In this week’s New Statesman: Assange, alone

Jemima Khan on how Julian Assange alienated his allies. PLUS: Who really runs Britain? We reveal the most powerful people you've never heard of.

Jemima Khan: How an Assange supporter became a sceptic

New Statesman associate editor Jemima Khan writes following the Sundance Film Festival premiere of We Steal Secrets, a WikiLeaks documentary she executive-produced and which “[Julian] Assange denounced before seeing”.  She writes:

In many ways, the film’s narrative arc mirrors my own journey with Assange, from admiration to demoralisation.

Once an Assange admirer and committed supporter, Khan even stood bail for the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief in 2010. She reveals in this exclusive essay how he lost her, and others’, support.

Read this piece in full now.

 

The Shadow Power List: Who really runs Britain?

The new “establishment” of Britain do not reside in Whitehall. They are the directors and chief executives of the companies to which much of the government’s functions have been outsourced. They are unelected, often unaccountable and in charge of ever more of our public services – shaping our lives outside the spotlight. In a special report we profile eleven people “who hold the very British brand of inconspicuous power”.

Rafael Behr writes:

Power in Britain is not contained within boundaries easily definable as “government” . . .

Where we experience the humiliation of powerlessness, this is as likely to be at the hands of a private company as a state institution. When it is a state service, there is every chance its functions have been outsourced to a private provider. ..

[Power] resides on the boards of companies no one has heard of, in quangos, in hedge funds, in networks of friends and former ministerial advisers who work for charitable bodies with opaque remits.

Featuring:

Christopher Hyman, Chief executive, Serco

The National Nuclear Laboratory, the Docklands Light Railway, immigration detention centres, the London cycle hire scheme, NHS Suffolk, the National Border Targeting Centre, air-traffic control services, waste collection for local authorities, maintenance services for ballistic missiles, government websites, prisons and a young offender institution – there is almost no branch of government that has not been penetrated by Serco, the outsourcing behemoth. And few have benefited more from the growth of this shadow state than the company’s chief executive, Christopher Hyman.

Sam Laidlaw, Chief executive, Centrica

Sam Laidlaw, of the privatised utility company Centrica (formerly British Gas), has been described as the “aristocrat” of the energy industry – and his family history indicates how the British ruling class has adapted over the course of a century, from empire to social democracy and the free market. His grandfather Hugh was an executive of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in India, a forerunner of BP; his father, Christophor, worked his way up through BP to become deputy chairman

Joanna Shields, Chief executive, Tech City

Joanna Shields, the new chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, has internet pedigree, having worked with Google, Bebo, AOL and Facebook. She may have been unable to save Bebo, one of the social networks caught in the squeeze between the dwindling Myspace and nascent Facebook, but her reputation in the tech world remains strong. Her task now is to transform Tech City into Britain’s version of Silicon Valley.

Tony Mitchell, Director, Tesco, supply chain

Tony Mitchell is the model of a Tesco company man. He started on the shop floor in 1978 and worked his way up to store manager, then eventually to head office, and now Mitchell decides what £1 in every £7 in the UK is spent on. Getting on to the shelves at Tesco can make a young company, and getting thrown off them is likely to be the death knell.

 

Rafael Behr: If Tory MPs can’t decide what kind of party they want, they’ll have to work it out in opposition

In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr writes on the split within the Conservative party, more than half of whom refused “to accept the Prime Minister’s moral lead on gay marriage” in Tuesday’s free vote. This “expresses a more profound reluctance to be led” writes Behr. Many Tories feel they have lost “any sense of ownership” within the government programme:

But complaints that Cameron is inadequately Conservative are “absurd” considering his implementation of core Conservative ideas – in short “he is the ultimate valediction of 20th-century Conservatism.”

If his party thinks that is a monstrous creation, it faces an epic task working out what it wants to be instead. It is the kind of work can only be done in opposition.

Read this piece in full now.

 

PLUS

 

Nicholas Wapshott: What David Cameron can learn from Abraham Lincoln

In the NS Essay, Nicholas Waptshop draws parallels between Lincoln’s fight to repair the union with Cameron’s modern woes over Scottish secession and the EU referendum. He goes on out outline the similarities and differences between the Prime Minister and the 16th US President.

There are poignant similarities between the conundrum that Lincoln encountered 150 years ago and the dilemma David Cameron faces today. They are both confronted with threats to the very existence of the nations they govern . . .

But while Lincoln was presented with the simple option of whether to take up arms to defend the Union or watch as his country split in two, Cam­eron has no such easy choice.

 

Laurie Penny: Ten years ago we marched against the Iraq war and I learned a lesson in betrayal

Ten years ago this month, millions of people all over the world marched against the war in Iraq- and were ignored. I was one of them...

Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain into the American’s war in Iraq was an immediate, material calamity for millions of people in the Middle East. I’m writing here, though, about the effect of that decision on the generation in the west who were children then and are adults now. For us, the sense of betrayal was life-changing.

 

In The Critics

Much of the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is devoted to our annual history special. Featuring the historian David Cesarani on the changing face of Holocaust historiography, John Gray on the long and bloody history of political violence, and Britain’s former special representative in Afghanistan Sherard Cowper-Coles reviewing Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple and Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary.

  • Jonathan Derbyshire interviews historian Norman Stone
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Pablo Larraín’s film No
  • Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Anaïs Mitchell and Jackie Oates
  • Thomas Calvocoressi visits “Light Show”, a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery
  • Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

This and much more in our “In The Critics” blog on Cultural Capital.

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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt