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7 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 9:11am

This week’s magazine | The Three Brexiteers

A first look at this week's issue.

By New Statesman

The Three Brexiteers
9 – 15 September issue

Cover story: The Three Brexiteers.
Simon Heffer
on the squabbling trio of ministers negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU.
Anoosh Chakelian
meets the pro-immigration Tory MP and Remainer Anna Soubry.

Will Self on the gnomic meaning of Brexit” – withdrawal from Europe or a brand of lard?

Politics: George Eaton on why Theresa May’s vision of an ordered society means less immigration.

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View from Harlow: Stephen Bush on how the murder of a Polish man has convulsed the Essex town.

Silicon Salvations: Yuval Harari on God, technology and new religions for the 21st century.

Shiraz Maher on the death of the Islamic State leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.

Anders Fjellberg on the dispute in Norway over a monument to the victims of Anders Breivik.

Peter Wilby on the troubles of Keith Vaz.

Andrew Marr on Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s reworking of Hamlet.

Laurence Scott on Postman Pat at 35.

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


Cover story: The Three Brexiteers.

Silly season columnists may have enjoyed the idea of a squabbling trio of Brexit ministers, but, as Simon Heffer explains, relations between Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson are more nuanced:

For newspapers with only the Olympics to write about during August, the squabbling “Three Brexiteers” – the senior ministers supposedly tasked with executing the will of the British people to remove us from the European Union – came as a gift. The men concerned are David Davis, the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union; Boris Johnson, who is what our passports used to call Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; and Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade. This odd trio amused the press for several reasons, mostly bogus: that they share responsibility for securing Brexit (untrue); that they all hate each other (untrue); that Fox has parked his tanks on Johnson’s lawn to the extent of demanding that some of the powers of the Foreign Office be transferred to his department (apparently true); and that they must take it in turns to use Chevening, hitherto the foreign secretary’s grace-and-favour, 115-room pile in Kent (certainly true, though none rushed to avail himself of the privilege). Inevitably, the whole question is far more layered and complex than the silly-season column fillers even began to suggest.

The dynamic between the three men is not straightforward. Davis and Fox are hardcore Brexiteers of long standing. In this year’s referendum campaign Davis was more closely associated with the unofficial group and its sister organisation Grassroots Out, and shared platforms with (among others) Nigel Farage and the Labour MP Kate Hoey. Fox, who announced just before Christmas 2015 that he would support Leave, appeared on various platforms and was more closely associated with the mainstream Vote Leave campaign, which was little more than a Tory front operation.

Davis was runner-up to David Cameron in the Tories’ 2005 leadership election, Fox an also-ran. There was little empathy between the two men during that race. Fox is immersed in US politics and has a wide range of senior contacts in the Republican Party, in and out of Congress, and in those days was seen as something of a neocon. Davis is a more conventional Tory, but with that 19th-century Liberal strain in his ­political make-up that also distinguished Margaret Thatcher (he calls himself a “Thatcherite”). He and Fox share many economic ideas as well as a dislike of the EU, but their ideas about foreign policy and, particularly, the degree of reverence with which the US world-view should be treated, differ sharply.

In June 2008 Davis resigned as shadow home secretary and from the Commons, triggering a by-election, in which he stood, to draw attention to the erosion of civil liberties in Britain. David Cameron, who found Davis wearing, saw this as a stunt and took the opportunity not to readmit him to the shadow cabinet after his re-election a month later. It was claimed Cameron offered Davis a place in the coalition cabinet in 2010 to appease the right, but Davis – disliking a range of the coalition’s policies – preferred the back benches. His friends believed his leadership ambitions had not been quelled and that he would build up his constituency in the party better by not being in government with the Liberal Democrats. No offer of a job in cabinet came after June 2015, which seems to have hardened Davis further against the Cameron line on Europe; but Davis, not the most popular man in the parliamentary party, chose not to offer himself as a potential leader after Cameron’s auto-defenestration this summer.

Fox, however, did, even though there was equally scant evidence of his popularity. Finishing bottom of the first ballot, he then shrewdly put himself behind Theresa May, with whom he is said to have cordial relations, rather than one of the Brexiteer candidates. This helped ensure his return to cabinet. He had served in 2010-11 as defence secretary, departing in odd circumstances. It was disclosed that Adam Werritty, 17 years Fox’s junior and best man at his wedding, had been passing himself off as an adviser to Fox, but wasn’t on the official payroll and had no security clearance. Werritty reportedly attended 40 of 70 recorded engagements that Fox made as defence secretary, had been Fox’s business partner in his Atlantic Bridge charity, and had accompanied him on numerous official trips.

Though no harm had been done to British interests, Fox conceded that he had made an error of judgement and resigned. For him, too, the road back was long: he turned down the offer of a minister of state’s job at the Foreign Office in July 2014 in order to retain the freedom to criticise government (and particularly economic) policy. He became ever less warm to Cameron, who offered him nothing after the 2015 Tory victory. His Euroscepticism is of long duration, and it hardened in his absence from government.

Boris Johnson has no such pedigree, which begins to explain the suspicion in which Davis and Fox are said to hold him. It was shortly before the end of his second term as mayor of London, and the day after Michael Gove’s spectacular announcement that he would be voting to leave the EU, that Johnson decided which way to jump. Few in his party believed his choice to embrace Leave was made after anything other than a calculation about how best to further his rampant ambition to lead the Conservative Party and become prime minister. He had spent many years as a columnist being rude about Europe, but there is a world of difference between that and advocating complete withdrawal. Until Gove blew the whistle on Johnson as a potentially inadequate prime minister – to the relief of scores of Tory MPs who nonetheless do nothing to defend Gove against accusations of disloyalty – the plan seemed to be working perfectly.

Theresa May’s appointment of Johnson was cunning. Although pundits include him in the trio conducting Brexit, his role seems limited to maintaining friendships with those we are divorcing. An early engagement was a Bastille Day party in London, at which the French audience booed him. May’s establishment of the Brexit Department under Davis means the Foreign Office follows rather than leads on this most crucial question of foreign policy. She is no fool, and knows that among Johnson’s attested failings is his inability (apparently because of idleness) to acquaint himself with detail. The accomplishment of our departure from Europe is greatly about detail and the Prime Minister knew he could not master it.

[ . . . ]

For the moment, the three ministers are not squabbling: but then it is a mistake to see them as interdependent. Maywill have to sort out the overlaps between Johnson and Fox’s departments: but Davis knows what he has to do, and what his remit is to do it. What remains to be decided is whether this will be a so-called hard Brexit (coming out on our terms) or “soft” (coming out on Europe’s). The rhetoric so far suggests the former; unless Davis forfeits May’s support, that is how it will stay. May must also remember that if she does feel she must stop backing Davis, she will not only have to find someone else to do his job, but deal with backbenchers who remain to be convinced that she will see the job through. In the end, as chief executive, fulfilling the will of the British people will be her responsibility.


Politics Interview: Anna Soubry.

Anoosh Chakelian meets the cut-glass but potty-mouthed Conservative MP Anna Soubry who is still fuming about the Brexit vote and now plotting a life on the backbenches from her Nottinghamshire constituency. Soubry calls Theresa May’s policy of counting overseas students in immigration figures “complete madness” and says she wants the net migration target abandoned altogether.  She also lashes out at the government by saying Yvette Cooper would be “having a field day” with the Tories now, if she were Labour leader.

Anyone unconvinced that there is an emotional case for remaining in the EU should meet Anna Soubry. The former Tory minister, who was business minister under David Cameron but declined to join Theresa May’s government, has a passion for the European project. She is furious about the Brexit vote.

During the first pro-EU rally in London following the vote to leave, she gave an impromptu – almost tearful – speech, in which she described how her two grown-up daughters and 83-year-old mother had wept at the outcome (her daughters have since insisted they didn’t shed a tear). Her fellow Conservative MP Nadine Dorries even accused her of being “inebriated” at the time, and later had to apologise.

Soubry has also clashed with high-profile Brexiteers. In her idiosyncratic potty-mouthed-but-prim style, she called Nigel Farage a man who “looks like somebody has put their finger up his bottom and he really rather likes it”. She questioned Boris Johnson’s pro-Leave stance, accusing him of putting his “leadership ambitions” ahead of Britain’s future.

Sitting in her constituency office on the drizzly Beeston High Road in her suburban Nottinghamshire constituency of Broxtowe, she is still angry, more than two months after the referendum. Hammering away at her iPad and cradling a persistently buzzing phone, she is plotting her new life as a backbencher on the last working day of the summer recess. Influencing Brexit negotiations is high on her agenda.

Soubry is a founding member of the cross-party Open Britain, a group campaigning for a Remain-friendly version of Brexit. Working with her are the Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb and Labour’s former shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden. They will push for access to the single market and free movement of labour (with tighter regulation of employment agencies).

“[I want to] keep the pressure on the government to deliver in the best interests of the British people,” she says, hammering the table with her fist. “I’m not saying they won’t, but I think it’s going to be difficult.”

With her cut-glass accent, coral-coloured V-neck and pristinely coiffed hair (she used to be a television presenter), she appears every bit the classic Tory. But she had a dalliance with the SDP in her youth, and was the only Tory on the lefty National Union of Students executive committee in the 1970s, when she served alongside Trevor Phillips and David Aaronovitch.

“I marched with Trots, Maoists, all sorts of members of the left, on the defence of the 67 Abortion Act, and the Anti-Nazi League, and there was never any problem with the fact that we were Tories,” she reminisces.

Now the rhetoric has turned sour. “In the hotbed of student politics, it was never like [today]. I was never called ‘a Tory “c”‘ or an ‘effing Tory’. It was never nasty.”

Her support for immigration also marks her out. Though the majority of Conservative MPs were pro-Remain, not as many were as keen to chat about the merits of migration.

Soubry reveals that Downing Street even stopped her doing interviews about immigration before the referendum. “They said, ‘No, we are not engaging in the immigration debate,’ and I couldn’t believe it,” she thunders. “And I wasn’t alone in being horrified.”

She believes her enthusiasm for immigration puts her ahead of some Labour MPs, too. “The irony is, on immigration, I’m probably more liberal than some of them [Labour MPs] are having to sound, because they are so worried that they don’t any longer represent – they think – the views of their traditional supporters. And I think many of them don’t.”

Nevertheless, she calls Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the opposition “desperate for democracy”, because “it’s left to the likes of me” to hold the government to account over the Brexit deal. “Could you imagine the field day that Yvette Cooper would be having at the moment?” she says.

Although Soubry backed Theresa May for the Tory leadership, and calls her “far too sensible” to allow the party to shift right, she is concerned about the future of migration policy. Especially given May’s record as home secretary.

“I didn’t agree with her views on immigration,” she admits. “That does worry me. Why have we got students in the immigration figures?” she wonders of a policy that May has repeatedly insisted upon. “I want to see more overseas students! We want to do trade with the rest of the world, so somebody’s suggesting we reduce the number of overseas students. This is the stuff of complete madness . . . I think we should abandon the [net migration] target [altogether].”

However, Soubry does have a tougher stance on migrants who break the law – perhaps born out of her 16 years as a criminal barrister. She calls for ordinary economic migrants (not refugees) who come to work in the UK to be deported if they are sent to prison.

“If you work here . . . and you commit an offence that puts you in prison, I actually think you’ve given up your right to live here,” she says. “I think if you break the house rules, you forfeit your right to remain in this country.”


Will Self: Lines of Dissent.

For the NS columnist, Will Self, Theresa May’s pronouncement “Brexit means Brexit” is as gnomic and post-modern as anything he ever deconstructed as a student of logic:

It was a relief, wasn’t it, when a grown-up entered the nursery teatime of the Tory party leadership contest, and told the spoilt and disruptive little boys and girls to sit still. Then Mrs May sent Boris to sit on the Foreign Office naughty step, and Andrea to look after the divisive biscuit tin of farm subsidies, picked up her ski poles and buggered off for a summer walk, the way vigorous grown-ups of a certain age are wont to do. In lieu of a child mature enough to deputise for her, the Prime Carer left behind this placeholder: “Brexit means Brexit”. That was it – no fanfaronade, no messing, just an enigmatic phrase suggestive of a Zen koan. Moreover, this was a Zen koan inscribed on a featureless slab of black obsidian – one that, in the following weeks, the illiterate inhabitants of the Westminster village came to stare at in puzzlement and wondrously touch with their maladapted paws. What could it possibly mean?

Of course, even the apes (sorry, I mean “political class”) understood that the phrase was a placeholder; understood, as well, that it was designed expressly to engender their own puzzlement; nonetheless they – we – remained transfixed for weeks, and even though the nursery cabinet has now met, and the Prime Carer has begun to qualify the statement, the strange hold that “Brexit means Brexit” has had on our imaginations lingers, like a kipper breakfast that repeats for . . . aeons.

Is “Brexit means Brexit” a rallying cry, akin to “Make poverty history”? In which case, can we expect its injunction to remain equally unheeded? After all, in the 11 years since this was urged upon us by all right-thinking people (and Bono), far from poverty becoming a thing of the past, it is history itself that has begun to seem distinctly impoverished, offering us nothing very much in the way of signposts to the future. That “Brexit means Brexit” is such an injunction seems confirmed by the Prime Carer’s recent supplementary remarks: Britain, so long as the Prime Carer is in loco parentis, will leave the single European market and reassert full control over its borders. Moreover, any thoughts of a mandatory parliamentary or electoral endorsement, let alone a second referendum, must be confined to the dustbin of history. (Which remains obstinately empty of poverty.)

I asked the Professor of Inexorable Logic at the University of Monetisation if he could tell me anything about the underlying structure of “Brexit means Brexit” and he said: “Superficially, it may appear tautologous – what, after all, could Brexit possibly mean, if not itself? Yet, on closer examination, the connective ‘means’ is by no means one of equivalence; rather, it draws our attention to the incontestable fact that Brexit is a neologism, and as such hasn’t, perhaps, been sufficiently employed in ordinary speech to have determinate, consensual meaning.”

All this was self-evident to me – as I’m sure it is to you – but it prompts the question: how many uses will it take for Brexit really to mean Brexit, and in how many forms and contexts? Will we require babies named Brexit? Or even the replacement of our favourite epithet with verbal, nounal and adjectival forms, such that “You can brexit the brexiting brexit right out of here, you brexidacious brexiteer” becomes a meaningful phrase? Even if we confine the use of “Brexit” to discussion of Britain leaving the European Union, there remains the problem of consent and determinacy: one woman’s back-to-the-future obviously being another’s forward-to-the-past. It could be that Brexit can only mean Brexit once Britain has, in fact, left the EU, in which case the word will have acquired all the fusty uselessness of bombazine or the cockney form of Berkshire Hunt.

It’s my suspicion that the Prime Minister is steeped in the linguistic philosophy of the later Wittgenstein – I know, I know, she wears it lightly, but anyone who can utter the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” with such ringing conviction, while really understanding perfectly well that “Brexit” might mean an automated dildo, or be a brand of lard, can only be calling attention to the language games we all play, while inviting us to join in another. When I studied logic we were asked to deconstruct the workings of the syllogism by considering propositions of the form: the king of France has a beard; the king of France is a man; therefore, all men have beards. The obvious fallacy here is that there is no king of France, and the Prime Minister has amply displayed her awareness of this fact with her assertion that “Boris Johnson” means “the Foreign Secretary”.

There are some Remainers, stood so deep in the hole Nick “Honestly” Clegg has dug for them that they’re purblind, who believe “Brexit means Brexit” actually means the exact reverse. And that Mrs May’s cabinet appointments are part of a very long language game indeed, one that will play out during negotiations of such fearsome (and costly) complexity, that Boris, David et al will have to come before the House of Commons arrayed in chains of red tape – like some latter-day Burghers of Calais – and be compelled to admit this: so hopelessly entangled with the European Union has the British state become, that it is impossible for it to be detached without both entities ceasing meaningfully to exist.

The first political slogan I was aware of was Harold Wilson’s “pound in your pocket”. It seemed pretty gnomic then – even more so now. But compared to “Brexit means Brexit”, “the pound in your pocket” seems altogether benign. The Prime Carer has opened a can of postmodern worms, dumped them on toast and served them up to her ministerial charges with the pretence that they’re spaghetti. Of course, what Brexit really means is: “We’re f***ed.” But no one wants to wash out his or her own mouth with soap, least of all someone as mature and capable as Mrs May.


Politics: George Eaton.

The NS‘s political editor, George Eaton, argues that Theresa May’s vision of a more ordered society cannot be realised without permanent curbs on immigration:

Samuel Beckett advised those who fail to “try again” and “fail better”. The ives’ immigration policy has long reflected this mantra. Since 2010, the party has aimed to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year – a target that has been continually missed. Net migration currently stands at 327,000, only 9,000 below its peak of March 2015.

Throughout the Cameron era, Tory ministers spoke privately of the folly of a target subject to factors – EU immigration and UK emigration – beyond their control. Others argued that reducing net migration came at an unacceptably high economic price. “Sometimes, I think only Theresa [May] and I actually believe in our immigration policy,” David Cameron complained to his cabinet. The then home secretary was undermined by colleagues who opposed her efforts to reduce student visas and work permits.

Despite May’s record, some hoped that her arrival in Downing Street would end the net migration target. Her “tough” reputation, a Tory MP told me, could enable a “Nixon goes to China” moment. The new Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, agreed, stating that migration should be reduced to “sustainable levels”. She was seconded by Boris Johnson, who said his colleague was “entirely right to be careful about committing to numbers” because the government did “not want to be in a position where we are disappointing people again”.

Yet rather than retreating, the Prime Minister has doubled down. “In her view, a sustainable level does mean tens of thousands,” a spokeswoman told me.

For May, the EU referendum result necessitates greater control of immigration. There is no democratic justification, she believes, for maintaining free movement in its present form.

The Leave campaign won with the promise of an “Australian-style points system” – an idea that proved popular in focus groups. But during her first G20 summit, in China, May rejected this approach. “A points-based system will not work and is not an option,” a spokesman said.

May’s decision was less surprising than some suggested. Points-based systems, which use criteria such as skills and qualifications, are complex to design and do not invariably lead to reduced immigration. Australia’s “fortress” reputation largely derives from its unflinching asylum policy. On top of that, 13 per cent of those who arrived under the points system in 2013 were unemployed. “People come in automatically if they just meet the criteria,” the Prime Minister said. For all its stringent rhetoric, the Leave campaign never set a formal migration target.

Rather than a points-based system, May’s allies suggest that she will seek to limit the free movement of non-workers. This could mean a ban on EU migrants entering the UK without a job offer. She argued for this while still home ­secretary. “When it was first enshrined, free movement meant the freedom to move to a job, not the freedom to cross borders to look for work or claim benefits,” she wrote in the Sunday Times in August 2015. “Yet last year, four out of ten EU migrants – 63,000 people – came here with no definite job offer whatsoever.”

This stance has been met with approval from both Leavers and Remainers. In his first despatch box appearance as Brexit secretary, David Davis declared that the PM believes in a “results-based system”.

Mark Field, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, who backed Remain, told me: “The single most important element for those who voted Leave was to be able to take a level of control back of our borders . . . If we are to have any access to the single market or the retaining of some passporting rights [for financial services], which the City feels is very important, that has to be combined with some restrictions on free movement.”

Some Tory ministers believe that the populist insurgency across Europe will ease the path to a favourable Brexit deal for the UK. In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland party finished ahead of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in regional elections in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on 4 September. In France, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen remains likely to make the final round of next year’s presidential election. Other Tories, however, suggest that these disruptive forces will only encourage the EU to drive a hard bargain. The lesson of Cameron’s renegotiation, they argue, is that the EU will always put its interests first.

But an agreement that ends free movement (while preserving single market access) would not ensure the net migration target is met. At present, non-EU immigration (282,000) exceeds that from the EU (268,000) – as it has done for decades.

For some, this is proof that the target should be scrapped. It is the quality, not the quantity, of migration that counts. “The notion of everything being driven by day-to-day figures, that’s the concern,” Field told me. “We need to get a deal that’s sustainable for decades, rather than one that is driven by a quarterly analysis.” The liberal conservative group Bright Blue has similarly called for the abolition of the target, denouncing it as “arbitrary and indiscriminate”.

But May regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow.

If May translates her rhetoric into action, both the UK’s economy and its labour force will become less globalised. By 2020, when she has pledged to hold the next ­general election, the government is likely to have failed to meet its migration target for a full decade. The question for Theresa May is what success would look like – and how to get there.


View from Harlow: Stephen Bush.

The NS‘s special correspondent, Stephen Bush, reports from the Essex town where residents are still in shock following the murder of a Polish man on its streets on 29 August. The town’s MP and Remain campaigner, Robert Halfon, tells Bush that he feels “the Brexit thing allowed a small of horrific people to come out of the sewers and exploit division and hatred”:

If you want to understand Harlow in Essex, go to Our Lady of Fatima Church on Howard Way. A magnificent example of the mid-century style beloved of the post-Second World War planners who built the town, it has been energised by the influx of Polish immigrants who have arrived in Essex since their country joined the European Union in 2004. The pews are full every week, and both of the priests here – Father Bogdan and Father Leszek – are also Poles.

But as I make my way to the church, a passing driver winds down his window ts “Oi! Paki!” at me. He is neither the first nor the last to do so. Outside the church, a group of men point and stare as I make my way past.

Our Lady of Fatima is the dominant architectural feature of the Stow, the Harlow community that was convulsed by the death of Arkadiusz Józwik on 29 August. The 40-year-old factory worker – “Arek” to his friends – had been knocked to the ground outside a takeaway two days earlier. He had lived in England for the past four years and, according to his brother Radek, had been eating a pizza when he was set upon because he was heard to speak in Polish.

A murder investigation has been launched and six teenagers were arrested in connection with the attack. Prosecutors in Poland are pursuing their own inquiries. They have suggested that, under Polish law, the attackers could stand trial in Józwik’s home country.

For some, the unprovoked attack in a public place was reminiscent of the  James Bulger, the toddler who was abducted, tortured and killed by two ten-year-olds on Merseyside in 1993. To many, Bulger’s murder became political – an emblem of 14 years of Conservative neglect of public services. Similarly, in 2016, Józwik’s death felt like the most violent manifestation of the emotions stirred up by Britain’s vote to leave the EU.

Although the crime rate in Harlow is below the UK average, a Freedom of on request by the Independent found that, in the weeks after 23 June, reported hate crimes surged, particularly in areas that had voted to leave. The increase in Kent was 143 per cent compared with the same period in 2015, 191 per cent in Lincolnshire and 121 per cent in Derbyshire.

Harlow voted for Brexit by a 36-point margin. Eric Hind, a Polish-born IT manager who has lived and worked in the town for 14 years, told the Guardian that “Brexit kind of gave the British people a kind of green light to be racist”. Hind helped to organise a silent march through the town in remembrance of Józwik.

“I genuinely believe,” Robert Halfon, the town’s MP, tells me, “that the vast majority of people voted [Leave] because they just believed we were better off out. They didn’t like the bureaucracy of the European Union.

“The only thing I would say,” he adds, “is that the Brexit thing allowed a small of horrific people to come out of the sewers and exploit division and hatred.”

Something has been stirred up in the town. In the Stow itself, where I attempt to talk to residents, an elderly woman sticks her head out of the window of her house to tell me “I’ve got my eye on you”, and threatens to call the police unless I move on sharpish.

“My family and friends have all been abused,” Hind told reporters. “It happens  basis.” In one tower block, as I talk to a man who works at Stansted Airport, I hear a voice shouting about “the Pakis”.

” Halfon says, “[with] a Polish person being told to get off the bus, told to go back home, a mother frightened to speak Polish to her a child in public. And it’s like a conveyor belt to violence.”

Halfon describes Józwik’s death as a “black cloud” over the town. Emotions are raw and people are nervous


Yuval Harari on Silicon Salvations.

Yuval Harari, author of the newly-published “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow”, explains that God is making a comeback almost a century after Nietzsche pronounced Him dead. But the new prophets are to be found not in the Arabian Desert or the Jordan Valley, but in Silicon Valley:

Nowadays, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not Syria or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That is where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us amazing new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology. They promise all the old prizes – happiness, peace, justice and eternal life in paradise – but here on Earth with the help of technology, rather than ­after death and with the help of supernatural beings. (Of course, this does not mean that these techno-religions will fulfil all their extravagant promises. Religions spread themselves more by making promises than by keeping them.)

Godless religions are nothing new. Thousands of years ago Buddhism put its trust in the natural laws of karma and paiccasamuppāda (dependent origination) rather than almighty deities. In recent centuries creeds such as communism and Nazism have also upheld a system of norms and values based on allegedly natural laws rather than on the commandments of some supernatural being. These modern creeds prefer to call themselves “ideologies” rather than “religions” but, seen from a long-term perspective, they play a role analogous to that of traditional faiths such as Christianity and Hinduism. Both Christianity and communism were created by human beings rather than by gods, and are defined by their social functions rather than by the existence of deities. In essence, religion is anything that legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect some superhuman order.

The assertion that religion is a tool for organising human societies may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, religion and spirituality are very different things. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. Religion gives a complete description of the world and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. “God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you will burn in hell.” The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

[ . . . ]

Because they are human creations that seek to cater to human fears and hopes, religions always dance a delicate tango with the technology of the day. Religion and technology push one another, depend on one another, and cannot stray too far from one another. Technology depends on religion because every invention has many potential applications, and the engineers need some priest or prophet to make the crucial choices and point towards the required destination. Thus, in the 19th century, engineers invented locomotives, radios and the internal combustion engine. But as the 20th century proved, you can use these same tools to create fascist societies, communist dictatorships or liberal democracies. Without religious or ideological convictions, the locomotives cannot decide which way to go.

On the other hand, technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious vision, like a waiter who demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. For instance, in ancient agricultural societies many religions had surprisingly little interest in metaphysical questions and the afterlife. Instead, they focused on the very mundane task of increasing agricultural output. The Old Testament God never promises any rewards or punishments after death. Rather, he tells the people of Israel:

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“And if you will diligently obey my commandments that I am commanding you [. . .] I will also give rain for your land at its appointed time [. . .] and you will gather your grain and your new wine and your oil. And I will provide vegetation in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful not to let your heart be enticed to go astray and worship other gods and bow down to them. Otherwise, Jehovah’s anger will blaze against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will not give its produce and you will quickly perish from the good land that Jehovah is giving you.”
Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. Thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and genetically modified crops, agricultural production nowadays outstrips the highest expectations the ancient farmers had of their gods. And the parched state of Israel no longer fears that some angry deity will restrain the heavens and stop all rain – the Israelis have recently built a huge desalination plant on the shores of the Mediterranean, so they can now get all of their drinking water from the sea. Consequently, present-day Judaism has almost lost interest in rain and agricultural output and has become a very different religion from its biblical progenitor.

The faithful may believe that their religion is eternal and unchanging, but in truth even when they keep their names intact, religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have no fixed essence. They have survived for centuries and millennia not by clinging to some eternal values, but by repeatedly pouring heady new wine into very old skins. For all the heated debate about the supposed nature of Islam – whether it is in essence a religion of peace or a religion of war – the truth is that it is neither. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it, and over the centuries they have made of it remarkably different things.

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That is why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands and peasants fantasised about different paradises, and why the revolutionary technologies of the 21st century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds. Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that “Islam is the answer”, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms people in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a vast new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn 80 into the new 50? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor and between the remaining productive class and the new useless class?

[ . . . ]

In the past, Christianity and Islam were a creative force. For instance, in medieval Europe the Catholic Church was responsible for numerous social and ethical reforms as well as important economic and technological innovations. The Church founded many of the first European universities; its monasteries experimented with novel economic methods; it led the way in techniques of data-processing (by creating archives and catalogues, for instance). Any king or prince who wanted an efficient administration turned to priests and monks to provide him with data-processing skills. The Vatican was the closest thing 12th-century Europe had to Silicon Valley.

Yet in the late-modern era Christianity and Islam have turned into largely reactive forces. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the internet – and rabbis argue about whether Orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call on women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.

Ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the 20th century?” This is difficult to answer, because it is hard to choose from among a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of religions such as Islam and Christianity in the 20th century?” This, too, is difficult, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and mullahs discover in the 20th century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, whence do you think the big changes of the 21st century will emerge: from Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, Isis knows how to upload video clips to YouTube. Wow. But, leaving aside the industry of torture, what new inventions have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?

This does not mean that religion is a spent force. Just as socialism took over the world by promising salvation through steam, so in the coming decades new techno-religions are likely to take over the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes. In the 21st century we will create more powerful myths and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds and to create entire virtual worlds, complete with hells and heavens.


World Citizen: Shiraz Maher on Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.

The radicalisation expert Shiraz Maher argues that Islamic State remains as strong as ever despite the killing of its most important leader in a US drone strike:

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, one of Islamic State’s most influential leaders, was assassinated on 30 August in a US drone strike in al-Bab, a small city north-east of Aleppo. His death comes at a difficult time for IS, which has recently lost several senior leaders, as well as territory in northern Syria.

In many respects, Adnani, the highest-ranking Syrian in the militant group, was the most important person in IS. His profile eclipsed even that of its reclusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Adnani made most of the group’s speeches, and it was his decision to discourage potential foreign fighters from moving to IS-controlled areas last Ramadan. He told Muslims in the West to “open the door of jihad” at home and “make examples of the crusaders . . . until every neighbour fears his neighbour”.

Police interrogation documents of arrested IS fighters in France and Germany show that Adnani was more than just the face of Islamic State’s propaganda arm. He led an internal intelligence unit known as Amni (“security”), which has two roles: to enforce internal discipline and to oversee external operations. Adnani was therefore involved in planning and giving the orders for some of IS’s worst terrorist atrocities in Europe, such as the Paris attacks in November 2015.

He had a solid jihadist pedigree. He started agitating against the Assad regime as early as 2000, then joined al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to fight Western troops in 2003. This established his warrior credentials and is the part of his story that his colleagues have stressed since his death.

“Allah honoured him with many years of jihad and [we] all know the times he and his brothers had to experience in the desert,” read an online tribute, referring to the long years that AQI spent fighting against US military forces.

The themes of warrior sacrifice and patience are pervasive in jihadist literature. Because many of its leaders lack formal religious training, the Salafi-jihadist movement places strong emphasis on praxis as a marker of religious authority, rather than scholarship, learning, or spiritual devotion. This approach empowers fighters in the field and gives them legitimacy.

Analysts have long debated the efficacy of killing terrorist leaders. Conventional wisdom suggests that ideas cannot be bombed out of existence, and the struggle against radical Islam is perhaps the best current example of this. In some instances, however, the strategy has proved highly effective.

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US pursued an aggressive policy against al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Many of its most powerful figures were slowly identified and then targeted in drone strikes, a process that destroyed the movement’s leadership (and killed countless civilians, too).

The killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was an important moment in the US “war on terror”. Yet what most undermined al-Qaeda was not Bin Laden’s death but that of his charismatic Yemeni-American counterpart Anwar al-Awlaki a few months later. Awlaki was linked to more than 30 terrorist plots between 2007 and 2011. Among his disciples were the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day in 2009, and Rosh­onara Choudhry, who stabbed the Labour MP Stephen Timms at a constituency surgery in 2010 as “punishment” for his having voted in favour of the Iraq War.

The benefits of killing Bin Laden and Awlaki are clear. Al-Qaeda has never recovered from losing two highly influential and experienced leaders in quick succession. Although control of the movement ostensibly passed smoothly to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group has not restored its operational capacity. Even its official chapter in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, announced that it was formally severing ties with al-Qaeda in July (rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, meaning “the Conquest of Syria Front”).

Yet IS can weather this kind of assault ­better than al-Qaeda. Despite an onslaught on its leadership over the past 18 months, it has endured. Its ability to hold territory and invoke powerful historical resonances related to the caliphate give it a resilience that al-Qaeda never achieved.

And although IS has lost ground in some areas, it has gained others. Its fighters will continue to govern, establish redoubts and generate income. Islamic history provides an important precedent for the maintenance of the caliphate, even in the absence of the supreme leader – the caliph. When the Mongols ransacked Baghdad in 1258, they killed the last of the Abbasid caliphs, al-Musta’sim Billah. However, the military campaign against them persisted, as did the institution of the caliphate, until a new leader was appointed three years later.

It is too soon to know how the death of Adnani will impact Islamic State. No immediate successor has been announced and the group has previously operated without an official spokesman (from 2006 to 2010, when it used different names: al-Qaeda in Iraq, then Islamic State of Iraq).

For IS members, Adnani’s death has come as a source of joy. Not only has he been “martyred”, but new opportunities have arisen for those left behind. An online eulogy celebrating his passing asked: “Who knew Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani?” – referring to their relative obscurity in the years when Osama Bin Laden led the global jihadist movement. “They were around, unknown, but waiting for their turn.”


Letter from Oslo: The ghosts of Anders Breivik.

Anders Fjellberg, a reporter for the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, explains how a project to commemorate the victims of Anders Breivik’s island massacre has divided the country:

Norway coped well as a society with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, including Breivik’s two-month trial in 2012.

(The far-right fanatic, who remains unrepentant, was sentenced to 21 years in jail, the maximum in Norway.) But, for many of the heroes of Utøya, attempts to move on ended in February 2014 when the winning sketches for the planned national memorial sites were revealed.

Conceived by the Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg, Memory Wound was simple, beautiful and to the point. On the mainland, in direct view of Utøya, Dahlberg proposed to make a cut, 11.5 feet wide, through a small promontory named Sørbråten. The rock removed would be used in building a second memorial in central Oslo where Breivik had detonated the car bomb.

Public Art Norway, the government agency that commissioned the memorials, mory Wound would “re-create the physical sensation of loss, and by that reflect on the wounds of the victims, their relatives and the whole nation”.

Art critics and commentators in the media praised the design. However, [Jørn] øverby [one of the 21 local people who received a medal for saving children from the attack on the island of Utøya] and many of his neighbours, who were not consulted about the project, were outraged. They threatened to sue the government if it did not scrap its plans for the memorial, which members of a closed protest group on Facebook argued would “retraumatise innocent witnesses to the tragedy”.

“We haven’t been able to get peace,” øverby told me recently, as we walked the 350 metres from his house to the promontory where the cut in the landscape is planned. It is five years since the attacks and two since Memory Wound was commissioned. Sticks with orange spray paint mark the planned pathway and excavation site.

Following the protests by the local community in 2014, the project was postponed for a year. Relatives of some of the victims have also opposed the idea of having the names of the dead carved into the monument. In 2015, a study commissioned by the government into the possible effects of the memorial concluded that the process to date had contributed to “very negative psychosocial consequences . . . especially among some of the volunteers who took part in the rescue operation”.

Then, in March this year, the minister of local government and modernisation,  Sanner, announced that the project would proceed as planned, with a completion date of July 2017. “Further discussions regarding the chosen spot and the memorial will be an additional load on the affected. We need national memorial sites, in consideration of the relatives, victims, rescuers, neighbours and others affected,” he said.

øverby became angry when I mentioned this attempt to end the debate. “None  trained to see the stuff we saw that day. We took responsibility and did what we had to do, because there was no one else to do it. But being honoured with a gold medal doesn’t wipe the memories away.”

Maria Holtane-Berge, the leader of the residents’ association at Utstranda, lly strongly about the monument. She lives with her husband and two young daughters in a house overlooking the proposed memorial site at Sørbråten, as well as Utøya island. Up to 95 per cent of the local residents oppose the monument, because it would serve as a daily reminder of the trauma that they suffered, Holtane-Berge told me.

On the day of the massacre, she administered first aid to survivors as they were brought to the mainland. The last one she helped was a boy who had been shot three times and owed his life to the way that some of his friends fell on top of him when they were hit. He wouldn’t let go of Holtane-Berge, so she travelled with him in the ambulance and stayed the night, watching over him at the hospital. “He’s become a friend for life, and is often here to visit,” she said.

In June, Holtane-Berge, øverby and 20 co-plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in an effort to stop the Memory Wound memorial being built. The heroes of Utøya, who are crowdfunding their legal battle, insist that they will not give in; they say they are prepared to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.


Peter Wilby on the troubles of Keith Vaz.

Peter Wilby argues that although the outgoing chair of the home affairs select committee is no hypocrite, he is undoubtedly guilty of misleading those who elected him:

The case of the Labour MP Keith Vaz, who resigned this week as chair of the Commons home affairs select committee, raises issues different from those of the usual political sex scandal. Vaz, accused by the Sunday Mirror of paying rent boys for sex, was not obviously guilty of hypocrisy. He does not issue finger-wagging homilies against sex and drugs. On the contrary, he and the home affairs select committee he chaired supported the decriminalisation of the sex industry. Vaz also opposed a government proposal to ban “poppers”, a “party drug” that he invited the rent boys to bring to what newspapers call their “tryst”.

Some critics argue that he should have declared an interest. Should the chair of the transport committee therefore declare that he drives a car or the chair of the culture committee that he goes to the opera?

The Sunday Mirror, however, has no need for such box-ticking pedantry to companies to defend its invasion of Vaz’s privacy. MPs – unlike, say, the bosses of private – are not chosen for their technical or managerial expertise but for more intangible reasons to do with the kind of people they are. They share chosen details of their private lives, hoping to convince voters that they are much like them and therefore capable of representing their interests. It is hard to imagine any candidate confiding that “of an evening, I like to party with rent boys”. Voters may be happy for their MP to enjoy such pleasures, but they are entitled to sufficient information to make up their own minds.


Kevin Maguire’s Commons Confidential.

The NS‘s chief snout in Westminster, Kevin Maguire, hears that the “Thin Controller” may be about to return from Camp Corbyn to the Guardian fold:

Labour’s spin doctor Seumas Milne’s 12-month “unpaid leave” expires in October and speculation grows that he wishes to return to scribbling at the Guardian. The gossip on the second floor of Norman Shaw South is that he could be succeeded by Paul Mason, formerly of Channel 4 News and BBC2’s Newsnight, and an ex-music teacher. Mason’s recent theory that MPs rebelled against Corbyn because they feared he would win, rather than lose, a general election would at least strike an optimistic note.


Newsmaker: Charles Bremner on the French presidential contender Emmanuel Macron, the Gallic answer to Tony Blair.

Trends: Amelia Tait on the unstoppable spread of fake political news on Facebook.

Laurie Penny says that for millions of people work is an insult to body and soul.

Frances Wilson reads Monstrous Progeny by Lester D Friedman and Allison B Kavey, an  examination of the long afterlife of Frankenstein.

Roger Mosey considers Mark Thompson’s study of the debasement of political language, Enough Said.

Erica Wagner on a new biography of the much-loved novelist Beryl Bainbridge.

Tim Wigmore ponders the rich game revealed in The Meaning of Cricket by Jon Hotten.

Paul Binding reviews a novel of farming history, Addlands by Tom Bullough.

Kate Maltby remembers the radical theatre director Buzz Goodbody.

Radio: Antonia Quirke goes underground with the World Service’s subterranean explorers.

Film: Ryan Gilbey considers the enigma of Viggo Mortensen.

Television: Rachel Cooke reviews the Cold Feet reboot, and the acidic new sitcom Motherland.

Music: Kate Mossman steps into Björk’s virtual world at Somerset House in London.


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