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In this week's New Statesman | Sunni vs Shia

A first look at this week's magazine.

Who are Isis?

Iraq special report by John Bew and Shiraz Maher

Mehdi Hasan: Inviting Tony Blair's views on the Middle East is like asking Bernie Madoff to comment on financial regulation

Gordon Brown: why Britain needs a written constitution

“I won't be joining the Theresa May fan club any time soon”

Alan Johnson, former home secretary, talks to Lucy Fisher about his support for Ed Miliband the “geek” and his dislike of Theresa May

Plus

Lib Dem president Tim Farron: supporting a minority government

The new stateswoman: Douglas Alexander reviews Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices: A Memoir

Jonathan Rugman in Kurdish Erbil: Does Iraq need a three-state solution?

Letter from Baghdad: Hayder Al-Khoei reports from the Iraqi capital

Mark Lawson on J K Rowling and the chamber of pseudonyms

Russell Brand, Jonathan Wilson and Hunter Davies on the World Cup

Margarent Heffernan busts the competition myth: why shared progress is better than winning

 

Cover story: who are Isis?

In a special report on the situation unfolding in Iraq, the NS contributing writer and award-winning historian John Bew and the radicalisation expert Shiraz Maher consider the origins and motivation of Isis, “the west’s new bogeyman”. What does this murderous group want, they ask, and how many British jihadists are fighting for it in Iraq and Syria?

 

Mehdi Hasan on Tony Blair

In his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hasan condemns Tony Blair’s most recent intervention in the debate on the Middle East. Why does the British press continue to give Blair airtime and column inches when he is so discredited, Hasan asks. And why do senior Labour figures still defend the former prime minister?

On 20 January 2009, George W Bush boarded a helicopter and flew out of Washington, DC, never to be heard from again. Well, apart from that unreadable memoir in 2010. And, er, those rather odd self-portraits.

For Britons, however, Tony Blair never really went away. Month after month, year after year, he pops up on television, or appears in the newspapers, to promote an alliance with Putin’s Russia, or to defend Egypt’s military junta, or to push for military action against Iran/Syria/Iraq/fill-in-the-gap. He is the peace envoy who always wants war, the faith foundation boss who doesn’t understand the Islamic faith. Yet Blair, invader of Iraq, occupier of Afghanistan, defender of Israel’s 2006 blitz on Lebanon, is regularly and inexplicably invited by the British press to comment on all matters Middle Eastern. Why not ask Bernie Madoff to comment on financial regulation?

 

 

Gordon Brown: Britain needs a written constitution

In an essay for this week’s issue, the former prime minister Gordon Brown argues that the UK is moving inexorably towards federalism and that Britain now needs a written constitution. “Britain cannot be Britain without Scotland,” he writes, “and yet Britain cannot keep Scotland unless Britain itself changes.”

Brown argues that we can no longer ignore “the basic fact that the United Kingdom is no longer and will never again be the all-powerful centralised unitary state of the constitutional textbooks”. The solution, he suggests, is to “codify” the new situation:

. . . whatever the post-Scottish referendum arrangements are, the UK already looks more like a constitutional partnership of equals in what is in essence a voluntary multinational association. At some stage it will make sense to codify the new division of powers and the new power-sharing, tax-sharing, risk-sharing and resource-sharing rules in a written constitution. And when this is done, Britain will move as close to a federal state as is possible in a country where 85 per cent of the population comes from only one of its four constituent parts.

 

 

The Politics Interview: Alan Johnson

In an interview with Lucy Fisher, winner of the inaugural Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists, the former home secretary Alan Johnson discusses his extreme dislike for Theresa May, his concern about declining social mobility in Britain, the next volume of his memoirs, his 100 per cent support for the “geek” Ed Miliband, and his love of stylish clothes.

Alan Johnson on Theresa May:

Though he hardly reserves high praise for Gove, who has “done nothing yet that suggests he’s turned around British education”, Johnson’s contempt for May is biting. “The major villain here is the Home Secretary,” he says. He derides May for the resignation of her closest adviser, who left in an effort to draw a line under the [Gove-May] row. “Poor Fiona Cunningham taking the hit here . . . I think that’s wrong.”

[. . . ]

There is an enduring sense of decency and honour about the way Johnson has navigated politics. Conversely, as he continues to catalogue May’s perceived errors, it becomes clear that it is her lack of these qualities that he resents. “Abu Qatada,” he says emphatically: “the biggest mistake I’ve ever seen a home secretary make to get someone like him arrested on the wrong day.”

[. . . ]

Her treatment of the police has, furthermore, been a ploy to earn “cheap applause” from “her group of worshippers”. He says: “You need the police force, you need to be able to work with them. You don’t need to be at this constant loggerheads with them, as she is.”

He reiterates: “You have the rows behind closed doors. That’s the sensible thing to do as a senior politician.” He pauses. “So I’m afraid I won’t be joining the Theresa May Fan Club any time soon.”

