Show Hide image

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

 

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle