Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case further highlights the Tories’ Brexit problem

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are the only two ministers who are genuinely unsackable.

With friends like these, who needs the Revolutionary Guard? Michael Gove appeared on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday to defend his beleaguered colleague Boris Johnson's handling of the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – but instead may have deepened her plight by responding "I don't know" when asked what she was doing in Iran. (She was on holiday.) "Gove creates new doubts over mother jailed in Iran" is the Times' splash.

It adds to Zaghari-Ratcliffe's difficulties because Tehran's modus operandi is to use imprisoned foreign nationals as negotiating chips. Increasing the ambiguity over what she was doing in Iran in the first place both allows the Iranian government to increase the charge sheet against her and also makes it more politically important for the British government to get her home. It means that the political price the UK will have to pay will be higher and therefore increases the chances that she will end up spending years in an Iranian prison.

The political pressure on Johnson has been eased slightly as Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has said that he doesn't want the Foreign Secretary sacked but simply wants him to get his wife home. (Johnson finally spoke with Ratcliffe last night.)

The plain truth is that while Theresa May is more politically powerful than she appears, Johnson and Gove are the only two ministers who are genuinely unsackable, because of their totemic status as guarantors of Brexit. The risk to the PM is that she ends up looking even weaker and even more rudderless than she does at present as a result of it all.

The Gove gaffe is more understandable ("I don't know" is an understandable response to "What was she doing in Iran?") and he tried, albeit ham-fistedly, to walk back the answer he gave. Whereas Johnson's was simply the most public example of a Foreign Office gripe: that he is rarely on top of his brief and frequently says the wrong thing at the wrong time. 

The most important story of course is the fate of Zaghari-Ratcliffe herself. But the striking sub-plot is this: why on earth was Gove defending Johnson in the first place, who a little over a year ago he feared was unsuitable for high office? And the answer of course is that for most of the Conservative Party, the Remain/Leave question has overruled considerations like "Is the Foreign Secretary good at his job?" "Does the Chancellor have any political instincts?" and "What's best for the economy?"

And that, as much as anything else, is why Westminster is increasingly of the opinion that the next election is Labour's to lose.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

PHOTO: GETTY
Show Hide image

Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist