Euro-left woes Suddenly, the left is looking tattered all over Europe: a mere coalition partner in Germany, far behind the Catholic right in Poland, out of power in Sweden, about to lose its three-time election winner in Britain, behind in the polls in France—at the time of writing—and with reports of chaos in the Royal camp from Eric Besson, her former economic adviser. Apart from Spain (where even Zapatero is in trouble over Basque terrorism), the one recent bright spot has been Italy, where Romano Prodi beat Silvio Berlusconi last year.
Not so fast. Prodi’s coalition—which spans Christian democrats, revolutionary communists, pro-American liberals, anti-American radicals, economic reformers and corporatists—has already had near-death experiences over US bases, Italy’s role in Afghanistan and economic liberalisation. While running a country with the lowest growth rate in Europe, the two main parties of the left—the Democrats of the Left (DS) and the Margherita party—are trying to merge into a new Democratic party. But they are finding it hard going. The two main negotiators—Piero Fassino, the DS leader, and Francesco Rutelli, leader of the Margherita—both face internal opposition to a deal.
As Stephen Eales reports, Pluto’s demotion from the solar system means that “My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets” (not to mention “Many Volcanos Erupt Mulberry Jam Sandwiches Under Normal Pressure”) no longer works as a planetary mnemonic. So as an aid to schoolchildren’s cosmological education, Prospect is inviting readers to come up with alternatives—submit entries here. A special space-themed prize for the winner.
Think tank news
Matthew Taylor has been head of the RSA for just a few months—following years at the heart of New Labour—but he is cutting a swathe through the old guard at the venerable organisation. Over at Policy Exchange, Anthony Browne from the Times replaces Nicholas Boles. Will he make it less Cameron-friendly? David Mepham of IPPR goes to Save the Children. And what of those in the No 10 bunker? Ben Wegg-Prosser is off to Russia, and Paul Corrigan becomes director of strategy at NHS London.
From his rather prim and impeccably liberal public pronouncements, it would be hard to guess that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is a devotee of the dark Russian soul. But as Lesley Chamberlain will reveal in an interview with Williams on Prospect’s website this month, the archbishop is not only an expert on Mikhail Bulgakov, but is writing a book about Dostoevsky. The author of The Brothers Karamazov is regarded as the gloomiest of the Russian masters, but Williams appears to find some grounds for hope in his work: “Ivan Karamazov was famously made to say: ‘If there’s no God, everything is permitted.’ If there’s no God then there’s no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something.”
The poverty of anti-Blairism
No one has had a good word to say about Tony Blair since the Iraq war went bad, yet it is striking how feeble most Blair criticism is. There is no serious left critique, because there is no serious left. The most one gets from the centre-left (Compass et al) is “bit-more-ism”—can we have a bit more redistribution, a bit more constitutional reform, and so on. And from left, right and centre there is a petulant stridency to the “critique,” which can be put down to the disappointment of unrealistic expectations, arising from the almost universal infatuation of the 1997-99 period. When talking about Blair, even intelligent people seem to forget that politics only has a limited impact on the deep trends that drive social change.
Indeed, Blair has unintentionally recreated the pre-Thatcher dependency culture in which everything emanated from, and was therefore the fault of, the government. In fact, he has made it worse because everything emanates not from government, but from him. The latest people to indulge in this childlike thinking are two kings of culture—Peter Maxwell Davies and John Tusa. Both have publicly scorned Blair’s enjoyment of pop music and his alleged philistinism, as if we lived in some pre-modern state where people must take their cultural lead from the monarch. It is legitimate for such figures to attack arts policy. (To be fair to Tusa, he does this, although given how generous the government has been to the arts, most of his points seem like quibbles.) But Blair’s cultural preferences ought to be largely irrelevant to the state of the arts in Britain.
Of course, Blair is partly to blame for the fact that everyone blames him for everything that goes wrong—because he has centralised far too much authority in himself. Yet with the partial exception of the Iraq debacle, few people have tried to explain why that has happened (they assume it is simply a personal failing) or what the negative consequences have been for policy-making (see David Soskice’s article here). Prospect will try to fill that gap in the coming months.
Confucius goes global
One of Prospect’s prophecies—that China’s “soft power” will soon rival America’s on the world stage (“China’s chance” by Joshua Kurlantzick, March 2005)—may be coming to pass, to judge by the astonishing rate at which Confucius Institutes have been opening. No fewer than 12 have appeared in Britain in the last year; it was only in 2004 that the world’s first opened, in South Korea, yet there are now 140, across 40 countries. It seems that Confucius’s wise conservatism offers a more acceptable face of China than Mao’s revolutionary zeal.
The state-funded institutes are dedicated to teaching Chinese language and promoting its culture. This is a project aimed at boosting pride at home as much as support abroad, in that it embodies a domestic backlash against China’s success in mastering English as a language of international business. As one article in China Daily has asked, “Why does China so meekly submit to the English-based new world order emanating out of Washington DC when 25 per cent of the world’s population looks to Beijing for its leadership?”
A better understanding of Chinese language and culture in the west is, of course, a plus. On the other hand, this state-sponsored effort at making friends can be seen as part of a “walk on two legs” strategy, the other leg of which has been a massive increase in military power. In fact, the Confucius Institutes’ mimicry of Germany’s Goethe Institutes has come surprisingly late—although the speed of the rollout suggests that China is belatedly recognising the importance of showing more of its “other leg.”
Cowley for Granta?
Granta owner Sigrid Rausing has taken her time choosing a replacement for Ian Jack as editor. But the wait may be over. Prospect columnist Jason Cowley has emerged as favourite from a star cast including Andrew O’Hagan (who was approached early on), Observer writer Tim Adams and the New Yorker’s Ian Parker. The youthful-looking Cowley, a former literary editor of the New Statesman, would be a choice in the mould of Jack’s predecessor Bill Buford. The two share a sports writing pedigree: Buford once wrote a book about soccer hooliganism, while Cowley is working on a book about football in the 1980s.
Xerxes and the mullahs
VS Naipaul once quipped that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was “an extreme form of literary criticism.” Intriguing, then, that 2007 sees Iran fiercely criticising a fiction that consists almost entirely of decadent non-Muslim Persians being butchered—the film 300 (see Mark Cousins’s review). “The movie fabricated history… No Greek king dared to stand up to the Persian empire,” claimed Iran’s state news agency, rather incongruously rushing to defend the reputation of Xerxes, whose very existence Ayatollah Khomeini declared abhorrent to Islam and whose distant successor, the shah, he deposed.
Hassan Butt attacked
Islamism-watchers may remember Prospect’s extraordinary interview, in August 2005, with Hassan Butt, a young British jihadist and ex-member of the al-Muhajiroun network. Since the interview, Butt has recanted his support for violence and embraced a moderate form of Islam. But has he paid the price for this change of heart? In an interview with the US news channel CBS on 25th March, Butt described killing in the name of Islam as “a cancer” and revealed that former al-Muhajiroun colleagues had threatened him with his life. Two weeks later, he was approached by two men of Asian appearance near his home in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, and stabbed in the arm and the back. He is now out of hospital, but is in hiding. Watch out for more on home-grown extremism in Prospect over the coming months.
Japan’s mileage maniacs
These days, if you’re seriously ecologically minded, owning a 55-miles-to-the-gallon hybrid car is not enough. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that some Japanese car owners—known as “mileage maniacs”—have taken to hacking into their Toyota Priuses in order to boost the cars’ fuel efficiency. Favoured techniques include modifying the cars’ computer control systems, fitting special tyres and mastering Zen-like driving techniques, such as using one’s big toe to guide the touch-sensitive accelerator. Surely our politicians, ever eager to burnish their green credentials, cannot afford to ignore this trend. How long before we see David Cameron hacking into his hybrid?
Buggins’s turn at the World Bank There can be no doubt that Paul Wolfowitz—who as Prospect went to press was facing heavy pressure to resign—has inflicted great damage on the World Bank, writes Michael Prest. By circumventing the normal personnel procedures to secure sweetheart deals for his girlfriend and cronies, he has exposed the institution to charges of hypocrisy, demoralised its staff and may even have diminished the bank’s effectiveness in reducing global poverty.
But perhaps the most worrying aspect of the affair is what it says about how the world’s leading development institution is run. Though stories about favourable treatment for Wolfowitz’s girlfriend began circulating in 2005, soon after his appointment, the bank’s board of executive directors did nothing; it was a combination of brave pestering by the World Bank Staff Association, the normally quiescent in-house union, and the press that forced the issue into the open. The bank’s 185 member countries have shareholdings proportionate to their weight in the global economy. The US is the bank’s biggest shareholder, and by convention “recommends” candidates for president while the Europeans “recommend” candidates for managing director of the International Monetary Fund, the bank’s sister institution. All the bank’s ten presidents have been American. This set-up makes it vulnerable to a “Buggins’s turn” culture in US politics, which is not appropriate for an independent, global institution with a high reputation for probity and sense of duty.
The bank can survive the Wolfowitz affair. But the larger questions of its governance need to be addressed. The board must become more effective, and the time has come to open up appointments to the top jobs at the bank and IMF. China could be the world’s biggest economy in the near future. Will the US accept a Chinese president of the bank?