Johnson on Ed Miliband:

. . . he says he is “100 per cent” behind Ed Miliband . . . He concedes, however, that the Labour leader trails his brother in style and presentation and “maybe is not as able to connect [with people] as strongly as David can. It’s not his strong point.” He continues: “I can’t pretend that, knocking on doors, people come out and they’re really enthusiastic about Ed.”

[. . .]

“With him [Miliband] being classified as a geek – which may turn out to be a very cool thing to do; I’ve seen T-shirts with ‘I’m a geek and proud of it’ – he’s going to have to overcome that. What he mustn’t do is try to pretend he’s something he’s not.”

On loyalty in politics:

Loyalty is important to Johnson. At one point during our conversation, he claims that he could not “betray” the people of his constituency in Hull by standing for London mayor in 2016. Later, he explains why he never bid against Brown for the Labour leadership: “I wasn’t going to stab him in the back. I don’t do treachery.”

On social mobility:

“I think it’s doubtful that anyone can come in like I did.” Even more anxious-making for him is the notion that any disadvantaged young people could be inspired by his tale. “I’m not a role model for kids from any kind of background but certainly not from poorer backgrounds,” he tells me when we meet at his airy office on Parliament Street, Westminster. “It was a different era completely.”

On sartorial correctness:

“. . . this is sound advice that I’ve given my daughters over the years,” he pauses gravely: “never have anything to do with a man who wears cufflinks but not a double cuff.”

 

Tim Farron: supporting a minority government

In an interview with the NS political editor, George Eaton, Tim Farron, the president of the Liberal Democrats, argues that the party should not dismiss the idea of backing a minority government. Contradicting his party leader, Nick Clegg, who has ruled out support for anything short of a full coalition, Farron tells Eaton:

“When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe – and let the other party believe – that there is a point at which you would walk away and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind. That is something we all have to consider.”

Farron also expresses sorrow at Matthew Oakeshott’s resignation:

When I begin our conversation by mentioning the fate of Lord Oakeshott, who was forced to resign after attempting to bring Nick Clegg down by leaking unfavourable polling, Farron offers a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response. “I really like Matthew Oakeshott. I might be one of the very few people who still does. It was just unbelievably crass and foolish,” he says. “I hope there can be some way back for him.”

 

Douglas Alexander on Hillary Clinton's new memoir

The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, delivers his verdict on Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, Hard Choices, in the Critics section this week. Alexander finds the book “characteristically disciplined and organised”, but expresses surprise that it is interested in the “nuance of governance rather than the primary colours of politics” – especially given that the memoir is “widely seen as a prelude to a possible 2016 run for the White House”. Alexander is particularly interested in Clinton’s account of the “pivot to Asia”:

This “Asia awareness” is unsurprising. In the Senate she had called the rise of China “one of the most consequential strategic developments of our time” and was an early advocate of a “careful and disciplined” response to the relationship.

Yet even after finishing the book I am left wondering whether the pivot to Asia that Hillary oversaw, with a new emphasis on regional security alliances, will prove sufficient to acknowledge the global rebalancing of power and wealth now under way. Her successor, John Kerry, chose Europe and the Middle East – a much more conventional destination – for his first overseas visit, and the Middle East continues to absorb US time, energy and bandwidth.

 

Russell Brand's World Cup: I can't give up on England

In a column for this week’s New Statesman, the comedian and former NS guest editor Russell Brand explains why he’s rooting for England in the Brazil 2014 World Cup against his better judgement:

Here I am, another World Cup, staying up late, worrying, hoping, like a heroine in a Motown song or Angie Watts, jumping back into the arms of my three-lion lover, murmuring the split-lipped refrain of the abused, “This time they’ve changed.”

If I could’ve told little 11-year-old Russell, bereft in the asphalt wasteland of Little Thurrock Primary School, as he listened to the bewildering lies of Jamie Dawkins (that England would be allowed to proceed in the tournament and that Diego Maradona’s quarter-final handball had been retroactively banned by Fifa; he was the hardest kid in our school: I had no choice but to believe), that in 2014 I’d be once more, like a wincing white-coal fire walker, striding into the agonising known, he’d have been dazzled.

Plus

The Diary: Joy Lo Dico on David Cameron’s date at the Chiltern Firehouse

Peter Wilby on Angelina Jolie’s honorary damehood and the move to fine bad parents

James Medd: how British TV is taking over the world

Exhibition of the Week: “The Human Factor: the Figure in Contemporary Sculpture” at the Hayward Gallery

Love letter to London: Tracey Thorn finds beauty in the capital’s plague pits

Real Meals: Will Self wilfully ignores the “pulled pork” shtick

Michael Brooks on why scientists are so keen to study the human placenta

Ian Steadman explains why modern terrorists tweet pictures of cats

Natasha Turner believes that students should campaign to close the pay gap in universities

 

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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