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In this week’s New Statesman | Summer Double Issue

A first look inside this week’s magazine.

25 JULY 2014

SUMMER DOUBLE ISSUE

 

TOM WATSON: SHADOW CABINET COWARDS SHOULD BACK MILIBAND OR STEP DOWN

– AND WHY I FELT SORRY FOR ANDY COULSON

 

JEREMY BOWEN: A VISIT TO GAZA’S HOSPITALS SHOWS THAT THE PALESTINIANS ARE SUFFERING MORE

 

JOHN SIMPSON ON BOKO HARAM AND NIGERIA’S LOST GIRLS

 

Plus

 

GEORGE EATON: WHY LABOUR FEARS VICTORY AS MUCH AS DEFEAT

JACQUI SMITH’S DIARY: ALL-WOMEN SHORTLISTS AND THE JOY OF SUMMER CARAVANNING

RAGE AGAINST EMBARRASSMENT: ROWAN WILLIAMS ON DYLAN THOMAS AND TEENAGE MEMORIES

STILETTOS AND HIJABS: RAMITA NAVAI ON IRAN’S SEXUAL REVOLUTION

MICHAEL KENNY AND IPPR’S NICK PEARCE: POPULISM IS DRIVING US INTO A POST-DEMOCRATIC ERA IN POLITICS

OLIVER BULLOUGH: HOW EVANGELICAL FAITH GROUPS COULD CHANGE THE OUTCOME OF THE NEXT ELECTION

HACKS IN THE DOCK: DUNCAN CAMPBELL’S HISTORY OF JAILED JOURNALISTS

JOHN LLOYD, QI CREATOR, ON WHY LAUGHTER MAKES US HUMAN

TWO NEW POEMS BY CLIVE JAMES: “NATURE PROGRAMME” AND “THE EMPEROR’S LAST WORDS”

 

 

THE POLITICS INTERVIEW: TOM WATSON, “THE LONE HUNTER”

The NS political editor, George Eaton, meets the campaigning Labour MP Tom Watson ahead of the summer recess to discuss his role in securing an inquiry into the recent child abuse scandal and in leading the revolt against the new “emergency” surveillance bill. He also shares his thoughts on the jailing of Andy Coulson and describes his own unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch (Cameron’s “missed opportunity” to renew the Conservatives).

Watson expresses his growing frustration with frequent off-the-record briefings by disloyal shadow cabinet ministers. But he hopes that Alan Johnson will return to the front line, and insists that Nick Clegg would have to step down from leading the Liberal Democrats as a condition of a future Labour-Lib Dem coalition.

On Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet critics:

He later turns his fire on those shadow cabinet ministers he regards as having been disloyal to Ed Miliband. “The frustrating thing is that there have been some shadow cabinet members who have briefed off the record and said some critical things about Ed. That’s the most cowardly thing in the world. If they feel very strongly about things, go to the back benches and speak out – that’s what I did. Don’t use the cover of anonymity to make attacks on a leader.”

On his hope that Alan Johnson will return:

After David Cameron’s Night of the Long Knives, does he think Ed Miliband should carry out his own reshuffle? “I think he’s got another reshuffle in him if he wants to do it this side of the election. There are certainly people who could really help us,” he says. Watson adds his voice to those calling for Alan Johnson, the former home secretary, to return to the front line. “Johnson is one of those unique MPs, he’s got huge reach and is very level-headed. I don’t agree with him politically on a lot of things, though over the years he’s begun to convince me of the case for proportional representation in a way that he would be as surprised of as I am. But people like Alan could be really effective as we go up to polling day.”

Labour could work with the Lib Dems but Nick Clegg would have to go:

“It wouldn’t be unreasonable for Ed to try and form a government [with the] Lib Dems; I think it would be almost impossible for him to get political permission to do that if Nick Clegg was leading the party. It wouldn’t be right that Nick Clegg, who forged the coalition programme that had been rejected at the election, was sharing power for a second term with a different prime minister. But I would imagine that, though Nick Clegg would deny this now, he would know that.”

On Andy Coulson (“I felt sorry for him”):

How did he feel on the day Andy Coulson, the ex-NoW editor, was jailed? “On a personal level, I felt sorry for him,” is his somewhat surprising answer. “It’s over for him; you’ve got to take responsibility for your actions.”

He adds that the fundamental issue is still there, “that Rupert Murdoch owns too much of Britain’s media. If what we read in the papers is right, he wants more, and you can only stop that concentration of power with rules to limit media ownership.”

On Louise Mensch and why her departure was Cameron’s “missed opportunity”:

It was as a member of the [Commons] culture, media and sport select committee that Watson formed an unlikely friendship with Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who later left parliament for the US. “I liked her because she was a character,” he says. “She went off and became a columnist for Rupert Murdoch, which didn’t look great. But I admired her because she was comfortable in her own skin, she had her own opinions, which she wasn’t frightened to articulate, and she was tough. What a missed opportunity for Cameron – she felt so uncomfortable with the political system that she resigned midterm with all that ability. There’s something going wrong with politics if people like Louise Mensch feel it’s not for them.”

 

JEREMY BOWEN: FROM GAZA TO DAMASCUS, THE MIDDLE EAST IS ON FIRE

The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, reports from Gaza where, he argues, “trouble has been brewing between Israel and Hamas for months” and was in evidence well before the kidnap and murder of four Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. Military action now will merely deepen the conflict, he predicts:

Only a proper peace deal will make Palestinians and Israelis safer. There is no chance of one right now, which means more small wars, which will eventually become much bigger ones.

Bowen says he saw no evidence of Hamas preventing civilians from leaving the Gaza City suburb of Shejaiya or using them as human shields, contrary to claims by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu:

My impression of Hamas is different from Netanyahu’s. I saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields. I saw men from Hamas on street corners, keeping an eye on what was happening. They were local people and everyone knew them, even the young boys.

Bowen acknowledges the effect of rocket attacks by Palestinians on the Israeli side, but argues that “it is wrong to suggest that Israeli civilians near Gaza suffer as much as Palestinians”:

It is much, much worse in Gaza. I defy anyone with an ounce of human feeling not to feel the same after ten minutes in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital with wounded and dying civilians. In the mortuary, it’s so overcrowded that the bodies of two children are crammed on to a single shelf. One day, they had only found enough of the remains of six women and children to fill a single stretcher.

The whole of the Middle East is on fire, Bowen writes, and the region is more troubled than he has ever seen it in nearly 25 years of reporting:

Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus. The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it
since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out.

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: WHY LABOUR FEARS VICTORY

In this week’s Politics Column, George Eaton explains why, as its poll lead holds, Labour is split between those who fear defeat and those who fear victory:

When I told one Conservative MP that Miliband believes the press onslaught against him is motivated by the fear that he will win, not the belief that he will lose, he replied: “That’s exactly right.” The public admission by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he is planning for negotiations with Labour in a hung parliament offered an insight into the calculations that many Liberal Democrats are making in private. Others are preparing to flee Westminster.

All three main parties “fear what victory would bring”, Eaton argues:

For the Tories, it would mean an in/out referendum on the EU that could split the party as no issue has since the repeal of the Corn Laws. For Labour, it could mean inheriting a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse: a bankrupt NHS, an imploding housing market (forcing a precipitous rise in interest rates) and a prison system at full capacity, combined with the requirement to accelerate the deepest public-service cuts since the Second World War, or raise taxes by an equivalent amount. “Sometimes I worry more about winning than losing,” one Labour frontbencher tells me.

 

JOHN SIMPSON ON BOKO HARAM AND NIGERIA’S LOST GIRLS

John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, joins the New Statesman as a contributor this week with a letter from the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Simpson describes how the campaign to rescue the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents has “run into the swamp of Nigerian politics”. So far, the attempts by President Goodluck Jonathan to secure their release have proved fruitless:

If Goodluck Jonathan can’t free the girls, and he can’t do a deal with Boko Haram to get them released, what does that leave for him? Nothing. And nothing is what has been happening for three months now. To put it at its crudest, the president and his government must be hoping that the world will simply forget about the girls. We can be sure that this is something that pains him, as a father, as a politician and as a devout Christian; there are suggestions that Boko Haram is forcibly converting the girls, most of whom are Christians, to become Muslims, and that it has already handed over some of them to its fighters to be their “wives”. However, Goodluck has a job to do, and that job is to try to keep Nigeria together.

