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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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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war