In this week's New Statesman: Will Europe ever go to war again?

T.G. Otte on why we have learned nothing from the First World War. PLUS: Olivier Roy on the myth of the Islamist winter and the News Photos of the Year 2012.

In the New Statesman’s leader this week, we address Leveson, the press and transparency. The public debate post-Leveson has been “dominated by the threat that any implementation of his central recommendations might pose to the principle of free speech” and with far less emphasis on “the best way to protect members of the public from the kind of offences that the Leveson process exposed”.

An “ad hoc” meeting of news editors at 10 Downing Street (from which Private Eye, the Observer, the New Statesman and others were omitted) has done little to move the debate towards a fair and unbiased perspective on industry reform:

The awkward truth for all concerned is that the press is a shrinking corner of the media landscape. So many of our newspapers are losing tens of millions in income each year. There are urgent debates to be had about the protection of free speech, the boundaries of acceptable discourse and what constitutes invasion of privacy – online. The clubbable disquisitions of newspaper editors are as relevant to the moral and legal challenges thrown up by the digital revolution as the concerns of monasteries were when the printing press threatened their monopoly on scripture.

What matters most in this case is not the system the editors’ club conveniently devises to let itself off the hook of statutory regulation but the perception that the process is honest, transparent and driven by respect for victims of press abuse as well as the principle of free expression.

In our second leader, the NS applauds “how much has changed” since David Cameron voted in favour of a ban on “promoting” homosexuality in schools in 2003:

Perhaps no other piece of legislation introduced by Mr Cameron’s government will do more to promote human happiness. At a time of economic misery, that is something to celebrate.


T.G. Otte: The great carnage

The historian and former Foreign Office adviser T. G. Otte writes a sweeping analysis that considering the nature and consequences of the First World War and the tensions within Europe present then, and now. The fraught posturing of politicians in 1914 may seem familiar to many of us today — but have we failed to learn our “broader lesson” from the war? He begins:

The announcement of the government’s plans for a programme of events to commemorate the First World War is welcome, not least because policymakers should know and understand the nature and consequences of conflict. To learn any broader “les­sons”, it is necessary to re-examine what led to the war. It is tempting to look for large causes, given that July 1914 started a chain reaction that led to two world wars and a European “civil war” that lasted until 1989/91. But, in doing so, historians often paint a picture of an inevitable conflict, of Europe reaching boiling point and then exploding violently. That would be the wrong lesson . . .

The decision-makers of 1914 could not know their future any more than we can know ours. It is therefore important to appreciate the elements of risk and uncertainty their calculations contained. International crises generate their own dynamic and internal logic, of which events are both cause and consequence – and it is here that 1914 offers lessons.


Olivier Roy: The myth of the Islamist winter

The prolific author and expert on political Islam Olivier Roy, writing for the NS this week, debunks the myth of an “Islamist winter”. In a bilateral discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the al-Nahda government in Tunisia, Roy asserts that the spirit of protest which gripped the two nations throughout the Arab spring “is not about to be extinguished”. Far from being an “Islamic revolution”, Roy says, the current state of government in the Arab world is rather “a coalition that is con­servative in politics and morals but neoliberal in economics”, and one that bows to a newly empowered public:

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, the Islamists who came to power through the ballot box are seeing their popularity erode and are tempted to hold on to power by recourse to authoritarian measures. But they have to deal with the legacy of the Arab spring. They face a new political culture: now, one where people who disagree with the government take to the streets; where there is no reverence for established power and the army and the police no longer inspire fear.

Morsi’s success on the international stage has encouraged him to flex his muscles at home. But Morsi has gone too far too fast in his attempt to reinforce the power of the presidency at the expense of a judicial apparatus that was able to retain a degree of autonomy under Hosni Mubarak. And his failure to anticipate and understand the strength of public opinion has made things worse.

What is more, society [in Tunisia] has absorbed the culture of protest more deeply than in Egypt. At the local level, demonstrations and riots against the government are common currency... The Islamists can use old techniques (treating their political opponents as “traitors”, introducing censorship, martial law or a state of emergency), but this won’t prevent the people from calling them to account.


Photo Special: The Best News Images of 2012

In a special feature in this week’s magazine, the New Statesman brings together the year’s best news photography. From the highs of the London Olympics and Barack Obama’s re-election to the lows of civil war in Syria and Libya, to the voices of courageous women such as Malala Yousafzai and Pussy Riot, who made their protests “heard in the face of terror and oppression” – this was 2012. Curated by Rebecca McClelland and with an introduction by Sophie Elmhirst.

(A Libyan man looks out from his ruined apartment in Ajdabiyah, destroyed by heavy shelling during the Libyan civil war. PHOTO: Yuri Kozyrev Noor Images)




Rafael Behr: Forget the lib-lab pact, Clegg's current position suits the opposition perfectly

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr writes on cross-party political allegiances: “There is nothing new in political rivals teaming up to achieve their goals.” On the Leveson report, Nick Clegg finds himself closer to Ed Miliband, but he cannot be seen to jump ship from the Conservative coalition just yet, whether on this matter or others:


. . . the Lib Dems are pushing coalition as an attractive and stable system of government. That requires getting to the end of the parliament with a chest full of gleaming policy trophies. Prematurely flouncing away from power is not in the plan.

 “We can’t be seen to be throwing off the fiscal straitjacket at the first opportunity,” says a Lib Dem strategist of the party’s dilemma. “Nor can we stand at the next election in a position where people can say, ‘They have exactly the same platform as the Tories.’


Laurie Penny: The urge to "save" women from selling sex is little more than puritanism

For “In the Red” this week, Laurie Penny argues in favour of decriminalising sex work, lambasting the “treacherous stream of public opinion” that has seen the debate over the sex trade usurped by “neo-Victorian” lobbyists and the public, rather than the voice of those within the industry. Penny writes that legislation is more often “designed to protect the middle classes from the more ‘unsavoury’ elements of the community” than to protect sex workers effectively. It is a class, even a gender, issue:


Their stories [those of female and male sex workers] are often very different from the simple tale of victimhood told by anti-sex-trade campaigners. The voices and opinions of sex workers, however, are usually silenced in “mainstream” debates about prostitution.

The elements of class suspicion at work here shouldn’t have to be spelled out. When “nice” women with regular incomes take a stand to deny the agency and attack the morality of people working in precarious conditions, what else are we supposed to call it?

For groups such as the European Women’s Lobby, prostitution is always male violence against women – so the many men who work as prostitutes don’t really count. Sexually conservative feminists have never seemed anxious to save male sex workers. It’s as if there were a sort of “prejudging” going on. It’s almost like – what’s the word? Oh, yes. Prejudice.


In the Critics

In the Critics section of this week's magazine, Simon Kuper, author most recently of The Football Men, reviews Tout seul, the memoir of the former French national coach Raymond Domenech. None of the stars of the French game – Zinédine Zidane, Nicolas Anelka, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry, to name just four – emerges unscathed.

Also in the Critics:

David Herman reviews In Two Minds, Kate Bassett’s biography of Jonathan Miller

Lesley Chamberlain on Benoît Peeters’s biography of Jacques Derrida

Leo Robson reviews Both Flesh and Not, a posthumous collection of essays by David Foster Wallace

Philip Maughan talks to the crime writer Val McDermid

Architect Amanda Levete charts the progress of her firm's scheme for a new gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

Ryan Gilbey reviews The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey

For this and more read our "In the Critics this week" feature on Cultural Capital.


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

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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.