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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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