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In this week’s New Statesman | Rise of the insurgents

A first look at this week’s magazine.

28 November 2014 issue

COVER STORY: RISE OF THE INSURGENTS

Charles Bremner profiles Marine Le Pen – the woman who has brought France’s Front National into the mainstream

Plus

A Miliband loyalist fights back: Rachel Reeves blasts fellow Labour MPs for talking to the press anonymously and explains why Tory MPs apologised to her

Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee, on Ukip, Labour’s election strategy and why “Ed Miliband needs to relax”

Helen Lewis wonders whether Anonymous activism can work

Ed Smith reflects on the risks and rewards of the sporting life

The historian John Bew on Attlee, Beveridge, social reform and the importance
of the East End to Toynbee Hall

Clive James offers a new poem about Julia Gillard, the former
prime minister of Australia

Anoosh Chakelian: A report from the marginal seat of Thurrock in Essex

Lit Down Under: Leo Robson on a new novel about Australian identity by the double Booker-winner Peter Carey

 

COVER STORY: AT THE GATES OF POWER

Charles Bremner, who writes the NS Profile this week, has been watching and interviewing the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, since 2003. Le Pen, 46, the youngest daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the far-right Front, has become “a protective, Joan of Arc-like warrior in the eyes of her followers”. She is among France’s most popular politicians, with approval ratings of 46 per cent, an insurgent playing to a widespread sense of dispossession that feeds contempt for la France d’en haut – the governing caste.

This scenario might sound familiar to a British audience. At a recent council meeting in Lille, called to address job losses in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, she launched into a riff on the evils of the EU:

“I have to remind people ad nauseam that this is not European money. It’s part of French taxpayers’ money that transits through Brussels with the rest going to pay for central and eastern Europe. “

As Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, put it in a wake-up call to his bedraggled Parti Socialiste in September: “The Front National is at the gates of power.” Not that she is likely to be intimidated:

She became hardened early because, as a Le Pen, she was always an outsider, she told me. She was the “daughter of the monster”, as she put it, growing up in the comfort of Montretout, the mansion at Saint-Cloud bequeathed to her Breton-born father by a party supporter in the late 1970s. When she was eight, a bomb had destroyed the family flat and she had felt no sympathy from anyone. No one was arrested for the crime.

There were years of Jean-Marie’s constant absences, and humiliation as a teenager when Pierrette, her mother, posed naked for Playboy. That was an act of revenge in a feud with her husband after she walked out on him, abandoning her daughters to set up home with a journalist. During Marine’s twenties, there came the paternal banishment of Marie-Caroline, the eldest of the three Le Pen daughters, after her husband defected to Bruno Mégret, a Front lieutenant who mounted an abortive takeover of the movement.

The wayward Marie-Caroline has never been accepted back into the fold but Pierrette was given a home on the Montretout estate, in the same complex as Marine, and until recently she helped take care of Marine’s three teenage children. Jean-Marie lives nearby with Jeanne-Marie (“Jany”), his second wife.

Le Pen scoffs at talk of a dynasty but she is the heiress to the family enterprise that sprang from the murky pool of nostalgists for Vichy France and French Algeria that Jean-Marie, a former troublemaking MP and paratrooper, hammered together in 1972.

And as Marine Le Pen enters middle age, a younger generation is now emerging, in the shape of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, 24, one of the Front’s three MPs, who is the daughter of Yann, Marine’s second sister. Perky and articulate beyond her years, Marion is already a star. She is said to be closer to the patriarch than Marine because she shares her grandfather’s uncompromising beliefs, opposing gay marriage, for example, while Marine tolerates it.

The Front old guard dislike the way Marine has “de-demonised” the party, banning leather jackets and requiring many party staff to wear blazers. She has also distanced herself from her father, who still admires the German wartime occupation of France, and openly disowns him when he makes statements like the one he did this summer on African immigration to France: “Monsieur Ebola can solve the problem in three months,” he said.

He has also taken issue with Marine’s plans for rebranding the party, with the aim of dropping the “Front” label, which conjures up brown shirts and stiff-armed salutes. “Only bankrupt companies change their names. That would be betraying the militants who built the movement,” Jean-Marie said this month.

Tension between father and daughter reached a peak in August after one of his dogs killed Arthemys, her cat, on the Montretout estate. She moved out with [her partner Louis] Aliot and her three children and they now live in a closed community in nearby La Celle Saint-Cloud.

 

ENCOUNTER: A MILIBAND LOYALIST FIGHTS BACK

George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman, talks to the shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, who compares Ed Miliband’s poor personal ratings to Tony Blair’s in the 1990s when critics called him “Bambi”. Reeves condemns fellow MPs who criticise Miliband to the press under the cover of anonymity:

If you’re going to talk to the press you should put your name to it. Members of the shadow cabinet, members of the Parliamentary Labour Party aren’t commentators, we are participants . . . I don’t think there is a role for anyone briefing against our party. The only people it serves are our political opponents.

Reeves has been criticised herself for vowing to restrict welfare payments to EU migrants, a measure she announced in the Daily Mail, but about which she remains unrepentant. And yet her battles with others inside the Labour Party are as nothing compared to those between herself and Iain Duncan Smith:

Their relationship reached a new nadir on 3 November when the Work and Pensions Secretary refused to apologise for claiming that she had not bothered to turn up for a vote (Reeves was absent due to illness). “I think he’s an incredibly rude man and I think that anybody else would have apologised,” she tells me, revealing that “a number of Conservative MPs” came up to her afterwards to say that he had “behaved very badly” and to apologise on his behalf. “It was very nice of them, but he’s quite capable of apologising for himself,” Reeves says.

 

ED SMITH: CRICKETERS MOSTLY IGNORE RISK – BUT SOMETIMES, AS PHIL HUGHES FOUND, IT COMES LOOKING FOR YOU

“Risk, injury, bad luck, tragic consequences” are “all things a sportsman understands”, Ed Smith writes in his Left Field column this week, reflecting on the blow to the head that has landed the Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes in critical condition in hospital.

While cricket has a relatively good safety record, this was not always the case. The change for the better came with the invention of the helmet, “the most transformative piece of kit in the history of the sport”:

Those of us who wore a helmet will never fully know how we would have fared in an earlier age. But I have spoken to players whose careers straddled both pre- and post-helmet eras. People whose judgement I trust are clear about this: batting without a helmet was a very different proposition. Fear was more innately bound up with the job. That is not nostalgic myth-making, just a fact.

Personal experience convinces me they are right. The most physically threatened I felt as a batsman was not in the professional game, when I always wore a helmet, but at school, when I often did not. I vividly remember, in one of my last school matches, only a year before I was playing first-class cricket, facing a fast bowler in good rhythm. He was probably bowling only about 82mph – brisk, but not express by professional standards. But I was wearing a cap and the pitch was uneven and unpredictable. It is a startling thought: imagining those same conditions and the same absence of protective equipment, except facing [the fast bowlers] Jeff Thomson or Andy Roberts instead.

Smith describes the mentality required to compete despite the dangers, the “denial” that lies at the heart of professional sport:

Even though I inevitably got hit now and then, in 13 years as a professional cricketer I never seriously worried about getting hurt. Then, strangely, on the day I retired (even though it had been prompted by injury), I experienced an emotion I’d never known before. I caught myself thinking, “There is always the risk of something serious going wrong. You were lucky you played so long without it happening to you.” Perhaps I’d been suppressing the thought for years and retirement permitted my mind to follow different, freer directions, unconstrained by the mental conditioning – or denial – that lies at the heart of professional sport.

[Phil] Hughes, of course, was wearing a helmet, as you’d expect. But for a batsmen to be able to see clearly and move freely, there will always be gaps in his protective armour. So the inevitable analysis and scrutiny of helmet manufacturers and safety measures is, to some extent, beside the point. We take risks in sport, as we do in life. We hope the risks are known and tolerably low. Every now and then, someone finds the fateful lottery has his name on it

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: MILIBAND HAS MADE HIS DEFINING CHOICE – HE IS DETERMINED TO FIGHT THE ELECTION ON HIS OWN TERMS

The NS political editor, George Eaton, observes how Ed Miliband, faced with the decision whether to appease critics who describe him as “anti-business” or stand his ground, chose the latter:

At moments of weakness, opposition leaders have frequently abandoned their original course. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all set out to “modernise” the Conservatives but soon retreated under pressure to the right. Rather than performing an equivalent volte-face, Miliband has doubled down on his strategy of siding with “the many” against “the few”. In so doing, he has returned to the territory of his greatest political victories: his deft response to the phone-hacking scandal, his energy price freeze coup and his counterattack on the Daily Mail for its misrepresentation of his father, Ralph Miliband.

