In this week’s New Statesman | Assad vs Isis

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Assad vs Isis
13-19 February 2015 issue 

 

Cover Story: "Assad v Isis"
Jeremy Bowen's interview with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad

 

Plus

The NS Essay: John Gray argues that Ed Miliband is misreading the current political climate.

Mehdi Hasan considers the five questions that obsess Miliband's disillusioned supporters.

The Politics Column: George Eaton writes that it is Labour, not the Tories, that has a "long-term plan" for the economy.

Helen Lewis: What a Leonardo painting and loo paper can teach us about modern politics.

The NS Leader: the stench of corruption at HSBC.

 

The NS Essay: Misunderstanding the present

John Gray writes that, for all their lapses, the Labour leaders of the past had a firmer grasp of reality than Ed Miliband, who wants to govern a country that doesn't exist. He writes that Miliband's reading of the current political moment is delusional:

If anything defines Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party, it is the belief that British politics has reached an inflexion point like the one that enabled Margaret Thatcher to come to power. He has often expressed admiration for Thatcher's determination to effect radical change and, while having quite different goals, seems to see himself as a conviction politician in a similar mould. At the same time, he is said to believe that Labour can return to government by marshalling its core support. But it is hard to accept that the Labour leader - a formidably clever individual with a highly developed sense of having a distinctive political destiny - has really subscribed to this strategy.

Gray writes that Miliband's belief that "you've got to change the way the economy works" because "people think there's something unfair and unjust about our society" is misplaced:

The belief that large numbers of voters are yearning for a major alteration in Britain's political economy - a rejigged version of socialism, or some hypothetical variety of "non-predatory" capitalism - is a delusion that could be fatal for Labour as a party of government. Miliband is misreading British society in ways not altogether dissimilar to those that hobbled Labour in the 1980s and allowed the Conservatives to rule for nearly two decades.

Gray also argues that Miliband embodies a particularly out-of-touch mode of political thinking:

For many today, the sniffy view of Britain emanating from the bourgeois enclave of Hampstead, north London, looks decidedly patronising. It's not that Miliband despises the world that the majority of people inhabit. He just can't enter into it. This isn't only his problem, of course.

He concludes that Thatcher's rise "should serve as a warning to Miliband, not an inspiration":

When Miliband compares himself with Thatcher, he reveals an impressive degree of self-belief. He also shows a lack of understanding of British politics over the past thirty years. There may be a regime shift afoot in Britain but, if so, it is a second act in the one that began in 1979. Now, as then, it is Labour's failure that is pivotal. A few years hence, as he contemplates the British scene from the distant sanctuary of Harvard or Yale, Ed Miliband may come to understand how he opened the way to another era of Conservative rule.

 

Mehdi Hassan: Five questions that trouble Ed Miliband's many disillusioned supporters

In his Lines of Dissent column, Mehdi Hassan considers who is to blame for Ed Miliband's troubled election campaign:

Forget the New Labour icons Tony Blair and Alan Milburn. Ignore the business bosses Stuart Rose and Stefano Pessina. If Ed Miliband isn't prime minister after the general election in May, he has only one person to blame: himself.

Hasan writes that though we often hear "business bosses or Blairite ultras" complaining about Miliband's failings, the Labour leader's supporters have equally valid doubts:

[...] it isn't just his opponents who question whether Miliband will become prime minister. A growing number of his supporters do, too. [...] They gather in the pubs and tea rooms of Westminster to moan and groan about their man, more in sorrow than in anger.

Hasan asks the "five questions that disillusioned 'Ed-ites' often obsess over - and that Miliband has yet to address":

First, why has a former television researcher - yes, Miliband worked briefly on Channel 4's A Week in Politics in the early 1990s - failed to recognise how abjectly awful his performances on TV have been since 2010?

[...]

Second, how did this son of Holocaust survivors allow his family's compelling story to be ignored so easily?

[...]

Third, why is a former climate-change secretary who launched a "clean coal" policy, who debated against the climate sceptic Nigel Lawson and helped - in the words of the science writer Fred Pearce - "save" the Copenhagen summit in 2009 shedding voters to a resurgent Green Party? Forget "Red Ed"; whatever happened to "Green Ed"?

Fourth, why isn't Miliband - whom the Daily Telegraph described in 2009 as one of the "saints" of the parliamentary expenses scandal - leading the assault on our sclerotic political establishment?

[..]

Fifth, why has one of today's few front-line Labour politicians who opposed the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq kept so quiet about his anti-war record?

Hasan concludes that if Miliband wants to lead his party to victory, he must be brave enough to address these questions publicly:

The Labour leader cannot afford to be his own worst enemy, as he approaches the closest general election in a generation. Cravenness doesn't win political battles. Courage does.

The Cover Story: The great survivor

On 8 February, Jeremy Bowen interviewed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Bowen considers how Assad has maintained his power while war has been raging in his country for nearly four years.

I was expecting the president to exhibit some sign of strain. But he had not noticeably changed since the last interview I had done with him, in 2010, five months or so before Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in Tunisia, immolated himself outside the governor's office in his dusty home town, setting off the chain of events that is still shaking the Middle East.

Bowen discusses in detail Assad's most controversial statements:

I reminded him of the obligations of belligerents, under the laws of war, to protect civilians. He offered a vigorous defence of the behaviour and actions of the Syrian armed forces and his own conduct throughout a war that has led to the death of as many as 200,000 people and to several millions becoming refugees. He rejected evidence that there was a period of peaceful demonstrations in the spring of 2011 before the shooting started. In fact, he insisted, protesters had used deadly force from the start; the proof was the number of policemen who were killed in the first few months of fighting.

The president's most controversial statement to me was a flat denial that Syrian forces had used barrel bombs - large tubs of explosive and projectiles dropped from helicopters - against areas where civilians could be killed. The attacks have been well documented. I have seen the aftermath of the kinds of explosion they cause in Douma, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. President Assad also dismissed as "propaganda" statements by the United Nations that his government was blocking humanitarian access to besieged areas. He showed every sign of believing what he said.

Bowen ends by considering the future of Assad's government:

President Assad might have started a journey that would have been inconceivable even a year ago: slowly, very slowly, moving from pariah to bulwark of the teetering state system in the Middle East. The view from the presidential palace is brightening. No wonder he decided it was time to talk.

 

Helen Lewis: What a Leonardo painting and loo paper can teach us about modern politics

Helen Lewis offers an usual piece of cultural trivia in her column this week:

The Virgin of the Rocks is one of the jewels of the National Gallery's collection, a Leonardo masterpiece that is worth millions. It is also, I found out this week, surrounded by toilet paper.

Lewis discusses the painting, framed in a 16th-century altarpiece made from "toilet paper, linseed oil and rabbit-skin glue", with the gallery's head of framing, Peter Schade. She learns that a "frame" affects our perception of what is in it, even in contexts outside of art:

In politics, "framing" as a metaphor crops up again and again. Politicians frame themselves - there is a reason a US president has his own plane and helicopter and phalanxes of secret service agents. It's about the projection of power as much as security. And there is a reason the business suit is so enduringly popular; its wearer benefits from our subconscious expectations about his status and importance.

Lewis notes that "the biggest frame of all" is perhaps "the most invisible: the Overton window".

That is the range of policies a politician can espouse without seeming too extreme or unsettlingly radical. After the grand ideological battles of the 20th century, the Overton window now feels smaller than ever, with even previously unremarkable policies such as nationalising the utility companies (backed by a majority of the public) stranded outside it.

That is the mark of a good frame: it affects the way you see, without you seeing it. We should all pay closer attention.

The Politics Column: George Eaton

The NS political editor, George Eaton, argues against the conventional wisdom that the Tories have stronger long-term economic policies than Labour:

An assertion that is repeated often enough becomes the truth. In the election campaign, the Conservatives' "long-term economic plan" is proof of this. The head of the British Chambers of Commerce, John Longworth, exposed the vacuity of this mantra when he observed: "Do you know what it is? No? Exactly. Neither do I."

Eaton argues that this mantra has done wonders for the Tory campaign:

The Tories' reputation for solidity is perhaps their greatest electoral asset. By impugning Labour's economic credibility, they aim to cast it as a party whose good intentions lead inexorably to bad outcomes. Their rejoinder to Miliband's pledge to outspend them on health and education is that high-quality public services ultimately depend on a "strong economy". Labour's problem, they suggest, is that it always runs out of other people's money.

But Eaton insists that this may be misleading:

The irony is that in areas such as appren­ticeships, infrastructure, banking and the EU, the opposition has the most pro-growth policies. A study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research published on 9 February found that owing to its looser fiscal stance, the economy would grow faster under Labour than the Conservatives: a fact entirely lost in the current debate.

He concludes that Miliband must correct this assumption before the election:

The Labour leader has made no shortage of "pro-business" speeches but the perception that he is hostile to wealth creation has become ingrained. In his days as an adviser to Gordon Brown, he was known by Blairites as "the emissary from Planet F***". One MP complains he has left Balls and Umunna playing an equivalent role for business.  

There is still time for him to remedy this impression. In his next speech on the subject he should unhesitatingly echo Umunna's assertion: "Any debate on building a fairer society is academic unless there are businesses creating wealth." If he does so with enough conviction, he may just start to be believed.

 

The NS Leader: The stench of corruption at HSBC

The Leader this week asserts that the tax scandal uncovered at HSBC is "one that even the most imaginative conspiracy theorist would struggle to concoct", and argues that those such as Stephen Green should be held to account and secrecy surrounding tax avoidance must end. Also:

When governments fail to pursue those who evade tax, they squander their legitimacy with the great majority who pay it. As long as the penalties for this crime remain negligible, the incentives for others to behave in this way will endure. The feeling will grow, too, that the system is rigged against the honest citizen.

Plus

Michael Prodger considers how artists try to make sense of the past.

A new poem from Iain Banks's forthcoming posthumous poetry collection.

Suzanne Moore: I was 13 when my English teacher asked me to go camping. I thought it was because he loved my poetry.

Leo Robson wonders if Anne Tyler might be the saviour of the modern saga.

Will Self: The night I was trapped in Dubai Airport - and found the "centre of now".