In this week’s New Statesman: 2013 – The year the cuts finally bite

Rafael Behr and George Eaton map out the political and economic battles to come. PLUS: A cultural guide to the year ahead

Rafael Behr: Playing the long game

Reporting from inside Westminster, Rafael Behr takes a look at the year ahead. He predictsthat 2013 will be a year of even deeper divisions among the Tories and new opportunities for Labour. But will Ed Miliband have the courage to seize the initiative? Behr outlines the critical issues:

It got easier in 2012 to imagine Ed Miliband becoming Britain’s next prime minister – but not at the same rate as it got easier to imagine David Cameron losing thenext general election. The coalition is shedding credibility faster than the opposition is acquiring it . . .

Many will be hit by tax and benefit changes due to come into effect in April. Deferred cuts to child benefit and tax credits will kick in. As the squeeze on local authorities tightens, non-essential services will start to disappear and essential ones will look shabbier.

That is also when council-tax reforms – and cuts to the support for those who can’t pay – come into force. With the arrival of the new system, bills will be landing on the doormats of families that have never previously faced the levy. Many will already be struggling to keep their heads above water . . .

Miliband’s gamble for 2013 is that voters will recoil from the social consequences of the cuts, seeing them not as the necessary price of consolidating the Budget but as a familiar symptom of Tory flint-heartedness . . .

Cameron’s confidence is bolstered by opinion polls showing that the Labour leader is lagging in measures of strength and charisma. The Tories are pinning their hopes on a presidential-style campaign, inviting voters to consider which party leader has the courage to see through the task of consolidating the Budget. The message, in the words of one Cameron ally, will be “you can’t change the general in the middle of a war” . . .

Miliband’s policy prospectus still wilts under interrogation. The crucial advantagehe has is that his party is united in willing him to succeed. The same cannot be said of Cameron.

George Eaton: Will Labour dance to the Chancellor’s baseline?

Writing in the Politics Column this week, George Eaton discusses ‘the biggest decision’ Labour will make this year: to match or not to match the Chancellor’s ‘baseline’:

One of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of the Chancellor of the Exchequer is ‘the baseline’. With the aid of a small army of civil servants, the governing party is able to outline its post-election spending plans in advance (‘the baseline’) and challenge the opposition to match them. Should it fail to do so, punishment is swift. A Conservative government will accuse Labour of planning to clobber Middle England with tax rises; a Labour government will accuse the Conservatives of planning savage cuts to public services. The electorate, fearful of the unknown, usually sides with the government.

… Now in possession of the baseline, Obsorne intends to use it to check Labour’s advance. After this year’s spending review the Chancellor will challenge the opposition to say whether it would match his spending plans up tot 2018. Whether or not to do so is the biggest decision Ed Miliband and Ed Balls will make before the next election. If they accept Osborne’s baseline, the left and the trade unions will accuse them of embracing ‘Tory cuts’. If they reject it, the Chancellor will accuse them of planning billions in additional borrowing or tax rises.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Edward Platt: The drowned world

Our reporter at large Edward Platt writes from Tewkesbury, a town ravaged by flooding in recent years. He argues that as our planet warms, extreme weather is becoming a part of our daily life – but Britain is still ill-equipped to cope with the costs and consequences. He begins:

I arrived in Tewkesbury on the November day the flood waters began to subside. The Swilgate, the tributary of the Avon that runs round the southern edge of the town, had overflown its banks fours days earlier. The dark brown water had spilled across a car park and playground and was lapping at the edge of the site of the new hospital, which is being built beside the old one. The line of trees rising through the middle of the placid expanse of water was the only indication of the Swilgate’s normal course . . .

The floods of 2007 are often described as the worst civil emergency in British history, and the Environment Agency estimates that they caused £3.2bn of damage. The true figure is probably higher, because places such as Tewkesbury suffered a “double whammy”, according to Paul Williams [the vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey]: its shops, hotels and restaurants depend on the tourist trade and many people cancelled holidays in the aftermath of the floods. He says it took Tewkesbury three or four years to recover, and many people in the town are still feeling the effects . . .

They are not alone: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says 5.2 million households in England are at risk of flooding, and the present agreement between the insurance industry and the government that guarantees affordable insurance to flood-prone homes is due to expire in June . . .

It is estimated that every £1 spent on flood defences saves £8 on the cost of clean-up and repairs. And yet, no matter how much we invest, flood damage is sure to increase as climate change begins to take effect. A report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2004 predicted that the cost could increase from the current yearly average of £2.2bn to as much as £29bn by 2080.

Kevin Barry: Roma Kid

Kevin Barry, author of ‘Dark Lies the Island’, writes a new short story exclusively for the New Statesman.

She watched her brothers sleeping but not for long and left them in the grey dim haze of a February morning that was not yet half to life; she did not speak the language but understood plainly the tone of the officials and their knotted gestures and their faces. Her mother had told her nothing but the girl knew that soon

the family would be sent home again and she would not go back there. She was nine years old and chose for her leaving the red pattern dress and zipped her anorak over it.

She went quietly among the chalets of the asylum park. She held the zipper of the anorak between her lips and its cold metal stuck fast to her lips – it was a ritual of her safe passage to hold it there until she was clear of the park. She did not look back at all and no voices rose to call her back. She walked out to the foreignness of the morning. She climbed the embankment. She had none of the words that appeared on

the advertising boards by the motorway as she walked in her squeaking trainers along its verges. She did not have the words on the side of the bus that passed by and was lit against the morning and she had none of the pitying words that formed on the mouths of the passengers who stared out at the thin child in a dress of red paisley, ragged, and an anorak –

Poor knacker child.

Poor pavee kid.

Poor latchiko.

In the critics

In the Critics section this week, our lead book reviewer is the writer and critic Jane Shilling.She reviews The Examined Life by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, and comments:

As a reminder of the strangeness of human existence, the myriad ways we find of making ourselves unhappy and the perplexing resourcefulness of the unconscious mind, Grosz’s book is a worthwhile addition to the literature of the examined life.

Also in Books:

Vernon Bogdanor reviews An English Affair, Richard Davenport-Hines’s history of the Profumo affair

Claire Lowdon on First Novel by Nicholas Royle

The NS culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, looks forward to the big books of 2013.

Our Critic at Large this week is the Australian author Tim Winton, who recalls his role in the campaign to save Ningaloo Reef, off the coast of Western Australia (“For two years, I more or less gave up being a writer. I wrote only press releases, begging letters, strategic notes”).

Elsewhere in The Critics: our writers look forward to what 2013 has to offer in television, visual art, film, classical music, pop and theatre.

 

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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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