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14 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 9:03am

This week’s magazine | The fall of the golden generation

A first looks at this week's issue.

By New Statesman


 

16 – 22 September issue
The fall of the golden generation

 

Cover story: The fall of Labour’s Golden Generation.
Jason Cowley
on the humbling of the party’s best and brightest.

The Diary: Ed Balls on post-politics retirement, David Cameron’s fatal error – and his Strictly spray-tan anxiety.

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George Eaton: After so many setbacks, can Britain’s vanquished liberals ever return to power?

Harry Eyres: How Britain’s relationship with Europe was wrecked on the playing fields of Eton.

Helen Lewis on what Hillary’s health tells us about the media.

View from Edinburgh: Julia Rampen on why Scotland is being forced to choose between the UK and the EU.

Anoosh Chakelian on Emily Thornberry, Islington MP and Labour’s comeback queen.

Tim Wigmore on the plight of working-class white boys in the British education system.

Encounter: Stephen Bush meets Louiza Patikas, who plays Helen Titchener in The Archers.

Andrew Harrison talks social work, Jeremy Corbyn and “NHS comedy” with Jo Brand.

Philip Norman: We had a great time in the Sixties – but at what cost to millennials?

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential: The pick of the week’s best gossip from Westminster.

****

Cover story: The fall of Labour’s golden generation.

The NS editor, Jason Cowley, recalls his 2000 profile of the golden generation of young Labour spads who rose to prominence under Tony Blair. For more than a decade they seemed to hold the party’s future in their hands – now most of them have left or are leaving Westminster. The former shadow chancellor Ed Balls tells Cowley that although his generation made mistakes it never became complacent – yet others remember the group as arrogant and having a sense of entitlement:

In the summer of 2000 I was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar magazine to write about the young gilded special advisers who were working for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown or orbiting around them, or who were close to Peter Mandelson. Most of them wanted to be MPs. I did not know them personally but I knew a lot about them – about how they lived, worked and socialised. Some of them lived together – indeed, even slept together. They were intelligent: all had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge, and some had known each other from student days. They were well connected, competitive, football-loving metropolitans, liberal, good Europeans. They were fascinated by US politics (some of them had done graduate research at American universities or worked on campaigns for the Democrats). They’d studied closely how Bill Clinton and his advisers had remade the Democrats – through triangulation, message discipline, media mastery – as a centrist, optimistic, pro-capitalist, election-winning force.

Older Labour MPs naturally resented these “Young Turks”. More, they envied them. John Prescott called them “teeny boppers”; others called them “faceless wonders” and much worse. They were considered cliquey, superior in manner, even conspiratorial – a bit like the classics students in Donna Tartt’s Secret History, who are punished ultimately for believing in the myth of their own intellectual superiority. Blair and Brown worked them hard but believed in them, just as they believed in themselves.

It was obvious that the newcomers thought that one day they would be running not only the party but the country. They had a sense of purpose and mission as well as self-righteousness. They were the best and the brightest of their political generation and comparisons were made between them and the young policymakers who had worked for John F Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and whose misjudgements took America into the Vietnam War. A path was being cleared for them – and they were heading in only one direction, to the summit.

[. . .]

In 2000, everything seemed set fair for the Golden Generation. Nothing could stop them from dominating public life for decades to come. Apart from one another, as it turned out.

As we know, they never quite made it, not in the way they would have wished, even if some of them had ministerial careers. The painful truth was that before any one of them reached the age of 50, it was too late, already too late: the best of their political careers was in the past.

Consider where they are today.

Ed Balls, who longed to be chancellor and ran for the leadership in 2010, has left politics after losing his seat at the 2015 election and is now cavorting on Strictly Come Dancing. The book he has just published, Speaking Out, is an unexpectedly engaging read, accessible, warm and candid. He writes nostalgically about his early years in the Treasury working closely with Brown. That was his time – and he was not yet 30.

James Purnell is expected to become the next head of BBC Radio, having quit politics in despair in June 2009. On abruptly resigning as work and pensions secretary, he called for Brown “to stand aside to give Labour a fighting chance of winning the next election”. He hoped, perhaps believed, his resignation would lead to a rebellion against Brown and that David Miliband would become prime minister. But no one followed Purnell over the top and he was shot down in no-man’s-land. When I met him in Soho for coffee not long after his resignation, he seemed liberated. “The way we do politics in this country is infantile,” he said.

David Miliband, who resigned from parliament in 2013, is based in New York doing important work as the head of the International Rescue Committee, having had his political career destroyed by his brother. There is some hope on the Labour benches that he might one day return to the Commons. “Had Ed not stood against him, none of this would have happened,” a senior Labour figure said to me, referring to the 2015 defeat, the capture of the party by the radical left and Brexit. It is difficult to see a way back for David, in the present circumstances, should he even wish to return.

Andy Burnham, having twice stood to be leader of the party, is preparing to leave Westminster as he seeks to become the first mayor of Greater Manchester. This is surely recognition that he feels Labour has no chance of returning to government any time soon. Burnham’s second run for the leadership in 2015, when, despite being the early front-runner and favourite, he was defeated by the 100-1 outsider Jeremy Corbyn, was a sad failure. He posed as the anti-Westminster candidate, the People’s Andy, the boy who lived outside the “Westminster bubble”, but he did not seem to know his own mind or what he wanted for the country. By the end of the campaign his pledges and promises were received with derision.

Douglas Alexander, who was shadow foreign secretary under Ed Miliband and Labour’s 2015 election co-ordinator, was perhaps the most obsessive US politics watcher of all that generation. He was credited with bringing David Axelrod, the American political strategist, to work on Labour’s 2015 campaign. Articulate and personable, he humiliatingly lost his Paisley and Renfrewshire South seat to a 20-year-old student, Mhairi Black of the Scottish National Party, who has since become something of a social media star. Alexander has said very little about Labour’s defeat and its collapse in Scotland, and now advises Bono of U2.

Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper, who ran for the leadership in 2015, are still MPs, of course, but each in a different way is struggling to recover from defeat and to find purposeful self-definition. Miliband is now deeply resented in the party. Not only did he lead Labour to an abject election defeat in propitious circumstances, he introduced the new rules by which the party elects its leader, opening the way for the Corbyn insurgency. Many of those who served in the Blair and Brown cabinets resent Miliband’s reluctance to defend the record of those governments. “I thought there had been enough of an opening up of debate under Ed [Miliband] that if Jeremy was on the ballot paper we would do quite well,” Jon Lansman, a close adviser of the Labour leader and chair of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group, told the New Statesman recently. The left has mocked Miliband’s recent demand that Corbyn resign.

I put it to Ed Balls that his generation failed. How else to account for the rise of Corbyn and the collapse in support for moderate social democracy among Labour members and activists?

“It might be that every generation has their time, and as it happened for our generation, it has happened to Cameron and Osborne,” he said by way of a reply. “And it may be that politics has become more – well, your shelf life goes down. It’s harder to regenerate politically, when you think of how long people like [Harold] Wilson or Denis Healey managed to be around. Maybe that’s harder these days. It may be that we made a mistake, and we should talk about that. It may be that, because we were people who succeeded early, and therefore became identified with the mainstream, we became casualties – on both sides of politics – when the centre ground gets rejected for the extremes . . . I don’t think we ever got complacent. I think once we lost in 2010 there was no sense of complacency.”

He found the 2010 defeat especially difficult: after all, he had known only success. “We’d been in government for 13 years . . . But when you go out of government in those circumstances, it feels like something that’s not going to be short-lived or temporary. There are some people who wait all their lives to get to a senior position in the civil service, or in government, or get into the cabinet, and they get it in their sixties. But because it happened for me on my 30th birthday, and the cabinet in my early forties, maybe you have a sense that your time may have been at an earlier stage. I definitely felt that in 2010.”

The former Labour assistant general secretary Eddie Morgan – now a TV producer – recalls working with the so-called golden generation. He tells Cowley they were always a cohort characterised by vanity and hubris:

“How foolish that now all looks,” he said, reflecting on the Blair-Brown conflict – the so-called TBGBs. “Talk about the narcissism of small differences! They really were a golden generation, weren’t they? Yet even back then I was struck by how uncollegiate it was. Everyone had their baronial fiefdoms. There was not a lot of glue between them.”

This might explain why no one emerged as the leader of the pack, as David Cameron did among the Tory modernisers, and four of them – Balls, Burnham and the two Milibands – took each other on in the 2010 leadership contest.

For Morgan and his friends, working for the Labour Party offered thrilling possibilities. “After the ERM debacle [Britain was humiliatingly forced to withdraw the pound sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992], the Tories were on the way out. They’d been in power too long. The feeling was that they were weak and wicked. The future was ours. If you’d become an MP, like Blair and Brown, in 1983, you wouldn’t have felt you’d be in government any time soon. It was different for my generation. It was much easier. They became spads. They were given safe seats. I remember when Yvette got the safe seat of Pontefract, thinking, ‘Wow, she’s all set now.’ It felt like a great career choice. Now who would think becoming a Labour MP was a great career choice?”

[. . .]

He is troubled by how unreflective the Golden Generation seemed to him. “They had complete self-belief. They believed that they would be the leadership of the Labour Party. They didn’t hope it. They totally believed it. I wished they’d been more modest, more questioning, more curious.”

 

The Diary: Ed Balls.

The former shadow chancellor of the Exchequer also writes this week’s NS diary. He reflects, in turn, on David Cameron’s hubris and the short duration of Theresa May’s political honeymoon. In a busy week for Balls, he has been promoting his new memoir and rehearsing for Strictly. He has some success with the latter after a crash course in the charleston (“trying to wiggle like a 1930s flapper”) from the BBC broadcaster Jeremy Vine:

When I stood on the Leeds Arena stage on general election night, smiling at my victorious opponent, Andrea Jenkyns, the one consolation in my mind was that I would not have to endure another five years of David Cameron’s sneering put-downs from the despatch box.

Who would have thought that just 18 months later, Cameron would be out of his job and joining me in post-politics retirement? I always knew that if the Tories got a majority, I would lose, but I never expected it to happen. When you reflect on what came next, there is only one conclusion: neither did David.

In retrospect, he was totally unprepared for the EU referendum campaign. His error was not simply to sign up to a referendum in the last parliament in the confident expectation that after the election – and in a hung parliament – his coalition partners would prevent it from going ahead. His disastrous mistake was to commit in the Tory manifesto to controls on European migration that, however desirable (and I believe they are), were never going to be conceded by our European partners on the Cameron referendum timetable.

The result was that Cameron’s renegotiation failed to deliver anything like the reform he had promised. Yet rather than admit it was a work in progress, he typically told the British people he had “reset” the relationship and regarded it as a triumph.

The missing vow
Standing at the back of a Ryanair hangar at the start of the EU campaign, as I chronicle in my book Speaking Out, George Osborne and I agreed that the Yes side had been left defending the status quo at a time when voters were crying out for change and reform.

I left confidently expecting George to deliver a Scottish referendum-style “vow” to achieve further reform in the final weeks of the campaign. Yet it seems that Cameron dug his heels in. And the rest is history – or at least a defeat that will define Cameron’s place in history.

Oh, the irony. In retrospect, given the Tory majority and Labour’s chaos, I am reluctantly glad to be out of it. But is Cameron now happy to have won that majority? I rather doubt it.

Scenting blood
When I was at primary school, my ambition was to be a doctor. But then a February sledging accident buried that dream. A small gash on my hand was enough to send me collapsing in a woozy heap.

I have always been fascinated by the skill and professionalism of medics, though. And the inspiration for my book was reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, a deeply insightful and moving reflection of the hard reality of his life as a brain surgeon. I decided I would try to write a book about politics that tries to show what being on the inside is really like.

Last week it was brought back to me why my medical career was a non-starter. Leaving the Guardian offices, I was smacked in the head by an automatic glass door. As the blood poured out, we had to dash by car down to the BBC for a lengthy appearance on 5 Live’s Afternoon Edition.

Looking at me on the webcam, the presenters were audibly shocked by my battered appearance. By this time, that familiar woozy feeling was in full flow. I was told afterwards that it was a good interview, but I couldn’t remember anything other than my continual struggle not to pass out live on air. As I left the studio, with the swelling growing, I looked like I’d gone ten rounds with Gennady Golovkin. Appropriately enough, my next interview – straight afterwards – was on Hardtalk!

Selection anxiety
There are mistakes you make in politics that you don’t know you’re making at the time. And then there are mistakes when you can feel in your gut that things are not going right and you’re doing the wrong thing – but, for whatever reason, you can’t stop them happening, no matter what the voice in your head is telling you. It is still too early to tell, but I have an inkling that our new Prime Minister may turn out to be prone to the latter kind. Like many other leaders, she is enjoying a honeymoon period. The question is whether decisions heralded in that period as bold turn out to be merely reckless and insensitive.

Theresa May’s “bold” move on grammar schools already looks like one of these mistakes to me. There are good reasons why Margaret Thatcher never foisted more selection on anxious, aspirational parents. I don’t know whether the timing of Cameron’s departure is related to growing Tory backbench unease on the issue. Yet to see his former education secretary Nicky Morgan bravely criticising the policy at the weekend does not bode well. This may be a subtly brilliant strategy from our new PM, but I can’t see it.

Glitter balls
When the BBC invited me to do Strictly Come Dancing earlier in the year, it was Yvette’s excitement that persuaded me not to say no immediately. But the decisive moment in persuading me was a phone call with Jeremy Vine, star of Strictly in 2015.

Back at the BBC last week for an interview with Jeremy, we talked about all the usual Strictly themes for men of our age – weight loss, glitter-aversion, spray-tan anxiety. But afterwards, with the tape off, Jeremy took me to task.

“Are you practising the charleston yet?” he asked. “It’s a killer. You must start now.” And he promptly jumped up in the BBC cafeteria and gave me an accomplished demonstration. I hotfooted it straight back to the dance studio and was quickly in front of the mirror, trying to wiggle like a 1930s flapper for my partner Katya’s approval. Her look in response said it all. Jeremy Vine, I salute you – but what have you done to me!

 

Politics: George Eaton.

The NS’s political editor, George Eaton, wonders whether Britain’s vanquished liberals can ever return to power:

A decade ago, liberalism appeared to have triumphed in British politics. The three main party leaders subscribed to versions of this philosophy. Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nick Clegg shared a belief in free markets, personal freedom and liberal globalisation. Though differences endured (such as over EU integration), what united them was more important than the divisions. Those outside this consensus – the Labour left and the Tory right – were regarded as irrelevant and outmoded.

But liberalism’s victory proved to be a false dawn. In the UK as elsewhere, its adherents have been cast to the margins. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and the vote to leave the EU were, in different ways, repudiations of liberalism. Corbyn rejects the free movement of capital; the Brexiters reject the free movement of people. Once treated as ideological curios, socialists and nationalists hold greater sway than they have done for decades.

