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In this week's magazine | Anxiety nation

A first look at this week's magazine.

Illustration by Lucas Varela with art direction by Erica Weathers.

Anxiety nation: why is modern Britain so ill at ease?

Plus

Rafael Behr on Maria Miller’s resignation and how David Cameron misjudged the public mood

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

William Dalrymple on the endgame in Afghanistan

Mark Lawson, critic at large, on King Charles III – the most treasonous royal play yet

Jesse Norman remembers Michael Oakeshott: politician, thinker, lover

Stuart Maconie on the “real” Frank Sidebottom

Unfinished business: Jimmy Carter tells John Bew about his crusade for women’s rights

John Bew meets the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and international development expert Jimmy Carter to discuss his campaign to stop violence and discrimination against women.

 

In person, Carter is charming, warm and impossible not to like. In Britain we would call him a “national treasure” – a sort of Tony Benn figure, with whom you don’t have to agree in order to respect his integrity. But as one of only three one-term presidents since 1945, Carter exudes the sense of having unfinished business to attend to.

 

The 89-year-old former US leader tells Bew that he became aware of the scale of the problems facing women through the Carter Centre, which he founded in 1982. And he believes that the slave trade in women is bigger now than it was in the 19th century.

 

Is Carter aware of the recent work by William Hague and the British Foreign Office, together with Angelina Jolie, in campaigning against sexual violence in conflict zones? “Absolutely,” he says, and both he and his aide nod vigorously when I mention the forthcoming summit on the subject in London in June. Hague, Carter says in his Georgian drawl, “is an active hero of mine; he and Miss Jolie are doing a successful and admirable job”.

 

Discussing foreign policy, Carter declares Bashar al-Assad one of “the most obdurate individuals I have ever met” and suggests the US government was mistaken to demand the Syrian leader’s resignation as the civil war broke out.

 

Carter also warns that although he believes Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a “special case”, the US and its allies must present a united front to stop further incursions by Moscow.

 

Rafael Behr: the politics column

The delay over Maria Miller’s departure as culture secretary shows David Cameron is a poor judge of public feeling, argues the NS political editor, Rafael Behr, in his column this week.

No 10 invited Miller’s assassins in the press and parliament to desist but failed to erect a bulletproof shield around her. Her resignation exposed Cameron as a slow reader of the mood in his party and the country.

But Behr also points out that Cameron’s continuing reluctance to condemn Miller has much to do with his unease about gender imbalance in the cabinet:

The joke among Tory MPs is that the only way to get promoted in Cameron’s regime is to be an Old Etonian, female or Matt Hancock (the skills minister is a favourite of the Chancellor, as is the new Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid). It is widely suspected that Cameron’s reluctance to surrender Miller owed much to her precious status as one of the few women in the cabinet.

 

Cover story: anxiety nation

As the number of people in the UK with an anxiety disorder reaches three million, Sophie McBain presents the anatomy of an epidemic.

It is difficult to quantify whether it is our feelings of anxiety that have changed, or whether it’s just our perception of those feelings that is different: are we increasingly viewing ordinary human emotions as marks of mental illness?

If one in seven of us is taking pills to control or ward off anxiety, are we just medicalising an ordinary human emotion? Did the purveyors of the early anti-anxiety medicines such as Miltown – discovered in the 1940s, and the first in a line of blockbuster drugs including Prozac and Xanax – manage to create a new problem along with the solution they offered?

Or maybe the UK’s epidemic of anxiety isn’t pathological at all but a product of historically unprecedented good health and affluence. Perhaps anxiety is a luxury that comes with wealth, freedom and the privilege of having nothing fundamental to fear in our modern society.

 

Mark Lawson on King Charles III

The NS’s critic at large, Mark Lawson, reviews King Charles III, Mike Bartlett’s new play at the Almeida Theatre in London, which, unlike such Elizabeth II fictions as The Audience, “enters areas that British patriotism and tact tend to avoid”.

Half a century after [Harold] Wilson fretted about portrayals of the Mountbatten-Windsors on the boards, Bartlett, a 33-year-old whose previous work includes Love, Love, Love and 13, has written the boldest and most provocative play about the royal family in British theatrical history . . .

While the press and public of the second Elizabethan age may approve of [Bartlett’s] view of Charles as a meddling monarch, they may be more startled by the presentation of William and Catherine as baddies. In the most remarkable scene, the ghost of Diana appears to her elder son, who is now Prince of Wales and heir to the throne. If the Lord Chamberlain still policed the stage, Bartlett would be in the Tower. This is the first piece of theatre to treat the royals like any other subject.

Plus

Peter Wilby: Maria Miller proves politicians can’t master the art of contrition

David Patrikarakos reports from eastern Ukraine, where pro-Putin rebels
are waiting for Russia

Veronese at the National Gallery in London: Michael Prodger on the Venetian colourist who abhorred empty canvas

Helen Lewis on the social lives of micro-celebs and hi-tech teens

Will Self spends a week as a flâneur picking out faces in the crowd

Life aquatic: John Burnside on Rachel Carson’s great sea trilogy

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire has all the gossip from Westminster

Caroline Crampton visits the Angela Lansbury Film Festival in east London

The NS tech writer, Ian Steadman, on why the White House might sue Samsung over a selfie

 

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.