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Inside this week’s New Statesman | After God

A first look at this week's magazine. 

4 JULY 2014

 

AFTER GOD

ROWAN WILLIAMS, LUCY WINKETT AND MELVYN BRAGG ON HOW TO FILL THE FAITH-SHAPED HOLE IN MODERN LIFE

 

THE END OF EMERGING MARKETS

IAN BREMMER: INDIA AND CHINA ROSE TOGETHER, BUT THAT ERA IS OVER

 

Plus

 

LEADING ARTICLE: LABOUR SHOULD BECOME THE PARTY OF TAX CUTS AND BOLD TAX REFORM

THE POLITICS COLUMN: GEORGE EATON ON ED MILIBAND’S INTERNAL STRUGGLE

MEHDI HASAN: ISIS IS DELUDED TO CLAIM A NEW MUSLIM CALIPHATE

BEL TREW REPORTS FROM BENGHAZI, WHERE VIOLENCE HAS MARRED ELECTIONS FOR THE NEW PARLIAMENT

EDWARD PLATT IN ISRAEL: WHY HEBRON IS SYMBOLIC OF THE FAILURE TO MAKE A LASTING PEACE

THE SURREAL MADE SWEET: MARK LAWSON ON THE RETURN OF MONTY PYTHON

ANTHONY LOYD: HOW AN AL-QAEDA TERRORIST ENDED UP WORKING FOR MI5 AND THE CIA

TWO GREAT WRITERS OF ONE MIND: JONATHAN BATE ON MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE AND WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

 

 

IAN BREMMER: FROM EMERGING MARKETS TO DIVERGING MARKETS

 

The geopolitics expert Ian Bremmer argues in the NS Essay that we can no longer think of countries such as China, Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico and Turkey as a single group, because of the huge divergence in their interests, priorities and pace of development. The catch-all term “emerging markets” has become profoundly misleading, he argues:

 

As Leo Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s a good rule of thumb for the shift in emerging markets’ fortunes between the 2000s and today. China will soon boast the world’s largest economy. When it does, it will still be poor, and thus potentially unstable. It will be far from ready to take on global responsibilities appropriate to a country of its size and influence. Beyond China, virtually all these countries rose on a fortuitous tide of historically unusual circumstances. Now they are going their separate ways – and just at the moment when they have begun to matter.

 

 

LEADING ARTICLE: LABOUR SHOULD BECOME THE PARTY OF TAX CUTS AND BOLD TAX REFORM

 

In this week’s leader, we argue that Labour should become the party of tax cuts and bold tax reform. We suggest that “if the Labour Party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, and if it wanted to win a popular mandate rather than merely limp over the line” in 2015, it would be taking steps now to overhaul Britain’s unfair and inefficient tax system, which places a disproportionate burden on lower earners.

 

. . . we would support the merging of [National Insurance] and income tax in the interests of greater transparency but also because we believe low- and middle-income earners in Britain already pay too much tax, especially when fuel duty, VAT, council tax and stagnant real wages are taken into account. Ed Miliband complains about a “cost-of-living crisis”. Perhaps, in response, he should consider cutting the average earner’s tax burden.

 

If the Labour Party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, and if it wanted to win a popular mandate rather than merely limp over the line in coalition with whatever might be left of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster after the general election in 2015, it would be setting out proposals to overhaul our tax system.

 

Indeed, it would aspire to become a party of tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners and seek to switch some of the burden of taxation from income and consumption to static assets such as property and land, as well as environmental bads. It would reform inheritance tax so that the rich become less able to avoid it. It would introduce land value taxes, at least for business and agricultural land but also potentially for property. The rebanding of council tax, which is based on valuations more than 20 years old, would also be an essential part of any wide-ranging programme of reform.

 

*Read the leader in full below*

 

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: RED ED v MODERATE MILIBAND

 

In the Politics Column this week, the NS political editor, George Eaton, argues that Labour’s internal ructions and the confusion among voters about what the party stands for are symptomatic of a struggle within Ed Miliband himself:

 

If the public is unsure what Miliband stands for, it is partly because he has often appeared unsure himself. There is Ed the insurgent, who is “bringing back socialism” and talks of sweeping away three decades of neoliberalism through a Thatcherite revolution in reverse. Then there is Ed the incrementalist, who learned his politics at the feet of Gordon Brown and who talks gently of building a “fairer capitalism” and reveres consensual “one-nation politics”.

 

*Read the Politics Column in full below*

 

 

MEHDI HASAN: THERE IS NOTHING ISLAMIC ABOUT THE ISIS “CALIPHATE”

 

Mehdi Hasan is bemused by the recent claim of the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that he is the caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere”. There is nothing Islamic about a state, Hasan argues in Lines of Dissent, and Islam does not require an Islamic state. To him, “the hand-choppers and throat-slitters of Isis, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and the rest have no political programme, no blueprint for government”. Hasan sees only “a hate-filled ideology, built on a cult of victimhood and sustained by horrific violence”:

 

Let me make a prediction. The so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria will be totalitarian, won’t be Islamic and, in the words of the former US state department spokesman Philip Crowley, “has as much chance of survival as an ice cream cone in the desert”. By declaring statehood, Isis may have sown the seeds of its own destruction.

 

 

COVER STORY: AFTER GOD

 

For this week’s cover story, Rowan Williams and Lucy Winkett consider the importance of ritual in religion, while the non-believers Melvyn Bragg, Julian Baggini and Robin Ince suggest ways of filling the God-shaped hole in modern life.

