In this week’s New Statesman: The dream ticket?

With Cameron in crisis, the Tories are ready for Boris and Gove. PLUS: Mehdi Hasan on Islam and gay rights.

Cover Story: Gove and Boris - the dream ticket?

Boris Johnson wins elections. Michael Gove is an ideologue. Together, they can offer what Cameron lacks, writes Rafael Behr in our cover story this week. Behr considers if an alliance could succeed David Cameron and George Osborne at the top of the Tory party. The prospect of a European referendum has exposed divisions in the Conservative ranks that Cameron seems unable to close:

Cameron does not want to take Britain out of the EU; a large part of his party wants nothing more. That makes it inevitable that the Tories will ponder a change of leadership, periodically in public and almost constantly in private.

Though Johnson is a clear favourite among Conservative members, there are concerns about his lack of seriousness and ideological rigour. That, Behr argues, is where a joint ticket with Gove, the Education Secretary, starts to look appealing:

Gove’s appeal to Tories is almost the opposite of Johnson’s. He has no aura of mass-market celebrity but is admired in the party for fixedness of purpose and executive effectiveness . . . The zeal behind the push to convert local authority schools to academies, found new free schools and promote pious cultural conservatism in the curriculum has stunned Labour, infuriated the teaching unions and alienated civil servants. Those things count as triumphs among Conservatives.

Behr highlights the two men’s friendship and the emergence of policy collaboration between them, with Johnson planning to use City Hall powers as Mayor of London to promote free schools. Above all, a Boris-Gove alliance would offer different and complementary traits that many Tories believe are missing in Cameron.

The rational course for the Tories would be to unite behind the Prime Minister, but they have drifted beyond reason and into the realm of longing. There are two things they particularly crave but which Cameron, in their eyes, is incapable of providing. The first is popularity that reaches beyond core Tory voters, yet without a hint of apology for being a Conservative. The second is the firm smack of ideological constancy. In today’s party those dream attributes come with names attached: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

The Guest Column: Edward Davey says Eurosceptic Tories are putting party before country

The rise of “multiparty politics” in Britain has been a big factor in the Tory party’s “poor record”, writes the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and Liberal Democrat MP, Edward Davey, in our Diary this week. “How they respond may determine the next election. Do they appease Ukip or confront it?”

The Conservative “appeasers” have won out so far, Davey says, but is the party getting it wrong? He writes:

People need to wake up. When cabinet ministers follow Tory grandees in backing withdrawal from the EU and when the Conservative Party votes against its own Queen’s Speech, stakes have risen. The best we now have from the Conservatives when it comes to pursuing our national interest in Europe is to threaten our partners with renegotiation and an “in or out” referendum, whatever is negotiated. It’s like a hostage-taker saying, “If you give me what I want, I still might shoot you.”

By talking up the prospects of withdrawal, the Tories are damaging our national interest, not strengthening it. And they are doing so on the false promise that it will help them win a general election. This is a clear case of putting party before country. Shame on them.

Read this piece in full, online now.

 

Mehdi Hasan: As a Muslim, I struggle with the idea of homosexuality, but I oppose homophobia

Writing after the Cambridge theologian Dr Tim Winter and the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson apologised for homophobic comments they had made, Mehdi Hasan issues his own apology for “some pretty inappropriate comments in the past”.

Taking the conversation wider, Hasan says that “many Muslims . . . have a problem, if not with homosexuals, then with homosexuality”. But putting aside his personal “struggles” with the matter, he appeals for a more balanced and progressive relationship between faith and homosexuality – arguing that homophobia and Islamobophia actually have much in common.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that, as a teenager, I was one of those wannabe-macho kids who crudely deployed “gay” as a mark of abuse . . .

It’s now 2013 and I’m 33 years old. My own “youthful enthusiasm” is thankfully, if belatedly, behind me. What happened? Well, for a start, I grew up . . . I acquired a more nuanced understanding of my Islamic faith, a better appreciation of its morals, values and capacity for tolerance . . .

The truth is that Islamophobia and homophobia have much in common: they are both, in the words of the (gay) journalist Patrick Strudwick, “at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown . . .” Muslims and gay people alike are victims of this fear – especially when it translates into hate speech or physical attacks. We need to stand side by side against the bigots and hate-mongers, whether of the Islamist or the far-right variety, rather than turn on one another or allow ourselves to be pitted against each other, “Muslims v gays”.

 

Felicity Cloake: Our big fat fear

In the NS Essay this week, Felicity Cloake writes a special report on the obesity epidemic. As our waistlines have grown, she writes, so has our collective judgment of the overweight – in society, in the workplace, and even in the healthcare system. So how did fattism become “perhaps the last form of socially acceptable forms of prejudice?” She begins:

Almost half of the people surveyed for a Mintel special report in 2009 blamed the rising tide of obesity on “laziness” and a fifth attributed it to greed. Even Tam Fry, the spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, has described the obese as “eating [themselves] silly”.

Indeed, hardly a month goes by without some hysteria in the tabloids about “fat Brit­ain”. Whatever the story, the sentiment is the same – it’s all their own fault.

The government, hardly more understanding, seems to view fat people purely as a selfish drain on scarce national resources. “At a time when our country needs to rebuild our economy,” the former health secretary Andrew Lansley wrote in the introduction to the government’s 2011 Healthy Lives, Healthy People policy paper, “overweight and obesity impair the productivity of individuals and increase absenteeism.” Apparently it’s up to all of us “to be honest” about what we eat and drink. The subtext? If only fat people would lay off the junk, they’d save the economy £7bn a year.

