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24 September 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:47am

In this week’s New Statesman | The Cult of Boris

A first look at this week’s magazine.

By New Statesman

26 SEPTEMBER 2014 ISSUE

THE CULT OF BORIS

HE WANTS TO BE PRIME MINISTER. FIVE EXPERTS ON
WHETHER HE HAS WHAT IT TAKES

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  • BRITAIN IN MELTDOWN: FEDERALISM, AN ENGLISH PARLIAMENT –
    OR SOMETHING NEW?
  • JOHN GRAY: IS RELIGION TO BLAME FOR HISTORY’S BLOODIEST WARS?
  • SIMON HEFFER: HAS CAMERON LOST HIS PARTY?
  • THE INIMITABLE SUZANNE MOORE RETURNS TO THE NEW STATESMAN
  • 24-PAGE AUTUMN BOOKS SPECIAL

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DAVID RUNCIMAN: WHY DO OUR POLITICIANS SEEM SO DIMINISHED?

SCOTLAND: JAMES MAXWELL ON THE SNP’S SUCCESS IN BREAKING LABOUR’S GRIP NORTH OF THE BORDER

LEADER: NO ONE IS WINNING IN THE RACE TO 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: JASON COWLEY ON ALEX SALMOND’S EXIT AND THE
REIGN OF GREAT MEN OF LETTERS

POLITICS COLUMN: AS LABOUR’S TEPID CONFERENCE SHOWED, THE BEST IT CAN NOW HOPE FOR IS A SCRAPPY WIN

 

VOICES: BRITAIN IS BROKEN – VISIONS FOR A FUTURE UK

Scotland’s independence referendum showed that the way the United Kingdom is governed must change. But is the answer an English parliament, federalism, or something else altogether? Six respected panellists set out their vision.

The broadcaster, commentator and Labour peer Joan Bakewell begins by offering the view from the House of Lords, arguing that although the West Lothian question must be answered, an English parliament is hardly the panacea for our ills. “Does the public really want another tier of government, more MPs, more civil servants, more expenses rolled out across as small a country as ours?” she asks. “There already exists one great mainstay in England’s governance: the power and authority of our local government.”

Clearly the case of Scottish MPs voting on English matters needs to be addressed. The West Lothian question has been around a long time. So do other constitutional matters, the reform of the House of Lords among them. That is why we need a constitutional convention: not a high and mighty royal commission, rolling on for years, but a broad, grass-roots consultation, riding on the back of the surge in democratic engagement that was the triumph of Scotland’s experience.

The director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, Nick Pearce, offers a think tanker’s ideas on how to make up for the UK’s democratic deficit. The forces that powered the Scottish referendum – “political self-awareness and cultural expression” – have been rising under the radar in England for years, he writes:

This political Englishness is not an aggressive nationalism but it intersects with potent currents of populism and a broader, barely disguised disaffection with established party politics. It is criss-crossed by class divisions, but the demand for greater devolution of power within England is shared by many of the disparate groups agitating for a new democratic settlement.

This demand cannot be boxed neatly into English regions, as these artificial edifices of government administration have little if any moorings in history or popular attachment. Instead, English devolution should be a messy affair, going with the grain of the counties, cities and towns that make up the patchwork of England’s governance.

Some powers should be held by combined authorities, such as Greater Manchester; others by the existing local government. Cornwall has distinct claims. So does London, already endowed with its own city government. A decade of decentralisation should lead to more power and funding being pushed out of Whitehall, at whatever pace suits the various areas. It should be a central theme of next year’s spending review, one of the most important events in the coming parliament.

The Labour MP Jon Cruddas, co-author of One Nation: Labour’s Political Renewal, wonders: “. . . can we, the political class, rise to the challenge” of lost faith in government? He outlines five big challenges and offers some solutions:

The first is devolution of power. England has a centralised, undemocratic state that hinders our economic and political renewal. Labour’s New Deal for England will be the biggest devolution in a hundred years. We will shift decision-making over transport, housing, regeneration, infrastructure and elements of welfare and the economy closer to the communities they affect.

The second challenge is constitutional. There must be a greater recognition of an England-wide political interest in Westminster. We must find a structure that is democratically legitimate and which compensates for a more federal model of the UK. And the devolution of fiscal powers will involve working out how we create a wide, needs-based resource distribution.

