New Year honours should reward achievement, not cronyism | Jonathan Freedland

Forget the Downton Abbey flummery – let's honour remarkable citizens who truly deserve it, not entrench the class system

I'm not against honours. I think it's a good thing that a society celebrates its most distinguished citizens, those who have done something truly remarkable – whether grand and famous or quiet and unsung. In principle, all that is healthy. But, boy, do we do it wrong in Britain.

Even if you look past the Downton Abbey flummery of titles that formalise and enshrine inequality, and even if you get beyond the absurd anachronisms that somehow endure into the 21st century – Commander of the British Empire – too much about the system suggests a society that has got its priorities skewed.

Start with the entrenchment of class. You may think we got rid of the British Empire Medal – the old dinner ladies' gong – 20 years ago but it has crept back in, handed out to volunteers and doers of public good who somehow fall on the wrong side of the class divide from recipients of the MBE. The government says the BEM is for those whose contribution has been "hands-on", which sounds like a nice way of referring to those who work with their hands. It means the honours system stays true to the old British distinction between officers and men, gentlemen and players, grammar and secondary modern.

Next comes the fact that, as the RSA's Adam Lent tweeted, "as ever, [the] best way to bag one is to happen to work for the government or the royal family". Among the most senior honours, the dominance of Sir Humphreys and courtiers is striking. There are gongs galore for the deputy director of this Whitehall department and the head of strategy group at that one, to say nothing of the pile of baubles handed to those who serve the Windsors, including someone whose job is to be the Queen's swan marker. Apparently he wears a hat decorated by a swan feather. There was recognition too of Her Majesty's chief cabinet maker – and I don't think they meant David Cameron.

Perhaps the almost automatic honours granted to such jobs – bestowed as if they were part of the role's terms and conditions – would be fine if gongs were reserved for public service. They could be seen as an incentive scheme, to make up for the fact that the pay is often less than in the private sector (though I'm not sure the swan marker would be deluged with offers outside the palace).

But that's not how it is. Instead plenty of people are honoured simply for doing private sector jobs that are already rewarding them very nicely. Note the OBE given to Cheshire property tycoon Peter Emerson for "services to business in the north-west". Or the CBE gratefully received by West Ham vice-chair Karren Brady. By sheer coincidence, Brady introduced George Osborne to this autumn's Tory party conference while Emerson gave £41,000 to the Conservatives, £31,000 of which went to Osborne's constituency party.

It's not just Guardianistas who find this appalling. The Daily Mail's Tim Shipman has been raging against cronyism, admitting on Twitter that "The honours list always brings out my inner Marxist. It is a disgusting display of intra-establishment frottage; politics at its very worst."

The awarding of honours should be a moment of national pride, celebrating those who have brought honour to their country. Today's list includes many who have done just that. But they are let down by a system that too often rewards not merit or service but those who already have the good fortune to occupy a nice perch in our hierarchy.


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What’s your wish for 2014? | Zoe Williams, Patrick Barkham, Aditya Chakrabortty, Lola Okolosie, Jonathan Freedland, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Polly Toynbee

We asked columnists what fills their dreams about the year ahead – share your wishes in the thread below

Zoe Williams: 'A 2014 choreographed by Danny Boyle'

It's an Anglo-Saxon disease, apparently – the tendency to see poverty and wealth as merely the outward signs of inner value. It is disastrous enough applied to rich people, leading to an overestimation of their intelligence that is both tragic and comic. Applied to poor people it feeds other, harsher attitudes about social security and safety nets, what our responsibilities are to one another and whether we resent them or feel OK about them.

It does appear that the UK, though, unlike the US, has a natural point of retreat: when everybody sees their incomes fall and gets just poor enough to realise that it's systemic, and has nothing to do with how much effort they put in. At that point, generosity of attitude re-establishes itself, and people start ticking "disagree strongly" to Ipsos Mori statements like "I think the unemployed should just look harder for work".

So my hope for 2014 is not for national poverty as such – rather, the re-establishment of the principles and ambitions of social justice, which have been at the wellspring of everything the country has ever done that had any meaning or value. I would like to see 2014 choreographed by Danny Boyle, in other words. And many of the years after that.

Patrick Barkham: 'A piece of land not fracked, a badger not culled'

Nature is uplifting and exhilarating, and yet writing about it is often a gloomy business of confronting the ways in which we are consuming and despoiling it. Each year brings small spits in the wind – a clean energy advance here, a new nature reserve there – but these gobbets of good news are blown away by the logic of global capitalism: nature is a finite public resource to be annexed by private individuals for short-term profit.

After a 2013 of "green crap", species loss and ever-rising exploitation, a realist might wish for 2014 to be a bit less bad. But I would love to see just one glorious occasion where people choose nature over profit – a piece of ground not fracked, a runway not built, a badger not culled. A few such exercises of gentle restraint and voices in mainstream politics and the media may belatedly begin questioning our society's crazy fixation on economic growth as the source of all wellbeing and happiness. Reframing this miserable, myopic vision is too much to ask for 2014. It's probably too much to ask for 2041. But it's never too early to start trying.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: 'An end to online hate'

The wish closest to my heart would be to see an end to the sweeping cuts being made to disability benefits. These cuts are affecting disabled people and their families in heartbreaking and often tragic ways. Our government should be ashamed. It should also go without saying that I'd like to live in a kinder, more accepting society that treats individuals as human beings, whether it's allowing women to be fully clothed in music videos, refusing to stigmatise those on benefits or giving those with no quality of life the right to die.

As I'm not going to get that, however, I'd settle for people being nicer to one another on the internet. My general rule is, if you wouldn't have the guts to walk up to someone in a room and say it, then don't say it online. From revenge porn to threats of violence against women to slut-shaming to feminists trashing each other, I'd like 2014 to be the year that people close their laptops instead of being nasty – and realise that very little of significance ever happens on Twitter.

Aditya Chakrabortty: 'Policy on real benefit scroungers – employers'

I kept running into a type in 2013: the impoverished worker, on wages too low to keep them afloat. University cleaners doing two or three jobs a day, or staff at high street banks forced to turn to payday lenders. And they told stories of colleagues who were worse off, begging from foodbanks.

Impoverished workers are fast becoming the norm. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2013 was the first year that the majority of people in poverty were from working families.

Something remarkable has happened in Britain. Employers are getting into the habit of giving their staff poverty pay – and leaving the government to top it up with benefits. British taxpayers are ultimately handing cash to miserly bosses.

More effectively than any other contemporary figure, the impoverished worker punctures what the Westminster set thinks it knows about the jobs market. From New Labour workfare to Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne: for decades, the main parties have hammered the unemployed. But they won't face down firms who don't pay enough to live on.

Ed Miliband so badly wants bosses to give the living wage that he's promised tax breaks to those who comply; in other words, a Labour government would continue to subsidise Scrooge employers.

But we won't tackle poverty pay until we tackle the massive inequality of which it is part. Look at Lloyds Banking Group, which racked up £1.7bn pre-tax profits in the first nine months of this year. In 2012 its chief executive, António Horta-Osório, took £3.4m in cash, pension and perks. Yet 45% of his staff are on two salary bands that begin at £13,000 and £17,000 respectively. Unsurprisingly, most of them say they can't manage financially.

So that's my hope for this year: that the politicians start talking about a different kind of benefits scrounger – the corporations who pay their staff misery wages, and expect the welfare state to step in.

Lola Okolosie: 'Education policy made by teachers'

I have one wish for 2014 – that the majority of those responsible for producing countless educational policies have at least two years' experience teaching at the chalkface. This is the case in Singapore, a country whose achievements we are repeatedly told to emulate; 2012 saw it come second in a rank of countries comparing maths, reading and science results.

And if, as I suspect, that wish appears fantastical, I'll settle for something much more realistic – that teachers have more say in the policies that will affect us. A much closer interaction between educators and policy makers, one that does not merely pay lip service to teachers' ideas, would perhaps have saved us from the numerous policy rewrites and U-turns we have seen over the last year. The embarrassing debacle of the policy adviser appointed headteacher of a free school without a teaching qualification who then resigned after a few weeks teaches us one thing: working in a thinktank on education does not mean you understand how things actually work in the classroom.

Jonathan Freedland: 'A breakthrough in Israel-Palestine talks'

One of the unexpected breakthroughs of 2013 was the interim – and far from complete – deal struck between the world's leading powers and Iran over the latter's nuclear programme. My fond hope for 2014 is that the US secretary of state, John Kerry, will reach another breakthrough in an area which is, if anything, even more intractable: the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

I say "fond" because the grounds for pessimism do not need spelling out. Both peoples are led by men who could hardly be described as visionaries for peace and who are, besides, badly boxed in: Mahmoud Abbas's writ does not run in Gaza, Binyamin Netanyahu presides over a coalition dominated by hawks ready to oppose the first sign of compromise. It's long been said that the most Israel could offer falls short of the least the Palestinians could accept. Unsurprisingly, the word that hovers around the Kerry talks is "stalemate".

And yet the process is not over. Leaks have been intriguingly few, which suggests seriousness. Above all, Kerry is stubbornly committed to it, devoting more hours to face-to-face contact.

Polly Toynbee: 'The sudden shaming of this government'

The best hope for this year is the sudden shaming of this government and the unravelling of its plans. Let's hope that more eyes open to the fact that deficit reduction at this ruthless rate never was a fiscal necessity, but a gleeful Tory opportunity to diminish the public realm and shrink the state. The result has been services slashed and benefit cuts that reverse decades of social progress.

Let this be the year Duncan Smith's "scrounger" attacks rebound on him. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies shows government plans for the years after 2015 would require yet deeper cuts, devastating the NHS. So far, many voters seem to believe the propaganda that deficit-cutting is worth the sacrifice, though economic growth has been sluggish and deficit-reduction delayed.

As foodbank queues grow, let this be the year when most people start asking why the highest price is extracted from the lowest-paid half of the population, their incomes falling while the proceeds of growth only flow to the better off. Let this be the year scales fall from the eyes and a majority see beyond doubt that we were never all in this together.


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Why Netanyahu was wrong over Mandela

There is an idle habit I picked up in childhood which I have never quite shaken off. I suspect there are other JC readers who share it too. When confronted with any kind of list of the world’s nations, my eye runs an instinctive, involuntary check to see if Israel is among them. Flags flying outside a hotel or along a boulevard: I look for the blue and white. In the lobby of an airport, where ‘welcome’ is spelled out in dozens of different languages: I search for the distinctive script that says Baruch Habah. Those bars where the enterprising landlord has collected the world’s banknotes under glass: I won’t rest till I’ve spotted the head of Moshe Sharett or SY Agnon.

I’m not especially proud of such a parochial impulse, but there it is: put it down to my upbringing. But events in South Africa last week had me thinking of it in a new way.

The memorial service for Nelson Mandela turned out to be a shambolic affair – what with the rain, the half-empty stadium and the sign language interpreter who never was - but it was truly a global event. Television channels in every nation covered it and there were more current and former heads of government in one place than have gathered anywhere else in living memory. Not one US president or UK prime minister, but four of each.

I didn’t waste my time scouring the TV coverage looking for Israel’s president or PM because I knew they were not there. Shimon Peres was not well – a rare show of mortality from the 90 year old said to be planning his return to frontline politics when he vacates the presidency next year. Binyamin Netanyahu, however, was in perfect health. But he chose not to go, his office citing “the financial and logistic outlays” that sadly made the trip “impossible.”

True, ferrying Bibi to a foreign capital costs money. We found that out when the PM spent $427,000 http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-slammed-for-spending-127000-on-be... of Israeli taxpayers’ money to fly himself and wife Sara to London in April. The cost didn’t bother him then – even the extra $127,000 for a bespoke on-board double bedroom – because that trip was just too important to skip. He absolutely had to be at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. But Nelson Mandela? Not so much.

Much fun has been had about Bibi’s curious priorities. Economising when it comes to giving a final farewell to the liberator of South Africa, yet happy to bill the Israeli exchequer $2700 for top quality ice-cream http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahus-ice-cream-habit-cost-the-state-t... delivered to the PM’s residence. (He’s a sucker for vanilla sorbet and pistachio, since you ask.) But that’s not what mainly bothers me.

Rather it’s that childhood habit of mine, that desire to see Israel represented among the world’s peoples. The 19th century founders of modern Zionism were very clear on the project's purpose: to enable the Jewish people to re-join the family of nations, once more to stand among them not as tolerated guests but as equals.

Like it or not, last week was one of those moments when the family of nations gathered, from Iran to the US, Denmark to Cuba. By staying away, Bibi was saying that the Jewish people stands apart – aloof and, ultimately, alone. That may fit his vision of an embattled fortress Israel, forever in a state of siege – at odds with every global institution that matters. But it is not what Israel’s founders dreamed of. They wanted to look at the flags and faces of the world and at last see themselves among them. How strange that Israel’s leader does not respect that need at all – that he does not seem even to understand it.

Why Netanyahu was wrong over Mandela

There is an idle habit I picked up in childhood which I have never quite shaken off. I suspect there are other JC readers who share it too. When confronted with any kind of list of the world’s nations, my eye runs an instinctive, involuntary check to see if Israel is among them. Flags flying outside a hotel or along a boulevard: I look for the blue and white. In the lobby of an airport, where ‘welcome’ is spelled out in dozens of different languages: I search for the distinctive script that says Baruch Habah. Those bars where the enterprising landlord has collected the world’s banknotes under glass: I won’t rest till I’ve spotted the head of Moshe Sharett or SY Agnon.

I’m not especially proud of such a parochial impulse, but there it is: put it down to my upbringing. But events in South Africa last week had me thinking of it in a new way.

The memorial service for Nelson Mandela turned out to be a shambolic affair – what with the rain, the half-empty stadium and the sign language interpreter who never was - but it was truly a global event. Television channels in every nation covered it and there were more current and former heads of government in one place than have gathered anywhere else in living memory. Not one US president or UK prime minister, but four of each.

I didn’t waste my time scouring the TV coverage looking for Israel’s president or PM because I knew they were not there. Shimon Peres was not well – a rare show of mortality from the 90 year old said to be planning his return to frontline politics when he vacates the presidency next year. Binyamin Netanyahu, however, was in perfect health. But he chose not to go, his office citing “the financial and logistic outlays” that sadly made the trip “impossible.”

True, ferrying Bibi to a foreign capital costs money. We found that out when the PM spent $427,000 http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-slammed-for-spending-127000-on-be... of Israeli taxpayers’ money to fly himself and wife Sara to London in April. The cost didn’t bother him then – even the extra $127,000 for a bespoke on-board double bedroom – because that trip was just too important to skip. He absolutely had to be at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. But Nelson Mandela? Not so much.

Much fun has been had about Bibi’s curious priorities. Economising when it comes to giving a final farewell to the liberator of South Africa, yet happy to bill the Israeli exchequer $2700 for top quality ice-cream http://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahus-ice-cream-habit-cost-the-state-t... delivered to the PM’s residence. (He’s a sucker for vanilla sorbet and pistachio, since you ask.) But that’s not what mainly bothers me.

Rather it’s that childhood habit of mine, that desire to see Israel represented among the world’s peoples. The 19th century founders of modern Zionism were very clear on the project's purpose: to enable the Jewish people to re-join the family of nations, once more to stand among them not as tolerated guests but as equals.

Like it or not, last week was one of those moments when the family of nations gathered, from Iran to the US, Denmark to Cuba. By staying away, Bibi was saying that the Jewish people stands apart – aloof and, ultimately, alone. That may fit his vision of an embattled fortress Israel, forever in a state of siege – at odds with every global institution that matters. But it is not what Israel’s founders dreamed of. They wanted to look at the flags and faces of the world and at last see themselves among them. How strange that Israel’s leader does not respect that need at all – that he does not seem even to understand it.

My home used to be a Christmas-free zone. No longer | Jonathan Freedland

You don't have to be a Christian to see the appeal of this season. Jews, Muslims and Hindus are getting in on the act

We must have looked as if we were waging our own little war on Christmas. In the home I grew up in, we had no tree, gave no presents, cooked no turkey. Beyond our front door, we knew Christmas was happening. But inside the only clue was Morecambe and Wise on the TV. However, this was no boycott. We harboured no hostility towards the festive season. Rather, like other Jewish families, we simply thought Christmas had nothing to do with us. So deeply ingrained was this thinking, even to say the word – or to write out the first syllable in full, rather than deploying the get-out "Xmas" – carried a faint frisson of transgression. My most devout relative, a beloved great-aunt, would not let the word touch her lips, preferring instead the Yiddish kratzmach. That way she could avoid all reference to you-know-who.

I should stress that never once did I feel deprived by this yuletide absence. We had our own festivals, our own opportunities to open unwanted gifts and eat fattening food, thanks to Chanukah, whose shifting date on the calendar usually comes conveniently close to Christmas. And yet something has changed. On 25 December, my family will sit round a table and eat turkey. I can't promise party hats, but the odd cracker may be opened. As the meal is prepared, there is a strong possibility seasonal music will be heard.

And we're far from unique. Moshe Zyman, manager of the Kosher Deli in Golders Green, told the Jewish Chronicle he'd had a run on turkeys: "Two weeks before Christmas, we already had up to 100 orders. We always see quite a big demand." Remember, these aren't Jews who've forgotten their roots: they still care enough to eat kosher food. But on 25 December they want to eat turkey, just like everyone else.

Other non-Christians seem to be making similar accommodations with Christmas. The Muslim Council of Britain has sent out a seasonal card with a rather plaintive subtext. "Don't panic! Christmas is not banned," it pleads, pre-emptively defending itself from that other great tradition of late December: the confected claim that politically correct deference to Islam is denying the great British majority its rightful customs. "None of us will be offended if you go ahead and enjoy the Christmas cheer," says the MCB, adding that "some Muslims will join in those celebrations, remembering too that Jesus was an important prophet of Islam".

They'll be a minority, says the journalist Mehdi Hasan, who grew up in a Christmas-free zone similar to mine. But he too has seen a change across the generations. "Many nowadays have borrowed Christmas rituals and applied them or transferred them across to Eid," he tells me. At the end of Ramadan the Hasan family exchange Eid gifts while the house is decorated with an "Eid tree", an innovation that reminds me of the American Jewish families who put a fern in the corner of the living room and call it a "Chanukah bush".

Perhaps Jews and Muslims are finally catching up with Hindus. With no single canonical text, they've long had an all-embracing approach to the customs of other faiths. There will be tinsel trees in British Hindu homes, just like the Santa decorations I saw all over Delhi a fortnight ago. Amit Chaudhuri's evocative memoir of Calcutta describes Christmas there as "the loveliest in the world. Warm, convivial, unfolding in smoky weather, it had the vivacity of a transplanted custom that had flowered spontaneously, but still retained the air of an outing, of an encounter with the strange."

The point is that the fear exemplified by my great-aunt is receding. Jews like her, who spoke of kratzmach, carried with them the memory of Christian Europe's past, when the celebration of Jesus's birth was often the cue to beat up Jews – a kind of dress rehearsal for the serious violence that regularly attended Easter. That memory has all but vanished now. For most contemporary Britons, the only terror Christmas threatens is indigestion.

What's helped is that non-Christians have come to realise something that was not always obvious, to us at least: that most of what happens at Christmas is not Christian at all. The very thing that dispirits the churches – the secularisation of the festival – is what makes it open to those who are not followers of Jesus. So now we can separate out the bits that require Christian belief, put them to one side, and embrace instead those things which suggest a cosy winter festival – one that's less faith and more family, food and the fireside.

But if that helps explain why non-Christians might be growing more comfortable with Christmas, it's not the whole story. There is also, perhaps, a greater self-confidence among those outside the majority: we realise we can embrace this or that custom without losing our own, that a bit of integration does not always entail assimilation, in the sense of cultural corrosion. This might even be a tribute to the success of that now wholly unfashionable idea: multiculturalism.

Britain has shown sufficient respect to variety that smaller communities no longer feel they have to cling to their differences for those differences to survive. They can afford to let go, just a bit. There might even be a recognition that in a world of hyphenated identities – British-Hindu, British-Muslim, British-Jewish – both sides of that hyphen need asserting. Yes, those groups want and need to maintain what makes them – makes us – different. But we also need to give weight to what all Britons have in common: in this case, the week about to begin.

Which bring us to the heart of Christmas's appeal, to me at any rate – a quality that only becomes more precious in today's world of constant, always-on, connection. It's obvious that everyone needs a holiday. But usually when we take time off, we have that nagging sense that everyone else is still working. For many, that can mean anxious peeks at the phone, worrying what message or email is waiting there unanswered.

At Christmas, that guilt vanishes. For a few days we can relax, safe in the knowledge that our colleagues are doing the same. True, some have to keep working through this period: we rely on them. But for most, the office or school or shop is closed. There is nowhere else you have to be, no call you have to return. Just once in the year, you can truly switch off because you are not doing it alone. It is a kind of collective sabbath. And you don't have to be a Christian to believe in that.

Twitter: @Freedland


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Politics Weekly podcast: ‘clocking on’ in the Lords, airport expansion and 2013 in politics

As the political year draws to a close we review the year in Westminster. It ends with a new allowances furore in the House of Lords after a Conservative peer was filmed clocking in to claim his £300 day rate – then clocking straight out again. Lord Hanningfield says he was unwell when he was filmed – and that in any case, much of his parliamentary work can be done from outside the confines of Westminster.

There is no suggestion that the former Conservative broke any rules but but a Labour MP has called for parliamentary authorities to investigate.

Meanwhile a new row is brewing over Britain's airport capacity. The airports commission, chaired by economist Howard Davies, shortlisted options and favoured a new runway at Heathrow. Party leaders are sensitive to the many marginal constituencies which would be affected by a new west London runway and no decision will be taken till after the next election.

Joining Tom Clark for the final podcast of 2013 are Guardian columnists Martin Kettle, Jonathan Freedland and Michael White.

Also this week: we circle some dates on our 2014 political calendars - including May's European elections and September's Scottish referendum. Will the economic recovery continue to power on towards the next election? And will its effects be felt by the average voter?

Leave your thoughts below


The tricky Tory politics of Heathrow | Jonathan Freedland

Cameron is hemmed in on both sides over airport expansion. Oh to be China for a day and be rid of this paralysing democracy

Boris Johnson may be coming down with a bad case of the malady an Indian writer recently identified in his own country, "authoritarian envy". Interviewed this morning about the interim report of Sir Howard Davies's Airports Commission, the London mayor sputtered with frustration at Britain's inability to get its act together and keep up with its international rivals: "You go to Hong Kong, they're flying every hour of the day and night," he said, forgetting to mention that in the Chinese territory decisions can be made without too much regard to the pesky demands of voters on the flightpath.

Oh to be "China for a day", the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman once wished, envying Beijing's ability to make radical decisions on infrastructure by diktat. That sentiment now finds its echo in the Heathrow debate. "China building 70 airports & expanding 100 by 2015. How woeful our #heathrow faffing appears to rest of the world," tweeted Christian Guy, director of Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice.

Both Johnson and Guy are voicing a lament heard often these days, which is perfectly illustrated by rows like the one over airport expansion: that democracy means paralysis. Whatever your views on how – or whether – we should increase our aviation capacity, you can see the problem.

Expanding Heathrow is cheaper than building a brand new airport – as envisaged by the mayor's dream of a "Boris Island" hub on the Thames estuary, to be named after Margaret Thatcher – but is politically radioactive. Too many west London voters don't want a third runway at Heathrow and too many of those live in marginal seats the Tories desperately need to win.

So David Cameron is hemmed in. Facing him in his own party is a hard core of opponents, led by the ecologically minded Tory MP, Zac Goldsmith, who has now reissued his threat to force a by-election in Richmond Park, a seat he won from the Lib Dems by a whisker. Among Cameron's coalition partners stands Vince Cable, Lib Dem business secretary, MP for nearby Twickenham and another implacable foe of a bigger Heathrow. And, perhaps the toughest opponent of all: himself, circa 2010. Before the last election, Cameron vowed: "No ifs, no buts, no third runway," a read-my-lips commitment that, if broken, would leave a huge hole in the PM's credibility. As another ex-IDS luminary, ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie, put it today: "A promise is a promise is a promise."

So the political cost of a third runway is high, but so is the price of inaction. The business lobby is strong within the Conservative tribe and, apparently with George Osborne as its spokesman, it demands new airport capacity, ideally at Heathrow. So Cameron is caught between two unpalatable options.

Which is why Davies's commission exists, to take a decision too hard for politicians to take by themselves. The "independent commission" is a favourite device, supplying that little dab of non-democracy – a smidgeon of China – needed to get things done. It allows a government torn in two to put power in the hands of those who will never have to face the voters – and to make sure they do nothing till after the next election, just to be on the safe side.

When Friedman made his "China for a day" wish, he was bemoaning the democratic world's inability to take the action necessary to save the planet. The Heathrow row surely prompts even greater pessimism on that score. If it's this hard to agree on a move that will only add to our carbon emissions, how much harder to do what's needed to bring them down?


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Thanks to David Brent we cannot see the new poor | Jonathan Freedland

Maybe it's because white-collar jobs are often the butt of the joke, but we are forgetting too many victims of the downturn

He might be the poet laureate of the squeezed middle. He stands before you in a rumpled suit and a hangdog face, singing of mortgage payments, outsourcing and the threat of redundancy. He is the bard of the Great Recession, a troubadour of the downturn that crashed in on us in 2008 but which had, in truth, been coming for decades.

His name is Ethan Lipton and he is a New York playwright, songwriter and performer whose show No Place to Go is about to conclude its London run. It's an unusual evening in a small, intimate theatre: just Lipton and three musicians telling the story, through song and monologue, of a man whose office is about to be relocated far, far away, taking his job with it. With mordant humour and to a jazz beat, he laments the disappearance not only of a job he thought would "always be there" but everything that went with it – the office camaraderie, its rituals and, most basic, "a place to go in the morning".

It's a New York show – all bagels and ballgames – though it certainly speaks to a wider America where wages have stagnated since 1970, where the median income of men has actually declined by 19% since then, and where the idea of a secure job now feels quaint. Lipton is a Willy Loman for the 21st century, whose song is an elegy for the passing of an American dream – one that told successive generations that, so long as they worked hard and played by the rules, they'd be better off than their parents.

But it resonates in Britain too. Indeed, Lipton's songs touch every neuralgic sore spot of the squeezed middle. Facing redundancy, he admits he used to dream of providing his wife with some of the finer things in life: "And I'm talking about the good stuff. I'm talking about the pension. I'm talking about the sick leave."

With neither of them earning enough, he knows they will soon endure the fate of the "boomerang generation": having moved away from home long ago, they are heading back. One song begins: "When we move in with my ageing middle-class parents, who accumulated wealth from buying a home, when a home was something middle-class people could purchase …"

What gives the show its charge, in part, is its rarity. The legions of white-collar desk workers – whether they have a job or are about to lose it – have few moments at the centre of the public stage. There are not many operas about Barry in accounts, few tragedies telling the tale of Claire in marketing. They may not be heroes, but they are unsung.

Instead, the direct artistic responses to the post-2008 downturn have preferred to focus on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle. Those living in troubled council estates have had their stories told to great acclaim in Channel 4's Run or Top Boy, the film The Selfish Giant or in Plan B's post-riot anthem, Ill Manors. Meanwhile, critics noticed that post-crash novels such as John Lanchester's Capital or Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December were well-stocked with characters at the high end – the super-rich, whether financiers or Premier League footballers – and with migrants or others struggling in the depths. Perhaps the definitive cultural expression of this age of austerity will be the period drama not set in this period at all: Downton Abbey, depicting a world made up of those above and below stairs with next to nobody in between.

The result is a curious disconnect between the economic facts and the way the culture is showing them. Confirmation came this week that most of those living in poverty are in work, families with one or even two earners who are nevertheless struggling because their jobs are part-time and low paid. (Lipton's onstage persona says he has a "permanent part-time" job: "That means I'm there for most of the work and few of the benefits.") On Thursday, George Osborne told the Treasury select committee that he would cut public spending further by slicing more money off the social security bill – which will, inevitably, mean taking more away from the working poor. As Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation has reported, it is those in work but in poverty who have found themselves losing out again and again under this government. Why, then, is it that these people – the squeezed middle, broadly defined – are so rarely glimpsed on screen or on stage?

Part of it is visibility. Victims of the Great Depression were there in plain sight, the unemployed queuing up in breadlines, their plight unambiguous. When the early 30s classics Remember My Forgotten Man or Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? sang of men fallen on hard times, everyone knew who they meant. Today's suffering is less visible and, thanks to part-time work, less absolute. Food banks – today's breadlines – have helped make the problem concrete to those who hadn't grasped it, but many still struggle to imagine poverty and work existing side by side. That's why Osborne can keep pretending that welfare cuts only affect so-called skivers having a lie-in behind unopened blinds, rather than those working flat out yet unable to make ends meet.

The other explanation surely lies somewhere in the nature of the jobs that many – by no means all – of the currently squeezed are doing. Those 1930s songs were hymns to manual labour: "Once I built a railroad, I made it run." They endowed the working man with a kind of nobility, making his plight all the more tragic. The same sentiment operated 50 years later, as the films Billy Elliot, Brassed Off or The Full Monty depicted the devastation wrought by the Thatcher clearances of Britain's mining or manufacturing industry.

But the post-2008 recession has not lent itself to that heroic treatment. For decades popular culture has depicted much white-collar work as a bit of a joke, the province of Reggie Perrin or David Brent. On some level, all that paper-shuffling is not really regarded as work at all. Even Ethan Lipton's show is in on the joke: his fictitious job is that of an "information-refiner".

It means we don't have a ready reflex, embedded in the culture, to respond to the victims of today's economic woes. Decades ago, we knew what we felt about men used to working with their hands, cruelly rendered jobless. But insecure office workers, part-timers and the under-employed? Even our artists are not quite sure what to make of them. Such people are in the middle and feeling the squeeze – even, it seems, when it comes to our sympathy.

Twitter: @Freedland


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David Moyes, just like John Major, is destined to fail | Jonathan Freedland

Sport is no different from politics. There is a syndrome that means it's all but impossible for one star to follow another

You don't have to be a football fan to understand the trouble with David Moyes. Anyone familiar with the highest reaches of politics will recognise his predicament immediately. For those who turn rarely to the back pages, Moyes is in his first season as the manager of Manchester United. He inherited a team that had just won yet another title as Premier League champions, but under him they are struggling. Now ninth in the league, they are a full 13 points off the top spot. What's more, Moyes has broken a few awkward records. Under him, the team have lost at home to Everton (his old club) for the first time in 21 years and on Saturday lost to Newcastle at Old Trafford for the first time since 1972. Tonight another unwanted feat threatens. If they lose to the Ukrainian team Shakhtar Donetsk, it will be the first time United have suffered three successive home defeats in 50 years.

Watch Moyes attempt to explain these results, or defend his performance, in a post-match interview or press conference and, if you're a political anorak, you instantly think of one man: John Major. Or, if you're an American, perhaps the first George Bush. For what you are witnessing is a classic case of a syndrome that recurs in politics: the pale successor fated to follow a charismatic leader and forever doomed by the comparison.

Major may be earning some late kudos and revision of his reputation now, but while prime minister he was in the permanent shadow of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Bush the elder was always going to be dull after the man who went before him, Ronald Reagan. So it is with Moyes, who was given the hardest possible act to follow – inheriting from one of the footballing greats, Sir Alex Ferguson.

It's a pattern that recurs with near-universal regularity. Tony Blair was prime minister for 10 years; Gordon Brown never hit the same heights and only managed three. Same with Jean Chrétien of Canada and his luckless successor Paul Martin. Or, fitting for this day, consider the case of Thabo Mbeki whose destiny was to be the man who took over from Nelson Mandela and so was all but preordained to be a disappointment.

It's as if an almost Newtonian law applies: the charisma of a leader exists in inverse proportion to the charisma of his or her predecessor. Moyes is only the latest proof.

What could explain the syndrome? Does nature abhor one star following another in immediate succession?

One theory suggests itself, though it draws more from psychology than physics. Note the role, direct or indirect, many of these great leaders had in choosing their successors. Could it be that some part of them actually wanted a lacklustre heir, all the better to enhance their own reputation? United could have had any one of the biggest, most glamorous names in football at the helm, yet Ferguson handpicked Moyes. Did Sir Alex do that to ensure he would look even better?

For this is how it works. Once the great man or woman has gone, and everything falls apart, their apparent indispensability becomes all the harder to deny. Manchester United fans look at the same players who were champions a few months ago, now faring so badly, and conclude: Ferguson was the reason we won.

If that was his unconscious purpose in picking the former Everton boss, then Sir Alex chose very wisely. And Moyes can comfort himself that, in this regard at least – like Major, Bush, Brown and so many others before him – he's doing his job perfectly.

Twitter: @Freedland


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India shows there can be life beyond the great liberator | Jonathan Freedland

The two societies share many problems. Despite the temptation to seek authoritarian solutions, Indians still cherish self-rule

There are to be five days of national mourning for Nelson Mandela – not in South Africa, but in India. I know because I happened to wake to the news of his death in Delhi, where the grieving for Mandela is as intense as anywhere outside South Africa. Like so many other nations, the Indians have been quick to claim the great Madiba as their own. "He was a true Gandhian," said prime minister Manmohan Singh, casting the ANC leader as an apostle of non-violence, despite Mandela maintaining his belief in the armed struggle to the end, even restating it on his release from jail in 1990.

You can hardly blame Singh for wanting to see a parallel. India, like post-apartheid South Africa, is a nation whose foundation story tells of a long struggle against oppression – led by a virtual saint – that eventually brought liberation and democracy. That narrative, so cherished in Johannesburg, also endures in Delhi. Indeed, as South Africans contemplate their future, they could do worse than look to the dilemmas now gripping India – and that goes for the rest of us, too.

At first glance, Indian democracy is in rude health. This week I witnessed a record turnout in state-level elections, including 67% in Delhi, as voters jostled to have their say. The young especially were represented in big numbers, either manning the wooden trestle tables outside polling stations or lining up to get their fingers marked with the ink that says they've voted. But don't be misled into thinking that it represents enthusiasm for the current political order.

"All they are corrupt," Abdul Farid, 23 and a student, told me as a crowd of young men gathered to nod their agreement. He wished a plague on both the current houses – the governing Congress party dominated by the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and the opposition Hindu nationalists of the BJP – and was trying the new Common Man party, active only in the capital and founded by a former tax inspector. But India's pundit class is convinced that the current wave of disenchantment will carry the BJP to power in next spring's general election, deposing Congress after a decade in power.

The immediate explanation for voter disaffection is not hard to fathom. India's economy is slowing: growth that sat regularly at 9% or more is now less than 5%. Prices are up, investment and industrial production are down and wages are static: it's that 1970s throwback, stagflation.

That's dented optimism, of course, but it's also made Indians even more fed-up with corruption. The Congress-led government may promise generous handouts and subsidies to the poor, but too little of that money reaches those who need it. En route, most of it disappears, thanks to what is euphemistically referred to as "leakage".

Jay Panda, well-regarded MP for a regional party, told me that when it comes to subsidised food, only 27% of every rupee spent goes to its intended beneficiary. Sometimes he wonders if "we'd be better off dropping money from a helicopter". He told me of teachers who gladly bank their government salary, then send a low-paid, less able substitute to teach their class while they run a money-making venture on the side. To say nothing of India's perennial problems. Half of all Indians, some 600 million people, have no toilet. "This country is floating on shit and no one talks about it," says columnist Mihir Sharma who, like all those who can afford it, fastidiously drinks bottled water only.

So-called "open defecation" is still a part of rural life, while in Delhi, for all the gains of the rising middle class, the people who do the affluent's washing, clean their homes and drive their taxis rely on communal lavatories, with one toilet used by perhaps 100 people. "Child malnutrition rates are on a par with Somalia and Mali," says Vinod Mehta, founder editor of Outlook magazine. "That makes us hang our heads in shame."

Indians' readiness to tolerate such conditions is eroding, thanks in part to an ever-expanding electronic media, providing a daily reminder of how (much of) the rest of the world lives. That raises expectations, which the BJP's charismatic leader, Narendra Modi, – who has never shaken off accusations of complicity in riots that left 1,000 Muslims dead in 2002 – is only too happy to exploit. His biography – from selling tea on railway platforms to the brink of power – appeals to India's new aspirational classes.

But discontent goes deeper than a mere desire to throw the current lot out. "Some suggest that democracy has not served the people well," PM Singh said on Friday. Sharma speaks of "authoritarian envy", as India eyes the likes of Singapore and China, where "if their president says something, it actually gets done." He, like others I spoke to, worries that the populist Nodi might try to meet that longing, turning into a kind of Indian Putin: "In Russia, there are still elections, but nothing you'd recognise as democracy."

And yet, no matter how strong the desire for efficiency and to break free from the daily chaos – too many inspectors choking businesses in red tape, too few police keeping order on the streets – Indians are not about to let go of the self-rule they fought so hard to gain.

'Democracy can be infuriating at times, we can all see that," says the pundit and sometime BJP adviser Swapan Dasgupta, a print of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, on his study wall. "But Indians enjoy their democracy: they cherish it; they relish it," he says. "Too much order is anathema. You can see that from our traffic!"

For him, democracy is essential for a nation as diverse and noisily plural as India, where the banknotes confirm 17 official languages and whose states are as different to each other as the nations of Europe. It may not be efficient, but it means everyone is represented: dissenters have their voice, society has its safety valve. "A problem won't get resolved, but it will get played out," says Dasgupta. Others I spoke to said democracy might be the only thing holding India together.

There is an important reminder here for those of us who sometimes despair of democracy's inability to grapple with the greatest, most long-term challenges (with climate change perhaps the chief example). The experience of the world's largest democracy confirms that efficiency is not the only value – that democracy does not exist solely to provide good, functioning governance. In diverse societies especially, it meets another need.

Perhaps that can be a comfort to South Africans, who despite the liberation of 1994 still live in a society saddled with poverty and inequality. Perhaps it can be a comfort to the rest of us, as we remember the man who fought, above all, for the right to vote. Its shortcomings are great, but democracy is still our best hope.

Twitter: @Freedland


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