In this week's magazine | The Great Huckster

A first look at this week's issue.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

 

The Great Huckster
20 - 26 May issue

Cover story: Boris Johnson and the abuse of history.
Brendan Simms
on how the scholar and student of Churchill has wilfully manipulated and distorted the historical record.

Simon Heffer on the Europe question and the Tory civil war.

The Momentum chairman, Jon Lansman, on the Corbyn surge and what the left learned from the mistakes of the Eighties.

Diary: Alan Rusbridger on why the Guardian needs a new business model, Oxford elitism and the BBC’s winning formula.

Television: Rachel Cooke labours through a chaotic hour with Robert Peston on Sunday morning.

Tracey Thorn fears that her teenage daughters have embarked on a lifetime of raised and dashed hopes as Labour voters.

Peter Wilby on the Guardian’s woes, newspapers’ cash flow and Meryl Streep’s terrible singing.

****

Cover story: Boris Johnson and the use and abuse of history

The historian Brendan Simms argues that Boris Johnson, a scholar of Churchill who could have articulated a constructive vision for Britain and Europe, has instead chosen wilfully to distort the historical record. Simms accuses his fellow historian of crass comparisons and invocations and of perverting the “fine” and “virtuous” British instinct to fight European tyranny: “The European Union is not, as we have seen, the continuation of Hitlerism by other means and to suggest so is blatant manipulation”:

The Brexit stalwart Boris Johnson, my fellow historian, claims that [the creation of a stable European order after the Second World War] was all in vain. “The European Union,” he says, “is an attempt to do what Hitler wanted by different methods.” Worse still, the EU is a German plot, whose currency, the euro, was “intended by the Germans” to “destroy” Italian manufacturing and generally grind the faces of its unfortunate members. Johnson has also invoked the spirit of Churchill in support of his arguments. He has since doubled down on his remarks and has received support from other members of the Brexit camp, such as Iain Duncan Smith, though not apparently from more informed figures such as Michael Gove. Unfortunately, Johnson’s claims are as historically wrong as it is possible to be, comparable in their crassness only to his predecessor as London mayor Ken Livingstone’s suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism.

[. . .]

As if all this were not bad enough, Boris Johnson’s invocation of Churchill flies in the face of everything we know of the great man’s attitude to the European project. To be sure, he began as a Eurosceptic. When army reforms were proposed in 1901 to support the creation of a substantial land force on the continent, the young Winston Churchill was one of the few MPs to oppose them on the grounds that the navy, rather than the army, was of crucial importance to British security. Writing in the Morning Post, Churchill argued that “history” and “geography” showed that the British empire was “essentially commercial and marine”, and had been defended by armies of foreigners.

As the German threat loomed large, however, he changed his mind. Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, told the Australians and New Zealanders in April 1913 that Europe was “where the weather came from”. It was the terrible storm of the First World War that caused Churchill not only to believe in the centrality of Europe but in the need for European – or at least continental European – unity.

[. . .]

Churchill’s attitude to continental European union was, unlike Hitler’s, highly positive. For Johnson to suggest, therefore, that he is donning the mantle of Churchill to prevent the current European Union from achieving Hitler’s aims through other means is a complete travesty of the historical truth.

[. . .]

Boris Johnson may not have known the details of Hitler’s attitude to European integration, or the European sympathies of many resisters, but he is very well informed about Churchill and Europe. His ignorance is thus not just a matter of making mistakes; we all make those as historians. Nor is it simply a matter of these mistakes being, like bank errors, in favour of one’s own argument. To say that Johnson knows better is not a figure of speech: he has shown in print that he does. His recent book, The Churchill Factor, contains a very balanced account of Churchill’s position on Europe, including most of the statements listed above.

In making his arguments, Johnson is not appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate; it is far worse than that. The deeply ingrained British instinct to fight European tyranny is not base but fine. What Johnson and those who defend his rhetoric have done is to take something virtuous and pervert it.

 

Simon Heffer on the Tory civil war

From technicolor vituperation over lunch at White’s to the drinks parties for Boris organised by a trio of eager junior MPs, Simon Heffer reports on how the European Question is tearing apart the Tory party:

We all know families who fight and argue in the privacy of their own homes but put on a flawless display in public. So it was, for a few days at least, with the Conservative Party when the campaign for the EU referendum began. Both sides were keen to keep it that way, in the long-term interests of their party. Last month, one MP dressed down Norman Smith, the BBC political reporter, for going on the airwaves and talking about “the Tory civil war”. At that stage, he was perhaps right to do so.

Tempers are, however, beginning to fray. Members of White’s, the St James’s Street club and a foremost lair of the Tory grandee, were recently alarmed to see two of that species, Nicholas Soames MP and David Heathcoat-Amory, an MP until 2010 and a former Europe minister, going at it hammer and tongs about the European question during the lunch hour. Anyone familiar with Soames’s entertaining Twitter feed, which is currently devoted mainly to savaging fellow Tories in Vote Leave, will know that he is no stranger to technicolor vituperation.

It was, according to the account doing the rounds, a ferocious argument, though no blows were struck. “Nicholas and David have known each other since school,” a friend of both men told me. “They have more in common than separates them. It just shows how fraught things are.” That is certainly true. I well remember Soames, a lifelong pro-European, expressing his genuine dismay that Heathcoat-Amory was defeated in 2010 because a Ukip candidate, standing ironically against a devoutly Eurosceptic Tory, split the vote in his Wells constituency and let in a Lib Dem.

Another MP, using an appropriate public school metaphor for a gentlemen’s club packed with Old Etonians, likened them to boys who are friends but who, once on opposite sides of the sports field, let all hell loose at each other. One does not doubt that Soames’s and Heathcoat-Amory’s regard for each other will survive the referendum. Whether the same can be said for the two sides of the Conservative Party – unequal sides at that – come 24 June is quite a different matter.

Heffer finds that Tory veterans are increasingly irritated by Boris Johnson’s apparent decision to treat the EU referendum as a career opportunity. Three junior MPs are now, in effect, running a leadership campaign for the former London mayor, he suggests:

Johnson’s high-profile Brexit campaign is, in effect, the start of his bid for the leadership and why Cameron is so agitated about him. Johnson, as I wrote here in March, has not made the best impression on his fellow MPs since returning to the House last May and it is far from assured that he will be one of the final two candidates. There is also an uncomfortable recognition that he achieved little for London as mayor, other than traffic chaos and a series of vanity projects. “We’d like to do a Checkpoint Charlie-style swap, halfway across Westminster Bridge, with Sadiq Khan,” a Remainer told me.

However, Tory activists forcefully tell their MPs that Johnson is a “winner” who merits support in a leadership vote. Some younger MPs, yet to learn the difference between being a representative and being a delegate, are nervous of disagreeing. Three of them – Nigel Adams, Ben Wallace (a junior Northern Ireland minister and former soldier) and Jake Berry – are running a campaign for Johnson, organising lavish drinks parties for colleagues so the candidate can press the flesh. This irritates older MPs, who see it as a provocative manifestation of ambition and vulgarity that the party could do without.

Heffer argues that the going will be tough for David Cameron, whatever the outcome on 24 June:

A former minister, a pro-European, said: “Dave is going to have to bring in the people he has alienated but even then it is going to be hard for him to do more than limp on for a couple of years.” Another said the government now, with its small majority, deals with the Tory party on a “issue by issue” basis, seeking just to get over the next hurdle. Even if Cameron clears the Becher’s Brook-style fence marked “Brexit”, he may find a very deep ditch on the other side.

 

Politics Interview: Jon Lansman

The NS political editor, George Eaton, meets Jon Lansman, the chair of the Corbyn-supporting group Momentum and a former Tony Benn aide. Lansman, the man whom senior left-wingers credit for getting Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot paper, tells Eaton that Momentum will not campaign for the deselection of MPs and insists that the left has learned the lessons of the Eighties: “There is no point in taking hard-left positions which are not going to appeal to the centre ground,” he tells Eaton.

On the deselection of Labour MPs:

Lansman has publicly stated that Momentum will not campaign for the deselection of MPs but he remains personally supportive of members having the right to do so. “I am in favour of accountable elected representatives. I think that’s what party members expect. I think it’s what the public expects. Zac Goldsmith is a bit of a bête noire at the moment but when he moved his recall bill he got a lot of support from the left of the Labour Party and he got support from the public . . . I don’t think that the general public thinks that MPs in safe seats should have a job for life. I actually think there should be some mechanisms for accountability and, yes, I still believe in those. But I do understand that when Jeremy is faced with a PLP, the vast majority of whom did not vote for him, that is a problem and it’s important that he’s able to reassure them.”

During the interview, Seumas Milne makes an appearance:

Midway through our conversation, Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, passed by and cast a sceptical eye at the proceedings. After finishing his phone call, he returned and sat in for ten minutes.

On whether a Corbyn-led government would be overthrown:

Does he believe the UK’s conservative institutions would tolerate rule by a left-wing Labour Party? “I’ve still got my Harry Perkins badge,” he quipped, referring to the fictional prime minister of A Very British Coup. “Is that a realistic scenario? You certainly can’t dismiss it. I remember, immediately after the 1981 deputy leadership election, having dinner with Madame Allende and Tony [Benn]. The threat from those quarters felt very real . . . If Tony had won, we would have faced some pretty tough opposition from sections of the British establishment.”

 

Diary: Alan Rusbridger

The former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, now principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, defends the university’s chancellor, Chris Patten, against charges of elitism in this week’s Diary:

Lord Patten, I read in the Telegraph, thinks that universities “cannot accept more ethnic minority students without eroding standards”. Did the chancellor of Oxford University really say that? It turns out: no. The Telegraph later corrected the story. Chris Patten believes that high-class universities should not “lower their standards in order to make up for some inadequacies in our secondary education system”. Not the same thing.

I’ve been in Oxford now for just over seven months as principal of Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), the first college to admit an excluded sector of society – women. There were quite a few who thought that LMH would lower Oxford’s standards when it was founded in 1878. We recently announced that we are creating a foundation year to encourage other people who probably feel excluded from Oxford to come here. We will open our doors this autumn.

Will we be dropping our standards? I rather doubt it. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in recent weeks in comprehensives and sixth-form colleges that rarely, if ever, send their students to Oxford. The young people I’ve met seem remarkably bright, motivated and well informed. To most of them, it was a novel idea either that Oxford might be interested in them or vice versa.

Rusbridger also comes to the defence of the BBC and of his former employer the Guardian, although he concedes that the latter is in urgent need of a new business model:

Is there an economic model for serious news? Let’s hope so – but the gales blowing through my old industry are now truly frightening. When I stepped down from the Guardian just over a year ago, my Guardian Media Group colleagues were happy to go on the record to emphasise their confidence in increasing digital revenues and a future based on growth. But something profound and alarming has been happening in recent months and all our eyes ought to be on the West Coast giants – especially, but not only, Facebook – that are cleaning up quite extraordinarily.

There is only one truly proven business model for serious general news – that of the BBC. Yes, it sometimes infuriates me, too. But it is an astonishingly wide-ranging, accurate and ethical institution that (to quote Chris Patten again) ought, in any sane world, to be listed, not cut.

But many people today clearly find organisations that are not primarily driven by profit beyond comprehension. What would they make of the Scott family, who could have been multimillionaires but decided instead, back in 1936, to give away the Manchester Guardian for a quid? They placed the Guardian into a trust because its greatest editor, C P Scott, saw it as a public good, or even a moral force, rather than an engine of profit or personal gain.

For most of its 195-year life, the Guardian has struggled to make money – just as the Observer has probably not turned a profit since its principled stand over Suez in 1956. Quite often (as today), the Guardian has lost more than it should, or could, in any given year. Clearly, the business model needs to change. But looking around the world, I don’t think that anyone can truthfully claim to have cracked it.

Meanwhile there are still, notwithstanding a relatively muted white paper, numerous knives out for the poor old BBC. Its unforgivable crime seems to be to have a business model that still – sort of – works.

Rusbridger is relishing his new role in Oxford but admits that the Panama Papers story caused him some nostalgia:

Do I miss editing? Not much: at least in the sense of stumbling out of bed and wondering how many emails would have arrived overnight from Carter-Ruck or Schillings.

But listening to my former colleague Luke Harding describe to a spellbound Reuters Institute seminar at Nuffield College in Oxford last week how the Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung (and others) rather brilliantly pulled off the Panama Papers story did provoke a twinge of journalistic adrenalin. Or, to put it another way, jealousy.

 

Television: Rachel Cooke on Robert Peston.

Rachel Cooke, the NS’s TV critic, settles down to watch Robert Peston’s new Sunday morning show on ITV and is unconvinced by its three-note jingle and faux-loft setting:

Not wanting to be mean, I waited a week to get stuck into Peston on Sunday (15 May, 10am). I knew that none of the big things would have changed by its second outing. There would be no getting rid of its theme tune, which is like the three-note jingle that Ruth Madoc used to play on a glockenspiel in Hi-de-Hi! as reworked on a Casio organ. Ditto its faux-loft set, which looks so much like it belongs to a comedy spoof of an early-Nineties breakfast show that you half-expect Victoria Wood to stroll in, talking loudly of ladies’ troubles and Battenberg cakes.

But I did assume that the programme’s host would at least have ceased referring to the big screen that is a central feature of the show as “Screeny”, a diminutive of – ho, ho – “Screeny McScreenface”, and, perhaps, that Allegra Stratton, the national editor of ITV News, would be allowed to do rather more than stand in front of this seemingly pointless bit of technology. (It is used mostly to display tweets. The show is obsessed with Twitter, even as the rest of the world falls out of love with it.) Surely by now it would have occurred to someone other than me that, in 2016, it’s a bit much to expect an intelligent and highly capable woman reporter to play, however gamely, Anthea Redfern to Peston’s Bruce Forsyth?

It goes to show just how wrong you can be. Screeny, it seems, is staying and Stratton continues to be marooned beside it until the programme’s final minutes, at which point she hotfoots it to a strange, teardrop-shaped table loaded with croissants and orange juice to join the guests. Last Sunday, the guests included Liz Kendall, the Blairite Labour MP, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the fuddy-duddy Tory who longs for Brexit. Poor Jacob. He is the kindest man you could ever meet – truly, he is – but chirpy Sunday-morning television is not his forte. Halfway through his long disquisition on European history (“Philip II of Spain, blah, blah . . .”), Peston had to tell him, in effect, to shut up.

I was surprised by this. His technique thus far as an interviewer has mostly been to let politicians ramble on and to interrupt his “civilian” guests every other word. (Louis Theroux and the brilliant neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan, who appeared in the first episode, were barely permitted to finish a sentence.) The overall effect is to suggest that Peston respects politicians – “I’m sorry to press you on this . . .” – much more than he does other species of human being, which is unfortunate. I would be willing to bet him a large carton of Tropicana with bits that his audience doesn’t feel remotely the same way.

 

Plus

Ben Martynoga: Why a little stress is good for us.

Helen Lewis on the hidden joy of charity shops.

Laurie Penny on Facebook’s “censorship” of right-wingers.

Letter from Croatia: Joji Sakurai on how the EU’s newest member has shifted violently to the right.

Trends: Tim Wigmore on why English schoolchildren are so unhappy.

Craig Raine finds stolen screams and snatches of T S Eliot in Tate Liverpool’s “Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms”.

Books: Caroline Moorehead on the refugee crisis, with reviews of Crossing the Sea by Wolfgang Bauer, Cast Away by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson and The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley.

Andrew Harrison is entertained by Moby’s candid memoir of New York in the 1990s.

David Herman on the search for justice after the Second World War: East West Street by Philippe Sands and A Passing Fury by A T Williams.

Michael Brooks: How zika will spread to Europe during the summer.

Nicholas Lezard on starting the new cricket season with red wine stains on his cap, a dodgy shoulder and a burnt nostril.

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