Labour?s winner can now win peace

Published in the Jewish Chronicle 25 November 2005

According to the old joke, our default response to any new development ? local or global ? is to ask: ?Yes, but is it good for the Jews?? After a turbulent week in Israeli politics, I have a variation on that question: ?Yes, but is it good for peace??

Israel has been through a double ma?hapach ? a revolution, an upending of the natural order. The word was famously deployed by Israel?s leading TV news anchor in 1977 to describe Menachem Begin?s toppling of Labour after nearly three decades in power ? and the word has been le mot juste in the last few days.

The first ma?hapach came with Shimon Peres?s defeat in the contest for the Labour leadership. Peres is now the undisputed champion of losing. He lost general elections in 1977, 1981 and 1996; even when he won, in 1984, he lost ? by failing to secure enough votes to rule outright. He has lost ceremonial contests (for the Israeli presidency) and internal party ones. In Israel, they say that Shimon Peres would lose an election in his own family.

This time he was beaten by Amir Peretz and, even though Peres has built up a worldwide reputation as a dove and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, this development is good news for all those who yearn for peace. That?s because Peretz is no less doveish than Peres. A long-standing member of Peace Now, an advocate of the Oslo accords, his record has been consistent. (And, unlike Peres, he is not compromised by a past which includes quiet encouragement of the West Bank settlers.)

Speaking straight after his victory, at a memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin, Peretz called for a return to the Oslo path, seeking a negotiated peace with the Palestinians. He went further, demanding a ?moral roadmap? that would lead Israel out of an occupation that has corroded the ethics of the country from the inside.

He did not leave this point abstract, but grimly concrete ? daring to condemn the current, grotesque policy which sends Israeli military jets to break the sound barrier over the Gaza Strip, deliberately causing sonic booms which terrify the population on the ground. (A recent petition filed to the Supreme Court says children are especially traumatised by the tactic, while doctors report a rise in the incidence of miscarriages.) It was as wrong for Palestinian kids to live with such fear, said Peretz, as it was for Israeli kids to fear Palestinian attacks.

So, Peretz is talking a humane language of peace. Bet-ter still, he looks like someone who can connect with the Israeli electorate and get results. The early polling has shown Labour getting its biggest bounce in five years ? with Peretz even drawing level with Ariel Sharon, according to one survey. The combination of Peretz?s own Miz-rachi background, plus his record as a fighter on the long-neglected social issues ? serious business now that one Israeli child in three lives below the poverty line ? gives him a rare political potency.

Still, all that was overshadowed by the even greater ma?hapach: Sharon?s decision to break from the Likud, form his own party and trigger early elections. At first glance, this looked like a setback for the peace camp: Sharon was surely more beatable when he was at the head of a divided Likud. But closer inspection reveals a rosier picture.

For one thing, the traditional right vote is now split ? which can hardly hurt Labour. More importantly, Likud risks being marginalised, identified from now on, most likely under Bibi Netanyahu, as a narrow, ideological party of the settler right. For a long time, the Likud brand brought in voters who were to the left of Likud itself ? pragmatic nationalists, ready to compromise, who simply calculated that Likud would do a better deal with the Arabs than too-soft Labour. That kind of Israeli voter now has a new home: Sharon?s party.

And this is precisely what Sharon is offering. If he planned to make no more unilateral acts to follow Aug-ust?s pull-out from the Gaza strip, then he would not have bothered to make this latest move. He would either have retired altogether or set about mending fences with the Likud. By creating a new party, he has demonstrated that he means to act ? and no longer wants to drag a reluctant Likud party behind him.

That?s not because Sharon has become some hippy-dippy peacenik with flowers in his hair. It?s rather that he sees a historic opportunity to complete the work of 1948 and draw Israel?s final borders. He believes he can do this to Israel?s advantage, without consultation with the Pal-estinians and with the blessing of the US and the world.

The sheer scale of this ambition is what has led some Israeli commentators to say that, should he succeed, Sharon will be on a par with David Ben-Gurion himself.

That?s not how I would put it. The truly great achievement will be to reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians and to end, for all practical purposes, the conflict. Sharon is not playing that game ? and yet the steps he is taking now are ones peaceniks can welcome. For he looks set to win the election, with Peretz his most likely partner, the two of them forming a centre-left, ?concession coalition,? one expressly set up to make further Gaza-style moves. In other words, Sharon is poised to roll back the occupation a bit further.

Ending it completely, and ending the conflict itself, will be the task of a future leader. But, after a long wait, the peace camp can dare to hope: things are finally moving in the right direction.

Failed by his friends

When New Labour asked Lord Rogers to plan our cities’ future, his report was shelved. Now he has published a new set of findings. But where is the will to match his vision?

Published in the Evening Standard 24 November 2005

Dedicated fans of Sex and the City knew the moment the series was over. It was when Miranda, the 18-hour a day lawyer and full-time urban creature, announced she was leaving Manhattan and heading out ? to Brooklyn, where she and Steve could raise their young son. They needed more space and above all a garden, and that meant leaving the centre of town. Most viewers probably sympathised, but they couldn’t help but feel a twinge of melancholy. If Miranda was shipping out, the rest of the girls wouldn’t be far behind: there might still be Sex, but there’d be no more City.

It was Miranda I was thinking of when I read the latest report by Richard Rogers, the uber-architect, friend of John Prescott and adviser to Ken Livingstone. In 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister asked Rogers to come up with a plan for Britain’s cities, which he duly did. Now, seven years on and entirely under his own steam, Rogers has reunited the 1998 Urban Task Force to update their findings. The one that made headlines is that ?Middle class families are moving out of towns and cities in search of better schools, less congestion and a safer environment.?

Think of it as the Miranda manoeuvre: people with children quitting the city life for the suburbs or beyond. I made something like that move myself when children entered the picture, shifting from Kings Cross to Stoke Newington. It wasn’t exactly a voyage into the countryside, but the motives were the same as Miranda’s: a thirst for less concrete and more green.

I had that down as a natural stage in the life cycle, just part of growing up. Living in the centre of town was fine when you could stay up all night; as a parent it made less sense. So it didn’t surprise me to see Rogers report that only 28% of people in inner London are aged 45 or over ? much lower than the 40% figure for the country as a whole.

In other words, if this is just an age thing, I’m not as worried as Rogers seems to think we should be. If it was about class, that would be much more alarming ? suggesting an inner city that’s hollowed out, left only for the poor. That kind of class divide soon translates into a racial one, with whites fleeing the city, leaving non-whites behind.

That may be happening in some of England’s cities (though the evidence is mixed), but it doesn’t seem to be the story in London. Here there are plenty of central areas densely packed with middle-class folk: just think of Islington, Battersea or Clapham. Indeed, thanks to gentrification, those areas are more middle class now than they were 40 years ago.

What’s missing are families. ?The urban renaissance has been down to empty nesters, singles and childless couples,? says Yolande Barnes, head of research at property consultants Savills. They’ve yuppified and gentrified whole stretches of the inner city, filling them with flats.

This age divide may not be as troubling as a class or racial one, but it does have consequences. If people with kids are still working in the centre of the city, but living further out, that means more commuters, more congestion and more strain on the environment.

The solution would be to bring families back in, which requires high-density family housing. You can do that in France or Italy, where people are quite happy to bring up kids in an apartment. But when Brits have kids, most want them to grow up in a house, with their own front door. Throw in a garden and they’re truly happy. The trouble is, houses are low-density: they cover a lot of space but don’t provide for a lot of people.

Hilary Cottam of the Design Council, named Designer of the Year for 2005, says there may be a radical way out of this conundrum. ?Do people really want to have their own private gardens,? she wonders. ?Or is it that they just want to have a safe, clean place??

She reckons that if planners and architects spent time really talking to people, they might discover that not many are desperate to start planting shrubs, so much as they want an outdoor haven they can call their own. And we’ve already found the answer to that.

Visit Notting Hill or parts of Hampstead and you’ll find some of the smartest houses back on to vast, gated communal gardens. No worries about dodgy strangers or stray needles, but a big, shared space where neighbours get to know each other and where there children can play in safety. So far these idyllic little patches have been the preserve of the very wealthy, but there’s no reason why the principle could not be extended, in London and beyond. Squares of tall houses backing onto their own mini-park. Open up more of those and you’d soon see families come back, including middle class ones. Indeed, you could hardly keep them away.

Not that Rogers needs advice from me: his report is fizzing with ideas. To take one example: he notes the absurdity that while VAT is charged on brownfield developments, greenfield building is VAT-free ? giving developers a perverse incentive to build on virgin sites. He wants that playing field to be levelled.

And it’s this which makes his report depressing reading. For Rogers and Co made the exact same suggestion seven years ago. And nothing happened. A small, simple measure ? and the government did not act.

And this is Richard Rogers, one of the most well-connected members of New Labour’s new establishment. If he can’t get things done, who can? Our problem is not a shortage of smart plans and clever reports. Thanks to Rogers and his ilk, we have plenty. The trouble is, a political set-up that allows large, complex problems ? like the state of our cities ? to drag on for years. We have the vision; what we need is the will.

United yet still divided

While Britain can be proud of its racial harmony compared with France, there is still some way to go before we can claim true integration

Published in the London Evening Standard 17 November 2005

If you?re reading this on a bus, lower the paper and look around. What you?ll see has no rival in the entire world. It is what one expert calls ?the most mixed tangle of folk to be found anywhere on earth.?

I tried it myself yesterday and the expert is right. On the 341 from Hackney to Farringdon, you?d have seen what looked like a statistician?s cross-section of this city. A Polish girl texting furiously; half a dozen black women; an Italian designer on his mobile; a pin-striped white gent ? and that was just the bottom deck.

So bus travellers will not have been surprised at a new study published this week which found that we are becoming more, not less, racially integrated. According to new research from Manchester University, the number of mixed neighbourhoods in England and Wales ? areas where at least 10 per cent are from an ethnic minority ? has increased substantially over the last decade. And more mixing is on the way.

That could make us feel pretty smug, especially if we?ve been casting our eye across the Channel. France has been burning these last three weeks, with riots in the impoverished suburbs of Paris and beyond. Unemployment and poverty are the obvious causes, but race is an inescapable part of the picture. The banlieues are home almost exclusively to black and North African immigrants and their descendants.

The segregation there is stark: the well-to-do and white in the city centre, the poor and dark-skinned warehoused like unwanted goods on the outskirts. (In many American cities the reverse pattern holds, white suburbs surrounding a black inner city.)

London is not like that. Here the city is not divided like a chessboard, into clear patches of black and white but jumbled up. In London, rich and poor, black and white, are never more than five or ten minutes away from each other. So Kensington and Chelsea can be one of the most expensive areas in the world, and still include Golborne Road and the surrounding pocket of deprivation. It has the largest population of people born outside Britain of any borough in the country (bar Brent). True, some of those are bankers from Frankfurt and New York but one in five of K & C?s residents are non-white.

There are historical explanations for this, starting with a system which made each London borough a mini-city of its own ? complete with an obligation to provide social housing for the least well off. We?ve also had city-wide authorities, required to think of the entire Greater London area. The Mayor of Paris, by contrast, has only to cater to the caf

Noir in Colour

An introduction to the catalogue for a new exhibition by artist Andrew Burgess, presented by the Cynthia Corbett Gallery 23 November to 19 December 2005

Most people remember what they were doing on September 11, 2001 but Andy Burgess's memory of that day is especially sharp. It was the opening night of an exhibition of his work at the xx gallery on Cork Street. Despite everything, people still came ? and found themselves looking at paintings that suddenly carried a shocking new charge.

For Burgess had made Manhattan his muse, gazing at, photographing and painting the city for the best part of a decade. He had fallen in love with the noise, the hubbub, the skyscrapers that make narrow streets feel like canyons, even the claustrophobia of a buzzing, heaving city. On display that night was a clutch of his New York pictures, including two depicting the Twin Towers. They sold immediately, that very evening. ?These are now historical pieces,? said the buyer.

There was pressure on the artist to repeat them, to reproduce his impressions of the World Trade Center. But he could not do it. Tribeca, the neighbourhood closest to the Twin Towers, had been his home when he stayed in Manhattan: the shock of 9/11 felt personal and direct. He admits now that the events of that September day affected him so badly, that for a while he simply could not go back to the city he loved.

Now, four years later, Burgess is exhibiting again ? and the effect of 9/11 is visible. Like the best artists who have absorbed the shock of those attacks, his angle on them is oblique. They are not his subject matter; his pictures are in no way about that day of dread. Instead, one can discern a shift in his work after September 2001, a palpable change in mood.

In his earlier paintings, Burgess found streets or buildings bathed in strong sunshine. His cityscapes of Boston or New York came in bright colours, borrowing Pop Art's cartoonish blocks and patterns. The exuberance of 1990s America was on show: confident, prosperous, almost infantile in its contentment.

In the newer work, the skies are not as blue. In Times Square, the sky is dark and lowering; the buildings look too tall, suddenly vulnerable. From the ground, Burgess's eye sees what many New Yorkers (and others) detected when they looked upward: menace. Rainy Afternoon in Chelsea betrays a melancholy imperceptible before 9/11.

Perhaps most striking is the set of paintings from Miami. Miami Carpark captures a moment of dark and rain that will resonate with anyone who has experienced the humid storminess of a Florida evening. It is quintessential America: cars, a shopping mall, extreme weather. It also represents a technical advance by Burgess, his ability to render poor light, as well as the damp yellow haze of a headlight in the rain, just one demonstration of the subtlety of his skill.

In these newer paintings he has caught something that lies beneath the surface of the United States, something less visible in the sweeping panoramas of before. It is the quiet thrum of day to day life, which yet carries a hint of the ominous. There is a kinship here with some of the finest 20th century American artists, from Philip Guston to Edward Hopper. But it is no surprise that Burgess also cites the writers Jonathan Franzen and Richard Ford among his influences: he shares their ability to evoke the brooding and troubled beneath the domestic and mundane.

Recently, he has turned that same clear eye on his hometown. Once again, one can pick up the sense of foreboding even in a landscape that, on the outside at least, appears to be free of threat. His treatments of suburban north London, The Vale and Ossulton Way, show that Burgess can find mystery where others would pass by. Plenty of painters could see the potential of Manhattan; it takes a deeper gaze to find inspiration in Finchley.

This represents a challenge by Burgess to his audience. For a cultural cringe can sometimes operate in Britain, one that makes us, if not ashamed of our own landscape, then slow to see the drama in it. There are few British songs about Stoke or Middlesborough, to match the American hymns to Galveston or Nebraska, but Burgess refuses to succumb to that tendency. Like Constable, Gainsborough or Turner, he can see that Britain too has a story. And it is not only the narrative of the rural, English idyll that aches to be told: the city, and even the suburbs, are worth staring at.

What we see is revealing of both him and us. For there is a nostalgia in these paintings, perhaps surprising in an artist who is not yet forty. The sweet, slow charm of the English seaside infuses his Beach Huts, Southwold. Warner Village, Leicester Square appears as a series of Art Deco buildings, echoing the Marlin and Breakwater paintings of 1930s hotels on the South Beach waterfront. (Tellingly, Burgess has his eye on the Hoover Building and the Rio Cinema of Dalston as future subjects.)

In Ford Anglia in Golders Green this interest in the past is exquisitely distilled. If the challenge faced by an artist is to capture surfaces in paint, turning pigment and oil into the world we see around us ? its objects, light and motion ? then this piece rises to it magnificently. The metallic sheen of the car, the crumbling brickwork, the weight of the clouds ? it is all there.

But below the surface, there is a sadness in the picture, the inkling that something has been lost. ?We can't help but lament the passing of time,? says Burgess, who like Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf before him, is preoccupied with the certainty that, as Louis MacNiece had it, ?We cannot cage the minute.? Some artists try to defy that logic and freeze a moment of time. Burgess paints something more elusive: the knowledge that we can do no such thing.

We can feel safer now

The terror bill vote was the right result - and could even help deter any future threats of extremism

Published in the Evening Standard 10 November 2005

The first reactions are always political. Instantly, ministers, their opponents and the commentariat were on hand to decode the true meaning of the numbers 322 to 291? the 31-vote margin of defeat meted out to Tony Blair in the House of Commons yesterday, when MP's rejected his bid to allow terror suspects to be detained for up to 90 days.

Most of those who still use buses or ride the Tube, who live in London and remember the two dread Thursdays of July, will probably have a slightly different reaction. The question we want answered is not ?What does this do for Blair?? but ?What does this do for us?? We want to know not whether it makes the PM's position less secure, but whether it makes all of us less safe.

The prime minister put that sentiment at the centre of his Commons pitch yesterday. This was not about politics or his authority, he insisted, but about thwarting the men of violence who ?want to kill people without limit.? If you cared about the victims of 7/7, he implied, and were desperate to see nothing like it ever again, then you would do as the police asked ? and agree to the 90 day detention period. If you were callous with the nation's security, if you simply didn't understand the nature of the global menace we face, then you would vote against it. Despite all that moral pressure ? and the weight of opinion polls and large sections of the press behind him ? the House refused the PM, defeating this Labour government for the very first time.

Does this mean, as both the prime minister and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police argued before the vote, that we should now sleep uneasy in our beds, anxious that a crucial skirmish in the war against terror has been lost? I think not.

For any war on terrorism is a battle for hearts and minds. In this case, when the chief threat comes from violent Islamism, the hearts and minds that need to be won over are those of Britain's Muslims. That goal is a little more achievable now than if the two Blairs ? Tony and Ian ? had prevailed.

This is not, despite what the PM said yesterday, to claim that British Muslims somehow support terror, that the ?softer? the government is, the happier Muslims will be. Of course it isn't. Muslim Britons know that the bombers threaten them as much as they threaten everyone else: just ask the family of Shahara Islam, the 20 year old bank clerk from Plaistow killed at Tavistock Square. Britain's Muslims want to see the guilty jailed - but they do not want to see the innocent suffer the same fate.

And that was the risk of a rule which would have allowed people to be locked up for three months without so much as a charge levelled against their name: it would have imposed a de facto prison sentence on those guilty of no crime.

Once that actually happened, the reaction would have been fierce. Once an innocent man was released after 90 days spent in a windowless cell at Paddington Green, with a hard plastic mattress on a wooden plank for a bed and a hole for a toilet, his community would have been gripped by fury.

This is not hyperbolic fantasy. We know from experience the radicalising, alienating effect detention without trial has not just on the individual victim but on his entire community. The textbook case was Northern Ireland, where internment achieved a success IRA recruiters had only dreamed of. We've seen a similar process at work worldwide thanks to Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay.

By cutting down the pre-charge jail period from 90 days to 28, the House of Commons has made that Guantanamo effect a little less likely on these shores. Now there is a greater chance Britain's Muslims might co-operate with the authorities. And that co-operation is vital; privately, the security services admit they are getting much less of it than they need (though they will have been heartened by the handover of a stash of lurid, Islamist terror DVDs to the police in Dewsbury yesterday).

There are other morsels of comfort in yesterday's vote, evidence that Britain is, if not safer, then a better society than it might have looked had the result gone the other way. We pride ourselves on our tradition of liberty, but wave after wave of counter-terrorism measure ? there have been five separate laws under this government alone - has made that more abstract than real. As Walter Wolfgang found when he heckled Jack Straw at the Labour party conference, dissent in today's Britain has to navigate around a whole battery of laws. Yesterday that march away from freedom took a smaller step than it might have.

It's healthy too that parliament refused to be strong-armed by the police. Several MP's resented being told what laws to pass by police officers, as they trooped into Westminster like lobbyists in uniform. That's not how our system is meant to work: our elected representatives pass the laws, the police enforce them.

As for the politics, at first blush it looks like very bad news for the prime minister. His writ no longer runs in the Commons, where he cannot rely on the loyalty of his own MP's, even when he turns every screw. His authority is steadily draining away. And yet, last night's result might grieve him less than you'd expect.

Yesterday he taunted the Tories, asking them if they really were standing where they ought to be. If Blair has to lose, I suspect he doesn't mind losing on an issue where he has the support of police, press and public ? and where he is accused of being too tough on terror. Politics is about positioning, and Blair is in a spot of his own choosing. This defeat is not all bad for him ? and not all bad for us either.