We can’t have a quick fix by Westminster. A people’s convention for England can give English people a real voice. We need a dialogue between government and citizens; a broad alliance for change that stretches from Clacton to Bristol, Newcastle to Penzance.

The third challenge is dispossession. The Ukip insurgency is not a shooting star. It is telling a story that the main parties have failed to tell. In many communities there is a sense of being abandoned in the face of rapid change. The issue of immigration refracts feelings of loss, disappointment and powerlessness into a brittle politics of belonging.

The fourth challenge is integration. This summer brought disturbing images of an alleged British jihadist executioner and of young British Muslims fighting for Islamic State. Islamist terrorism is a mortal enemy and it has to be defeated. Extremist politics offers a sense of identity and meaning to young people who feel they do not belong.

We have one of the most segregated school systems in the rich world. Our housing policy locates rich and poor households in separate enclaves. We can learn from faith and community groups how to build a politics of the common good.

The fifth challenge is our broken politics. The sexual exploitation of hundreds of girls in Rotherham is a symptom of everything that is wrong with our political system. The children came from families that had lost their anchorage in stable work and a common life. There was no one to protect them.

 

THE NS PROFILE: THE BORIS AUDIT

From the Bullingdon Club to City Hall, Boris Johnson has left his mark. But does he have what it takes to become the next Tory leader? Can he actually run anything? We ask five experts to appraise his life, career and talent – from his time at Oxford to the quality of his prose.

The Conservative MP Mark Field recalls “Boris at Oxford” as a sturdily built, if badly organised, undergraduate with “that ever-present shock of blond hair”. Helped by a camp of admirers, whom he called his “stooges”, to the position of Oxford Union president (though not until the second time of asking):

. . . the clear impression many of us had of Boris was that his politics were centre-left with a tinge of environmentalism. I cannot imagine how such a reputation was cultivated.

[. . .]

It was only in the early 1990s, when reading his robust Eurosceptic polemics from Brussels in the Daily Telegraph, that I realised where his party political allegiances truly lay. There was always something of the contrarian about him – and even now I wonder whether this may have been a rather deliberate attempt to stand out from the run-of-the-mill Brussels correspondents faithfully reporting the goings-on at the European Commission and Parliament.

Sonia Purnell, the author of Just Boris: a Tale of Blond Ambition, considers “Boris the man”. It seems laughable, she writes, that Johnson appears to be rising on a plank of authenticity when he has such a poor record of promises unfulfilled, indiscipline, lies and infidelity. He promised to give up his job at the Spectator after he became an MP; likewise, he promised the Spectator he would not stand for a seat in the Commons. He shamelessly broke both promises, provoking the former Spectator owner Conrad Black to describe him as “ineffably duplicitous”.

In the heady “Sextator” days of Ruinart champagne and chesterfield sofas, Johnson was also busy breaking his marital vows. The reputation he won as a permanently priapic politician was nevertheless popular at the time with the young, the apolitical and the envious. Pictures of him slipping out of the Chelsea flat of the education journalist Anna Fazackerley – his trademark mop poorly disguised under a black beanie – made it all look like something out of a French farce. Only, as we know, the women in these escapades often end up hurt and hounded, and sometimes pregnant.

[. . .]

It is this recklessness that frightens the establishment horses – and should frighten us. A John Major-era Conservative minister sums up a view common among his generation as “Johnson must just be stopped”. There are even rumours of a “bottom drawer” of material on Johnson for release by party elders, should he edge even closer to the big black door with “10” on it.

Sadiq Khan, the shadow minister for London and a prospective rival mayoral candidate in 2016, evaluates the record of “Boris the mayor”. “The list of Boris’s failures . . . is long,” Khan writes. He cites as Johnson’s worst crimes inaction on the city’s housing crisis; the fact that he has initiated not a single significant travel or infrastructure project since he began his administration; rising pollution; and shocking inequality. “An unbelievable one-third of Londoners now live in poverty – and two-thirds of them are in work.”

He has increased the definition of “affordable” rent to 80 per cent of the market rate: not really affordable at all.

It’s not just the cost of housing that has risen. The cost of a Travelcard for zones one to six has increased by £440 since Boris became mayor. Tube fares have gone up by way above inflation every year. If the increased revenues were being used to build new infrastructure, that would be justifiable, but not a single important infrastructure project has been started. This has been particularly damaging for the poorest Londoners, who have had to move further and further out, due to rising house prices.

London’s population is growing faster than ever; it is poised to increase by the same number as the combined populations of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in just over a decade. With our Tube and bus network already operating at capacity, we need new infrastructure to cope. Yet nothing has happened under Boris. Ken Livingstone delivered Crossrail, due to open in 2016, but in six years no progress has been made on Crossrail 2.

 

THE NS ESSAY: HEAD BOY ADRIFT

In the lead-up to the Conservative party conference, the author and journalist Simon Heffer assesses David Cameron, Nigel Farage and the crisis of British conservatism. The challenges include everything from widespread derision of Cameron’s “vow” in the run-up to the vote on Scottish independence to a broad discontent in Tory ranks – symbolised by the surge in Ukip supporters, mostly former Tories who increasingly believe that the Conservative Party is just not conservative enough. The real big issues among voters, Heffer argues, are immigration and the EU, not pet Cameron projects such as gay marriage.

Past Conservative leaders who shared Cameron’s privileged background had one thing in common: “unflappability”. Heffer expands: “A good Tory leader, or even a bad one, never let it be thought that he had made the slightest mistake, never apologised, never explained.”

The problem for Cameron and his party is that it is already too late for that. The old toff unflappability cons no one any more, because the deference required to be taken in has long gone. The political sixth form at Westminster, former research assistants and apparatchiks to a man, is widely despised by the voters. It is all the worse for Cameron than for the others because of his abundant lack of humility, and the Bullingdon Boy picture that lurks in the back of too many people’s consciousnesses.

Ed Miliband may seem weird and Nick Clegg thick and duplicitous, but David Cameron has something far worse than that against him, namely his innate born-to-rule arrogance.

[. . .]

The most serious allegation [Douglas] Carswell had to level against his former party leader when he defected [from the Tories to Ukip] in late August was that Cameron was “not serious” about change in Europe. He could have gone much further, without hyperbole, and said it was hard to detect any subject at all about which Cameron is particularly serious, except continuing to fulfil his student politician fantasy of being prime minister. The state of permanent chillax – as Harold Macmillan would not have called his distant successor’s pose of unflappability – also betrays a detachment from the serious issues that Cameron ought to be confronting on behalf of the country. Macmillan, too, had that detachment, which led to him having rings run round him in the Profumo affair, driving him out of office a few months later. Some Tory MPs – especially those who have worked in the private sector – comment on what short hours Cameron puts in. His recent bout of holidays, just as the Middle East went critical and Russia seemed about to invade eastern Europe, was Cameron to a tee, and his Scotland humiliation was but the first and most obvious consequence of it. If we didn’t know he loves power so much for its own sake, we’d think he’d given up.

 

SUZANNE MOORE’S NEW COLUMN – “TELLING TALES”: MY NIGHTS IN A NEW YORK HOSTEL WITH A WOMAN WHO RENTED ROOMS BY THE HOUR

Suzanne Moore returns to the NS this week with her new column, “Telling Tales”. In this first instalment she remembers her love for a glamorous, treacherous woman – Diane. “We met in New York in a hostel,” she writes. “She was French Canadian. She despised most things and most people. Her utter contempt made her compelling.” One day Suzanne wakes to find Diane gone. Later, on the phone:

“I had to go back to Montreal. I have a part in a play. It’s a tragedy.”

She had always said she was an actress. A great actress. This seemed possible.

“Where are you living?”

“In a Rape Crisis centre.”

“Christ! What? What’s happened?”

“I needed somewhere to live, you know how it is. I told them I’d been raped by a gang of Hells Angels. I am, how you say, very traumatised.”

“Diane, you can’t do this.”

“Why not?”

“Because you haven’t been raped.”

“You want me to be raped?”

“No, but it’s wrong.”

“They help women in trouble, non? I need somewhere. I make them happy.”

She was having counselling for the gang rape. She said it was going very well. She was indeed an actress. It was all very confusing and I went out of town myself.

She came back to New York while I was away and slept with my boyfriend. I was devastated.

Some months later I got a letter that explained she was just making sure he was good enough for me, because it was me she loved. She had, she said, done me a favour. I just didn’t realise it at the time.

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