In this week’s New Statesman: Something’s Rotten

Power, corruption and lies: the British establishment in crisis. PLUS: Brian Moore on why abuse victims don't speak out, and a special report on Malala Yousafzai, the girl who defied the Taliban.

For this week’s cover story, the New Statesman reflects on the crisis of British Institutions. From banks to big business to the BBC – are the powerful incapable of holding themselves accountable? Featuring: David Herman on Newsnight and the BBC, George Eaton on Westminster scandals, Jonathan Derbyshire and Alex Hern on big business and tax, David Allen Green on royal privileges, and Peter Lazenby on police corruption at Hillsborough.

 

David Herman: A culture of unreason

The BBC is the latest institution to be marred by scandal and kicks off our Something’s Rotten cover story. But Jimmy Savile aside, former BBC producer David Herman argues there is a greater identity crisis brewing. The BBC no longer knows who it wants to be. “Amid the media frenzy over Newsnight,” he writes, “the bigger questions have been ignored.”

Newsnight and Panorama reflect deeper difficulties at the BBC: falling budgets and declining audience share, on both BBC1 and BBC2. Panorama has responded by dumbing down. Rippon might have put ratings first and gone for the “Jimmy Savile was a paedophile” splash. He didn’t and it looks as if he didn’t for journalistic reasons.

The Panorama investigation into Newsnight’s shelving of the programme on Savile was symptomatic of the problem. It was all heat and very little light. The producers had the heart-rending testimony of several men and women who had been abused as children. However, despite much innuendo, they couldn’t find anyone else, at the BBC, at the Crown Prosecution Service, in Surrey Police, or in any of the named institutions, who could confirm anything. As for the allegation that Rippon had dropped the story because of pressure from above, they found no evidence to back this up.

...This is part of a bigger battle over the future of the BBC. Some say that as audience share plummets, sports rights disappear and the BBC can no longer bid for US hit shows, its only future will be as a kind of glorified Radio 4: news and current affairs programmes and a global brand, with a few bits and pieces in between. No more sport, prestige drama or serious history programmes.

 

Brian Moore: I understand why Savile’s victims didn’t speak out about their abuse

Speaking from his own childhood experience of abuse, former rugby "hardman” Brian Moore condemns the BBC’s failure to properly investigate abuse claims and explains why their failings will only make it harder for victims to come forward.

The issue of child abuse has been hijacked by the press as a way of deflecting from its own nefariousness on phone-hacking and bribing of public officials. Why didn’t the papers act on rumours they now say were very clear and publicly known?

...What is lost in all this is the victims. The accusations are focused on institutions and authority, with the individual cases lost in a running total of victims that the tabloids seem keen to inflate. There are and will be calls for more procedures and schemes and vetting to ensure this never happens again. But it will happen again, and what is not needed is another raft of process-driven, box-ticking certificates of safety.

I and many of Savile’s victims did not tell because we did not think we would be believed. What we victims need is not just an immediate person being sympathetic and taking a statement. We need to know that a proper investigation will be made if we make a complaint; to know that the Crown Prosecution Service will be robust and that every effort will be made to secure a conviction. So harrowing is the telling of our stories that we have to have utmost faith that as much as possible will be done to rectify the wrong and to help us bear the extra stress of an investigation and trial.

 

David Blanchflower: Why unemployment has fallen, and why it will rise again soon

In the Economics Column this week, David Blanchflower tackles the puzzling unemployment variations between the US and the UK, unscrambles the data surrounding the UK’s recent drop in joblessness, and warns it will rise again:

The most unexpected figures recently were the big drops in the UK’s headline unemployment number and rate. However, the way the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports the numbers – as three-month rolling averages – doesn’t really help us understand what is happening. It turns out that this occurs because of concerns about the variability of sample estimates that arise because the survey from which the numbers are extracted – the labour force survey (LFS) – is underfunded and sample sizes are so small that there is a lot of month-to-month variation

...Something strange appears to be going on. Note that employment fell in the past two months, from a June peak that is likely distorted by the Olympics, as well as by young people who may not enter education in part because of the increase in tuition fees. So the unemployment rate is likely to rise; the Bank of England agents in their October report suggested that there would be “little job creation” in the private sector over the next six months and their past predictions have been reliable.

... I was wrong on the latest figures, to the delight of some my Twitter followers, but I suspect unemployment will rise sharply again and soon.

 

Rafael Behr: Miliband is sneaking up on power without a plan for government

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr takes a close look at Ed’s campaign in opposition, and wonders how long he can continue to offer an “austerity-lite” program without embracing the painful reality of public service on a tighter budget - and the enemies is will make him. He writes:

Ed Miliband has had the freedom to work on his political stance like a wannabe rock star trying out stage moves in the privacy of his bedroom. His statements of intent to contain the deficit are the policy equivalent of air guitar – roughly the right position but not very revealing about what he would do if plugged into instruments of real power. 

...Others are less sanguine, fearing that failure to signal reforming intent – pretending, for example, that the rationing of NHS services is proof of Tory malice towards the health service as if demographic and budget pressures were not also a factor – is dishonest. Voters will smell the deception. Labour could still scrape into power but then hit a wall of public revulsion as misty-eyed promises of change give way to more of the same. It is a scenario that one shadow minister describes as “Labour ending up as the Nick Cleggs of 2015.”

... Serial Tory blunders have afforded Labour space to work out what kind of opposition it wants to be. As well as thanking his luck, Miliband should consider why this has happened. It must be tempting to think that Cameron just happens to be congenitally incompetent. Another explanation is that some of the disarray expresses how hard it is to govern in austerity and how easy it is to make powerful enemies of public servants – nurses, teachers, police officers – when taking their money, pensions and job security away.

Miliband imagines doing things differently. His plan involves promising epoch-defining change to the way society and the economy are structured without divisive talk of winners and losers – the cosy “one nation” revolution. It is a feasible strategy for sneaking up on power but with a hollow mandate. If Miliband forms a government without permission to inflict pain or make enemies, he will quickly find Britain ungovernable.

 

Jason Cowley: On Janan Ganesh’s George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor

In Books this week, New Statesman editor Jason Cowley finds a biographer almost cripplingly awestruck by his subject. In FT columnist Janan Ganesh’s new biography, Osborne emerges as an “assiduous networker and power-seeker”.

The problem, however, is a lack of healthy skepticism - “Ganesh believes too readily in the myth of Osborne’s strategic ‘genius’ and is too willing to forgive what to some is unforgivable – the way Osborne talked down the economy in the months after the 2010 general election …” He write further:

If the general narrative of Osborne’s rise and embrace of austerity economics is covered well enough, the larger problems of the book are of style and tone. Ganesh writes with comical awe and reverence, for instance, about Rupert Harrison, Osborne’s 33-year-old advi­ser, who was “among the outstanding micro-economists of his generation”. Harrison has a “powerful mind”; his “ambition is cloaked by a magisterial personal style”; he has a “capacious hinterland”. It’s as if Ganesh were describing a latter-day John Maynard Keynes, whose intellect Bertrand Russell once said “was the clearest and sharpest” of anyone he ever encountered.

...Because the book is not a psychological portrait of Osborne and because it fails to convey any convincing sense of its subject’s inner life, it reads mostly as an exercise in nearly-history: a standard, often perfunctory recounting of recent political events, awkwardly written.... The book suffers by way of comparison with Francis Elliott’s and James Hanning’s biography of David Cameron, which over its several editions has broadened and deepened to become a work of merit, at once measured in its judgements, calmly and precisely written and authoritative. Ganesh’s judgements are too often swooning and overheated.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Kevin Maguire: Clegg talks double dutch

In Commons Confidential, the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire writes on “Eurofanatic” Nick Clegg and other Parliamentary gossip:

Mistrust is deepening between the Europhobic David Cameron and the Eurofanatic Nick Clegg. I hear Downing Street insisted that a No 10 minder attend a meeting in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office lair with Herman Van Rompuy of the European Council. Van Rompuy is that elusive creature, a near-famous Belgian. Clegg is even rarer – a polyglot Brit. The Lib Dem internationalist has five languages: French, German, Spanish, Dutch and Tory. Irritated at No 10’s snooping, Clever Cloggs conducted the entire session in Dutch, so the PM’s cloth-eared spy was left fuming in the corner, listening but not understanding a double-Dutch conversation.

Samira Shackle: The girl who played with fire

A special report from Pakistan on the shooting of the teenage rights activist Malala Yousafzai: Samira Shackle describes how the Taliban attack has sparked a wave of protest and speaks to women's rights activists who have defied violence and the threat of murder. But, she asks, are these women being let down by their own government's ambivalent attitude to Islamic extremism?

And introducing: A new regular comic from Tom Humberstone

Award winning comic artist and illustrator Tom Humberstone joins the New Statesman this week. His topical comic strip “In the Frame” will be a regular feature in Observations.

 

In the Critics:

In the Critics this week, Richard Mabey writes his last seasonal diary of the year. “Mid-autumn … has a special frisson on the Norfolk Broads,” Mabey observes. “The reeds begin to bleach and reflect the sunsets … The last migrants leaving for Africa cross with the first arriving from the tundra, the swallow flying under the goose.”

In Books, NS editor Jason Cowley reviews Jana Ganesh’s biography of George Obsborne. Sarah Churchwell is put off by the sentimental uplift of AM Homes’s novel May We Be Forgiven; Yo Zushi finds much more nourishment in David Byrne’s How Music Works; Leo Robson reviews Tom Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood; William Skidelsky contests Steven Poole’s attack on “foodism” in You Aren’t What You Eat; and Beatles biographer Hunter Davies recalls the moment John Lennon called his book’s carefully cultivated image “bullshit”, and admits perhaps he didn’t told the whole truth.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Sam Mendes’s Bond film Skyfall; Rachel Cooke, for better or worse, calls Lena Dunham’s Girls “like nothing you’ve ever seen before”; Antonia Quirke listens to Simon Callow’s wine-tasting on Classic FM; and Alexandra Coghlan watches a screening of the multimedia installation Decasia, performed with a live score, at the Southbank Centre.

And in Real Meals, Will Self contemplated the “gravy and hard biscuits” diet of the American south-west, as immortalized by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

 

Purchase this week's issue of the New Statesman on newstands today, or online at www.newstatesman.com/subscribe

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Is our obsession with class propping up the powerful?

Lynsey Hanley’s memoir Respectable: the Experience of Class attacks the sharp-elbowed bourgeoisie – but society will only be transformed by building coalitions between the middle and working classes.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism