In this week’s New Statesman: Obama’s Second Chance

Will Obama deliver this time around? Or will he just keep hanging on? PLUS: Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ savior, Douglas Alexander on Obama’s ground game, and Kate Mossman on Thriller at 30.

“Although there was no repeat of the euphoria that greeted his victory four years ago, the world still has good reason to be grateful for the re-election of Barack Obama” say this week’s leader. But with a divided congress and a looming “fiscal cliff” ($607bn worth of tax rises and spending cuts due to come into effect on 1 January, 2013), will the President be able to achieve all he promises in this second term?

“On the economy, as in other areas, Mr Obama must hope that the Republicans, no longer preoccupied with defeating him, will instead seek to work with him. Should they prove willing to do so, there is potential for the president to make progress in those areas where he disappointed during his first term.”

Douglas Alexander: Obama’s ground game, avoiding the fiscal cliff and thoughts of President Gore

In The Notebook, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander writes from America in the waning days of the race towards the US election. He reflects on the message and methods behind the president’s 2012 campaign. He also considers possible directions for Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the “fiscal cliff”, and Labour’s relations with the Democrats:

Sure, the economy has been tough, but despite that the Democrats were widely judged to have had a better convention than the Republicans and left Charlotte, North Carolina, with a clear poll bounce. Yet this contest went right down to the wire. How did that happen?

Apart from a weak first presidential debate, most Democrats are blaming the lack of a clear campaign message. This weakness seems strange, not least because Obama demonstrated four years ago what a powerful communicator he could be, something we glimpsed again in his victory speech on the morning of Wednesday 7 November . . .

Anyone who thinks Obama’s re-election has no real influence on British politics should ask themselves this: how different would Tony Blair’s premiership have been if Al Gore and not George W Bush had won the White House as well as the vote in 2000? There is relief – and pride – about the result in Labour ranks, especially about the countless Labour activists who went as volunteers to learn and contribute. Mitcham and Morden CLP alone took 31 volunteers to help in Ohio.

Back in 2002, Bill Clinton told the Labour conference, “It is fun to be in a place where our crowd is still in office.” “Our crowd” gets back together next week when Clinton visits London. I’m hoping he might even hint at the name of the 2016 Democratic nominee.

 

Boris Johnson: Do “whatever it takes” to get Lynton Crosby on the Tory campaign

In this week’s NS Profile, Andrew Gimson takes a look at Lynton Crosby, the “rough-tongued” Australian campaign manager who pulled Boris Johnson from the brink, and who the Mayor says must be put at the helm of the Tory 2015 campaign at any cost. It’s one of the few things on which the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London seem to agree. “A close observer”, Andrew Gimson writes, “compared No 10 to a country house where everyone is very friendly and polite but no one knows who is in charge . . . Almost everyone is fed up with this situation. The Tories want to be told what they need to do to win the next general election, and they think Crosby can tell them.”

So what is it about this still largely unknown strategist that so appeals? Gimson explains:

He is a witty, foul-mouthed, workaholic election addict, with deep insights into political strategy and a ruthless eye for the other side’s vulnerabilities: he likes nothing better than to peel voters away from opponents by forcing them to defend positions that will be unpopular with their own supporters. His appearance may be that of a nondescript man in his mid-fifties, but his talents have made him one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political operators of recent times.

Johnson credits Crosby and his bullish strategy with winning him his first London mayoral race. He tells Gimson that, despite doubts by some in the party, the Tories should get Crosby on board for 2015:

He was “an absolutely brilliant campaign manager”, Johnson said. “I’ve never known anyone so good at motivating a campaign.” He had “a thing called the pink cardigan”, and “all these hordes of young people working for him”. At the end of each day, he would throw the pink cardigan to someone who had “monstered the Labour Party or done something particularly distinguished”.

Johnson recalled how, one evening, “I tottered to the end of a gruelling encounter with some Tory London councillors. I tried feebly to motivate them on various themes, and I was leaving them at about 9.30 at night, feeling rather wan about things, and I got a text from Lynton which said: ‘Crap speech, mate.’ ”

. . . Johnson told me the Tories should do “whatever it takes” to hire Crosby to run the 2015 campaign: “Push the boat out, break the piggy bank, kill the fatted calf.”