“It was as if a jolt of energy surged through him,” a Miliband adviser tells Eaton, of the moment when the Labour leader reaffirmed his faith. Since the “fightback” speech on 13 November, the Labour leader has engaged in a sustained offensive: assailing Sports Direct for its endemic use of zero-hours contracts, rebuking opponents of a mansion tax, targeting “cowboy employment agencies” and opening up a new front against private schools.

But if there are potential rewards from his strategy there are also risks. Some in Labour fear that their leader’s rhetoric of struggle is insufficiently optimistic to rouse a nation all too aware that it is enduring a “cost-of-living crisis”. One MP argues that “people don’t want to be reminded how bad their lives are”. There is a tension between Miliband the radical, who talks of sweeping away three decades of neoliberalism, and Miliband the incrementalist, who talks gently of building a “fairer capitalism” and reveres consensual “one-nation politics”. A Labour source laments that his recent “pro-business” speech to the CBI was followed three days later by an “anti-business” address. But the party believes it can marry the two approaches. One strategist speaks of how Labour will be both “fighters” and “builders”.

[. . .]

The hope is that if Labour can achieve a sustained period of competency, free from self-inflicted wounds, the glare of scrutiny will return to the Tories, where Theresa May shamelessly flaunts her leadership ambitions and Owen Paterson, recently evicted from the cabinet, is making an early bid to head the EU “out” campaign. In a reversal of historic form, it is the right, not the left, that engages in weekly faction fights.

*Read the Politics Column in full below*

 

THE POLITICS INTERVIEW: “ED MILIBAND NEEDS TO RELAX”

Harry Lambert talks to Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP for Barking who also chairs the public accounts committee, about Ed Miliband, Labour’s campaign plan and staying the course on immigration:

HL And how did you fight them on immigration?

MH My script on immigration has been the same since 2006. I have never promised to cut immigration numbers, not once. The way that politicians believe they can con voters is just so misplaced and misconceived, it’s completely ridiculous.

[. . .]

HL How can Labour be more effective?

MH Clear messages. Simple messages. Consistent messages. Focusing on what matters to people. If you go back to 1997, we had five very simple pledges.

 

HL Can you give me five pledges now?

MH Oh my God [laughing]. Well, I think build homes. Skills and jobs for young people. You have to say something about fiscal prudence. Make sure everybody pays their fair share of tax. I mean, there’s so much. Childcare.

 

HL Should you ever have a prime minister who’s never worked in a business?

MH I think it’s important to have leaders who’ve had life experience.

 

HL Ed Miliband is one of those career politicians . . .

MH . . . so is David Cameron.

 

HL What do you think is Ed’s greatest quality?

MH Um . . . actually, his analysis, of where we are and what we need to do, I buy into.

 

HL What could he improve on most?

MH Communication.

 

HL What one personal thing would you say to Ed?

MH Relax. Be yourself – actually, he’s a really nice guy.

 

HL Do you think he ever won over MPs who didn’t back him in 2010?

MH There isn’t a mood, an appetite, to replace him. There’s a frustration. We want
to do better. But this so-called letter that was around? I never saw it. Nobody approached me. [Laughs]

Plus

Tim Walker: Confessions of London’s most dangerous man

Critics lead: Erica Wagner on the eccentric pioneers of the study of sex

Cory Doctorow praises Amanda Palmer’s manifesto for artists in the digital age

Tim Wigmore explores the background to the rise of the far left
and the far right in Europe

Our film critic Ryan Gilbey gives in to the scuzzy appeal of Bill Murray in St Vincent

In Books: Yo Zushi on a cultural history of Chinaphobia; William Dalrymple revisits Patrick Leigh Fermor’s audacious wartime adventures; Zachary Karabell enjoys Ziauddin Sardar’s heartfelt biography of Mecca; and Sarah Churchwell appraises the return of an American legend, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe

Science: Michael Brooks explores the worlds of dark energy and dark matter

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser