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10 August 2016

In this week’s magazine | From Somme to Iraq

A first look at this week's issue.

By New Statesman

From the Somme to Iraq
12 – 18 August issue

Cover story: From the Somme to Iraq.
David Reynolds
on why Britain should remember its military disasters.

George Eaton: The hard left has never been so close to permanent mastery of the Labour Party.

The Diary: Jess Phillips shares the pleasures of recess and laments that Ed Balls beat her on to Strictly.

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Guest Column: John McDonnell on why Owen Smith’s campaign for the Labour leadership has all the hallmarks of “Project Fear”.

Helen Lewis reports from Uganda on how to keep girls in school.

The Brexit chill: Felix Martin explains why it will take years to work through the full pain of leaving the EU.

Laurie Penny on why millennials choose open relationships.

Recess Confidential: The NS Mole offers the best stories from beyond the Westminster bubble.

 

****

Cover story: Long shadows of old wars.

A century on from the Battle of the Somme, the historian David Reynolds argues that remembrance of such disasters serves a vital moral and social purpose:

Should we keep clinging to our “Glorious Dead”? After all, there are no veterans of the First World War still alive. We are now as distant from the men who marched away in 1914 as they were from the Redcoats who fought Napoleon at Waterloo. So maybe it’s time to let go of the dead? To allow them to vanish quietly into the past? If we did so, perhaps it might be easier to comprehend the Great War as history?

Part of me, the historian, thinks this way. I worry that when it comes to the e British are still stuck in the trenches and trapped in Poets’ Corner. Rather than just evoking myriad individual tragedies on the Western Front, illuminated by a few anguished verses, I would also like us to see 1914-18 as truly a “world war”; to grasp its impact on eastern Europe, India, China and the Middle East – not to mention on politics and society at home – in ways that still affect us in 2016. In other words, not just to “remember” but also to understand.

And yet, as a citizen, I keep coming back to [Edwin] Lutyens [architect of memorials along the Western Front] and Thiepval [site of a memorial to the Missing of the Somme]. To those names. Carved into the stone and thereby etched into the national memory. Reminding us of their mortality – and ours. As the historian G M Trevelyan mused softly in 1927: “The Dead were, and are not. Their place knows them no more, and is ours today. Yet they were once as real as we, and we shall tomorrow be shadows like them.”

Bodiless names that can spring out of the stone shadows – suddenly alive at a glance or even a touch. I still remember being with my son Jim, then ten, when we found his name on the Tyne Cot Memorial, near Ypres. The almost electric shock of encountering a “James Reynolds” on the wall of the dead.

Or perhaps, dare one say it, of encountering a “Blair” or a “Cameron”, or even a “May”. I do not imagine for one moment that any democratic leader lightly sends men (and now women) into battle, knowing that it may be signing their death sentence. This is the moral loneliness of leadership. Power brings with it an inescapable burden of guilt because politicians, no less than generals, learn from their mistakes.

The Somme centenary reminds us of this. So does the excoriating Chilcot report into the Iraq War, published on 6 July. For all the differences of time and place, here are two essentially similar stories. Simplistic assumptions; inept planning; sloppy intelligence; duplicitous spin. It is tragically apt that, having reflected on the first day of the Somme, five days later we were pondering “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.

I believe that every political leader should visit the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. To touch the names and feel the pain. To “learning-curve” the human cost of going to war. That is why for me, ultimately, Thiepval matters. Why we should not forget 1 July 1916. Why, a century on, and however hard it now may be, we should remember them.

 

Politics Column: George Eaton on how the Labour left’s grip on the party is tightening.

The NS politics editor, George Eaton, argues that Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election will give the Labour left a chance to secure permanent supremacy:

A second leadership victory [for Corbyn] would be an unprecedented triumph for the left but its mastery of Labour is not yet complete. Had Corbyn departed, an alternative candidate, such as the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, or the shadow defence secretary, Clive Lewis, would have struggled to achieve the requisite 38 MP/MEP nominations (15 per cent of the total) needed to get on the ballot. The left’s devotion to Corbyn is both personal and tactical.

His allies identify two ways to consolidate their position. “You change the rules or you change the MPs,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. The deselection of some of Corbyn’s opponents is regarded as “inevitable”. At a recent rally in Brighton, the leader stated that he would not “interfere” if members sought to oust the Hove and Portslade MP, Peter Kyle. By simultaneously replacing retirees with left-wing loyalists, a more Corbynite parliamentary party will be built.

In parallel with this, the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is seeking to reduce the nomination threshold to 5 per cent. The earliest possible date for this rule change is 2017 – another reason for Corbyn’s tenacity. The left’s hope is that by the time he departs its supremacy will be assured. Labour will have been transformed from a party in which MPs hold the whip hand to one in which the activists do.

It is this that leads some to regard a split as inevitable and desirable. Yet it is not a course that MPs intend to pursue if Corbyn wins again. To adapt Adam Smith, there is a great deal of ruin in a party. MPs’ tribal loyalty to Labour militates against a breakaway. Many expect Theresa May to trigger an early general election next year, with Labour’s defeat resulting in Corbyn’s resignation or removal. But he has refused to guarantee that he would go. As the left is fond of noting, Kinnock remained in post despite losing in 1987.

Before his defeat the following year, Benn threatened annual leadership challenges. Many of Corbyn’s opponents now echo this warning. For the left, this role reversal is the reward for its past refusal to split. “You know what, comrade, we’re just in it, aren’t we?” Benn once told Corbyn when discussing why they had remained in the party.

Back then, the left, no less than the right, assumed that its marginalisation was permanent. When Corbyn won in 2015, it was as an insurgent. He is now on course to triumph as an incumbent. Never has the left been closer to transforming Labour for good. Never has it been harder for their opponents to stop them.

 

The Diary: Jess Phillips.

The outspoken MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips, shares the joy of time off from division bells at Westminster, and her disappointment at being beaten as the first Labour politician to make it on to the floor of Strictly Come Dancing by Ed Balls:

‘‘Hello. Jess Phillips speaking.” “Oh, hello. I was ringing to ask for some help from my MP, Jess Phillips.” “Yes, that’s me. What can I do to help?” “Oh, well, I’m all flustered now it’s actually you. Is it actually you?”

Working in my constituency office during recess causes many an existential crisis, and never more so than when I am answering the phone. To be fair, I am told that on the phone I sound like a man; I have been referred to as “Jeff” or “sir” on more than one occasion.

Apart from having to explain myself to people who cannot believe that I am real, I’m never happier than when I am here. Sitting in my office and not schlepping to Westminster every week is like wearing comfy slippers and eating your favourite home-cooked meal for tea. When I’m in the constituency and not running around to the sound of division bells, I can do some proper work. Not work like I do in Westminster: reading, attending meetings and scrawling notes all over pieces of paper dog-eared by too much time in my bag. In Yardley, I work like normal people in offices up and down the land: dealing with people’s issues, planning local campaigns, doing case reviews and having staff meetings.

Recess blues
The rhythm of constituency work does not stop for August. The only difference is the presence of my overexcitable and sometimes overtired children, who may be forced to sit quietly (if only) in the corner at times. Not so chuffed to be on holiday now, are you, boys?

This week, the office is full of children, waiting while their parents get advice or bring me their complaints. Today, I played with the four children of a woman who had come to our office to seek advice from the domestic violence support worker. The children were the best-behaved, most well-mannered kids I’ve met, especially considering they’re living in a hotel and had been sitting for hours in a boring MP’s office.

Quiz ego
“Which MP became a lecturer in Greek at the University of Sydney? I’ll give you a clue: he is one of the most famous people to come from my constituency, not that I’m proud about that.”

My weekend was made up of not one, but two Labour Party fundraisers, at which I was a guest of honour. Political quizzes seem to be the bucket-shaking weapon du jour. In the North Warwickshire and Solihull Constituency Labour Parties, I’m allowed to act as quizmaster, in order not to disappoint party members present with my complete ignorance of political trivia.

At the Solihull shindig, a grainy, photocopied picture round – made up of former prime ministers and Labour leaders – reminds me that our party has been better represented by people with beards than by women. I chat and laugh with the members, eat the best goddamn spread I’ve ever seen, and am thankful to the hosts. Just as I’m about to leave (thanks to my increasingly impatient and vocal seven-year-old son), I am dressed down about my lack of commitment to a certain Labour leader with a beard. Beards 2, Women 0.

