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

Abbas / Magnum Photos
Show Hide image

Portrait of a religion: Hindu rituals and celebrations across Asia

The Iranian photographer Abbas spent three years journeying through the Hindu religion capturing a wealth of sacred ceremonies.

 

My relationship with God,” Abbas says, “has always been strictly professional.”

The French-Iranian photographer has spent his life photographing every major religion on earth. But, be it the God of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs, he has always retained a degree of distance. He doesn’t tell me what to do,” Abbas says. “And I don’t tell Him what to do with his believers. It’s nothing personal.”

Abbas, 72, was born in Iran and raised in Algeria during that country’s fight for independence. As a young man, he made his name photographing the Iranian Revolution of the late 70s, including a now iconic image of an old, veiled woman dragged to her death by a lynch mob.

It’s not faith I’m interested in,” he says. “It’s what men make of their faith. I’m not interested in God, I’m interested in what people do in His name — the great things, and the stupid things.”

Now he has photographed the Hindu faith. And this, Abbas realised, was to be a bit more complicated than usual. Every major religion tell us to worship one God. They have one sacred text, one central religious authority, one idyll of a returning prophet. Apart from Hinduism.

A baba sanyassi by the altar he has erected to his god in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. Credit: Abbas / Magnum Photos 

Hinduism is a religion of more than 330 million Gods and Goddesses,”Abbas says. “They change name, nature and sex. They marry and divorce and ask for alimony. They are strangely familiar to us in their doubts and weaknesses. They are, all in all, very human gods. Like us, they are capable of the best and the worst.”

There are more than a billion Hindus in the world, making it the world's — and the UK’s — third largest religion. It's also the world's oldest religion, with key texts dating back to 1500 BC. But what do we know of this faith, one followed by around a million British citizens?

Hindus believe in Karma — a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. And so their faith is expressed through a dizzying variety of sacred rituals and celebrations, animals and insects, places and texts.

For his most recent photobook Gods I’ve Seen: Travels Among Hindus, published in October, Abbas travelled for three years through India, Bali, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

"Hinduism may be the least egalitarian of the great religions,” Abbas says. “But what diversity exists in its expression. All I had to do was go down to the street, and the religion unfolded before me. I would walk to the river and see a God thrown into the sea.” (This was the river Hoogly in Kolkata, India, where devotees drown a statue of Durga, the Bengali avatar of goddess Kali).

This series began on 1 January, 2011, in The Hanuman Temple of New Delhi. There he discovered a monkey deity all of 15 meters tall. The city’s aerial metro trundles past at the height of the monkey’s waist, and devotees enter through an opening between its legs. “I was seized with laughter,” Abbas says. “I could tell I was going to like this religion, after more than 35 years of photographing the Sons of Abraham.”

 

In the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ most sacred place, a pilgrim holds a leaf to receive the morning food offering, Amritsar, India. 
Credit: Abbas / Magnum Photos 

Abbas’ photographs are remarkable in their scope, from a Tantric Sannyasi in Tarapith, India, who uses the skull of his dead guru to enhance his spiritual powers during meditation, to naked devotees in Allahabad, in the north of the country, who rush to the holy waters for a ritual bath, to a man in Colombo, Sri Lanka, suspended high in the air from hooks inserted into his flesh, to Jain devotees in Mumbai, wearing masks to avoid harming insects by swallowing them.

On his penultimate journey, Abbas found himself in Junjungan, a village near Ubud in the uplands of Bali. Every 30 years, the village has a festival of sacrifice.

For a week, praying, dancing and offerings to the deities, mostly of live animals, succeed one another,” Abbas says. “All domestic animals, or those easily caught and unfortunate enough to be alive on this friendly island, are sacrificed, from the largest buffalo to the very smallest chicks, a tortoise, a newly born piglet.”

Students from the Indonesia Institute of Arts dress up for a rejong traditional dance in the Batur temple, Kinmantan, Bali. Credit: Abbas / Magnum Photos 

Abbas saw a pair of dogs, muzzled, tied to a pole and exposed to the sun. “The devotees prayed around them, sitting on the ground with their hands folded above their head. As the two dogs became more agitated, so a devotee tried to calm their distress by stroking them. Soon after they were massacred, and not eaten. It was such an innocent form of sadism.”

Remembering the sight of the dying dogs, Abbas says: “Abrahamic religions try to suppress the dark side of mankind by encouraging the struggle towards its annihilation. Hinduism recognises our dark sides, but urges their coexistence with the good and the light, in order to reach a sense of personal harmony. It’s a philosophy, I admit, with which I am more in tune.”

Gods I’ve Seen: Travels Among Hindus is available from Phaidon.

Tom Seymour is a freelance journalist.