No party better exemplifies the retreat of liberalism than its chief exponents: the Liberal Democrats. Having co-led the UK government from 2010-15, they now hold just eight seats (the same number as Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists). The greatest struggle they face, senior figures say, is simply proving their relevance.

This month, Nick Clegg, the most notable Lib Dem survivor, published a reflection on liberalism’s crisis – Politics: Between the Extremes. “Of all of the reasons, the one that I think is by far the greatest is the knock-on effect of the 2008 financial crisis,” the former deputy prime minister told me shortly before his party’s conference in Brighton. “Millions of people, quite understandably, and in many ways quite rightly, feel that they’ve been overlooked. Their wages have stagnated, they don’t feel they’re getting a fair slice of the cake. They feel that commercial and political elites don’t understand that grinding feeling that you’re treading water and dealing with the consequences of a crisis that wasn’t of your making. It’s very rich territory for people on left and right to entice voters with very simple solutions to quite complex problems.”

Immigration is often cited as the primary cause of Brexit. The Blair government’s decision not to impose transitional controls on eastern European member states is spoken of as a fatal error. But Clegg rejected this analysis. “The concern about immigration is as much symptom as it is cause. If you look at the way people voted in the referendum, some of the areas that cited immigration as their principal motivation for Brexit were also areas where there are the lowest levels of immigration.”

It was far more important, he said, to address stagnant wages and the housing shortage. Clegg has become “ever more statist” on the latter. “If we were, as a country, to resolve that we were going to give central government both the authority and the means to enforce a huge and sustained housebuilding programme over several years, I think that would do more to deal with the underlying sense of disenchantment than any amount of fiddling around with net immigration numbers.”

The Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings remain frozen around 8 per cent. Meanwhile, Corbyn is poised to be re-elected Labour’s leader. And, among the Conservatives, some have been alienated by Theresa May’s opposition to free movement and support for new grammar schools. The answer, it is increasingly argued, is for liberals from all three groups to found a new party, untainted by association with the ancien régime.

Clegg cautioned against this approach without entirely dismissing it. “It’s not as simple as a game of Blue Peter, when you produce a shoebox with some holes in and say ‘voilà’. Not least because we have an electoral system which is so unforgiving to new market entrants. Having said all of that, I do think there is a very compelling case for small-l liberals in the Conservative Party, in Labour and in the Liberal Democrats to work as closely as they can together . . . We do need to caucus and collaborate and compare notes. Where that leads? I think one should start at the beginning of the process, not second-guess the end of it.”

Rather than an era of hung parliaments, as originally anticipated, most now expect a sustained period of Conservative rule. But Clegg suggested that the coalition politics of 2010 could be revived. “If, as I think is perfectly possible, this government drives itself into the buffers because it has absolutely no idea how to fight its way out of this Brexit paper bag, there may well, in a few years, emerge once again a real appetite for a government of national unity: different people of different parties putting the national interest first.”

If the UK’s vanquished liberals are to recover, it will be by campaigning on those issues – the NHS, the housing crisis, low wages – that unite cosmopolitans and communitarians. Though Clegg’s party and Labour are historically regarded as rivals, their fortunes have more often than not been intertwined. In 1997, 2001 and 2005, a healthy centre left (and waves of tactical voting) locked the Conservatives out of office. In 2015, Liberal Democrat failure was not accompanied by Labour success. Both parties flourish when their main opponent – the Conservatives – is weak.

Clegg spoke of the potential to exploit the difficulties that the Tories acknowledge they will face. “We are now back to the more comfortable, and perhaps more fruitful territory, of being an insurgent party again. We are now governed by a Brexit establishment.”

The hope for Nick Clegg and others is that an increasingly promiscuous electorate will eventually work in their favour. In a democracy, no party rules in perpetuity. But, as the Corbynites and Brexiters can testify, it could be a long wait.

 

Harry Eyres: Why Brexit is an Eton mess.

The former Eton King’s Scholar and English teacher Harry Eyres reflects on his alma mater’s role in the current national crisis:

The brief window in which it was cool to be an Etonian has closed. That period was marked not just by Etonian success and visibility – in politics, on the stage, in the media, even on the balcony of Buckingham Palace – but also by a new-found unabashedness in expressing pride at having attended King Henry VI’s Thames-side college, founded for 70 poor scholars in 1440. David Cameron summed it up when he said he was “not embarrassed” that he had gone to “a fantastic school . . . because I had a great education and I know what a great education means”.

All this was quite strange and perturbing to me, as an alumnus of an older era, the 1970s, when being an Etonian seemed decidedly uncool. When asked which school we had attended, my contemporaries and I muttered that we had been to a comprehensive near Slough. It was perturbing because I always had my doubts about Etonian confidence, or arrogance.

The closing of this window can be dated precisely to the early hours of the morning of 24 June. At that moment, it became clear that David Cameron had taken an insouciant, arrogant and disastrous gamble, in the interests of maintaining Conservative Party unity, by calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union that he believed he was sure to win. The window closed even more tightly a week later, when Boris Johnson, having helped to lead the Leave campaign, suddenly declared that he was no longer standing for the Tory leadership – the glittering prize for which he had apparently abandoned his principles and betrayed his friends.

If the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, it now appeared that Britain’s relationship with Europe, and even its continued integrity as a nation, had been wrecked there. It was no surprise that there should be a turning against Eton, with gleeful opinion pieces from the left-leaning commentariat mocking everything from Tom Hiddleston’s backside to the commitment to public service of one of our ablest MPs, Jesse Norman.

I find this reaction as shallow as the excessive pride that preceded it. Maybe that is not surprising, as I both love and feel dissatisfied, even disappointed, by the school where I spent five years of my boyhood and then two and a half years teaching English literature as a young adult. The feeling of let-down is more than personal. Eton has something to answer for, at a national level. A few years ago, I wrote these words: “I’ve often wondered whether this famous Eton confidence could be skin-deep: certainly people such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron do not lack chutzpah, but the confidence to believe you deserve the high position does not necessarily mean you possess the other talents – humility, for instance, and the ability to listen to others – needed to honour it.” Now the 11 Eton pupils who managed to secure an interview with Vladimir Putin have trumped even Cameron and Johnson in the chutzpah department, but not necessarily added lustre to their alma mater.

[. . .]

Perhaps Boris, the King’s Scholar, could not forgive Dave for winning the ultimate prize. However, in taking revenge, he found himself hoist with his own petard, before somehow managing to emerge with a lesser prize, which some see as a poisoned chalice.

It all made me think of that supremely pointless sport, the Eton wall game. I played once or twice before giving up, repelled by the sheer unpleasantness of being ground into either brick or mud, and the tedium of a game in which the last goal had been scored in 1909. As a Colleger, though, I supported our team of brainboxes, drawn from the 70 scholars to play against the brawn of the Oppidans (the rest of the school, 1,200 of them). No doubting that it was antler-to-antler stuff, or like the contests of male musk oxen that knock each other senseless.

Eton remains archaic in its attitude towards women. It is still a boys-only boarding school (though a small number of girls, mainly the daughters of teachers, have been pupils there), and the staff are overwhelmingly male. Being largely cut off from women and girls for much of your boyhood and adolescence does not seem to me an ideal recipe for emotional health, or for regarding women as equals.

The school that has educated 19 prime ministers may provide a brilliant academic education and countless other opportunities, but it can leave its pupils emotionally floundering behind a façade of polish and charm. The effects of that emotional impoverishment can be far-reaching indeed. I am encouraged that the new headmaster, Simon Henderson, has signalled a change of tone at Eton, with more stress on “emotional intelligence” and “mental health”. That change is long overdue.

 

Helen Lewis on the Age of Disinformation.

For Helen Lewis, the wild media speculation following Hillary Clinton’s fainting episode proves that we are now living in the Age of Disinformation:

In the 2005 Doctor Who Christmas special, the British prime minister – an older woman called Harriet Jones – reneges on a promise to let a bunch of aliens leave the planet in peace. After she orders their ship to be shot down, David Tennant’s furious Time Lord tells her that he could bring down her government with a word – or, rather, six words. As she stands defiantly in front of him, he goes to her closest aide and whispers: “Don’t you think she looks tired?”

For the past few months, the “alt right” – a loose collection of bloggers, websites, internet wing nuts and other Trump-supporting flotsam – has been attempting a similar trick on Hillary Clinton. In 2012, the Democratic presidential nominee hit her head, and since then rumours have swirled about a more serious health problem. With appalling timing, the Clinton campaign finally responded to these rumours last week, only for their visibly sick candidate to need bundling out of a 9/11 memorial event on Sunday into a waiting people carrier.

The initial explanation that Clinton “overheated” later gave away to an admission that she was suffering from pneumonia. But by this time, opinionators had already rushed to fill the space created by years of stealthy narrative-building. News anchors put on serious faces to discuss whether Bernie Sanders would have to step in, and WikiLeaks posted about a “metal or glass object [falling] from Clinton’s right hand” in a tone that conveyed the impression this was very sinister. It later tweeted, and then deleted, a poll inviting followers to guess whether Clinton was suffering from an allergy problem, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or a head injury. Scrolling through Twitter, I chanced upon a lively meme industry devoted to suggesting that a bulge in Clinton’s trouser leg at an earlier event “proved” she wears a catheter.

This is a grand, internet-wide version of the “push polling” developed by Republicans as an election weapon. In 2000, when George W Bush was battling John McCain in the South Carolina Republican primary, voters were called to ask how they would feel – hypothetically! – if McCain had a black love child. What he actually had was a daughter adopted from Bangladesh. Unsurprisingly, Bush’s close adviser Karl Rove was one of the early promoters of the “Clinton has brain damage” meme. Of course, he denies using those words; but in May 2014 he said to the New York Post: “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” In a similar way, Donald Trump began his latest tilt at the presidency by wondering “what’s up” with Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

A few things: first, pneumonia can affect anyone of any age. It’s awful, but temporary. Second, if Hillary Clinton is concealing a serious illness, it’s positively presidential: FDR hid being in a wheelchair for years, and JFK had Addison’s disease and back problems so severe they required surgery. Third, the only evidence we have for Donald Trump’s own glowing health is a note his doctor admits writing in five minutes while a limousine waited for it outside, which says that his “laboratory test results were astonishingly excellent” and “his physical strength and stamina are extraordinary”. No actual medical records were provided. Fourth, we might pause briefly to note the subtle sexism the saga relies on: at 68, Grandma Clinton feels old, while the 70-year-old Trump is in the prime of his life.

Throughout all this, the remaining chunk of the US media that hasn’t lost its goddam mind during this election chewed over the biggest dilemma of modern political journalism: how do you report wild speculation without implicitly endorsing it? As British outlets discovered during the EU referendum, there is no way to debunk without repeating; and outrageous claims are, by definition, hard to ignore.

In 1815, it took three days and two hours for news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo to reach Britain. In 2001, President Bush was among the last people in America to see footage of the twin towers falling, because he was stuck on Airforce One, which at the time could pick up only local TV broadcasts and they kept dropping in and out of signal range. When I started in journalism, newspapers still had cuttings libraries, to be consulted in the event of a query. Information was a scarce and precious resource. Now, the market has been flooded with cheap imports from dodgy suppliers: the price has fallen, but so has the quality. Social scientists often call this the Information Age, but it would be more accurate to call it the Age of Disinformation. Every fact you could possibly want is at your fingertips – but it’s no easier to tell what’s true.

For populist candidates, it is now an established tactic to run against the traditional media, to undermine any negativity with a pre-emptive “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”. The reach of social media – and the resistance to scrutiny conveyed by having no universal, central “front page” – makes this tactic viable. In August, the New York Times’s John Herrman revealed a vast cottage industry of political fan pages on Facebook, often run by individuals, devoted to ripping off content from news sites, mixing it with conspiracy theories and repackaging it in the most attention-grabbing way possible to generate clicks and shares (and thus advertising revenue). “In front of largely hidden and utterly sympathetic audiences, incredible narratives can take shape, before emerging, mostly formed, into the national discourse,” he wrote.

If you don’t find this scary, you should. Journalistic standards and the checks and balances of democracy – institutions built up over generations – are now shown to be built on sand. And the waves of disinformation are lapping at their foundations.

 

View from Edinburgh: Julia Rampen.

The editor of the Staggers, Julia Rampen, reports from the Scottish capital, where the mainly pro-UK and pro-EU residents are now torn between two loyalties:

Joyce Forsyth’s knitwear shop is nestled in a knobbly stone building in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Colourful jumpers hang in the tiny window, but it’s the scraping sound that draws me in. I find Forsyth working away at a knitting machine.

It’s a picture-perfect image of traditional Scottish crafts, but Forsyth is thinking about something distinctly modern – access to the European single market. She voted against Scottish independence in 2014 and to remain in the European Union in June this year.

She stops mid-jumper to tell me: “We should be united with Europe, and united as a country.” Having to choose one or the other would put her in a “quandary”, she says, but adds: “I would probably look at Europe. It’s economics.”

Forsyth’s view is typical: the 500,000 inhabitants of Edinburgh consider it an international city. Climb one of its seven hills and you will see, besides the castle, the unfinished tribute to the Parthenon on Calton Hill, the Enlightenment-inspired squares of the New Town, and the domes of a university designed to attract the world’s brightest talent. This is Edinburgh as it wants to be seen.

There is a gritty side, but it doesn’t appear on the postcards. Keep going past the Victorian neighbourhoods, and you’ll get to a place with no handmade jumpers, organic grocers or artisan coffee. On the run-down estates surrounding the city, benefit cuts bite and the heroin epidemic never went away.

Unlike the UK as a whole, most Scots voted to remain in the EU. Edinburgh feels the incipient constitutional crisis the referendum has caused acutely. In 2014 this was one of the most pro-UK areas in Scotland, with 61 per cent voting against independence. In the EU referendum, three-quarters voted to remain.

The citizens of this city are now facing a dismal prospect. As the pro-independence Scottish government pledges to try to avoid Brexit, they must decide whether their loyalties lie with the UK or the EU.

[. . .]

Much of the city’s chattering class lives in south Edinburgh, where the wide streets are lined with lime trees and large houses. J K Rowling lived here for a while, and so, still, do the authors Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.

According to Labour’s Daniel Johnson, the constituency MSP for Edinburgh Southern, 80 per cent of the constituency voted to remain in the EU. “On polling day, we were being hooted at with thumbs up,” he says. “To have such a positive campaigning experience, and then come out with the wrong result, was really upsetting.”

In the poorest parts of Edinburgh, more than 27 per cent of households lived in poverty in 2014, according to the City of Edinburgh Council. In affluent areas, by contrast, the figure was 17 per cent. In 2012 the National Union of Students found that only 1.4 per cent of children from Edinburgh’s poorest areas were achieving the grades demanded by top universities.

These neighbourhoods voted to leave the EU, Labour activists say, just like other poor parts of the UK. Beneath the surface, Edinburgh is as divided as the rest of Britain – with the added complication that the independence debate has been reignited by Brexit. “There are two countries,” Johnson says. “We are in one of them.”

 

Newsmaker: Emily Thornberry.

Love her or loathe her, the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry – in the headlines this week for her Sky News gaffe – is right to be angry about sexism, writes Anoosh Chakelian:

The right-wing press loathes Thornberry. Like Harriet Harman, she is their worst type of woman – the politically correct, pious and posh type. Although she was raised on a council estate in Surrey by a single mother on benefits, and attended a secondary modern school after failing the eleven-plus, her present wealth has rendered her background irrelevant. The Daily Mail calls her “Lady Smug” and “the biggest hypocrite in Britain” – and says her “property empire” is at odds with her socialism.

She lives in a smart Islington townhouse (the Blairs and that veteran of Labour, Margaret Hodge, once lived on the same road, where houses are valued at £3m) and part-owns two other properties in London. Her husband, Sir Christopher Nugee, provides another source of glee. Tory grandee Nicholas Soames likes to point that she is properly Lady Nugee. The couple have three grown-up children.

Yet the “comeback queen”, as the BBC has described her, has had a tougher return to the front bench than most. Thornberry is the most senior shadow cabinet member who is not an overt Corbynite. She has been a constituency neighbour of the Labour leader since she was first elected to parliament in 2005. She nominated him for the leadership in 2015, but voted for Yvette Cooper. After Corbyn won, she responded by saying that “there’s no point sulking”, after which she got stuck in.

A sharp debater in the Commons chamber, she is also loyal. Her support for both Ed Miliband and Corbyn shows a dedication to making opposition work. She was one of Miliband’s inner circle and during the Rochester scandal [Thornberry was sacked from the shadow cabinet after tweeting an apparently derogatory caption on a photograph of a house draped in St George flags, taken during a 2014 by-election in this Kent constituency] it was a sign of his panic that he fired such a close ally.

Born in 1960, Thornberry is an experienced lawyer – for twenty years she specialised in human rights law as a barrister at Tooks Chambers in London, the set led by the lefty QC Michael Mansfield. An obvious choice for shadow justice secretary under Corbyn, she was given the defence brief instead in the January reshuffle. In true Thornberry style, she chirruped to the press that she didn’t “know why Jeremy gave me this job”, to the chagrin of colleagues whose constituents rely on the defence industry.

Her support for unilateral disarmament was opposed by incredulous pro-Trident Labour MPs and union reps, who decried her apparent lack of knowledge. At a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, hecklers drowned her out and colleagues called her “cringe-worthy” and “appalling”.

Though Thornberry is gaffe-prone, her anger at sexism should not be ignored. She is an easy target because of her gender. There is a sense that some (mostly male) politicians and commentators see her as a smug north London liberal. They hear her smart vowels. They observe her arched eyebrows, her headmistress-like pout of disdain and her tendency to bomb merrily around Islington on a bike, and they decide that what is more likely resilience and defensiveness must be haughty disdain.

Or, as she lamented in November 2014, it could just be a “prejudiced attitude towards Islington”.

 

Encounter: Stephen Bush meets Helen from The Archers.

The NS’s special reporter, Stephen Bush, talks to the Archers actress Louiza Patikas about putting domestic violence on air:

“I’m pretty invested in Helen,” Louiza Patikas tells me. And well she might be – she has played Helen Archer (now Titchener) on BBC Radio 4’s staple radio drama The Archers for 16 years. The radio-listening public is pretty invested in her, too – five million people tune in every week to hear about goings-on
in Ambridge, the farming village nestled in the fictional Borsetshire countryside, and the show is rapidly approaching its 66th year on air.

[. . .]

Patikas and Titchener have been through a lot together. They even, in an odd coincidence, had a baby at similar times – Patikas’s second and Helen’s first. Yet nothing has been so draining, for the listeners as well as for the character, as her latest storyline: the three-year saga of Helen’s awful treatment at the hands of her husband, Rob Titchener.

Patikas tells me that at times she’d come away from recording “exhausted”. When you cry on the radio, you really have to cry, she explains. “You have to access that feeling and come through it.”

When Rob Titchener first arrived in Ambridge in early 2013, he was seen as a bona fide catch – “the tall, dark and handsome stranger [Helen] always wanted”, as Patikas puts it. By July that year, Helen and Rob had begun seeing each other, even though Rob was already married.

But their whirlwind romance and marriage soured soon after they wed in August 2015. Rob began to exert ever more control over Helen’s life – over what she wore, what she ate, where she went. He gradually isolated her from her friends and eventually raped her.

When Helen attempted to escape, Rob ended up with a knife in him – and Helen’s virtual imprisonment in her marital home threatened to become a custodial sentence. The day before I meet Patikas, a jury, played by a roster of Britain’s best actors, eventually acquitted Helen of all charges in an hour-long special of The Archers, much to the relief of the show’s listeners.

For Patikas, the harrowing events of recent years all came as a surprise. Although the show has never shied away from current affairs and dramatic storylines – covering everything from the impact of the falling price of milk to the torrid affairs of the resident Ambridge cad Brian Aldridge – Helen’s domestic violence storyline broke new ground for both the programme and the coverage in drama of coercive control (the means by which Rob isolated Helen from her friends and family).

The actors receive scripts just four weeks ahead of broadcast, so for Patikas, as much as the listeners, the dark turn of Helen’s relationship with Rob Titchener was revealed piece by piece. “Not knowing doesn’t make much of a difference,” she explains, “because you just live each day as we do anyway, just in the truth of that day.”

It was a surprise, though, that all this happened to Helen. “If, a few years ago, someone had said: given these five characters, which do you think would have been a sufferer of domestic violence? I’d have said: ‘Probably not Helen – she’s bright and articulate and intelligent, got a great family behind her. She’d pick up on that.’

“It made me realise it could happen to anybody,” Patikas says. “We probably all know at least two people who are going through the same thing and have no idea.”

 

The Arts Interview: Jo Brand on social work, Jeremy Corbyn and “NHS comedy”.

Andrew Harrison meets the comedian Jo Brand, who has co-written a new social work sitcom for Channel 4, Damned:

With its thankless workload, its humourless, target-driven bosses and very C4 topicality, this is a post-Office workplace comedy about a job that would terrify most of its viewers. Following Brand’s largely improvised BBC4 sitcoms Getting On and Going Forward, which covered the nursing and home-care professions, it forms the third element in a kind of dismally entertaining NHS triptych. It’s called Damned because, in social work, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

“The thing is, all workplaces are ridiculous,” Brand says, as we chat over high-end biscuits in a glassy room at the channel’s headquarters in Victoria, central London. “They’re all funny. But social workers are treated especially unfairly in the press. When they get it wrong, everyone says, ‘Oh yes, they always were crap.’ And when they get it right, by definition nobody knows about it. My mum was a social worker and I’d worked in that area, too. So I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before, and maybe make it a bit of an hommage to my mum, too.”

Brand, a lifelong Labour supporter, is depressed about the party’s prospects and is backing neither Owen Smith nor Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership contest:

The damage started, she thinks, long before Ed Miliband. “I’m not a moderate,” she says, “I’m on the left, but you cannot just be ideologically led without the personality to carry through what you need to do. That’s why Tony Blair worked.”

For her, the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009, when certain Labour MPs were exposed and shown to be every bit as venal as the Conservatives, was just the start. “If you’re on the left, it’s like being in the police. It’s not enough to be mostly good. If you’re about supporting the weak then you have to be 100 per cent above suspicion.”

She views the party’s present agonies through knitted fingers. “As things are at the moment, I find it hard to have respect for any of them. Grown-ups should know how to sort this out.” They should, but they don’t. Maybe that’s the message of Jo Brand’s mini-genre of public-service comedy: there are no grown-ups coming to sort it out.

 

Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential.

The NS’s chief snout in Westminster, Kevin Maguire, hears that the immediate past chancellor of the Exchequer is reluctant to spend his newly acquired free time reading a certain political memoir:

The one-time Tory Master of the Universe “Sir” George Osborne is also stumbling forward. The former chancellor, brutally disposed of when Theresa May swapped her kitten heels for a pair of Rosa Klebb razor shoes, is quite picky. “I’m not going to bother,” my radar-lugged snout earwigged Osborne whining, “to read Nick Clegg’s book.” The truth might hurt: Clegg, Lib Dumb deputy premier in the ConDem coalition, accuses the Buller Boys Osborne and Dave Cameron of cutting welfare for fun and refusing to build council houses because Labour voters live in them. Hard hats and hi-vis jackets can’t rewrite history.

 

Plus

Peter Wilby: Why I’m voting for Corbyn, my grammar-school plan, and the disappearing cats of Essex.

Ray Monk compares three studies of Jean-Paul Sartre and the birth of existentialism.

Olivia Laing on the turning tides of history as revealed in Estuary: Out from London to the Sea by Rachel Lichtenstein.

John Bew looks into Gideon Rachman’s geopolitical vision in Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century.

Paula Byrne reviews Stefan Buczacki’s account of a prime minister’s inappropriate passion, My Darling Mr Asquith.

Matthew Adams looks at why the word of God could prove so deadly: The Murderous History of Bible Translations by Harry Freedman.

Philip Maughan on Aravind Adiga’s novel Selection Day, a story of cricket and modern India.

Television: Rachel Cooke tries to understand the passion for Poldark – and reviews Amazon Prime’s fizzy fashion drama The Collection.

Film: Ryan Gilbey considers whether Bridget Jones and the Blair Witch stand the test of time.

Radio: Caroline Crampton rediscovers the fruity joys of Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey.

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