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In this week's magazine | Spring double issue

Alex Salmond, Germaine Greer, and the socialist pope.

27 March-9 April 2015 
Easter double issue: 100 pages of great writing 

Featuring

 

John Simpson on Putin's attempts to distract the west from Crimea.

Charles Bremner profiles François Hollande.

The socialist Pope: Maurice Glasman on how Pope Francis shut up about sex and began to tackle inequality.

Germaine Greer on the birth of Australia and the Gallipoli myth.

Jack Monroe on her love for Labour lost.

Politics Column: An ultra-hung parliament seems most likely - and it is Labour
that has the upper hand.

Leader: the SNP in Westminster.

 

Plus two New Statesman exclusives from earlier in the week and discussed at PMQ's

The NS editor Jason Cowley's revealing interview with Alex Salmond.

Ashley Cowburn speaks to the Rochdale Labour MP, Simon Danczuk.

 

Russia's shell game

John Simpson argues that by provoking unrest in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin hopes to distract the west from Crimea. He writes:

It is a little over a year since the west's relationship with Russia seemed, if inevitably spiky, at least rational and manageable . . . How could things have got this bad in such a short space of time? How could the post-cold war consensus have vanished so utterly?

He sees the current crisis as a child of the postwar Soviet era, "with a few 21st-century touches".

If Moscow's grip on a country that mattered seemed about to loosen, excuses were found and fraternal forces were assembled to make sure that it didn't happen - the hard way. Remember Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Afghanistan in 1979 and now Ukraine in 2014. Keeping hold of what they have has always mattered to Russia's rulers. If they let one part go, the whole structure might start to fall down. Above all, it suggests weakness and there will always be those inside or outside the system who might take advantage of it and bring the rulers down. As we shall see, some Putin-watchers think that this pattern is being repeated.

Simpson adds that the entire crisis might be an elaborate distraction:

There is a case to be made that Russia's wholly cynical infiltration of eastern Ukraine and its threats towards the Baltic are an elaborate shell game. While the outside world stares with fascination at the clever manipulation of the walnuts, our attention is being drawn away from the shell that matters: the one with Crimea under it. The more we concentrate on Ukraine and the Baltic - which are, indeed, of immense importance - the more inclined we are to forget that Russia has grabbed one of the choicest bits of territory of a country whose borders it had solemnly undertaken to respect. France, Italy and Greece are keen to ease the sanctions that the west as a whole has imposed on Russia as punishment for filching Crimea. If Russia now stirs things up in the previously peaceful Baltic, our eyes will be distracted even more from the shell containing Crimea.

He concludes that if this seems too extreme a strategy:

We can certainly blame the US for its triumphalist approach after 1991, refusing Russia the hand of full friendship and alliance. We can blame the EU for dangling the promise of association and eventual membership in front of Ukraine's eyes as though it were any other European outpost. But we would be very foolish indeed if we failed to understand that Vladimir Putin, however relaxed he may seem, now thinks that he could be fighting for his life - and that he will be prepared to use every threat, every trick and every weapon in a disturbingly large arsenal in order to protect himself.

 

François Hollande: The mystery president

Charles Bremner writes that François Hollande was the most unpopular French leader of modern times - until his fortunes were revived by the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo at the start of the year:

After the Kouachi brothers committed their slaughter at the offices of Charlie Hebdo on the morning of 7 January, the most unpopular French leader in modern times had come into his own. Alerted by a friend's text message from the scene, the unloved Socialist had ignored his security men and rushed from the Élysée Palace to the blood-spattered offices of the satirical magazine while the bodies were still on the floor. Rallying the nation in the days that followed, Hollande struck the right tone of solemnity and empathy. Leading the march of a million people through Paris on 11 January, he inspired a sense of communion around the republic's values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The plump little 60-year-old who had won election as "Monsieur Normal" no longer seemed such a lightweight. He had finally assumed the stature expected of France's monarchical presidents. "François Hollande has suddenly come together," the veteran commentator Alain Duhamel wrote in Libération. "For the first time, he embodied the nation and made us proud."

Bremner explores all the negative aspects of Hollande's presidency: his lack of transparency about his new economic policy, the high-profile breakdown of his relationships with Ségolène Royal and Valérie Trierweiler, his reputation as the ineffectual "Monsieur Petites Blagues" ("Mr Little Jokes"). He notes that, in the weeks since the 11 January Paris rally against the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Hollande's ratings have even gone down:

[The] "Charlie effect" has faded and France has fallen back into la morosité that has coloured the national mood for two decades. Hollande's Parti Socialiste (PS) has returned to feuding. His approval ratings have fallen again after the January spike. He lost 6 points from mid-January, dropping to 26 per cent on 20 February, against a record low of 16 per cent in November, according to Odoxa polling. Meanwhile Marine Le Pen's Front National (FN) made a strong showing in the first round of national county council elections that end on 29 March. The FN secured 25 per cent of the vote, beaten into second place only by the centre-right alliance led by Nicolas Sarkozy's Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Despite all this, Bremner writes that Hollande remains convinced there has been a turnaround in his popularity:

Yet Hollande is sure that he has changed the way people look at him and is convinced he has transformed his presidency. Friends from his days at the École Nationale d'Administration (Éna), the finishing school of the governing elite, are unsurprised. "You wouldn't think it, but François has always had an absolute belief in his destiny and it has remained unshaken despite the battering of the past two years," a classmate from his 1980 year group at Éna told me after she visited him in December.

 

Beloved of the people: Pope Francis

Maurice Glasman describes how, at a time when most career politicians are held in contempt, the Pope is offering a masterclass in leadership.

When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected Pope two years ago hardly anyone knew who he was. He had a number of firsts to his name: the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the southernhemisphere. But beyond that there was only a sense of gentle bafflement and an awkwardness in the wake of Pope Benedict's retirement: for popes, unlike bishops, life means life, so to replace a living pope was almost unseemly.

Since then, Pope Francis has succeeded in cutting through the language of Italian scholasticism, the constraints of Vatican tradition and the consistent wail of rationalist denunciation to become the most popular public figure in Europe.

Glasman argues that Pope Francis's popularity rests on his profound concern for ordinary people:

Pope Francis is the first pope in a century for whom communism is not the main threat to morality and the Church. For him it is of very little consequence. Instead, the main threat to the dignity of the person, their families and work is a capitalism which gives incentives to sin. Growing inequality, the domination of the poor by the rich, the favour shown to the banks, and the costs carried by workers in "restructuring programmes" are things he has witnessed and gives witness about. Pope John Paul came of age resisting communism; for Pope Francis that was not the problem.

[. . .]

Pope Francis does not fear the poor, but prefers "to weep when they weep and rejoice when they rejoice". He watches football, he drinks maté, the Argentinian herbal tea, and he delights in the company of children. He could not wait to leave the formal event at which we met to embrace the visiting children who had made the journey to Rome for Argentina's national day. In Italy, when he visits a place he is followed by people who make presentations of their working lives - they give him their fireman's helmet, or their wooden spoon - and his popularity exceeds that of any politician. They swarm around him; he feels safe with them and they give him protection.

Glasman concludes that, "as a member of the Labour Party - indeed, of the Parliamentary Labour Party - [I] could not do other than reflect on the lessons for [my] party" that Pope Francis offers:

Pope Francis has turned the attention of the Church away from sex and towards the economy. He thinks of himself as a sinner and sees God in the eyes of the poor. He is prepared to say hard things to powerful people, and shines a light into the darkened corridors of his own institution. He is beloved of the people. In short, the most important thing about Pope Francis is that he is giving a masterclass in political leadership.

 

Germaine Greer: was Australia born on the battlefield?

Germaine Greer writes that 100 years after Australian and New Zealand troops fought in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, myth and reality seem further apart than ever:

Public opinion in Australia remains vociferously divided, despite the official rhetoric that insists that Gallipoli was where the Australian nation was born. The immediate result of Australia's involvement in the First World War was friction, between classes, between right and left, between religions, between Anglo and Celt. The stand-off persists. It is only now that the survivors are no longer around that the myth of Gallipoli as the fount of national identity has become holy writ for the yea-sayers. The naysayers are simply that.

She writes that "eager participation in European wars scarred generations of Australians", but she looks to the role of Maori, Turks and Indians in the conflict and writes of the imperialist rhetoric surrounding the battle:

Any colony that hopes to achieve nationhood by serving under imperial command would seem to have set itself a Sisyphean task. About a quarter of the Anzacs who enlisted in 1914 were born in Britain; rather more were first-generation Australian, born to British parents. Whatever they achieved was likely to be, as the colonial contribution to the Battle of Britain still is, subsumed into the British effort. Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces at Gallipoli, is typical when he writes: "May I, speaking out of a full heart, be permitted to say how gloriously the Australians and New Zealanders have upheld the finest traditions of our race during this struggle still in progress; at first with audacity and dash, since then with sleepless valour . . . They have already created for their countries an imperishable record of military virtue." Take that, you Maori. Your warrior prowess is one of the finest traditions of our race. At first only "our race" was eligible to serve in the AIF, but the death toll at Gallipoli changed that.

Greer concludes:

In the concise words of [Richard] van Emden [co-author of Gallipoli: the Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers' Words and Photographs], "Just under 40 per cent of Australian males between 18 and 44 enlisted, and of the 331,814 who had served overseas or were undergoing training by November 1918, about 65 per cent were casualties (the highest rate in the British army) and 56,639 had died." If Australians were such good soldiers, why were nearly two-thirds of them casualties? For the answer, it is necessary to assess the priorities of the high command and the probable causes of its repeated failure to provision, supply or support the colonial troops. By November 1917 the five Anzac infantry divisions had been organised into their own force under Australian command, but even that would not protect them when it came to 1941-42, and Crete, Tobruk and El Alamein. Perhaps the bravest thing the Anzacs could have done at Gallipoli in April 1915 would have been to mutiny.

 

The Diary: Jack Monroe on her love of Labour lost

In the Diary this week, Jack Monroe talks Fairtrade bananas and Twitter feuds, and explains her very public decision to end her Labour Party membership:

At Glasto's Left Field . . . I described my loyalty to the party as akin to my relationship with my four-year-old son: they can be a little shit sometimes but you love them so you stick by them. My son listens and modifies his behaviour when he's in the wrong, which is fortuitous as, unlike the red-for-Green exchange, I can't just cancel my direct debit and get a new, slightly better-behaved one. Labour's last straw was the "immigrants and benefits" scaremongering in one of its national leaflets. That's not the party I joined. But it's the party I left.

 

The Politics Column: An ultra-hung parliament seems most likely - and it's Labour that has the upper hand

The NS political editor, George Eaton, reflects on the latest revelations by Alex Salmond and their implications for a hung parliament in May:

One Conservative MP recently suggested to me that the Tories could offer Scotland full fiscal autonomy in return for support or abstention in confidence-and-supply votes. Yet Alex Salmond's vow to bring down any Conservative-led government at the first opportunity (made in his interview with the New Statesman on page 24) has closed off this option just as it was beginning to gain traction. Cameron, in a surreal moment of indiscipline, ruled out serving a third term; Salmond may now have ruled out a second. If Labour and the SNP hold at least 323 seats between them (the number required for a majority excluding the abstentionist Sinn Fein), the Prime Minister will have no means of survival.

[. . .]

It is this that creates the possibility that, for the first time since 1924 (when Ramsay MacDonald became the inaugural Labour prime minister), the second-largest party could form the government.

He adds:

Whichever man enters Downing Street and by whatever means, the election increasingly resembles a staging post rather than a destination. Unlike the great, clarifying contests of 1945, 1979 and 1997, it will offer little guidance to the country's future direction. Even if they were gifted majorities, neither Cameron nor Miliband would effect the fundamental change that some in their parties crave. The latter's programme has proved to be more incrementalist and modest than his left-wing supporters had hoped. "If you rescue the NHS and you raise people's wages and you deal with zero-hours contracts, if you build 200,000 homes a year, if you put tuition fees down to £6,000 a year, if you put young, unemployed people back to work - if you do all those things, you're in business," he said recently, speaking as a moderate social democrat. And after Cameron relinquished his "big society" vision in favour of Crosbyite minimalism, it is less clear than ever what he would do with the final term he seeks.

The most momentous decisions facing Britain are external to the election. In 2017, the UK could vote on whether to end its 44-year-long membership of the EU. At some point in the next decade, Scotland will almost certainly again be invited to secede. Rather than resolving these existential questions, the election will sharpen them.

Read the Politics Column in full below.

 

Leader: the SNP at Westminster

The NS Leader this week also focuses on the implications of Alex Salmond's remarks to the New Statesman:

Despite losing the independence referendum just six months ago, the Scottish National Party has the swagger of a winner. Since September, support for the Labour Party has collapsed, although it won 41 of the 59 Westminster seats in Scotland in 2010. The most recent polls of Scottish constituencies suggest that the SNP (which has only six MPs) will win by a landslide in May and could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.

[. . .]

There had even been speculation among Conservatives to the effect that Mr Cameron would seek to strike a deal with the SNP. Yet in the former first minister's widely reported interview with Jason Cowley, which was published on our website on 24 March and is republished on page 24, Mr Salmond said that he would not negotiate with the Tories. More than this, he would seek to bring down a minority Cameron government by voting against a Queen's Speech, opening the way for some kind of pact with Labour.

It is our view that Labour must be prepared to work in good faith with the SNP. To do otherwise would be an act of disrespect to the Scottish people (who have long had right-wing Conservative administrations imposed on them) and a political error that could deny it the chance to form a government.

 

Exclusive NS interviews you might have missed:
 

Jason Cowley speaks to the former first minister of Scotland Alex Salmond

In an exclusive interview with the NS editor Jason Cowley, the former Scottish first minister confirms that the SNP will vote down a Tory minority government's Queen's Speech:

Salmond tells me that the SNP would not negotiate with the Tories, nor would it seek any compromise with them: instead, the SNP would act to bring down a Cameron minority government by voting against a Queen's Speech. "The Tories would have to go straight effectively for a vote of confidence, usually the Queen's Speech, although it could be otherwise, of course, and we'd be voting against," he says. "So if Labour joins us in that pledge, then that's Cameron locked out. And then under the [Fixed-Term] Parliaments Act that Westminster parliament's passed but nobody seems to have read, you'd then have a two-week period to form another government - and of course you want to form another government because this might be people's only chance to form another government."

In the interview, Salmond also says that Ed Miliband shouldn't have ruled out a full-blown coalition between Labour and the SNP, he argues that Gordon Brown's intervention saved the Union and he predicts that Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Labour's shadow foreign secretary and election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, will lose their seats to the SNP.

Read the interview and highlights from the cutting room floor online.

 

Ashley Cowburn interviews the Labour MP for Rochdale, Simon Danczuk

In a one-on-one with the NS, Simon Danczuk says the public thinks Ed Miliband is aloof and more of a toff than David Cameron:

"You get it on the doorstep. If we're having a straight conversation about this, he [Miliband] has an image of being more of a toff than David Cameron. That's how the public see it. And what they mean by that is that he's seen as more aloof. They'd prefer to go for a pint with David Cameron than they would with Ed Miliband, that's the reality of it."

Read the interview online.
 

Plus

Helen Macdonald on losing our spring birds.

Kate Mossman interviews the Scottish hip-hop trio Young Fathers.

Sophie McBain asks why so many people in Britain are using food banks.

Alan Garner on the source of creativity.

Will Self: Stuck in a train toilet, I see the future of urban Britain mapped out in pristine technicolour.

Helen Lewis on free speech on university campuses.

 

Photo: Getty
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The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

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