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Inside this week’s New Statesman | Britain in meltdown

A first look at this week’s magazine.

ISSUE OF 12 SEPTEMBER 2014

 

BRITAIN IN MELTDOWN

THE ESTABLISHMENT IS IN A BLIND PANIC OVER SCOTLAND. HOW ON EARTH DID IT COME TO THIS? ASKS JASON COWLEY. WITH CONTRIBUTIONS FROM JIM MURPHY MP AND GERRY HASSAN ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

 

RETHINKING NIXON

FORTY YEARS AFTER WATERGATE, CAN THE 37TH PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES BE REHABILITATED?

 

Plus

 

HOW LIBERALISM LOST ITS WAY: DAVID MARQUAND ON THE RELIGIOUS ROOTS OF AN IDEOLOGY

HELEN LEWIS: THE CHALLENGE FOR THE NEXT CENTURY – HOW TO STAY VIRTUOUS WHEN NO ONE WILL KNOW IF YOU’RE BEING NAUGHTY

LINDSEY HILSUM: RETURNING FROM MY FOURTH VISIT TO UKRAINE THIS YEAR, I REALISE – HISTORY MOVES FAST THESE DAYS

PETER WILBY ASKS WHAT WOULD CHANGE IF SCOTLAND LEFT THE UK

THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK: ANDREW HARRISON LOOKS BACK AT FRIENDS, 20 YEARS ON

“POUNDLAND”: A NEW POEM BY SIMON ARMITAGE

ANDREW MARR ADMIRES DAVID KYNASTON’S ACCOUNT OF THE EARLY 1960s

SOPHIE McBAIN FIGHTS LONELINESS AT A “CUDDLE WORKSHOP”

 

 

JASON COWLEY: ARE THESE THE LAST DAYS OF GREAT BRITAIN?

 

The editor of the NS, Jason Cowley, begins this week’s cover story by praising the Gladstonian fervour with which Gordon Brown addressed the looming prospect of an independent Scotland and shattered United Kingdom. “No nationalist should be allowed to split it asunder,” the former prime minister said, speaking for nearly an hour, without notes. Cowley writes:

 

It was a bravura, even romantic performance, imbued with deeper historical resonances and a sense of moral purpose of a kind entirely absent from the vocabulary of Alistair Darling, the leader of the struggling cross-party Better Together campaign . . . Darling, for all his good intentions, is a technocrat; he shrinks when he ought to expand. He uses arid management speak when poetry and passion are called for – compare his low-toned closing statement to Alex Salmond’s inflated rhetoric in the second televised referendum debate on 25 August, a debate that marked a turning point in the campaign and a narrowing in the polls. Darling warns continuously about the macroeconomic risks of independence but never rouses himself to speak about what the United Kingdom has represented through its long history – its purpose, its achievements – and why it must change if it is to survive.

 

Cowley suggests that the idea of “Britishness” lacks a central unifying belief comparable with that of the American ideals of freedom and opportunity for all, or France’s liberty, equality and fraternity. But, for the profoundly Scottish Brown, what really unites the people of these islands is a “shared British commitment to values of liberty, fairness and social responsibility”. Cowley urges voters in Scotland not to underestimate the sincere importance of the “British” tag, freely available to anyone, from anywhere:

 

Scotland has experienced nothing comparable to the levels of immigration of England – one sees few black or mixed-race faces there, though you hear many eastern European accents – and so many Scots do not quite understand why Britishness means so much to so many people from minority backgrounds and why they fear it being ripped away from them. Britishness is a wide umbrella under which so many of us can shelter happily in spite of our differences. We would be bereft without it, drenched in uncertainty and confusion.

 

Before the Scottish general election in 2011, the NS published a leader warning of the consequences of a victory for the Scottish National Party. A few days later, Ed Miliband asked an NS staffer: “Why is Jason writing about Scotland?” He got his answer when Labour, the last truly national British party, was routed, setting the Scots on the road to the referendum. And the current debate has reinvigorated the non-Labour left:

 

What we have been witnessing over the past year or so is a nation’s democracy renewing itself, and all of us who live in these islands should be grateful, because the complacent and smug London elites – political, financial, media, bureaucratic – are finally being forced to take notice.

 

Yet Salmond’s brand of “Borgen nationalism” has often seemed ludicrous. He admits no doubt, promising a Norway-style state even though Scotland produces only half as much oil, has twice the child poverty, and is committed to wrestling sovereignty from Westminster only in order to hand it away unthinkingly to the EU. “My view is that the Union can be saved once,” Adam Tomkins, John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow, tells Cowley.

