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In this week's magazine | The myths of Magna Carta

In this week's magazine.

 

The myths of Magna Carta

5-11 June 2015 issue

Featuring

Melvynn Bragg, Helena Kennedy, Tom Holland, Owen Jones and Jesse Norman on the document that set us free.

A major essay from the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen on the austerity trick.

Peter Obourne on corruption in Britain and America.

Philip Maughan interviews artist, film-maker and writer John Berger at 88.

John Bew: The culture wars of the left have contributed to Labour becoming unelectable.

George Eaton: The next Labour leader will struggle to persuade that they
can do more than fail better.

Leader: Why are white, working-class boys failing in school?

Plus: online this week

“I didn't see any point in pretending”: Stephen Bush’s profile of Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall

 

 

The myths of Magna Carta

As one of the most notable documents in history celebrates its 800th anniversary, we ask what it meant then – and what it means today.

Melvyn Bragg

Is it rather stupid and dangerous to take Magna Carta so much for granted, as many of us seem to do, and to think of this attitude as “very English”? Or would it be better to connect it with the present as resolutely as possible, to show the distance travelled in these past 800 years, the achievements despite the setbacks, its uniqueness? Perhaps to take our history too much for granted can be a way of diminishing both the past and the present, especially in this case.

At a recent public meeting about Magna Carta, a member of the platform panel, a well-known public intellectual, leaned forward and to a packed room pronounced with a world-weary confidence: “The fact is that Magna Carta was a squalid little deal.” A few sentences later he added: “Moreover, it did not mention women.” It is difficult to think of a more politically correct, less historically accurate and more impoverished view of history than this, and yet I was the only one who (publicly) protested.

Helena Kennedy

The interface between national law and international law is an area in need of serious work and political commitment or we are destined to chaos and conflict, as well as ever-growing inequality. So, as we watch the spectacle of self-congratulation around Magna Carta, and hear proud claims about this being an English invention, let us just remember that it came into being 150 years after the Norman Conquest and was probably greatly influenced by the French. Miscegenation makes for better law, and if ever we needed some legal cross-border collaboration, we need it now.

Tom Holland

Since the 17th century, [Magna Carta] has repeatedly been reinterpreted and reinvented by a whole succession of ideologues. Whether on opponents of Stuart absolutism or on the Founding Fathers of the United States, on the Chartists or on the lawyers who drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its influence has been immense. Even today, in our cynical and sceptical age, its potency remains undimmed. That Magna Carta never once mentioned democracy, equality or mutual respect did not prevent David Cameron, only last year, from declaring that it did. The inaccuracies scarcely matter. Every country needs its myths. That is why, 800 years on from the meeting at Runnymede, the uselessness of King John and all that resulted from it richly merits celebration.

The economic consequences of austerity

In a major essay for the NS, the renowned economist and philosopher Amartya Sen explores how the judgements of our financial and political leaders are breathtakingly narrow. He begins by returning to Keynes’s, who staunchly opposed “imposed austerity” in Germany following WWII.

“An inefficient, unemployed, disorganised Europe faces us,” says Keynes, “torn by internal strife and international hate, fighting, starving, pillaging, and lying.” If some of these problems are visible in Europe today (as I believe to some extent they are), we have to ask: why is this so? After all, 2015 is not really anything like 1919, and yet why do the same words, taken quite out of context, look as if there is a fitting context for at least a part of them right now?

If austerity is as counterproductive as Keynes thought, how come it seems to deliver electoral victories, at least in Britain? Indeed, what truth is there in the explanatory statement in the Financial Times, aired shortly after the Conservative victory in the general election, and coming from a leading historian, Niall Ferguson (who, I should explain, is a close friend – our friendship seems to thrive on our persistent disagreement): “Labour should blame Keynes for their election defeat.”

He writes that although Keynes ushered in the basic understanding that “expanding rather than cutting public expenditure may do a much better job of expanding employment and activity in an economy with unused capacity and idle labour”, the financial leaders of Europe refused to acknowledge this.

How was it possible, it has to be asked, for the basic Keynesian insights and analyses to be so badly lost in the making of European economic policies that imposed austerity?

Sen notes that the British public have been misled to view the national debt as similar to personal debt. While this “may be handy enough to frighten a population with imagined stories of ruining the future generations”, he writes, “the analysis of public debt demands more critical thinking than that”.

Sen concludes that “public knowledge and understanding” are key to a strong economic policy:

There are two distinct issues here. First, even if we want to reduce public debt quickly, austerity is not a particularly effective way of achieving this (which the European and British experiences confirm). For that, we need economic growth; and austerity, as Keynes noted, is essentially anti-growth. Second, what is also important to note is that while panic may be easy to generate, the existence of panic does not show that there is reason for panic.

 

How deeply embedded is corruption in British and American public life?

Peter Obourne reviews three new books exploring the extent of corruption in the UK and US:

Corruption in British public life can be divided schematically into three phases. Until the 19th century men entered politics in ­order to enrich themselves and to reward their dependants. Samuel Pepys was a senior civil servant at the Admiralty. His diaries in the 1660s are a squalid record of how he accepted endless financial and sexual favours in return for awarding contracts and arranging promotions. Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, amassed a prodigious fortune.

[...]

For reasons that are still not well understood, something fundamental changed in Britain in the Victorian period. Gladstonian liberalism brought moral rectitude to national life. The sale of military commissions was abolished. The Northcote/Trevelyan reforms led to the creation of an impartial civil service, with promotion by merit rather than nepotism. The Victorians consolidated the idea of the public domain, a sphere where the common good rather than self-interest and greed was paramount.

Of course corruption continued, because human nature is venal. But it was no longer part of the system of government. Corrupt public officials were now rogue elements, who were sent to jail and held up to public scorn if they were caught. The last prime minister to make a fortune out of public office was Lloyd George. Today’s cabinet ministers earn middle-class salaries, and most of them live in modest houses. The last minister thought to have accepted inducements was Reginald Maudling, a Conservative, in the early 1970s. Politics is no longer a route to riches. Tony Blair is admittedly an exception but he has acquired his wealth since leaving office. No one has ever suggested that he took (or takes) bribes.

Obourne continues by challenging our complacency over the extent of corruption here and in the States, asking if it is a “residual racism” that expects dodgy deals to be a natural part of governments abroad, but never at home.

 

“I think the dead are with us”: the artist, film-maker and writer John Berger at 88.

Philip Maughan meets John Berger on a recent gloomy morning in Paris:

Berger, who is 88, is wearing a navy fleece and baggy corduroy trousers, his smooth white hair standing upright. He concentrates intently on our conversation. Too intently, perhaps: he has left the gas burning on the stove.

Oh, merde! Oh, no!” he calls out, hurrying back into the kitchen.

On his childhood:

“I was, in a way, alone in the world,” he says as we settle down at the dining room table. “I don’t say that very pathetically. I just took it as a fact of life. But being like that means you listen to others, because you are seeking landmarks to orient yourself in relation to – and, unlike what most people think, storytelling does not begin with inventing, it begins with listening.”

On writing:

“What makes me write is the fear that if I do not write, something which ought to be said will not be,” he explains. “Really, I’m a stopgap man.”

On the internet:

Even in the age of Tumblr, Pinterest and Google Images – not to mention the endlessly reproducible objets licensed out by artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst – the book [Ways of Seeing] remains relevant.

[...]

“That was a long time before digital,” he says now, laughing. (Though Berger uses email only on occasion and prefers to speak on the telephone or to send letters, I had noticed that he had recently been using an iPhone. Sample text message: “Awaiting u. Laughs & wishes best, John.”) He argues that the internet, like the language of images, “possesses the same duality of possibilities, one opposed to the other, as both an instrument of control by the forces that govern the world – that’s to say, financial capitalism and what I call ‘economic fascism’ – but also for democracy, associating directly with one another, responding in a spontaneous but collective way”.

John Bew

In his column, John Bew writes that the greatest problem that the Labour Party has today is that it has “lost its ability to appear national”:

At the heart of Jon Cruddas’s recent post-mortem of the election campaign was the party’s failure to articulate a genuinely national message. All the great Labour victories were built from this basis. The 1945 victory – reinvented by the film-maker Ken Loach as some sort of kick in the teeth for Toryism, thereafter betrayed by quislings of the left – was nothing of the sort. The “spirit of ’45” has been sullied because, to borrow a contemporary phrase, its achievements, such as the NHS, have been “weaponised” to serve a sectional message.

As Labour continues to cast around for a working formula, it is in grave danger of looking in the wrong places.

[...]

It will be a while yet before the Labour Party gets its act together. In the meantime, it would be a disaster if it subcontracted these culture wars to an intellectual establishment that has served the left so badly.

George Eaton: The next Labour leader will struggle to persuade that they can do more than fail better

In the politics column this week, George Eaton writes that a route back to power looks increasingly difficult for Labour:

The more the general election result is studied, the worse it looks for Labour. Rather than assuaging the emotional trauma of defeat, the data has merely reinforced it.

Outlining the extent of their defeat, Eaton writes:

This psephological and political ­horror show has deepened Labour’s moroseness. The mood contrasts with 2010, when the pain of losing office gave way to the realisation that a route back to power was available. [...]The next Labour leader will find it even harder to convince anyone that they can become prime minister.

Eaton concludes:

No one can yet say who will lead either of the two main parties at the next election. [...] But as supporters of all three candidates concede, none of them promises to be an electoral talisman in the mould of Tony Blair. The numbers amplify the need for a figure of comparable or even greater stature – yet none is available. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” The next Labour leader will have to fight to prove that they can set their sights higher than this.

 

The Leader: England’s “missing talent”

The Leader this week focuses on a new report from the Sutton Trust, published on 3 June, that highlights the educational underachievement of the most disadvantaged children in England:

[...C]hildren who grow up in poor homes have less than half as much chance of getting top GCSE grades as those from other families. Boys from disadvantaged backgrounds perform especially poorly, including many of those who thrive at primary school but later flounder. Indeed, over a third of boys on free school meals who are in the top 10 per cent of performers at the age of 11 have, by the age of 16, fallen outside the top 25 per cent. Something is going very wrong – and needs urgently to be addressed.

What the Sutton Trust calls “Missing Talent” is especially prevalent among the white working class, whose educational performance is worse than any other demographic group’s. While just 28.3 per cent of white boys eligible for free school meals earn five good GCSEs, at least 39 per cent of mixed-race, Asian and black boys do so. This is an indictment of the support that struggling white, working-class pupils receive.

The Leader also reflects on the passing of former Lib Dem leader, Charles Kennedy:

As leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1999, he propelled his party to its best-ever election performance, winning 62 seats in 2005. This success was in no small measure due to his principled opposition to the Iraq war. Mr Kennedy was denounced inside and outside parliament as an appeaser – “Charlie Chamberlain” – but many of his foes later wished they had shared his prescience. In 2010, he was one of just three Lib Dem MPs to oppose the formation of a coalition with the Conservatives. Everyone can be wise after the event; Mr Kennedy was often wise before it.

Plus

Jane Shilling on extreme footwear.

Will Self: To the Hoo Peninsula, where Marlow and Magwitch met – but where no modern folk ever seem to tread.

Bob Stanley on the history of the music industry.

Suzanne Moore: Bleeding, concussed, drunk and standing at the sink in our knickers, we were having a marvellous time

 

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.