Alex Salmond with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon last year. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
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Miliband v Miliband, Big Alex at Westminster and the rise of quiet conservatism

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley gives his election post-mortem.

On the morning of 12 May I visited Portcullis House in Westminster to see who might be around. The first MP I met was none other than a very cheerful Alex Salmond, who had just discovered that his new office overlooked the Treasury: “I can keep an eye on them from there.” He said that he would naturally have preferred a “balanced parliament – as you would”. And he asked for 50 copies of our recent issue in which, in one of David Young’s cover illustrations, he was featured alongside Nicola Sturgeon as they rode the Flying Scotsman south. The train was hurtling towards Ed Miliband and David Cameron, both prostrate and tied to the track, resigned to their fate.

Cover image by David Young.

 

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A few of our readers complained we’d made the mistake of equating Scotland with the SNP. That wasn’t our intention. But whether Westminster likes it or not, the SNP has arrived en masse, the largest grouping of nationalist MPs in London since the early 20th century, when the Irish Parliamentary Party enabled Asquith’s reforming Liberal government to hold power after the ­December 1910 general election. Their presence adds a fascinating dimension to the new parliament and will be a daily rebuke to a shattered Labour. The wipeout of Labour in Scotland, though it was not unexpected, has left the party understandably traumatised. “We did everything we knew locally but the national wave was just too strong,” one defeated Scottish MP said to me.

In the SNP landslide Labour lost two of its most intelligent MPs – Douglas Alexander and Gregg McClymont – and, in Jim Murphy, one of its toughest street fighters. Murphy will continue for now as leader of Scottish Labour. He ought to ignore the bullying of the Unite leader, Len McCluskey, who has called for his resignation and gives the impression of preferring the futilities of opposition to power.

The forces powering Scottish nationalism are varied – deindustrialisation, the fracturing of cross-border class ­solidarity, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of identity politics, and so on. Yet, in spite of all this, as I have written before, the Labour leadership in London was complacent about the events unfolding in Scotland and was unable to respond until it was too late.

Perhaps arrogance and a sense of entitlement blinded Labour to the seriousness of the nationalist surge. I’m a frequent visitor – my oldest friend is an academic at Glasgow University – and it was obvious to me, even as an Englishman, that Labour was destined to lose the 2011 Scottish election – as it did, badly, creating the circumstances in which an independence referendum could be held. There was little Labour could do to resist the torrential surge in support for the SNP in 2015; there was much it could and should have done to thwart the nationalist victory in 2011.

Now activists to whom I have spoken are seriously asking if Labour can ever win again in Scotland. Back in the 1980s when the party was weak it was still strong in Scotland. Today it faces a dual challenge: of trying to win in Scotland, where the SNP has positioned itself to the left and campaigned as an anti-austerity party, as well as south of the Severn-Wash line where, excluding London, it holds only 11 of 197 seats. Deep is the grave in which . . .

 

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The New York-resident David Miliband has moved quickly to say what his younger brother got wrong – he mentioned “aspiration and inclusion” and said that Ed had given the impression the party was going “backwards” under him. When asked by a BBC interviewer about their relationship, David said, his eyes cold and dark, that they “were in touch”, no more or less than that.

Also on Tuesday David tweeted a link to a column by the New York Times writer David Brooks, the paper’s resident conservative. Brooks is interested in ideas and social trends, and uses data intelligently to support his arguments. Like many conservatives, he was intrigued by the Tory election victory and asked why after the financial crisis and the consequent Great Recession – especially considering the “unpopularity of the right’s stances on social issues and immigration” – the world had not turned left. Ed Miliband wagered his entire leadership and election strategy on a belief – and it was no more than this – that the electorate was yearning for a more egalitarian society and a return to socialism. Voters were certainly disturbed by widening inequality but just as important were a desire for fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets.

Yet, according to Brooks, as well as people’s scepticism about the left, “there are a few things centre-right parties have done successfully”. They have championed “national identity”, they have been “basically sensible on fiscal policy” and they have not “overread their mandate”. He went on:

Globally, voters are disillusioned with large public institutions. They seem to want to reassert local control and their own particular nationalism (Scottish or anything else). But they also seem to want a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labour markets as a path to prosperity.

So if, as Brooks suggests, we are entering a new era of pragmatic conservative rule how should Labour respond, if it is not to be locked out of power for the next decade?

So far, the leadership contenders putting themselves about in the aftermath of defeat have been muttering about “aspiration”, as if the act of articulation were simultaneously an act of redefinition – and of absolution. Meanwhile, in other news, Ed Miliband has gone on holiday to Ibiza.

 

Now read Jason Cowley's pre-election piece on "white van conservatism" and the battle for the soul of Essex Man

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

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder