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)

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

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: 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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser