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In this week’s magazine | Why empires fall

A first look inside this week’s New Statesman.

 

16 MAY 2014 ISSUE

 

COMRADES AT WAR: EDWARD PLATT ON THE IMPLOSION OF THE UK’s FAR-LEFT SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY

 

MEHDI HASAN: PRESSURE INSIDE LABOUR TO SHUN A TOXIC COALITION AND GO IT ALONE IN 2015

 

Plus

 

FROM ANCIENT ROME TO PUTIN’S RUSSIA: TOM HOLLAND ON THE RISE AND FALL OF EMPIRES

KATE FOX ON ENGLISHNESS AND THE TABOO OF NATIONAL CULTURE

RAFAEL BEHR: LABOUR BASHES GOVE BUT WOULDN’T UNDO HIS REFORMS

JOHN GRAY ON THE GLOBAL POWER OF MAO’S LITTLE RED BESTSELLER

GEORGE EATON ON ELECTORAL ARITHMETIC AND LABOUR’S SEATS VERSUS VOTES DILEMMA

A GALAXY OF BRAIN CELLS AND LAUGHTER – BRIAN BLESSED ASKS: “WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?”

PETER WILBY ON GARY BARLOW’S TAX AVOIDANCE AND BRITAIN’S BILLIONAIRES

 

 

COMRADES AT WAR: EDWARD PLATT ON THE SWP

 

Edward Platt investigates the Socialist Workers Party, which is imploding in the wake of a rape scandal. The collapse of the SWP has exacerbated a more general crisis of the extra-parliamentary left, he writes. The alleged sexual harassment and rape of “Comrade W” by “Comrade Delta”, a senior SWP member, was a sign of an undemocratic and exploitative party ethic, Platt argues:

 

[The SWP’s] broader culture was also called into question. “When you treat human beings as disposable objects in the name of la causa, when appropriation of activists’ labour and good will is the norm, when exploitation of your own side goes unchallenged, sexual abuse is one probable outcome,” wrote Anna Chen, who worked unpaid on various SWP press campaigns, including Stop the War. She believed the SWP’s habit of “ripping off their activists for wages, thieving their intellectual efforts and claiming credit for their successes” had initiated a pattern of “diminishing regard for their members”, which had led to the point “where even someone’s body is no longer their own”.

 

The turmoil in the SWP has left a cluster of other far-left parties in Britain poised to pick up socialist activists - if they can avoid repeating its mistakes:

 

David Renton [an SWP member] and 165 other people left in January to form a new group called rs21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century) and he believes the SWP has been left with no more than 200 active members. [The Marxist writer] Richard Seymour says its rump of “worker-ist activists” is “brain-dead, unpleasant and thuggish” – and destined to become more so. “It is toxic,” he says. “It’s doomed.”

 

[The student member] Rosie Warren’s verdict is even more damning: she says the only thing left for the leadership to do is to issue a full apology, and then “declare that anything that was ever good about the SWP has been utterly destroyed, and pack up and go home”.

 

[The SWP’s national secretary] Charlie Kimber says the party is “far from doomed”, though he concedes that the left cannot afford any more splits. Unfortunately, its propensity for internecine conflict seems undiminished. The International Socialist Network, which Richard Seymour, China Miéville and others set up after leaving the SWP, lasted less than a year before disintegrating over an online argument about a sexual practice called “race play”. Seymour now believes it will take a generation to reconstruct the left, and might not happen at all. But the implosion of the SWP has given it a starting point, at least. David Renton believes it will have to begin with an appraisal of the failings of the party to which he belonged for most of his adult life. “Our mistakes were so awful that anyone trying to rebuild the left is going to have to say, ‘We are not at all like them.’”

 

 

MEHDI HASAN: GROWING PRESSURE FOR LABOUR TO GO IT ALONE IN 2015

 

In his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hasan argues that Labour has good reason to go it alone next year and avoid being bounced into a coalition with the “tainted and toxic” Lib Dems. Minority government has been the “elephant in the negotiating room” until now, he writes, but senior Labour figures are increasingly opposed to the idea of a Lib-Lab coalition:

 

“Under no circumstances would we want the Liberal Democrats in a formal coalition with us,” an influential member of the shadow cabinet tells me. “It would be incredibly damaging to us.” “It would be difficult to form a coalition with the Lib Dems,” says another shadow minister, pointing to his party’s relentless attacks on Nick “the Un-Credible Shrinking Man” Clegg.

 

Senior Lib Dems’ claims that a minority government would be weak and undemocratic are brushed off:

 

This is “desperation” on their part, counters a senior Labour frontbencher. Power-hungry Lib Dems, he tells me, don’t want to hand over the keys to their ministerial cars and offices. The reality is “we could form a minority government and we could know we’d be in power for five years”.

 

[. . .]

 

Miliband hasn’t yet formed a view on whether or not to go solo come May 2015. Yet a growing number of senior Labour figures are now of the opinion that if (when?) the election produces another hung parliament, their party shouldn’t have to, and – more importantly – doesn’t have to, start wooing the Lib Dems. “Sitting in government for five years with a bunch of bloody timid compromisers is not what we should be about,” says a Labour frontbencher who backed a Lib-Lab coalition in 2010.

 

 

COVER STORY: THE FALL OF EMPIRES

 

For this week’s cover story, the novelist and historian Tom Holland argues that the fall of Rome still shapes the west’s understanding of the notion of empire:

 

What rises must fall. This seems to most of us almost as much a law in the field of geopolitics as it is in physics. Every western country that has ever won an empire or a superpower status for itself has lived with a consciousness of its own mortality.

 

From anxieties expressed by the poet Rudyard Kipling at the height of the British empire in 1897 to nervous pronouncements by the US comptroller general in 2007 about American immorality and overconfidence, the example of Rome’s decline and fall has been adduced throughout history, Holland argues. Today, he suggests, Putin’s Russia is the global power where “the tug of the Roman ideal” can be felt most keenly:

 

Moscow, to western eyes, does not look very much like Rome. There is no Senate there, no Capitol Hill. No buildings, as they do in Paris or Washington, seek to ape the look of Augustan Rome. Even so, if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can still be felt as a palpable influence on its leader’s policy, it is Russia. In 1783, when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, it was in pursuit of a decidedly Roman dream: that of restoring the Byzantine empire under the two-headed eagle on her own banner. “You have attached the territories,” Potemkin wrote to her, “which Alexander and Pompey just glanced at, to the baton of Russia, and Chersonesus – the source of our Christianity, and thus of our humanity – is now in the hands of its daughter.” No one, as yet, has written in quite these terms to Putin; but if someone did, it would not be entirely a surprise.

 

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: RAFAEL BEHR

 

This week, the NS’s political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that although the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is “consumed by dread that his work will be undone by a left-wing establishment”, his worries are unfounded. Labour loves to bash Gove, he writes, but if the party makes it into government in 2015 the “forces of Govism” will not be halted; Gove’s schools revolution will be “modified, not reversed”:

 

That won’t be enough for large sections of the [Labour Party] and cries of betrayal will surely come. Yet for the time being [Ed] Miliband is protected by public animosity to the Education Secretary. As long as the policy can be dressed in anti-Gove slogans, the activists are on board. Gove plays along by insisting on ever greater leaps forward, smelling counter-revolution in every compromise. If he could see how little of his legacy is under threat from Labour or Lib Dem policy, he would embrace the fellow-travellers in other parties, which is the last thing they want. It is lucky for them that he cannot.

 

*Read the Politics Column in full below*

 

 

BRIAN BLESSED: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

 

The actor and adventurer Brian Blessed is the latest contributor to our What Makes Us Human? series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. Blessed’s response to the question is characteristically ebullient:

 

Each of us has over a hundred billion cells in our brain, comparable to the number of stars in a giant galaxy. The cerebral cortex is liberation. No longer are we at the mercy of our reptilian brain. I experienced the cortex in all its glory when I reached 28,400 feet on Mount Everest in 1993 without oxygen. It was a stunning sensation, a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points. When I closed my eyes coming down the mountain, I could see the cortex and observed millions of flashing lights, dissolving and emerging in a sea of cosmic delight – I couldn’t stop laughing.

 

We have so much to be proud of. In our insatiable quest for knowledge we are revealed as fine, brave explorers who are heaven-bent on seeking limitless horizons. Science works, though it is not perfect and it can be misused; I find myself huffing and puffing trying to keep up with it all. Exploratory spacecraft have been launched to study 70 worlds. Twelve human beings have been to the moon. We are the children of stardust.

 

 

Plus

 

Laurie Penny: abortion on demand is a woman’s reproductive right

In Edinburgh Ed Smith feels British for the first time – but is it too late?

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Press Gallery grumbles about James Landale’s Latin grace

Alan Cochrane charts the new rise of the Willies – Edinburgh-London commuters

Will Self keeps his mother’s spirit alive with a production line of American pancakes

Sophie McBain on the surprisingly political world of breadmaking

Erica Wagner on Lynn Barber, the doyenne of celebrity interviews

Kate Mossman on the snap and crackle of Neil Young’s latest pop offering

Philip Maughan reviews Akhil Sharma’s darkly comic memoir Family Life

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge