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- 12/20/13--08:29: _Liberals should sto...
- 12/20/13--08:35: _Climate change isn'...
- 12/20/13--09:27: _A look ahead to 201...
- 12/21/13--02:17: _The London clinic f...
- 12/19/13--06:59: _Peter Cruddas: an a...
- 12/21/13--10:22: _Re: Quin: An overdu...
- 12/22/13--02:31: _Cable warns that cu...
- 12/22/13--23:31: _Morning Call: pick ...
- 12/23/13--01:03: _Cable did not compa...
- 12/23/13--01:17: _In 2013, Cameron an...
- 12/23/13--02:46: _The furore over M&S...
- 12/23/13--04:52: _Editor's picks: Jas...
- 12/23/13--06:16: _Cameron's internet ...
- 12/23/13--08:00: _We are re-living a ...
- 12/24/13--01:51: _Christmas Eve: a ne...
- 12/24/13--03:14: _Merry Christmas fro...
- 12/26/13--04:24: _The UK won't become...
- 12/27/13--02:28: _Laurie Penny: The 2...
- 12/27/13--07:51: _The rules for being...
- 12/28/13--04:55: _Why has there never...
- 12/20/13--08:29: Liberals should stop eulogising this reactionary Pope
- 12/20/13--09:27: A look ahead to 2014: The question of stability in Mali and Nigeria
- 12/21/13--02:17: The London clinic fighting back against female genital mutilation
- 12/19/13--06:59: Peter Cruddas: an apology
- 12/21/13--10:22: Re: Quin: An overdue study of the "experimental" novelist Ann Quin
- 12/22/13--23:31: Morning Call: pick of the papers
- 12/23/13--01:03: Cable did not compare Cameron to Enoch Powell
- 12/23/13--04:52: Editor's picks: Jason Cowley on the best pieces from 2013
- 12/24/13--01:51: Christmas Eve: a new poem by Carol Ann Duffy
- 12/24/13--03:14: Merry Christmas from the New Statesman web team
- 12/26/13--04:24: The UK won't become Europe's biggest economy if we slash immigration
- 12/27/13--02:28: Laurie Penny: The 20 best online pieces of 2013
- 12/27/13--07:51: The rules for being Walter Mitty
Francis's popularity among progressives suggests that women and gay people are still viewed as appendages in the struggle for a better society.
Just as some atheists and agnostics long to believe in God, many are more than a little keen to see the best side of the pious, as the bizarre discussion over the Pope’s alleged 'Marxism' demonstrates. Even if they themselves don’t believe a word of scripture, many liberals wish to see something of their own politics reflected in the outlook of the Catholic Church – hence the repeated references in recent weeks to the 'progressive' Pope and the overrated idea of 'liberation theology'.
It is predictable that the reactionary politics of the new Pope should be played down by liberal Catholics in favour of his musings on social justice and global capitalism. What’s so depressing has been the extent to which liberal non-believers have fallen so hook, line and sinker for what is in reality nothing more than a clever repackaging exercise.
I say this because, apart from a few centrist musings about inequality, the Catholic Church - which Pope Francis heads and therefore has the power to change - stands on roughly the same political terrain as it did under the leadership of Pope Benedict. Pope Francis’s position on most issues should make the hair of every liberal curl. Instead we get article after article of saccharine from people who really should know better.
"Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall," gushed Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian last month, while Time magazine has just bestowed Pope Francis with the honour of 'person of the year'. Writing about the magazine’s decision, editor Nancy Gibbs said the pontiff had "done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music". "This focus on compassion, along with a general aura of merriment not always associated with princes of the church, has made Francis something of a rock star," she added.
Time famously bestows its awards not according to the merit of the person in question (both Hitler and Stalin won the accolade), but based on who captures the (predominantly American) public imagination that year. And Pope Francis has done just that, largely because liberal non-believers have been so eager to elevate him to the status of progressive pin up.
Some of the material contained in Pope Francis’s first teaching document is rightly music to the left’s ears. When he asks his flock rhetorical questions such as "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?", he is undoubtedly onto something. But as is so often the case, the search for a hero has resulted in people switching off their critical faculties and overlooking inconvenient truths which don’t align with their worldview. How else could the Pope come out of 2013 a 'progressive' icon while at the same time holding views on women and abortion that make Jeremy Clarkson look like a radical socialist?
It is possible, of course, that we simply hold religious figures to a lower standard than we do secular ones. But the Pope’s popularity among the right-on surely has something to do with the fact that women and gay people are still viewed as appendages in the struggle for a better society. The new Pope has done nothing to fundamentally alter the Church’s bigoted stance on homosexuality. He has referred to gay marriage as "moral relativism". He presumably believes that men who sleep with men are going to hell. He views the all-male priesthood and the church’s prohibition of abortion as beyond debate. This would situate him to the right of UKIP even if he were advocating the nationalisation of the FTSE 100, which he isn’t.
Pope Benedict was a PR disaster for the church. Yet under Francis little of substance has actually changed. The Catholic Church continues to vehemently discriminate against gay people and women, it’s simply sugar-coated its message with fashionable sound bites about inequality. And depressingly this has worked. Many otherwise erstwhile progressives have fallen into line faster than Danny Alexander at a cabinet meeting.
We should, however, reject the notion that someone who can rescind the Church’s stance on gay sex, and chooses not to do so, is a figure worthy of admiration. Nor, if he won’t countenance women priests, is there a reason to suppose the Pope has anything of note to say about poverty. Why waste precious time worrying about anything such a person thinks?
Aside from the fact that we still hold religious figures to a lower standard than secular ones, the fawning over Pope Francis demonstrates something profoundly depressing: in the struggle for a better world, women’s and LGBT rights are still not taken seriously.
Lawyers have a significant role not just in advising on incoming energy and climate regulation, but also in developing new structures and precedents, and in advising on new aspects of corporate governance and risk management.
For decades politicians have looked to a cadre of scientists, economists, think tanks and NGOs for help in devising international and national responses to the challenges of climate change. There were relatively few opportunities for business or the legal profession to influence the debate and there seemed to be little appreciation of how remote the world of UN climate negotiations seemed to the general public and to many in business. Often seen as a political issue, in order to implement climate change policies effectively industry needs to be instructed and incentivised by a body of clear, collective regulation if it is to make the long term investments required to lower our dependency on fossil fuels and lower global carbon emission.
The scale and the uncertainties around climate change meant that regulating was never going to be easy. The global downturn has also, inevitably, diminished the vitality of the debate. Governments, to their credit, have continued to regulate but have in some cases appeared slow to appreciate the importance of commercial certainty. There has also been a tendency to underestimate the impact of regulatory tinkering on willingness to invest. Many policy initiatives have involved a considerable learning process in relation to the interaction of environmental constraints and market forces. This has included regimes for trading carbon credits, which required the elision of environmental and financial markets expertise, and schemes for reducing emissions from the built environment which have struggled with the implications of landlord - tenant arrangements.
In response to these challenges, the Legal Sector Alliance on Climate Change, an association of 270 commercial law firms, has argued publicly for effective regulation in relation to climate change and low carbon energy. In its most recent communiqué eight principles were set out that policy makers should take into account in formulating new policy and regulation, which includes recommendations relating to investment incentives and the standardisation of products and reporting standards.
There are signs that the mood is shifting towards working with business. Private sector consultation on the development of new UN mechanisms is being encouraged. COP 19 in Warsaw has been promoted as a "business COP", with Poland encouraging the UN to bridge the gap between the policies being shaped through negotiations and the role of business in implementing and financing these obligations. Lawyers can decode and help shape the debate in these areas.
Because the scientific community is in broad agreement on the reality of climate change, it is a risk that companies have to consider as a matter of good management. This makes climate change one among many factors that businesses consider in relation to new projects, transactions, or as part of their risk management and governance processes.
