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13 April 2016

In this week’s magazine | The making of a monster

A first look at this week's issue.

By New Statesman

15th – 21st April
The making of a monster

 

The rise of the Thin Controller: Peter Wilby on the real Seumas Milne.

US Election 2016: Ed Smith on Donald Trump and anti-politics – the parlour game that got out of hand.

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The Diary: Paul Mason on Molly Crabapple, being a “B52 liberal”, and the crisis facing young Europeans.

World Citizen: Justin Webb on the inconvenience of Bernie Sanders.

George Eaton: As David Cameron’s powers wane, he will struggle to secure the legacy he wants.

Leading article: The Panama Papers fallout.

First Thoughts by Peter Wilby: Why Justin Welby should have shown Charles Moore the door.

A N Wilson is illuminated by Rowan Williams’s study of the philosophy of St Augustine.

****

The rise of the “Thin Controller”: Peter Wilby on Seumas Milne.

In this week’s NS Profile, Peter Wilby goes in search of the real Seumas Milne, the left-wing Wykehamist and columnist who last year became Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor and one of the most powerfully divisive figures in the Labour Party. Scanning the man’s life from his Maoist days at Balliol to stand-up rows in Guardian editorial meetings, Wilby speaks to many of Milne’s former colleagues, on and off the record. They paint a picture of a complex man who is “clever, but not wise” and possessed of a “closed and unpersuadable mind” as well as a bizarre habit of adopting foreign accents: a “natural plotter” with little hinterland outside politics.

Wilby relates the story of Milne’s clash with Luke Harding, the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent, over Milne’s expenses-paid trip to the 2014 conference of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, an episode which led to accusations that he was performing “front-of-house PR duties” for Vladimir Putin:

The row spilled over into the paper’s offices in King’s Cross, London. Milne and Harding exchanged angry emails. When Harding – who has published a book about Putin’s Russia called Mafia State as well as accounts of how he was harassed during his four-year spell in Moscow – wrote that the Kremlin was guilty of funding far-right groups in Europe, they clashed at one of the paper’s daily editorial conferences. Milne’s mobile phone rang in the middle of the exchange. “That must be the Kremlin,” joked Harding, which, far from defusing the tension, took it to new levels. Voices were raised and the two men clashed in the newsroom and even the urinals after the meeting. “We don’t normally have angry words at the Guardian,” a shocked witness told me later.

[. . .]

Are Milne’s opinions too consistently and uncompromisingly left-wing? Does “the Thin Controller”, as he is known at the Guardian, have a sufficiently flexible mind to persuade Corbyn to fine-tune his message and make the compromises necessary in front-line politics? Can he help the Labour leader appeal to a wider audience? Does he even want to?

Milne is a clever man. Nobody I spoke to doubted that, though one source added that “he has little wisdom”. He is also well read, with several enormous filing cabinets at the Guardian, of the sort banished from most newspaper offices decades ago, full of books, reports and pamphlets. His desk was covered with a mountain of paper visible from the opposite side of the office which, from time to time, would slide slowly towards his neighbours. “He’s often the best-informed person in the room on any subject,” said a Guardian colleague. “He knows a lot of history and could probably walk you through all the prime ministers of Israel since 1948 without missing a beat. The knowledge is almost scholarly.” But the other side of him, said the same colleague, is that “he cherry-picks what he reads in an almost unintelligent way; he has a closed mind and an unpersuadable one”.

Another colleague at the Guardian told me: “Seumas is one of the most wholly political people I’ve ever met. He thinks of everything politically. He has a project and it’s political, not journalistic.” A third Guardian journalist said that his written output for the paper was never large. When he became a columnist, he rarely wrote more than one column a week. “He got a reputation for laziness. But I think that’s unfair. It’s just that he was doing other things, political things.” A fourth source said: “He sees himself as an activist who happens to work for a newspaper. He will tell you something and you’ll say ‘that’s a good story’ but he won’t write it for the paper because it wouldn’t go down well with the comrades.”

Some journalists saw him as a slightly sinister, furtive, cold figure, always pacing the corridors while on his mobile phone, talking almost daily to his close friend George Galloway, whom he addressed as “chief”. One colleague described him as “a natural plotter”, never happier than when taking part in a caucus or cabal.

Wilby delves further into Milne’s past and finds the former Guardian comment editor has never been anything but a hardline left-winger:

Born in 1958, he is a child of the 1970s, the last decade in which large numbers of people still believed that the near future belonged to socialism. “His political opinions stopped developing in 1975, along with his musical tastes,” was a colleague’s comment.

[. . .]

At Winchester, he stood as a Maoist in a mock election. The Conservative cabinet minister John Whittingdale, a contemporary of his at school, triumphantly produced printed evidence of this episode when Milne was appointed as an aide to Corbyn. He spent his gap year with friends in Lebanon, then in the throes of civil war. There, he learned Arabic, heard shots fired in anger, escaped from a blown-up building and was briefly captured by militiamen. Colleagues at the Guardian dismiss allegations that he attended a terrorist training camp as ludicrous. But he returned with a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause.

“He spent his entire time at Balliol,” a college contemporary recalls, “wearing a Mao jacket and talking with a fake Palestinian accent. It was like performance art, the sort of thing Gilbert and George would do. He launched a string of motions in the JCR [junior common room] attacking Israel.” (Guardian colleagues say he is still in the habit of adopting the accent of whoever he has most recently talked to.)

Wilby finds that it was establishment connections, however, that secured a Fleet Street career for Milne:

In a textbook example of the British establishment at work, Alasdair Milne (Winchester and New College, Oxford) recommended his son Seumas (Winchester and Balliol) to Andrew Knight (Ampleforth and Balliol), the then editor of the Economist.
The young Milne stayed for three years, covering local government, education and the motor industry, but Knight, though he recognised Milne’s intellectual abilities, thought, rightly, that he was uncomfortable with the magazine’s free-market line. Knight went to his old and very close friend the Guardian columnist Hugo Young (Ampleforth and Balliol) and asked if the Guardian might be interested. The paper hired Milne in 1984.

One journalist recalls that Milne was a particularly aloof and squeamish labour correspondent at the Guardian:

“He stuck out like a sore thumb among the labour correspondents who were the very opposite of a public school elite,” recalled Paul Routledge, who was then the labour editor at the Times. “He mixed with a select left strand of the union movement. He didn’t really get on, or want to get on with, the more hairy-arsed tendency. If he had met the miners I knew, who have some very old-fashioned ideas about life, he would have run a mile.”

Wilby suggests that Milne felt a political obligation to respond to Jeremy Corbyn’s invitation to act as adviser and notes that, after a slow start, there are signs that he has begun to knock the Corbyn operation into more professional shape:

As a tidy dresser – fashionable and youthful-looking, [Milne] abandoned Mao jackets for suits some years ago – he understands that radicals should not detract from their message by dressing sloppily. He has therefore introduced what lobby journalists call “Project Suit” for Corbyn, so far getting him into a matching jacket and trousers. He is also trying to educate him in the elementary political skill of saying what he wants to say during interviews, rather than answering every question literally.

In recent weeks, the Corbyn team has become more proactive in setting the political agenda [. . .] Some of this is attributed to Milne. A few lobby journalists who remember the ranting, expletive-strewn style of former Labour spin doctors such as Tom Baldwin have begun to warm to his calm, reserved manner. Yet even those who like Milne suggest that his experience of the media is too limited. “He doesn’t understand the rhythms of news,” one reporter told me. “He doesn’t understand what Sunday newspapers want or what the main broadcasting channels want. He doesn’t even engage with the BBC properly.”

When Milne took up the job last October, his more sceptical colleagues at the Guardian predicted he would be back in the office by Christmas. It is perhaps more realistic to expect him back before next Christmas. Rumours of a summer coup by Labour MPs against Corbyn persist and, even if his successor is also on the Labour left, he or she is unlikely to retain so controversial a figure. It is not impossible that sacrificing Milne could be a price that Corbyn has to pay to remain as leader.

Seumas Milne would probably not protest all that much. He has been heard to complain of tiredness and getting too few days off. He is bemused by the way falsehoods and distortions circulate at Westminster and into the media without ever being properly denied. He hates the intrusion into what he regards as his private life.

As he contemplates a constantly feuding Labour Party, a return to his filing cabinets and overburdened desk at the Guardian and to the company of reliable, ideologically sound comrades inside and outside the paper must look increasingly attractive. But in his own view, he will have done his duty to try to advance the socialist cause, as he has done, so often unavailingly, for more than four decades.

 

US Election 2016: Ed Smith on Donald Trump and anti-politics.

In this week’s cover story, Ed Smith argues that the success of Donald Trump is both the “embodiment and the result of political failure”. Trump, an undeniably compelling figure, has become a symbol of the “age of rage”, Smith argues:

I met Donald Trump at a party in midtown Manhattan hosted by Dominick Dunne, the novelist and Vanity Fair journalist. It was October 1999 and the party was being held to celebrate the launch of Dunne’s new book, The Way We Lived Then, which is about old Hollywood (the title is a nod to Anthony Trollope).

Trump wasn’t there to talk to people, of course, but to be photographed, an ambition at which he fully succeeded, significantly helped by the presence of his striking new girlfriend, Melania Knauss (now his third wife). Trump’s urgent need to be noticed manifested itself as a kind of weird social radiance. What is interesting, from my point of view, is that I’ve forgotten the other guests at that party, many of equal celebrity, far greater achievement and much more interest. Trump registers with people, including, to my surprise, with me.

Those strands of Trump’s personality have served his presidential ambitions well. He leaves an impression, his central point of difference from the amorphous Beltway professionals whom he ridicules. “Ghastly” or “vulgar” aren’t really criticisms in Trump’s world-view; “forgettable”, however, is the bottom of the moral scale. This instantly creates asymmetries for his opponents: it is difficult to inflict reputational damage on a politician who neither needs nor craves respectability.

But personal magnetism – I cannot bring myself to type “charisma” – does not explain the Trump phenomenon. He is the most spectacular beneficiary of something far wider and more international: the perception that politics as we know it is failing. Running against Washington is as old as Washington, but never has it looked quite like this.

How do you like anti-politics now? For it is anti-politics – the contempt for the “establishment” and the convenient flight from serious debate about how it could better exercise power – that has taken Donald Trump to within striking distance of a shot at the White House. And as the search for the right person or plan to stop him becomes frantic (the responsibility is America’s, the concern is global), we should ask the wider questions. What if intelligent people – pundits and voters alike – had stood up more bravely for the political mainstream, pointing out the necessity of compromise, pragmatism and disappointment? Strands of the Republican Party now regret the visceral attacks they sanctioned against President Obama. The party unleashed a demotic rage that subsequently turned against its own establishment. The analogy applies far beyond the Republican Party: is anti-politics a parlour game that has got out of control?

 

The Diary: Paul Mason on the coming change in Europe.

Paul Mason, the former economics editor of Channel 4 News, sets out on a tour of Europe from Amsterdam to Milan, via Berlin, Perugia and Florence, to promote his new book, PostCapitalism. He meets many young journalists and activists of the radical left who persuade him of the virtues of life as a freelancer – and finds himself at the centre of a Twitter storm over Trident:

Wednesday. From the coffee bar at Tegel Airport, I publish a blog about why I support renewing the Trident submarines. I want to make Trident’s deployment and posture subject to parliamentary control and at the same time end the UK’s commitment to expeditionary warfare, cancelling the Tory gift of a Royal Navy base to Bahrain.

With Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour looking increasingly confident, Trident remains the one issue where the stay-behind Cold Warriors of the Labour right have the power to disrupt him. My proposal would allow unilateral de-escalation of the deterrent while keeping the jobs in Barrow.

By [Friday] Twitter has become a hostile situation. There’s anger over my Trident stance. Someone from CND says I am “a Tory”. The head of Stop the War, which I’ve supported since it was founded, says I’m a “B52 liberal”. I respect pacifists and lifelong unilateralists. There’s a segment of the left who just don’t realise how close we are to a 1930s-style meltdown, in which it’s not a question of slogans but of wielding political power.

Monday. I take the train via Florence to Milan. Wherever you travel in Europe, you move alongside two flows: the migrants and refugees visible in every city, and a swirling mass of young Europeans who feel politically alienated and concerned about the way the system keeps failing to respond to crises.

At the Milan book launch I argue for “revolutionary reformism” – using the state to create a non-capitalist sector based on collaboration. There’s great interest in Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Pablo Iglesias and Yanis Varoufakis but despair over their own socialist leader, Matteo Renzi, who is described as “Tony Blair 20 years too late”.

Among the young there is a movement back to the land; with 30 per cent youth unemployment, people are looking for ways to create closed, circular economies in which they can live “despite” the stagnant capitalism that surrounds them. This is the legacy of the past 20 years of centre-left politics in Europe: a generation of children whose parents forgot all the bedtime stories and who now have to make them up from scratch.

The concept of “Europe” certainly is not providing any kind of story for them. It’s vital for the radical left to come up with a convincing narrative, before those of the nationalist right, or simply nihilism, take over

 

World Citizen: Justin Webb on Bernie Sanders.

The presenter of Radio 4’s Today programme and former North America editor for the BBC, Justin Webb, reflects that the big story of the 2016 US presidential election is not the rise of Donald Trump, but that of the outsider Bernie Sanders:

He has gone from being a joke – a socialist! From Vermont! – to getting the full blowtorch treatment from the Democratic establishment, which sees him now as less of a batty uncle than a Bond villain. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman asked last week: “Is Mr Sanders positioning himself to join the ‘Bernie or bust’ crowd, walking away if he can’t pull off an extraordinary upset, and possibly helping put Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the White House? If not, what does he think he’s doing?”

Well, just campaigning, really. Sanders had said that Hillary Clinton was unqualified to be president, which is a tough thing to say, and may or may not be true, but in this year of all years (think of the Republican fight over the wives of Trump and Cruz; think, if you can bear it, of The Donald’s penis) it’s hardly World War III.

What has most upset the Hillary crowd is the horrid inconvenience of Sanders. The media, too (what on Earth is the point of political punditry after this campaign season?), have underestimated and patronised the Vermonter. An elderly, eccentric Jewish man from a picture-postcard state so outside the American mainstream that advertising billboards are banned there was hardly going to go the distance. He would fade. He’d get sweaty in the Deep South and lost in the hugeness of the Midwest. He would pine for the trees and cows and greenery of his home state. Clinton would crush him.

Well, it hasn’t happened. Sanders has already made history, ripping up the campaign rule books which say that once you begin to be seen as a loser, you’re toast.

 

George Eaton: As David Cameron’s powers wane, he will struggle to secure the legacy he wants.

In his column this week the NS’s political editor, George Eaton, considers the Prime Minister’s endgame:

David Cameron has been Prime Minister for nearly six years and Conservative Party leader for more than ten (only Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher served longer in the 20th century). After a second honeymoon following his election victory last year, he is exhibiting symptoms of decay. His approval ratings are falling, his MPs are rebelling and his mistakes are accumulating. Once the public and the media judge a prime minister to be on a downward trajectory, they become less tolerant of the events and scandals that periodically buffet a government (as Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, the steel crisis and the Panama Papers have). Every misstep serves as confirmation of political putrefaction.

[. . .]

Since acknowledging his political mortality a year ago, Cameron has sought to craft his legacy. Before the referendum monopolised his attention, he made a series of thoughtful, well-written speeches on devolution, life chances and prison reform. Conservative strategists emphasised that this was not an attempt to colonise “the centre ground” but a reflection of the Prime Minister’s sincerest passions. They spoke of him returning to a project of social renewal that was interrupted by the financial crisis and its aftermath. Even if his reforms bear fruit, the risk is that they will only do so after he has departed from office, leaving him with no platform to claim credit.

 

Leading article: The Panama fallout.

After the outrage came the tax returns. As we stated last week, the kind of behaviour revealed in the so-called Panama Papers, the biggest leak of financial documents in history, severely threatens the social contract on which the fairness of our tax system and the legitimacy of states rely. Belatedly realising this after a week of misjudged statements, the Prime Minister released his tax information since 2009 on 10 April and was quickly joined by other senior politicians. It is a development that we welcome.

In so doing, David Cameron will have hoped to draw a line under the row. Yet the consequences of his befuddled initial response to the leak will linger. Had he said early last Monday what it took him until the following Thursday evening to say – that he held shares in his father’s offshore fund until 2010, paying full income tax on the dividends, and then sold them – the Prime Minister would at least have demonstrated that he understood the impetus for the public outrage over his tax affairs.

Instead, Mr Cameron’s five statements over that period, each one only a little less opaque than the last, made it look not only as if he had something to hide but as though he felt entitled to hide it from the people he serves.

In the House of Commons on Monday 11 April, the Prime Minister only made his position worse. Mr Cameron announced long-overdue measures to enhance transparency in British-associated offshore havens, with overseas territories and crown dependencies such as Jersey and the British Virgin Islands agreeing to provide UK Treasury authorities with full access to information about company ownership and control, but he erred when he emphatically defended the conduct and integrity of his father, Ian. From an emotional standpoint, the Prime Minister’s decision was understandable. The extensive press scrutiny of his late father, with whom he had a close relationship and whom he clearly admired, will doubtless have been painful for him. Mr Cameron should not be expected to condemn him.

Yet nor should he be expected to use his prime ministerial pulpit to go out of his way to defend him, and that is precisely what he did. Mr Cameron cannot credibly claim that the Panama Papers have spurred him into action to combat tax avoidance but in the same breath absolve Blairmore Holdings, one of the companies named in the leak, of moral culpability. If Mr Cameron cannot recognise that Blairmore is precisely the kind of tax-minimising vehicle that the public rightly abhors, he will never be trusted to close the loopholes that enable aggressive tax avoidance. For the Conservative Party, this only entrenches its difficulties in appealing across class lines. The problem is not that Mr Cameron is a wealthy man but that he has spent six years governing predominantly in the interests of the wealthy.

In Monday’s statement, the Prime Minister also failed to give an adequate account of why, in 2013, he personally intervened to block a plan by the European Union – the only organisation with the will and power to combat multinational tax avoidance – to subject trusts to the same transparency requirements as companies.

The following day, the European Commission unveiled proposals that would require all large businesses operating in the EU, including subsidiaries of non-EU companies, to disclose how much tax they pay in each of the Union’s 28 member states and also in tax havens outside of it. The proposals, which were drawn up by Lord Hill, a British member of the Commission, demonstrate not only that multinational co-operation is the best way to combat multinational tax avoidance, but also the positive impact of Britain’s influence on the European stage.

Furthermore, the cross-border collaboration between media groups with access to the leaked documents is the reason why the Panama Papers have had such an impact – the flipside of the globalisation and digitisation that enable this sort of tax avoidance and money-laundering.

Among supporters of a vote to leave the EU, the scandal will only have reinforced the idea that the modern world is a dangerous and unruly arena and that the UK’s best response would be to retreat into its own walled island. That isolationist vision is wrong-headed, but the Prime Minister’s woeful response to the Panama Papers has enhanced the prospect that it will win out in June’s referendum.

 

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Don Tony’s blessing.

The New Statesman’s chief snout in Westminster, Kevin Maguire, hears tell that Tony Blair has given another “soft-left” potential Labour leadership candidate his personal seal of approval:

Tony Blair regards himself as the Labour Party’s godfather, doling out friendly free advice to MPs whom he considers to be rising stars. Lisa Nandy features increasingly when names of future leaders from the soft left are touted. The Wigan MP was summoned, I hear, for tea and a chat with the three-time winner. Opponents wear the absence of an invitation as a badge of honour.

 

In the name of the father: Peter Wilby on Justin Welby.

In this week’s First Thoughts column, Peter Wilby reflects on the story of Archbishop Justin Welby’s paternity that broke at the weekend with a little “help” from the former Spectator editor Charles Moore:

You may have thought it a blessing that, although he went to Eton and had a posh mother – the granddaughter of a former master of Pembroke College, Cambridge – the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at least had a lowlife father. Alas, Gavin Welby, usually described as a “son of a Jewish immigrant” and “whiskey salesman” who died in 1977 of booze and fags, must now be written out of the script. Just before marrying Welby, his mother had the good taste to hop into bed and conceive her child with a well-bred true Englishman called Anthony Montague Browne, an army colonel’s son who was educated at Stowe and Magdalen College, Oxford. So we have an even posher archbishop than we thought.

Another Old Etonian, Charles Moore [. . .] unearthed this tale after gossiping with “neighbours on the Kent-Sussex border”. He then informed Welby, who obligingly went for a DNA test. Frankly, I would have told Moore to get knotted and mind his own business.

Plus

Sasha Abramsky: Donald Trump is trying to legitimise torture.

Poland: Ola Cichowlas reports how, six years after the Smolensk plane disaster that killed a president and 95 others, conspiracy rules.

Anoosh Chakelian: Campaigning in south Wales at a time
of crisis with Carwyn Jones.

Laurie Penny on basic income – and an economic system
based on trust rather than fear.

Theatre: Julie Burchill rediscovers her go-ahead teenage self at
Jackie: the Musical in Brighton.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett on Chernobyl Prayer, an oral history by the Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

Film: Ryan Gilbey sees The Brand New Testament by Jaco Van Dormael, a director for the BuzzFeed generation.

Television: Rachel Cooke discovers Camping on Sky Atlantic – the funniest thing she’s seen in years.

Radio: Antonia Quirke reads between the lines of Matthew Perry’s muted performance on London’s Magic FM.

Will Self’s On Location: Take me back to West Somerset . . . where
De Quincey met his hero and I tried to shake off the devil.

Food: Felicity Cloake on the women bringing the kitchen to Wikipedia.

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