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20 November 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 10:33am

Catalan independence, praising imaginary politicians and the perils of putting Ed in a fez

Technically, the Labour leader should have been represented on our cover by the 12th Doctor but Peter Capaldi’s costume simply isn’t distinctive enough. 

By Helen Lewis

“Independence is dignity”, read the banners fluttering around Barcelona, often accompanied by the red and yellow of the Catalan flag. After an autumn dominated by one independence referendum, I had managed to go on holiday and walk right into another. In Plaça Sant Jaume, there was a clock counting down the minutes to the vote on 9 November, with a sign declaring this was the chance for a “new country”.

Only it wasn’t. Spain’s government had ruled that the only way Catalonia would achieve independence was in a vote by the whole country, so Sunday’s ballot was entirely symbolic. Just as in Scotland, though, this setback doesn’t appear to have stifled the nationalist movement – and in one way, Catalonia is already further apart from the rest of Spain than Scotland is from the other countries of the UK. On a visit to the Barcelona City History Museum (look, I never said I was cool and there are some excellent Roman ruins), I was surprised to find all the signs in both Castilian Spanish and Catalan. Although 60 per cent of Barcelona’s residents speak the latter, only 2 per cent do not also speak Castilian. Like the vote, the promotion of Catalan is entirely symbolic.

In the Scottish referendum, Gaelic was barely mentioned: as Wilson McLeod wrote on the Bella Caledonia website, it was a “non-issue” among the Yes campaign. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon said, in effect, that there was no point having a bilingual ballot paper as everyone spoke both languages anyway. This is particularly worth noting, as the Welsh and Cornish nationalist movements are so heavily bolstered by their languages. The 2011 census records that just 1.1 per cent of Scots speak Gaelic, down from 22.9 per cent in 1755, so it’s a potentially emotive symbol of historic English repression. Perhaps – unlike Catalan – its eradication is too far gone for it ever to be of use to nationalists?

Doctor in distress

Catching up on the newspapers on my return, I was slightly taken aback to find a picture of Ed Miliband in a fez in the Daily Mail. Of all the New Statesman covers to go viral! Technically, the Labour leader should have been represented on our cover by the 12th Doctor (or is it 13th, because of John Hurt’s War Doctor? I no longer have the will to keep up with such questions) but Peter Capaldi’s costume simply isn’t distinctive enough.

The illustration was by the great David Young, who moonlights from a career as a serious landscape artist to paint very silly portraits of politicians for some of our covers. My favourite is still his splicing of Cameron and Osborne into the roles of Prince George and Blackadder, with Nick Clegg as Baldrick and Boris Johnson as Mrs Miggins, but this one runs a close second.

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Bibles and rags

When and how to criticise progressive politicians is always a sensitive subject for a left-leaning magazine: we know that we can huff and puff until we’re blue in the face pointing out the iniquities of the bedroom tax, the work capability assessment, the benefit cap, or scrapping the 50p tax rate, with barely a flicker of interest from the wider media. (Indeed, it astonishes me how few even on the left are animated by some of the huge injustices perpetrated in the name of welfare “reform”.) But say a single bad word about Ed Miliband and suddenly you’re the “bible of the left” and “Orwell’s magazine” – often in the same papers that called us “moth-eaten” and a “once-serious left-wing weekly” after Russell Brand’s guest edit in 2013.

The lesson for the New Statesman here is the same as the one for Miliband: we’re both sailing into a right-wing media headwind, so we should ignore the praise in the same way we brush off the criticism and carry on doing what we think is right.

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Fantasy politics

The screenwriter William Goldman’s comment on Hollywood – “Nobody knows any­thing” – applies equally to politics. There is an astonishing number of variables that make any kind of prediction hazardous and the temptation to use opinion polls as a handy fact-crutch must be resisted. In the latest YouGov poll, 15 per cent of respondents confidently declared that they had heard of a fictional politician called Andrew Farmer. That’s the same percentage who, according to a new book called Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, expressed an opinion on the “Monetary Control Bill”, which, needless to say, didn’t exist. The book’s editors, Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, add: “Men are 50 per cent more likely to express an opinion than women, one reason why men seem to have higher levels of political knowledge than women: they’re less willing to admit their ignorance.”

Out of the trenches

One of my most challenging tasks this summer was judging the inaugural NS/Speri Prize for Political Economy. I was the panel’s pet dunce, as everyone else – from the FT’s Sarah O’Connor to Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation – brought a little bit more to the table than my GCSE maths. That said, one of many reasons I’m pleased with our eventual winner, Mariana Mazzucato of Sussex University, is that her work on the “entrepreneurial state” and “smart growth” is accessible to the lay reader.

One of the aims of the prize was to encourage academics to leave the trenches and make their case to a general audience: there is no point in good ideas if they are left languishing in a paywalled academic journal. So my congratulations to Mariana, whose prize lecture will be published in an upcoming issue of the New Statesman. I hope you enjoy it. 

Peter Wilby is away