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    Human artistic creativity marks us out from the animal kingdom. You look at a painting by Michelangelo or Raphael and you know what it means to be human, with all the capacity to express in stone or paint what it is to be alive.

    A casual study of the genetic code makes you realise how difficult it is to answer the question of what it means to be human. After all, genetic comparisons show that we human beings have more than a 50 per cent match with bananas. And with animals the similarities are much greater, which underscores the case for anthropomorphic fiction. We are 90 per cent cat, 80 per cent cow and 75 per cent mouse. Question – am I a man or a mouse? Answer – 75 per cent mouse.

    Moreover, many characteristics that we associate with human beings are often claimed for our animal cousins. Is loyalty a solely human attribute? Well, what about dogs, which have a marked tendency to look up faithfully to their masters and mistresses and not only at mealtimes? Winston Churchill famously said, “Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you. Give me a pig. He just treats you as an equal.”

    Some claim that, besides loyalty, dogs have a sense of humour. There is a large scholarly literature about this. An old, now alas deceased friend, the distinguished cultural anthropologist Professor Mary Douglas, wrote an essay answering the question “Do Dogs Laugh?”. If you know my dog, Archie, you’d have no doubt that he loves a good chuckle.

    What about cats being patronising? I’ve always assumed they have a profound sense of their own superiority but would never dream of suggesting (on the other hand) that the way they kill mice betrays a cruel streak. Aren’t they just wearing out their prey?

    There are those who take this ascription of attributes to animals to greater heights. I found a website called Cow Protection, which claimed that these useful animals are not only innocent and pure but also magnanimous, on the grounds that they are lifetime surrogate mothers to us all, providing all those gallons of milk. So there you have it: cows are great-spirited – an idea that Aristotle would have recognised. And I haven’t even mentioned mature Cheddar.

    But there is one thing that clearly marks out human beings from animals, and I offer it without getting into a religious discussion about souls, though souls do in a sense come into it. Human beings create art. Not all human beings, of course (not me, for example) – but we all have the potential to be Rembrandt or Mozart, and to appreciate them, too.

    Admittedly, this argument is confused by the suggestion that if you gave a chimpan­zee long enough he or she could thump out on the typewriter the complete works of Shakespeare. Yet this infinite monkey theorem is not about animals at all. It is a mathematician’s metaphor. It describes simply the mathematical possibilities of random and endless sequences of symbols and numbers. But as the non-random Wikipedia asks, can we really contemplate the probability of a universe full of monkeys typing Twelfth Night or King Lear, let alone all 37 of the bard’s plays?

    However clever your dog appears, is Rover capable of writing Beethoven’s string quartets or even appreciating any tunes more subtle than a Sousa march? Let me introduce you, pray, to the cat that has just painted a remarkable companion piece to Vermeer’s Milkmaid.

    The awkward squad may, I suppose, be prepared to argue that animals and insects have their own art forms that we human beings just don’t comprehend. They are above or below our aesthetic radar screen. Welcome to the world of the cockroach sonneteers and the beetle haiku writers. Bring on the meerkats who staged a brilliant performance of The Magic Flute and the giraffes who gave us their own Ring cycle.

    No, it is human artistic creativity that marks us out from the animal kingdom. You look at a painting by Michelangelo or Raphael and you know what it means to be human, with all the capacity to express in stone or paint what it is to be alive, with a higher intelligence than a bat or a weasel.

    How do you describe the relationship between you, as the audience or viewer, and the piece of art you admire? Sometimes words fail. You can’t quite describe your reactions to Strauss’s Four Last Songs. So what is it you have that is absent from your tabby? Better not mention that soul.

    Chris Patten is a cross-bench peer and the chairman of the BBC Trust. The “What Makes Us Human?” series is published in association with Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show

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    A seafaring Chekhov story dredges up some family history.

    My grandad was born with a caul – a strange, papery bonnet, the remains of the amniotic sac. In those days there was a widely held superstition among sailors that if you were born “in caul” you could never drown. I never met him but I suppose that if you were, as he was, a sailor at war, it was comforting to believe that you weren’t going to drown. Having survived the Battle of Jutland, he got married. He was late arriving for his ship, the HMS Hampshire, which sailed without him, and he was thrown into the Bridewell. All but 12 of the Hampshire’s 600 hands were lost, including Lord Kitchener. Maybe Grandad thought his caul – his luck – had saved him.

    He got safely through two world wars. In the end he died in peacetime. His ship – the Cydonia– was blown into an unexploded mine off the Pembrokshire coast. He was the stoker. His epic, sweaty, hellish job was to keep the fires going. He wasn’t supposed to be on duty at the time. He was covering for someone else. He didn’t drown when the engines blew. He was boiled alive.

    I lived with my grandmother – his wife – when I was small, in a little flat on Stanley Road near the docks in Liverpool. Apart from the odd excursion to the city centre (two stops away), I don’t remember her ever straying beyond the little network of streets that was her parish. Yet there was a glass cupboard in the corner of the parlour that was stuffed with the fine, untouchable things that Grandad had brought back from his voyages in the South China Sea or across the Atlantic. A pale tea service so delicate it seemed to tremble like a sea creature behind the glass, a chunk of coral, a shell with Psalm 107 burned into it and a varnished porcupine fish.

    That’s about all I know about my grandad.

    My father barely knew him either – he was at sea for most of Dad’s childhood and then he was dead. So Dad didn’t talk about him much. My grandma didn’t talk about anyone much. So I hardly ever gave my grandad a second thought. One day I was at a film festival doing press for a film I’d written. In the interval between interviews, it looked rude to pick up a book, so I noodled around on my phone and found a short story by Anton Chekhov that I had not read before called “Gusev”. Technologically, sociologically, geographically and emotionally I was a solar system distant from my grandma’s flat. But one paragraph in, for the first time in my life, I saw in my imagination Grandad. Everything about the story lead me to think of him.

    Gusev is an orderly heading home to Russia in the sickbay of a tramp steamer. Talkative and feverish, he annoys one of the other passengers – Pavel Ivanitch – by worrying that the ship will be broken on the back of a big fish, or that the wind will “break its chains”. As he slips in and out of consciousness, he has visions of life at home. Heartbreakingly, these visions feature a pond – a domestic, manageable version of the sea. Eventually, he dies and his body is sewn up in sailcloth and tipped overboard. It splashes into the sea and the foam makes it look as though he is wrapped in lace. He disappears beneath the waves. Then Chekhov produces his amazing ending, following Gusev’s corpse as it sinks to the sea floor, past startled pilot fish and a curious shark.

    My grandad’s corpse, like Gusev’s, would have rolled around on the bottom of the ocean. There’s also the fact Gusev is returning from a war and that he is dreaming of home, that he didn’t belong out there on the sea. On top of all the parallels, though, Gusev seems like a real person and this seems like a real incident. This happens so often when you’re reading Chekhov – that feeling you’re reading about something that really happened. How does he do this?

    Chekhov was out and about in the world with his eyes open. In 1890 he spent three months trekking across Siberia to get to the penal colony at Sakhalin. On the way, he wrote extraordinary, vivid letters to his sister. He came back on a steamer and there were two passengers on board who were extremely ill. The character of Gusev has the kind of oddity you feel comes from observation. He dislikes Chinese people intensely and gets into trouble for beating up four of them. When Pavel Ivanitch asks him why, he says, “Oh nothing. They came into the yard so I hit them.” When he is dead, trussed up in the sailcloth, Chekhov describes him with a vivid but undignified phrase. He looks like a carrot or a radish, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom. And, of course, he dies – what could be more “real” than that? Chekhov was a doctor. It’s a serious matter when a doctor lets a person die, even if that person is fictional.

    The landscape, too, is drawn from observation. In another of the Siberian letters he describes crossing Lake Baikal and looking down into its crystal-clear waters. The first time I read it, I felt a shock of delight: this must have been the inspiration for Gusev’s watery descent.

    The extraordinary thing about any Chekhov story is that when you begin to read one, you have no idea where it’s going to end up. You can easily imagine the story that Maupassant, for instance, would have made of my grandad’s life. The Macbethy irony of his believing that just because you couldn’t drown you wouldn’t die at sea and then – ha ha, cruel fate – he’s boiled instead. He should have known! But for me the most arresting thing about his life was how utterly unpredictable its consequences were. If he hadn’t jumped ship that night, been prepared to be locked up for an extra night with his wife, I wouldn’t be here writing. I wouldn’t exist. Nor would my children, my siblings, my cousins. Dozens of people are only alive because of his tipsy whim.

    “Gusev” is unpredictable in the way that life is. It starts with a kind of comedy routine between the ignorant Gusev and the superior Ivanitch but ends up with that soaring, sacramental prose poem. Writers who try to imitate Chekhov sometimes mistake this unpredictability for randomness, a trudging “realism”, or worse, “honesty”. But Chekhov isn’t a journalist or a memoirist. He began as a hack, writing skits and sketches. “Oh with what trash I began,” he wrote later. He can write anywhere – for instance, on a tramp steamer; about anything – for instance, a garrulous sick passenger. These are the things that being a hack teaches you. He also has a hack’s repertoire of tricks and techniques. Chekhov’s unpredictability doesn’t come from rejecting artifice and contrivance. It comes from being an absolute master of artifice and contrivance.

    If you go back through the story you will see that the unexpected ending is perfectly set up. In Gusev’s nonsense about wind and chains and giant fish, in his remembered pond, the sea is always threatening to overwhelm the story. This is also true tonally. Gusev and Ivanitch are convincing individual characters but as they bicker, they move further and further apart until each comes to stand for a different view of life. Ivanitch dismisses Gusev’s chances of ever grasping the point of life. “Foolish, pitiful man,” he says, “you don’t understand anything.” Yet Gusev reaches out for understanding:

    A vague urge disturbs him. He drinks water, but that isn’t it. He stretches towards the port-hole and breathes in the hot, dank air, but that isn’t it either. He tries to think of home and frost – and it still isn’t right.

    Chekhov’s great tenderness is that his story seems to be reaching out for a shape and an ending, just as Gusev tries to reach out through his fever for a meaning. They’re in this together.

    Then there’s the ending. In one sense it shows us Gusev as nothing but a piece of meat, dumped over the side, sinking to the bottom. But we’re also overwhelmed by the sense of the grandeur and beauty of the food chain, of what a magnificent thing meat is. It’s impossible to read that section without being pulled up short by how ridiculous we are – like a carrot or a radish – but also how beautiful – wrapped in lace. It describes life reduced to its components but it also recalls, inevitably, Psalm 107 – the psalm that was inscribed on my grandad’s shell.

    “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

    Frank Cottrell Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. He was the writer for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony This is an edited extract from “Morphologies: Short Story Writers on Short Story Writers”, published by Comma Press on 30 January (£9.99)

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    I can almost feel the sun on my neck, the chilled Chianti as it slips down my throat . . .

    As some bloke once said, I have a dream. My dream isn’t about all mankind walking hand in hand, or peace in the Middle East, or anything like that, although those things would be nice. My dream is of a more prosaic nature: that, one day, Curly will train to be a teacher.

    If I close my eyes, I can see it all so clearly . . . It’s summer in 2020. We have packed the kids off to some kind of boot camp and Curly and I are on a walking holiday in Tuscany. The sun is shining; the wild flowers are blooming. We are staying in one of those places where twinkly-eyed Italian farmers grow delicious food and their wives feed it to you. We are, in other words, fully-fledged members of the professional middle classes at leisure.

    I can almost feel the sun on my neck, the chilled Chianti as it slips down my throat . . . It feels as though finally, after all the fretting and squabbling and messing about, order has been restored to the universe.

    If any of you killjoys out there are thinking of writing in to tell me that teaching is incredibly hard work, extremely stressful and underpaid – that we would never be able to afford such an expensive holiday and that even if we could, it would not begin to compensate for the hell that is term time – please don’t. I don’t want to know. This is about me clinging desperately to the belief that there is a vaguely realistic solution to our perennial brokeness and general failure to achieve the standard of living that I, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, still feel that we deserve.

    Naturally, I have alerted Curly to the benefits of the teaching plan. “Just think of the holidays!” I say, every couple of days. “And the salary! And you would be making such a huge contribution to the well-being of the younger generation!”

    “But I’d have to be a teacher,” Curly points out, demonstrating an eagle-eyed attention to detail. He hated school and has no desire to go back there. He has proposed an alternative plan: we sell our flat and move out of London and he gets a job at Greggs. That plan has been vetoed.

    So persistent is my nagging that he eventually cracks and looks up teacher training online. I hover around, reading over his shoulder.

    “See? You could do it. You’re perfectly qualified. You’ve got a degree, haven’t you?”

    “Yes,” says Curly, glumly.

    “And experience working with young people?”

    “I suppose so.”

