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The New Statesman: A Weekly Read Worth the Wait

A sit-down with this week's New Statesman magazine reveals John Gray's analysis on technocratic language, Adrian Pabst's commentary on higher education, Andrew Marr and Wolfgang Münchau's insights on bourgeois politics, and a warning on trans hate from a recent podcast on the CPAC conference in the US.

The New Statesman: More Than Just Headlines

The New Statesman is the only publication I consistently read nowadays. I eagerly await the arrival of its physical copy (rather than spoil the experience with the digital version) to peruse during weekend breakfasts. Gone are the days of numerous newspapers and supplements, as the internet and tablets have rendered them almost obsolete. However, the NS is not a quick source of news; it’s a weekly publication that requires more thought. It can sometimes seem outdated due to unforeseeable events, but the editor and writers often find a way around this. The publication successfully captures current events while also being attuned to the broader cultural, social, and political trends of the time. In other words, it not only attempts to remain up-to-date on the latest news and happenings, but it also has a deep understanding of the underlying forces and ideas shaping our world.

This week’s edition (10-16 March) was a recent best. Although the writing is always excellent, sometimes I skip certain pieces. Last week, I chose not to read the article on Keir Starmer’s missions as it struck me as being all a bit Blairite. The problem with both Starmer and Sunak is that they lack the ability to deliver a compelling TED talk, which is indicative of a broader problem (see below on public speaking].

John Gray: The Failure of Free Markets and Technocratic Management

In this weeks edition John Gray nailed that very issue with his article in “The Triumph of Corporate Newspeak,” In it Grey contends that “it’s just juggling with words” when it comes to the meaningless soundbites of Starmer and Rishi Sunak’s economic goals. Gray argues that the ruling elite in Britain is indifferent to the harsh realities of the current economic and social climate (they are oblivious to the monthly fluctuations of food costs and the decision around when to heat a home) and advocates for a reassertion of state dominance over the market, emphasising the need for public utilities to be taken into public ownership. As Gray puts it, “the fusion of free markets and technocratic management is the fag end of Thatcherism, an experiment which has long since run its course.” The current state of our railways and water utilities serve as a glaring illustration of the failure of this misguided experiment.

Gray also criticises the current progressivist ideology, stating that it prioritises identity politics over class hierarchies. He argues that Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation demonstrates the limitations of this ideology, as her attempt to defend the gender self-identification bill proved highly unpopular. Gray suggests that Scottish nationalism may become a frozen movement, and that the SNP could still steal a march on Labour if a new leader focuses on improving Scottish public services and shelves gender self-ID. Here though, I hold a different opinion than Gray. I believe that the legislation is significant and should be retained. Gray also criticised Starmer’s agenda, suggesting that he has ditched the last vestiges of radicalism on the economy while allowing the party to become identified with a gender ideology that many voters regard with misgivings. Gray also highlights Starmer’s inability to articulate his beliefs, which has led to distrust among voters.

This is an important point as many politicians seem to struggle with speaking to the people in a way that truly resonates. It’s a far cry from the orators of the past, whose powerful speeches captured the imagination of the masses. The mass meetings of the 1920s and 1930s, and even the powerful orations of figures like Scargill during the miners’ strike or Derek Robinson at British Leyland in the 1970s and 1980s, were a testament to the power of effective communication. Sadly, for Starmer and many of his front bench seem to have lost touch with this essential skill, which often leaves voters feeling disengaged and uninspired.

Finally, in what for Gray is a shorter piece of writing, argues that a reassertion of state dominance over the market is necessary for a socially tolerable future in Britain. Gray here is an advocate for public utilities to be taken under public ownership (in my view critical if we are to immunise households from future market shocks), and again censures the current progressivist ideology, emphasising the need to focus on class hierarchies rather than identity politics. His acknowledgement of class as a crucial factor in political analysis is a refreshing departure from the dominant trend of prioritising identity politics.

Gray finishes by arguing that the current consensus of free markets and technocratic management is on the brink of collapse and asserts that “our feckless rulers may not be interested in reality (IMO when are they?), but it will not be long before they find reality is interested in them.” One can’t help but wonder if Gray is correct and the prevailing consensus of free markets and technocratic management is unsustainable and that reality will eventually catch up with our indifferent ruling elite.

Bourgeois Politics and the Delusion of the Natural Centre Ground

Wolfgang Münchau, a comparatively fresh and new economic and European commentator, has rapidly ascended to the status of a must-read. In this weeks column, Münchau predicts that the political centre, left or right, has nothing to offer but empty slogans, and that future political majorities will be less enamoured with free markets and institutions such as independent central banks. He expects that the future will be more repressive and authoritarian, with another age of extremes being more likely than the fairy tale of capitalism reforming itself. It is increasingly apparent with each passing day that the theory of “creeping fascism” put forth by Faulkner and Hearse is becoming more relevant and alarming. The erosion of civil liberties, the rise of nationalist rhetoric, and the growing influence of far-right movements are all evidence of a political climate that is increasingly hostile to democracy and pluralism.

Andrew Marr’s departure from the BBC has allowed him to deliver a more incisive and powerful analysis of politics in the UK. In the New Statesman, Marr has found his voice, offering a critical and nuanced perspective on the struggles and contradictions that lie at the heart of political power.

In his column this week his incisive analysis of “bourgeois politics”, Marr lays bare the contradictions and struggles that lie at the heart of political power. He argues that the centrist politics of figures like Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are mere pretensions to rationality, and that politics is in fact a passionate, unpredictable, and often slimy struggle for power.

Marr critiques Sunak’s recent activities, including his resolution of the Northern Ireland protocol problem and his proposed harsh immigration law, as well as the challenges he faces in cutting taxes and resolving the NHS strikes. Marr suggests that the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is running away from the “cloud” of his past actions and poor decision-making, which is exemplified by the recent leaks from Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp messages. Marr concludes that despite the emergence of a new era of the “resilient” state, driven by the pandemic and the contradictions of globalism, populism continues to agitate the old devils of bourgeois power.

“The ‘natural’ centre ground is a delusion,” Marr asserts. He argues that the shift towards a more consensual agenda in the centre ground of politics is too rationalist for the passionate and unpredictable world of politics. Marr suggests that this shift towards a more resilient state will require more reshoring of manufacturing, greater investment in science, and a tougher focus on skills and training.

Marr concludes with a powerful critique of the human nature of politics, noting that the overall picture is a canvas of flawed individuals struggling with fast-moving and often contradictory information, terrified about their long-term reputations. “The animal spirits of politics remain alive,” Marr warns, “and the old devils of bourgeois power continue to agitate.”

Adrian Pabst: The War on the University

Adrian Pabst’s long read this week, is also the cover story, in it he argues that the corporate takeover of universities in the UK is a profound cultural loss and. He says that there is a “war on the university” that has made academic work less important, vocational and technical training less important, and higher education more utilitarian and positivist.

Pabst points to the New Labour government’s extension of corporate control over universities through the use of management consultants and auditors to enforce targets, quality assurance, and key performance indicators. This has been a blight on all our public services from health to education. He also talks about how employability is becoming more important than subject-specific excellence and how rigorous research and specialisation are becoming less important as a result.

Pabst says that because of these trends, there are too many college graduates in jobs that don’t require a degree, graduate pay is going down, and there are too many graduates without basic skills. He contends that in order to reverse the academy’s decline, academic standards must rise by re-intellectualising academic disciplines, particularly by challenging relativism in the humanities and positivism in the natural and social sciences. Also, vocational and technical training needs to be improved, and universities should work with employers to make it easier for skilled workers to get jobs.

One only has to imagine a world where universities operate in complete isolation, disconnected from the job market and the needs of employers. How can they be sure that they are producing graduates with the right degree and vocational mix to meet the demands of the workforce? It’s like trying to hit a target blindfolded! To ensure that students are equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in their chosen careers, universities must work closely with employers, collaborating to create programs and curricula that are tailored to the needs of the job market and/or further academic study. Only then can we produce a new generation of graduates who are ready to take on the challenges of the future and make their mark on the world.

Mixed higher and further education colleges in poor parts of the UK certainly need more money and the power to work with local governments, employers, and unions to create qualifications. Pabst comes to the conclusion that this is a task that will take many years and a lot of resources to complete. The question is do the government or university chancellors have the stomach to reduce profit margins in search of this goal. If we get it right, as Pabst argues, universities and colleges can help rebuild parts of the UK that have been destroyed by global free trade. They can do this by providing intellectual education and vocational training, which is an investment in the people and communities of our country. 

From Knowles to Fascism: a lurking danger

Earlier in this piece, I mentioned that it was a positive to observe discussions about class politics rather than analysis being dominated by identity politics. However, I came across a disturbing incident in the US last week while listening to the podcast “Posting through it” hosted by Jared Holt. He interviewed a journalist who attended the recent 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where many delegates directed attacks towards the trans community.

In the throes of a vile attack on the trans community, Michael Knowles, a verbose commentator from the Daily Wire and former Ted Cruz groupie, spouted his toxic opinions to delegates at the conference. In his solipsistic worldview, there are only two paths to traverse when dealing with transgenderism: complete acceptance or utter rejection.

To be solipsistic is to inhabit a universe of one’s own creation, where the mind is the sole source of reality and all else is a mere figment of the imagination. It’s like living in a bubble, cut off from the rest of the world and oblivious to the existence and experiences of others. Solipsism can also manifest as a self-absorbed personality, in which one’s thoughts and feelings reign supreme, and the outside world is viewed as a mere backdrop to one’s own existence. It’s a kind of ego trip (Remember Trump making love to the Stars and Stripes?), where the individual is the centre of the universe, and everything else is relegated to the periphery. Granted this description could describe any on the christian fundamentalist right but it fits Knowles like a glove.

Knowles in his speech vehemently argued that if the notion of transgenderism is accepted as truth, then it must be accepted for all individuals of every age. Alternatively, if it is not acknowledged as truth, then it must be irradiated from the public sphere entirely, for the so-called “betterment” of society, and in particular, those who have “fallen prey to confusion.” His ideology was rightly deemed preposterous. Alas, Knowles’ detestable rhetoric is emblematic of the bigotry that pervades our society and the warped thinking of those on the right. His unyielding demand for the complete eradication of the trans community from public life is not only an egregious example of intolerance, but it also reeks of the insidiousness of creeping fascism.

The deployment of a term as extreme and violent as “eradicated” is enough to send shivers down the spine and serve as a clear reminder of the lurking danger that surfaces when authoritarianism and bigotry go unchecked. It is imperative that we actively combat such abhorrent rhetoric and promote a more inclusive and equitable society. We must stand firm in our resolve to defend the rights of the trans community, any group of the oppressed, drag performers who spread joy and wonder among children, and migrants who seek refuge on our shores, even in the face of hateful rhetoric from the tabloid press, fascist groups like Patriotic Alternative, and Tory MPs. We refuse to be intimidated by their divisive and destructive agenda, which threatens to plunge our society into a dystopian nightmare of fear and intolerance.

Apologies if that section jarred with my review of this weeks News Statesman but I had to get that section in about Knowles and I didn’t want to make light of the importance of identity politics even if I do think class politics gets pushed aside sometimes.

Anyway back to the NS, and I end with this, It’s important to note that this magazine’s strength is that it makes people think deeply about things (if only more people actually did this) long after they’re done reading it. Because of this, I haven’t yet had a chance to read the excellent reviews section or Nicholas Lezard’s melancholy thoughts in depth. With great anticipation, I look forward to my next chance to peruse the pages of The New Statesman, immersing myself in the latest ideas and perspectives, all while enjoying my morning mesa flakes and espresso.

One response to “The New Statesman: A Weekly Read Worth the Wait”

  1. […] the present, the Labour Party, steered by the technocratic Keir Starmer, finds itself firmly ensconced in the realm of left-right centrism, though more often leaning […]

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