10 JANUARY ISSUE
THE POLITICS INTERVIEW: ED BALLS
In this week’s issue, the NS’s George Eaton meets the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, who, in his first interview of the year, talks candidly on a wide range of issues including why “when history is written for Gordon Brown, it will paint a different picture”, why he would not rule out entering a coalition with Nick Clegg with whom he is on “very friendly and warm” terms, and why he believes “effective aviation capacity” is critical to Britain’s economic growth.
The weeks before the recess were a difficult time for Balls, with a mis-sent email from Ed Miliband’s aide Torsten Bell describing him as a “nightmare”, Conservative attacks over his acceptance in 2012 of a £50,000 donation from the Co-operative Group, and calls by some Labour MPs for his removal following his much-criticised response to Osborne’s Autumn Statement. But if Balls is rattled it doesn’t show. Accompanied by his long-serving head of communications, Alex Belardinelli, he seems relaxed. . .
Ed Balls on why history “will paint a different picture” of Gordon Brown:
Does Balls still speak to the man he worked alongside for 16 years? “He actually emailed me today about a by-election coming up in the next couple of weeks,” Balls says, adding that “from time to time we exchange emails and from time to time we meet up”. When I ask whether it saddens him that Brown is now derided as the worst prime minister in recent British history, he argues that “when history is written for Gordon Brown, it will paint a different picture”.
He expands: “There is no doubt that, even now, around the world, the contribution he made to solving the global financial crisis and avoiding a depression is already, outside of Britain, very well understood. . .”
On his respect for Nick Clegg and the prospect of working with him in a coalition:
“I had a friendly chat with him a couple of hours ago in the House of Commons,” he reveals. “I’m not saying where, but the kind of place people pass in the House of Commons. We had a nice chat about how things were going. I think it was the first time I’d had a conversation with him for a really long time . . . I can say, with my hand on heart, the only conversation I’ve had with Nick Clegg in the last 18 months was very friendly and warm. I may disagree with some of the things he has supported but I have no reason to say anything nasty about him as a person.”
Even more strikingly, he adds: “I understand totally why Nick Clegg made the decision that he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time. I may not have liked it at the time, but I understood it. I also understood totally his decision to support a credible deficit reduction plan, because it was necessary in 2010. I think the decision to accelerate deficit reduction, compared to the plans they inherited – which was clearly not what Vince Cable wanted – I think that was a mistake . . . I can disagree with Nick Clegg on some of the things he did but I’ve no reason to doubt
Would Balls be prepared to enter coalition with Clegg? “I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it . . . I saw that subsequently he made a further statement to one of the newspapers that these things weren’t about personalities, and I think he’s right about that.”
On the need for airport expansion:
When I ask Balls if he favours expansion, he hesitates (“I think . . .”) and then concedes: “Yes, I always have. Yes, I do. I thought the Howard Davies report was a very informed first stage, which I think made the case for airport expansion . . . I think a modern, open British global economy needs effective aviation capacity.” Though he refuses to reaffirm his past support for a third runway at Heathrow, his position contrasts with that of Labour, which has yet even to commit to expansion.
On the dangers of an interest rate rise in 2014:
The most notable feature of the recovery has been the sharp drop in unemployment, which now stands at 7.4 per cent, within touching distance of the 7 per cent threshold at which the Bank of England will consider an interest-rate rise. How does he think Mark Carney should respond when joblessness falls to this level?
“I think he’ll be very cautious about wanting to use unemployment and the labour market as an indicator of underlying strength,” Balls tells me. “I know that they’ll [the Bank will] be very worried and concerned and focused on what’s happening to London house prices and wider house prices, but I hope that the Monetary Policy Committee will look across the piece, rather than at one indicator, before they decide to move on interest rates.” His message is clear: in current conditions, there should be no rate rise this year.
On NHS spending and why he would be “staggered” if Labour does not pledge to ring-fence:
When I ask Balls if Labour will pledge to ring-fence NHS spending, he offers the clearest signal yet that it will. In an echo of Nye Bevan’s declaration that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, he says: “I always think in politics revealed preferences are a very powerful indicator of future actions and, at every stage, Labour has ring-fenced and supported ring fences for the National Health Service. I would be staggered if we are anywhere other than wanting to ring-fence the NHS going forward in 2015-2016 and in the future.”
*Read the full interview in Notes to Editors below and online at newstatesman.com*
COVER STORY: CRISTINA ODONE ON THE NEW ORTHODOXY OF LIBERALISM
In a provocative challenge to the left, the former New Statesman deputy editor Cristina Odone argues in this week’s cover story that liberalism has become the new orthodoxy and intolerance of religious believers a daily reality.
Not only Christians, but also Muslims and Jews, increasingly feel they are no longer free to express any belief, no matter how deeply felt, that runs counter to the prevailing fashions for superficial “tolerance” and “equality” (terms which no longer bear their dictionary meaning but are part of a political jargon in which only certain views, and certain groups, count as legitimate).
Only 50 years ago, liberals supported “alternative culture”; they manned the barricades in protest against the establishment position on war, race and feminism. Today, liberals abhor any alternative to their credo. No one should offer an opinion that runs against the grain on issues that liberals consider “set in stone”, such as sexuality or the sanctity of life.
Intolerance is no longer the prerogative of overt racists and other bigots – it is state-sanctioned. It is no longer the case that the authorities are impartial on matters of belief, and will intervene to protect the interests and heritage of the weak. When it comes to crushing the rights of those who dissent from the new orthodoxy, politicians and bureaucrats alike are in the forefront of the attacks, not the defence.
Odone, author of No God Zone, argues that although religion was “once a dominant force in western culture” it has now been “demoted to, at best, an irrelevance; at worst, an offence against the prevailing establishment”.