 

The Mr. Men Game: Richard J Evans challenges Michael Gove’s history agenda

Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, responds to criticisms levelled at him in a recent speech on the teaching of history in schools by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Evans wonders why Gove ignored the best account of the subject, the 2011 Ofsted report History for All. Instead, Gove appealed to a number of rather unreliable sources.

It emerged that Gove’s sources included only one properly conducted poll, carried out by Lord Ashcroft to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London. The rest, including a poll carried out by the hotel chain Premier Inn, was either amateurish, politically biased, or irrelevant.

Why, Evans wonders, “does the Secretary of State feel it necessary to keep denigrating the dedicated people who teach history in our schools? Where is his patriotic pride in the historical profession in our country, the best in the world? The recently released QS rankings of university history departments across the globe put Cambridge top, Oxford second and other British universities such as the LSE, UCL and Warwick only a little way behind.”

 

Ian Mulheirn: The truth about welfare

What happened to social solidarity in Britain? asks Ian Mulheirn, the director of the Social Market Foundation. When the Beveridge report was released in 1942, people “queued around the block” to get a copy. “Welfare was a vote-winner,” Mulheirn writes, but in the intervening decades “the descent from Beveridge has been total”.

In extracts from his forthcoming publication Beveridge Rebooted, he argues: “Our welfare system today is politically toxic and the public debate about it has become untethered from evidence or a semblance of rational discussion.” Citing comprehensive research, he identifies flaws of the government’s current welfare strategy:

Our welfare system is failing politically. It does not inspire confidence among taxpayers, nor does it provide effective support for those who need it. Increasingly it is seen to be overgenerous, disincentivising work, and out of control. Yet paradoxically, for the vast majority of workers, it provides some of the least generous support available in the developed world for people who experience the misfortune of unemployment.

How did this situation come about?

 

George Eaton interviews Sarah Wollaston MP

In an interview with George Eaton, the Conservative MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, accuses David Cameron of caving in to drinks and tobacco industry lobbyists by abandoning plans to introduce minimum alcohol pricing and plain packaging for cigarettes.

Asked why Cameron chose not to include these policies in the Queen’s Speech, she replies:

“It’s lobbying. And to those who think that lobbying doesn’t work, well, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t be doing it.”

She adds: “We should not try and compete with Nigel Farage by looking like the party of booze and fags.”

 

In the Critics

This week, the historian of the Catholic Church John Cornwell reviews On Heaven and Earth, a series of interviews between Jorge Mario Bergoglio, recently named Pope Francis, and the Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka, now published as a book. The critical questions to answer about the “first pope from the Americas”, Cornwell argues, are these: “Will he support the progressive Catholic constituency that bemoans the reversal of the ideals of the Second Vatican Council? Or will he encourage the traditionalists, who yearn for the return of the citadel Church of the great Piuses of the 20th century?” On the evidence of these conversations, Cornwell concludes, the Francis papacy will be characterised by a “rhetorical emphasis on the Church’s identity and fellowship with the poor”. However, it is also clear, he notes, that “the new pope is sceptical to the point of cynicism about the secular sphere’s ability to relieve poverty without religion; and he is ominously silent on the strengths of social democracy”.

In books:

  • Leo Robson reviews Fallen Land, the second novel by the young American writer Patrick Flanery: “Flanery smuggles [in] an improbable range of themes and modes. Like many an American novelist before him, he tries to keep the mixture under control by drawing connections . . . but his efforts are strained . . .”
  • The former Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis praises Progressive Capitalism by David Sainsbury: “This book is equally important for what it says and for who is saying it . . . A decade ago this prospectus would have seen its author branded ‘Red Sainsbury’. Now it is pretty sensible and mainstream. A new centre ground is being forged.”
  • Olivia Laing enjoys Here and Now, an exchange of letters between the novelists Paul Auster and J M Coetzee: “It’s a spectacle that engages both spectators and participants: there’s something of the tennis match here, a game that is itself a subject of scrutiny.”
  • David Shariatmadari reads The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Raine: “The message that ought to be taken from this book is that criminality should be seen as a publichealth problem.”
  • Vernon Bogdanor reads a new paperback edition of Britain’s First Government by John Shepherd and Keith Laybourn: “The history of the first Labour government shows how dangerous it is for the party to retreat into a ghetto, isolating itself from other forces on the left.”

Plus:

  • This week’s Critic at Large is Ned Beauman, recently voted one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. Beauman explores the murky phenomenon of “gang stalking”. “Reading about gang stalking online,” he writes, “can be dispiriting . . . but I confess I also find it addictive.” He confesses his ambivalence: “Gang stalking websites . . . are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills.”
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby for the big screen: “[The] film is too dependent for its energy on Gatsby’s ostentatious parties to achieve any satirical strikes.”
  • Kate Mossman reviews the new album by Laura Marling: “Her appeal has always been the unadorned purity of her songs.”
  • Antonia Quirke listens to an interview with the writer Jan Morris on Radio 3 (“There hung over the whole interview . . . a flat determination not to mention her gender reassignment . . .”).
  • Andrew Billen watches Jeremy Herrin’s production of The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe and concludes: “Not all of the production soared.”
  • Rachel Cooke reviews the ITV adaptation of Kate Summerscale’s prize-winning non-fiction book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (“The time will come when [Olivia] Colman makes an excellent Queen Victoria. She looks marvellous in jet”).

 

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot