14-20 August 2015 issue
The Battle for Calais
Owen Jones, reporting from the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais.
Helen Lewis meets the Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper.
Suzanne Moore on the menopause.
Leader: Why the London mayoral race is heartening for Labour.
John Simpson: Fearless journalism, frequent barbecues and a new way to fight poachers in Kruger National Park.
Stephen Bush: Coups, splits – or surprising calm? What the Jeremy Corbyn era would look like for Labour.
“They forget we are humans”: Owen Jones on the new migrants in Calais
During a “crisis near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel”, Owen Jones visits the “Jungle” camp in Calais and is shocked by the conditions he finds there:
As soon as I leave the taxi, I am hit by the smell: a combination, bluntly, of human beings who haven’t washed for days or weeks, excrement and rubbish. Roughly 3,000 people are crammed into a camp of ramshackle tents. There are 30 or so portable loos – not for the faint-hearted – to cater for all of them. There are a few primitive showers; facilities for washing clothes are limited. Andy Young, a British doctor volunteering with Médecins du Monde, tells me that, in these circumstances, a cholera outbreak is easily possible, and refugee populations are susceptible to measles. About a fifth of those the doctors examine have scabies, an extremely itchy condition in which mites burrow into the skin. Fungal infections from not having washed are common. Relatively young men are falling sick with illnesses they would not normally contract if they had nutritious food. Diabetes, asthma, heart disease, epilepsy, HIV: these are all conditions the doctors must tend to and which, in many cases, have gone untreated for too long. The doctors and nurses who volunteer here have few resources, and one of their main jobs is to take the refugees to French hospitals to argue their case.
He wonders what the migrants think awaits them in Britain, when conditions in the camps are so terrible.
Every one of the men I speak to tells me he has fled either war or dictatorship. Two men walk through the camp, squinting in the afternoon sun. One is Abdul, from Sudan, who is 26; he tells me his whole village was destroyed by the Janjaweed, an Arab-supremacist militia. “They were all burned with fire,” he says of his fellow villagers, without flinching. His father is dead; his brothers and mother remained in Darfur and he constantly fears for their safety. His reason for wanting to come to England is straightforward: English is one of the official languages in Sudan, which he believes will allow him to establish a life in Britain in a way that would be more difficult in France or Germany. A portly, bespectacled 16-year-old, Abdel, dressed in a blue gingham shirt and black shorts, tells me that many of his relatives were shot dead by the Janjaweed. “It’s dangerous, very dangerous, it’s not safe,” he says. He has family in England and that is the main reason he wants to come.
[. . .]
A short, 21-year-old Darfuri with dreadlocks speaks to me in fluent English, explaining that he is a member of an African tribe and faces problems from both the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government. He was arrested along with his friends, given no water and subjected to electric shocks.
“I just want a future, to educate myself, that’s my ambition,” he tells me. But why England? “The UK used to colonise Sudan,” he says, “and we speak English. Look at this camp. Would you live here? They forget we’re humans. Where is the humanity? Where are the human rights?”
Is someone a refugee or a migrant? Calais underlines how blurred is the distinction between the two. All the people to whom I spoke were fleeing countries deeply traumatised by war and dictatorship. Their lives were in considerable danger. They had lost relatives and other loved ones, often in nightmarish circumstances. They had witnessed scenes of violence and death that most westerners will never experience. But they may have lived already in Britain. They may well speak English and believe that it gives them a chance of a decent life over here which would be denied to them in the eternal banishment of, say, a Lebanese refugee camp. They may have family in Britain. Most of them are educated. Libyans usually opt for Italy, because it is the former colonial power; people from the Democratic Republic of Congo usually go for France, because French is the official language. Those who portray Britain as the destination of choice for refugees and migrants have demagoguery, but not facts on their side.
There are nearly 60 million forcibly displaced people across the world; in total, there are nearly 20 million refugees. Most of them will remain near their often ruined homes; a tiny number will continue to seek security in Britain, driven by a combination of despair and hope. Some will suffer wounded hands, broken arms; others will die. But however tall the fences, however sharp the barbed wire, however fierce the dogs, however hostile the public opinion, they will keep coming.
Discipline over dazzle: Helen Lewis meets Yvette Cooper
Yvette Cooper is offering Labour a platform of cautious pragmatism, but will that be enough to take the crown? She talks to Helen Lewis.
In November 1997, not long after Labour’s landslide election victory, the newly elected Yvette Cooper wrote a column in the Independent, where she had previously worked as a writer on economics. “Seven months ago, I was still a journalist, delighting in the healthy scepticism and intelligent individualism that makes broadsheet newspapers so essential to a thriving democracy,” the new MP observed. “In contrast, I fear now that former journalist colleagues will find me earnest, idealistic and breathless. So be it. We have a unique opportunity.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and although few would accuse the 46-year-old of breathlessness, the charge of earnestness has not gone away. When the Labour leadership race began, the conventional wisdom was that Andy Burnham would run a good campaign but ultimately Cooper would triumph by picking up all the other candidates’ second preferences. Her campaign would not be flashy but it would be reassuring. By not making too many pledges, she would win with a clean slate, rather than being hidebound by promises made to assuage one special interest group or another.
On “Blue Labour”:
“I’ve always found the Blue Labour approach to family and community actually just too traditional, too anti-women. There’s something in that whole tradition . . . that always assumes all communities are good. You just have strong communities and that’s a good thing. Actually no, some communities are really oppressive and, you know, divisive. Or that all families are a good thing. Well, actually, there’s abuse and there’s violence within the family, and you should be strong about justice as well as about families.”
On David Cameron:
“I don’t think he sees or gets women’s lives at all, which is why [the Tories] do things like such massive cuts to tax credits, which will heavily hit women . . . I don’t think David Cameron knows how to handle women in parliament, either, in the chamber, in the Commons. You know, the ‘calm down, dear’ moment was an extreme example of it, but it’s not the only example.”
“The biggest challenge for us is Scotland. The heart of that is actually how you stand up against nationalism and how you cope with nationalism. When you’ve got falling living standards for a long period of time, that is always fertile ground for nationalism, and has been all over Europe [. . .] The thing about nationalism is it manages to combine the politics of blame with a false politics of hope. Hope for a better, sparkly future that is simply about changing the name of your country.”
On Doctor Who:
Her favourite Doctor is David Tennant but Peter Capaldi is growing on her: “Now I really like him. I just feel like he’s too sad, so I feel worried for him.”
“As we start to exit ‘womanhood’ we need to redefine it again” – Suzanne Moore on the menopause
Suzanne Moore re-evaluates her understanding of womanhood as she enters the menopause:
Something in me has died. Not an actual thing. I know what that feels like. I have had a dead foetus inside me and been told to go home and wait to miscarry “naturally”.
This is different. Another kind of ending. The bits that made me a woman of some description . . . they are still there, but they have no useful function. No more ovulation. No more bleeding. No more babies. No more contraception. No more wondering. No more tampon tax. The curse is lifted.
I want a medal, a paper hat, a prize; some kind of public recognition or a rite of passage at least, involving fire-eating, chanting and mescalin. Instead I find that no one wants me even to talk about it. “It” being the menopause. “My womb is a tomb” doesn’t seem to work well as a conversation starter.
“Can I have some sort of certificate?” I ask my poor GP.
“It doesn’t really work like that.”
“When can I say it’s over, that I’m done?”
[. . .]
Germaine Greer may have been right when she said that what women “are afraid of losing is not femininity, which can always be faked and probably is always fake, but femaleness”. If by femaleness she means the ability to reproduce – certainly not a defining part of every woman’s life – then the return to the individual that existed before menstruation raises interesting questions. Her view may be seen as unfashionable essentialism, or rather we may begin to see the menopause as a form of transitioning. For it is a time of transition. Undoubtedly. Is a woman who is free of her “sexual and reproductive destiny” less of a woman? If so, someone needs to explain what a woman is exactly and why she may not now become more of herself.
John Simpson: Fearless journalism, frequent barbecues and a new way to fight poachers in Kruger National Park
John Simpson writes a notebook from Kruger National Park in South Africa, where he finds a new way to defeat poachers:
This week I’m with my family in the Kruger National Park, arguably the best-run nature reserve on earth, braaing a lot of boerewors. We remember President Paul Kruger as the bearded ancient in a stovepipe hat who had the misfortune to govern Transvaal when the British, at the height of their George W Bush-style imperialism, decided to take it over; the Boer war was the bitter price they paid. Kruger would disconcert visiting British journalists with his frequent and noisy use of the spittoon. But he was also a visionary, who turned a vast area of what was then the northern and eastern Transvaal into one of the world’s first and best national parks. My wife, a former Ms Kruger, feels a distinct sense of family involvement here.
Every morning, after our obligatory tea and biskuit, we drive out and watch great herds of elephants heading down to the Sabie River to drink; or giraffes stepping elegantly through the bush; or hippos lounging around on the riverbank like something out of a Gary Larson cartoon, ignoring the huge crocodiles laid out nearby, one sharp little eye always open. And there are wonderful lions.
Here in the Kruger they are safe from marauding American dentists, unlike poor old Cecil in neighbouring Zimbabwe, and the elephants are well protected from ivory poachers. Rhinos have had a harder time of it, but new methods of protecting them are being introduced. The rangers knock them out and inject their horns with a poison that, though harmless to the animals, makes anyone ill if they try to ingest even the smallest amount of powder from it. The thought of men in China who insist on buying rhino horn for their erectile problems ending up with their heads down the lavatory bowl is distinctly pleasing.
Leader: The race for London’s mayor can show Labour how to win again
The NS Leader turns its attention to the Labour candidates for mayor of London:
The high quality of Labour’s mayoral candidates is heartening, and so is their racial and gender diversity. Sadiq Khan and Tessa Jowell, the front-runners, are both able politicians. Dame Tessa has the better track record, having delivered the Olympics, while Mr Khan is a good networker and campaigner. If either of them wins, the symbolism of their party’s breadth will be powerful: British public life is not awash with either high-profile older women or Muslims.
The other candidates deserve credit, too: this race has delivered the broad and open debate that so many have clamoured for in the national Labour leadership contest. David Lammy suggests that we end our infatuation with preserving the green belt; Christian Wolmar has thought deeply about London’s transport needs; Diane Abbott makes a left-wing case with vigour and verve. The contest has created more light than heat.
It is just as well that the field is so strong. Labour needs a strong candidate, as the likely Tory challenger, Zac Goldsmith, is a charismatic figure with appeal beyond core Conservative voters, just as Boris Johnson was.
Labour also needs to be shown how to win again. Perhaps Mr Johnson’s most significant legacy as mayor is to his party. His victory in 2008 was the Conservatives’ most notable triumph since the general election of 1992. Just as the Conservatives then, the Labour Party is now in need of a reminder that there was nothing inevitable about its recent electoral woes, as some fatalists seem to believe.
Stephen Bush: Coups, splits – or surprising calm? What would the Jeremy Corbyn era look like for Labour?
In this week’s Politics Column, Stephen Bush observes that we know Jeremy Corbyn can pack out meeting halls, but the question of what his workaday operation might be like has been neglected:
What changes would the Corbyn era bring?
At the beginning, at least, it would be more stable than many observers expect. All but a handful of diehard MPs from the party’s right will give Corbyn breathing space (if only, in the words of one, “to give him enough rope to hang himself”). Most recognise that an immediate coup would prompt a rerun of the race under identical rules. That could result in Corbyn winning again, perhaps by a bigger margin.
The chances of a full-blooded split are remote. There are no donors willing to fund a second Social Democratic Party, and Labour’s right-wingers hold the new Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, in contempt. But there would be middling schisms aplenty.
The renewal of Trident would likely split Labour down the middle – David Cameron, ever the opportunist, might bring forward the vote to increase Labour’s agonies – and the forthcoming referendum on the European Union will also test the party’s resolve. Corbyn is quietly sceptical about the European project, although the party as a whole is largely pro-European.
Despite his uncompromising reputation, Jeremy Corbyn has already shown himself willing and able to manage potential divisions. On Europe, he has managed to reassure the Eurosceptic minority that he is “one of us” (as one MP put it to me), while sounding open-minded enough to retain the votes of pro-Europeans. A similarly big-tent approach would probably hold the party together, at least for a little while.
More difficult to navigate will be the local and European elections. Next year will be a difficult one for Labour regardless of leader: a bloodbath is expected in Scotland and the party has a precarious grip on power in Wales. Zac Goldsmith will be a tough opponent in the London mayoral race. Defeat in all three would signal the end for Corbyn.
Having surprised everyone in the leadership contest, Corbyn might continue to defy expectations. But no matter how popular his blank verse has proved with members, his future depends on persuading at least a few swing voters to pick up the novel.
Peter Wilby on Edward Heath’s enemies, English cricket’s old burnouts and why I won’t vote Corbyn.
Will Self: I’ll tell you one thing about Clarkson. He always files on time and his spelling is immaculate.
Laurie Penny: Behold – a Britain where a woman has to convince jobcentre staff she’s been raped so that her child can eat.
Jonathan Bate: How books help us to become better human beings.
Julian Baggini: The new “effective altruism” – can generosity go too far?