Change is coming for the way we do politics. Photo: Flickr/William Warby
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A new politics? How the old political consensus is melting away

Over the coming months and years, this new politics will shake the British establishment to its foundations. It has many faces but a common origin: the growing consensus that the status quo is broken.

The British political landscape was hit by an earthquake this autumn, and its name is new politics. I have charted its rise for years and suddenly it’s centre stage. Change is coming from all directions. It seems cacophonous. The social-democratic “Yes” movement in Scotland and the UK Independence Party’s populist “No to immigration and Brussels” are poles apart. But they share an adversary in the form of Westminster, and they are carving deep into the base of Labour and the Conservatives – neither of which now looks able to form a majority government next May.

Over the coming months and years, this new politics will shake the British establishment to its foundations. It has many faces but a common origin: the growing consensus that the status quo is broken and old politics is actively disempowering. The question is no longer whether change is coming but where it takes us. We stand at the crossroads between hope and fear, fragmentation and renewal. I have spent the past weeks talking with people on the front lines to map this crisis, and the new paths now emerging.

Douglas Carswell is wired with political energy. The Honourable Member for Clacton bounds from door to door, saluting the voters to show he’s at their service. He draws sweeping parallels between the Arab Spring and resistance against Brussels, then listens carefully to local difficulties, asking constituents to “ping me an email or a text” so he can follow up.

The people of this little East Anglian lane, with its rough tarmac and hotchpotch bungalows, look on him with wonder and delight: that mythical creature, the Honest Politician. “He won’t do no U-turns!” “He’s the only one I’ve ever known to talk straight, whether you agree with him or not – he didn’t have to stand down, he wants the people behind him…”

Carswell romped home to an increased majority last month after defecting to the “People’s Army” of Ukip, and then Mark Reckless rode his coat tails to triumph in Rochester. I was out on the doorstep in both by-elections.

It’s clear that Carswell in particular wants to break the mould of old politics. His victory speech opened with humility and championed English democracy with a thoughtful populist passion. “Whether you sit astride a mass of power in Westminster or in banking, in Whitehall or in Brussels – the governing can no longer presume to know what is right for the governed. Crony corporatism is not the free market. Cosy cartel politics is not meaningful democracy. Change is coming, with the promise that things can be better,” he said.

The polls show Ukip’s reach surging strongly, six months before what looks to be the first real “none-of-the-above” election since 1974. Ukip’s northern wing also ran Labour close in Heywood and Middleton, and Labour’s policy coordinator Jon Cruddas is one who takes the challenge seriously.

“The old political settlement where parties did top down, state-driven politics to and for people is exhausted, and two sources of energy are currently firing up our broken political system,” Cruddas told me. “The first is popular anger toward the political class, as immigration and rapid economic change threatens people’s sense of belonging and security. The second is the powerful desire for greater self-determination, individually and nationally. The insurgent forces which embody these two sources of energy are the independence politics in Scotland and Ukip in England.”

Two months ago, the people of Scotland almost voted to end the United Kingdom. “People will write about this referendum for decades to come, and it will be like the French Revolution,” Marco Biagi says. An elected representative of the Scottish National Party in the Scottish Parliament, Marco doesn’t sound like a defeated man. The question of whether Scotland should be an independent nation transformed during the campaign into “What kind of country do you want to live in?”, and that conversation is only accelerating.

Robin McAlpine of CommonWeal told me how a decentralised Yes campaign tapped new energies in town halls and squares across Scotland. “What has happened since the vote is weirder still,” he added. He worried defeat would be crushing for a multitude who had never before engaged in politics. “But the opposite happened!”

The Yes camp might have lost the war. But they could yet win the peace. All that energy is earthing itself in a democratic renaissance. The Scottish National Party has almost quadrupled its membership in the weeks since the No vote, from 25,000 members to over 90,000. A party achieving similar penetration across the UK would be more than a million strong.

Scottish Labour meanwhile is in freefall. Unless it reinvents itself completely, polls suggest it could be wiped out in May. New leadership is essential but utterly insufficient. One Labour figure involved in the No campaign told me their party has become toxic and they fear it may not survive.

The waves from Scotland and Ukip are just omens of a wider insurgency, one that has been brewing for years. This summer I found myself sitting in the upstairs room of a pub in Cornwall, listening to a group of people talk openly about politics. Peter, a delivery driver from Probus, captured the mood in his description of the Westminster parties. “Two cheeks on the same ass, aren't they?" The others laughed with painful recognition.

The conversation was wide-ranging and passionate. They talked about cuts, biting hard in Cornwall, and defending the NHS against austerity and creeping privatisation. Everyone backed the campaign started by Leon, a ten-year-old from Falmouth, to save the county library service. They were remarkably well-informed on the intricacies of how the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would expand corporate power.

These are what the media and political class sometimes call “real people”. They are of all ages and all classes, and in the past they have voted for every political party, Ukip included. Their sentiments are widely held. As the Conservative MP Rory Stewart reminded me, 83 per cent of people today think politics is broken. What sets this group apart is simply that they, like more than three million of their fellow citizens, are members of a democratic campaigning movement called 38 Degrees. 

38 Degrees got its name from a tipping point, the angle at which an avalanche starts. In the last five years the movement has grown fast. 38 Degrees has won dozens of victories – saving the forests from privatisation, helping protect Lewisham Hospital and other NHS services, and challenging corporations on tax avoidance and workers’ rights.

I was in Cornwall as a board member of 38 Degrees. The big strategic decisions a board would normally take are instead made by the membership. I had no more say in what it campaigns on than any of the other 3 million members. People write in with ideas, start their own petitions, and agree the movement’s priorities through regular weekly polls. They self-organise brilliantly, not just online but face-to-face and locally. 

Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Borders and now chair of the defence select committee, sees 38 Degrees as “a really fascinating, energetic thing. The impact of it is enormous – we’ve all had to figure out what it means.” He finds the experience of receiving hundreds of similar emails bewildering, but adds, “It works best when it drives 30 to 40 people into my surgeries, when I can actually debate with them.”

I have spoken with many MPs who share Stewart’s enthusiasm but party headquarters are less keen. All have felt the fire of 38 Degrees at one time or another, and their top-down control is threatened by pressure on MPs to listen to their constituents instead of the whips. Last year’s ‘Gagging Law’ may have been designed partly to block 38 Degrees members and other movements from getting involved in the next general election. But signs are it will backfire. The new politics is coming, and no amount of red tape will stop it.

The “Westminster bubble” has its epicentre in Portcullis House, home to our Members of Parliament and their offices. Inside it opens up into a delightful glass plaza, outside it’s a fortress. As I walk through security, the uniformed guards smell something wrong. I smell it too. One says, “There’s a dead rat down there, under the heating. It’s rotting, and they won’t let us get it out.”

History is unfolding outside, but inside the scent is stale, and people talk of policies and speeches to which almost no one is listening anymore. I put these challenges to Ed Miliband’s strategists Tom Baldwin and Stewart Wood. They stress that he was onto the problem of political alienation early. Then, like Miliband, they pivot to economic causes.

The British economy is brutal and soul-destroying, failing everyone but a privileged few. Combined with the fiscal squeeze and wider disillusionment, this is what’s fuelling the “politics of protest”.

“There’s no contradiction between radicalism and credibility now,” says Baldwin. Miliband’s team think economic reform, the NHS and cost of living adds up to a lot more than a core vote strategy. Their polling indicates the Tories are vulnerable on the question of which party will stand up for you. Labour stands with the many, the Tories with the privileged few. Miliband’s conference speech was designed to position Labour as the party of the future and the common good.

All this was drowned out the moment he forgot the deficit and immigration. The Conservatives now have their attack line. But Team Miliband stand by their strategy. Their failure to cut through is down to a hostile media, the turbulence kicked up by events like Scotland and ISIS, and a bit of bad luck.

I disagree. “Your real problem is that only months before the election, almost no one is listening to you,” I tell them. “Whatever you think of New Labour, they had a strategy to win a hearing from the country.” Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Gould worked hard to understand where the public were at, campaigning relentlessly to win their trust.

“Nobody in Clacton is talking about Ed Miliband’s plan to reform British capitalism, even though it’s designed to help them,” one former senior Labour strategist told me. “Jon Cruddas’s policy review was very good, and there’s a thematic coherence to his speeches – devolution, decentralisation, a different account of power and the economy. But it doesn’t yet seem to have breathed life into the doorstep offer for Labour candidates.”

When Ed Miliband ran for Labour’s leadership, people said he “talks human”. Today he’s stuck in the mud of the Westminster bubble and that mud is sticking to him. Most observers I talked to agreed that Labour’s body language is broken. They have a terrible habit of jumping straight from political and social alienation to economic reductionism. “Only Labour” has the answer: they think they know better. Talk about identity or Europe or immigration, and they squirm and change the subject.

Labour is not only failing to connect with swing voters; it is losing its base. Once tribal loyalty frays it is tough to rebuild, as I saw on the doorstep in Clacton and Rochester. As Labour peer Maurice Glasman told me, “We’re losing England. The working class always stayed loyal to Labour. If we lose that, it’s something very precious, and it’s happening in real time.”

Emily Thornberry’s Twitter gaffe over England flags and Miliband’s ham-fisted response betray a deeper crisis of identity. Holding the patriotic working class at arms-length with “respect” is little better than sneering at them. Labour seems incapable of getting on the front foot with a progressive story of patriotism and community.

Douglas Carswell won Clacton from Labour only narrowly nine years ago. Now he dominates and they are nowhere. He talks about the death of the high-street music retailer HMV: “Their business model collapsed within a few months because people started to buy music online through live-streaming. It didn’t matter who the CEO of HMV was. It doesn’t matter whether you change David Cameron with George Osborne or Theresa May, the way the Conservative Party retails politics is fundamentally redundant.” The same can be said of Labour.

“I argued for all sorts of political reforms, and all the localism we were promised, the recall bill – nothing happened!” Carswell is clear that this, not Europe, is the fundamental reason for his defection. “The closest thing to Spotify in British politics is Ukip. Beppe Grillo in Italy has the Five Star Movement, which is way ahead of my new party in terms of using the internet, and way ahead in one or two other things - but we won’t go there…”

I ask Carswell whether he will now implement his vision of ‘iDemocracy’ at Ukip. He treads carefully, but his ambition is clear. “Ukip is not an upstart, it’s a start-up. It’s a great market opportunity for disaffected people on the centre left and people on the centre right. Voter turnout has fallen from 80 per cent to 60 per cent in a generation, so there’s 20 per cent potential market growth from disaffected voters alone. But look, like all great start-ups, let’s work on the detail!”

Sunder Katwala of British Future thinks the future lies in a mash-up of old and new: “The new politics might have to take one of the tribes with it. Old parties adopting direct mechanisms like primaries and recall seem more likely to succeed than a citizens’ party with no anchor at all.”

Lisa Nandy, the 35-year-old Wigan MP and shadow civil society minister, understands the gap. “Politics can inspire people, but only when it reaches them emotionally,” she says. “It's not enough to manage the country like a corporation. Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher were both hugely divisive figures, but when they died people took to the streets to mourn them. Neither was ever afraid of having the debate. There's a reason people think immigration is three times higher than it is – there aren't people in our communities putting the alternative.

“The most inspiring thing about the Scottish referendum was millions of people engaged in a debate about the sort of country they wanted to live in,” Nandy continues. “Labour’s positive, ambitious agenda is something we can and should talk about in every community.” She describes the decision to bring in veteran Chicago community organiser Arne Graf as “one of the most important Ed Miliband made. Arne embodies a different way of doing politics - a conversation, not a broadcast.”

Old politics has long been dying, but it clings on with all its might. Change is coming from all directions, but who will ride it? The SNP has become its vehicle in Scotland, while in England Ukip claim the insurgent mantle. In the last two local elections, they won 25 per cent of the vote nationwide. Populist localism could enable a durable alliance of northern working-class socialists and southern libertarians.

Ukip’s reactionary tendency will continue to limit them, and their policies would accelerate the deregulation, inequality and corporate power that have left so many behind. Still, they have grasped the power of new politics. The Greens too are benefiting from this wave, judging by the polls and a huge petition for them to be included in the election debates. Can others wake up before it is too late?

If the establishment parties continue to stagnate, the 2015 parliament could be hung, drawn and quartered, with no stable coalition in sight. This could be a recipe for chaos or paralysis. But a more positive new politics could rise from the ashes of the old. I see green shoots and new energy blossoming everywhere – in our cities and communities, in mass campaigning and new ways of organising our economy and services.

I’m optimistic because I know that an empowering politics is possible. I was an outsider candidate for general secretary of the Labour Party in 2011, championing movement politics and democratic renewal. I’ve spent my life building movements and institutions to reconnect people with power: 38 Degrees, Avaaz, openDemocracy, Oxfam, the Young Foundation and Change.org have touched hundreds of millions of people between them. This is the wave of the future. The only questions are how long it takes, and who gets there first.

I see sparks of life among the Labour grassroots, where despite a sluggish leadership, right and left are uniting around a vision of movement politics. Meanwhile, a groundswell of English MPs and local leaders know that English Labour must carve out new political space if it is to compete effectively in May. But their party will be tested by fire in the coming year. Either it wakes up and renews, or it cedes the future to others. It can no longer be a bottleneck.

Institutional reformer Anthony Painter of the RSA is one of many who have had enough of top-down paternalism: “It infantilises people, that’s not what the centre-left should be about.” He argues for radical decentralisation of economic, social and political power, to give people more control of their own lives. “38 Degrees points the way to a different kind of politics,” he says. I have now stood down from that movement’s board, but I’m confident its members will play a significant, independent role in the coming elections.

Nick Pearce of IPPR says, “I see opportunities for renewal in new ways of thinking about the economy and our relationship to communities, like decentralised energy generation. There’s enormous social energy in some of our big cities, too. The tipping point has been reached – there’s a thirst and energy for that kind of democracy.”

Rory Stewart adds, “Britain genuinely has a genius for the local, but we’re not good enough at tapping that energy. We’re still a very centralised state. I’ve seen communities in Penrith and the Borders building and organising their own housing, their own broadband and community energy. They produce beautiful schemes, they know more than the officials, but the system works against them. How do we tap these hundreds of thousands of people?”

With the genie of new politics out of the bottle, Sunder Katwala of British Future is one of many convinced that a vote on Europe is now essential. “If you don’t believe there is public consent for the European project, everyone can smell it. We have to have an in-out referendum to settle these questions of who we are and who we want to be. People are scared of what would happen if you put people in town halls in Manchester and Birmingham to talk about England or immigration or Europe. But as we just saw in Scotland, a referendum gets everybody involved, and they feel in control.”

Ed Miliband’s call for a People’s Convention failed to break out of the Westminster bubble, trumped by the simplicity of English votes for English laws. Since then, I’ve spoken with dozens of people and organisations keen to organise bottom-up conversations on the fundamental question the Scots asked: what kind of country do we want to live in? England and Europe are vital strands of the richer nationwide debate we need, if we’re to find a new settlement and turn our faces to the future again.

Change is coming, with the promise that things can be better, and the threat that they could get a lot worse. The pieces of our country and our future are scattered. At its worst, a new politics could breed fragmentation and conflict. But I believe that if we have the courage to channel these energies, a new politics is also our best hope for rebirth.

The people of Britain have some big questions to answer in the coming years, and they cannot be left to politicians trapped in the Westminster bubble. Renewing energy must come from us, from outside in, from the bottom up. It is time for us to put the pieces back together; to revitalise our society, our economy and our democracy. We must do it together. And we need to start now. 

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is the Executive Director of Here Now, a movement lab working with partners around the world. He co-founded 38 Degrees and openDemocracy, helped launch Avaaz.org and served as Vice-President of Global Campaigns at Change.org. He has worked on social change in the UK and around the world, including in the political arena and with Oxfam and the Young Foundation.

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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.

George Eaton on the challenge facing Jeremy Corbyn.

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.

Hunter Davies recalls the year it all went right: 1966.

John Bew is beguiled by Malcolm Rifkind’s genteel memoir.

From anarchists to Isis: John Gray on the urges that drive modern mass murder.

A N Wilson on the theology of Martin Luther according to Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch.

 

****

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.