 

ROWAN WILLIAMS ON DYLAN THOMAS AND TEENAGE MEMORIES

Rowan Williams reflects on The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas, a new study of the writer by Hilly Janes. The former archbishop of Canterbury argues that Thomas has been “half stifled by his own mythography” and suffers from being labelled as a “poet of adolescence”. Williams recalls earnest adolescent pastiches of the “obsessively sensual” poet “in the back of school notebooks”:

For so many male readers, he is the quintessential poet of adolescence. How many of us were convinced on reading him that this was what poetry was really like, heady, incantatory, obsessively sensual? How many proceeded to write terrible imitations of him in the back of school notebooks? That is what people wince over: the young Dylan, with his off-the-peg bohemianism, his obscure, symbolically coded resentments, his wild and frustrated sexuality, can look, to the literary (male) adult, like the fearful caricature of a half-forgotten self. And that embarrassment reinforces the element of caricature in depictions of him. Even the recent BBC drama about his last days in New York, with its splendid performance from Tom Hollander, reached for the mythological dressing-up trunk.

 

JACQUI SMITH’S DIARY

As the former home secretary and Labour MP Jacqui Smith prepares for a summer of caravanning in Wales, she looks forward to the days of Tory and Lib Dem all-women shortlists:

As the dust settles on the reshuffle, it’s clear that there should be no let-up in the work to gain more equal gender representation in parliament and government. The appointment of two new women cabinet ministers, though welcome, still takes the total in the cabinet to only less than a quarter. In the Labour Women’s Network, we continue to train women to stand for parliament, but self-congratulation from any party on female representation is premature while we languish at 58th in the international league table – with Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Tunisia among those doing better than us. One answer is clear. Why do women MPs make up a third of Labour, while the Tories have less than 16 per cent and the Lib Dems only one in eight? It’s because Labour uses all-women shortlists. In recent weeks, both Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke have supported their use for their own parties. Why not just get on with it?

****

This summer, I will holiday in my caravan in north-west Wales. With little mobile-phone signal, this was a sanctuary in my ministerial years – though I did manage to speak to two prime ministers standing on a rock at the top of the site where you can just about get a connection. I was not the only caravanning minister: Margaret Beckett loved hers, too. Appropriately, as foreign secretary, she had a touring caravan that she took round Europe, while as home secretary I had a static caravan and stayed at home.

 

JOHN LLOYD: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

The QI creator John Lloyd is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, published in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. With his reputation as a comedy writer, Lloyd unsurprisingly identifies laughter as one of the keys to our humanity:

Laughter, I would say, is another thing that makes us human, and being able to make people laugh is a high calling. Watching Bill Bailey live on stage always makes me proud to be a member of the same species. But why do we laugh? I’ve been in comedy for 40 years and I still don’t know.

 

Plus

 

Uri Dromi: Why Israel should invest in Gaza and offer its people economic hope

Laurie Penny on Gaza: It’s not anti-Semitic to say “not in my name”

Philip Maughan meets Geoff Dyer, the genre-smashing writer and great critic of academics

Peter Wilby on Tulisa and the “fake sheikh” and why Gove had to go

“Strong Man”, a new short story by Helen Simpson

Frances Wilson: Caitlin Moran’s first novel should be renamed How to Make a Fast Buck

Michael Prodger on Picasso, Matisse, Montmartre and modernism

“Peace”, a First World War archive poem by Robert Graves

On Location: Will Self on why visits to Florence will always be a smack in the face

Tom Humberstone sketches out his summer holiday reading list

Tom Clark: Why Labour is fast losing the argument on welfare reform

Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire shares his latest Westminster gossip

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.