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Inside this week’s New Statesman | After God

A first look at this week's magazine. 

4 JULY 2014

 

AFTER GOD

ROWAN WILLIAMS, LUCY WINKETT AND MELVYN BRAGG ON HOW TO FILL THE FAITH-SHAPED HOLE IN MODERN LIFE

 

THE END OF EMERGING MARKETS

IAN BREMMER: INDIA AND CHINA ROSE TOGETHER, BUT THAT ERA IS OVER

 

Plus

 

LEADING ARTICLE: LABOUR SHOULD BECOME THE PARTY OF TAX CUTS AND BOLD TAX REFORM

THE POLITICS COLUMN: GEORGE EATON ON ED MILIBAND’S INTERNAL STRUGGLE

MEHDI HASAN: ISIS IS DELUDED TO CLAIM A NEW MUSLIM CALIPHATE

BEL TREW REPORTS FROM BENGHAZI, WHERE VIOLENCE HAS MARRED ELECTIONS FOR THE NEW PARLIAMENT

EDWARD PLATT IN ISRAEL: WHY HEBRON IS SYMBOLIC OF THE FAILURE TO MAKE A LASTING PEACE

THE SURREAL MADE SWEET: MARK LAWSON ON THE RETURN OF MONTY PYTHON

ANTHONY LOYD: HOW AN AL-QAEDA TERRORIST ENDED UP WORKING FOR MI5 AND THE CIA

TWO GREAT WRITERS OF ONE MIND: JONATHAN BATE ON MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE AND WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

 

 

IAN BREMMER: FROM EMERGING MARKETS TO DIVERGING MARKETS

 

The geopolitics expert Ian Bremmer argues in the NS Essay that we can no longer think of countries such as China, Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico and Turkey as a single group, because of the huge divergence in their interests, priorities and pace of development. The catch-all term “emerging markets” has become profoundly misleading, he argues:

 

As Leo Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That’s a good rule of thumb for the shift in emerging markets’ fortunes between the 2000s and today. China will soon boast the world’s largest economy. When it does, it will still be poor, and thus potentially unstable. It will be far from ready to take on global responsibilities appropriate to a country of its size and influence. Beyond China, virtually all these countries rose on a fortuitous tide of historically unusual circumstances. Now they are going their separate ways – and just at the moment when they have begun to matter.

 

 

LEADING ARTICLE: LABOUR SHOULD BECOME THE PARTY OF TAX CUTS AND BOLD TAX REFORM

 

In this week’s leader, we argue that Labour should become the party of tax cuts and bold tax reform. We suggest that “if the Labour Party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, and if it wanted to win a popular mandate rather than merely limp over the line” in 2015, it would be taking steps now to overhaul Britain’s unfair and inefficient tax system, which places a disproportionate burden on lower earners.

 

. . . we would support the merging of [National Insurance] and income tax in the interests of greater transparency but also because we believe low- and middle-income earners in Britain already pay too much tax, especially when fuel duty, VAT, council tax and stagnant real wages are taken into account. Ed Miliband complains about a “cost-of-living crisis”. Perhaps, in response, he should consider cutting the average earner’s tax burden.

 

If the Labour Party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, and if it wanted to win a popular mandate rather than merely limp over the line in coalition with whatever might be left of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster after the general election in 2015, it would be setting out proposals to overhaul our tax system.

 

Indeed, it would aspire to become a party of tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners and seek to switch some of the burden of taxation from income and consumption to static assets such as property and land, as well as environmental bads. It would reform inheritance tax so that the rich become less able to avoid it. It would introduce land value taxes, at least for business and agricultural land but also potentially for property. The rebanding of council tax, which is based on valuations more than 20 years old, would also be an essential part of any wide-ranging programme of reform.

 

*Read the leader in full below*

 

 

THE POLITICS COLUMN: RED ED v MODERATE MILIBAND

 

In the Politics Column this week, the NS political editor, George Eaton, argues that Labour’s internal ructions and the confusion among voters about what the party stands for are symptomatic of a struggle within Ed Miliband himself:

 

If the public is unsure what Miliband stands for, it is partly because he has often appeared unsure himself. There is Ed the insurgent, who is “bringing back socialism” and talks of sweeping away three decades of neoliberalism through a Thatcherite revolution in reverse. Then there is Ed the incrementalist, who learned his politics at the feet of Gordon Brown and who talks gently of building a “fairer capitalism” and reveres consensual “one-nation politics”.

 

*Read the Politics Column in full below*

 

 

MEHDI HASAN: THERE IS NOTHING ISLAMIC ABOUT THE ISIS “CALIPHATE”

 

Mehdi Hasan is bemused by the recent claim of the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that he is the caliph and “leader for Muslims everywhere”. There is nothing Islamic about a state, Hasan argues in Lines of Dissent, and Islam does not require an Islamic state. To him, “the hand-choppers and throat-slitters of Isis, Boko Haram, al-Shabab and the rest have no political programme, no blueprint for government”. Hasan sees only “a hate-filled ideology, built on a cult of victimhood and sustained by horrific violence”:

 

Let me make a prediction. The so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria will be totalitarian, won’t be Islamic and, in the words of the former US state department spokesman Philip Crowley, “has as much chance of survival as an ice cream cone in the desert”. By declaring statehood, Isis may have sown the seeds of its own destruction.

 

 

COVER STORY: AFTER GOD

 

For this week’s cover story, Rowan Williams and Lucy Winkett consider the importance of ritual in religion, while the non-believers Melvyn Bragg, Julian Baggini and Robin Ince suggest ways of filling the God-shaped hole in modern life.

 

Williams describes the ritual of prayer that marks the start of his day and how this enforces the same stillness and physical focus required in Buddhist meditation:

 

. . . the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.

 

Lucy Winkett, the rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, argues that ritual will always be a fundamental part of the human experience:

 

In theological terms, rituals are performed at the crossroads where time meets eternity; where chronos meets kairos. We live our lives earthbound and rushing: metaphorically looking at the second hand on a clock. It’s accurate, but not a good way of telling the time. Rituals are performed, as it were, by the hour hand; imperceptible movement, no less true but a lot less anxious. Rituals help us do nothing less than live a different kind of time.

 

Melvyn Bragg finds that though his “early faith has ebbed away”, something remains: “the mysteries, visited on a young mind with force, which now appear like falsities, seem to have struck a chord too deep to be forgotten”. For Bragg, the rituals of walking fill the gap left by religion:

 

The rituals . . . are few but often seem essential. The garb, the route, the recognition of old favourites – trees, prospects, rivers. Once you are in the rhythm of those rituals what happens, to me at any rate, is that a non-self takes over. A non-drug-induced drift.

 

The blogger Vicky Beeching finds the same sense of calm after losing her treasured iPhone on the tracks of the London underground: “Smartphone-free, I noticed throughout the afternoon and evening that I’d regained the natural pauses that happen between events.”

 

The philosopher Julian Baggini argues that it is a mistake to “replace religious rituals with secular ones”. He sets out instead to find ways to “cultivate the virtues that ritual promotes”. And for the comedian Robin Ince the solitary delight of browsing in second-hand bookshops has become a ritual of quasi-spiritual importance:

 

Once the books are bought, I retreat to a tea shop, preferably one with an elaborate Victoria sponge in the window, and pore over the new purchases. Inside each book is the hope of a new way of seeing the world; each one is a potential adventure.

 

 

EDWARD PLATT: DEATH COMES TO HEBRON

 

Edward Platt, author of The City of Abraham: History, Myth and Memory, explains why Hebron, “a city that ought to illuminate the ideal of fraternal co-operation”, has come to symbolise the region’s repeated failed attempts to make a lasting peace:

 

It was no surprise that the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers who went missing in the West Bank on 12 June should have been found near the town of Halhul. Nowhere in the West Bank is beyond the reach of the Israeli army, but it does not permanently control Halhul, which lies at the northern entrance to the city of Hebron.

 

[. . . ]

 

Hebron, which lies 25 miles south of Jerusalem, is the only place in the West Bank where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side . . . it is the birthplace of the Jewish people, and the geographical, mythical and emotional heart of the world’s most intractable conflict.

 

 

CRITICS INTERVIEW: THE MANIC STREET PREACHERS

 

Dorian Lynskey meets the Manic Street Preachers who, now all aged 45, are enjoying an “Indian summer of creativity” with two albums in quick succession. The once politically engaged band members, who grew up in Blackwood, a town in the South Wales Valleys ravaged by the 1984 miners’ strike, tell Lynskey why they now feel disenchanted with politics and the Labour Party:

 

They were raised as “classic Labour”; the title of the 1998 album This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours came from Nye Bevan. They turned down a role in the Olympics closing ceremony because they couldn’t bring themselves to perform in front of the royal family. Their estrangement from Labour has come as a shock. “I’ll always hate Ukip,” spits Bradfield. “I’ll always hate the Tory party. The only problem now is that I hate Labour, too. The sea’s washed over the sand. There’s not one thing you can hang your hat on any more.”

 

“I actually feel bad about myself because I am disenchanted with politics,” Wire says. “I hate the idea that there’s no one left to vote for. I don’t feel anyone represents me. They certainly don’t represent the people I care about. When the left abdicates its duty to the people it should be representing, that vacuum is always filled by the right. I think the Labour Party is so distanced from its core vote. It’s just become a giant think tank. You can’t get any sicker ironies than Tony Blair being a peace envoy and the banks being nationalised – too sick to bear.” He continues, “It’s not how I want to feel. I’m not Russell Brand. I don’t feel a part of any of it, really – unless I actually stood myself.
If there was a presidential system in Wales, I’d probably stand.” The campaign would be quite something.

 

 

MARK LAWSON ON THE RETURN OF MONTY PYTHON

 

The NS critic at large, Mark Lawson, hot-foots it to the O2 Arena in London to see the first of ten performances by Monty Python (“as long as their various post-surgical scars can withstand the effort”). Lawson finds that “the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird” and that sketches which were once surreal and anti-establishment have become merely sweet and touching:

 

The most graphic illustration of this process is that their “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” gag is so well loved that this Inquisition was not only expected but demanded by the audience, which, recognising the couple of lines of dialogue before the pope’s interrogators burst into a suburban living room, roared its relief in the manner of rock audiences hearing familiar opening notes.

 

 

Plus

 

Peter Wilby on Operation Yewtree, Jean-Claude Juncker and the joy of Essex

Ed Smith: Why great players do not always make great pundits

Michael Prodger on the Tour de France and how Yorkshire won the yellow jersey

Tracey Thorn finds that her backyard falls short of TV gardening porn

Will Self, urban promenader, tries to make sense of Dublin with a literary map

Anoosh Chakelian meets the creators of Morph, the little clay man returning to your small screen

From elegant Tempranillos to her beloved sherry, Nina Caplan enjoys the infinite variety of Spanish wines

Photo: Getty
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Arsène Wenger: The Innovator in Old Age

As the Arsenal manager announces his departure from the club after more than two decades, the New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, appreciates English football’s first true cosmpolitan. 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans lose interest or grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal also did when they moved from south of the Thames to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman and ardent fan named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular, sometimes brutalist, long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success, Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who was born in October 1949, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the British and Irish players he inherited (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences during which he often revealed his sly sense of humour.

He joined from the Japanese J League side, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he did swiftly, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of heavy drinking at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five, as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten, the season of the so-called Invincibles.

The second decade of Wenger’s long tenure at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, was much more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became routine, replicated even, in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a 2016 interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He yearns for his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods as the Premier League became the richest and most watched in the world: one of the purest expressions of let it rip, winner-takes-all free-market globalisation, a symbol of deracinated cosmopolitanism, the global game’s truly global league. 

(2017)

Postscript

Arsène Wenger has announced he is stepping down, less than a year after signing a new two-year contract in the summer of 2017. A run to the Europa League finals turned out not to be enough to put off the announcement to the end of the season.

Late-period Wenger was defined by struggle and unrest. And the mood at the Emirates stadium on match day was often sour: fans in open revolt against Wenger, against the club’s absentee American owner Stan Kroenke, against the chief executive Ivan Gazidis, and sometimes even against one another, with clashes between pro and anti-Wenger factions. As Arsenal’s form became ever more erratic, Wenger spoke often of how much he suffered. “There is no possibility not to suffer,” he said in March 2018. “You have to suffer.”

Arsenal once had special values, we were told, and decision-making was informed by the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But the club seems to have lost any coherent sense of purpose or strategic long-term plan, beyond striving to enhance the profitability of the “franchise”.

The younger Wenger excelled at discovering and nurturing outstanding young players, especially in his early seasons in north London. But that was a long time ago. Under his leadership, Arsenal became predictable in their vulnerability and inflexibility, doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes, especially defensive mistakes. They invariably faltered when confronted by the strongest opponents, the Manchester clubs, say, or one of the European super-clubs such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

Wenger’s late struggles were a symbol of all that had gone wrong at the club. The vitriol and abuse directed at this proud man was, however, often painful to behold.

How had it come to this? There seems to be something rotten in the culture of Arsenal football club. And Wenger suffered from wilful blindness. He could not see, or stubbornly refused to see, what others could: that he had become a man out of a time who had been surpassed by a new generation of innovators such as Pep Guardiola and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino. “In Arsene we trust”? Not anymore. He had stayed too long. Sometimes the thing you love most ends up killing you.

 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.