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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.