In this week’s New Statesman: Ed the Unready

What happened to Labour's optimism? asks Rafael Behr. PLUS: Mark Carney profiled and Laurie Penny and Mehdi Hasan on web snooping.

Cover Story: Will the real Ed Miliband stand up?

The polls suggest that Ed Miliband is on course to become Britain’s next prime minister in 2015. Yet few people in his own party seem so optimistic, writes Rafael Behr in our cover story this week. Behr identifies a “sceptical ripple” passing through Labour ranks at the thought of Miliband as prime minister: “there is palpable disbelief at the assertion that Miliband will make it to Downing Street”. Is there anything Ed the Unready can do about this?

Westminster doesn’t treat Miliband as a winner – and neither do many Labour MPs. “I backed Ed because I thought he would grow into the role,” says a prominent member of the cohort elected in 2010. “Now I don’t think he can. I don’t think we can win from here.” . . . In their public pronouncements Labour MPs still put up a formidable front of unity, but sit down for a quiet cuppa and you quickly uncover gloomy forecasts of defeat. The party’s mood seems out of kilter with its maths. Why?

Much of the negativity around Miliband, his cheerleaders say, reflects a habit of mind that hasn’t caught up with the facts. There is an irreconcilable faction that harbours a feeling that Ed didn’t even win the leadership election properly, because he was not the first choice of most party members or MPs.

Miliband draws both admiration and ridicule for his “Zen” attitude to opposition; yet it is this perceived lack of conviction that could be his undoing, Behr argues.

Miliband pushes his luck, leaving crucial decisions untaken for so long that the party starts to sound restive and discipline looks close to breaking down. Then the leader emerges from his meditations carrying tablets of stone engraved with policy pronouncements.

Few Labour MPs think “one nation” is making any great advances into the public consciousness. There are dismissive comparisons with Cameron’s flimsy “big society” rhetoric. Miliband’s team rejects the analogy, urging patience as the great strategy unfurls. But Labour feels its patience stretched, not least because the Tories look so eminently beatable. Miliband is not so much a victim of his own successes as a casualty of his enemies’ premature failures. The fractiousness of the coalition and Cameron’s tenuous control over his party have invited early speculation about Miliband’s credentials as a successor – and he doesn’t look ready.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

The NS Profile: Mark Carney

The new governor of the Bank of England, the Canadian Mark Carney, has been called “the bankers’ George Clooney” and is often hailed as the saviour of the British economy. But who is he – and is his record that good? From “Canada’s frozen wastelands” to “the salubrious inner courts of the Bank of England”, Alex Brummer profiles the rise of the man George Osborne has called “the most accomplished central banker of his generation”, and he asks if we should be wary of this kind of “hero worship”.

“He is a good banker and competent regulator, but not a messiah,” [another] candidate [for the governorship] said. Indeed, there is concern that by describing Carney as the most accomplished central banker of his generation the Chancellor, George Osborne, has raised expectations far too high . . .

It is a susceptibility to hero worship that led Osborne to become the first western finance minister to back the appointment of the elegant former French finance minister Christine Lagarde as managing director of the International Monetary Fund in 2011. The outcome of this has been distinctly mixed . . .

Similarly, Carney’s relative youth, amid the older eminences of the financial world, his matinee idol looks (he has been referred to as the bankers’ George Clooney) and his seemingly impeccable CV drew him to Osborne’s attention . . . He is a “cleanskin” as far as the British public and parliament are concerned. He carries no taint from the 2007-2008 meltdown in Britain or the LIBOR and money-laundering scandals that have so undermined the reputation of British banking. However, lurking in his background are his 13 bonus-filled years as an insider at Goldman Sachs – which critics regard as the shrewdest but most toxic brand in global finance . . .

Clearly, Carney believes he can do what is necessary at the Bank of England. He exudes an inner confidence that some veteran observers argue verges on smugness. Yet there is evidence that he is fragile when it comes to taking criticism . . .

As Gordon Brown and Labour discovered to their cost in their final years in office, no government or central bank has yet learned the secrets of eliminating boom and bust. Carney’s Canada may have avoided the worst of the pitfalls but it is interesting that [the Canadian lender] Scotiabank, among others, gives him only a B+ for stewardship and reckons that his task is “incomplete”. Far from being a messiah, Carney might just be lucky to be leaving his native country as the reckoning begins.

 

Laurie Penny: If you live in a surveillance state long enough, you create a censor in your head

In her column this week, Laurie Penny writes about the “chilling effect” of government surveillance as snooping becomes “easier and more routine” in the digital realm and we, in response, begin to change our behaviour. As Penny asks: Why is there no graffiti on the London Underground? How has life “in the world’s most surveillance-heavy metropolis” bred a kind of compliant self-censorship?

In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia. It’s just easier to change your behaviour. A friend who works in computer security told me that “the most important censorship happens between your head and your keyboard . . .

It’s far less trouble to modify your behaviour so you don’t ever say anything that might give the wrong impression. It’s easier, in short, to behave . . . The chilling disciplinary effect taking place in the digital age affects everyone. Whether we tolerate further intrusions on our privacy or continue to self-censor as a response to surveillance is up to all of us.

 

Mehdi Hasan: On wiretaps and drone strikes, it’s time for liberals to accept that Obama is worse than Bush

With the eruption of the NSA surveillance scandal, Barack Obama is looking increasingly like his far less popular predecessor George W Bush, writes Mehdi Hasan – who drew flak from fellow liberals for suggesting a similarity in 2009. Now, in the light of the new revelations, many more are making the case that Obama goes “far beyond his predecessor in several respects”.

Hasan outlines four areas:

Consider the row over mass surveillance . . . Bush’s former [National Security Agency] director Michael Hayden confirmed that the agency’s surveillance programme had indeed “expanded” under Obama, adding that “there is incredible continuity between the two presidents”.

Second, Obama authorised six times as many drone strikes in his first term in office as Bush did over two terms. Dubbya had terror suspects detained and even tortured; Barack just has them bumped off.

Third, Obama has sanctioned the extrajudicial killing – again, by drone strike – of four US citizens since 2009. Where is the liberal outcry? . . .

Fourth, on war powers. Senator Obama told the Boston Globe in December 2007 that “the president does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally authorise a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation”. Yet President Obama took the United States into war with Libya in 2011 even though Colonel Gaddafi posed zero threat to the security of the US. Despite his imperial pretensions, Bush allowed Congress to vote on the invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan; on Libya, Obama didn’t bother to ask.

PLUS

George Eaton: Who’s who on Team Ed?

John Gray: On the Virgin Birth and other myths of the Enlightenment

Uri Dromi: Israel’s dilemma as the war in Syria intensifies

Alan Ryan: Charting the moral collapse of the United States

Stuart Maconie: On Paul Morley’s The North: and Almost Everything In It

Ryan Gilbey: Richard Linklater’s remarkable 20-year Before trilogy comes to a close

Rt Rev James Jones: What makes us human?

 

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution