In this week’s New Statesman: Eton Mess

Cameron’s clique and the rebirth of the British ruling class. PLUS: Nigel Farage writes the diary.

Eton Eternal: Jason Cowley interviews the Eton headmaster

From the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of No 10’s policy unit to top stage actors and the PM – Etonians have resurged into in public life. In our cover story this week, Jason Cowley meets Tony Little, the school’s headmaster. Is Eton guilty of creating “a peculiar form of conformity” in the upper corridors of power? Jason Cowley asks Tony Little. The headmaster replies:

“ ‘There or thereabouts’. I think this is one of those little moments in history that won’t be repeated. I’m pleased that it’s not just the Conservative Prime Minister, but the Archbishop of Canterbury and actors [Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West], who have a rather different take on the world. And that reflects the Eton I live in. The exciting thing about being in a place like this is having bright, young, aspirational people who see the world in very different ways. That is the optimistic view. Whether it holds up to scrutiny is rather more complicated.”

While debunking misconceptions about this centuries-old school for boys – such as the high percentage of “Russian plutocrats’ ” children in attendance and the notion that all Eton students “come from castles” – Little also addresses the British education system’s role in “flatlining” social mobility and assesses the reforms by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove:

“The good bit is rattling the cage and rattling it mightily. We now have these pinpricks of light, of some outstanding practice . . . the Teach First scheme . . . is the single best initiative that has happened in my professional lifetime.

“[However,] I see no joined-up plan. Nationally, I’m talking about . . . Huge amount of reform, maybe too much. I think most of the people I work with can’t see the big picture we are aiming for. People can see merit in the individual things that are going on, but we don’t yet see the whole picture . . .”

Plus, Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, explains how social mobility got stuck.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Nigel Farage: The Diary

Storming South Shields, dodging photographers and a new Nigel on the Eurosceptic scene. The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, recalls a less-than-ordinary week, from the local elections and television appearances to gutting fish and Brussels

[On Thursday evening, I take] the train to London to film This Week with Andrew Neil, with a live studio audience and his dog, Mollie. The atmosphere among the programme’s acolytes is fantastic, almost cultish. I have since been told their audience figures stretched well beyond a million so I hope it is a format they use again. A few drinks after the show, and it is time to head to my hotel and await the results from South Shields. By around 1.30am the count has finished and Ukip is looking at a staggering 24.2 per cent. Not enough to steal the seat but a breathtaking vote share, in the light of such a short campaign where 60 per cent of votes cast happened via postal ballot. It’s a situation that needs to change, castrating the chance to campaign and communicate with the public and protecting the party in power. I am intending to sleep, but as the early results start coming in from Lincolnshire I know that something incredible is burgeoning. I finally turn my phone off at three.

The week ends with an unexpected political lift: “Bank holiday over and it’s back to Brussels. Tuesday continues the weekend theme of Nigels, as Mr Lawson speaks out against British membership of the EU. The world is slowly becoming a far less lonely place.”

Laurie Penny: Letter from Reykjavik

After the financial crash of 2008, Iceland refused to bail out its banks and overthrew its government. Five years on, has its flirtation with an alternative to austerity ended? Laurie Penny visits on election day. Laurie Penny writes:

Iceland is a little human crucible bubbling away in the middle of the north Atlantic, and an experiment in how to build and run a modern democracy. For most of the past 30 years, it embraced aggressive free-market capitalism. Then its banks failed, its population lost faith in conventional politics, and it began to be an experiment in something else entirely. Desperate people across the eurozone cling to the fairy tale of Iceland as a plucky country holding out against austerity – but Icelanders see things differently.

Rafael Behr: The Politics Column

Everyone’s talking about Nigel, but it’s Nick who has shaken up Westminster for good, says Rafael Behr in the Politics Column this week. He argues that there is a stark choice facing British politics, expressed in the form of a rivalry between two party leaders with distinct styles and incompatible creeds. Those leaders are, of course, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg:

Labour and the Tories have fought each other to a standstill. We already know the contours of every stone they throw. David Cameron is the haughty toff who cuts public services for pleasure. Ed Miliband is the gormless wonk without the strength to grip the axe. Their repetitive skirmishes win no defectors from the opposite tribe.

Read the politics column online now.

 

IN THE CRITICS:

 

Jesse Norman on Edmund Burke

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, John Gray reviews Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman MP. Burke, John Gray argues, is “the thinker who more than any other exemplifies the contradictions of conservatism”. The principal contradiction in Burke’s conservatism is between his hostility to “political rationalism” – the notion that society can be remade in the image of abstract ideals – and his commitment to a species of providentialism, according to which the steady advance of liberty is evidence of a divine author at work. Margaret Thatcher, Gray goes on, saw the political settlement she achieved “as a chapter in a Burkean grand narrative of liberty. Unsurprisingly, this settlement has now collapsed.”

 

Brian Eno: The Critics Interview

The NS pop critic, Kate Mossman, talks to the musician, producer and all-round creative force Brian Eno. “The art world bothers Eno,” Mossman writes. Eno tells her: “The art world has got into the habit of believing that its prices reflect its importance.” Eno himself has sometimes been on the receiving end of the kind of snobbery that reigns in the art world, mostly for his production work with mega-selling bands such as Coldplay and U2. “People don’t think my production is cool,” he says. “[But] I like working with both those bands because they are at the centre of something I’m usually at the edges of . . . Snobbery is an English disease.”

 

Plus:

  • Sarah Churchwell is decidedly unimpressed by Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s novel based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont reviews A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison
  • Sophie Elmhirst reviews John Crace’s biography of Harry Redknapp, Harry’s Games
  • Nick Spencer, the research director at the think tank Theos, reviews The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones
  • Daniel Swift reviews an edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters edited by Dan Wakefield
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Our Children, the new film by the director Joachim Lafosse
  • The architect Amanda Levete explains why “resistance is the fuel in the process of design” and why “cities are never perfect”.
  • And much more.

Read our full “In the Critics” blog post here.

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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia