In this week's magazine | Spring double issue

A first look at this week's issue.

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18 - 31 March issue
Spring issue double

Simon Jenkins on Tony Blair: Why reading Tom Bower’s new biography made me feel sorry for him.

George Eaton on the long march of John McDonnell the Trotskyite.

Sylvie Bermann’s Diary: The French ambassador on Franco-British comradeship, the Calais “Jungle” and anarchy at Shoreditch House.

Shiraz Maher on the Syrian protesters who are finding their voice again in the fragile ceasefire.

Special report: Sophie McBain follows a Sudanese mother and her children for six months as they seek to settle in England.

Foreign Policy: John Bew on decoding the Obama doctrine.

Xan Rice meets the obsessive runner addicted to marathons.

Jim Murphy: A century after the Easter Rising, we Brits should be less nervous about celebrating Irish history.

Armando Iannucci: How I was wounded in my one-man war against pornography.

Owen Jones wonders why anyone would think Hillary Clinton is a champion of LGBT rights.

Jeremy Seabrook on nostalgia and the left.

Books: A Charlotte Brontë bicentenary special – Lyndall Gordon reviews a trio of new works on the author; Antonia Quirke recalls the dizzying experience of reading Jane Eyre at a Catholic girls’ school; and “Interesting About E and A” – a new short story by Helen Oyeyemi.

The Critics: From page to screen – Will Self wonders what J G Ballard would make of the new High-Rise movie; John Gray reviews Amazon’s TV adaptation of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick; and Erica Wagner revisits The Revenant by Michael Punke.

PLUS: “Imminent Catastrophe” – a new poem by Clive James.

****

Simon Jenkins on Tony Blair.

Tom Bower slays Tony Blair in his latest biography – but does the former Labour prime minister deserve such contempt, asks Simon Jenkins? Jenkins finds himself feeling “a twinge of sympathy” for Blair as he wades through Bower’s 600-page hatchet job:

Much of him was rubbish, yes, but this much rubbish? The winner of three elections came to power in 1997 after staging one of the great coups of postwar politics. The “Blair project” stripped Labour of decades of ideological dross and made it electable. It re-engineered the left of British politics and won the admiration of even Margaret Thatcher. Bower largely ignores this achievement.

Nevertheless, Jenkins is forced to agree with Bower’s conclusions:

Britain did not go off the rails under Tony Blair. Even if he sowed the seeds of economic woe, many grew rich and many more became less poor. Blair made Labour safe for Thatcherism, which, like it or not, was an achievement. He introduced a minimum wage, advanced gays, half settled Northern Ireland and created a mayor for London. Against his own judgement – and thanks to Brown – Britain stayed out of the euro. But there was no lasting reform of public services, which became the most centralised in Europe. Not one major power station was built. The overall legacy was a mess.

In the final analysis Blair must take responsibility for plunging his country into “wars of choice” that were unnecessary, immoral and hugely expensive, some £40bn in lives and treasure. This was the real hanging offence. Bower interviewed his first three cabinet secretaries, Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull. Each of them broke the customary silence of his office and said he did not regard Blair as “a laudable guardian of the public’s trust”. Bower is surely right to reach the same conclusion.

 

George Eaton on John McDonnell the Trotskyite.

The NS politics editor, George Eaton, observes that even though he is now less vocal about his influences, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, is an ardent Trotskyite as well as a Marxist:

Although the shadow chancellor has praised Marx since his appointment (“You can’t understand the capitalist system without reading Das Kapital”), he has, unsurprisingly, avoided any reference to Lenin or Trotsky. Unlike Marx, the two revolutionaries were responsible for the mass murder of political opponents and inaugurated many of the communist state’s dictatorial methods. In Labour circles, they are reviled as the inspiration for the entryist Militant Tendency (expelled under Neil Kinnock). Yet, as recently as 2006, the shadow chancellor was citing them as definitive influences.

Is McDonnell now, as some insiders believe, pursuing a version of Trotsky’s “transitional programme” rather than victory at the next general election?

According to this strategy, socialists should make economic demands that they know are unachievable, in the hope of stirring up greater discontent with the system. Previously unreported remarks by McDonnell suggest that this interpretation is not outlandish. During a House of Commons debate on 4 July 2011, he said: “As someone who still sees the relevance of Trotsky’s transitional programme, I am attempting not to salvage capitalism but to expose its weaknesses.”

[. . .]

After acquiring front-bench office for the first time in his 19 years as an MP, McDonnell has responded more pragmatically than most anticipated. Could his “long march” end with the office of Labour leader?

 

Sylvie Bermann’s Diary.

The French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, reports developments from the 34th Franco-British summit in Amiens, where the refugee situation in Calais was one of the chief topics of discussion. It’s an issue on which Bermann has been tackled by campaigners in London in recent weeks:

Today, fewer migrants are living in squalid, inhumane conditions in the so-called Jungle, thanks to the decision by the French authorities to dismantle a section of the camp. They have either been housed in temporary shelters that are heated and have hot water, electricity and decent sanitary facilities, or been relocated to other parts of the country where they are then encouraged to apply for asylum in France.

[. . .]

Yet the reality is that many migrants still want to reach Britain, and unfortunately they are being encouraged to keep trying by a small number of agitators who want to see the end of borders between France and the UK. A few weeks ago I was barracked at an event at Shoreditch House in London by anarchists letting off smoke bombs in protest about the clearing of part of the Calais migrant camp. These groups have their own agenda and they are encouraging vulnerable people to risk their lives by trying to get across the Channel. Last summer we saw some of the tragic consequences of these desperate actions. In fact, they will not reach Britain: today it is harder than ever as a result of joint investments by France and the UK to strengthen the border.

 

Jim Murphy on the centenary of the Easter Rising.

A hundred years on from the Easter Rising, famously described by W B Yeats in his poem “Easter 1916” as the birth of a “terrible beauty”, the NS columnist and former Labour MP Jim Murphy argues that British people should be less nervous about celebrating Irish history:

This Easter, Ireland may at last be coming to terms with its complicated and contradictory legacy. There is a determination in the official commemorations to “remember, reflect and reimagine” by focusing on the future.

What about here in Britain? For those of us whose families hadn’t yet emigrated, making the short journey from Ireland to England or Scotland, the events of that Easter Monday are especially poignant. The anniversary offers a chance to reflect on the troubles of those who came, the discrimination they faced and how Britain is a better place because of Irish men and women of all traditions. However, in a nation where up to six million of us have a right to an Irish passport, there seems to be a reticence about marking the centenary of the Rising.

Perhaps it’s understandable. The imagery of an armed uprising in a capital city, even if it was a century ago, remains difficult. Those who took up German Mauser rifles at the GPO were a small group with competing motives, but they were worlds apart from those who took up the Armalite during the Troubles. The senseless horror of the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign was a betrayal of the republican dreams of Michael Collins and Tom Clarke’s 1916 forces.

 

Letter from Cairo: Sophie McBain on one family’s journey from Darfur to England.

Last year, the government offered 750 refugees the chance to move to the UK through its Gateway resettlement programme. Sophie McBain follows Arafa Hassan Gouda and her family for six months as they make the journey to England – via Darfur, Tripoli and Cairo. First comes the phone call from a UNHCR officer to say they have been accepted on the programme:

“The first thing I thought when I heard Britain was: Mr Bean,” Eithar, Arafa’s 17-year-old daughter, told me when we met in their cramped apartment three weeks after the momentous phone call. Her twin sister, Mayas, giggled.

The twins had since started going to a local internet café, together with their younger brothers, Wael, 16, and Akram, 15, to research their future home, and now they had many questions. Had I visited Stonehenge? Was it true that there was a big library somewhere – maybe in Ireland? Had I also read the news about Prince Harry being photographed gambling?

Arafa and her children finally arrive in England and are allocated a three-bedroom red-brick house, not far from Hull’s train station:

As the plane descended in Manchester, Arafa and her family looked down at the green fields and trees of England in wonder. “It was so beautiful,” Ghaida said. “And we saw sheep – we love sheep!”

A team from the Refugee Council met them at the airport, and they were taken by bus to Hull. Eithar kept on opening and closing her eyes, “just to check it was real”. The Refugee Council support worker asked them repeatedly if they were OK, which they found touching. “We were so well looked after, like babies,” Ghaida said. They found their house beautiful, too, and the backyard, which they planned to plant with flowers. Even the cold was bearable. At 15, Akram considers it a point of pride that he rarely wears a coat.

