In this week’s New Statesman: Brazil erupts

Isabel Hilton reports on Brazil’s biggest protests in 20 years. PLUS: Nicholas Shaxon exposes the secret world of London’s hedge funds.

Football, riches and protest: Can the World Cup host country hold it together?

For our cover story this week Isabel Hilton, the editor of chinadialogue.net and former Latin American affairs editor of the Sunday Times, reports from Brazil on the largest protests in the country since the revolt against the corrupt presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello 20 years ago. Hilton describes how demonstrations that started as a “complaint about a small hike in bus fares became a nationwide movement”, rapidly engulfing 100 cities and attracting a million people – half of them under the age of 25:

In the week leading up to the airport blockade [on 21 June], the city suffered serial heart attacks as protesters targeted its arteries, turning São Paulo’s flyovers and urban motorways into temporary protest playgrounds. But who are the protesters?

The answer, Hilton discovers, is a frustrated and angry middle class – people who are tired of corruption and resentful of an elite “cocooned by privilege”:

For the well-heeled elite, Brazil is already better. They are the beneficiaries of the past decade of high growth, wealthy enough to buy their way out of the daily inconveniences inflicted on the less well-off by chronic corruption, creaking infrastructure and high taxes.

She shows how football, the national obsession, has become a barometer of public feeling:

So deep is the discontent that the unthinkable has happened. In this most football-crazed nation, at a time when Brazil is hosting the Confederations Cup, the mood has turned against an event that the government anticipated would secure its place in the hearts of Brazilians for good: next year’s Fifa World Cup. We need schools, not more football stadiums, the marchers are chanting.

Hilton is left in little doubt that the country has experienced a political sea change over the past fortnight:

If these events signal the beginning of a Brazilian revolution, it is a revolution of rising expectations, born among people who have benefited from the PT’s [Workers’ Party’s] redistribution of wealth.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Nicholas Shaxson on the zombies of Mayfair

In this week’s NS Essay the author and business journalist Nicholas Shaxson penetrates the murky world of Mayfair hedge funds. Some of the activities of the private equity industry are well known to us:

...asset-stripping, outsourcing, layoffs, busting the unions and borderline legal behaviour, not to mention their lobbying, their devious offshore tax shenanigans and their risky debt-loading.

But Shaxson argues that one crucial fact has been overlooked:

...the private equity industry is, collectively, a gigantic waste of investors’ money . . . Mayfair would be far more economically productive if it were turned into a giant waste-disposal centre. This is the trillion-dollar question: why are investors – who probably include your pension-fund manager – still pouring cash into the Mayfair money machine?

So why do investors fall for it? Shaxson suggests that some are simply attracted by the perceived glamour of the sector:

How piteous is that? The manager of your pension fund is throwing your money at these hucksters because it makes him look cool and because it’s more fun.

Should we be worried? Shaxson thinks so:

Above a certain size, financial centres turn bad and start to reduce growth. Britain passed this point long ago . . . Hedge funds and private equity are like the zombies that won’t die. The investors keep coming and getting screwed. It’s time to stop mollycoddling them with tax subsidies and invitations to Downing Street.

 

Susan Greenfield: What makes us human?

Following in the footsteps of Mary Robinson and Caitlin Moran, the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. For Baroness Greenfield the key to human nature lies in our ability to create and use metaphors:

Although chimps can solve problems, use objects around them, communicate with each other in sophisticated ways and, above all, learn, they still lack our ability to see a thing in terms of something else. So, could it be this particular ability, seemingly exclusive to our species, that is the clue to the essence of human nature?

 

Rafael Behr: There is a new consensus about the economy and – believe it or not – Labour called it first

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr highlights how the Conservatives and Labour are in consensus on challenges such as infrastructure investment and the duty of the state to foster growth – though neither camp dares concede it:

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives dare admit that their economic views are converging. The fortification of opposing trenches, separated by boggy no-man’s-land (aka the Lib Dems), has become a strategic necessity and a source of intellectual comfort. Yet the proximity is obvious to anyone outside the two tribes. Labour has accepted that budgets must be cut, as the Tories said all along. The Tories are borrowing to keep the economy afloat, as Labour predicted they would.

Read in full online now.

 

Paul Morley reviews “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life”

Paul Morley, a native of Stockport and the author of The North: and Almost Everything In It, reviews the L S Lowry show opening at Tate Britain today. Morley recalls fixating as a teenager on the “new glamour” of modern developments, eschewing the Stockport Viaduct and other “mighty Victorian buildings” immortalised by Lowry:

Lowry’s paintings stopped well short of imagining the future; they were a flat, unevolved reminder of a disgraced world, studies in unglamorous endurance.

Time and age turned his dislike into reverence, for Lowry and for Lowry’s subjects. “I marvel at my childish ignorance and teenage blindness,” he begins:

The epic [Stockport] viaduct became for me a route to the unknown power of Lowry . . . It took me further and further into a northern heart of darkness, into a vital, often unsettling dreamscape, disorientating and chock-a-block with stimuli. To an artist tracing the broken contours of an antiquated labyrinth, examining the once very strange and modern on the dirty road to extinction.

 

PLUS

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on Generation Rent: “I don’t want to die in an attic”

Jane Shilling explores the new English nature writing

Sophie Elmhirst reviews two new political memoirs – This Boy: a Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson and Strictly Ann: the Autobiography by Ann Widdecombe

Ryan Gilbey reviews three contemporary documentaries – The Act of Killing, Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer and Stories We Tell

Will Self slimes his way down to the Slug & Lettuce

 

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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