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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

 

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Here’s everything wrong with Daniel Hannan’s tweet about Saturday’s Unite for Europe march

I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I was going to give up the Daniel Hannan thing, I really was. He’s never responded to this column, despite definitely being aware of it. The chances of him changing his views in response to verifiable facts seem to be nil, so the odds of him doing it because some smug lefty keeps mocking him on the internet must be into negative numbers.

And three different people now have told me that they were blissfully unaware of Hannan's existence until I kept going on about him. Doing Dan’s PR for him was never really the point of the exercise – so I was going to quietly abandon the field, leave Hannan to his delusion that the disasters ahead are entirely the fault of the people who always said Brexit would be a disaster, and get back to my busy schedule of crippling existential terror.

Told you he was aware of it.

Except then he does something so infuriating that I lose an entire weekend to cataloguing the many ways how. I just can’t bring myself to let it go: I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I never quite finished that book, but I’m sure it all worked out fine for Ahab, so we might as well get on with it*. Here’s what’s annoying me this week:

And here are some of the many ways in which I’m finding it obnoxious.

1. It only counts as libel if it’s untrue.

2. This sign is not untrue.

3. The idea that “liars, buffoons and swivel-eyed loons” are now in control of the country is not only not untrue, it’s not even controversial.

4. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who now dominate our politics, are 70 per cent water and 30 per cent lies.

5. For starters, they told everyone that, by leaving the EU, Britain could save £350m a week which we could then spend on the NHS. This, it turned out, was a lie.

6. They said Turkey was about to join the EU. This was a lie too.

7. A variety of Leave campaigners spent recent years saying that our place in the single market was safe. Which it turned out was... oh, you guessed.

8. As to buffoons, well, there’s Brexit secretary David Davis, for one, who goes around cheerfully admitting to Select Committees that the government has no idea what Brexit would actually do to the economy.

9. There was also his 2005 leadership campaign, in which he got a variety of Tory women to wear tight t-shirts with (I’m sorry) “It’s DD for me” written across the chest.

10. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is definitely a liar AND a buffoon.

11. I mean, you don’t even need me to present any evidence of that one, do you? You just nodded automatically.

12. You probably got there before me, even. For what it's worth, he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, and sacked from the shadow frontbench for hiding an affair.

13. Then there’s Liam Fox, who is Liam Fox.

14. I’m not going to identify any “swivel-eyed loons”, because mocking someone’s physical attributes is mean and also because I don’t want to get sued, but let’s not pretend Leave campaigners who fit the bill would be hard to find.

15. Has anyone ever managed to read a tweet by Hannan beginning with the words “a reminder” without getting an overwhelming urge to do unspeakable things to an inanimate object, just to get rid of their rage?

16. Even if the accusation made in that picture was untrue, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t count as libel. It’s not possible to libel 52 per cent of the electorate unless they form a distinct legal entity. Which they don’t.

17. Also, at risk of coming over a bit AC Grayling, “52 per cent of those who voted” is not the same as “most Britons”. I don’t think that means we can dismiss the referendum result, but those phrases mean two different things.

18. As ever, though, the most infuriating thing Hannan’s done here is a cheap rhetorical sleight of hand. The sign isn’t talking about the entire chunk of the electorate who voted for Brexit: it’s clearly talking specifically about the nation’s leaders. He’s conflated the two and assumed we won’t notice.

19. It’s as if you told someone they were shit at their job, and they responded, “How dare you attack my mother!”

20. Love the way Hannan is so outraged that anyone might conflate an entire half of the population with an “out of touch elite”, something that literally no Leave campaigners have ever, ever done.

21. Does he really not know that he’s done this? Or is he just pretending, so as to give him another excuse to imply that all opposition to his ideas is illegitimate?

22. Once again, I come back to my eternal question about Hannan: does he know he’s getting this stuff wrong, or is he genuinely this dim?

23. Will I ever be able to stop wasting my life analysing the intellectual sewage this infuriating man keeps pouring down the internet?

*Related: the collected Hannan Fodder is now about the same wordcount as Moby Dick.

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.