In this week’s New Statesman

The public schools debate, David Runciman on British democracy and a new poem by Rowan Williams.

31 JANUARY 2014 ISSUE

Cover story: Why is the British left absent from the public schools debate?
 
David Runciman: Why British democracy is not in danger.
 
Rafael Behr on Ed Miliband’s bid to steal the Treasury’s power.
 
Echoes of Nagasaki: A new poem by Rowan Williams.
 
PLUS
 
Frances Wilson on the forgotten women behind great male authors.
 
Michael Rosen asks: What makes us human?
 
John Pilger awards his Oscars for celebrity self-promotion.
 
“Sensing Spaces”: Amanda Levete immerses herself in the Royal Academy’s new architecture exhibition.
 
The NS TV critic Rachel Cooke on BBC soundtracks.

 

COVER STORY: WHY IS THE BRITISH LEFT ABSENT FROM THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS DEBATE?

In this week’s cover story, the historian David Kynaston and his son George Kynaston, a teacher, ask why the British left has struggled to articulate its opposition to public schools since the 1940s:

Even in Michael Foot’s “suicide note” manifesto of 1983, Labour did not promise anything beyond ending their charitable status; and it is startling to scour Tony Benn’s diaries through the 1970s and 1980s and find so little about the issue.

“Why,” ask the Kynastons, “is the British left as a whole, and not just the Labour Party, so uncomfortable with the matter?” They suggest there are two reasons:

The first is the understandable concern that to concentrate on private schools, with their superior academic achievements (even if gained on a severely sloping pitch), is implicitly to denigrate state schools . . . The second explanation also has an invidious element, not least because many left-of-centre people, especially among the metropolitan intelligentsia, went to private schools and/or have sent their children to private schools – and consequently have felt inhibited talking about them.

Those educated at private schools continue to dominate public life to an alarming degree, the authors note:

PM an Old Etonian? Check. Mayor of London? Check. A of C? Check.

Deputy PM, Chancellor, Chief Whip all privately educated? Check.

Over a third of MPs, over half of doctors and leading chief executives, over two-thirds of judges, barristers and leading journalists? Check. Top sportsmen, top musicians, top actors? Check.

The left today must not view the private school question as “insoluble, nor too dangerous to touch”:

There is a moment to be seized. The loosening up of the state system through academies and free schools has blown away the old plea of the private schools to be left alone in splendid, independent isolation.

THE NS ESSAY: DAVID RUNCIMAN ON THE STATE OF OUR DEMOCRACY

In this week’s NS Essay, the political theorist David Runciman argues that although a series of scandals has rocked British democracy, this does not threaten its foundations. Runciman concedes that public trust in institutions such as banks, parliament and the police has been badly undermined and arose because of “a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites”. However, he argues that there are important differences between Britain today and the Britain of 40 years ago, “when a coup was not outside the realms of political possibility”:

Britain today is a very different country from what it was in the 1970s. It is more comfortable and much more tolerant of different personal lifestyles, even as it is less tolerant of extreme political views . . . There is extensive historical evidence that once they pass beyond a certain level of material prosperity democratic societies are very unlikely to experiment with alternative forms of government.

Runciman cautions:

Scandals are not the same as full-blown political crises, although it is often tempting to confuse the two. Crises can sometimes transform politics. Scandals rarely do . . . The present state of British democracy is a reflection of how far removed we are now from those looming fears of imminent collapse. This time the danger is different. We face the risk of getting stuck where we are.

RAFAEL BEHR: THE POLITICS COLUMN

In his column this week, the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that Ed Miliband doesn’t want to sack Ed Balls – he just wants to steal the Treasury’s power. The shadow chancellor’s job, he writes,

. . . gives Balls a licence to meddle in every nook of Labour’s agenda. Viewed from the leader’s office, this looks like empire-building. Enough Labour people see Balls as an encumbrance to sustain a constant level of chatter about his prospects of being sacked. It is a theme loved by Tories who like to imagine his relationship with the Labour leader as a B-list sequel to the blockbuster Blair-Brown schism.

But Behr believes Miliband, though capable of removing Balls, will choose to keep him in place for the time being because it is the most politically expedient option:

No one who has closely observed the way Miliband operates doubts his capacity to be ruthless. Shadow cabinet ministers speculate that he would get rid of Balls without hesitation if he believed it was a condition of getting over the threshold of No 10. For the time being, the calculation must be that sacrificing the party’s most experienced political economist would signal panic and allow the Tories to boast that Labour’s capitulation to the Osborne plan was complete. Even shadow ministers who don’t much like
Balls say his contributions are usually the most insightful in shadow cabinet meetings.

MICHAEL ROSEN: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

Michael Rosen is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. The children’s novelist and poet believes it is the historian in all of us that is the essential feature of our humanity:

To live with this paradox of history, being on the one hand “gone” yet at the same time being “with us at all times”, is what it is to be human. History is all that’s not there any more and yet we are nothing without it. Animals don’t do history the way we do it. Even if some of them remember stuff, they can’t talk about it. This gives us the pain of loss and the pleasure of memory.

 

PLUS

George Eaton on why Labour’s commitment to a 50p tax rate is here to stay.

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire on Douglas Carswell’s Batman heroics and Ken Clarke the invisible man.

Burhan Al-Chalabi argues that the Americans must apologise for the war in Iraq.

As the Sochi games open, Michael Prodger reviews an exhibition on Russian art, sport and politics at the Olympics Museum.

Michael Brooks on a mathematical pile-up at the language barrier.

Richard Mabey reviews the latest book by Germaine Greer, tree-hugger.

Georgia Catt meets Ruhan Jia, the woman Beijing is backing to become China’s first global pop sensation.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt