In this week's magazine | Shakespeare 400 years later

A first look at this week's issue.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

22 - 28 April issue
Shakespeare 400 years later

George Eaton: Yes, the Remain campaign is “Project Fear” – and the strategy is working. PLUS Stephen Bush on Remain’s Facebook offensive.

John Bew reflects on Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

Brendan Simms and Montserrat Guibernau on the possible break-up of Spain and what it would mean for Europe.

Tom Watson’s Diary: Labour’s deputy leader on being barred from Corbyn: the Musical.

Peter Wilby on John Whittingdale’s women: Tacit understanding with the newspapers meant no collusion was necessary.

Shakespeare Lives: What the world’s greatest writer can teach us, 400 years on from his death. With Simon Callow, Germaine Greer, Howard Jacobson, Andrew Marr, Daljit Nagra, Will Self, James Shapiro, Imogen Stubbs, Colm Tóibín and Rowan Williams.

Kevin Maguire’s Treasury Tales: Why the Chancellor is grumbling that the EU referendum has cost him the Tory crown.

Tracey Thorn on Laugharne Weekend: It feels as if the Groucho Club has taken over a small Welsh village.

Helen Lewis reviews “Undressed” at the V&A and unlaces the politics of underwear.

 

****

George Eaton on the battle lines in the Brexit debate.

Writing in his column this week, the NS’s political editor, George Eaton, observes that the Remain campaign is indeed “Project Fear” – and that it has no intention of deviating from a successful strategy:

The relentless labelling of it as “Project Fear” is testimony to its effectiveness. As one Conservative Brexiter, paraphrasing the former chancellor Norman Lamont, conceded: “It is hurting and it is working.” The Treasury’s 200-page assessment of the long-term cost of withdrawal will be followed by a second report on the short-term cost, including higher prices and job losses. “The really scary stuff”, according to a source.

In dismissing Osborne’s charges, the Brexiters only amplified them. Arron Banks, the millionaire Ukip donor and Leave.EU founder, described £4,300 per household as a “bargain basement price for the restoration of national independence”. The Remainers couldn’t have scripted a better response. Vote Leave, the official anti-EU campaign, avoided such recklessness but it struggled to rebut Osborne’s prognosis.

The Staggers editor, Stephen Bush, meanwhile reports that the Remain campaign is embarking on a Facebook offensive following two strategic hires:

Having recruited Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds, the duo credited with the Conservatives’ mastery on Facebook during the election, they are hoping that the techniques that allowed the Tory party to rack up votes in crucial marginal seats will boost turnout among supporters of Remain. Their chances are better than they look – several Labour veterans of the 2015 campaign, now working at Stronger In, have been astonished to realise how much further ahead their Conservative rivals are in terms of getting their message out through Facebook, a platform that one Labour strategist believes will be the most important outside of the BBC by the next election.

Bush notes that David Cameron has the facts on his side but, unusually, not the press:

Having made history with his unexpected majority [last year], Cameron is now doing it again – he is the first Conservative leader to lie awake at night worrying that his voters won’t make it to the polling station, that the press are not amplifying his messages, and that his enemies are fighting an easier battle than he is. Having won back-to-back victories playing at home, the Cameroon right could yet come unstuck with its first genuine away fixture.

 

John Bew on Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

In the lead-up to Barack Obama’s arrival in the UK tomorrow, John Bew, the NS associate editor and commentator on geopolitics, reflects that Obama is not the first US president to take to Air Force One in search of a foreign policy legacy at the end of his second term:

For Obama, Brexit is just one of several important items on the agenda for his tour of Europe and the Middle East. In London, the discussion will focus on Islamic State and Russia, which will be in the in-tray of the next president in January 2017.

Obama is not the first holder of the office to take to Air Force One in search of a foreign policy legacy at the end of his second term. Yet he is less obviously hyperactive about this than many of his predecessors – certainly less so than his current secretary of state, John Kerry. The president’s series of interviews with the Atlantic magazine in March was an attempt to put a gloss on his record in a different way: to put a name, or a doctrine, on a series of rather unconnected foreign policy instincts.

One consequence of the interview was to cause consternation – or, more accurately, concern – among established US allies, such as the UK, to whose “free-riding” on global security matters the president objected. The visit to Britain was, however, scheduled long before the Atlantic article appeared and should not be viewed as a recovery mission to smooth over tensions. For Cameron, who was momentarily stung by the allegation that he got “distracted by a range of other things” after the 2011 intervention in Libya, this will seem less important if Obama plays an effective part and influences the EU referendum debate in his favour.

[. . .]

These days, the idea of Britain as the “Atlantic bridge” between the US and Europe – beloved of British prime ministers since Churchill – looks creakier than anyone could have predicted then.

 

The Catalan cauldron.

In this week’s NS Essay, Brendan Simms, director of the Forum on Geopolitics at Cambridge, and Montserrat Guibernau, a visiting scholar at the same university, consider yet another challenge facing Europe: the prospect of Spain breaking up:

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

 

Shakespeare our contemporary.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, our contributors nominate the plays by William Shakespeare that speak most urgently to the 21st century. Rowan Williams considers Henry V in the light of dodgy dossiers and regime change:

This is a play about what the moral sanctions are in the politics of an incipiently secularised world; what authority does state power have when it is stripped of its magic? Typically, Shakespeare does not offer a solution, but broadens out our sense of why there is a question here. It’s left to other plays – Lear, above all – to nudge us towards an answer in the visible, costly solidarity of powerful and powerless: no less a theologically charged theme for Shakespeare.

In Henry V, a play whose language is a shot-silk blend of the triumphalistic and the bleak, he presents us with an analysis of why we should worry about the ethical sanctions of power; why majoritarian tyranny, absolute monarchy or the comforting rhetoric of national paranoia will fail to silence the questions of a soldier on the eve of battle, a civilian facing slaughter in a captured city or a prisoner of war whose rights are overridden.

Will Self suggests that King Lear bears a timely warning from the blasted heath about intergenerational justice:

It may be a reflection of my own time of life that I find Shakespeare’s King Lear the most resonant of his plays – but I also think it’s peculiarly relevant to the contemporary era; and more specifically to a small – but politically powerful – section of contemporary Britons: the middle-aged, property-owning middle class. For my own part, I may only be in my mid-fifties, but as with so many people at my time of life, health issues have already placed me vis-à-vis with the grinning skull beneath my own slackening skin.

The most savage social and economic declivity in contemporary Britain lies between the young and the old – the ageing cling to a Lear-like conception of ourselves: we believe we should be revered by and cared for by our children; yet our behaviour utterly belies this: we hang on to our property out of fear – fear that should we abandon it we’ll be dumped unceremoniously when the time comes, in a local-authority-funded care home, where we will be poorly attended to by knaves, fools and impersonators.

Imogen Stubbs applies Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech from Act IV, Scene One of The Tempest to a “21st-century world of virtual reality, data, microchips, holograms, DNA, genetic engineering, plastic surgery and all-year-round strawberries”:

It’s a world that denies history if it is uncomfortable, and the future if it is distressing, and treats death, wisdom and ageing, and indeed narrative, like wrongs to be hushed up. The purpose is to endorse hedonism and materialism – to protect our “revels” from any unnecessary worry that the end is in sight.

It’s a world that actively encourages the dangerous fantasy of eternal youth and the delusion that no one ever has to leave the nursery; a world gullible enough to accept “inbuilt obsolescence” in objects but not in ourselves. It’s a world clutching at tinsel as it falls over the abyss.

 

Tom Watson’s diary.

Having been commissioned by the New Statesman to review the sell-out show Corbyn: the Musical, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, finds himself unceremoniously barred from the stalls by its creators:

I’ve never been banned from a musical before but I’ve experienced a lot of firsts since Jeremy Corbyn and I were elected last September. The creators of Corbyn: the Musical seemed to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent me from reviewing their play about Islington’s most famous lefty for the Staggers.

First, they declined to provide me with a review ticket because I am not a serious theatre critic (hard to argue with that). Then, they pointed out that every paid-for ticket was sold out: it’s good to know that Jeremy’s popular appeal has not faded.

Not to be deterred, this publication’s resourceful arts editor took to Twitter to ask if anyone who had already bought tickets might be willing to donate a spare. The writers then claimed that all tickets were “strictly non-transferable”. It seemed like a slightly po-faced approach to take to marketing a satirical musical but a friend consoled me. “Don’t worry,” he said, “those Tory-boy writers have already had to chop it down from two hours 30 minutes because of the rambling storyline.” For the avoidance of doubt, I’m assured that’s not because it includes several of Jezza’s freestyling speeches.

 

Peter Wilby on John Whittingdale’s women.

The NS’s media commentator Peter Wilby argues in his First Thoughts column this week that there was no overt collusion between four national newspapers and John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport – but only because a tacit understanding meant there was no need for it:

When the newspapers find a salacious story about a politician’s sex life, their usual practice is to strain every sinew to establish a public-interest justification to publish. If the politician (usually male) is married, he has deceived his spouse and is therefore likely to deceive the voters. Otherwise, there are time-honoured alternatives: the risk of blackmail, threats to national security, the danger that excessively energetic sex will make the man too tired to perform ministerial duties. The mere mention of “dominatrix”, for example, is usually enough to set the men in green eyeshades shouting, “Hold the front page!” Norman Lamont, chancellor in the early 1990s, was all over the papers just because he’d rented a basement flat to a Miss Whiplash in Notting Hill.

Now consider the following sequence of events. John Whittingdale (divorced) had a relationship with a dominatrix. He escaped exposure for three years – during which he was chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, and then secretary of state – because four newspapers, after extensive investigations, found no public interest in the story. Meanwhile, Whittingdale was obligingly “not convinced” that (as suggested by the Leveson report) newspapers that failed to accept a recognised regulator should have to pay all legal costs if they were taken to court.

Eventually, Private Eye and the BBC brought the story into the open. The Mail on Sunday, one of the newspapers that had failed for three years to establish a public interest, then found in a single week what it claimed to be evidence that he had texted pictures of cabinet ministers meeting at Chequers to another girlfriend, a former page three model, and shown her documents from his ministerial red box over breakfast. This conduct was “at best reckless, at worst a breach of his highest obligations”, the paper advised. Normal press service was thus resumed.

It is not necessary to allege a conspiracy or any collusion between the four newspapers involved, or between them and Whittingdale. That is not how these things happen. Whittingdale knew that the papers knew of his private life. They knew that he knew. On Whittingdale’s watch – he became a minister in May 2015 – the press has got away with ignoring the regulatory system central to Leveson’s recommendations. Draw your own conclusions.

 

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential.

The New Statesman’s political columnist Kevin Maguire reports a tale from the Treasury this week:

George Osborne is grumbling that his chum Dave Cameron has cost him the Tory crown. My snout at the Treasury informs me that the Chancellor thinks the EU referendum is a mistake . . . the Prime Minister’s mistake.

Osborne is in it to win it, as his magical £4,300-per-household price tag for Brexit proved. But when – regardless of the outcome on 23 June – a split Conservative Party elects someone who is not called George Osborne, a smarting Chancer of the Exchequer will know who to thank.

 

Tracey Thorn on Laugharne Weekend in Wales.

The singer and songwriter Tracey Thorn attends a musical and literary gathering in the small Welsh seaside town of Laugharne and can’t help feeling for the besieged local people:

I’ve just been to Laugharne, described by Dylan Thomas as “the strangest town in Wales”, and he’s allowed to say that because he lived there. The annual weekend of music, book readings and poetry inspires much talking and drinking late into the night, a beacon of chaos in an over-organised world of festivals. I love it.

[. . .]

When I arrive at the pub Keith Allen, in workman’s overalls, is serving behind the bar – and everyone who is here to do an event attends everyone else’s event, so it feels as if the Groucho Club has taken over a small Welsh village.

[. . .]

Through it all, I can’t help wondering what the local people make of it, having their home invaded like this for a few days every year. At the Spar, as I queue to buy crisps, the shop is giving away free shot glasses of wine. The lad in front of me is ignoring this and buying a four-pack of lager instead. He asks the girl at the counter what’s going on this weekend. She says she’s not sure. “I think there are, like, poets, and” – she looks up towards me – “singers, and the like. Doing talks. Performing. But,” and then she lowers her voice and leans in to him, “I don’t really want to say too much.”

I understand.

 

Helen Lewis on the politics of underwear.

In a review of “Undressed” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the NS deputy editor, Helen Lewis, argues that you can “tell a huge amount about a society by its pants”:

Lingerie is a huge market, and this exhibition is sponsored by Agent Provocateur, one of our premier purveyors of £180 dry-clean-only bras, alongside erotic exotica such as “waspies” (mini-corsets) and “playsuits” (strappy affairs that look like you’ve got tangled in a rotary washing line). We might get a thrill of superiority by contemplating the stiff stays of our ancestors, or cluck with concern over all those dainty ribs crushed by whalebone, but we still can’t seem to give up useless, painful underwear. Don’t despair, though: there’s a photo of George Bernard Shaw in a woollen onesie that will cheer you right up.

 

Plus

Telling Tales: Alexei Sayle on the joy of waving to strangers.

Brazil: Claire Rigby on why Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment won’t
solve the country’s woes.

Stephen Bush on learning to read with dyslexia.

Newsmaker: Jonathan Wilson on Claudio Ranieri’s long-awaited redemption at Leicester City.

Ben Myers: Tyson Fury is a victim of middle-class, liberal prejudice.

John Gray on Exit Right: the People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer.

John Bew on The Seven by Ruth Dudley Edwards, a group portrait of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.

Will Self: How Brixton’s local colour of all shades is being annulled
by the beige infill of hipsterdom.

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