was scaring them out of their wits. So he started passing the money to his daughter because, he reasoned, they were more likely to accept it from a three-year-old girl. He gradually increased the amount he gave – from a hundred to ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars in a roll of notes. Paul O’Neill and his daughter would drive around the square and she’d say: “Let’s whack ’em, Dad, let’s whack ’em hard.”

****

One of the biggest bands on the planet remains unknown to much of the world. Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) have spent much of the past decade on Billboard’s annual list of top music moneymakers; they now play to a million people a year and have grossed over $500m in concert revenues since they were founded 20 years ago. In 2014 they made almost $52m in 52 days. They tour for seven weeks only, from November to January. To maximise profits, they split into two halves – one band for the west coast of America and the other for the east – and play matinees as well as evening shows.

Their genre? Heavy metal Christmas music. TSO are a glittering chorus line of rock chicks and axe heroes in black tie and tails, suspended on wires or balancing high above the stage on hydraulic platforms playing rock’n’roll mash-ups of “Deck the Halls” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. There are 18 people on stage, 240 staff and 40 trucks to transport them. The show, which looks like Pink Floyd-meets-Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, employs 18 lasers and 750 pyrotechnics. The band travels with two trailers of generators: they once blew out the electricity grid in Jackson, Mississippi.

TSO’s creator, O’Neill, divides his time between New York City and Florida, where the band began. I speak to someone at a UK rock magazine who once had a phone call with him. “Just don’t get him on to Churchill,” he says.

The Morrisound Recording studio in north Tampa was once the nerve centre of Florida’s legendary metal scene, playing host to many of the genre’s nastiest acts, including Sepultura, Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. Like most luxury recording spaces, it hit hard times in the past decade; then, in 2015, TSO bought it and turned it into their headquarters, Night Castle. It lies behind high gates and is staffed by polite young engineers with russet beards. Visitors are met with a large food centre stocked with six different kinds of mineral water and a pine-fresh smell not typical of the recording studios of the past.

O’Neill has taken on a slightly mythical status within TSO. The official photographer tells me that you rarely see him because he is “so protected”. When in Tampa, he is accompanied by a 6ft 4in driver-cum-security guard with the physique of a wrestler, whose name is Tracey.

 

Hunter Davies on 1966 and all that.

The NS’s longest-running columnist and football correspondent, Hunter Davies, remembers the year of World Cup glory and top-notch music by the Beatles:

Fifty years ago this Saturday, on 30 July 1966, I was at Wembley. I have my ticket and my programme to prove it. I also have my 1966 diary, which I am looking at now. I was 30, weighed ten stone and eight pounds, and my waist was 32 inches – about as hard to believe now as England winning another World Cup final.

I am still in the same house, all these decades later, but my telephone number then was GUL 4685. GUL was short for Gulliver, I can’t remember why. In my list of contacts at the end of my diary is Melvyn Bragg, who was another recent arrival in London from Cumbria, like myself and my wife, on PRO 0790. PRO stood for Prospect, I think, which was the exchange name for somewhere over the river, possibly Kew.

My office number was TER 1234. I always thought that was a great and memorable number. It’s only now, thinking about it, that I realise that TER – meaning Terminus – probably related to King’s Cross, which the Sunday Times was near in those days.

At the top of the charts in July 1966 were the Kinks with “Sunny Afternoon”, which I can well remember, as it was so ironically chirpy, and Georgie Fame with “Getaway”. I liked Georgie Fame – low-key, cool – but I can’t remember that tune. Both were replaced in August by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby”.

[. . .]

In 1966, two big events occurred in my personal life. In May that year, my son, Jake, was born – at home, in what is now our kitchen. He arrived so quickly that the midwife hadn’t turned up yet and he emerged with the cord twisted around his neck. I managed to untie it, which I have maintained since kept him alive (a trick I had learned at fathers’ classes).

Fathers’ classes – wow, what a novelty that was in the 1960s. Who says we were all chauvinist pigs back then? (Today’s young, female star writers at the New Statesman, probably.) I attended my first ones, at the Royal Free Hospital in 1964, when our firstborn, Caitlin, was about to arrive. I remember immediately thinking when the invite came that I would get 1,000 words out of this – which I did, for the Sunday Times women’s pages.