NB: it was Enoch Powell who was born in the Stechford area of Birmingham Yardley.

Taking a dive
I am an Olympics junkie. I managed to time my maternity leave for Athens and then Beijing. I will watch anything, even horse ballet. I’ve been hooked on Rio’s offering, though sleep and work are hampering my viewing regime. My children are, as I type, throwing themselves off the sofa in mock-synchronised-diving riffs. I say their efforts need work, and some water might help.S

Shedding tiers
This week, I’ve been sizing my son up for his new school uniform, as he is about to start at secondary school. Our nearest secondary is a grammar school, where I went. It is not where my son is going. Nothing gets Tory MPs into the chamber of the House of Commons faster than the suggestion of the opening of new selective schools.

The revolving-door grammar-school policy is back again. Birmingham is one of the rare places where free, selective grammar schools still exist. So I grew up in a place where some kids made it and some kids didn’t. I chatted with my husband about the issue, and the division between us – he went to the local boys’ comp and I went to the fancy school – is still clear in his ire. He resents that we had a swimming pool, for instance, when he didn’t even have any grass, just a yard. (Obviously he never had to dash into the playground during a fire drill and suffer the shame of being in nothing but a swimming costume!)

I jest, of course. He has a point. In Birmingham, the feeling of a two-tier system stays with the majority of kids for life. The debate going forward will no doubt be feral and personal. I just hope that we in Labour can recognise that parents only want what is best for their kids, at the same time as insisting that governments should want what is best for all kids.

Two to tango
I have on many occasions joked about my desire to be the first Labour ve on Strictly Come Dancing. I have seen every episode. I can say with real conviction, “That rumba needs more oomph!” and “For God’s sake, man, the Viennese waltz is all about rise and fall – no rise and fall, no point!”

I had long lamented that only Tory politicians had tripped the light fantastic at the Tower Ballroom. Until now. Ed Balls, a man with a national day – “Ed Balls Day”, so called after the time he accidentally and enigmatically tweeted his own name – has beaten me to it. Many will cuss, moan and slag him off for selling out, but when people are already shrieking “Tory neoliberal Blairite sell-out!” at you in the street, you might as well learn to shimmy off in style.

 

Guest Column: John McDonnell.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, sets out Labour’s investment promise of £500bn and accuses the leadership contender Owen Smith of cheap smear tactics and scaremongering:

I am chairing Jeremy’s leadership campaign, as I did last summer. I have to say that it has been carried out on our side with an upbeat, positive approach, with thousands of people at events showing their support for Jeremy to continue as leader. However, the same cannot be said of the rival camp.

I have found Owen Smith’s campaign strangely confusing at times. It makes wild claims, uses unfounded facts and takes contradictory positions. His main policy to date is simply the Tory MP Stephen Crabb’s investment fund, with double the money and no method of implementation. He was meant to shadow a Tory cabinet minister, not mimic him. In contrast, the £500bn investment plan I announced last month has an implementation structure involving the creation of national and regional investment banks. It is not an arbitrary sum, either, but a figure supported by independent experts.

Owen has also criticised me for defending members who were barred from having a say in this contest by a narrow clique at the top of the party’s executive. The same clique also wants to use members’ subs to pay for legal costs to deny them a voice. Owen recently said that I shouldn’t “interfere” with decisions by the National Executive Committee and added that he just wants to “play by the rules”. Yet earlier the same day, he called for an extension to the election contest. He offered no alternative time frame or consideration of the additional cost of delaying the party conference; nor did he acknowledge that these are all rules set by the NEC.

Furthermore, he copied the cheap attacks made by Tory-supporting newspapers on Jeremy over nationalism and attacked me for not having any policies, despite announcing some of my policies as his own. When those smear tactics fail, he reverts to a “Project Fear” approach of talking up a split that is being led by a minority of MPs who support his campaign. These tactics were the reason we lost the EU referendum. It seems odd to embrace them again.

If Owen Smith can’t stand up and publicly condemn the minority of MPs talking up a split who back his campaign, how can anyone believe that he would stand up to the same MPs who also, deep down, oppose many of these policies? It’s clear that anything Owen announces this summer has a sell-by date of 24 September, and members know it. All he has to do to show that he is prepared to campaign positively is say that he will respect the outcome of this election, which means being prepared to serve under whoever wins, as Jeremy and I have done. Otherwise, he will continue to be a “disunity” candidate.

 

Letter from Kampala: Helen Lewis.

The NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, visits Kityerera High School in Mayuge, eastern Uganda, which loses between ten and 15 girls every vacation because, according to the head teacher, they “elope or conceive”. She finds out how small but inspired interventions by a charity called PEAS are keeping more girls in school:

Sitting in a cool classroom, we talk about the Girls’ Club, an after-school group the school has established to try to retain more female pupils. Here, they do what we might call PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) and learn skills such as basket-weaving. The boys help by collecting the raw materials, such as papyrus reeds or palm leaves, from nearby swamps. At the local market, a small basket might sell for 2,000 Ugandan shillings (44p) and a large one for 10,000 (£2.20). The profits help pupils buy extras they need.

There is one particular extra I’m interested in because it can make a huge difference to girls’ chances of making it to the end of secondary education: sanitary towels. At the school canteen, a pack of disposable pads costs 2,500 shillings (56p), putting them out of reach for many pupils. The girls have to use rags, or whatever else they can find. Some parents keep them at home and they lose a week of lessons every month.

As girl after girl tells me how much she worries about standing up in class to find blood all over her orange dress, I remember how much the same thought preoccupied me as a teenager. At my school, we compulsively shared stories of the apocryphal girl who had started her first period during a choir recital and had fled the assembly hall, eternally shamed as a scarlet stain spread across her uniform.

Mixed up with embarrassment here in Uganda is a fundamental issue of hygiene: managing a period without running water or sanitary bins can be messy and smelly. It might be only an eggcup of blood, but often it feels like a deluge. Across the developing world, and in refugee camps, a lack of safe, clean, single-sex toilet facilities exposes women to violence and disease.

For that reason, the girls and boys of Kit­yerera are well coached in telling Western visitors about menstruation; I’ve never had a 15-year-old boy talk to me about periods before, never mind half a dozen of them. Two years ago, the girls in Kityerera were issued with AFRIpads, made by a local company. Reusable, washable sanitary pads clip into a fabric holder that can be slotted inside knickers. There is only one problem: they are supposed to be used for not much longer than a year. So the girls want more.

PEAS is trying to identify more of these small-scale ideas that can have larger benefits. At another school, this one in Malongo, near Lake Victoria, five hours’ drive from Kampala, Annie Theresa Akech from the board of governors tells me how important it is to let parents pay in instalments. (Subsistence farmers and fisherfolk can rarely produce a lump sum.) Yet the schools do charge fees, because the aim is for all of them to become self-sustaining within a year and to be run and staffed by local people. Solar panels provide electricity, which in turn allows for the installation of computer labs. None of the PEAS schools uses corporal punishment, in contrast to a nearby primary school we visit, where a long, swishing cane keeps the children in line.

In this context, sanitary pads – and the craftwork on offer at Girls’ Clubs that makes it possible for pupils to buy them – are liberating. They offer equality, helping girls get as much out of school as their brothers do. They free girls from the extra burden of worrying that they will be shamed in front of their classmates. They give girls in Uganda what they need: a chance.

 

The Brexit chill: Felix Martin.

The economist Felix Martin agrees with the Bank of England’s analysis published on 3 August: the greatest risks of the Brexit vote stem not from the short-term impact on the economy’s demand for goods and services, but from the long-term consequences for Britain’s capacity to supply them:

A few days with my scientist friend [a director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Cambridge] were enough to convince me that this diagnosis is correct. The institute that he runs is one of the world’s leading centres for research in genomics – the marriage of data science and genetics that is allowing us to decode and understand the human genome. The potential applications of its research output in medicine, technology, agriculture and areas we cannot even imagine yet are vast.

The truths of science know no national boundaries. Economically, however, where they are researched and discovered matters, because it is usually there that the businesses that exploit them are built. Institutes such as the EBI are valuable economic assets. When Theresa May talks of the need for a proper industrial strategy, it is the hi-tech businesses spun out of institutes such as the EBI that she is dreaming of.

Yet the referendum result has been a cause of woe, not celebration, for my friend. The reason has little to do with Brexit: the EBI was established by a special intergovernmental treaty, so our EU membership has no impact on the legal status of the institute or its staff. The problem is the everyday experience of many of the non-British scientists working there since the vote.

I am sure that readers will have heard the same kinds of stories in other contexts. Casual xenophobia in the street. An excuse for bullying at school. A feeling among a tiny but vocal minority that the referendum result is a licence to be rude and racist to strangers. These things have always happened now and then; but since the vote, an alarming number of my friend’s non-British staff and their families have been made to feel publicly unwelcome, or worse. This epidemic of low-level yobbery on institutions that depend on foreign talent to be the best in the world – our economic Premier League teams – is demoralising. Since the growth of the UK’s productive capacity depends on them, the effect on our economic future is potentially devastating.

It is time for all sides in the Brexit debate to reaffirm the UK’s reputation as a tolerant society that is open to foreign trade, foreign capital, foreign ideas and the foreign people who come up with them. It is on that reputation – not on the monetary tonics of the Bank of England – that our long-term economic future hangs.

 

Laurie Penny on millennials’ penchant for polyamory.

Laurie Penny explains why, for many people born after 1980, open relationships make perfect sense:

Having been polyamorous for almost a decade, I spend a good deal of time explaining what it all means. When I told my editor that I wanted to write about polyamory, she adjusted her monocle, puffed on her pipe and said, “In my day, young lady, we just called it shagging around.” So I consider it my duty to her and the rest of the unenlightened to explain what’s different about how the kids are doing it these days.

The short answer is: it’s not the shagging around that’s new. There is nothing new about shagging around. I hear that it has been popular since at least 1963. What’s new is talking about it like grown-ups. It’s the conversations. It’s the texts with your girlfriend’s boyfriend about what to get her for her birthday. It’s sharing your Google Calendars to make sure nobody feels neglected.

The Daily Mail would have you believe that polyamory is all wild orgies full
of rainbow-haired hedonists rhythmically thrusting aside common decency and battering sexual continence into submission with suspicious bits of rubber. And there is some truth to that. But far more of my polyamorous life involves making tea and talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex and whose turn it is to do the washing-up.

Over the past ten years, I have been a “single poly” with no main partner; I have been in three-person relationships; I have had open relationships and have dated people in open marriages. The best parts of those experiences have overwhelmingly been clothed ones.

There’s something profoundly millennial about polyamory, something quintessentially bound up with my fearful, frustrated, overexamined generation, with our swollen sense of consequence, our need to balance instant gratification with the impulse to do good in a world gone mad. We want the sexual adventure and the free love that our parents, at least in theory, got to enjoy, but we also have a greater understanding of what could go wrong. We want fun and freedom, but we also want a good mark in the test. We want to do the right thing.

 

Plus

View from Bradford: Samira Shackle on post-Brexit tensions in post-industrial Yorkshire.

Newsmaker: Caroline Crampton on the rise of Mmusi Maimane, South Africa’s opposition leader.

Anthony Gottlieb reassesses Pierre Bayle, the forgotten French philosopher of the Enlightenment.

The NS Poem: “A Part of Me Is Gone” by Isobel Dixon.

Melissa Benn on the film-maker Tony Garnett’s potent memoir The Day the Music Died.

Erica Wagner feels encouraged to wander the streets by the women of Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse.

Philip Maughan traces Geoff Dyer’s journey in his latest volume of travel musings, White Sands.

Tim Martin enters the brutal fictional world of Donald Ray Pollock’s Heavenly Table.

Chigozie Obioma’s “Midnight Sun” – a love story exclusively for the New Statesman.

Yo Zushi is mesmerised by the beauty of the banal at the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of 100 pictures by William Eggleston.

Film: Ryan Gilbey talks to the entertainingly gloomy Todd Solondz, director of Happiness and Wiener-Dog.

Television: Rachel Cooke goes back to the Eighties with Stranger Things on Netflix and The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook on BBC2.

Radio: Antonia Quirke is enthralled by the marvel of listening discovered in previously unheard recordings of J R R Tolkien.

 

For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: anya.matthews@newstatesman.co.uk / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396.