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.


  • 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:

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn ally Diane Abbott argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.