14 March 2014 issue
The Osborne audit: Robert Skidelsky’s pre-budget report on the Chancellor
Melvyn Bragg: terrestrial TV is dead but culture is thriving online
Rafael Behr: who will confront Nigel Farage on his own terms?
George Eaton on Bob Crow: only militancy raises living standards
Sophie McBain on Syria’s civil war three years on
Peter Wilby on the Goves and Grey Coat Hospital
Sue Douglas’s diary: Manhattan bellinis, Ukrainian deals
and those Nigella pictures
Inside the brain: Erica Wagner’s day with a top neurosurgeon
The historian John Bew on Margaret Thatcher’s battle with the IRA
Ray Mears: how mastery of fire made us human
Patti Smith on the French cult novel Astragal
Cover story: The Osborne audit
In this week’s cover story, Robert Skidelsky, the cross-bench peer and Keynes biographer, assesses George Osborne’s record as Chancellor ahead of his fifth Budget on 19 March and after four years of austerity.
On Wednesday, for the first time in four Budgets, George Osborne will be able to claim plausibly that Britain has come out of the Great Recession. Growth was 1.8 per cent in 2013 and is expected to be between 2.4 and 2.8 per cent in 2014. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the economy is still 1.4 per cent smaller than it was in 2008 and 14 per cent smaller than it would have been had the recession not struck.
Skidelsky explains that the Chancellor has been the beneficiary of low expectations and that recovery has occurred in spite of, not thanks to, his policies:
Just as George Osborne did not cause the recession, he has not caused the recovery. Intertwined economies usually fall and rise together, and Britain has been lifted off the rocks by the global upturn. Yet policy does make a difference – to the speed of recovery, its strength and its durability. On all three counts, the Chancellor’s policy is open to severe criticism.
Osborne’s ideologically driven belief that the government’s share of public spending should be reduced as much as possible – even in recessionary times – flies in the face of sane economics, Skidelsky argues, and comes at great cost to ordinary people:
What George Osborne has done is to bring an ideological fervour to a defective theory of macroeconomic policy: the theory that additional government spending can, under no circumstances, move the economy to a better-equilibrium growth path. What may be rational to believe when the economy is fully employed is palpably wrong when resources stand idle.
Moreover, it is not Osborne and his friends and bankers and Top People who suffer. It is the ordinary people of this country, whose lives and prospects are wrecked or diminished. Four years of George Osborne have been four years too many.
The Critics Interview
The nation’s schoolmaster: Melvyn Bragg on family trauma, educating Britain and Labour’s wounds
In this week’s Critics section, the NS assistant editor, Michael Prodger, meets Melvyn Bragg and talks to him about the publication of his latest novel, Grace and Mary, an autobiographical tale centred around his mother’s illegitimacy and her old-age Alzheimer’s. Bragg opens the encounter with an upbeat assessment of the state of British culture:
The David Attenborough of the arts has no time for those who say we are living in degraded times. “It is in our culture that we don’t want to admit that our culture is good,” he insists. Not only is it good but it is getting better. “Britain is undoubtedly becoming more cultural. No question of it,” he tells me. “People who say it is dumbing down simply don’t look around enough. They don’t know enough.”
However, culture is not thriving in the places it used to, Bragg tells Prodger:
Culture seems less prominent, he explains, because it has largely moved off television. “The BBC does a sterling job but I’d like to see it do more. ITV does four arts programmes a year; it used to be 28. At least Sky, with its two arts channels, is trying. It’s a big gamble.” Audience figures for The South Bank Show are going up: “Yes, they’re smaller than I used to get on ITV but it is now catching up with BBC4.”
Bragg even declares the death of terrestrial TV:
“What we’re talking about is the death of the five terrestrial channels. They now get 53 per cent of the audience and the rest get 47 per cent. Wow, that’s amazing. Not so long ago, the main channels were getting everything. Things have changed. Culturally, we’re not able to prescribe as we used to.”
The Blairite Labour peer is less upbeat when probed for his view of Ed Miliband’s performance as leader of the party:
There is a long, long pause – 20 seconds, an age for such a fluent talker. It is the only pause during the interview. His response, when it eventually comes, is measured in the extreme: “Well, he says a lot of good things. He’s a thoughtful young man. What he needs to find, though, is a centre of gravity inside the Labour Party that he can work out of. The party is still deeply winded and wounded by the last phase of Gordon Brown’s government.”
The Politics Column: Rafael Behr
The NS political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that, with most of Westminster in thrall to Ukip, the Liberal Democrats are now the only party willing to confront Nigel Farage on his own terms:
David Cameron has handled Ukip like an intimate rash. There was an itch he couldn’t help scratching but scratching only made it worse. Now he is trying to ignore it in the hope it will go away . . .
For Ed Miliband, the relationship is more complex. His instincts are antithetical to those of Farage but their interests are tactically aligned. Currently, Ukip poaches more votes from ex-Conservatives than from disgruntled Labourites in vital marginal seats, so the longer the Farage phenomenon endures, the likelier it is that the Labour leader ends up
in No 10 . . .
So there is a vacancy for someone who will confront the Ukip leader on his own terms. Nick Clegg has awarded himself that honour . . .
This plan isn’t entirely delusional. Liberal dismay at the main parties’ craven response to Farage extends beyond the question of Europe. The Ukip leader has enjoyed privileged media status as a spicy character in an otherwise bland political drama and as the incarnation of public loathing of politicians. Fringe idiocy in Ukip’s ranks has not escaped ridicule but there is in Westminster a strain of self-hating deference to the party’s voters, as if their jaundiced view of modern Britain were more authentic than other political opinions. In reality, there are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do, including many who despise pub-bore nationalism. Just as the Ukip leader wants to channel anti-establishment anger, Clegg wants to channel a cosmopolitan backlash against the cult of Farage.
George Eaton: Bob Crow, modern militant
George Eaton, the editor of The Staggers, reflects on the late RMT leader’s legacy and what those who campaign for better living standards can learn from it:
It is common now for politicians and columnists of all stripes to bemoan the widening gap between rich and poor and the fate of the “squeezed middle”. Fewer support the measures required to improve workers’ lot, including strengthening trade unions . . .
He may have been one of the greatest modern union leaders and a lifelong anti-fascist activist but it should not be forgotten that Crow was also a supporter of the death penalty and withdrawal from the EU, and an apologist for Stalinism. In 2004, he led the disaffiliation of the RMT from Labour, the party it helped to found, and never returned despite Ed Miliband’s repudiation of New Labour.
Yet, in recognising the necessity of militancy to raise living standards, he served as an example to all.
Peter Wilby: getting into Gove’s state school
As the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is praised for his decision to educate his daughter at Grey Coat Hospital, Peter Wilby remarks that this sought-after girls’ school in the heart of Westminster is a cut above the average comprehensive and has unfair entry requirements:
While giving the Goves due credit, we should note that they aren’t exactly sending their child to the neighbourhood comprehensive. She will travel more than five miles from their home in west London, bypassing several other comprehensives rated “outstanding” by Ofsted.
You need nifty footwork to get your child into Grey Coat . . . More than two-thirds of places are reserved for Christian applicants who have attended church with their family weekly for five years. The child must also acquire “points” from baptism, confirmation, Sunday school attendance and “a role in public worship”. Parents, too, must accumulate points from, say, “elected office in the church” and “practical involvement”.
In November, the schools adjudicator deemed these arrangements neither open nor fair as required by the government’s admissions code. Working hours or childcare difficulties prevent some families, especially single parents, from participating in church activities, the adjudicator ruled. Did Gove take advantage of an admissions process that breaches his department’s rules?
Leo Robson: why reading isn’t always good for you
On Location: Will Self on the psychogeography of a Tudor great barn in the shadow of the proposed third runway at Heathrow
Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire remembers the late Bob Crow and spots Nick Clegg slumming it in second class
Philip Maughan on the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina
and gay rights in Africa
The NS science columnist, Michael Brooks, isn’t scared of the giant viruses that researchers are resurrecting in the Arctic