In this week’s New Statesman: What make us human?

A new series exploring the most fundamental question of all.

Cover Story: What makes us human?

This week we kick off a series in collaboration with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. We aim to explore the pivotal question: “What makes us human?” Leading thinkers from a wide range of disciplines including Brian May, David Puttnam, Stephen Hawking, Mary Robinson, Susan Greenfield and Alain de Botton will contribute essays that will be read on the Jeremy Vine show and published in the New Statesman.

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has contributed his answer – “The family is where we learn love” – to begin the series. He writes:

As an answer to the question what makes us human, even in the age of neuroscience, it’s hard to improve on the Bible’s answer . . . We are each, regardless of class, colour or culture, in the image and likeness of God . . . It is the source of the idea of human rights.

The Chief Rabbi then focuses on families. “The centrality of the family is what gave Jews their astonishing ability to survive tragedy and centuries of exile and dispersion.”

“When it works,” he continues, “the family is the matrix of our humanity . . . relationships are what make us human.”

 

Len McCluskey: “If Ed Miliband is seduced by the Blairites, he’ll be consigned to the dustbin of history”

In an interview with George Eaton, the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, warns that Ed Miliband will be “defeated” and “cast into the dustbin of history” if he is “seduced” by the “Blairites” in his shadow cabinet.

McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union, which is Labour’s largest donor, singles out the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, and the shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, for criticism.

Ed Miliband must spend most of his waking hours grappling with what lies before him. If he is brave enough to go for something radical, he’ll be the next prime minister. If he gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history.

Read this interview in full on our website now.

 

Jonathan Derbyshire: The sorrows of Mr. Weak

In a Letter from Paris, Jonathan Derbyshire asks how it all went so wrong so quickly for France’s Socialist president, François Hollande.

"Never in the 55-year history of the French Fifth Republic have approval ratings for an incumbent president been so low so early in a presidency,” Derbyshire writes. “Hollande’s abject standing in the polls owes something to the humiliation of his former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac,” he continues. “On 2 April Cahuzac finally admitted, after a series of straight-faced denials, that he had used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying tax in France. As a consequence, Hollande has become the focus of deep dissatisfaction in France with a remote and technocratic political class.

Hollande has other problems, not least in the economic sphere.

[His] economic policy is failing on its own terms. In the election campaign, in order to outflank his opponent, he accepted [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s commitment to reduce the deficit to 3 per cent of output by the end of 2013, partly by means of €10m worth of spending cuts. [Earlier this year, Hollande was forced to abandon the 3 per cent target.]

Who was the minister despatched to tour the radio and television studios to warn that a recalibration of expectations was imminent? None other than Jérôme Cahuzac. As the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro reported with some glee, one of Cahuzac’s last acts as a minister was to prepare people for the “burial of a presidential promise”.

 

Helen Lewis: Will a tattoo ever hang in the Louvre?

The New Statesman deputy editor, Helen Lewis, writes a first-hand report from inside room G34B of Blythe House, “the most fascinating room in London” and home to over 300 tattooed human skin samples from the 19th and 20th centuries.

She meets Gemma Angel, a tattoo historian who has spent three years working with the macabre collection, consisting primarily of skin from “sailors, soldiers and criminals”, sold to the 19th-century collector Henry Wellcome. She also talks to Matt Lodder, a PhD student, who describes how tattooing has long been popular with “members of all social classes”, and not just “ne’er-do-wells”. As two of the few experts in this rare field of art history, writes Lewis:

The mission of both Lodder and Angel is to drag the study of tattoos away from its early criminological roots towards something more modern. In this, they are not alone, although they could be forgiven for feeling somewhat lonely. Lodder estimates that fewer than two dozen academics are seriously studying tattooing worldwide.

Lewis also considers the contemporary phenomenon of the “celebrity tattooist” and tattoos as an “integral part” of celebrity image (think of David Beckham). She questions the human impulse for body modifications and asks whether tattoos will ever be taken seriously by the art world.

Over the past two decades, at least a dozen international artists have used tattoos to explore ideas of performance and permanence . . . All the academic study of tattoos eventually coalesces around a single question: what does it mean for an image – or a word – to be marked on to a human body?

 

In the Critics

The NS lead reviewer, John Gray, opens our Spring Books special. Gray reviews Philosophical Essays, a new collection of the non-fiction of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Judging by the standards of academic philosophy,” Gray writes, “there is little that is original in these pages.” But that is what he finds so alluring about Pessoa’s philosophical writings. “Far from trying to persuade anyone of any set of convictions, he used philosophy to liberate the mind from belief . . . Pessoa was – with all his fictive selves – a unique modern spirit. It is a cause for celebration that more of his writings are coming into print.

Plus

  • Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Chilean author Isabel Allende about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook.
  • Sarah Churchwell reviews John le Carré’s new novel, A Delicate Truth.
  • Peter Wilby celebrates 150 years of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
  • Jonathan Bate reviews Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, an anthology of essays dealing with the claim that the Bard was not the author of the plays performed in his name.
  • Simon Heffer assesses The Greatest Traitor: the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston.
  • Ryan Gilbey, reviews Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan;
  • Will Self’s Madness of Crowds, on ceremonial funerals.

And much more...

Read our full “In the Critics” blog post 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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Five of Scotland’s most exciting general election battles

Will unionists hook the big Salmond in Gordon? And can the Tories overrun the Scottish Borders? Everything's up for grabs. 

In 2015, the Scottish National Party won Scotland in a landslide. With the next election expected in 2020, politics for the next five years looked homogenous, managerial and predictable. 

But then came Brexit, talk of a second independence referendum, and an early election. Now everything's at play. Depending on your perspective, this is a proxy indyref2, or a chance to condemn the Brexit government, or the opporunity to turn Scotland blue. One thing is sure - local contests will not just be about collecting the bins on time, but about the great constitutional questions of the day. With a giant splash of egotism. 

Here is my pick of the constituency battles to watch:

1. Who’s the biggest unionist of them all?

Constituency: East Renfrewshire
Battle to watch: Blair McDougall (Labour) vs Paul Masterton (Tory)

If anything symbolised the #Indyreffightback, it was the toppling of Jim Murphy, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire in 2015. Murphy had slogged away for the No campaign during the 2014 referendum, braving egg throwers and cybernat centurions to make the case for the UK in 100 towns across Scotland. Being ousted by the Scottish National Party’s Kirsten Oswald was the biggest metaphorical egg of them all. 

Still, Murphy only lost by 3,718 votes. The self-styled defenders of the union, the Scottish Tories, have spied an opportunity, and made East Renfrewshire a target seat. Paul Masterton, a local activist, hopes to follow in the footsteps of Jackson Carlaw, who snapped up the same area for the Tories in the Scottish parliamentary elections last year. 

But who’s that appearing on the horizon? Blair McDougall, the former Better Together chief, is waving Labour’s banner. And no one can accuse him of flip flopping on the independence question. 

Since quashing a second independence referendum is the priority for pro-union voters of East Renfrewshire choose, they are likely to vote tactically. So which candidate can persuade them  he’s the winner?

2. The best shade of yellow

Constituency: East Dunbartonshire
Battle: Jo Swinson (Lib Dem) vs John Nicolson (Labour)

When Jo Swinson first won her home constituency in 2005, she was just 25, and by her early thirties, she was pacing the inner sanctums of the Coalition government. But in 2015, East Dunbartonshire voters decided to give her an early retirement and opted for the former broadcaster, the SNP’s John Nicolson, instead by 2,167 votes. 

In England, the Lib Dem surge has been fuelled by an emotional Europeanism. Swinson, though, can sing “Ode to Joy” as many times as she wants – it won’t change the fact that Nicolson is also against Brexit.
So instead, the contest is likely to come down to two factors. One is the characters involved. Nicolson has used his media clout to raise his profile – but has also been accused of “bullying” STV into dropping its political editor Stephen Daisley (Nicolson denies the claims)

The other is the independence referendum. East Dunbartonshire voted 61.2 per cent to stay in the UK in 2014. If voters feel the same way, and vote tactically this time, Nicolson may wish to resurrect his TV career. 

3. Revenge of the Tories

Constituency: Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Battle: John Lamont (Tory) vs Calum Kerr (SNP)

And the winner is… anyone who can reel off this constituency name without twisting their tongue. Let’s call it BRK, or Project Blue. 

BRK, a rural constituency in the Scottish borders, was once a comfortable home for the Liberal Democrat Michael Moore. He was driven out in 2015 by the SNP’s Calum Kerr. Indeed, such was the political turmoil that Moore slumped to third place. Kerr’s biggest rival was the conservative John Lamont. 

Two years later, the electoral horns are sounding, and Lamont is so confident of his victory that he is standing down as an MSP. There were just 328 votes between him and Kerr last time round. So who will be the new ruler of BRK?

4. Labour’s last stand

Constituency: Edinburgh South
Battle: Ian Murray (Labour) vs everyone else

When Ian Murray first won Edinburgh South for Labour in 2010, he might have been in his early thirties, but he was surrounded by Labour heavyweights like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy. Five years later, after a catastrophic election night, he was the only Labour MP left in Scotland. 

Murray’s survival is down partly to his seat – a leafy, academic constituency that epitomises Edinburgh’s pro-union, pro-Remain vote – and his no-nonsense opinion on both these issues (he’s no fan of Jeremy Corbyn either). A similarly-minded Labour candidate, Daniel Johnson, won the overlapping Scottish parliamentary constituency in 2016.

Now, though, Murray is fighting a defensive battle on two fronts. The SNP came second in 2015, and will likely field a candidate again. But those with longer memories know that Edinburgh South was once a Tory realm. Stephanie Smith, who is also standing for local elections, will be trying to take a bite out of Murray’s pro-union vote. 

Still, Murray has a good chance of outlasting the siege. As one Labour activist put it: “I think I’ll be spending the next six weeks camping out in Edinburgh South.” 

5. The big fish in the pond

Constituency: Gordon
Battle: Alex Salmond (SNP) vs Colin Clark (Tory)

Freed from the chains of high office, Alex Salmond is increasingly in touch with his inner charismatic bully. When not trying to wind up Anna Soubry, he is talking up a second independence referendum at inconvenient moments and baiting the Brexiteers. This is the big fish the pro-union movement would love to catch. 

But can they do it? Salmond won the seat in 2015 from the Liberal Democrats with a majority of 8,687 votes. Taking on this whopper is Colin Clark, a humble Tory councillor, and he knows what he’s up against.  He called for every unionist to back him, adding: “I have been in training since 2015 and I am fit and ready to win this seat in June.”

To get a sense of how much the Scottish referendum has changed politics, consider the fact that Labour activists are ludicrously excited by this prospect. But however slippery he may be, the SNP goliath in person can win over even devout unionists.  I’m not betting on a hooked Salmond any time soon. 

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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