In this week’s New Statesman: The audacity of popes

PLUS: Vince Cable on the great stagnation of post-crisis Britain.

John Cornwell: Goodbye to all that

In our cover story this week, the author John Cornwell investigates the history of previous papacies and asks whether a new pope could lead the Catholic Church in a more progressive direction.

The conservative papacies of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, he argues, “denounced liberation theology” and “resulted in an increase in Roman centralisation”, which led to “the failure to deal with the clerical abuse scandal promptly”. He writes that, from the middle of the 19th century, the papacy “has obstinately resisted the advance of secularism and democracy”; he notes in particular the Vatican’s battle against contraception and the American Catholic hierarchy’s public condemnation of Barack Obama’s health-care reforms, which “insisted that Catholic institutions staffed by non-Catholics should contribute to national insurance schemes that might be used to purchase contraceptives”. He adds:

Over the 32 years of the Wojtyła-Ratzinger partnership, the progressive Vatican II reforms have been eroded at the top in Rome, disclosing a political perspective that is increasingly reactionary and fundamentalist...

In the debates between the New Atheism and religionists, it is widely recognised that the point at which religion consistently transforms from benign to maleficent is when it fails to adopt a pluralist approach to other faiths as well as to the secular domain . . .

The tendency of the two most recent popes to lecture and dictate, rather than be part of a living conversation with their peer group, must be seen as a lost opportunity in a world facing such great socio-economic crises.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Vince Cable: When the facts change, should I change my mind?

In an exclusive essay for the NS this week, the Business Secretary contradicts George Osborne’s economic strategy - arguing that the "balance of risks" may have changed - and calls for "greatly expanded" capital spending.

This bold intervention, published just two weeks ahead of the Budget, can be read in full here - while George Eaton's expert summary of Cable's key points can be found here.

 

The Politics Interview: Jim Murphy blasts “lazy Labour”

In an interview with Rafael Behr, the Shadow Defence Secretary attacks the Labour Party’s "lazy" culture and its "sense of entitlement to win".

Murphy warns against a spread of "militant apathy" and condemns some of the party for failing to engage properly with voters. Ukip's strong performance in the Eastleigh by-elections, he argues, serves as a warning. He says:

If you don't knock on people's doors between now and polling day, you deserve what you get. They'll say “Where were you when I was struggling, when my husband lost his job, when my hours were cut, when I needed you?” . . . It's not an Eastleigh problem, it's a wider problem. It's Lazy Labour.

In the most explicit statement yet from inside the shadow cabinet of Labour's vulnerability, Murphy warns against relying on a collapse in the Lib Dem vote to deliver a majority for the opposition:

For a lot of people, it's fun to kick the Liberals but if you want a big, One-Nation mandate, it's pretty fruitless to just do that. Winning 2010 Tory voters is much harder but much more important. We could scrape over the finishing line with Labour voters plus some ex-Liberals but, given the scale of the problems we'd have to deal with, we don't want to just scrape over the finishing line.

Read this interview in full here.

 

Carla Powell: Short cuts, strong men, quick fixes

“Italy would get on better without a government at all,” declares Carla Powell, who writes this week from Rome in the wake of the Italian elections, in which Silvio Berlusconi experienced a career revival (winning near 30 per cent of the vote) and the newcomer Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement grabbed 26 per cent.

Powell writes of Italian voters’ historic tendencies to “crave a strong figure” and “naively believe the promises politicians make” – a mould of politics that suits Berlusconi well. Yet even the celebrated Grillo is not immune from the lure of making promises without solutions. Powell writes:

If you go further back into Italy’s political history, you can easily find examples of other charismatic figures who promised salvation and in the end delivered little or nothing. Some people are comparing the new phenomenon of Italian politics, Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement, the so-called grillini, to Mussolini . . .

Grillo doesn’t stand for anything but only against everything. He wants to get rid of the existing political class that has failed and that appeals to the frustration all Italians feel as the country’s problems get worse. But unlike Mussolini or even Berlusconi, he offers no solutions, nor a willingness to take responsibility for resolving Italy’s problems. In other words, Grillo is an entirely negative phenomenon.

. . . Italy needs something and someone new. The elections failed to promote that and we face another period when the same old faces will be trying to build coalitions that cannot last, between parties that want to evade our problems rather than address them.

 

Rafael Behr: No wonder Tory ministers are off-message: not even Cameron knows what the message should be

In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr dissects the chaos in the Tory party in the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election as senior ministers defy Cameron's moderate image and lurch towards a Ukip-inspired agenda:

Fear and blame are vast resources at a time of economic crisis but it is a duty of mature, democratic politicians not to exploit them. That doesn’t stop the Conservatives from trying. In the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election, in which Ukip pushed the Tories into third place, ministers have been lashing out at familiar foes. Iain Duncan Smith found himself anguished afresh at the scourge of “benefit tourism”. Meanwhile, Theresa May and Chris Grayling remembered their horror at the European Convention on Human Rights and their determination one day to prise it out of British law.

A more profound problem with Tories chasing the Ukip vote is that it contradicts Cameron's new central idea, which is to present Britain as an open economy keen to compete in the "global race":

Tory MPs don’t anticipate the global race selling any better on the doorstep than “the big society”, which was the Conservative leader’s unwavering ambition before he wavered. Yet there is a deeper problem with the theme, which is that the Tory account of Britain’s economic plight, as set out before the 2010 election, was the opposite of global. It was insular and parochial. Cameron explained with lethal simplicity how Labour had spent all of the money – maxed out the credit card – and how only national belt-tightening could lead to recovery. He and George Osborne are now learning that international forces determine whether the UK economy grows or shrinks. Their problem is that a message crafted out of that insight sounds like a lame excuse for failure – the very charge that was levelled against Gordon Brown when he talked about a global crisis.

Read his column in full here.

 

In the Critics

  • A dazed and deeply confused Kate Mossman is forced to wait two hours for Justin Bieber to take the stage at the O2 (read here.)
  • Paul Morley relives the experience of listening to his first Sony Walkman on the London Underground in 1979.
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Rufus Norris’s Broken and Robot & Frank, directed by Jake Schreier.
  • Historian Richard Overy reviews David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences.
  • Jon Day reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.

And much more... Read our full "In the Critics this week" blog here.

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.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage