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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

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”