    “There you go. And obviously the GCSEs in English, maths and science aren’t going to be a problem . . .”

    “Actually,” Curly says, visibly brightening, “they are going to be a problem. I’ve got English but I haven’t got maths or science.”

    “Let me just get this straight,” I say, swallowing hard. “You haven’t got GCSE maths?”

    “Nope!” Curly beams. “Unless you count a grade U.”

    “I DO NOT COUNT A GRADE U!” I sink my head into my hands. Gaudy tatters of the dream billow around in my mind. No sun, no Chianti; chilly, cramped summers in an Essex caravan site stretch ahead like a punishment for I-know-not-what.

    I scrape myself off the desk, grab the keyboard and type: “GCSE distance learning courses”. The dream may be dying but it’s not dead yet. It’s. Not. Dead. Yet.

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    There will be an admissions procedure. “So, did you get into lesbianism?” Emily asks Stephanie. “No,” says Stephanie, gazing at her tiny, straight-girl feet.

    Once upon a time, lesbians recruited. In the days of the Greenham Common peace camp and dungarees worn without a soupçon of irony, I didn’t exist – but, being an amateur lesbian historian, I know that back then dykedom was something of an insurgency. For many Generation X feminists, sleeping with women was more political than personal. Gen Y lesbians are, for the most part, far less vegetarian or militant. We eat burgers and the only dungarees that can be seen are vintage ones, draped over Clapton waifs. Is the recruitment office still open?

    It’s not that lesbian activism is dead. I went on something called a “dyke march” last year and there were at least 12 of us. Some were brandishing “We recruit” placards. But do we? I’m not one to extol the benefits of lesbianism to anyone. Even when my straight female friends bemoan the shitness of men, I’m never tempted to coax them over to the dyke side. I’m far too busy dealing with my own lesbionic problems to start creating new ones for wide-eyed straight girls who feel like a holiday from penis.

    Maybe, since lesbianism has become fashionable, we don’t even need to recruit. When more women than ever are either coming out or experimenting, should we be accepting applications? Let them come to us. Aspiring lesbians ought to face a rigorous course of exams and interviews – a bit like applying to Oxbridge but with more crying.

    Candidates would face exam questions such as: “Nikki has been in a relationship with Catherine for 18 months. After a massive argument, Catherine gets drunk and shags her best friend, Becky, in a toilet cubicle. Meanwhile, Nikki has been WhatsApping Emma, her ex, who has wanted Catherine out of the picture since the Dalston Superstore Couscous Incident of 2011. Nikki’s and Catherine’s cat, Morrissey, has had to bear the brunt of their bickering. Which of them deserves to keep him after their inevitable break-up?”

    Following written exams, hopefuls would be tested on their knowledge of Beyoncé lyrics and challenged to a pun-off by Sue Perkins. In this way, only the brightest and the best would be awarded access to the illustrious realm of Sapphism. And, my God, is it illustrious – the drama, the knackered brogues, the continuous questions from straight men about what two women do in bed, when they know perfectly well what you do and just want to hear you say it.

    A study by the Open University recently revealed that same-sex couples are more likely to be happy than hetero ones. Lesbianism simply sells itself. If my application system is implemented, I’d expect interest this year to go through the roof. Straight women throughout the land would sit, anxiously, praying for acceptance letters.

    “So, did you get into lesbianism?” Emily asks Stephanie.

    “No,” says Stephanie, gazing at her tiny, straight-girl feet. “I passed the written papers but I completely messed up the pun-off.”

    “Do you think you’ll try again next year?”

    “I’m not sure,” says Stephanie. “There are a lot of places left in bisexuality and I hear it’s much easier to get into.”

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    The client, the brief and the wardrobe: moving on from Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Changing Rooms.

    The Great Interior Design Challenge

    Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness

    I had a low moment while I was watching The Great Interior Design Challenge (weekdays, 7pm), which is like Changing Rooms up-cycled for the Bake Off generation. The judges – Daniel Hopwood, an interior designer, and Sophie Robinson, former editor of BBC Good Homes magazine – were examining the master bedroom of an Edwardian semi in Muswell Hill, London. Hopwood, ordinarily a smooth, smiling, non-commit­tal type, looked down at the varnished floorboards and, baring his considerable teeth, decreed them (the floorboards, I mean) to be a “nasty, hippy ginger”. They would, he said, certainly have to go. Eh? I got up and dashed into our sitting room, at which point my face fell faster than a cable car in a Bond movie. It was as I thought. My floorboards, too, are a “nasty, hippy ginger” – or, as we call it in our house, “orange”.

    The Great Interior Design Challenge is presented by Tom Dyckhoff, a gorgeously warm and unaffected presenter. It’s his job to describe the architectural and social history of the town or suburb where the week’s three contestants must perform their damask-heavy magic – after which he pretty much disappears until the final reveal. This being a competition for people who long to make their living from fitted wardrobes, faded gingham and feature walls, it’s unlikely he’ll ever have to deal with a sobbing homeowner, as Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen used to. In this show, contestants must at least attempt to follow the “client’s brief”. Still, it’s a possibility and I hope he’s prepared. At the very least, he should be sure to have a freshly laundered handkerchief in his pocket – preferably one big enough to double as a tablecloth or even a dust sheet. (“Honestly, Mrs Ramsbottom! I don’t think your dining room looks at all like the interior of a sexual health clinic. But you could always dim the spotlights and throw this over the sideboard if it’s really too much.”)

    Once they have met their client, our cushion plumpers have £1,000 and three days in which to make over three similar rooms. Interiors are as much a matter of taste as expertise and you can guess who’ll win simply by glancing at them. I took one look at Helen, an artist from Durham with Zandra Rhodes-style hair and a mania for “shabby chic”, and knew that paint effects would be her downfall. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before she was attempting to create a trompe l’oeil headboard for her client’s double bed. It was, I’m afraid, straight out of an amateur production of Sleeping Beauty.

    James, an asset manager whose style might accurately be described as “nan chic”, struck me as someone who would go big – we’re talking massive – on lime and pink florals. Again, I wasn’t wrong. But Sarah, a crafty type from Suffolk, knew how to use an upholsterer’s needle and arrived in Muswell Hill with a pile of exquisite vintage fabrics in her bag – and naturally she went through to round two, which means that her dandelion stencil effects live to fight another wall.

    I hope that the programme makers book Waldemar Januszczak when they get round to making the celebrity version of The Great Interior Design Challenge. He’d be brilliant. Stick him in a tired Edwardian bedroom and – wannabe mischief maker that he is – he’d doubtless attempt to revive that prissy staple of the marital couch, the valance. After all, weren’t valances – or something very like them – all the rage in 18th-century Bavaria, the intermittently pink and frilly land where much of his new series, Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness (Tuesdays, 9pm), was filmed?

    I have two complaints about Rococo. The first is that its jaunty soundtrack from hell leaves you feeling tired and irritable even before you’ve had to contemplate the ghastly porcelain collection of Augustus the Strong. The second is that Januszczak delivers every sentence, every phrase, in a weird, strained whisper. It’s as if he’s auditioning for an M&S ad. “This isn’t just any rococo,” he said at one point (OK, he didn’t say precisely this but you know what I mean). “This is the rococo of the Wieskirche.”

    Crikey, I thought, as he proceeded to tell us that the Wieskirche (or “the Church of the Meadow”) looks like a “tasty apricot sorbet” (it doesn’t, at all). If he can do this with mere stucco, imagine what he could do with a frozen trifle. He’d be so much more effective shifting real cream cakes than architectural ones. When it comes to commentary, the churches of Dominikus Zimmermann and his contemporaries demand salt, not more sugar.

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    Linda Colley’s brilliantly perplexing essay on British politics and Ireland.

    Acts of Union and Disunion
    BBC Radio 4

    An ongoing series of short programmes written and presented by the historian Linda Colley (weekdays, 1.45pm), concentrating on various aspects of Britishness that are “contested and in flux”, has looked at the monarchy, our islands, liberty and the sea. Intriguing episodes titled “Pasts and Futures” (about UK development following the independence vote) and “Constitutions” (exploring Britain’s lack of a written one) lie ahead but her recent essay on Ireland was outstanding. Colley continually and hypnotically, with her clear, headmistress-like voice, presented the facts and figures that establish the intertwining of our nations.

    By 1830, for example, the so-called British army contained more Irish than British troops and the Irish were “intrinsic actors in the empire, both as administrators and colonists”. By 1881, 800,000 Irish lived in England, hence the six million people in the UK now claiming Irish ancestry. Colley kept on with this point (she is devastating with a statistic; the figures come tumbling out), reinforcing how deeply intermingled and codependent the Irish and British experiences have been – varieties of people struggling with varieties of unworkable acts of union.

    My grandfather was in the IRA. Trained as a young teenager by Michael Collins and a member of the Tipperary flying column, he fought, sometimes shoeless, in the Easter Rising of 1916: I have seen a photograph of him looking very small and not nearly warm enough, holding a rifle, with the other boys and young men in the column, who were equally cold. He spent time on death row with Éamon de Valera after partition, with his brothers (who were more sympathetic to Collins) as his jailers. He escaped and later came to London, without apparent rancour (although I often think of the inner turmoil) and lived the rest of his life as a labourer, residing off Abbey Road, helping to build the M1.

    In many ways, this is a perfect demonstration of the symbiosis that Colley was talking about. The strange give and take, the head-lolling, hard-to-understand connections; the opportunities and loyalties. The various, deeply compromised acts of union in Ireland, she said, have simply been too crude. Colley called for “more messy political solutions”. (Although what might they be?)

    At the beginning of the programme, she mentioned Seamus Heaney. Standing, as he did, above the fray with pure poetry and refusing for the most part to confound or nuance the set views of either republicans or nationalists, Heaney was also demonstrating those same connections, aspirations and loyalties – although it wasn’t activism in conventional political terms. Indeed, by the end of Colley’s brilliantly perplexing essay, you began to wonder how useful an adjective “political” ever is.

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    Alexandra Coghlan meets the Queen’s composer.

    “I’ve often thought that democracy would be a good idea in the UK but one sees no evidence yet of it being implemented,” says Peter Maxwell Davies, smiling. “As a composer, what can you do about it? You have to bear witness.”

    A provocateur of contemporary classical music, Davies flared into the headlines in 1969 with the howl of Eight Songs for a Mad King– inspired by the story of George III, the piece demanded a small anvil, a football rattle and a scrubbing board, along with an orchestra. Forty-five years later, on the eve of his 80th birthday and awaiting the world premiere of his Symphony No 10, he is part of the establishment – knighted, master of the Queen’s music and member of the Order of the Companions of Honour. Though the former republican admits that he’s been won over by the Queen, he still made the news in 2005 when the body of a swan was found in his Orkney home. When police called to investigate, he explained that the bird had hit a local power line – and offered them swan terrine.

    Alongside his emotionally extreme work – his symphonies have evolved from abstraction to dense, quasi-dramatic beauty, while his string quartets still refuse to give up their secrets without a fight – Davies has sustained another musical identity. The folk simplicity of Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise or the brash, bluesy joy of Mavis in Las Vegas represents a complementary side to a composer who sees little distinction between “light” and “serious”. “Farewell to Stromness”, the best-known work from his cabaret suite The Yellow Cake Revue (1980), took as its inspiration the ecological threat posed by uranium mining in the Orkneys; other songs in the sequence include “The Tourist Song: Have You Heard of the Terrorist Suicide Squad?” and “Nuclear Job Interview 3: the Mental Healthworker”.

    Funny titles aside, how – in so abstract a medium as classical music – does a composer express a political opinion? “The greatest example is Beethoven cancelling his dedication of the Third Symphony to Napoleon when he became a tyrant,” he tells me. We meet in rooms near Regent’s Park owned by the Royal Academy of Music, where he teaches once a term.

    “Then there were Shostakovich’s hidden musical protests against Soviet rule. For me, it was the invasion of Iraq. I thought it was so immoral, so stupid, and that anger spilled into one of my NaxosQuartets. You might say, ‘What . . . difference does that anger make in a quartet?’ I knew that Blair and Bush were never going to listen to a Haydn quartet, let alone one by me. But I knew I had at least testified to what they had done.

    “I took it further in the Ninth Symphony,” he continues. “In the despair of that piece, particularly in the use of brass, there’s a musical reaction to the utter stupidity of the neocolonialism that took us into Iraq and Afghanistan.”

    Brought up a socialist in a family he describes as “very left wing”, Davies was perhaps an unlikely candidate for master of the Queen’s music, the classical equivalent of poet laureate. “I’ve come to admire the Queen very much,” he says. “I always realised she was a very canny lady and no fool but I didn’t anticipate how devoted she was to her work. When I first got the job, I asked her what she expected of me and she said, ‘Philip and I would like to learn.’ I thought that was such a good answer. She also told me that she found a lot of very dissonant music difficult and didn’t like it. Of course, she’s perfectly entitled to say that and not be judged for it and you do take it on board.

    “Despite being fascinated by the avant-garde during the Fifties and Sixties, I’ve always been aware that anyone making music has a social duty and a contract,” Davies continues. “There’s never a good enough excuse for writing music that audiences don’t like. When I was teaching, I saw how music can bind a community together, that children who are interested in music find it sparks off all sorts of other things in their imaginations, makes them better scholars, better human beings.”

    A mention of Michael Gove provokes visible anger from this long-time advocate for music education (“He’s unspeakable”). Davies has written more music for school groups and community ensembles than almost any other composer of his stature. “Classical music is being pushed aside by the present government,” he says. “Children still have access to popular music and that’s important, too, but I worry that, because it has become so commercial, it only exposes them to ready-made musical thoughts, to ready-made texts for songs that never really get to the heart of the matter. Two bars of Schubert just say so much more – and at a deeper level – that I’m sad that people don’t have access to it.”

    He credits his Symphony No 10, which will premiere at the Barbican in London on 2 February, with sustaining him through his recent leukaemia treatments. The work was written partly in hospital and partly at his home on the remote island of Sanday. He has twice sworn he’d never write another symphony, convinced that he had said all he wanted within classical music’s largest and most rigorous form. “But I think if you’ve done something big like build a church, or write a symphony, then the bug will always bite you again,” he explains, “because it’s the only way to create something of that scope and weight.”

    In many ways, Symphony No 10 is a progression rather than a return – it is Davies’s first choral symphony. “My starting point was the 17th-century Roman architect Borromini. The illusion of enormous grandeur, the great intricacy and arithmetic, just the wonder of his shapes, have always inspired me. He committed suicide but he survived for two days after falling on his sword and dictated a testament that I find terribly moving [he requested that no name appear on his tomb]. The final section of the piece actually sets it for baritone solo.”

    Back in 1978, when Davies wrote his First Symphony, it was the last thing anyone expected of the musical iconoclast. While he may now be part of the establishment that he once challenged, however, his choice of the form remains provocative. Beethoven’s choral Symphony No 9 still dwarfs all that came after it and every composer writes in its shadow. “My Tenth is not at all like Beethoven’s choral symphony,” he maintains, “and I’m sure that some people will say that what I’ve written isn’t a symphony at all but an operatic narrative. But I think it’s important if you write something with that kind of architecture to have the courage to call it a symphony. Throughout history, composers have changed what the symphony is, what it means,” he says. “I’m just continuing that tradition.”

    The London Symphony Orchestra will perform “Symphony No 10” at the Barbican, London EC2, on 2 February

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    Neither the tax rises proposed by Labour, nor the benefits cuts proposed by the Tories would make a significant dent in the deficit.

    The 2010 general election was defined by a conspiracy of silence between the main parties. For fear of the electoral consequences, neither Labour nor the Conservatives spelled out to voters what austerity would entail in practice. While vowing to halve the deficit, Gordon Brown never acknowledged the scale of spending cuts that would be needed to meet this pledge. The Tories, who promised to eliminate the structural deficit in a single parliament, were no better. The weekend before the election, David Cameron declared that any future cabinet minister who proposed “front-line reductions” in services would be “sent straight back to their department to go away and think again”. During the campaign, he said that his party had “absolutely no plans” to raise VAT, that he “wouldn’t means-test” child benefit, that Sure Start centres would not be closed and that the Education Maintenance Allowance would remain in place. Each one of these promises was broken before the year was out.

    This year has begun with both the Tories and Labour declaring that they are prepared to make the “tough choices” required to reduce the deficit – which the government forecasts will be £111bn this year – in the next parliament. George Osborne has promised to implement £25bn of further spending cuts, including £12bn from welfare, in the two years after the next general election. Ed Balls has announced that Labour will seek to achieve a current budget surplus by the end of the next parliament and will reintroduce the 50p income-tax rate to help with this task. Both men wish to be seen as fiscal disciplinarians, taking difficult but necessary decisions in the national interest. Yet neither can credibly claim this mantle.

    There is little that is brave about cutting benefits for the poor or raising taxes on the rich, policies that have the overwhelming support of the public. Voters, unsurprisingly, are most in favour of austerity when it does not affect them. Just 1.5 per cent of taxpayers have earnings above the £150,000 threshold at which the 50p tax rate would be introduced and a similarly small proportion of households is affected by measures such as the benefit cap. For this reason, none of the policies recently announced by Mr Balls and Mr Osborne would make a significant dent in the deficit. Rather, their logic is almost entirely political. The Tories are seeking to frame Labour as the party of welfare, Labour to frame the Tories as the party of the wealthy. One can hardly blame politicians for playing politics but the danger is that this ideological skirmish denies the country the open debate it needs about its fiscal choices.

    Despite the return of consistent growth, the scale of austerity required after 2015, owing to the persistence of the structural deficit (which stands at 3.6 per cent of GDP), has not lessened. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that £12bn of further tax rises or welfare cuts will be needed merely to maintain departmental spending cuts at their current level. While Mr Osborne has declared his willingness to make welfare reductions of this size, he has notably refused to specify any beyond the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s, a measure that would raise at most £1.2bn, and likely less after exemptions for the disabled and other vulnerable groups. Beyond the tax rises announced by Labour, most of which are to fund new spending programmes, Mr Balls has offered to remove winter fuel payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, a cut that would save just £100m.

    For the sake of democracy as well as good government, we need a far wider debate about the services the state should fund and the taxes it should levy to pay for them. Both parties should consider significantly deeper cuts to a defence budget that remains the fourth largest in the world. At a time when property values are rising far faster than incomes, they should also look to increase the taxation of high-value estates, including steeper rates of stamp duty and the imposition of capital gains tax on first properties. Other imaginative options include the introduction of a land value tax and a higher rate of VAT on luxury items. But given that it seems the limits of departmental cuts will soon be reached, the parties ultimately may need to discuss openly the possibility of raising the only taxes that reap reliably large revenues: the basic rate of income tax, National Insurance and VAT. That would be a properly “tough choice”.

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    If the ESA succeeds, Rosetta’s findings could be some of the most valuable on the early history of our solar system.

    Millions of miles away, a space probe has awakened from a 31-month nap. Staff at the European Space Agency (ESA) control centre in Germany sighed with relief: Rosetta, a €1.3bn spacecraft, is on course to make a historic landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, roughly 670 million kilometres from the sun, near the orbit of Jupiter.

    Until 20 January, Rosetta had been napping to save energy. It launched almost a decade ago, in March 2004. Since then it has managed three flybys of the earth (and one of Mars) as it has built up speed and adjusted its trajectory, photographing two bodies in the asteroid belt – Lutetia and Steins – along the way. The main attraction, however, is due this year.

    The last time we heard from Rosetta was in 2011, when ESA operators put it into hibernation as it entered a region of space where solar panels are ineffective. After heading out 800 million kilometres from the sun, it swung back towards 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. When it gets there, it will steer itself into orbit, scanning the icy rock to find a suitable landing site for Philae, its on-board lander.

    The Rosetta mission will be the first to orbit and to land on a comet (Japan’s Hayabusa mission landed and retrieved a sample from the Itokawa asteroid in 2005, returning the sample to Planet Earth in 2010). If the ESA succeeds, its findings could be some of the most valuable on the early history of our solar system.

    The closest we’ve got to comets before is brief flybys, such as ESA’s Giotto mission, which sailed through the tail of Halley’s Comet in 1986. That mission confirmed the “dirty snowball” hypothesis, that comets are made up largely of ice, dust and frozen gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

    Rosetta will go much further. For two months it will map the comet’s surface extensively, measure its gravity and observe how it interacts with the solar wind. Then, after harpooning itself to a suitable landing site, it will release its 100-kilogram Philae lander in November. This will be able to transmit the first panoramic photos from the surface of a comet.

    It’s a funny thing, waiting ten years to see if something you fired into space is still alive. Twitter didn’t exist when Rosetta launched but when the spacecraft woke up, the ESA dutifully tweeted “Hello, world!” in each of the 20 languages of the organisation’s member states from the official @ESA_Rosetta account.

    The wait to see if Rosetta would wake up again became a social media event, with the ESA asking people to submit their “Wake up, Rosetta!” videos by Facebook – which was only two months old when the probe launched.

    A social media campaign would not have been in the minds of the scientists who started sketching out the funding proposal for the Rosetta mission in the early 1990s, when the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, still would have had baby teeth. These missions are, without exaggeration, the life work of the scientists involved.

    Maybe by the time one of the next major ESA missions is completed – the ExoMars rover, maybe, due to launch in 2015 and land on Mars in 2018 to search for signs of extraterrestrial life – it will find that the world it has left behind isn’t interested in tweets any more. Maybe we’ll be watching new photos of other worlds come through on our augmented reality headsets, like Google Glass.

    Our interaction with the stars will continue to change, even if they don’t.

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    Dieudonné is no Bernard Manning or Frankie Boyle, whose humour is purposelessly offensive. In recent years, he has set out on a political mission to provoke the French state and test the limits of French law.

    The Passage de la Main d’Or, half a mile or so from the Place de la Bastille, is a nondescript, narrow street in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, which these days is a fairly chic quarter in eastern Paris. Halfway down the street is the Théâtre de la Main d’Or, a tiny theatre-cum-cabaret. At the entrance to the theatre there is pro-Jewish graffiti – a Star of David and the insignia of the LDJ (Ligue de Défense Juive, or “Jewish Defence League”), a hardcore group of young Jewish activists. Despite its historical credentials – this is the part of Paris where the revolution of 1789 really kicked off – there is little here to suggest any serious threat to the French republic.

    The cramped theatre is the headquarters of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a comedian who comes from a mixed French and Cameroonian background and whose allegedly anti-Semitic performances have lately convulsed France. Dieudonné has only recently come to the attention of the British public following Nicolas Anelka’s use of the quenelle, a form of inverted Nazi salute invented by Dieudonné, to celebrate scoring a goal for West Bromwich Albion against West Ham. The gesture baffled spectators in England, including the West Brom manager, Keith Downing, but spoke directly to a French public for which the quenelle used by Dieudonné and his supporters is a gesture of contempt for and defiance of what they see as “official France”, mainly controlled by a Jewish elite whose only mission is to preserve Jewish interests.

    Unsurprisingly, a large part of Dieudonné’s audience is male and comes from the banlieue of Paris, the poor and run-down suburbs surrounding the city which have a predominantly immigrant population. One of the common beliefs in the banlieue is that France is under the control of Jews.

    “France is under Israeli occupation,” said Denis, a 47-year-old Dieudonné fan in the pages of Le Parisien. Denis often attends the comedian’s shows brandishing a pineapple – a reference to the song “Shoananas” (the name a mash-up of “Shoah” and the French word for “pineapple”), a Dieudonné favourite that makes fun of the Holocaust.

    “We just come to see Dieudonné for a laugh,” I was told by a middle-aged couple at a café down the road from the theatre. “He takes the piss and that’s why the establishment hate him. The quenelle is just a joke.”

    But it’s a joke the French government is taking very seriously. In the most recent twist in the tale of Dieudonné’s confrontations with the French state (he has several convictions for making anti-Semitic statements), the interior minister, Manuel Valls, has invoked the Conseil d’État, the highest legal authority in France, to uphold a ban on Dieudonné’s performances. They are deemed a risk to “public order” and “national cohesion”.

    On the face of it, this seems clumsy and heavy-handed. Valls has been criticised by many on his own side for ensuring that Dieudonné gets what he wants – the status of victim and martyr. In recent days Valls has made himself look petty and vengeful by threatening to pursue a lawsuit against Dieudonné for “public insult”, reinforcing the man’s position as a satirist who is tweaking the nose of authority.

    For a long time this was Dieudonné’s shtick (a word he probably doesn’t use) – the view of the “petit Français moyen”, the average French bloke, who laughs at the hypocrisies and stupidities of the world beyond the café counter. His usual targets were the powerful and the rich.

    The comedian’s monologues are always punctuated by a grating snigger. But Dieudonné is no Bernard Manning or Frankie Boyle, whose humour is purposelessly offensive. In recent years, he has set out on a political mission to provoke the French state and to test the limits of French law – specifically the Loi Gayssot of 1990, the so-called loi anti-négationniste, which, among other things, in effect makes Holocaust denial (“négationnisme”, in French) a crime.

    More to the point, the Loi Gayssot places limits on how far an individual can claim that crimes against humanity, as defined at the Nuremberg trials, did not happen – and that is the point of law he has been challenging with his propaganda.

    This is what the so-called Affaire Dieudonné has been all about and it is why Valls had no choice but to ban the performer.

    Most provocatively, Dieudonné has several times invited the “negationist” writer Robert Faurisson on stage with him. There are many in Dieudonné’s audience who probably don’t know who Faurisson is, even as they cheer on his rants. But, for the French government, Faurisson is one of the most notorious and militant “negationists” active in France. Though he has been fined heavily and repeatedly for breaking the Loi Gayssot, he is still loudly vocal in denying that the Holocaust ever happened. In recent years, he has declared this from Tehran, where in 2012 Mahmoud Ahmad­inejad awarded him a “prize for courage, strength and force” and received him at a private audience. (Ahmadinejad also had a private meeting with Dieudonné when he went to Iran and there are rumours that Iran has been financing the comedian.)

    With all this, Dieudonné is placing himself firmly in the “negationist” tradition of French politics. It is a strain of thinking that began in the 1950s with the writings of Paul Rassinier, who argued that the Jews had brought the calamities of the Second World War on themselves and that the gas chambers never existed anyway. For a time these ideas held currency in far-left circles (the big names backing them included Pierre Guillaume, Jacques Vergès and Roger Garaudy) but also found approval in the Front National (Jean-Marie Le Pen’s infamous reference to the gas chambers as a “detail of history”).

    Dieudonné is taking negationism from being an underground conspiracy theory and moving it up into the mainstream. He is, as an article for Le Monde by Michel Dreyfus, a senior historian at the University of Paris, described it, making a “negationism” for the masses.

    Dieudonné has never explicitly denied the Holocaust: he doesn’t have to. You can see what he means by the company he keeps; it’s easy to find on YouTube the sickening sight of Robert Faurisson being hailed as a hero by Dieudonné’s audience at the Théâtre de la Main d’Or.

    One may or may not agree with the Loi Gayssot – there is no such law in England – but it is also true, from the Dreyfus affair to the German occupation to the killings of Jewish children by an Islamist fanatic in Toulouse in 2012, that the French experience of anti-Semitism is very specific.

    For the time being, Dieudonné seems to have capitulated, promising to concentrate on Africa rather than the Jews. And yet, at the same time, he has become an even bigger hero to the disaffected youths who form the core of his audience.

    A short walk from the Passage de la Main d’Or is the rue des Rosiers, which, despite an influx of designer showrooms, remains the heart of Jewish life in Paris. This is a place steeped in suffering, from the deportations of the Second World War to the massacre at Goldenberg’s deli in 1982, when six people were killed by unknown gunmen. Accordingly, for all its friendly falafel stores and coffee shops, the atmosphere can be tense. This was the case one afternoon recently when I took a stroll through the district and watched as an Italian television crew, reporting on the Dieudonné affair, was manhandled by a group of Jewish lads.

    “We are sick of this,” a middle-aged lady who’d been shouting at the Italians told me. “We do not care about this miserable Dieudonné. Why should we care? We just want to get on with our lives.”

    I understood her anger. The Dieudonné affair had not been created by Jews, but once again this community was being scrutinised in the media as if the Jews themselves were on trial. “What you have to understand,” I was told by a young Orthodox Jew who spoke fluent Hebrew, French and Brooklynese, “is that Dieudonné is not the problem. He’s just one guy, one anti-Semite. The real problem is that in France there are so many of them out there.”

    Andrew Hussey is the dean of the University of London Institute in Paris. His new book, “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and Its Arabs” (Granta), will be published in March

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    Leonard Lyle was Tory MP for Bournemouth (1940-45). In 1918, he was elected at West Ham (Stratford). After Lyle lost that seat in 1922, he was elected at Epping in a by-election in 1923 but stood down the following year so that Winston Churchill could return to parliament. In 1945, he did the same thing again, standing down so that Churchill’s ally Brendan Bracken could return to the Commons, having been defeated at Paddington North.

    Lyle was from the sugar firm that combined with Tate and led the campaign to stop sugar nationalisation in the late 1940s, inventing the sword-wielding figure of Mr Cube and the slogan “Tate not state”.

    In 1952, Bracken was succeeded by Nigel Nicolson, whose firm Weidenfeld & Nicolson published the first British edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

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    The Labour MP and former cabinet minister says a one-state solution could "more easily resolve the deadlock than the two-state solution I and many others have long favoured".

    For decades there has been a bipartisan consensus that a two-state solution is the best means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in a lecture tonight at the University of Swansea, published exclusively by The Staggers, Peter Hain will become the first British figure with direct ministerial experience to argue that after decades of failure, a one-state solution - the establishment of binational state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians - must now be seriously considered. 

    Hain, who served as minister for the Middle East from 1999-2001, will say: 

    For two decades I have favoured a two-state solution as the best plan for peace and the fairest outcome, one backed by the US, the United Nations, the European Union and all 22 countries of the Arab League. Officially, it’s the stated policy of the current Israeli government and of the Palestinian Authority.

    But I am increasingly unsure about whether it’s still achievable – mainly because, as time has marched on, and successive negotiating initiatives have come and gone, the land earmarked for a viable Palestinian state has been remorselessly occupied by Israeli settlers.

    And I’m not alone. John Kerry and William Hague have both talked of "the window for a two-state solution" closing. In April 2013, prior to launching yet another peace initiative, the US Secretary of State warned: "I think we have some period of time – a year to a year-and-a-half to two years or it’s over." On 18 June 2013, the British Foreign Secretary echoed those words in the House of Commons: "time is running out for a two-state solution".

    There is also a marked dissonance between popular support for a two-state solution on the one hand, and popular scepticism that it is achievable on the other. A 2012 poll by the Konrad Adenauer and Ford Foundations showed that 70 per cent of both Israelis, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, thought the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state by 2017 were "low" or "non-existent".   

    The fundamental problem is this: sooner rather than later the land available to constitute a future Palestinian state will have all but disappeared.

    Indeed, in defiance of the UN, the US and the EU, the Likud-led government has continued to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the point where there are now more than 550,000 settlers there, controlling 42 per cent of the land and representing nearly 10 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population. With every new settlement that is constructed, the possibility of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state recedes further.

    At least rhetorically, Binyamin Netanyahu has committed to a two-state solution. In 2009, he declared that he was willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state, albeit one barred from having an army and controlling its airspace. But through his actions he has repeatedly undermined this pledge. 

    As Hain will go on to say:

    [I]f Israel’s relentless expansion into Palestinian territories cannot be stopped then we must face one of two possible outcomes. The first is that all Palestinian presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem remains in a permanent and ever-more formalized "Bantustan status", islands of minimal self-governance with the continued denial of basic rights, facing on-going pressure, perpetual insecurity and possible future physical removal. The second is that they are absorbed into a common Israeli-Palestinian state with the opportunity for pluralism and human rights advancement.

    Is that solution now the only one capable of stopping the cycle of violence and preserving Israel’s potential to become a force for unity and peace, instead of a beleaguered source of division and a target for attack? And if the window for the two-state solution is indeed closing, then should the EU, the US and the UK make it plain to Israel that a one-state alternative may be the only one available to ensure its security?

    A one-state solution has long been the favoured option of many secular Israelis and Palestinians for reasons of principle. What has changed is the number who now support it for reasons of pragmatism. Hain will conclude: 

    [W]hat guarantees might there be for Jewish citizens both within Israel and worldwide if they agree the merger of their creation – a Jewish state which they fervently (and understandably) believe answers their post-Holocaust question: "Never Again"?  Could the Arab nations join those in the West like the US and the UK to provide such guarantees? 

    What sort of common state might then be politically feasible and deliverable? Could a federal or confederal state provide a way forward, with common security, a unified economy, common civil rights and guarantees of religious freedom for Jews and Muslims, but considerable political autonomy for the territories within it of "Israel" and "Palestine"? How then might Israeli and Palestinian security forces be integrated?

    These are fundamental, difficult and complex questions – but, if successfully answered, could a common state solution more easily resolve the deadlock than the two-state solution I and many others have long-favoured?

    I remain uncertain. But I ask because I do not see how either the Israelis or the Palestinians can secure their legitimate objectives by perpetuating for still more decades their unsustainable and unstable predicament, with a two-state solution slipping away while violence and terrorism lurks constantly.

    His questions are ones that no responsible leader can now afford to ignore. 

    Update: Labour has been swift to slap down Hain. A spokeperson told me this afternoon: 

    Peter Hain does not speak for Labour on foreign affairs and his views on the Middle East Peace Process do not represent Labour Party policy. Labour is fully committed to a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, and we support the ongoing work of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to help re-start negotiations towards achieving this goal.

    The spokesperson also pointed me to Douglas Alexander's speech in July 2013 in which he said: 

    "…to those who say a two state solution is now a fantasy, I say it is a fantasy to think a one state solution could ever be either sustainable or consistent with Israel’s democratic values.

    A one state solution is simply not a solution at all.  It would mean either the demise of Israel as a Jewish state or the demise of Israel as a democratic state. It would be the end of the dream of national self determination for the Jewish people."

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    "Could a common state solution more easily resolve the deadlock than the two-state solution I and many others have long-favoured?"

    "Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return", wrote WH Auden on the outbreak of the Second World War.

    He could have had in mind the current, seemingly intractable Middle East conflict, the bitterness, horror, and the failure to secure both security for Israel and justice for Palestinians.

    For close to seventy years the cycle of violence and hatred has ripped the region apart. Stop-start negotiations to achieve a two-state solution – an Israel with secure borders, not living under siege from its neighbours, and alongside an independent Palestine – have led nowhere, despite the fact that a majority of both peoples (Palestinian and Israeli) continue publicly to support it.                                                

    I am both a longstanding supporter of the Palestinian cause and a friend of Israel. As a British Minister for the Middle East in 1999-2001 I worked closely with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. My record of fighting apartheid, racism and anti-Semitism is long and recognised.

    For two decades I have favoured a two-state solution as the best plan for peace and the fairest outcome, one backed by the US, the United Nations, the European Union and all 22 countries of the Arab League. Officially, it’s the stated policy of the current Israeli government and of the Palestinian Authority.

    But I am increasingly unsure about whether it’s still achievable – mainly because, as time has marched on, and successive negotiating initiatives have come and gone, the land earmarked for a viable Palestinian state has been remorselessly occupied by Israeli settlers.

    And I’m not alone. John Kerry and William Hague have both talked of "the window for a two-state solution" closing. In April 2013, prior to launching yet another peace initiative, the US Secretary of State warned: "I think we have some period of time – a year to a year-and-a-half to two years or it’s over." On 18 June 2013, the British Foreign Secretary echoed those words in the House of Commons: "time is running out for a two-state solution".

    There is also a marked dissonance between popular support for a two-state solution on the one hand, and popular scepticism that it is achievable on the other. A 2012 poll by the Konrad Adenauer and Ford Foundations showed that 70 per cent of both Israelis, and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, thought the chances of establishing an independent Palestinian state by 2017 were "low" or "non-existent".   

    The fundamental problem is this: sooner rather than later the land available to constitute a future Palestinian state will have all but disappeared.

    But, first I want to express my frustration at the persistence of international commentators, as well as the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, in describing the situation as ‘astoundingly complex’ – almost as a pretext for ending or suspending dialogue.  Upholding the narrative of complexity has allowed both sides the pretext either to drop or put off talks with little condemnation from the rest of the world.

    Of course the politics are tortuously difficult.   But the reality is far simpler than it is often painted.

    Achieving the settlement in Northern Ireland was also "complex". It was also hopelessly difficult at times. The roots of the conflict there went back eight centuries and were arguably deeper even than in the Middle East. But that was not seen as an excuse by the British Government to abandon the objective, especially in the ten years of Tony Blair’s Premiership, eventually culminating in the historic settlement of 2007 when I was Secretary State for Northern Ireland.

    There were many, many instances during these ten years when progress seemed impossible, when the two sides never even remotely looked like engaging properly.  Even towards the end there were violent outbreaks, breakdowns, stand-offs and histrionics – indeed, throughout the process the cycle of crises seemed endemic.  But nevertheless Tony Blair, his Ministers and officials kept going, never accepting defeat in the search for the solution that was ultimately achieved. I have already analysed at length the lessons of this experience, which could be applied to the situation in Middle East.

    There is a plan for a two-state solution: the Geneva Initiative. It details what land swaps need to be made in order to return Israel to its 1967 borders, involves sharing Jerusalem as capital and it addresses the final status issues outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords.

    Notwithstanding that, Israel has taken the view that aggressive attack is the best form of defence in the face of unremitting hostility and successive wars, rocket assaults and suicide bombs from Palestinian groups and their allies.  Simultaneously, denied their right to self-determination and subject to ruthless violations of their human rights, many Palestinian groups believe they have no alternative but violence.  

    Intransigence on both sides has stubbornly blocked progress – and this is a primary reason why the window for an independent Palestinian state may be closing.  We know from Northern Ireland (and indeed Syria) that preconditions can strangle any attempt even to get around the table, let alone begin negotiating.  Understandably the Palestinians refused to enter discussions unless Israel first stopped settlement construction, and Israel refused to do so – a live issue in the current attempt by the US Secretary of State to achieve a resumption of serious negotiations.  For its part Israel has stated that it would only be ready to enter talks if its preconditions were met.

    While settlements continue to be built in the area that would constitute a possible Palestinian state, and as long as for Israel that building remains a priority and an expedient way of gaining land, negotiation understandably remains problematic from a Palestinian standpoint. The announcement on 28 July 2013 that the Palestinian prisoners Israel has been holding for over 20 years were to be released could have been a real move towards renewed negotiations if 1200 tenders had not been issued on the very same day for Israeli construction on Palestinian land in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

    The Palestinians see the entire Israeli-Palestinian territory as their historic homeland – although the official position of the Palestinian Authority is to accept that only the 1967 lines (or just 22 per cent of the land) from historical Palestine will be available for a Palestinian state. Even the notoriously uncompromising Hamas have hinted they would be ready to compromise.

    Equally, many Israelis, a lot of them with influence inside the government, believe they have a legitimate claim to the Biblical land of Israel, stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and certainly do not see the 1967 lines as a basis for drawing a border.

    To the other Israelis this is a matter of security. The very day the creation of the state of Israel was announced in 1948, five Arab neighbours invaded, and the country has been under siege ever since.  The people of Israel are justifiably worried about their safety in such a combustible region, with for instance Iran and its proxy Hezbollah threatening their very right to exist.  Former Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s infamous statement that ‘Israel should be wiped off the map’ was a virtual death knell to Israeli moderation. Hopefully his successor, Hasan Rouhani will offer a more conciliatory approach, because some sort of rapprochement between Iran and Israel is essential both to improve stability and security in the region, and to encourage Palestinian concessions from Israel.  

    Without that – and similar overtures from other Arab neighbours – many in Israel will continue to believe that the creation of a Palestinian state, with ready-made, hostile allies, would be an act of self-destruction for their nation, especially while they believe Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.  Which is why the diplomatic breakthrough over Iran’s nuclear capabilities following President Rouhani’s election in August 2013, has left Israel rigidly suspicious, doubting its fundamentalist enemy of several decades will ever change its spots.  

    In the meantime important voices within Israel loudly dismiss the two-state solution. On the 18 June 2013 Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economics and trade minister, told a conference of settlers in Jerusalem that "Area C", which constitutes 60 per cent of the West Bank, should be annexed and taken into the state of Israel as a matter of urgency. Referring to the two-state solution he said: ‘Never have so many people invested so much energy in something that is so hopeless.’

    Bennett added: "The most important thing in the land of Israel is build, build, build. This land has been ours for 3,000 years. The house is ours and we are residents here not the occupiers." Can anybody wonder why Palestinians doubt Israel’s sincerity and commitment to a peace process?

    Mistrust on both sides is a huge problem that is not only born out of political rhetoric. In the years since 2000, almost 6,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces.  Many of those victims were neither members of the Fatah, the mainstream faction of the Palestinian Authority and the axis of power for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, nor Hamas.  Over the same period 1,000 Israelis have also lost their lives in attacks by Palestinians. The fear and distrust in both camps is palpable.

    It would be heartening to see Israel take the lead on suspending violence, as the superior military and legislative power, to prevent the systematic repression of Palestinians that seems to have become the unofficial norm and which feeds the fire of terrorism. A good starting point could be to ensure that criminal investigations against Israeli Defence Force soldiers accused of mistreatments are undertaken more fully and transparently. And the same must be done for Palestinians accused of criminal activity. ‘Transparently’ being the key word.

    The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din has estimated that 94 per cent of criminal investigations against IDF soldiers are closed without either convictions or charges brought. In stark contrast Palestinians accused have been held in detention without trial – a practise extending to Palestinian children too.

    Furthermore, the erosion of Palestinian land means that the civil rights of Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens, are being eroded too.  For example Israel’s policy to people in Gaza was described by Richard Goldstone, who led a UN delegation to Gaza in 2009, as ‘collective punishment’: because of restrictions on water and energy as well as movement in and out of the Gaza strip.

    Despite being more or less autonomous, Gaza is under tight restrictions by Egypt on one side and Israel on the other. The civil rights of its people cannot be guaranteed, not least since physical access is either impeded or flatly denied by both countries.

    Water is a major issue that provides a stark example of Israel’s non-adherence to the Geneva Convention, as well as being symptomatic of a lack of Palestinian influence over what is supposedly theirs. One of the main water resources for the West Bank is the Mountain Aquifer, largely located under Palestinian land. Israel allocates approximately 80 per cent of this water to its West Bank settlements, by-passing Palestinian villages which are starved of water. Restrictions on Palestinian construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem mean that, when Palestinians do build, they do so ‘illegally’ under Israeli law – and therefore find it is all but impossible to attach their houses to the Israeli-controlled water mains – and electricity for that matter.

    Due to Israeli restrictions, daily per capita water consumption for Palestinians in the West Bank is less than three quarters of the World Health Organisation recommended minimum. Water – or at least lack of Palestinian access to their own water – is another example of why the notion of a separate Palestinian state is regarded by many as having become a fiction.

    Other abuses, which have been well catalogued by Israeli human rights groups such as B’Tselem, are manifold and range from the seemingly banal to the criminal under international law.

    Most pressingly, basic public services, such as education and healthcare, which are protected by the Universal Charter of Human Rights, are often systematically denied to Palestinians. Eyewitness accounts from Israeli Human Rights groups tell of Palestinian ambulances carrying emergency patients, including women in labour, being stopped indefinitely at check-points. Such ‘security’ measures are not enforced when the ambulances or patients are Israeli.

    Poverty afflicts far too many Palestinians, both in Israel and the West Bank. For Arab Israelis this is in large part because equal opportunities employment legislation is not enforced, effectively downgrading Arab participation in the workforce within Israel. Only a small percentage of Palestinians are allowed into Israel to work, usually in construction: these are the Palestinians you see crowded around Israeli checkpoints. Furthermore, West Bank Palestinians are not permitted, or able, to utilise or develop their own land and trading potential.

    Even in supposedly Palestinian land the situation for Palestinians already resembles a civil-rights struggle.   Life in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is untenable because they have little to no say over the running of the land that is supposedly to constitute a future state. Approximately half of Palestinian school-age children have experienced trauma at the hands of the Israeli army, ranging from incarceration to interrogation. With many male adults having been locked up indefinitely and without trial, approximately 45,000 Palestinian children have to work to support their families, giving up on any hope of an education.

    A new generation of Palestinians is growing up in the West Bank in fear and under severe intimidation, less likely even then the generation before to embrace negotiations with their oppressor. Violence and the ability to perpetrate it is the currency between Arab villagers and Israeli settlers, making the future a bleak one for both sides.

    Israel’s West Bank policy includes using legislation – or the pre-existing lack thereof – to cut off Palestinians from their workplaces or even their own land. In February 2013, there were 67 kilometres of roads in the West Bank exclusively for use by Israelis and therefore mainly by settlers.  If they are in a vehicle, Palestinians cannot even cross these roads at junctions which criss-cross the dirt tracks and farm tracks they use. There have been multiple reports of Palestinians having to leave their vehicles, cross the road on foot, and use either pre-arranged transport on the other side or wait in the hope of finding some. It is important to re-iterate that these roads cover land that is Palestinian or is expected to constitute a future Palestinian state. The occupation is effectively balkanising the territory, making it even more difficult practically to establish a new Palestine.  

    The various Oslo agreements left 40 percent of the West Bank under nominal Palestinian Authority control. Less than 20 per cent of the West Bank is categorised as Area "A" which is under exclusive Palestinian control although the Israel Defence Force does regularly conduct raids targeting suspected militants.  "Area B"– about 21 per cent of the West Bank – shares security control between Israeli and Palestinian forces but is Palestinian administered.

    This combined 40 per cent (if we include East Jerusalem) under nominal Palestinian control is an archipelago of isolated Palestinian territorial islands in a sea of Israeli controlled land, checkpoints bases and settlements.  The remaining 60 per cent, the majority of the West Bank, is known as "Area C" under the Oslo Accords, and is under exclusive Israeli control. It contains 350,000 Israeli settlers separated off into communities and subject to normal Israeli law, but it is also home to 180,000 Palestinians subject to Israeli military law.

    While the built-up area of settlements only amounts to 2 per cent of the West Bank land, another 40 per cent is under planning and zoning authority of settler local and regional councils. Buffer zones around settlements and firing zones for the Israeli military also erode Palestinian territory.

    Israeli "state land" legislation enables further requisitioning of Palestinian land because, due to informal handovers under British and Ottoman rule, most passed down to families and current owners lacks the required paperwork, preventing Palestinian construction or residency. Palestinian building in Area C is strictly regulated by the Israeli authorities, rendering almost any new Palestinian construction illegal and subject to demolition – even installations of solar panels are sometimes blocked. Similar rules also apply to East Jerusalem, which is in more urgent need of new housing and land for the Palestinian population.

    Israel’s planning policy consistently ignores Palestinian needs. Acts of administrative repression are an every-day occurrence, such as not including existing Palestinian villages on local maps or in draft plans.  What little land there is to constitute a new Palestinian State amounts, as of 2014, to Gaza, and Areas A and B of the West Bank. Gaza itself is territorially minute, it accounts for only 6 per cent of the land that would constitute a Palestinian state, which itself is only 22 per cent of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

    The geographical split within a future Palestinian state makes it hard to see how it would function. There is no direct transport link between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-Palestinian Authority controlled areas of the West Bank. Nor indeed was there any direct link before the two territories became respectively Hamas and Fatah controlled. Movement and trade between the two is also prohibited by the Israelis.  

    Dr Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo Agreements, has suggested a closed route for Palestinian-only use between Gaza and the West Bank – a sort of Berlin-type corridor reminiscent of Cold-War divided Germany. Something like this would have to be considered for a two-state solution because the Israelis even prohibit travel between the West Bank and Gaza via Jordan rather than Israel.

    In a situation evocative of the partition of East and West Berlin, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was so sudden and swift, and restrictions on movement put in place so fast, that families were split and lives torn apart. Official Israeli policy is that family ties are not an adequate basis for a permit to enter or leave the Gaza strip.  So attending weddings or funerals, or looking after sick relatives, is impossible for normal extended families split between Gaza and the West Bank. Resolving this is clearly important to a two-state settlement.

    The lack of a real physical link between the West Bank and Gaza also severely harms the potential for a grounded Palestinian politics to evolve. There cannot be an election for a Palestinian unity government because Hamas candidates can’t travel between the two territories to campaign, making it hard to conceive of a functioning Palestinian Parliament and state. Nor, in truth, can Fatah candidates travel; and both would face threats from each other if they did, as well from Israel in the case of Hamas.

    Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, was conceived in 1987, just after the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada, as "a practical response to an oppressive occupation". Israel considers it to be an anti-Semitic militant organisation committed to the destruction of the Jewish State – casting the conflict in a religious light. Although Hamas is its own worst enemy, with inflammatory vitriol and military attacks against Israelis, it self-defines as working for the liberation of the Palestinian occupied lands and for the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians; framing itself as a political rather than religious organisation. Notwithstanding this, however, it is encouraging that Israel has signalled a willingness to consider compromise over prisoner swaps and cease-fire deals with Hamas, albeit through third parties. 

    Hamas views the Palestinian Authority as a hostile rival for Palestinian leadership which has unforgivably colluded with Israel over the Oslo Agreements and at Camp David in 2000. In turn, the PA believes that Hamas’ more aggressive, uncompromising stance endangers international support for a Palestinian state. Relations are therefore tense and the absence of a democratically elected and representative government to administer and unite Palestinian land is a major impediment to a two-state solution. Bad relations are exacerbated by divisions in the region among influential external players, vying for leverage with Palestinian groups.

    Palestinians on both sides are now questioning the two-state strategy to an even greater degree. Negotiations have so far failed, as has a reliance on the US to deliver Israeli cooperation. The two-state option was itself originally conceived as a compromise and one likely to be particularly painful for the Palestinian refugee community. All of which explains why in academic and activist circles the one-state option is back on the agenda. There are now a number of different campaigns for the creation of a single democratic, secular state for Jews and Arabs, made up of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

    While still formally subscribing to it, Fatah has also suggested that a two-state solution is no longer viable, and on 15 May 2013, about 30 of Fatah’s members launched a "Popular Movement for One Democratic State in Historic Palestine".

    Israeli disunity is an additional roadblock. Many in the Knesset are angry with former Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon for his concessions over Gaza. In May 2004 Sharon ordered a full, unilateral withdrawal of Israeli security forces and settlers from the Gaza strip. As a result he was ousted from the party by Benyamin Netanyahu who took over leadership and became prime minister in 2009. This act demonstrated Netanyahu’s ideological aversion to compromise which is also strong amongst his supporters.

    When he took over from Sharon, he deftly engineered a move away from the centre right, attracting more supporters with more religious and extreme ideas – a move aimed in part at winning-back voters tempted by fringe parties.

    The Israeli population has multiplied nine-fold in the last fifty years. In the last quarter century, most of these new arrivals have come from ex-Soviet countries – swelling the ranks of voters sympathetic to Mr Netanyahu’s vision. This, coupled with an extreme proportional representation electoral system which gives power to minority parties, means that it has become harder to create the type of consensus which formed the basis for the Oslo Accords in 1993.

    The growing strength of the Israeli right has led to a new "Greater Israel" discourse which openly eschews any kind of two-state option and calls for the annexation of either all the territories, or the 60 percent that is Area C. As previously mentioned, ministers in the current Israeli government and parliamentary members of the governing coalition openly support such outcomes. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s grudging acceptance of two states has so far never been translated into practical or progressive action: quite the reverse, he continues to oversee a program of deepening and entrenching occupation and settlement.    

    And there is an increasing sense that Israel is pushing Gaza into Egypt’s hands, making it easier to digest the West Bank once the large Gazan population is excluded from the equation – there is even a dedicated campaign to claim that there are 1 million fewer Palestinians in the West Bank than all credible sources insist – the aim being to convince the Israeli public that this is doable.

    This brings me to the reason why the land that has been hypothetically apportioned to a Palestinian state is looking vulnerable.  Demographics are central both to Israel’s worries over the Palestinian population, and its antagonism to joining with Palestinians in a common state, comprising the land of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    There are 4.3 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). There are 8 million people in Israel of whom 1.8 million are Palestinians. So a common-state would be evenly balanced with 6.2 million Jewish citizens – most of them within 1967 borders but also many settlers littered across the West Bank and the Golan Heights – and 6.1 million Palestinian citizens.

    Yet Palestinians don’t live in conveniently homogenous zones in the West Bank, but instead in East Jerusalem, in Gaza, in refugee camps in neighbouring countries and all areas of the West Bank including Area C which is inundated with heavily guarded settlements. Even though they are at loggerheads, the two populations are increasingly intertwined in a way that points to geographical convergence rather than separation.

    Meanwhile, Israeli law severely discriminates against Palestinians and Arab-Israelis under the banner of security.  But most commentators see this as an attempt at population control within lands that might otherwise have seen a coherent Palestinian movement. The Law of Return and the Citizenship Law creates a two-tier system, in which any Jewish person in the world can settle in Israel and gain immediate citizenship, whilst those Palestinians forced out in 1948, and those visiting relatives in neighbouring Arab countries, are refused re-entry.

    The lack of common ground brings me to identify another barrier to a two-state resolution; that is international confusion over what would constitute a Palestinian state. The US, the EU and the UN all advocate a settlement freeze, but have been unable to deliver it.  That said, President Obama did tell the Jerusalem International Convention Centre on the 21 March 2013 that ‘Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable – that real borders will have to be drawn’ – but without defining where those borders might lie.

    A week before, on 13 March 2013, President Obama argued that peace would bring robust economic growth and prosperity in addition to security. But economic growth in the Palestinian territories would disproportionately benefit Israelis because Palestinian farms and the Palestinian workforce are at the mercy of Israeli restrictions. He cited Israel’s strength in invention, engineering and technology, but these are professional fields its government ensures are barely open to Palestinians.

    Israel’s default position for a while now seems to have been that real security among its Arab neighbours can only be achieved by two, complementary, strategies. First by undermining a new Palestinian state through settlements whilst professing in principle support for it.  Second by bolstering its own security, including by building a 430 mile Wall along and within the West Bank; after completion 8.5 per cent of the West Bank area be on the Israeli side of the barrier, reported the Israeli human rights organisationB'Tselem in July 2012.  

     Instead of living in constant fear of the enemy within as well as without, might it be more fruitful for Israel to seek a settlement legislating for the rights of Palestinians and Arab-Israelis within a new common state to end the conflict?

    The proposition to be assessed is this.  Absorbed into their traditional homeland – albeit alongside Jewish citizens with a narrow majority over them – Palestinians would no longer be carrying their historic grievance, and would quickly adjust to the new reality. Conversely, Israelis would discover that the fount of poison between them had dissipated.

    That, of course is, to say the least, very optimistic.  Why would Israel agree to what was the historic aim of the Palestinians prior to the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution? Tense and difficult the current standoff may be for Israel, but it is not going to be defeated and therefore holds the stronger hand.

    Moreover, no post conflict situation is ever smooth: witness sporadic, though very isolated and marginalised eruptions in Northern Ireland, or the legacy of apartheid which remains a crippling drag on the new South Africa.

    But if Israel’s relentless expansion into Palestinian territories cannot be stopped then we must face one of two possible outcomes. The first is that all Palestinian presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem remains in a permanent and ever-more formalized "Bantustan status", islands of minimal self-governance with the continued denial of basic rights, facing on-going pressure, perpetual insecurity and possible future physical removal. The second is that they are absorbed into a common Israeli-Palestinian state with the opportunity for pluralism and human rights advancement.

    Is that solution now the only one capable of stopping the cycle of violence and preserving Israel’s potential to become a force for unity and peace, instead of a beleaguered source of division and a target for attack? And if the window for the two-state solution is indeed closing, then should the EU, the US and the UK make it plain to Israel that a one-state alternative may be the only one available to ensure its security?

    If so what guarantees might there be for Jewish citizens both within Israel and worldwide if they agree the merger of their creation – a Jewish state which they fervently (and understandably) believe answers their post-Holocaust question: "Never Again"?  Could the Arab nations join those in the West like the US and the UK to provide such guarantees? 

    What sort of common state might then be politically feasible and deliverable? Could a federal or confederal state provide a way forward, with common security, a unified economy, common civil rights and guarantees of religious freedom for Jews and Muslims, but considerable political autonomy for the territories within it of "Israel" and "Palestine"? How then might Israeli and Palestinian security forces be integrated?

    These are fundamental, difficult and complex questions – but, if successfully answered, could a common state solution more easily resolve the deadlock than the two-state solution I and many others have long-favoured?

    I remain uncertain. But I ask because I do not see how either the Israelis or the Palestinians can secure their legitimate objectives by perpetuating for still more decades their unsustainable and unstable predicament, with a two-state solution slipping away while violence and terrorism lurks constantly.

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    Making up the lost ground by 2020 would require the economy to grow at more than 5.5 per cent a year from now until then.

    When I first started out on the bond markets, an older and wiser colleague took it upon himself to warn me of the pitfalls of dealing with unscrupulous brokers. “Watch out for salesmen selling recovery stories,” he advised. “Never forget the definition of a bond that was down 50 per cent and then recovered 50 per cent. It’s a bond that has lost 25 per cent.” I can’t help thinking of this homely piece of wisdom every time I read another story about the UK’s loudly hailed recent recovery.

    It is true that the UK’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by nearly 2 per cent in the four quarters to September 2013, compared to barely more than 1 per cent over the whole two years before that.

    The trouble is that this still left the economy nearly 2 per cent smaller than it was at the end of 2007 – more than six years ago. As my former colleague pointed out: when there’s been a precipitous crash, you need to pay attention to levels of growth as well as growth rates if you want to avoid bamboozlement by sales pitches.

    It’s not that the recent good news about the UK economy is all hot air. Not only has growth picked up, but unemployment is down. A little over two years ago, the unemployment rate hit 8.4 per cent. Since then, the economy has added a million jobs and unemployment has fallen to 7.4 per cent. Monetary policy, too, is finally enjoying some success. In December, inflation dropped back to the Bank of England’s target of 2 per cent for the first time since 2009. Two years ago, prices were rising by more than 5 per cent a year. Britain’s wage-earners can dream once more that rising real earnings, last seen before the 2008 financial crisis, might be back.

    There has even been progress on the reform of finance. Last year, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards subjected Britain’s policymakers and financiers to previously unknown levels of scrutiny, and the new Financial Policy Committee was established at the Bank of England in 2011 to oversee the stability of the UK’s financial system.

    However, the moment one begins to take a longer view – and especially to pay attention to levels as well as rates of growth – the clouds loom.

    To start with the labour market: the good news is that the number of unemployed people actively seeking work has shrunk by 250,000 since its peak in 2011. The bad news is that this still leaves 770,000 more people unemployed than at the end of 2007 and the total number of unemployed, at 2.4 million, barely changed from what it was in May 2010.

    Much more worrying is the very long-term picture. In the 25 years after the Second World War, the unemployment rate in the UK averaged less than 2 per cent. Since 1980, it has averaged nearly 8 per cent, and even during the 15 years of uninterrupted growth between 1992 and 2007 it only ever spent a couple of years below 5 per cent.

    The long-term question, in other words, is whether the UK economy is any longer capable of generating sufficient jobs to absorb all the people who want to work. For the past 30 years or more – regardless of government and regardless of the cycle – the answer seems to have been that it is not. Instead, we have simply got used to a society in which a sizeable proportion of the labour force doesn’t work, even if it wants to.

    The recent success of monetary policy is also a bit of a mirage, or at least only part of the story. The combination of low interest rates and stable inflation is in principle a good thing (not that it helped forestall the crisis in 2008), but it can be beneficial only if the banking system transmits it to the broader economy.

    On the monetary front, the innovative policy of quantitative easing has increased what is called the “monetary base” – cash and coins, plus the deposits at the Bank of England that the commercial banks hold in reserve against emergencies. But this base money is a tiny part of the money supply at large. What matters for spending and investment is “broad money” – the monetary base plus businesses’ and households’ current and savings account balances at the commercial banks – and this has in fact contracted marginally over the past three years. Meanwhile, bank lending to the private sector has not only stagnated, but continued to plummet, falling more than 14 per cent over the same period.

    As for financial stability, regular readers of this column already know my view that the well-intentioned effort to fix the banks is creating new problems elsewhere. The regulatory generals have been fighting the last war as the collapse in bank lending has been replaced by a boom in the corporate bond markets. How this new and untested system for delivering credit to UK plc will weather a hike in interest rates when it eventually arrives, nobody knows. I am not convinced it will be pretty.

    However, the biggest problem that the boosters are ignoring is with GDP itself. For more than 60 years after the Second World War the UK economy used to grow, in real terms, at roughly 3 per cent a year. Such deviations from this trend as the Lawson boom of the late 1980s, or the recession of the early 1990s that followed it, were always corrected quite quickly.

    For reasons no one yet understands, this time is different. The only sure thing is that a return to the pre-crisis trend is a pipe dream. Had the economy continued to grow at 3 per cent a year since 2007, GDP today would be nearly 20 per cent larger than it is. Making up the lost ground by 2020 would require the economy to grow at more than 5.5 per cent a year from now until then. Even the most brazen salesman in the world wouldn’t suggest that’s about to happen.

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    No self-respecting person on the left should endorse anti-establishment positions that are in reality just cloaked anti-Semitism.

    Mixed signals: fans do the quenelle outside a Nantes venue where Dieudonné was due to give a show on 9 January that was banned by the supreme court Arnaud Journois/photoshot.

    At the end of December, a couple of days before the five remaining members of the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were reunited on Graham Norton’s BBC sofa, I was reminded of one of the comedy team’s funniest sketches. Entitled “World Forum”, it featured a TV quiz in which various revolutionaries were questioned about important issues – such as who won the FA Cup final in 1949 and which football club was nicknamed the Hammers.

    I was reminded of it because I was at the home of the Hammers, Upton Park in east London – reporting on a six-goal thriller between West Ham United and West Brom­wich Albion – when a colleague from another national paper suddenly asked me to define the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Having written a book about Jewish involvement in football, I’m used to inquiries about Tottenham Hotspur’s much-vaunted connections to the community, rabbinical attitudes to playing on the Sabbath and the relatively low number of Jewish players in the professional game. But this was the first time I’d been called on to comment on such a weighty ideological matter. It seemed about as surreal a question as the Python quizmaster’s to one of the icons of the radical left: “Now then, Che, Coventry City last won the FA Cup in what year?”

    Then I saw on a TV replay – the match had been broadcast live around the world – the reason for this bizarre inquiry. The French striker Nicolas Anelka had celebrated the first of his two goals for West Brom with his right arm extended towards the ground, palm open, and the other arm bent across his chest, palm touching his right upper arm. It was, apparently, a reverse Nazi salute, invented by the Parisian comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Although missed by most of us journalists at the game, it had been picked up by the cameras and was condemned by shocked tweeters watching it in France. Many of them referred to this “quenelle”, as Dieudonné had named it, as an anti-Semitic gesture; a few preferred the label “anti-Zionist”. Before I could explain the obvious distinction to my colleague, Albion’s caretaker manager, Keith Downing, breezed in to the press room. Besides the obligatory questions about tactics, injuries and controversial refereeing decisions, he was asked about the political significance of Anelka’s salute. “Absolute rubbish,” he snapped. It was an innocuous gesture, “dedicated to a friend [of Anelka’s] who happens to be a comedian”.

    When Dieudonné, the friend in question, had initially joked in 2002 about Judaism being “a scam . . . it’s one of the worst, because it’s the first”, he was portrayed as some kind of Pythonesque absurdist. But after it became clear that he meant exactly what he’d said and when, in subsequent one-man shows, he felt compelled to insult the memory of Shoah victims, give a platform to Holocaust deniers and promote all kinds of Jew-hatred, his repulsive brand of humour provoked outrage. Not, it has to be said, universal outrage. On the far right, as would be expected, he was feted as a truth-teller. Less expected, perhaps, has been his growing attraction to the kinds of people who stick, or once stuck, Che posters on their bedroom walls. Despite several convictions for racism – and even though most recently, in a riposte to a critic, he declared: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I think to myself, ‘Gas chambers . . . too bad’” – his attacks on Jewish capitalism and riffs about ripping out Holocaust chapters from history books have been hailed as taboo-breaking by those professing themselves to be radical, anti-establishment leftists.

    Which raises a troubling question: is anti-Semitism now the radicalism of fools?

    In the late 19th century, the German Marxist August Bebel observed that anti-Jewish prejudice was “the socialism of fools”. From Marx’s plea for the withering away of Jewishness to the popular euphemistic references to “rootless cosmopolitans” in the Stalin era, the left has had, to put it mildly, a problematic relationship with the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. The French left’s relationship has been more difficult than most. During the revolution of 1789, Jews were attacked for clinging selfishly to their religious identity. Even an ardent Dreyfusard such as the socialist leader Jean Jaurès could still insist that “the Jewish race was consumed by a sort of fever for profit”. What is new today is the appeal of this race-hate discourse to a fashionable, anti-globalisation, up-yours, them-and-us (“them” frequently being Jewish financiers and Holocaust memorialisers) coalition of radical Islamists, hip middle-class white Parisians, alienated black youth and Jewish-world-domination conspiracy theorists.

    “Look at the composition of Dieudonné’s audiences,” says Philippe Auclair, an author who is the England correspondent of France Football. “There are people from the far right, but also from the far left. People on the margins. There are Green extremists and radical Muslims. To them, the English FA’s action against Anelka [the organisation has finally got round to charging him] is probably proof that American Zionists control the FA. Some of the people tweeting me, for example, have pointed out that the FA’s previous chairman was called Bernstein.”

    David Bernstein’s predecessor as chairman at the FA, David Triesman, also happens to be Jewish. “There are some people on the so-called progressive left,” says Triesman, now Labour’s main foreign affairs spokesman in the House of Lords, “who have taken on board anti-Semitic slurs based on the notion of Jewish power and money.”

    Triesman and Bernstein, who both pioneered anti-racist initiatives at the FA, pointed out to me that anti-Semitism had virtually disappeared from football stadiums. In fact, last year, despite protracted debate about Tottenham’s use of the term “Yid Army”, the community’s connection to the game became an official cause for celebration. In October, as part of the governing body’s 150th-birthday festivities, the Jewish Museum in London launched its “Four Four Jew” exhibition. The guest speaker was the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, who spoke about the depth and variety of the Anglo-Jewish contribution to soccer. As a fan, reporter and author of a book on the subject, I can confirm that anti-Semitism has almost vanished from the game’s discourse. But can the same be said of left-liberal discourse? Do British radicals, like their counterparts across the Channel, have a Jewish problem?

    While acting as an adviser on “Four Four Jew”, Triesman was disturbed to discover that several leading Jewish figures in football had declined to take part. “They didn’t want to be seen in that context because they thought they’d be pilloried, in certain parts of the media, in an anti-Semitic way,” he told me. “They were worried that people would say Jews had too much power in football. Elements of the far left genuinely look at the world and believe a huge amount of power is concentrated into the hands of the Jewish people. It’s not a different view from that taken by the far-right movements of the 1930s.”

    It is striking that, weeks after the “reverse Nazi” sign was performed in the East End of London – an area once inhabited by Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution from eastern Europe – the “zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism” line adopted by most football writers has not been replicated by the liberal commentariat. “Perhaps there’s a reluctance because he’s a Muslim,” Auclair says of Anelka’s gesture. “If he had been a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant there would have been a stink. There would have been outrage by liberals and progressives.”

    Unbelievably, some liberals and progressives have defended Anelka. Nabila Ramdani, a French journalist of Algerian descent who writes for the Guardian, sees the Rolls-Royce-driving, hamburger-chain-advertising, multimillionaire enfant terrible as a victim of France’s political class – “because he is the kind of Frenchman many disapprove of – one who is Muslim, black and from a deprived housing estate”. In a column for the National, she wrote: “There is no doubt that Dieudonné has some repulsive views, but until its Premiership debut, the quenelle meant next to nothing at all.” She also noted that “anybody – from schoolchildren to celebrities and politicians – could and did perform [it] during those goofing around moments which are nowadays invariably caught on smartphone cameras”.

    She omitted to mention that some of this goofing around took place outside synagogues, Holocaust memorials, Auschwitz and even the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse where Mohamed Merah, a Franco-Algerian gunman, murdered three children and a teacher in 2012.

    This worrying phenomenon has not, as yet, entered the British cultural mainstream. True, the humorist David Mitchell, who describes himself as a leftish liberal, offended some Jewish sensibilities in 2009 when he quipped on a radio programme: “There’s actually no truth in the rumour that the last entry in Anne Frank’s diary reads: ‘Today is my birthday, Dad bought me a drum kit.’” But Mitchell, quite reasonably, claimed this was “a joke about people who are hiding, not wanting to make a noise . . . that’s not the same as finding the Holocaust funny”.

    In fact, his fellow comedian Russell Brand, our very own idiosyncratic, taboo-breaking anti-hero, last year poked fun at Hugo Boss’s sordid past making uniforms for Nazi Germany – in stark contrast to Dieudonné, who prefers to poke fun at Jews who exaggerate their suffering in the Holocaust. I can remember feeling uncomfortable, as a youngster who played at being a punk, about the prevalence of the swastika in punk fashion, but accepted it to be more the product of a misguided, anarchistic desire to shock than an expression of racism.

    Yet it is not so long ago that the Labour MP Tam Dalyell was accusing Tony Blair of being in the pocket of Lord Levy, Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw and a “cabal of Jewish advisers” (Mandelson and Straw have Jewish ancestry but neither is Jewish). In the 2012 London mayoral election, Ken Livingstone suggested that “rich Jews” wouldn’t vote for him. Only last year, the Labour peer Nazir Ahmed claimed his jail sentence for dangerous driving was the result of a Jewish plot and the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward tweeted, “What a shame there isn’t a powerful, well funded Board of Deputies for #Roma” (a reference to the Board of Deputies of British Jews).

    “There are left-of-centre people in parlia­ment,” Triesman says, “who are incapable of understanding that you can be in the progressive movement and be Jewish. They can’t accept anything you say on Israel. They think that if you criticise Israel it’s a fiction, that almost anybody who’s Jewish can’t criticise Israel in good faith. Some of the rhetoric around the Israeli boycott movement from the Trotskyite left is anti-Semitic.” Which brings us back to the question asked by my football reporting colleague at Upton Park: what is the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?

    Criticising Israel, as many Jews do, and Zionism as an ideology, which a much smaller number but still a significant minority of the community does, are perfectly valid positions. Publishing an anti-Zionist cover story featuring a golden Star of David stabbing a pliant Union flag with the headline “A kosher conspiracy?”, as the New Statesman (then under different ownership and editorship) did in 2002, is not. It should not have to be spelled out, though this magazine’s then editor did so in a subsequent apology, that all principled critics of Israeli policies should avoid using anti-Semitic images and narratives. They should not, as the BBC’s Tim Llewellyn once did, accuse American politicians such as Dennis Ross of hiding behind “a lovely Anglo-Saxon name”. (Llewellyn went on to say that Ross is “not just a Jew, he is a Zionist . . . a Zionist propagandist”.) They should have no truck with vile anti-Jewish calumnies, including the blood libel slur, routinely rehearsed in anti-Zionist Arab textbooks.

    “The Zionist lobby,” Dieudonné told the Iranian-funded Press TV, “have taken France as hostage and we are in the hands of ignorant people, who know how to structure themselves into a Mafia-like organisation and . . . have now taken over a country.”

    As Dave Rich at the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, explains: “This is not the anti-Zionism of people who think that the Palestinians get a raw deal from Israel: it is the anti-Zionism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of a conspiracy theory that believes the Jews pull all the strings.”

    “We need to keep things in perspective,” warns David Feldman, of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “We have experienced the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, with Jews prominent in many places [in finance]. Yet in contrast to the situation 80 years ago, few radicals have proposed anti-Semitic explanations.”

    As Jonathan Freedland, who writes a weekly column for the Guardian and a monthly commentary for the Jewish Chronicle, points out, so far only “a few marginal political voices” on the British left have flirted with anti-Semitic tropes. However, after a property website owned by a Jewish businessman withdrew its sponsorship of West Brom on 20 January, and then the FA announced it was charging Anelka, the liberal-left commentariat was presented with a perfect opportunity to take a stand against such tropes. Yet more silence. In fact, it was left to the right-wing controversialist Rod Liddle to condemn the striker’s “repulsive” support for his Jew-baiting friend.

    “On this issue,” Freedland told me, “all anti-racists of good conscience should have leapt in. Dieudonné is aligned with the far right. He’s had criminal convictions for anti-Semitism. My worry is that, as time passed before the FA’s announcement and the lack of outrage continued, it didn’t send out a strong message about anti-Semitism.

    “The quenelle was a previously obscure gesture in this country and now it’s known. So this is the moment to make the point that no self-respecting person on the left should accept a supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ position which in fact says it’s the Jews who are ‘the establishment’.”

    Anthony Clavane’s latest book is “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” (Quercus, £9.99)

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    While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.

    This column won’t be of much comfort to the thousands displaced by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. Lava flows are reaching as far as five kilometres from Mount Sinabung, which has been erupting since September, and the Indonesian government has said that any settlements within three kilometres of the mountainside will be relocated permanently. But even if there is no human habitation in the area, we know that there will be much new life emerging in the shadow of the volcano.

    This is what happened on the Japanese island of Nishinoshima. Created by a volcanic eruption 40 years ago, it is now home to four species of plant and plenty of insects.

    Volcanoes are a great boon to biology. According to a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Geology, volcanic eruptions and other side effects of the earth having a hot, molten interior are responsible for the vast range of life on our planet.

    The evidence comes from zircons, crystals that are formed only in volcanic eruptions. Geologists have found a glut of zircons in rocks that formed just before the period biologists call the Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion occurred 540 million years ago, when a huge number of new animals suddenly appeared. Most of the body forms of today were formed in this ten-million-year evolutionary spurt – after the zircons appeared. The conclusion? Volcanic eruptions are one of the earth’s vital signs: an indication that life is about to get interesting.

    That is largely because eruptions throw huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The warming effect this produces affects the climate and provides a change in conditions that favours the emergence of diversity. Put simply, the organisms that were suited to the old earth fall by the wayside, creating space for new life experiments.

    That is especially fascinating given observations of one of Jupiter’s moons. The ice-world Europa has long been seen as a good potential home for extraterrestrial life. That candidacy just got much stronger: it was reported last month that astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to keep an eye on Europa have spotted evidence of volcanic activity.

    Europa’s ice crust, which is thought to be a few kilometres thick, covers a watery ocean over 100 kilometres deep. Nobody knows whether life exists in that ocean, but if it does it would require a source of energy. As so little sunlight penetrates the ice crust, that would have to come from within. That is why the signs of intermittent plumes of vapour erupting from the ice have so excited hunters of extraterrestrial life: it suggests that some kind of life-giving volcanic energy is at work inside the icy moon.

    We won’t find life on Europa any time soon. Though the plumes rise high enough that passing spacecraft could sample the vapour spurting from the ocean – and perhaps detect life within it – the next scheduled flyby of Europa will take place in 2031.

    It is sobering to think that, if the astronomers’ conclusion is right, Europa is only the fourth body in the solar system to exhibit volcanism. The other three are its neighbouring moon Io, Saturn’s moon Enceladus and, of course, Planet Earth. These are very special places: volcanoes bring misery and death but they also usher in the possibility of complex biology. While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.

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    Israeli settlements in the West Bank cause misery for Palestinians - but, of course, one must lend equal weight to the joy that bubbly soft drinks bring to the rest of us.

    Scarlett Johansson has been a global ambassador for Oxfam since 2007. In that time she has travelled around the world, meeting people that the charity works with - including refugees, children unable to afford schooling, and survivors of natural disasters - and raising awareness of programs that urgently need funding.

    Scarlett Johansson has been a global brand ambassador for SodaStream - an Israeli company that makes a range of products for carbonating soft drinks at home - for about a month, and is due to appear in the company's Super Bowl ad on 2 February. The company's main production site is located within an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Ma’ale Adumim. It's one of the settlements that Oxfam opposes "all trade" with, saying they "further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support".

    All week there have been calls from a multitude of groups for Johansson to drop her deal with SodaStream in recognition of its violation of international law. The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation started a petition calling for her to choose not to be "the face of the occupation", arguing that "as an Israeli settlement manufacturer, [SodaStream] exploits Palestinian land, resources and labor and actively supports Israel's military occupation".

    This contradiction between her longstanding charity work and her most recent ad deal couldn't stand - so she's chosen SodaStream over Oxfam:

    Oxfam has accepted Scarlett Johansson’s decision to step down after eight years as a Global Ambassador and we are grateful for her many contributions.

    While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms. Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.

    Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.

    Oxfam is opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. Ms. Johansson has worked with Oxfam since 2005 and in 2007 became a Global Ambassador, helping to highlight the impact of natural disasters and raise funds to save lives and fight poverty.

    Who can blame her? It's not like that Super Bowl ad is incredibly tacky or anything. And imagine the free soda she must get. Quite the deal for the actor.

    In its defence, the current CEO of SodaStream, Daniel Birnbaum, told Forward magazine that he inherited the "pain in the ass" factory that was built by the company's previous owners and that he would "never" have chosen to build it there himself. However, as 500 of the plant's 1,300 employees are Palestinian and closing it down now would financially ruin them, he "will not throw our employees under the bus to promote anyone’s political agenda."

    Johansson released a statement last week when the controversy first appeared, defending her choice: "I remain a supporter of economic cooperation and social interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine. SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights."

    Alas, it seems the dialectical merger of the two ambassadorial roles was futile.

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    Green spaces, biodiversity and real lawns have all been shown to boost mental wellbeing.

    January – the most drizzly month of the year - is surely made worse by living in London. Grim crowds file onto the underground, impatient but zoned-out, cold yet strangely humid, groaning as they join the shuffling queues below, and groaning as they emerge into the spitting rain above.

    It doesn’t have to be this way. After university, instead of joining the race to the city, a couple of friends of mine chose to live and work deep in the English countryside. Six years later, they alone dare to show Facebook photos of January daytimes, sun breaking through clouds in a huge sky, whiskey-drinking on windswept beaches. It looks so great. Should we all be living in the country? Would we be happier?

    Ecopsychology – the study of the effects of greenery on your mental health - has an answer for this. Not only does being surrounded by trees and fields make you happier, it lengthens concentration spans, reduces procrastination and makes you better at managing “major life challenges”.

    That, at least, has been the lesson of studies that began as early as the 1990s, when a scientist called Frances Kuo started interviewing residents of a large housing project on the south side of Chicago. They had been living in apartments either overlooking trees and grass or the urban jungle. She ran them through a series of tests - measuring attention and coping skills – and found that those with a greener view outperformed the others on every task.

    Since then, we’ve found that hospital patients recover better when they can see trees from the window, and a walk in the countryside boosts attention and working memory. Domestic violence is rarer in homes overlooking grass and flowers, and the clamour of a city street drains willpower, making us more likely to chose chocolate and crisps over a fruit salad, and more likely to loose our tempers. 

    Last year, a study using data from 10,000 adults over 17 years compared the effects of living in a “green” urban area to other life-enhancing factors. Living by a park, they calculated, was one third as good as being married, and one tenth as good as being employed. The refreshing effect of greenery is measurable.

    But a note to urban planners – a few forlorn trees on roundabouts and the odd soggy postage stamp of grass won’t quite cut it. A 2007 paper by Richard Fuller showed that green spaces only help mental wellbeing when they’re a bit exciting. Biodiversity is important - the larger the variety of trees in a park, the better it boosts mental wellbeing.

    We should also beware of artificial constructions – and I’m thinking particularly here of those hideous virtual gardens springing up on ground floors of trendy urban offices. They’re no substitute for the real thing.

    An odd little experiment lead by Peter Kahn illustrates this. After giving volunteers a stressful maths test, he split them into three groups to calm down – one looking out over a lawn, one watching the same lawn on a TV screen, and one looking at a blank wall. He measured their heart rate reduction and found that only looking at the real lawn helped reduce stress: the digital reproduction worked no better than a blank wall.

    So should we all move to the country? Well I’m probably not going to, to be honest - the city comes with too many perks, and I'm not going to risk my wifi connection. No, I’ll just have to keep competing for that seat by the window, that patch of grass in the park in summer. The rest of you definitely should though. Go on.

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    Were England and Wales to adopt proportional representation, 27 of the party's 69 electoral deserts would return Labour councillors.

    Key activists within the Labour movement have been concerned about the party’s performance in the south of England for many years now. The facts are stark: in the last full set of elections in 2011, there were 69 district and unitary authorities which did not elect a single Labour councillor and most of these were concentrated in the south.

    The party has invested considerable energy in renewing itself – from experimenting with new models of community organisation in order to widen its appeal, to seeking to transform its relationship with affiliated union members. But there is a danger that these efforts fail to reach those parts of the country which lack even a threadbare Labour activist base. How can local Labour parties which have no elected representatives hope to increase membership when their organisational resources are so thin on the ground?

    There may be a solution to Labour’s southern problem: the introduction of a fairer voting system for local elections. The existence of 69 "electoral deserts" suggests that Labour commands almost no support in these places. Yet it is the first-past-the-post voting system, and not the party’s actual vote share, which is making these areas Labour-free. For instance, in Castle Point in Essex, the party commands over a quarter of the vote yet doesn’t receive a single councillor in return. In Lewes in Sussex, Labour won 13.5 per cent of the vote but again received no councillors.

    A new report by the Electoral Reform Society, Towards One Nation, shows that if England and Wales were to use the system currently in place for local elections in Scotland (i.e. the Single Transferable Vote), 27 of these 69 electoral deserts would return Labour councillors. And if this were to happen, the party could expect a virtuous circle to kick in: more councillors equates to more activists, which leads to more resources for membership recruitment, which in turn leads to more support, and so on. Suddenly, Labour’s southern problem would not look so daunting.

    Of course, the corollary is that under a more proportional local electoral system there will be more Conservative councillors in places currently dominated by Labour, particularly northern metropolitan areas. But this is not necessarily such bad news for the party. The report shows how Labour councils do better at holding on to power when they share it with a healthy opposition. Of the 39 councils which had Labour "super-majorities" (90 per cent or more Labour) in the mid-1990s, 21 have been lost at some point. Many of these losses occurred precisely because there was no effective opposition holding local government to account. Without anyone to push back against, strong local parties often (though not always) end up fracturing through internal wrangling.

    An earlier report, Northern Blues, showed how the Conservatives have just nine councillors across ten northern local authorities, and that a fairer voting system could give them seven times this number. But that should not alarm Labour activists in Warrington, Wigan and Newcastle – it may be that a healthier opposition, in line with the voters’ wishes, is exactly what Labour needs if it is to maintain control over its strongholds.

    After the last election, when Labour won only ten of 197 parliamentary seats in the south outside London, Harriet Harman acknowledged the challenge when she said: "We are building from a low base, or no base, in some areas". Perhaps Labour figures most concerned about the party’s performance in the south should stop analysing the scale of southern discomfort and consider making a fairer electoral system – which gives people the representation they vote for – part of the solution. 

    Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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    Why is the left silent on the public school question?

    This week's New Statesman: the 7 per cent problem

    In a superb and wide-ranging essay in the magazine this week, David and George Kynaston address what we are calling the “7 per cent problem”: why does the private school minority still dominate public life? We ask, too, why the left is so silent on the subject of the dominance of the public schools – and what, if anything, it is prepared to do to improve the education of the poorest in society beyond defending the status quo. At present, as much as 50 per cent of Oxford and Cambridge graduates attended independent fee-paying schools; many of those from state schools who make it to Oxbridge went to selective grammars, of which 165 still remain.

    We know what the fundamentalist left is against: academic selection, free schools, greater autonomy for schools and their head teachers. Fiona Millar is one of the leaders of this faction and was on the Today programme this morning speaking about the Kynastons’ New Statesman essay.

    We know that the fundamentalist faction despises the private fee-paying schools and would rather abolish than try to reform them (a move the Kynastons reject), as has happened in India. Under the Indian reforms, private schools are compelled to take 25 per cent of children from the poorest families, selected randomly by lottery.

    So what can be done to dismantle British education’s Berlin Wall?

    As Education Secretary Michael Gove said in a speech in 2012:

    More than any other developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.

    The left – and especially the teaching unions – loathe Gove. He was a colleague of mine on the Times in the mid-1990s, and even if I disagree with him on many issues I can say this about him: he cares about the need for greater social mobility. As the adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger, he knows how his life was transformed by a good education and he wants thousands of less fortunate children to have the chance to ride the educational escalator to a better life, as he did.

    A couple of weeks ago I visited Eton to speak to the Political Society, one of the many long-established groups run by the boys themselves. Recent guest speakers have included Mervyn King, the former governor of the Bank of England, and Robert Chote, head of the Office for Budget Responsibility. (I try to visit as many schools as time will allow but most of the invitations I get come from the elite private schools or from grammar and specialist state academies, such as JFS in north-west London. It could also be that comprehensive schools no longer have the budget to subscribe to magazines such as the New Statesman, sadly.)

    To recap: Eton, founded in 1440 by Henry VI as an institution to educate 70 boys from poor families, has produced 19 British prime ministers, most recently, of course, David Cameron.

    As a guest, you have drinks and then an intimate supper at the residence of the housemaster in one of the 25 boarding houses. Five or six boys are invited and in this way they gain the experience of meeting and conversing with influential people from outside the school. Small wonder that this year Eton will send nearly 100 (out of 250 boys in the upper sixth) to Oxford or Cambridge. No other school will send so many pupils to Oxbridge.

    Like the other leading public schools, Eton has become rigorously academically selective. The boy who invited me to speak at the school was not at all wealthy. Born in Ghana, he attended a comprehensive in east London before winning a sixth-form scholarship to Eton. The headmaster, Anthony Little, told me that as many as 260 boys are receiving financial assistance. “There are about 45 boys who pay nothing at all. We actually pay 110 per cent for them because we take the view that all the fees need remising. There’s the uniform and pocket money . . .”

    Little attended the school himself in the 1960s (“when it was very different”) but does not come from a privileged background, and is the first male in his family to be educated over the age of 14. “I came from a background that was so alien to any kind of educational experience,” he told me. “My father was a security guy at Heathrow and my mother was a secretary at the local hospital. I came in on a scholarship . . . Not to be romantic about it, but that is a reason why I do the job: I feel an obligation to pay back.”

    I left Eton that night feeling no resentment or hostility. But as I drove home in the cold January rain, I wished that so many more children, from all social backgrounds, could benefit from the kind of education enjoyed by the fortunate few – mostly now the sons of the super-rich – at what was once King Henry VI’s school for poor scholars.

    The Kynastons end their essay thus:

    There is a moment to be seized. The loosening up of the state system through academies and free schools has blown away the old plea of the private schools to be left alone in splendid, independent isolation; social mobility is going backwards; the question of our rich/poor divide in education has been spotlighted not only by the make-up and social background of our current cabinet but also by the increased profile of organisations such as Teach First, dedicated to enhancing equality of opportunity. While on the left we have the haunting, ever more distant memory of 1945, with the knowledge that missed opportunities take a very long time to come round again.

    In his New Year message Ed Miliband claimed that people “do not want the earth” but prefer credible specifics, as embodied in his pledge on energy bills. Yet, however skilfully done, there is enormous danger in a strategy of pick-and-choose if it vacates the rest of the field to others. The left should not see the private school question as insoluble, nor too dangerous to touch, but rather as the potential cornerstone of a narrative about a less divided society. It is a debate that should be open to all, regardless of which side of the divide they stand: bringing together all parents, all teachers and all children to craft an education system that gives opportunity to every student, and does not reserve the best prizes for a privileged few.

    I’ll be publishing replies to the essay in next week’s magazine and I will be speaking to David and George Kynaston in this week’s New Statesman podcast.

    To purchase a copy of the issue, visit or visit the App Store

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