13th-19th March Issue
Israel’s Next War
Cover Story: Until the next war
Jeremy Bowen explores the Israel-Palestine conflict in the lead-up to the Israeli general election.
The NS Profile: George Eaton meets the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls.
The NS Debate – “How Islamic is Islamic State?” In a response to Mehdi Hasan‘s cover story from last week, Tom Holland writes that IS is grounded in Muslim scripture.
The NS editor, Jason Cowley, argues that unless Westminster responds to what is happening in Scotland, the Union is doomed.
The Diary: Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, on London’s housing crisis.
The NS Profile: Ed Balls
In this week’s magazine, our political editor, George Eaton, interviews and profiles Ed Balls. In the longest and most in-depth piece published on the shadow chancellor, Eaton talks to him about the job he craves, his relationship with Ed Miliband and his private dealings with David Cameron and George Osborne.
The piece reveals that Balls told an MP during the 2010 Labour leadership contest:
“There are two people who are up to this job: one’s David Miliband and one’s me.” The MP added that Balls believed that Ed Miliband “hadn’t grown” since his election and felt “dreadfully sorry” about his failure to connect with voters.
[. . .]
Balls, who possesses a rich sense of humour and the absurd, cannot resist a joke at Miliband’s expense. When I ask him how he met Cooper, his wife of 17 years, he recalls that they were introduced by a mutual friend on Hampstead Heath in the summer of 1993. “We weren’t collecting stories for speeches. It was just a walk,” he says with a mischievous tilt of his eyebrows. (Miliband’s 2014 Labour conference address was derided for its recollection of encounters in the park with “Gareth”, a software developer, and other members of the public.)
When asked whether Miliband has guaranteed that his colleague will become chancellor, Balls says:
“I’m the shadow chancellor and we’re working really closely together on our plans, not just for the election but for government . . . I’ve not had that conversation and wouldn’t seek to do so. He’s the leader; these are his choices. I wouldn’t describe myself as a needy person.”
Discussing the influence of J M Keynes on his approach to economic policy, Balls agrees that George Osborne has been a “secret Keynesian”:
For this reason, Balls regards his support for fiscal stimulus from 2010-13 and his support for austerity now, albeit on a smaller scale than the Tories, as two parts of the same theory. “The right thing as the cycle moves on is to focus on issues that are more structural.” He adds that Osborne’s decision to “basically give up on his fiscal consolidation halfway through the parliament” – the Chancellor extended his structural deficit elimination target from 2014-15 to 2017-18 – was “a victory for sensible Keynesian thinking”.
Is he suggesting that Osborne, the supposed axe-wielding austerian, has been a secret Keynesian? “Completely, completely. In the first half of the parliament, Osborne thought that sticking to his plan was really important. In the second half, he basically had to give up. The deficit’s just not come down at all in the last two and a half years. The trouble is, he’s learned the wrong lessons and he thinks now, at the beginning of the next parliament, you should go back to the plan at the beginning of the last one.”
When quizzed about the loathing for him among Conservatives (David Cameron described him in 2011 as “the most annoying person in modern politics”), Balls suggests that the Tories’ failure to defeat him at the last election and to win a majority is one explanation for their dislike:
“I think Cameron, six months before the last general election, thought that he was going to win a majority . . . He thought that defeating me in Morley and Outwood would be a symbol of getting a majority and he didn’t.” (Balls held his seat by 1,101 votes.) “I’ve always figured that every time he looks across [from] the despatch box it just reminds him that he didn’t succeed on what he thought was his birthright.”
Despite this, Balls’s relationship with George Osborne seems surprisingly warm:
“I know George Osborne much better than David Cameron. He was a young, upcoming adviser and MP when I was in the Treasury. We’ve been to quite a few different international meetings; we’ve both been going to the Franco-British annual meeting pretty much every year for 20 years . . . I can have a drink with him and enjoy it.”
Finally, Eaton talks to the shadow chancellor about “Ed Balls Day”, the viral sensation that will fall this year on the same day the final pre-election GDP figures are released.
I remind him of another auspicious date that is approaching: Ed Balls Day. The occasion is named after the moment on 28 April 2011 when, while searching for an article about himself, Balls accidentally tweeted his own name. When the anniversary falls, Twitter is deluged with identical messages. This year’s will be celebrated on the same day as the final pre-election GDP figures are released.
“I’ve no idea what to make of it,” Balls says. “It’s obviously helped by the fact that I have a memorable name [“If you think it was bad for me, think how it was for my sister, Ophelia,” Balls is fond of joking]. The trouble with the day itself is that there is a dilemma. There’s one group of people who think if I don’t engage somehow on the day, I’m a bad sport. And if I do engage, there’ll be another whole group of people who’ll say, ‘Oh, God, he’s ruined it.’ I can’t win and I sort of know that, so I don’t really mind.” He reflects: “Who in postwar British politics has had a day named after them? You take what you can, really, don’t you?”
Cover Story: Until the next war
Jeremy Bowen considers the upcoming Israeli elections, and writes that peace between Israel and Palestine seems less of a concern than ever.
Remembering his time in Israel during the 1996 elections, Bowen reflects on what has changed and what remains the same. He weighs up the many parties competing for seats this month and their varying concerns, and explores the role of history in deciding this year’s outcome.
It is hard to think of any place where history matters more, is more politically charged, than Israel and the Palestinian territories, and has such an impact on global politics. Twenty years ago the late Amos Elon, one of Israel’s most perceptive intellectuals, wrote that Jerusalem was a necrocracy, the only city where the dead were also given a vote. In 1997, just before the state of Israel celebrated its 50th anniversary, I asked two elderly Palestinian men in Jerusalem for their view of the past half-century. They shrugged. Israel was strong. But look back at history, one of them said. The Crusaders were strong, too, and controlled Jerusalem for more than a century. But, he said, we got rid of them.
Around the same time, I met a Jewish settler who was bringing up his family close to the town of Nablus, near the northern end of the West Bank. A recent immigrant from Argentina, he explained how the Palestinians who were working in the fields far below the hill where the settlement perched would be able to stay, as long as they accepted that they lived on Jewish land and followed Israel’s rules. I pointed out that the Palestinians had been there for centuries, and that only a few years earlier he had been in Buenos Aires. He told me I didn’t understand. For him, history was personal. “The Romans threw me out,” he said. “If they hadn’t done that to the Jews, I would never have left!”
In going back to biblical times to explain Israel’s modern history, the Argentinian immigrant was far from unique.
Bowen writes that ordinary Israelis are growing increasingly unconcerned with the prospect of peace:
Most Israelis do not share the obsession that foreign politicians, and reporters, have with the chances of peace with the Palestinians. The record of failure has made them as cynical about the prospects of a deal as the Palestinians are themselves. In the 1990s, the Israeli centre left argued that the best way ahead was through the negotiations, swapping land for peace. But the peace camp has never recovered from the shock of the second Palestinian intifada, from 2000 to 2005, and the suicide bomb campaign that killed civilians in Israeli towns and cities. Today there is neither a peace process nor any significant demand in Israel for one. The most recent attempt to revive it, led by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, ended in failure last year. The coming election on 17 March is not about how to make peace; the big issues are about the economy, especially rising prices for housing, fuel and food. Israelis, like anyone else, want politicians with policies that will make them better off.
The NS Debate: How Islamic is Islamic State?
In a response to Mehdi Hasan’s article declaring that Islamic State is a politically motivated, rather than religious organisation, the historian Tom Holland writes that it is dangerous to deny that Islam plays an important role in the group’s violent actions:
The interpretation that Isis applies to Muslim scripture may be exceptional for its savagery – but not for its literalism. Islamic State, in its conceit that it has trampled down the weeds and briars of tradition and penetrated to the truth of God’s dictates, is recognisably Salafist. When Islamic State fighters smash the statues of pagan gods, they are following the example of the Prophet; when they proclaim themselves the shock troops of a would-be global empire, they are following the example of the warriors of the original caliphate; when they execute enemy combatants, and impose discriminatory taxes on Christians, and take the women of defeated opponents as slaves, they are doing nothing that the first Muslims did not glory in.