THE NS ESSAY: ROBERT COOPER ON A NONSENSICAL EU REFERENDUM
Robert Cooper, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, explains why, far from giving a voice to the people, an EU referendum would simply give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.
Why does David Cameron want a referendum on Europe?
That is simple. It is for the same reason as Harold Wilson proposed one in 1975: to deal with his divided party by appealing to higher authority. There is no popular demand for a referendum, but if you ask people in opinion polls whether they want to have a vote on EU membership, you can get a positive answer; if you backed a poll with a media campaign, you could probably get the same answer on many questions.
Are referendums a good way to make decisions?
This is also easy to answer: no. It is shameful that few political leaders are ready to say so. Democracy is not just about voting. It is also about debate and about responsibility.
Wouldn’t a referendum settle the question of the EU once and for all?
No. If that were the case, it would have been settled by the 1975 referendum – when two-thirds of the British voters elected to remain in the EU. Those who want to leave now argue that we were tricked, or that Britain has changed since then, or that the EU has changed. These arguments will be available again whenever anyone wants to use them.
Probably some of those who tell opinion pollsters that they would vote to leave would think again if the question became real. But the conditions are different from those of 1975. The leading figures opposing membership then were from the fringes (Peter Shore, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn) and the media were almost unanimously in favour. Now we have had ten years of the drumbeat of media opposition. Referendums are unpredictable – never a good way to govern a country – and we might end up out. That would be stupid.
THE POLITICS COLUMN: RAFAEL BEHR
In his politics column this week the NS’s political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that the Conservative Party is currently split over how seriously to take Ed Miliband:
The Conservative Party is unsure whether Ed Miliband is ridiculous or dangerous. Tory optimists think the Labour leader’s glamourless style breaches some unwritten prime ministerial admissions code, meaning voters will bar his entry to No 10. They expect the opposition’s lead in opinion polls to vanish once the nation seriously contemplates placing a fragile economy in Ed’s buttery fingers.
Conservative pessimists have more respect. They know that belittling Miliband’s manner doesn’t alter the electoral maths that make him the likeliest bet to be prime minister after 2015. If Labour hangs on to disgruntled Lib Dems, and angry Tories continue to side with Ukip – both plausible scenarios – crucial seats in the Midlands and northern England are unwinnable for David Cameron. A handful of Conservatives even admit that Miliband has played a weak hand with guile, shoring up the unity of the left while the right is divided.
One source of comfort to the Tories, says Behr, is Miliband’s public image. It is:
something that everyone in Labour knows is a problem but only a tiny number of top advisers are authorised to discuss. The shadow cabinet has had many presentations of polling data but none refers to the leader’s personal ratings.
MEHDI HASAN: WHO WILL SPEAK UP FOR ISRAEL’S EDWARD SNOWDEN?
In his Lines of Dissent column this week, Mehdi Hasan tells the tale of two whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor who exposed mass surveillance; and Mordechai Vanunu, who has served 18 years behind bars for blowing the whistle on Israel’s nuclear secrets. Hasan explains:
Vanunu was jailed in 1988 for leaking details of his work as a technician at a nuclear facility near Dimona to the Sunday Times two years earlier. On 29 December 2013, the court rejected his petition, on the grounds that he continues to possess information that could jeopardise Israel’s national security. Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, disagrees. “He told us everything,” Neil told me. “We drained him dry.”
Neil calls Vanunu’s revelations the biggest scoop of his 11-year editorship of the Sunday Times. “Everyone knew Israel had the bomb but what we didn’t know was the huge extent of its nuclear facilities and also its ability to make the hydrogen bomb,” he tells me. “[The Vanunu story] told the world that Israel was basically the sixth nuclear power.”
As a result, Vanunu has been persecuted by the Israeli state for almost three decades. For the first 11 years of his 18-year prison sentence, the former nuclear technician was held in solitary confinement in a nine-foot-by-six-foot cell. His treatment was condemned by Amnesty International as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”; Vanunu has described it as “barbaric”.
Vanunu’s harsh treatment is a clear case of double standards, argues Hasan:
Can you imagine how the west would treat an Iranian Vanunu? How hysterical do you think the response would be in London or Washington – or Tel Aviv! – if an Iranian nuclear scientist were to come forward with, say, photos of secret warheads, only to be locked up by the mullahs and sentenced to solitary confinement?
ROBERT SKIDELSKY ASKS: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?
Following in the footsteps of Richard Dawkins, Caitlin Moran and many others, Robert Skidelsky is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. He concludes that although calculation is a defining human characteristic, the tendency to follow the head over the heart in every scenario ultimately dehumanises us:
The dilemma in defining what is human is this: calculation is an integral part of the human outfit; animals don’t calculate. Without calculation, there could be no economising behaviour. And without economising behaviour there would be no growth of wealth. But if calculation is all we do, then we cease to be human. For the alternative forms of existence are not human and animal, but human, animal and robotic. Robots can be programmed to act exactly as economists think human beings should: efficiently, purposefully. There is no waste in a robotic civilisation.
So, as I would see it, the essence of distinctively human activity is action without thought of the consequences, without counting the cost of the activity and weighing it against the prospective benefits to be obtained.
The Skin: John Gray finds an Italian fascist’s lost masterpiece holds up a gruesome mirror to wartime Europe
Michael Prodger rediscovers John Craxton’s sun-drenched Greek idylls at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Ed Smith: How did it all crumble into ashes?
Sophie McBain visits “Mind Maps” at the Science Museum
Michael Brooks explores the uncertain future of particle physics
Ian Steadman on a troublesome trip to the Antarctic
Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire’s latest Westminster gossip