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Michael Newton: The assassin’s creed

Historians and newsmen often grant a macabre fame to political assassins and depict them as figures who have changed the course of world events. From Vera Zasulich in Russia in the 19th century to the murderers of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy, Michael Newton’s sweeping NS Essay examines the psychology of the “archetypal assassin” and considers the role of ego in their deeds:

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination [of Franz Ferdinand] would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome . . . They had aimed at
a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, [Nedeljko] Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility . . .

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead . . . The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all.

 

Terry Eagleton: Is God an Englishman?

In this week’s lead books feature, Terry Eagleton reviews Our Church, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s personal history of the Church of England. “Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman,” he writes. “He seems not to know that it was . . . a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture.” Eagleton argues that Scruton has succumbed to Romantic prejudice and that “one suspects that this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to”.

Eagleton adds:

The Anglican church, according to Scruton, is “a part of England, and an immortal projection of England beyond space and time”. God himself is an Englishman, a Daily Telegraph-reading deity, “uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiasm, reluctant to make a fuss, but trapped into making public speeches”. It’s surprising he didn’t send his son to Eton, rather than dump him among a lot of Palestinian fishermen.

For Scruton, Christianity is a mixture of purity, patriotism, Romantic nostalgia and a patrician flight from the everyday . . . His dewy-eyed history of England is more scrubbed and sanitised than a modern surgeon’s knuckles . . . For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to
them wholesale.

 

Kate Mossman: The boy in the bubble

Our Critic at Large this week is Kate Mossman who looks at Thriller, the album that changed the world of pop as we knew it. It’s been 30 years since Michael Jackson released the album and began his assault on the white pop establishment. “The album exits in a bubble,” Mossman writes, so dazzling that Jackson’s later deterioration “next never enters your head”. She writes:

No one knew quite what to say when Jacko died in 2009 at the age of 50. Some saidthey “saw that coming”, which is also what they said about Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse. It seemed disingenuous – if anything, all three had been conveniently, temporarily forgotten like the madwoman in the attic. Perhaps the world is now ready to accept, all over again, that Jackson was the greatest pop star who ever lived. He broke the race barrier, redefined the pop video and forged a sound so pervasive that it can be heard in the songs of Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and a whole host of twentysomethings who were not even born during his glory years . . . The record that achieved all these things was Thriller . . .

One of the reasons Thriller still sounds so brilliant today is that what came next never enters your head. The record exists in a bubble – it remains a Technicolor, transformative experience that seems to come from a more distant age in entertainment, when the product mattered more than all the lives that went into it. You can watch any of those great Hollywood movies without thinking about Joan Crawford’s coat hangers, or Charlie Chaplin’s taste for teens, or the real-life madness of Vivien Leigh.

 

Also in the Critics

In Books: William Cook on an edition of Mary Whitehouse’s letters of complaint to broadcasters in the 1960s and 1970s; Emma Hogan reviews John Batchelor’s biography of Alfred Tennyson; Anita Sethi on Ali Smith’s essay collection-cum-novel Artful; the philosopher Simon Blackburn reviews Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel and finds the author giving succour to creationists and fans of intelligent design; the BBC’s environmental analyst Roger Harrabin on The Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm; and Toby Litt raves about Julian Cope’s Copendium.

Elsewhere: Alexandra Coghlan on the pianist Ben Grosvenor at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London; the NS theatre critic Andrew Billen on Damned by Despair, This House and The River; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s Dickens update for television Nick Nickleby; Antonia Quirke on the sacking of Danny Baker from BBC London 94.9; Ryan Gilbey on Ben Affleck’s thriller Argo; Thomas Calvocoressi visits a new gallery in the Parisian banlieue; and Will Self investigates “giraffes” for Real Meals.

 

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

 

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.

A National Trust property. Photo: Getty
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The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.

                                                                                       

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.