For most sectors climate change is an area comparable to other more traditional issues on which lawyers advise. For the energy sector and for energy intensive business, the impact of the policy response to climate change is likely to be more profound, albeit over a long timescale. While the primary energy sources for the foreseeable future are fossil fuels, the market share for renewables continues to grow and there is an developing focus on the energy efficiency of buildings, industrial operations and products. These changes are creating new business models, additional issues in transactions and operational challenges. For these industries, lawyers have a significant role not just in advising on incoming regulation, but also in developing new structures and precedents, and in advising on new aspects of corporate governance and risk management. So as the volume of regulation relevant to climate change evolves, expect the role of lawyers to be much broader and more important.
The link between the state and organised crime must be addressed if the process of rebuilding a unified Mali and countering Islamic militants is to succeed.
There are likely to be many flashpoints of political violence erupting in 2014 – such as sectarian rumblings in Iraq, not to mention ongoing conflicts, most notably the brutal civil war raging in Syria. However, the political risks and concomitant violence likely to break out in Nigeria, Sahel and North Africa next year will not only keep international media outlets busy with news of the devastation wreaked by the violent upheavals, but will negatively impact businesses, local and global, operating in these regions. This volatility could have the knock-on effect of hampering intra-African trade, something vital to securing long-term stable growth across the continent, and possibly destabilise its neighbouring states – a contagion that could have far-reaching consequences.
Political risk and political violence in Nigeria will worsen in the second half of next year. The 2014 primaries and early 2015 general elections will fuel regional and sectarian tensions in a context where President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern, is an increasingly polarising figure in the north. The ruling party, which has prevailed since 1999 by holding together a national political umbrella against regionally-based opposition parties, now faces a unified opposition coalition (APC) that has the advantage where the PDP is weakest, including much of the north and the economic heartland around Lagos in the southwest. Should the PDP's splinter faction hold together as a third-way alternative-and especially if it gains more defectors - the Jonathan administration will find itself increasingly on the political defensive in the north as it carries out a controversial and bloody counter-insurgency against Islamist militants Boko Haram.
Terrorist attacks will rise as Boko Haram exploit this dynamic and step up its attacks in the north, the restive middle belt states (a likely swing region in the elections where sectarian and ethnic tensions run high) and if possible in the capital Abuja and economic capital of Lagos.
Further polarisation along regional lines is not inevitable but the rising polarisation, winner-takes-all political culture, and armed rebel movements pose a threat to the overall investment picture. Elections provide the most direct link to outbreaks of political violence across Africa and Nigeria’s contested gubernatorial primaries and elections are another source of potential unrest, with some candidates likely to enlist support from armed allies to gain an edge.
Terrorism in the Sahel and North Africa will increase in 2014, with the French draw down of troops in Mali. While the activities of Islamic militants in the Sahel and Sahara has grabbed the attention of Western governments, too little attention has been paid to the criminal networks, smuggling groups and historical trade routes across the region in which al-Qaeda and other groups have embedded themselves and which have enabled them to flourish. State complicity in organised crime enabled the growth of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and was a driver of the conflict in northern Mali.
Sahel governments use organised crime as a political resource by allowing their allies to benefit from such activities. Changing this dynamic will be a slow process as there are few alternative sources of income in the region and none that generate wealth at the rate of organised crime. The crisis in the region is about more than the activities of jihadists, it is about rivalries over the control of smuggling routes, the complicity and involvement of government officials and the willingness of Western governments to pay hostage ransoms that fuel the kidnapping industry.
While there is no quick way to break up deeply entrenched criminal organisations, the link between the state and organised crime must be addressed if the process of rebuilding a unified Mali and countering Islamic militants is to succeed. In the absence of this, 2014 will prove to be a profitable year for the regions’ smugglers, kidnappers and terrorists.
Natasha Tsangarides visits the West London African Women's Community Centre, which carries out "reversal" surgery for FGM survivors and campaigns for stronger protection for women.
Maryam* has just come out of surgery at the West London African Women’s Community Clinic. The 24-year-old Londoner was a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) in her home country, Somalia.
The West London clinic offers a vital service for FGM survivors. Maryam has just had “reversal” surgery, a procedure to open up the vagina, which had been sewn up during FGM. “It’s amazing, I didn’t realize I wouldn’t feel pain,” she said. “My legs were shaking from fear but I didn’t feel a thing.”
Maryam was 10-years-old when she was “cut” in Somalia. “I remember the day,” she recalled. “My mum sent me to the shop to get a needle and thread. I knew what was going on. The old lady had already done it to girls on my street that day. I felt ashamed if I didn’t do it.
“Recently I got married. I suffered with sex. There’s no reason for my vagina to be closed. My husband is Somali so he expected I would be cut. When my husband realised I was closed though, he was disappointed. He said, ‘You’d better open this up’. He’s going to be happy now.”
The West London African Women’s Community Clinic, based at Charing Cross hospital, runs an FGM service every Wednesday afternoon. The clinic is a pioneering centre set up in 2010 to deliver services for women suffering the consequences of FGM. Treating women mostly from the Somali community, the clinic is breaking the taboo surrounding the procedure.
This November, several campaigns have been launched nationally in order to raise awareness and eliminate the practice of FGM in the UK. What is the scale of the problem and who is affected by it? What are the health consequences for victims of FGM? With the practice happening behind closed doors, can it really be eliminated in the UK?
FGM involves cutting female genital organs for non-medical reasons. In the UK, over 20,000 girls are at risk and 66,000 women are living with the consequences of FGM, according to a study carried out by the anti-FGM charity, Forward.
A cultural practice, FGM developed to preserve women’s virginity and control sexuality. It is prevalent in 28 countries in Africa and in parts of Asia and the Middle East.
97% of women in Somalia undergo the horrific procedure, typically between the ages of 5 and 9 years old, according to a 2007 study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The study estimated that 15,272 Somali women aged between 15 and 49 are living with FGM in England and Wales.
Somalis comprise one of the largest ethnic groups in Hammersmith and Fulham. The 2011 census shows that 45% of the population in White City is foreign-born. The majority (636 people) come from Somalia, of which just over half are women.
With the practice so ingrained in Somali culture, migration to the UK has not stamped it out. Some second-generation girls born in the UK are being sent back to their parent’s countries of origin or, probably less commonly, having the procedure done here.
Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Evening Standard show that 2,115 FGM patients were seen at London hospitals between 2010 and summer this year.
The West London African Women’s Service provides gynaecology, maternity and sexual health care for women who have undergone FGM. It is delivered at two sites: at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital as well as the community clinic at the West London Centre for Sexual Health, Charing Cross Hospital. Between June 2011 and August 2013, 662 women with FGM have accessed the service, of whom 432 attended the community clinic.
The impact of the service has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, it won two all-party parliamentary maternity awards for most marked improvement in a service to address health inequalities and the best example of a service to address complex needs, and this year it also won the accolade of ‘Adult Sexual Health Service of the Year’ by the UK Sexual Health Awards.
Sagal Osman, an anti-FGM campaigner from White City, helps local West London women access the clinic. Originally from Somalia and a survivor of FGM, Sagal developed relationships with practitioners at Charing Cross hospital and secured regular clinics for FGM patients at the West London African Women’s Community Clinic.
Sagal said: “At the moment I have five new patients every week and I have a waiting list of about 50 people. Most patients are Somalis. It’s probably the hardest community to reach. But over the years trust has been built.”
Women come to the clinic for a variety of reasons, typically stemming from the long-term consequences associated with FGM. These include recurrent urinary infections, painful scarring, severe menstrual cramps, wound infections, fertility problems, complications in pregnancy and even renal impairment or failure.
Dr Naomi Low-Beer, Consultant Gynaecologist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and lead doctor for the FGM service at the West London clinic, performs the invaluable reversal surgery. She explained: “With the most severe type of FGM, the clitoris and labia have been totally removed, the vaginal opening closed, with a tiny passage left for urine and menstrual blood. This makes sex painful or impossible.
“Women with this type of FGM do benefit from surgery. It is often referred to as ‘reversal’, but rather than reversing the FGM the surgery opens the vagina so that women can have sex without pain. Otherwise, it can take months and months of painful attempts at penetration. A number of women come in to have the surgery pre-marriage or before their first relationship, and others come because they are suffering from repeated urine and vaginal infections or very painful periods. The surgery can help women with these problems too. It can be safely performed under local anaesthetic in the outpatient clinic. In offering this service, you feel like you’re making a difference.”
Naomi works closely with an all-female team of committed specialists, including an obstetrician, FGM specialist midwife, doctors specialising in HIV and Sexual Health, and of course Sagal Osman, anti-FGM campaigner and health advocate. Between them they provide comprehensive specialist care for women with FGM. Between June 2011 and August 2013, of the 662 women attending the West London African Women’s Service 69 women had de-infibulations, otherwise known as reversal surgery, of whom 37 had this performed at the West London clinic.
Alia*, draped head-to-foot in black, sits nervously in the clinic’s waiting room. Having had reversal surgery four weeks ago, she is at the clinic to treat syphilis and Hepatitis B, infections commonly attributed to dirty tools used during FGM. Despite having the infections, Alia is optimistic following the successful surgery. She says, “I feel better and I feel like my life has changed.”
Tending to the needs of women suffering the after-effects of FGM is only one part of the problem. Preventing it from happening is something campaigners, frontline workers and the government have been battling with for almost thirty years.
In July this year, Hammersmith and Fulham Council passed a special motion that proposes to raise awareness and end all forms of FGM in the borough. Councillor Helen Binmore said: “We have just set up a strategic board and hope that our coordinated multi-agency approach will help improve how agencies, services and professionals respond to this issue and offer protection to women and girls from FGM.”
Efua Dorkenoo OBE is Advocacy Director at Equality Now, an international human rights organisation. She said: “Parents know about the health consequences but it still goes on. Parents need to know that professionals are keeping an eye on their children and that they will report FGM happening and that there can be prosecutions.”
FGM has been a criminal offence since 1985 and the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act made it illegal for British citizens and permanent residents to practice FGM within and outside the UK. To date, there have been no prosecutions. By comparison, France has convicted around 100 parents and practitioners.
Misplaced cultural sensitivities, a failure to see FGM as a child protection issue and a lack of accountability have so far impeded successful prosecutions taking place, Mrs Dorkenoo said. “The issue needs to be brought into the mainstream as a child abuse issue through a combination of education, protection and prosecutions.”
Momentum is growing in the campaign to raise awareness and eliminate FGM with the government making it a national priority. Last month, the London Metropolitan Police have, for the first time, arrested two people suspected of performing FGM on a five-week old girl. The case is under investigation and a successful prosecution would be a landmark victory and an important step to achieving the goal of eliminating FGM.
On a local level, change is happening. Sagal Osman is optimistic. “Women suffer pain and now have a place to go. People have more trust in sexual health. Women are opening their eyes and their lives are changing.”
*Some names have been changed
Peter Cruddas: An apology
In a recent blog post by former Conservative Councillor Imran Khan, under the headline "A catalogue of corruption", we referred to Mr Cruddas' offer to provide access to the Prime Minister in return for a donation to party funds. Mr Cruddas has asked us to state, and we accept, that the Conservative Party makes no secret of the fact that it publicly offers the opportunity for donors of substantial sums to attend dinners with the Prime Minister.
He successfully sued the Sunday Times for suggesting that in seeking donations on this basis, his conduct was corrupt. The New Statesman does not wish to suggest anything different and we apologise to Mr Cruddas if readers were left in any doubt.
Too little has been written about the Brighton-born novelist, Ann Quin, whose writing ruptured middle class pieties.
The Business Secretary contradicts Cameron's claim that you can do "more with less" and says "some very good services are being seriously affected".
David Cameron and George Osborne have recently argued that austerity has proved that the state can do "more with less", with the quality of public services unaffected by the cuts. But on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Vince Cable directly contradicted this claim. He warned that the pressure on services from the cuts was becoming "severe" and that "some very good services are being seriously affected". He added: "I am concerned about the social fabric".
Cable was replying to a question on the IFS's warning that £12bn of further tax rises or welfare cuts will be required merely to maintain cuts at their current pace. In response, he reaffirmed the Lib Dems' commitment to a mansion tax (replying "yes" when asked if it was a "red line") but refused to comment on whether income tax would need to rise. With amusing understatement, he said that the abolition of the 50p tax rate had "not been a great political success" but that he was not in favour of restoring it. For Labour and the Lib Dems, in particular, the question of how they will plug the fiscal gap is going to become more insistent as the election draws closer (George Osborne has said that he would reduce welfare spending by "billions" in order to limit cuts to departments).
Elsewhere in the interview, Cable warned that the government "needed to look again" at Help to Buy and the "house price boom" it was fuelling, denounced "ridiculously tight" visa restrictions and compared the current panic over immigration to "Enoch Powell and 'rivers of blood'". He said: "The responsibility of politicians in this situation when people are getting anxious is to try to reassure them and give them facts and not panic and resort to populist measures that do harm." It was one of those occasions when it is easy to forget that Cable is a serving member of the government.
The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.
In between the rightwing hysteria over the 1 January changes and liberal pleas for tolerance, is a public preoccupied with rent, not race, writes John Harris.
2. How to prolong a banking credit crunch (Financial Times)
The lousy agreement on banking union will produce the financial sector equivalent of austerity, says Wolfgang Münchau.
The PM’s move to block anyone else from joining the EU is a desperate political move, says John McTernan.
4. At last, everyone gets it on public spending (Daily Telegraph)
Labour's conversion to prudence signals an overdue change in the political centre of gravity, argues Andrew Haldenby.
5. Someone needs to fight the selfish, short-sighted old (Guardian)
The cost of pandering to pensioners means we are penalising our young in relation to education, healthcare and housing, says Chris Huhne.
The Labour leader should trust his values and ignore siren voices urging him to lurch rightwards, says Kevin Maguire.
7. This isn't 'feminism'. It's Islamophobia (Guardian)
I am infuriated by white men stirring up anti-Muslim prejudice to derail debate on western sexism, writes Laurie Penny.
The time has come for angry Liberal Democrats to move on, says an Independent editorial.
9. America must dump its disrupters in 2014 (Financial Times)
This has been a very disruptive year but nothing about it was creative or constructive, writes Edward Luce.
10. Add the EU to the list of myths we’re brainwashed to believe (Daily Telegraph)
Like corks, and turning off mobiles on planes, 'Europe' may one day turn out to be pointless, says Boris Johnson.
The right have twisted the Business Secretary's words far beyond their original meaning in an attempt to force his departure from government.
It was Vince Cable's attack on the coalition's spending cuts (which broke new ground for a cabinet minister), rather than his criticism of the Tories' stance on immigration (which the two parties have long openly disagreed on), that was truly significant, but most of today's papers lead on the latter. The Telegraph's front page is the most striking, reporting that Cable compared David Cameron to Enoch Powell. On the Today programme this morning, Tory MP Nigel Mills declared that the comparison made it hard for the Business Secretary to continue sitting "round the cabinet table".
Had Cable compared Cameron to Powell, it would certainly be a story and grounds for his resignation (could he really remain in the same government as a modern day Powell?), but he didn't. Here, in case you missed it, is what Cable actually told The Andrew Marr Show:
I think there's a bigger picture here. We periodically get these immigration panics, I remember going back to Enoch Powell and 'rivers of blood' and all that, and if you go back a century there were panics over Jewish immigrants.
The responsibility of politicians in this situation when people are getting anxious is to try to reassure them and give them facts and not panic and resort to populist measures that do harm.
Read in context, it is clear that he was not comparing Cameron to Powell (any more than he was comparing him to 19th century anti-semites) but criticising his failure to respond effectively to the real Powells of today (Nigel Farage et al). The mention of "rivers of blood" was merely a reference to one of the defining examples of past tensions over immigration.
Tim Montgomerie argues I'm being too charitable to Cable ("an experienced politician") but it seems to me more likely that Cable (perhaps naïvely) simply expected the media to report his comments accurately. As I suggested earlier, had Cable truly intended to compare Cameron to Powell (as Gordon Brown did earlier this year when he declared that Tory immigration policy was "close to being Powellite"), it would prompt the question of how exactly he can bear to sit round the same table as the PM. But it is not hard to see why the Telegraph and others on the right would like to see Cable, who acts as a progressive check on Tory policy, removed from government.
But the reaction that the mere mention of Powell's name prompts is a reminder of how, 45 years on, the "rivers of blood" speech remains toxic for the Tories. Aware of this, Conservative strategists briefed in January that Cameron was so concerned at how the issue of race was damaging support for the party (just 16% of BME voters backed the Conservatives in 2010) that he would address it "head-on with a speech in the next two months". In reference to Powell, Sajid Javid, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is of Pakistani origin, said that it would require "the Prime Minister, someone of that standing", to say Powell "doesn’t represent what the Conservative Party is today in any way and to set out what the Conservative Party actually is when it comes to race relations, multiculturalism and so forth". The Daily Mail went on to report that Cameron had "already asked for ideas for a speech to combat the idea that the spirit of Powell is alive in the modern Tory Party and is seeking ideas for policies which will dramatise the common values between Conservatives and non-white voters."
But nearly a year later, we've heard nothing from Cameron. Instead, his party has further damaged its reputation with ethnic minorities through a series of demagogic stunts (most notably the "go home" vans) on immigration. That, one suspects, is closer to the point Cable intended to make.
Both men are failing to articulate a vision that says more about what kind of country Britain should become than about what it has been.
For both David Cameron and Ed Miliband, 2013 was a year in which hope of owning the future was sabotaged by an inability to make peace with the past. The Tories failed to find fault in the leader who once led them to three successive election victories. Labour struggled to see virtue in a former leader who managed the same feat.
The Tories mourned Margaret Thatcher, who died on 8 April, with an intensity in proportion to the change she wrought in Britain’s economy and society. State pomp was deployed to underline that historic victory, which infuriated dissenters who see the triumph of Thatcherism as a calamity for which the Tories ought rather to atone.
Such bitterness is incomprehensible to many Conservatives but its political implications should not be. It is still hard for the Tories to win general elections because parts of the country remember Thatcher’s doctrines as callous and vindictive. Even her most dedicated disciples cannot deny that, in many communities, an inoculation against voting Conservative is part of the legacy.
Cameron once seemed to understand the need to persuade Britain that his party had evolved beyond its cult of 1980s nostalgia. For Tories who believe that “modernisation” is still essential, 2013 was a demoralising year. Cameron’s will to pursue that agenda – never too sturdy – dissolved in fear of Ukip. The Tory year began with the commitment to a referendum on Britain’s EU membership and ended with promises to deprive foreigners of benefits. The fetishes of the party’s angriest tendency were thus indulged all the way from January to December.
In part, that reflects the growing influence of Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s bare-knuckle campaign strategist. He seems convinced that the hazard of reviving old “nasty party” associations is outweighed by the advantage of branding Labour as a friend to welfare-gobbling migrants.
The Tory right doesn’t like Cameron but it can be persuaded to back him because he is biddable. Had his position been stronger, he might have used the Thatcher commemorations as a moment to renew the promise of change, leavening the tributes with acknowledgement of mistakes. An opportunity was missed to reach out to voters who were alienated by the mood of ideological triumphalism. Instead he confirmed suspicions that his party’s ambition in government is to finish a job that the Iron Lady started.
Senior Tories are convinced they can beat Labour in 2015 by rerunning the campaign that last secured the party a majority – the destruction of Neil Kinnock in 1992. In Ed Miliband they see a reincarnation of the high-taxing, anti-enterprise Old Labour caricature from whom voters will recoil on polling day. A curious element of that plan is how little it recognises that the 1992 victory was secured by a moderate Tory leader who tacked towards the party’s inclusive “One Nation” tradition after Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration.
The irony was underlined in October when John Major himself counselled the party against reinforcing old flint-hearted stereotypes. He urged compassion, as well as greater attention to poverty and social justice: “If we navel-gaze and only pander to our comfort zone, we will never win general elections.”
The warning echoed advice for Labour that Tony Blair had published in the New Statesman in April. He, too, cautioned against “comfort zone” politics, urging his party not to “settle back into its old territory of defending the status quo”.
Blair warned that the financial crisis had not shifted Britain’s political centre of gravity leftwards – a rebuke to Miliband, whose strategy posits a new public appetite for left-wing populism. Compounding opposition discomfort, Len McCluskey, the leader of the Unite trade union, popped up the following week (also in the NS) to prod Miliband in the opposite direction. In an interview with George Eaton he told the Labour leader not to be “seduced” by Blairites, naming shadow cabinet ministers – Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne, Douglas Alexander – as figures whose malign influence would bring election defeat.
The leader’s office was rattled by the twin interventions but it needn’t have been. Just as Cameron failed to move out of Thatcher’s shadow, Miliband missed an opportunity to define himself in positive terms against the past. With sufficient confidence (and support in the parliamentary party) he might have leapt free from New Labour ultras and hard-left reaction in a single bound. Instead, for much of 2013, it looked as if old factions were wrestling for control of the party’s identity, with its leader cast as a spectator.
Miliband’s uneasy accommodation with his party’s recent past dates back to the narrowness of his victory in the 2010 leadership contest. He understood that unity was paramount after defeat and also that many on the left saw Blairism as a surrender to free-market fetishism and craved its repudiation. The newly elected Labour leader also came to the job without a strong support base in the party. To compensate for that vulnerability, he tolerated the vilification by McCluskey and others of “Zombie Blairites” – a fifth column holding the party back from socialist virtue.
This was a useful tactical deflection of the disappointment and embarrassment of trade union bosses who felt the candidate they had endorsed was not performing as advertised. But for Miliband it also meant turning a blind eye to Unite’s strategy for controlling the party’s direction by gaming the process for selecting parliamentary candidates. That bargain unravelled in July when a vicious selection battle in Falkirk was amplified by Tory attacks into a front-page scandal.
The details of what happened in Falkirk are still fiercely disputed. What is beyond doubt is that the episode exposed a brittleness to the unity that Miliband had purportedly achieved. Ideological disputes were tangled up in vendettas dating back to the Blair-Brown feuds. Miliband had wanted to project himself as the standard-bearer for a new age of politics, yet here he was, presiding over a grim display of Mafia-style score-settling.
To distance himself from the smell of corruption, Miliband donned the robes of a reforming crusader and charged into confrontation with his party’s largest financial donor. Blair and his disciples cheered. Many Labour MPs watched in alarm, fearing that a moment of reformist exaltation would cost the party its solvency. By the end of the year, it looked as if Miliband was ready to settle for token reforms in exchange for preserving access to union funds. His challenge is now to negotiate something that looks bold enough to avoid the charge of total capitulation.
The battle over union reform exposed the Labour leader as friendless in his party. There was no cadre of Milibandites for deployment in the TV studios to make their leader’s case in a crisis. Addressing that deficiency was a principal aim when the opposition front-bench team was shuffled in October. The changes were widely reported as a “purge” of Blairites, which was not entirely wrong. Two of the figures that McCluskey had explicitly targeted – Murphy and Byrne – were demoted. But the third, Douglas Alexander, was put in charge of Labour’s election campaign.
More significant was the promotion of MPs who were elected for the first time in 2010 – Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves, Gloria De Piero, Emma Reynolds – “clean skins” who are neither scarred nor contaminated by New Labour-era civil war. Miliband’s hope is that this generation will help convince voters his party has a new, forward-looking agenda shaped by its current leader, when the Conservatives are determined to present him as a throwback to an unelectable past. Labour’s class of 2010 is marked by a capacity, lacking in many of their older colleagues, to view the strengths and weaknesses of Blairism without personal rancour. As one young shadow cabinet minister puts it: “Who gives a toss about all that baggage? We just want to win.”
On the Tory side, too, much hope is pinned on recent recruits. The lower and middle ranks of government are now stuffed with young MPs – Liz Truss, Matthew Hancock, Esther McVey, Sajid Javid. Like their Labour counterparts, they have a view of their party’s future that is not jaundiced by rigid nostalgia and historic resentments. Most do not fit neatly into categories of “moderniser” or “traditionalist”. They often combine social liberalism on issues such as gay rights with ultra-Thatcherite economics.
Labour and Tory 2010-ers owe their careers to Miliband and Cameron and are hungry for high office. Those factors combine to make them disciplined. None intends to be in opposition after 2015 and they know that disunity is a fast track to electoral ruin. By contrast, defeatism is rife among older MPs on both sides, making it hard to conceal dissatisfaction with the way in which they’re led.
That doesn’t mean that the younger MPs are inspired by their leaders. Their loyalty is keen but pragmatic. They cannot ignore the obvious weaknesses in Cameron and Miliband – the difficulty each man has in articulating a vision that says more about what kind of country Britain should become than about what it has been.
That failure contributes to the enduring atmosphere of stalemate at Westminster. The longer the malaise lingers, the likelier it gets that the up-and-coming generation’s appetite for power will turn to impatience for control. In 2013, Cameron and Miliband were haunted by victories of bygone eras. Both badly need a breakthrough. If the present leaders still struggle to break free from the past in 2014, a majority in parliament will look beyond reach and the search will begin in earnest for the best candidates to lead their parties in the future.
Our national news agenda is distorted by a deep suspicion of Muslims.
Last week I was asked to think of an issue on which I’ve changed my mind. I said the Iraq war, but if I’d been asked this week I might have said something else: Islamophobia. I used to think it wasn’t a problem.
Before I explain why, let’s look at one particular news story, by which I mean embarrassingly trivial non-story. Marks and Spencer is allowing its Muslim employees not to serve alcohol or pork products. A privately owned company has a policy that if its employees want to opt out of doing things to which they have a religious objection, they can.
I mean, it’s not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.
Now, why should this minor matter of HR policy be of interest to anyone outside of Marks and Spencer? I don’t know. Actually, I do: it’s because the Telegraph has found an unnamed customer who claims to have been refused service by an assistant.
I’m not sure if this incident occurred exactly as reported, but even if it did, ask yourself: has anything like this happened to you at M&S? Do you know of anyone to whom it has happened? Don’t you think, if this was a real issue, affecting thousands of people, you might have heard about it via channels other than one anecdote related in one paper?
But of course it’s not a real issue, and neither is there any principle at stake here beyond queue management. The desire to be served quickly in a shop seems to have got tangled up with weighty concepts like "free society". Listen, if you think you’re queuing too long at M&S, go to Sainsbury’s - that’s the beauty of a free society. Shops can sell pretty much what and how they want, and we can buy from where we want. M&S is not a school nor the Church of England nor the BBC. It’s a commercial retailer acting within the law.
On Twitter, Jenni Russell put it to me like this: "Just as Christians can't refuse to have gays in B&Bs, so Muslims shouldn’t refuse to serve people buying legal goods." Let’s see: one of them involves denying adults the right to love one another. The other involves denying the basic human right to buy a bottle of Merlot from the first sales assistant available.
Inconvenient, perhaps (if it ever happens, which I doubt) but hardly the kind of thing I’d go to prison for in order to defend. Nor do we have any evidence that anyone has been or will be refused service (OK, apart from that one anonymous person in the Telegraph, but Telegraph readers – well, have you read the comments?).
So let’s review. Nobody is being refused service. The policy isn’t Islam-specific: Jewish employees don’t have to sell pork if they don’t want to. For once, a big employer isn’t coercing anyone to do anything – in fact the opposite.
So why is this a news story? And why is it a story about Islam?
Until now I’ve been sceptical about the arguments of those who throw the term "Islamophobia" around. Partly this a reaction to word itself, a lazy emulation of the term homophobia (which incidentally means fear of the same, which is of course exactly what it isn’t). But mainly it’s because I don’t think the British people are phobic about Islam or its adherents.
Measured against any country in the world with a comparable mix of races and cultures (of which there are few) our record of tolerance stands up well. Every day, people in offices and shops rub along with Muslims, laugh with each other, help each other out. The calmness with which British people reacted to Lee Rigby’s killing was impressive. The EDL must have been dreadfully disappointed.
But a year of stories like the M&S one has persuaded me that our national news agenda is distorted by a deep suspicion of Muslims. Islam animates our media like few other topics, and just as the left’s obsession with Israel overlaps, unprovably but unmistakably, with anti-Semitism, so there is something that just smells funny about the recurrent shock-horror headlines over vanishingly insignificant issues of conduct. Playground spite is being dressed up as "debate".
Take the row over whether university societies should allow segregated debates: it’s a tiny story affecting about seven people, but because it involves Islam, national figures weigh in and commentators with virtually no knowledge or interest in the people concerned express passionate certainty.
Earlier this year, the BBC’s Question Time devoted twenty minutes to a discussion of whether Muslim nurses should be allowed to wear the veil when dealing with patients. As members of the panel – none of whom were Muslim - ploughed through their sententious answers, none thought to ask why it was necessary to ask this question in the first place, since nobody had yet been able to cite one concrete instance of the problem it referred to.
These are not news stories. They are spasms of prejudice. In ten or twenty years time, they’ll be forgotten. But when we’re reminded of them, we’ll feel ashamed of the way they filled the air in 2013.
The New Statesman editor selects some of his favourite reviews, essays and comment published in the magazine in 2013 - from John Gray on Edmund Burke to Will Self's tribute to pessimism.
One of the many pleasures of being editor of the New Statesman is the opportunity it allows to commission and publish writers I admire writing about subjects that interest me.
Let’s call it a higher form of self-indulgence. Anyway, here are 25 articles published in the New Statesman in 2013 which are worth reading if you missed them. If you didn’t, they are worth reading again.
John Gray - "What Machiavelli Knew" (July)
John Bew on Alex Ferguson - "The last great Briton" (December)
Hedley Twiddle - "The last days of Nelson Mandela" (October)
Jemima Khan on Julian Assange - "How the Wikileaks founder alienated his allies" (February)
Michael Barrett on the remarkable travels of David Livingstone - "Presumed innocent" (July)
Vince Cable on the Great Stagnation -"When the facts change, should I change my mind?" (March)
John Gray on Edmund Burke and the Tories - "History has no author" (May)
Brendan Simms on the German Problem -"Cracked heart of the old world" (March)
Robert Skidelsky -"Creative Destruction: Keynes, Hobson, Marx – and the crisis of capitalism" (May)
Will Self -"In praise of pessimism" (April)
Peter Wilby - "A Dissenting Tradition: the New Statesman and the left"
Simon Heffer - "Margaret Thatcher was not right-wing" (May)
Richard Mabey - Writing on nature
Ian Bremmer From G20 to G-Zero - "Why no one wants to take charge in the new global order" (June)
Rachel Cusk - "On narcissim: the mirror and the self" (August)
Danny Dorling - "Why aren’t young people working?" (August)
Simon Kuper - "I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic: ghetto superstar" (September)
John Bew - "Clement Attlee: An unromantic hero" (September)
David Marquand on Britain and the EU - "First Brexit, then break-up" (October)
Steven Poole - "The pseudo-profundity of Malcolm Gladwell" (October)
David Pilling - "Shinzo Abe’s second coming" (October)
Russell Brand on revolution - “We no longer have the luxury of tradition” (October)
Rupert Everett - "Bring on the guillotine: Rupert Everett on the gay rights revolution" (October)
Bryan Appleyard - "Is this the death of Apple?" (November)
And here’s something by me – "Eton Eternal: How the old ruling class become the new ruling class" (May)
Through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has divided the internet into 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' categories and cut people off from huge swathes of it at the stroke of a key.
There is no porn filter, and blocking Childline is not an accident
The idea of an internet porn filter has always been a political fiction, a conveniently inaccurate sound bite used to conjure images of hardcore fisting and anal rape in the feverishly overactive imaginations of middle Britain. What activists actually called for - and ISPs were forced to provide - is an 'objectionable content' filter, and there is a vast, damp and aching chasm between the two.
The language of the mythical 'porn filter' is so insidious, so pervasive, that even those of us opposed to it have been sucked into its slippery embrace. And so even when it turns out that O2 are blocking the Childline and Refuge websites, or that BT are blocking gay and lesbian content, we tend to regard them as collateral damage – accidental victims of a well-meaning (if misguided) attempt to protect out children from the evils of cock.
But this was never the case. As Wiredreported back in July, Cameron’s ambitions extended far beyond porn. Working through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has put in place a set of filters and restrictions as ambitious as anything this side of China, dividing the internet into 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' categories, and cutting people off from huge swathes of it at the stroke of a key.
"As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on "violent material", "extremist related content", "anorexia and eating disorder websites" and "suicide related websites", "alcohol" and "smoking". But the list doesn't stop there. It even extends to blocking "web forums" and "esoteric material", whatever that is. "Web blocking circumvention tools" is also included, of course."
And the restrictions go further still. Over the weekend, people were appalled to discover that BT filters supported homophobia, with a category blocking, "sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy."
BT have since reworded this description to remove the 'gay and lesbian' reference, but given that their filtering is provided by an unnamed "third party supplier" it seems highly unlikely that the filter itself has changed overnight – merely the description. Such measures would never be taken against the 'heterosexual lifestyle' - this is discrimination, pure and simple, hard-coded into our national communications infrastructure.
Of course it’s impossible to see what’s been blocked other than through tedious trial and error. One website owner (@pseudomonas) asked BT on Twitter for information about whether their site was blocked, and their experience was something like talking to a brick wall who only speaks French. The bottom line here is that even parents have no idea what they’re actually blocking, and we have no way of assessing the harm caused by BT’s measures.
O2, the Slough-based BT spin-off, do allow people to check which websites are blocked, and although their filter has been around for a few years now, the results are terrifying. Their 'parental control' settings can be blocked from accessing Childline, Refuge, Stonewall or the Samaritans – which is even more frightening when you realise that they could just as easily be switched on by an abusive partner. The most vulnerable people in society are the most likely to be cut off from the help they need. As Adrian Short argues, some websites simply shouldn’t be blocked.
It was never really clear what the so-called porn filter was supposed to achieve; what problem it was trying to prevent. Filtering seems to have become a crutch for inept parents looking for an easy way to avoid having real conversations with their kids about sex, porn and the world outside their comfortable little cul-de-sacs. If their first sight of a vagina traumatizes your teenage child, then you have brought them up wrong - but of course the problem here is often the parent more than the child; the embarrassed mother of father – projecting their own feelings of discomfort and embarrassment around the topic of sex onto their child. There remains, despite a wave of public hysteria, no good evidence that porn has any detrimental effect on children.
What clearly does have an impact on children though is denying them sex education, suppressing their sexual identity, and shutting off access to child protection or mental health charities. In all this talk of porn filters, the rights of the children campaigners supposedly want to protect have been ignored or trampled. Children should have a right to good quality sex education, access to support hotlines and websites, and information about their sexuality.
We may not be able to stop bad parents cutting their children off from the world, but that doesn’t mean we should allow ISPs to build and sell the tools to do it with. What’s bewildering is that BT’s updated website now explicitly acknowledges that: "Parents should carefully consider the possible adverse effects from denying children of an appropriate age access to information on these issues." If your filter could cause adverse effects on children, then why are you still peddling it?
And that leads to perhaps the most important question of all here - why on Earth were these lists built in the first place? Who constructed a list of 'gay and lesbian' sites to ban? Who at BT commissioned it? On what grounds was this kind of institutional bigotry deemed acceptable? Is it still in effect, and if so, why? These were deliberate acts, which show that something very rotten has taken hold at the heart of the British Internet industry. We are entitled to far greater transparency and clearer answers than we’ve been getting so far.
The rich are getting richer to an extent that is breaking our society – and our economy – apart.
When it comes to Christmas, we British are gonna party like it’s 1899; watch the TV over the next week and you will see countless images of an idealised Victorian Christmas, probably including families gathering round a tree and urchins gazing through the frosted window of a toyshop.
Unfortunately, this Christmas will be more authentically Victorian than we’d like, not just because Bob Cratchit’s great-great-great grandson is once again struggling to buy festive poultry, but also because while most of us are getting poorer, the great-great-great grandsons of the top-hatted gentry are getting richer to an extent that is breaking our society – and our economy – apart.
Some of the signs of poverty are well-known: the low-paid parents forced to resort to food banks and the huge growth of the payday loan industry– a modern-day equivalent of the pawnbrokers (although the latter have doubled their numbers in the last four years, too). This poverty is not just about low incomes; it is also about income insecurity. Victorian stevedores each day hoped they would get lucky and be assigned work, whereas today growing numbers of workers wait to see how many – if any – hours of work their employer will give them.
Like the Victorian poor, Britons on low and middle incomes are often treated as a different caste of people to those which in the nineteenth century were called the "upper ten thousand" and are now the "super rich" 0.1%. The practice of sacrificing workers’ need for reliable incomes to the desire of employers to have flexibility is spreading - through zero-hours contracts and false self-employment– up the income scale. This is reflected in how our incomes are described: too often, the business pages of refer to the pay of the 0.1% as "reward" (they are valuable creatures to be nurtured and thanked) whereas the rest of us are "labour costs".
At the other end of the scale, the rich are getting richer. The UK’s 1,000 wealthiest people last year got richer by £35bn: they now have assets, on average, of £450m each. London now boasts the world’s most expensive home, and we are seeing the return of the butler. The share of national income that the top 1% get fell throughout most of the 20th century, but is again heading towards Victorian levels.
And this new gentry are not, for the most part, talented hard-working who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. As in the Victorian era, the rich are the privileged offspring of privileged parents. The UK has one of the lowest levels of social mobility in the developed world. A child whose parents send them to private school is 11 times more likely to go on to run a major company than his state-school equivalent, and 30 times more likely to become a high-court judge.
At the end of the 19th century, the consequences of inequality for the country became clear: one in three recruits for the Boer war were rejected on medical grounds. We are again constructing a Victorian folly: the UK is suffering from unusually high levels of mental and physical health problems for a developed country, problems which are associated with inequality, and which have detrimental effects on our economy as they impact on our productivity. In addition, inequality harms the economy by leaving the majority with little to spend and giving a minority lots of spare cash to spend on property speculation and other schemes which drive up costs for the rest of us.
The Victorian era saw a tiny plutocracy grab a huge share of the wealth of the country (and, for good measure, numerous other countries) but they left us a weakened nation that was heading for a sharp decline. Let's make our national new year’s resolution to stop making the same mistake.
Duncan Exley is director of the Equality Trust
Time was slow snow sieving the night,
a kind of love from the blurred moon;
your small town swooning, unabashed,
was Winter’s own.
Snow was the mind of Time, sifting
itself, drafting the old year’s end.
You wrote your name on the window-pane
with your young hand.
And your wishes went up in smoke,
beyond where a streetlamp studied
the thoughtful snow on Christmas Eve,
as Time, snow, darkness, child, kindled.
Downstairs, the ritual lighting of the candles.
“Christmas Eve” appears in “The Twelve Poems of Christmas, Volume Five”, selected by Carol Ann Duffy (Candlestick Press, £4.95)
Thank you for reading - we're having a rest, and we hope you are too.
After a jam-packed year - the New Statesman's centenary - the NS web team is taking a break for the next two days. Service will be resumed on 27 December.
On behalf of the team - Caroline, George, Ian, Sophie, Sean, Phil and all our bloggers - thank you for reading the website this year, and making it such a success. Over the sleepy interlude between 27 December and New Year, we'll be treating you to some of our best pieces from 2013.
In the meantime: happy Christmas!
The Tories are hailing the UK's projected growth while promoting policies that would strangle it.
Tory MPs are busyhailing what they regard as a late Christmas present: the news that the UK is forecast to become Europe's largest economy by 2030. According to the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR), Britain will overtake France by 2018 and Germany within the next two decades, leaving it as the second biggest western economy after the US.
The response from the Conservatives could be summarised as "See? We told you George knows what he's doing!" But here's one point they're conveniently avoiding: Britain won't win the growth race unless it maintains a high rate of immigration. As the CEBR states, "positive demographics with continuing immigration" is the main factor (along with non-membership of the euro) behind the UK's projected success. While Germany's population is forecast to decline sharply over the next few decades, the UK's is expected to rise to 75 million by 2043, making it the biggest country in Europe.
That a significant part of this increase is expected to come through immigration helps explain why Britain will grow strongly. An OECD report last month, for instance, found that migrants make a net contribution of 1.02 per cent of GDP or £16.3bn, since they are younger and more economically active than the population in general. Far from being "benefit tourists", migrants contribute far more in taxes than they receive in welfare payments and public services. Of the 5.5 million people claiming working age benefits in February 2011, just 371,000 (6.4 per cent) were foreign nationals when they first arrived in the UK, meaning only 6.6 per cent of those born abroad receive benefits, compared to 16.6 per cent of UK nationals.
Were immigration to be cut to the level most Tories would like to see (little or none), growth would be dramatically reduced. According to NIESR, a halving of net migration over the period to 2060 would shrink GDP by 11 per cent and GDP per person by 2.7 per cent. This leaves the Tories with two options: they can either welcome immigrants as contributors to the economy, or they can turn them away and accept growth will suffer as a result. What they can't do (at least if they wish to retain any credibility), is to boast of our projected growth while promoting policies that would strangle it.
Laurie Penny selects her favourite online writing from the last 12 months
This has been an extraordinary year for political writing, and almost all of the best of it has been online. Here, in no particular order of preference or importance, are 20 pieces that have made me punch the air, made me spin about in my seat, made me laugh and made me think. Of course, they somewhat reflect my reading interests: tech writing, feminism and social justice, political smackdowns, pop-culture reviews. Some appear on personal blogs and some on professional news websites; some went viral and some didn't get the attention they deserved. I've not linked to the New Statesman, or to my own writing.
After some thought about who and what to include, I selected the following links on only two criteria: first, they were only published online (although I bent this rule for a few great pieces that appeared in print too) and second, the quality of the writing is stunning. Then I shut the internet, took a pen and paper, and scribbled the names of all the pieces I could think of that really, truly, moved me. And here they are. Most of the best pieces this year have been written by women and people of colour. Make of that what you will.
1. Ta Nehisi Coates' blog at the Atlantic: Coates has been my favourite online writer this year, bar none. If you haven't come across his work yet, set aside an evening to binge-read the whole thing. You won't regret it.
2. What Doris Taught Us: Hannah Black on Doris Lessing for Dazed Digital
3. Letter Against Fear (unsent) by poet Sean Bonney for his blog, Abandoned Buildings
4. Chelsea Manning and the Two Americas by Quinn Norton at Medium. (NB. this piece was published the week before Manning came out as trans, so the 'Bradley' name is maintained).
5. Book of Lamentations: This review by Sam Kriss of the DSM-V as a dystopian novel at The New Inquiry is the sort of smart, original piece of critical commentary that most print editors wouldn't understand. It broke the internet and you can see why.
6. Getting Over It: Walter Kirn on the NSA spying revelations at the New Republic. " I will always, when given the option, push Allow. I will hide nothing. But I will conceal everything. I will be a good American."
7. Where Are All The Women?: Sarah Nicole Prickett on the claustrophobia of girl-world at Vice Canada.
8. Yes, America Has Gotten Better About Racism, but It Really Doesn’t Matter, by Mychal Denzel Smith, one of my favourite MSM bloggers, for The Nation.
9. Cockblocked by redistribution: a pick up artist in Denmark by Katie JM Baker at Dissent.
10. Gratuitous Pictures of your Grief: Lindsay Zoladz at Pitchfork talks us through mourning in the digital age. Brilliant piece.
11. Feminism's Tipping Point: Kate Losse at Dissent on technology and the limits of “leaning in”.
12. It Don't Gitmo Better than This: artist Molly Crabapple visits Guantanamo Bay for Vice.
13. Eton, by Tim Maly. "The PM deployed the army to a protest, killing 25. You are one of the soldiers. Describe how you would work through your PTSD, shame, and guilt".
14. Short cuts: striking at Pret A Manger. Paul Myerscough on unionising fast-food workers in London and
15. Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child: Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern at the New Inquiry rip apart Tiqqun's gross Theory of the Young Girl. An epic takedown.
16. The Reign of Morons is Here: Charles P Pierce mic drops at Esquire on the US government shutdown. "We have elected a national legislature that looks into the mirror and sees itself already cast in marble. We did this. We looked at our great legacy of self-government and we handed ourselves over to the reign of morons."
17. I’m Daisy Coleman, the teenager at the center of the Maryville rape media storm and this is what really happened
XOJane has pioneered a particular kind of confessional, intimate female narrative where the political forever collapses into the personal, but this piece bucks the trend hard and fierce.
19. Remember who the enemy is K-Punk on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. When Mark Fisher isn't trashing left intersectionality, he's still damn good.
20. On Calling In by Ngọc Loan Trần at Black Girl Dangerous. This is the sort of social justice piece the internet does best - a deep-feeling and deeply political intervention into a type of debate that has edged towards the toxic in recent months.
These rules reveal that few of us qualify as full-blown Walts. But all of us are fantasists.
The basics of being a Walter Mitty are simple. Your delusions of grandeur must take the form of fantastical dreams and pretensions, and you must be their hero. Do you tick those boxes? Great.
The protagonist of James Thurber's 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty dreams about being brave and saving the day, and the 1947 film adaptation followed the same script. But in Ben Stiller's sugared remake, released in the UK on Boxing Day, a man who lives his life through intense daydreams is called upon to be a real hero.
What Stiller may not know is that Walter Mitty has already been recreated thousands of times, for whenever journalists fling his name at fantasists, its meaning is refined. These are the rules of its definition.
First, though, let's be honest: we enjoy seeing a Mitty exposed.
In the past year, Grant Shapps has provided us with a particularly deep well of schadenfreude. The Tory Party Chairman constructed a false personality to front his business and is alleged to have promoted it by faking testimonials. This was revealed by Channel 4's Michael Crick, who followed Shapps backstage at party conference, asking embarrassing questions while the Member for Welwyn Hatfield repeatedly failed to find the exit. Watch the video. It's a masterclass in Rule One for Walts: they all share the clownishness of someone caught red-handed.
When someone like Shapps gets branded a Mitty, the sadism of our condemnation is on show, as well as the individual's supposed dishonesty. But when the label's not applied, it's equally telling.
Former Co-op Bank chairman Paul Flowers seems like the perfect candidate for such a branding. In his vainglorious dreamland, a deficit in banking knowledge constituted the capacity to preside over £36 billion in customer deposits, while long term use of Class As was disguised as the quiet moralism of the Methodist movement.
However, his sad case avoided the Mitty label because the people surrounding Flowers actively bought into his deceit. His CV was well known, but as one act of groupthink led to another, the Co-op appointed him, the FSA approved and the Labour leadership put him on their finance and industry advisory board. It seems that, by contrast, real Walts must have patsies with no inkling of the truth. Rule Two: Mittys must be alone with their lies.
Like Flowers, Dr David Kelly was also not-a-Walt. But the man who may or may not have told Andrew Gilligan that Alastair Campbell had sexed up the dossier on Iraqi WMD was nonetheless branded as such by Tom Kelly, Tony Blair's favoured spokesman.
The accusation was devastating because it seemed to make sense. With his reticent manner, wary eyes and tired, hanging jowls, the weapons inspector appeared too small for such a significant role in the greatest political scandal of the decade.
That kind of contradiction is impermissible in the news room, but if, in fact, he was a Mitty, the story became coherent, because of Rule Three: Walts are always in some way undistinguished. We ignored that he was a Nobel-nominated UN adviser on biological warfare. It seemed like he was just a nobody pretending to be a somebody.
David Kelly's sad tale shows that however big you are, you can always seem small. Despite being Head of Her Majesty's Government, Harold Wilson felt the need to show off. So, when Margaret Thatcher was still Leader of the Opposition, he chastised her for bragging about having saved several Soviet prisoners, only to announce that he had saved more of them, but then insist that he was too well-mannered to disclose how many.
On that occasion, the 'Mitty' label was so obviously deserved that the Times' political correspondent used it to describe him, not in a sketch, but in a front page report, and devoid of scare quotes. The British Establishment knows no greater shame.
Here we have evidence for Rule Four: Walts are "pathetic" in our laughing and sadistic sense of the word, but not so according to the piteous classical definition. Even after he left Downing Street, the politician suffered the indignity of having to sue for libel the publishers of a biography entitled "Sir Harold Wilson: Yorkshire Walter Mitty".
All the Walts so far have shared one trait, which points to Rule Five: Mittys are men, and the only women ever described as such are those who give up their traditional gender roles by becoming leaders. This label has been slapped on Hilary Clinton a number of times, most memorably when she made the fictional and tellingly macho claim of having escaped sniper fire in Bosnia.
Women are rarely branded as Mittys because in a sexist society, their being out of touch with reality is treated as a given. If on one side of the coin, women are represented as a priori Walts, then on the other we have Rule Six: men who are Mittys are always emasculated. Indeed, Wilson was portrayed by his libelous biographer as a cuckold who only sought power because his mother never loved him.
This self-deception can be a strength. After Wilson won the February 1974 general election, the Times described his Walter Mitty tendencies as having "allowed him to bounce back every time he was thrown down".
Even so, these rules are really a list of off-limit activities for anyone with ambition. Our rulers need arrogance, but they must make it suit them, and that brings us, finally, to Rule Seven: Walts are not posh. Grammar schoolboy Wilson could never wear his pretensions as well as Blair and Cameron later would, because Britain's public schools teach pupils how to convince people with their hubris.
Consequently, X Factor contestants are today's perfect Walter Mittys. The majority are in low-pay jobs with no prospect of career progression, and we laugh as millionaire panelists mock them for having ideas "above their station".
That is the sad truth about being a Mitty. The rules defining him indicate that we are both desperate for power, and sickened by that desperation. We are appalled by the fantasists who we put into power and, in turn, we brighten our lives with our own daydreams.
These rules reveal that few of us qualify as full-blown Walts. But all of us are fantasists.
There haven't been any convictions for FGM in the UK since it was criminalised 28 years ago, a remarkable fact that has led to the formation of a new Home Affairs Committee chaired by Keith Vaz MP.
As long ago as 1952 the UN Commission on Human Rights condemned the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and in 1985 the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act criminalised it in England and Wales. These little-reported matters should hardly come as a surprise. FGM is a barbaric act, borne out of historic customs developed in male-dominated societies obsessed with female virginity. It is cruel and brutal by almost any standards.
Yet, according to last month’s report by the Royal College of Midwives, there are over 66,000 victims in England and Wales. So, one stunning question must be asked: why has not a single person in England or Wales been successfully prosecuted since FGM was criminalised 28 years ago?
That is the key question behind the major inquiry to be chaired by Keith Vaz MP, announced by the Home Affairs Committee on 18th December. The common perception is that FGM and Islam go hand-in-hand, but many Muslims and academics argue that the practice is a cultural rather than religious one. This contention has traction. The practice is condemned even in Saudi Arabia, and outside the UK FGM shows a clearer link with poverty than with Islam. For instance, it is practised in pockets of Africa far outside the reaches of Sharia.
Then again, the practice is widespread in the Muslim-dominated Middle East, and most religions, and perhaps especially Islam, are not only a matter of theology but also of culture. Indeed, the best that some Muslim clerics will do is to condemn only some types of FGM while refusing to apologise for what they consider to be Islamic approval of one particular method, sunna circumcision.
But while there is debate about the link between Islamic communities and FGM abroad, the relationship in Britain appears much clearer. And perhaps it is the significance of that fact that must be recognised by any investigation into the reasons behind the lack of criminal prosecutions.
I am not the first person to observe that many liberal intellectuals seem incapable of viewing Islam as anything other than as victim. What it is about the world’s most totalitarian religion that has liberals scurrying to defend it is hardly within the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, there is a ready-made army with an arsenal of laptops and access to highbrow media, ready to condemn any policy of criminal prosecutions that can be accused of failing to take into account the sensibilities of Muslim communities.
And how many times have we encountered those shouting for the rights of women, but who fail to raise their voices when the oppressed happen to be Muslim? Is female subservience really to be tolerated so long as it is perpetuated in the name of a rabidly male-dominated religion? As a result, the police, the CPS and even government must tread carefully, knowing that any ingress in this arena is ripe for frenzied accusations of racism and Islamophobia.
But what on earth would right-minded people say if it was little white English girls that were being mutilated? Howls of protest would rightly echo through society and prosecutions would undoubtedly follow. Surely if the ethnicity of the victims is a factor behind the failure to prosecute in the face of mounting awareness of FGM, such inaction would be a more worthy target of allegations of racism than would a robust policy of investigation and prosecution.
Perhaps the real difficulty lies in detection. Of course, the physical signature left on victims means that detection should be straightforward, but only at the cost of a gross invasion of the privacy of the girls in question.
One can imagine how a programme of investigations could be carried out as a matter of routine in primary schools when girls reach a particular age, perhaps five or six. But how can one devise a screening system that avoids taunts of racism but that would not see entire schools needlessly checked merely to avoid those accusations in the first place?
As a practising barrister, I am frustrated when I see a lacuna in the law that facilitates unconscionable conduct. But that is nothing compared with the anger we should feel as parents and as UK citizens when we see vital laws rendered wholly ineffective and child abuse go unpunished as a result.
Those who live in our country have the right to be protected from FGM just as much as from the likes of forced marriage and honour killings. And young victims unaware that they are victims, and who don’t cry for help because they don’t realise they need it, are the ones most in need of the state’s protection.
So here’s hoping that Keith Vaz’s inquiry helps to put matters right before the damning statistics unveiled by the Royal College of Midwives are weighed down by a further 66,000 victims.