 

Williams describes the ritual of prayer that marks the start of his day and how this enforces the same stillness and physical focus required in Buddhist meditation:

 

. . . the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.

 

Lucy Winkett, the rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, argues that ritual will always be a fundamental part of the human experience:

 

In theological terms, rituals are performed at the crossroads where time meets eternity; where chronos meets kairos. We live our lives earthbound and rushing: metaphorically looking at the second hand on a clock. It’s accurate, but not a good way of telling the time. Rituals are performed, as it were, by the hour hand; imperceptible movement, no less true but a lot less anxious. Rituals help us do nothing less than live a different kind of time.

 

Melvyn Bragg finds that though his “early faith has ebbed away”, something remains: “the mysteries, visited on a young mind with force, which now appear like falsities, seem to have struck a chord too deep to be forgotten”. For Bragg, the rituals of walking fill the gap left by religion:

 

The rituals . . . are few but often seem essential. The garb, the route, the recognition of old favourites – trees, prospects, rivers. Once you are in the rhythm of those rituals what happens, to me at any rate, is that a non-self takes over. A non-drug-induced drift.

 

The blogger Vicky Beeching finds the same sense of calm after losing her treasured iPhone on the tracks of the London underground: “Smartphone-free, I noticed throughout the afternoon and evening that I’d regained the natural pauses that happen between events.”

 

The philosopher Julian Baggini argues that it is a mistake to “replace religious rituals with secular ones”. He sets out instead to find ways to “cultivate the virtues that ritual promotes”. And for the comedian Robin Ince the solitary delight of browsing in second-hand bookshops has become a ritual of quasi-spiritual importance:

 

Once the books are bought, I retreat to a tea shop, preferably one with an elaborate Victoria sponge in the window, and pore over the new purchases. Inside each book is the hope of a new way of seeing the world; each one is a potential adventure.

 

 

EDWARD PLATT: DEATH COMES TO HEBRON

 

Edward Platt, author of The City of Abraham: History, Myth and Memory, explains why Hebron, “a city that ought to illuminate the ideal of fraternal co-operation”, has come to symbolise the region’s repeated failed attempts to make a lasting peace:

 

It was no surprise that the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers who went missing in the West Bank on 12 June should have been found near the town of Halhul. Nowhere in the West Bank is beyond the reach of the Israeli army, but it does not permanently control Halhul, which lies at the northern entrance to the city of Hebron.

 

[. . . ]

 

Hebron, which lies 25 miles south of Jerusalem, is the only place in the West Bank where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side . . . it is the birthplace of the Jewish people, and the geographical, mythical and emotional heart of the world’s most intractable conflict.

 

 

CRITICS INTERVIEW: THE MANIC STREET PREACHERS

 

Dorian Lynskey meets the Manic Street Preachers who, now all aged 45, are enjoying an “Indian summer of creativity” with two albums in quick succession. The once politically engaged band members, who grew up in Blackwood, a town in the South Wales Valleys ravaged by the 1984 miners’ strike, tell Lynskey why they now feel disenchanted with politics and the Labour Party:

 

They were raised as “classic Labour”; the title of the 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours came from Nye Bevan. They turned down a role in the Olympics closing ceremony because they couldn’t bring themselves to perform in front of the royal family. Their estrangement from Labour has come as a shock. “I’ll always hate Ukip,” spits Bradfield. “I’ll always hate the Tory party. The only problem now is that I hate Labour, too. The sea’s washed over the sand. There’s not one thing you can hang your hat on any more.”

 

“I actually feel bad about myself because I am disenchanted with politics,” Wire says. “I hate the idea that there’s no one left to vote for. I don’t feel anyone represents me. They certainly don’t represent the people I care about. When the left abdicates its duty to the people it should be representing, that vacuum is always filled by the right. I think the Labour Party is so distanced from its core vote. It’s just become a giant think tank. You can’t get any sicker ironies than Tony Blair being a peace envoy and the banks being nationalised – too sick to bear.” He continues, “It’s not how I want to feel. I’m not Russell Brand. I don’t feel a part of any of it, really – unless I actually stood myself.
If there was a presidential system in Wales, I’d probably stand.” The campaign would be quite something.

 

 

MARK LAWSON ON THE RETURN OF MONTY PYTHON

 

The NS critic at large, Mark Lawson, hot-foots it to the O2 Arena in London to see the first of ten performances by Monty Python (“as long as their various post-surgical scars can withstand the effort”). Lawson finds that “the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird” and that sketches which were once surreal and anti-establishment have become merely sweet and touching:

 

The most graphic illustration of this process is that their “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” gag is so well loved that this Inquisition was not only expected but demanded by the audience, which, recognising the couple of lines of dialogue before the pope’s interrogators burst into a suburban living room, roared its relief in the manner of rock audiences hearing familiar opening notes.

 

 

Plus

 

Peter Wilby on Operation Yewtree, Jean-Claude Juncker and the joy of Essex

Ed Smith: Why great players do not always make great pundits

Michael Prodger on the Tour de France and how Yorkshire won the yellow jersey

Tracey Thorn finds that her backyard falls short of TV gardening porn

Will Self, urban promenader, tries to make sense of Dublin with a literary map

Anoosh Chakelian meets the creators of Morph, the little clay man returning to your small screen

From elegant Tempranillos to her beloved sherry, Nina Caplan enjoys the infinite variety of Spanish wines

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.