13 – 19 May issue
Cover story: The anti-Trump.
George Eaton on what Sadiq Khan’s victory means for Britain.
John Simpson watches Vladimir Putin’s orchestra amid the Syrian War’s ruins of Palmyra.
Jonathan Fenby on repercussions of the dispute between China, Japan and south-east Asia in the South China Sea.
Stephen Bush on how Jeremy Corbyn could decide the EU vote.
Diary: Roger Mosey on what the BBC gets right and wrong, why Corbyn deserves a break, and sunscreen for dogs.
Peter Wilby on summoning the Tory ghosts in the EU referendum campaign.
Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: Why Zac Goldsmith regrets subcontracting his failed crusade to Lynton Crosby.
Paul Mason on the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the map that created the modern Middle East.
Anoosh Chakelian: How the kick-boxing Ruth Davidson has revived the Scottish Conservatives.
Philip Ball gets a glimpse of our reproductive future by reading The End of Sex by Henry T Greely.
Cover story: The anti-Trump.
In this week’s cover story, the NS political editor, George Eaton, considers the significance of Sadiq Khan’s victory in last week’s London mayoral elections. Khan might not be welcome in Donald Trump’s America, but his victory shows that the politics of fear can be defeated:
It was on his second day as Mayor of London that Sadiq Khan made Donald Trump look more absurd than any US politician or reporter has managed. Challenged over whether his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States would apply to Khan, the blustering tycoon replied: “There will always be exceptions . . . Frankly, if he does a great job, that would be a terrific thing.”
In his response, the new mayor showed no mercy. “Donald Trump’s ignorant view of Islam could make both our countries less safe,” he said. “It risks alienating mainstream Muslims around the world and plays into the hands of the extremists. This isn’t just about me – it’s about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world. Donald Trump and those around him think that Western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam. London has proved him wrong.”
The election of the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city was always destined to be a momentous event. But its coincidence with the rise of demagogues such as Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen has given it even greater potency. By electing Sadiq Khan, one of the world’s pre-eminent cities has repudiated the “clash of civilisations” thesis. His victory is a retort both to conservative nationalists who insist that Muslims cannot integrate and to Islamist extremists who insist that they should not.
[. . .]
In a stunt conceived too late for the campaign, Khan’s team considered running two adverts on the side of vans: one in red, bearing the message “Sadiq Khan: hope”; and the other in blue, stating “Zac Goldsmith: fear”. It is the triumph of the former over the latter that makes the London mayor’s victory so potent. At a time when many weave a dystopian narrative of decline, the anti-Trump has proved that optimism can be vindicated.
For nearly a decade, commentators have debated when, or if, the United Kingdom would enjoy its “Obama moment”. The election of Khan, the son of working-class Pakistani immigrants who grew up as one of eight children in a council house, is by some distance the closest it has come. There are few political figures with a story as emotionally resonant as his.
As Barack Obama prepares to depart from the White House, to be replaced by the demagogic Donald Trump or the technocratic Hillary Clinton, it feels fitting that, here in Britain, another progressive politician should take on the mantle of hope.
John Simpson: Watching Vladimir Putin’s orchestra in Palmyra amid the ruins of the Syrian War.
The BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson, joined assembled media last week for a concert by the Mariinsky Theatre of Russia in the amphitheatre of Palmyra, the Syrian city that has recently been taken back from Isis by the Assad regime’s forces.
Although he finds his Russian minders surprisingly sympathetic, Simpson is not convinced by their elaborate PR exercise, redolent of Soviet propaganda:
Together with a hundred or so other journalists, a few of them from the West, I visited the incomparable Roman theatre at Palmyra, Syria. Putin greeted us over a live satellite link, and spent a great deal of time hailing Russia’s most recent military achievement: wrenching Palmyra from the bloodstained hands of Islamic State. He then introduced a distinctly surreal concert, given by the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, to celebrate the ancient city’s liberation.
The concert was over almost as soon as it began, lasting little more than 15 minutes from start to finish. The orchestra had travelled eight hours by plane from Moscow to the Russian military base near Latakia, in western Syria, followed by another seven hours by coach from there to Palmyra. The ratio of playing time to travel time must have been one of the most disproportionate in the Mariinsky’s 233-year history.
As a public relations concept it was breathtakingly risky: 30 or so of the world’s most renowned musicians, including Putin’s close personal friend Sergei Roldugin (the cellist who, if the Panama Papers are to be believed, seems to know what happened to a good slice of the money involved in the scandal). They were joined by a larger number of admittedly more expendable journalists, the whole crew escorted halfway across Syria from west to east in the middle of a civil war. Suppose something had gone wrong?
[. . .]
Apart from the journalists, Russian and not, the audience consisted of a large number of Russian soldiers, a smaller number of Syrian troops and a selection of bemused but friendly locals. None were seasoned concert-goers: just about everyone clapped between the movements in Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, the only long piece the orchestra played.
I made the point in my broadcast from the theatre that propaganda seemed to be the sole purpose of the event, regardless of the unquestioned success of the Russians and Syrians in retaking Palmyra. I knew this would annoy my hosts, and I expected to be singled out for criticism. My colleague Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s correspondent in Moscow, had warned me that there was usually a naming-and-shaming session on these Russian army embeds to Syria: the regiment of listeners, viewers and readers in Russia and around the globe that the Kremlin seems to have recruited send back their instant responses, and the journalists on the trip are gathered and informed who has annoyed the Kremlin by reporting in unacceptable ways.
It was rather a let-down when it became obvious that there wouldn’t be time on our short trip for such a Maoist-sounding criticism session. Actually, I rather took to the officials who escorted us. At a time when things in Russia generally seem to be regressing, most of our minders were surprisingly understanding. The major general in charge of the PR operation was charming and jolly, and when I appealed to him to help us send our report by satellite he personally rang someone senior at Russian television and fixed it.
At one point, at least half an hour before we finished broadcasting, a PR captain announced that it was time to leave. I raged and he rushed away. The captain came back with the general himself, who listened to my yelling, soothed me, and promised that the whole convoy would leave Palmyra only when we were ready. No doubt the same general would have given me a dressing down about the lack of objectivity in my reporting had the timing been right – but we all have to do what we’ve got to do.
Still, it’s depressing how things in Russia are reverting to the old Soviet norms. Several times during our trip Russian TV crews tried to interview me, but each time I was warned by Western journalists based in Moscow that nowadays these things were almost always used for anti-Western propaganda.
Jonathan Fenby on the repercussions of the dispute between China, Japan and south-east Asia in the South China Sea.
In a letter from Beijing, Jonathan Fenby probes how China’s aggressive claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea have both angered its Asian neighbours and raised fears of a showdown with the United States:
‘‘Hey, what are you guys doing this Saturday?” crew members of the US guided missile destroyer USS Lassen asked over the radio as it ploughed through the South China Sea last autumn. “We got pizza and wings. What are you guys eating?”
The questions were directed at the Chinese ship shadowing the Lassen as it moved into the 12 nautical miles of territorial waters claimed by Beijing off its newly constructed base on Subi Reef, a speck of land in the Spratly Islands. China has built a radar-equipped weather station and stationed 200 troops there but its claim is disputed by several east Asian countries – and by the United States. The Lassen’s course was deliberately plotted to affirm the right to “freedom of navigation” in what Washington regards as an international maritime area through which any ship should be at liberty to sail.
After a short delay, the Chinese sailors responded to the questions from their US counterparts, talking about their home cities, their families and the ports they had visited. Then the two ships parted course.
The friendly conversation obscured a chilling fact: that these were crews of ships from two nations which, in some scenarios, are heading for an earth-shaking confrontation as they play out the “Thucydides Trap”, in which rising and status quo powers are bound to come into conflict along the lines of Athens and Sparta, as recorded by the ancient Greek historian. In this case, the protagonists are China and the US.
[. . .]
The immediate theatre for the showdown is the huge expanse of the East and South China Seas. China’s increasingly expansionist drive to assert sovereignty there has led to confrontations over the past five years with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, which regard waters and islands claimed by Beijing as their own. Early this month, China said it had sent four warships with helicopters, one supply ship and special forces troops to carry out an exercise in the South China Sea.
The US is deeply involved because of its security treaties with Japan and the Philippines, its restored relations with Vietnam and its role as the main military power in east Asia since 1945 – the US 7th Fleet, based in Japan, has between 60 and 70 ships, 300 aircraft and 40,000 navy and marine corps personnel. The Americans also have nearly 30,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea and an implicit undertaking to defend Taiwan if China were to threaten the island separated from the mainland since the Communist victory of 1949.
Admiral Harry B Harris, the US commander in the Pacific, has said that China “is clearly militarising the South China Sea . . . You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise,” and he insisted this spring that his fleet will increase operations to assert freedom of navigation in the same sea.
Stephen Bush on how Jeremy Corbyn could win the EU vote.
In the Politics column, Stephen Bush explains how electoral geography gives the Labour leader great influence over the outcome of next month’s EU referendum:
At a general election, the distorting effect of first-past-the-post gives David Cameron the edge – but as far as the referendum is concerned, where all votes are worth the same, the Tories’ urban discomfort is the cause of considerable worry. As a recent study by the London School of Economics found, support for remaining in the European Union is strongest in Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh’s Morningside district, Oxford and Hackney – all areas that rejected the Conservatives by heavy margins in both 2015 and 2016. Cameron can’t win over those voters to Remain – but Jeremy Corbyn could.
[. . .]
Among men, and Labour-voting men in particular, a strong statement from Corbyn could be decisive. Although Labour is officially committed to staying in the European Union, the strength of that institutional support varies from region to region. The Labour Party is largely pro-European, but only in the sense that the United Kingdom is largely Christian – only a minority believes with any ferocity.
Britain’s relationship with the European Union [is], in effect, in the hands of one man: Jeremy Corbyn. On paper, he could have been scripted by Stronger In as their emissary to Labour voters: visually and ideologically a very different type of politician from Cameron, strongest in the places where the Prime Minister is weakest. Even his long-standing Euroscepticism – as recently as June 2015, Corbyn told the New Statesman he had not “closed [his] mind” to a Leave vote – gives him a credibility in talking up staying in the European Union despite its flaws.
But that also means that Corbyn is well placed to usher Britain out of the European Union, simply by sitting on his hands and making a few grudging appearances at set-piece events, such as the launch of Labour’s pro-European campaign on 10 May.
The Diary: Roger Mosey.
The former BBC executive Roger Mosey, now Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, reflects on what the BBC gets right and wrong – and says that Jeremy Corbyn deserves a break:
It was inevitable that in a battle for affection at the Bafta ceremony on Sunday 8 May, the BBC would win and the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, would lose. But in the week of the white paper on the future of the corporation, it was still striking just how big a mess the government has made of its custodianship of public-service broadcasting.
Who thought it was smart politics to brief the newspapers that the new BBC charter might prevent the scheduling of Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday evening? It was the latest in a series of hostile remarks, including threats to privatise Channel 4, apparently emanating from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – and it allowed Peter Kosminsky, the director of Wolf Hall, to tell the audience watching the Baftas that we were at risk of our broadcasting system emulating that of North Korea.
Many of the seats at the Baftas are occupied by BBC staff and people dependent on commissions from the corporation, so their standing ovation when Kosminsky said, “It’s not their BBC, it’s your BBC,” wasn’t exactly a surprise. But Whittingdale seems wilfully resistant to the love there is for the corporation among viewers and listeners in this country and around the world.
At the service of the public
There is a case to be made against the way that the BBC currently operates and Whittingdale has been groping towards it. Some of BBC1’s schedule is stale: the channel is overly reliant on formats such as MasterChef and The Apprentice, while Casualty has been running for 30 years and has exhausted all plausible accidents known to humankind. Online activity seems to be as unyielding to shears as Japanese knotweed.
The BBC doesn’t make it easy for its friends, either. An enormous amount of management time has been spent preparing BBC Studios to become a commercial subsidiary, which risks throwing away decades of in-house expertise. By contrast, the case for charter renewal has been feebly made and the BBC was hobbled by its acceptance of George Osborne’s raid on its coffers to finance licence fees for the over-75s.
Yet none of this is an argument for more government appointees, or for greater interference from the DCMS. By far the best route is for the BBC to instal creative leaders with maximum editorial freedom and to enable the people of the UK to have the definitive say over what they want from public-service broadcasting. It’s a shame that the idea of mutualisation, with licence-fee payers electing directors, hasn’t been explored more. The worst outcome now would be to imagine that the government can assume the role of representing the public.
Laborious hunt for a story
The election results programming across all channels, on TV and radio, was nsive. Yet it was plain that some correspondents had decided beforehand that Labour’s failure would be the story of the night. There was a whiff of disappointment that it didn’t turn out to be the meltdown they had hoped for and that Westminster wouldn’t be able to experience the thrill of a coup and another leadership election.
I hold no candle for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour isn’t exactly setting the country on fire with enthusiasm, but he would be right to moan that the media have never given him an even break. Labour’s loss of its overall majority in Wales was cited as another example of the party’s decline, while the SNP’s loss of its overall majority in Scotland was framed as part of another triumph by the Nationalists. Labour defeats were ascribed to Corbyn, while the London mayoral result was a triumph for Sadiq Khan. I don’t think this is political bias – it has much more to do with the hunger for a story.
All of this reminds me of the tiresome narrative now attached to football managers. There are times when you yearn to hear more about football and less about boardroom rumours. Similarly, it will bore us mightily if every move by Corbyn or David Cameron were viewed as part of the next leadership contest. The policies that shape our lives really do matter more.
America in decline
The rival attractions of the river and pubs on a glorious May evening failed to stop more than 300 people turning up for my college’s annual lecture by a distinguished external academic. This year, it was the Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, who gave an assessment of Barack Obama’s presidency as it enters its final months. The audience was keen to hear her thoughts on Donald Trump, too. I had been fortunate to have a preview of these when we shared a bottle of wine and watched the News at Ten a couple of nights earlier. Professor Skocpol heckled amiably through a report by a correspondent in the rust belt of western Pennsylvania that ascribed Trump’s rise to economic decline.
“That happened years ago,” she said. Her take is that immigration and fears among voters about what the US has become are much stronger influences. Immigration, rather than tax, was the driving force behind the Republicans’ Tea Party rebellion, she believes. It raises the question of whether the protesters should have been re-enacting the events of Boston in 1773 – or sinking a replica of the Mayflower instead.
Out to the midday sun
The mini-heatwave prompted a colleague at Selwyn to mention that she had been applying sunscreen to her dog. It’s easy to mock but I am just as much a sucker for things that you spot online that will make your dog’s life complete. My basset hound, YoYo, has a factor-15 spray for when she is outside in summer, and even then I wonder whether I need the “Doggy Sunwipes” that are recommended on the packaging. This is before we get to the eight-in-one oatmeal calming shampoo for her bath at the end of a hot day. There is, I know, one possible conclusion: it’s the owners, not the dogs, who have been out in the sun too long.
First Thoughts: Peter Wilby on Tory ancestral ghosts.
In his column this week, Peter Wilby observes that the British, singularly “unable to deal with abstractions [. . .] pursue their arguments by calling for support from ancestral ghosts”. Both sides in the EU referendum campaign, he notes, are busily adducing the opinions of dead politicians, which have only limited relevance to the current debate:
David Cameron and Boris Johnson wrestle over which side Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher would have taken. Given that most politicians’ statements can, like the Bible, be quoted to support almost anything – even Donald Trump has sometimes expressed opinions that look quite left-wing – this is a peculiarly fruitless exercise.
In 1940 Churchill proposed full political union with France and, after the war, supported the move towards European unity. Though he, like the 1945-51 Labour government, kept us out of the first step, the European Coal and Steel Community – and seemed, like his protégé Anthony Eden, not to envisage Britain joining anything – there is no record of him opposing Harold Macmillan’s later attempts to join. As the British empire declined, many imperialists such as Leo Amery, another Tory ancestral ghost who opposed prewar appeasement of Hitler, and Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law, became ardent Europeans. They took the pragmatic view that, once it lacked an empire, Britain, a small country, should be part of a larger grouping.
Those are the facts, but I don’t presume to draw conclusions about what the deceased would say if they were alive now. A few months ago, nobody knew what Johnson’s opinions on Europe were. So how can we know the views of the dead.
Newsmaker: Ruth Davidson.
Anoosh Chakelian describes the rise of Ruth Davidson, a blue-collar Tory who has transformed the Conservatives’ fortunes in Scotland:
A little after 9pm on Friday 6 May, Ruth Elizabeth Davidson arrived home after 40 hours of work. She pulled on her pyjamas, poured a large glass of rum and sat down on the sofa to watch MasterChef. It was a typically humble response from a politician whose authenticity had just won the Tories a notable triumph in the Scottish parliamentary election.
The Scottish Conservatives, once more of an oxymoron than a political organisation, are now, for the first time since the Scottish Parliament opened in 1999, the largest opposition party in Holyrood. While Labour is down to 24 seats from 37 in 2011, the Tories more than doubled their representation – winning 31 seats, up from 15. And it’s all thanks to Davidson. Well, almost.
It should be stated that the Tories received just 22 per cent of the popular vote (less than in the 1992 UK general election), and still sent only one MP to Westminster in 2015. But with the help of Labour’s collapse and fears over a second independence referendum, the reputation of the Scottish Tories has shifted under Davidson’s leadership.
Davidson is a kick-boxing, Territorial Army-trained, gay Christian with working-class roots. She is only 37 but has already taken the stereotype of a Tory politician and tossed it into the Clyde.
Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential.
The NS’s chief snout in Westminster, Kevin Maguire, hears that a “bruised” Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park, now regrets hiring Lynton Crosby to run his campaign for the London mayoralty.
Goldsmith is discovering the hard way that success has many parents but failure is an orphan. As various Tories jostle to distance themselves from a dirty mayoral campaign waged against Labour’s Sadiq Khan, a chum of Goldsmith’s tells me the ecowarrior is badly bruised and privately regrets subcontracting his crusade to Lynton Crosby’s CTF Comms poison squad. Irony endured a swift blow when the Lizard of Oz was knighted for political service the same day his client lost with dishonour.
The Zac campaign director, Mark Fullbrook, basks under a dubious cachet (“the UK’s Lee Atwater”) bestowed by the US teapot Newt Gingrich. Conversion to Catholicism and the Grim Reaper’s fast approach led Atwater, an adviser to Ronald Reagan, to recant for cruel and racist strategies. Goldsmith will seek redemption later this year by triggering a by-election in Richmond Park if David Cameron approves Heathrow’s third runway.
Telling Tales: Alexei Sayle on Chris, the imaginary lodger who saved him from unwanted house guests.
James Medd on how digital technology is changing the way we consume (and produce) music.
Yo Zushi: Why whitewashing in Hollywood isn’t always racist.
Tim Wigmore on a memoir of what it’s like to be a teenage fan of cricket – Following On by Emma John.
Leo Robson on Zero K, the latest novel by Don DeLillo.
Laurie Penny on the New Chauvinists.
Television: Rachel Cooke follows dirty traders and kinky shrinks in Sky Atlantic’s Billions.
Erica Wagner traces the Russian celebrity author Teffi’s journey into exile from Moscow in 1918.
Film: Ryan Gilbey looks for meaning in Everybody Wants Some!! –Richard Linklater’s gloriously frothy Eighties tale of masculinity.
For more press information, please contact Anya Matthews: email@example.com / 020 7936 4029 / 07815 634 396