Also at those first-ever fathers’ classes at the Royal Free was a young BBC producer whose wife was also about to give birth: Wilfred De’Ath. He, too, was desperate to get a piece out of it. (He now writes occasionally for the Oldie, and he appears to be down and out and living in France.)

After Jake’s birth, I got the midwife to give me the placenta and I ate it, fried with onions. Tasted like liver. Another 1,000 words.

The other event of note in my ever-so-exciting life in 1966 was meeting Paul McCartney. When “Eleanor Rigby” came out, I thought the words – not just the tune – were so wonderful. Possibly the best poetry of the year, I said, as if I knew anything about poetry. I went to see him for [the Sunday Times column] Atticus in his new house in St John’s Wood, which he still has, being a very conservative feller. I talked to him about the background to the lyrics, as opposed to his hair, which interviewers were still asking him about.

A few months later, at the end of 1966, I went to see him again, wearing a different cap, as a screenwriter. I’d had a novel published the previous year, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which was being made into a film, with Clive Donner directing. We went to see Paul at his house and discussed with him if he would do the theme tune. He turned us down in the end but it was while I was with him that I suggested that there should be a proper biography of the Beatles. He said Brian (Epstein, the band’s manager) would have to agree – and there and then sat me down and helped me write a suitable arse-licking letter to him.

I eventually saw Brian, after several cancellations, at his home in Belgravia and he played me the acetate of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I was astounded. It seemed to break every rule of what was then considered pop music. I wondered if all Beatles fans would take to it. But I could see that it was amazing and perhaps the Beatles weren’t finished, which was what some people were saying in 1966. At my publisher, Heinemann, which paid me £3,000 for the book, there was one director who maintained the Beatles bubble was about to burst.

Brian agreed to my project and offered a clause in the contract that we had not requested or even thought of. He said he would not give any other writer access to the Beatles for two years after my book came out. This was 1966. The book came out in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Beatles were no more. Without realising it at the time, I became the only authorised biographer of the Beatles.

So, 1966, a big year for me, so glad I kept that diary, and also a big year for the nation. I thought at the time that the Beatles were bound to fade, eventually, while England surely would dominate world football from now on. After their humbling by Iceland at this year’s World Cup, I now realise that England will never win the World Cup again in my life, what’s left of it. And probably not even another game.

The only way to rationalise it is to tell ourselves that we are ahead of the game. We are rubbish, but in turn it will happen to all the other so-called advanced nations.

You could say Brexit is a bit like that. We are ahead of the other leading European nations in going it alone, even though it is depressing and awful and shameful. We are advanced in wilfully turning ourselves into a rubbish nation. We are leading the way, as ever. Inger-land, Inger-land.

 

Plus

Photo essay: The Gentle Author introduces portraits of the East End.

Peter Wilby on BHS, MI5 and BMWs.

View from Germany: Philip Maughan finds himself living in Berlin post-Brexit without a job or a plan.

Ed Smith on why so many women still feel excluded
from mainstream sport.

Puffins in peril: Mark Cocker on why Britain’s best-loved seabird
is at risk of global extinction.

Yo Zushi finds there’s more to boxing than mere violence.

Newsmaker: Joji Sakurai profiles Virginia Raggi, the first ever
female mayor of Rome.

Amelia Tait tracks the Pokémon Go phenomenon.

Inna Lazereva meets African refugees competing in the Rio Olympics.

Ben Myers reads an eccentric manual for writers – Release the Bats: Writing Your Way Out of It by D B C Pierre.

Simon Barnes on a history of the tarnished Olympics:
The Games by David Goldblatt.

Kate Mossman meets the man behind one of the world’s
wealthiest (and most eccentric) rock bands.

Richard Mabey re-examines the legacy of Capability Brown.

Helen Lewis sees the magic in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Film: Ryan Gilbey watches Finding Dory and Jason Bourne.

Television: Rachel Cooke wonders whether Julien Temple planned a stitch-up of Keith Richards in The Origin of the Species.

          For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396.