Such behaviour is certainly not synonymous with Islam; but if not Islamic, then it is hard to know what else it is.
It is not merely coincidence that IS currently boasts a caliph, imposes quranically mandated taxes, topples idols, chops the hands off thieves, stones adulterers, executes homosexuals and carries a flag that bears the Muslim declaration of faith. If Islamic State is indeed to be categorised as a phenomenon distinct from Islam, it urgently needs a manifest and impermeable firewall raised between them. At the moment, though, I fail to see it.
Editor’s Note: Jason Cowley on Scotland
The NS editor, Jason Cowley, writes that unless Westminster responds to what is happening in Scotland, the Union will be doomed. He notes that a “consensus” has been reached in Scotland that “more devolution” is necessary if the Union is to survive:
This much we know: the centre cannot hold, the British state is fractured, the UK remains imperilled, and we are entering a new era of multiparty politics and hung parliaments. Our first-past-the-post voting system, which was supposed to deliver strong and decisive government, seems no longer fit for purpose when Ukip could win 15 per cent of the vote in May but only a handful of seats. Indeed, a sixth of Scots still vote Conservative but the party has only one MP out of the 59 in Scotland; under a proportional system this would translate into as many as ten Scottish seats, an outcome that would weaken the SNP’s claim that David Cameron has no legitimacy north of the border.
Cowley also asserts that devolution must go further than simply offering Scotland greater powers:
In May there could be a formidable bloc of SNP MPs at Westminster, somewhere between 25 and 40 of them, the greatest nationalist force at Westminster since the Irish Parliamentary Party entered into coalition with Asquith’s Liberals in 1910. Their presence will ensure that the main Westminster parties honour their pre-referendum “vow” to the Scottish people (which was written by Gordon Brown, it is said) to create one of the world’s most powerful substate legislatures. Yet much more is needed. There has to be a serious regeneration of local government in England, more decentralisation of power and spending of the kind that George Osborne has begun in Manchester, as well as electoral reform.
In The Crisis of the Constitution, an invaluable new pamphlet published by the Constitution Society, Vernon Bogdanor quotes Disraeli’s dictum that “England is governed not by logic but by parliament”. But parliament, for all its illogicalities, codes and cherished customs, has to give up more powers – or the Union will be no more.
The Diary: Dylan Jones
The editor of GQ, Dylan Jones, looks back on a week of Chinese elephants and Shanghai selfies, and offers his thoughts on the London housing crisis:
As chairman of London Collections: Men, the six-monthly men’s fashion week that I’ve helped build with the British Fashion Council, I have become someone who waves flags and bangs drums for London, encouraging Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry, Alexander McQueen and the like to move their shows to the city, which in turn creates more work for all the ancillary businesses here – production companies, stylists, PRs, caterers, car services, etc. But although there is no city I love more, no city that is so adept at harnessing its creative industries, it is a city that is splitting in two. Not only do I employ men and women in their twenties and thirties who are abandoning London for Kent, Middlesex, Bucks and Essex because they simply can’t afford to live here any more, but the idea that my teenage daughters are one day going to earn enough money to get on the property ladder is now a pipe dream. And judging from what I see around me, it’s only going to get worse. Dream on.
Helen Lewis on rape in India and online rage.
Will Self: In which I suspend belief in Richard Branson while contemplating the Virgin snack box.
Josh Cohen on Slavoj Žižek’s medium and message.
Michael Prodger celebrates Goya’s haunted imagination and acclaims a masterly restoration project at the Courtauld.
Suzanne Moore: As I munched on the sticky little balls of opium, I pondered the benefits of a drugs-based economy.