McBain explains that families like Arafa’s may not be so lucky in future:

In September 2015, following EU summits on the European refugee crisis, Britain agreed to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. It has not expanded its Gateway programme and has refused to accept refugees from the countries on Europe’s periphery which are struggling to cope. The government evidently does not consider increasing its refugee intake a popular measure; the Home Office said it did not want to participate in this article. I submitted a Freedom of Information request to find out how much the Gateway programme costs: in 2014-15 and 2015-16 it received £11.4m in funding per annum, from a mixture of EU and UK government funds (the Home Office said it could not break down the figures).

 

Xan Rice meets the man addicted to running marathons.

In a long read for the Easter issue, the NS features editor, Xan Rice, tells the extraordinary story of Robert Young. Two years ago the 33-year-old office worker had never run a marathon. Twelve months later Young, a survivor of child abuse, had redefined the limits of athletic endurance by completing more 26.2-milers in 365 days than anyone in history – more than one a day.

Rice recounts how Young’s story began:

It is on Sunday 13 April 2014, the day of the London Marathon. Thirty-six thousand men and women line up at the start. Most have trained for several months; for some, this will be the hardest thing they have ever done.

Young is on his sofa, a bag of crisps on his lap, watching the television coverage. The occasional 3.1-mile parkrun is the limit of his running ambition but he enjoys the spectacle of the marathon, seeing all those people raising money for charity. When Joanna, Young’s fiancée, asks him to go to the park with her and their infant son, Alexander, he protests, saying he plans to run the race some day.

“You can’t run a marathon,” she says.

“I bet you 20p I can,” he replies. “I reckon I could do 50.”

This is crazy, they both know. But that afternoon Young has a strange feeling, which, when he later describes it, sounds like an epiphany: “It was just complete relief. In that moment I found I broke through all the barriers holding me back.”

In his most gruelling world record attempt to date, Young ran the equivalent of more than 14 marathons, back to back – a crow’s flight from Tunbridge Wells to Glasgow – without sleeping:

The rain gets heavier, and the Friday evening light fades. Young vomits. His face turns bright red and feels like it’s on fire. His throat closes up. The support crew calls for an ambulance. Paramedics check his heart rate and, fearing he might be having a mild heart attack, say he should go to hospital. Young tries to dissuade them. “What if you just drive along as I keep running, and when I collapse you restart my heart and get me to hospital?” he asks.

The run is over. He has covered 373.75 miles in 88 hours.

 

Armando Iannucci: How I was wounded in my one-man war against pornography.

The comedy writer and producer Armando Iannucci recounts in this week’s Telling Tales column how he became embroiled in an unlikely one-man war against pornography at WHSmith:

How did I end up screaming down a pornographer’s lift shaft? It was over 20 years ago. I’d produced some Radio 4 comedy but now, in 1993, I was appearing in front of the microphone for the first time. I was making a documentary series called In Excess, in which I voiced contempt for over-saturated modern living. Various episodes castigated time management gurus, health addicts, ostentatious millionaires and Lycra enthusiasts.

Today, I was out recording a couple of interviews about sex. My Taliban-esque argument was that there was simply too much of it. “Lover’s Guide” videos had been swamping the market, making “educational” and explicit sexual imagery handily available in branches of WHSmith, next to the car mags and Kinder Eggs. Imaginative porntrepreneurs were starting to push the boundaries of what was acceptable, producing increasingly exotic titles such as Orgasms for the Over-Forties and Foreplay for Your Silver Wedding Anniversary.

My contention was that these were all just repackaged pornography masquerading as daytime viewing, and I was on my way to speak to the director of Kama Sutra in 3D with a copy of his video in my bag.

 

Plus

Laurie Penny on the dashed hopes of middle-class millennials.

Helen Lewis on public loos, climate change and podcasts.

Peter Wilby on the Queen’s views, Tory school reforms and the rising homeless population.

Ed Smith on why being a good follower counts for as much as being a good leader.

John Berger immerses himself in images of Palestine in the work
of the Syrian artist Randa Mdah.

Michael Prodger visits Hieronymus Bosch’s birthplace for the biggest ever show of his fantastical work.

John Thornhill traces the last days of Alexander Litvinenko in A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding.

Television: Rachel Cooke is baffled by series two of House of Cards . . . and bereft at the loss of Happy Valley.

Film: Ryan Gilbey discovers that Chilean history doesn’t quite float in Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button.

Food: Felicity Cloake on the holy bun that crossed the centuries.

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