 

“If No win narrowly, as they did in Quebec [by 51 per cent to 49 per cent in the second of two independence referendums] in 1995, the British state must reinvigorate itself – and that means more devolution. If circumstances require us to have a second referendum in a parliament or two’s time, Yes will win by a country mile.”

 

**Read Jason Cowley on “The last days of Great Britain” in full below**

 

 

JIM MURPHY’S DIARY: BARKED AT BY A DOG, WATCHED BY A PET SHOP BOY AND HECKLED BY A YES-SUPPORTING HORSE

 

In this week’s diary, the Labour MP for East Renfrewshire and shadow secretary of state for international development, Jim Murphy, describes his week, pursuing his tour of 100 streets in Scotland to speak in favour of a No vote on independence, with nothing more than two Irn-Bru crates for an open-air stage.

 

After an impromptu No meeting outside the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, attended by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, Murphy takes a day off to vote on the bedroom tax in Westminster – a vote that “only a third of the SNPs MPs bothered” to attend. After heckles, gibes, threats and attacks, Murphy writes:

 

I’d always thought that the main risk of having so many public meetings would be Scotland’s unpredictable summer and now autumn weather. But only one meeting has been rained off. A few others have been disrupted in different ways. And while some focus settled on an egg thrower now carrying out community service, I couldn’t care less about how many eggs are aimed at me.

 

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: EVEN IF THE UNION ENDURES, THE LAST VESTIGES OF WESTMINSTER’S AUTHORITY HAVE BEEN WASHED AWAY

 

“David Cameron must long for the simple days when his greatest fear was losing the general election,” George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman, begins his column this week. Never has the usually banal observation that “a week is a long time in politics” been more appropriate.

 

Westminster has been caught “defenceless” following the YouGov poll, published on 6 September, which put the Yes side ahead for the first time. Gordon Brown has returned, “a redoubtable Churchill to [David] Cameron’s hapless Chamberlain”, now that Cameron’s position as prime minister could be in “maximum danger”, as a senior Tory says.

 

The referendum agreement [Cameron] signed with Alex Salmond in October 2012, praised at the time, has not aged well. Conservative MPs point to the timing of the vote, the wording of the question, and the decision to enfranchise 16-to-17-year-olds as careless errors. If Cameron’s resignation is demanded, this will be the case for the prosecution.

 

If the dread of a Yes vote runs high among the Tories, it is even higher in Labour, which stands to lose 40 members (16 per cent) from its parliamentary party. “This will be Alistair [Darling] and Douglas [Alexander]’s defeat,” says a Labour MP. Then there are the constitutional bombs to consider: should the next general election be delayed? Would the UK lose its seat on the UN Security Council?

 

“When I meet voters on the doorstep they look left and they look right to see if their neighbours are listening, and then they whisper that they’re voting No,” a Labour MSP says. Nevertheless, as Eaton concludes, “Cameron, Miliband and Clegg may be in office, but they have never seemed less in power”.

 

**Read the Politics Column in full below**

 

 

GERRY HASSAN: THIS PLACE ALREADY FEELS DIFFERENT

 

Gerry Hassan, author of Caledonian Dreaming: the Quest for a Different Scotland, writes that regardless of the outcome of the referendum vote on 18 September, a different Scotland has emerged and found expression.

 

He suggests that the Scottish debate is about more than just the constitution, but rather is a “genuine discussion of how much choice it is possible to have in the face of market fundamentalism and globalisation”.

 

Scotland has a new independence of mind. It is on the verge of formal independence. This raises fascinating questions. Can the hopes released by the pro-independence campaign continue post-Yes? What of the SNP’s timid version of autonomy, with its connection to the Bank of England and the Treasury? And how will Westminster react if a Yes happens?

 

Plus

 

Mark Lawson gets inside the business of Agatha Christie Ltd

Tracey Thorn: I’ve been on the other side of a fair few celebrity interviews – and believe me, they can be terrifying

Will Self: If you want to see the city with completely new eyes, take a night-hike out of town

Leo Robson investigates the cold case crime narrative

Ryan Gilbey is swept along by Matthew Warchus’s Pride

Michael Brooks on the physicists developing new solutions in Switzerland to internet and email snooping

Tim Wigmore learns how to make money on UK elections

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder