Intrigue worthy of Shakespeare

Some people love politics the way others love soap opera. They follow the plots and intrigue not out of a worthy interest in this or that policy but for the sheer human spectacle. For those so inclined, I often recommend an obsessive interest in the US: the outsized egos, the extravagant characters, the perennial culture wars are all reliably gripping.

Now, though, I fear any self-respecting politics nut should be looking eastward, specifically to Israel, especially in the run-up to next month’s Knesset elections. Judged purely as drama, it’s hard to beat.

Last week brought a serious twist: Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as Foreign Minister. Some tender souls assumed this meant the brutish minister — who believes Arabs born in Israel should be stripped of their citizenship if they cannot swear loyalty to the country as a Jewish, Zionist state — would be gone for good.

Those less touchingly naïve know that, in Israeli politics, a resignation is not for life but for Christmas (as it were).

Even an indictment for fraud and breach of trust, like the one facing Lieberman, need not be career-ending. As long-time viewers of the Israeli saga will recall, Shas’s Arye Deri went to jail for taking bribes and is now back as party leader. No wonder the outgoing Foreign Minister says, “I am parting temporarily.”

Even before his move, it had been all action in Lieberman’s party. First the boss merged his group with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, then he purged those colleagues who had displeased him, including Deputy Leader Danny Ayalon, whom he blamed for serial leaking. He gave Ayalon one hour’s warning that his time was up.

Over on the centre-left, it’s not been much more edifying. Two former Labour leaders abandoned their party for Tzipi Livni’s new grouping, one of them, Amir Peretz, for no better reason than that Labour’s new-ish leader, Shelly Yachimovich — keep up — had shown him insufficient respect.

Meanwhile, Livni has eviscerated her old party, Kadima, peeling away a chunk of its former MKs, so that Kadima is now poised to disappear. Livni will at least not have to do battle with a predecessor: former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert considered a comeback, following his own exit amid corruption charges in 2009, but thought better of it.

Not to mention the war of the rabbis, as “Lithuanian”, non-Chasidic strictly Orthodox Jews split into bitter rival factions, refusing to combine forces into a single party in time for polling day.

To be a political journalist in Israel is to be Shakespeare in Tudor England: you’re drowning in material. No wonder one blogger recently suggested HBO give Israeli politics its own series. With all this, who needs The Sopranos?

But the vicarious, voyeuristic fun comes at a price — one that isn’t paid by those watching for entertainment. It is the Israeli people, and those who live alongside them, who bear the cost of a system that can allow a thug like Lieberman to rise and rise, on course, it seems, to become the country’s eventual leader.

It is Israelis — and by extension the Palestinians — who suffer from a political class packed with individuals who scheme and plot their own advancement but who between them have failed to produce anything that could be called a strategy for the country’s future.

Every day, the country is getting closer to becoming a de facto binational state in which Jews are the minority, one that will be either Jewish or democratic but can’t be both. Yet it is saddled with a leadership unable to think beyond next week, let alone next decade. It may be amusing to watch, but it’s a disaster.

This sacred text explains why the US can’t kick the gun habit | Jonathan Freedland

I don't mock Americans' awe for the constitution. But to see an end to horrors like Newtown, they must make government anew

We watch their movies, we eat their fast food. Their culture has become global culture. So it always comes as a shock to realise how different Americans are from everyone else. The massacre in Newtown horrified even those who thought themselves inured to horror – I know many who could hardly bear to look at those smiling family photographs of the children – but for non-Americans the subsequent discussion has also been shocking to watch.

To outsiders, the point seems so blindingly obvious: more guns equal more death. In Britain, where gun laws are strict, the annual number of gun-related murders stood, at last count, at 41. In the US the equivalent figure is just short of 10,000.

Whether it's Britain, Japan or Australia, the evidence is the same: strict gun control means fewer people die. American unwillingness to face this basic arithmetic – preferring to blame the mental health system or videogames or the "feminisation" of the classroom, as one conservative pundit did, or the absence of religious prayer in schools – the explanation of former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee – rather than the most obvious culprit for all this gun violence, namely easy access to military-grade assault weapons, can drive outsiders to distraction. Witness Piers Morgan's bad-tempered hosting of a CNN debate on guns this week, haranguing his guests for failing to admit what to him was obvious – a performance that few of his American colleagues would match.

What exactly is America's problem? Why does it stand so far apart, notching up more gun homicides than the rest of the world's wealthy countries put together? People like to point the finger at the mighty National Rifle Association, which, to be sure, is a well-funded, effective lobby, especially in battleground congressional districts where NRA members can make the difference between victory and defeat. But big tobacco used to be a mighty lobby too; yet when the evidence linked smoking to lung cancer, they were steadily beaten back. Judging by its abysmal performance at a bizarre press conference today, the NRA could ultimately be defeated.

If you really want to know why the US can't kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don't even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you'll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.

When outsiders hear that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the second amendment of the US constitution, I suspect many imagine this is like saying it's "protected by law", something that can easily be changed, as it would be in their own countries. But this is to underestimate what the constitution means to Americans.

It is indeed a sacred text. Despite, or perhaps because, the US is a country animated by faith, the "founding fathers" are treated as deities, their every word analysed as if it contained gospel truth. Any new idea or policy proposal, no matter how worthy on its own merits, must be proven compatible with what those long-dead politicians of the late 18th century set down – otherwise it's unconstitutional and can be thrown out by the supreme court, the high priesthood selected to interpret what the great prophets of Philadelphia intended.

I don't mock America's awe for its constitution. On the contrary, I regard that text as the most powerful statement of democratic principle – starting with its declaration that "we the people" are sovereign – and human rights ever written. Its system of checks and balances is mathematically and beautifully precise in its determination to prevent unfettered, over-centralised power. It represents the unfinished business of England's own incomplete revolution of 1688. It's no exaggeration to say that this single document makes the US possible, cohering an immigrant nation with no common bonds of blood or soil around a radical idea.

But when the attachment to that text calcifies into a rigid dogma, danger beckons. Even the best ideals can become warped: note how the first amendment guarantee of free speech has allowed unlimited spending on TV campaign ads by anonymous corporate donors. In the case of the second amendment, a constitution designed to be a document of liberation instead imprisons the US, shackling it to an outdated rule that makes easy the murder of schoolchildren. Polls show a majority of Americans favour greater gun control, but the US constitution stands stubbornly in their way. The scholar Daniel Lazare describes America as "the frozen republic", chained to decisions taken when the right to bear arms meant the freedom to carry a musket. He wants the US to revamp its constitution, like most of the other countries of the world: "Why must Americans remain slaves to the past?"

Absent a cataclysm, such as the US suffering a total defeat in war, it's hard even to imagine such a thing. But that does not render gun control advocates powerless. Change is possible even within the constitution. It's worth remembering that it was only by a 5-4 margin that the nine judges of the supreme court ruled in 2008 that the second amendment applied to individuals at all; until then, the court held for decades that the constitution protected only the right of a "well-regulated militia" to bear arms. Admittedly, scholarly opinion has steadily moved towards the individualist reading, but it is at least theoretically possible that, with a new judge or two, that 5-4 majority could flip the other way.

Failing that, there is scope to change the sacred text itself. It's extremely hard – requiring two-thirds majorities in Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures – but it's not impossible. The clue is in the name: the second amendment. The constitution can and has been amended, whether to abolish slavery, grant votes for women, or (in 1920) to prohibit alcohol, the last of these repealed just 13 years later. Each of these would have seemed impossible at the time; the first came at the price of a civil war. But if the political will is there, it can be done. America need not be frozen. On the contrary, it was founded on the ideal that each generation is able to make the world anew.

If Americans truly want to see an end to horrors like the one that took the children of Newtown, they ought to heed the words of that great British-born hero of the American revolution, Thomas Paine: "The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also," he wrote. "Government is for the living, and not for the dead; it is the living only that has any right in it."

Twitter: @j_freedland


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Raise a glass to gay marriage – all our lives are better for it | Jonathan Freedland

The journey from section 28 to same-sex weddings has been truly radical and rapid – it can be a model for progressive change

In Westminster this week they debated changing the law to allow gay people to marry each other. In parliament, they're quite used to talking about gay people. In 1921, for instance, the House of Lords debated amending the sexual offences bill to include not only men but also "any act of gross indecency between female persons". First to speak was the Earl of Malmesbury, who apologised for raising "a discussion upon what must be, to all of us, a most disgusting and polluting subject". Eventually the Lord Bishop of Norwich withdrew his amendment, persuaded that such "vice" barely existed and that a criminal ban risked "advertising" and therefore increasing such horrors. Throughout the proceedings, the word "lesbian" was not spoken once.

We probably find that more amusing than appalling these days, gazing upon the dinosaur customs of the Downton era (even if, a century later, hereditary peers and bishops still have permanent seats in the Lords). But such attitudes are not ancient history: restrictions on gay people, if not phrased quite the same way, remained in place long into our own time. Consider that until 2003 no law prevented an employer sacking, or refusing to hire, someone on the grounds that he or she was gay. Or that as late as 2007, a landlord could evict or refuse to take on a tenant for the same reason. Or that gay men and women could not serve openly in the military until little more than a decade ago, just as the age of consent varied depending on whether you were attracted to people of the same or opposite sex. Yet here we are now, a few short years later, poised to take what gay rights activists regard as the last step towards full legal equality: access to marriage for everyone, regardless of whom they love.

Because we look back so rarely, we can miss how truly radical and rapid this change has been. Less than 25 years ago, a Conservative government could pass a section 28 that made "promoting homosexuality" illegal and banned any state school teaching "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". Pause on that word – pretended – and consider that gay couples can now adopt children and that it is a Tory-led government that's legislating for same-sex marriage. On this issue, the landscape has been utterly transformed in a single generation.

What explains such a quick and complete shift? Who can claim credit for what is perhaps the fastest, most thorough and relatively painless social revolution in our history?

The politicians would want us to start with them – and only a churl would deny the last Labour government credit for the raft of reforms it passed, culminating in the creation of civil partnerships which, we learned this week, have now been taken up by 105,000 people. While Tony Blair hedged and trimmed on so much, the necessity of compromise leaving this or that group feeling let down, it's striking that on gay rights, Labour delivered completely.

On the right, something similar is at work today. David Cameron has abandoned so many of his early modernising promises – the huskies and hoodies discarded long ago – yet on gay equality he has stood firm. George Osborne is happy to play pantomime Scrooge, snarling at the workless poor, yet he remains open and inclusive on sexuality. Ditto his allies in the commentariat: rightwing on everything else, right-on on gay matters. It seems gay equality is the one modernising article of faith that can never be recanted. "It's become a lodestar for 'are you comfortable in the 21st century?'," says Stonewall's Ben Summerskill – for a politician to be hostile to gay equality is like admitting he doesn't know how to use a computer. Which makes it all the more troubling for Cameron that he will have to rely on Labour votes to get equal marriage through the Commons.

But the near unity of today's political class on gay rights cannot fully explain the transformation: it's as much consequence as cause. Credit must also go to a change in popular culture. Even 40 years ago, gay men (though not lesbians) were visible in the British entertainment mainstream: think Danny La Rue or John Inman. But they were caricatures, never seen with partners, never to be imagined in real relationships. Over the last two or more decades – punctuated by a series of landmarks, whether the gay kiss on EastEnders, the lesbian kiss on Brookside or George Michael or Stephen Gately coming out – that has changed, steadily making what was once deemed abnormal, normal. In the US, attitudes to gay marriage are changing at dizzying speed – just as Modern Family, with a gay couple at its heart, has become one of America's most-watched sitcoms. Bit by bit, what used to be "other" has become unthreateningly familiar.

The process has worked exponentially, change begetting change. The more gay people come out, the more straight people know gay people in their daily lives, the more ordinary it becomes, the more gay people come out. On it goes, in a virtuous circle. Summerskill cites civil partnerships as a prime example, dispelling some of the old stereotypes about promiscuity and sending a message to both straights and gays: "Once you've seen one of those ceremonies on your street you can be in denial no longer."

Were politicians responsible for this shift or responding to it? Nick Herbert, the first openly gay man to be selected as a Tory parliamentary candidate, is surely right to believe the answer is both: "It sometimes happens that society is on the cusp of change when parliament steps in and helps the tide to break."

But none of it would have happened without hard work. The gay rights campaign has been a story of phenomenal success, combining attention-grabbing direct action with quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying – suffragettes and suffragists, as Peter Tatchell puts it, with himself firmly in the former camp. His OutRage! group regularly exposed the absurdity of discrimination: in 1992, he organised five same-sex couples to file for marriage licences at a London register office. Rejected 20 years ago, those couples will soon get their wish.

There are lessons here for other campaigning minorities. But not just them. This remarkable struggle has, says Tatchell, "helped everyone, gay and straight. It's made Britain a kinder, more liberal society." I think he's right. When this last piece of legislation is passed, we should all raise a glass – celebrating a movement that has made our country a better, happier place to live.

Twitter: @j_freedland


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Politics Weekly podcast: Gay marriage and the UK census

The release of data from the 2011 UK census has given statistical weight to perceptions that the country is changing fast. Britons are not only less white, less Christian and less likely to marry than 10 years ago, they are more likely to have a university degree than to have no qualifications. They are also much less likely to be homeowners.

The data also shows wild regional variance. London particularly looks like almost a class apart from the rest of the UK on any number of measures.

All these factors are the stuff of excitement for politicians and pollsters across the ideological spectrum.

Joining Tom Clark this week we have Conservative MP Nick Herbert along with Guardian columnists Jonathan Freedland and Hugh Muir.

Also this week: as parliament debates a forthcoming vote on whether to allow gay marriage, Nick Herbert (who is currently in a civil partnership) makes the argument that his fellow Conservatives must join him in voting for full marriage equality. He says the issue is one of basic freedoms and he is confident of all-party support.

But how any future legislation accommodates Britain's vocal religious institutions (many - but not all - are vehemently opposed to gay marriage) is less clear.

Leave your thoughts below.


Census shows a changing of the guard in Britain | Jonathan Freedland

What the 2011 figures prove is that the photo-op image of Team GB as a changing nation of many hues is demographic reality

Perhaps we will remember 2012 as the year we learned who we are. The London Olympics did it first, offering us a glimpse of a different nation from the one lodged so long in the collective imagination: not washed-up and living on past triumphs, but confident, capable and, above all, gloriously plural. While London 2012 sketched that picture through a series of impressions, sentimental and anecdotal, today we got the cold, hard facts to answer the perennial question: who do we think we are?

Those facts came thanks to a new batch of numbers from the 2011 census, a statistical portrait of England and Wales, complemented by some extra figures from Northern Ireland (Scotland counts itself separately). What they proved, in unambiguous data, was that the photo-op image of Team GB as a changing nation of many hues was not PR fluff but demographic reality.

Now it is confirmed that the country is less white and less Christian. In 2001, white people accounted for 91% of the total population. In the latest census, that figure is down five points to 86%. Those who define themselves, in the ugly parlance of the census, as "white British" now account for just 81% of the people.

Not that this diversity is all about race or colour. Five percent of the population is made up of white newcomers, many of them from eastern Europe. The number of people living here but born outside the UK has risen to 7.5m, or 13% of the population. The league table of countries of origin shows Poland – not even in the top 10 in 2001 – in second place, sandwiched between India and Pakistan. Also on the list was Ireland, the US and, unexpectedly, Germany.

Many of these could be the children of Britons who once lived abroad. Some of them could be students or others living in Britain temporarily. Either way, this is not immigration the way it was understood in the 1960s and 1970s: witness the 29% of Kensington and Chelsea made up of non-British white people, bankers and oligarchs relocated to west London. This is the result of globalisation, a mobility and churn in the world's population which involves Britain no more or less than the likes of France, Germany or the Netherlands. Put simply, people are on the move – and some of them are coming here.

Alongside diversity are signs of integration. We aren't just more varied, we're also more mixed. The numbers identifying themselves as mixed race nearly doubled to 2.2%, with almost 12% of households including members of different ethnic groups. Sunder Katwala of the thinktank British Future believes a generational change has occurred: he hails a "Jessica Ennis generation", one that barely notices race at all.

But God – or at least the church – is struggling in this country. Ten years ago 72% identified as Christians; now it's just 59%. The panicmongers on the reactionary right will compare that to the rise in the number of British Muslims to 2.7m – from 3% of the total population in 2001 to 5% now – and warn that Christianity will one day be outstripped by Islam. But the biggest challenge to Christian influence in our national life is not Islam, but rather the 25% who declared themselves to be of "no religion" at all, up from 15% in 2001.

Non-believers now form the second-biggest denomination, dwarfing the number of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Buddhists combined. It confirms our place as perhaps the most godless country, the least "churched", in the industrialised world, setting us apart from the US, obviously, but also from much of continental Europe.

This waning of religion might also explain one of the census's more striking numbers. While the Commons was debating marriage for same-sex couples, we learned that marriage is now officially a minority pursuit. Today only 46.6% of us are married, down from 50.9% in 2001. Perhaps a surge in new weddings for gay couples – and the census shows 105,000 Britons currently in civil partnerships – will give marriage the shot in the arm it clearly needs.

In the summer, many noted that London was the obvious venue for an Olympics that showed off the new, more diverse Britain. The numbers confirm that intuition, establishing that when it comes to variety – ethnic, religious and national – the capital is worlds away from the rest of the country.

White Britons have become a minority in London, accounting for only 45% of the city's population. White people still make up 60% of Londoners, the numbers boosted by newcomers from eastern Europe and beyond. The highest proportions of Muslims and every other religion are to be found in London – where (African) churches, mosques, temples and synagogues thrive. Christians are still the largest group, but they are no longer a majority.

Tony Travers of the London School of Economics marvelled at the figures, which among other things showed that more than a third of Londoners are born overseas. "It's a reminder of just how much we've changed," he said, like catching your reflection after 10 years without looking in a mirror. "You know you've aged in that time, but it's still a shock to see it."

There are nuggets galore for the researchers to pore over, whether it's the decline in home ownership, surely an early product of the recession, or the fact that there are now more of us with degree-level education than those with no qualifications. But the main story is surely that this country has undergone a radical transformation in this last decade and the ones before – and it has done so with relative peace and relative calm. No one will hand out any gold medals for that, but it's a kind of triumph all the same.


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George Osborne’s optimism disappears in autumn statement | Jonathan Freedland

The chancellor's bright-eyed optimism that served as the coalition's defining mission turns to dust in the Commons

The disaster of March and the omnishambles budget meant the bar was set low for George Osborne's autumn statement. So long as he avoided a move as politically disastrous as his slashing of the 50p top rate, so long as he didn't riddle his text with a cluster of tax bombshells – like those that exploded in the face of grannies and pasty-eaters – the Conservative benches would exhale with relief. The Tories' poll numbers have never recovered from the damage inflicted by that spring budget, so their minimal demand was an autumn statement that did no obvious further harm.

Judged by that low standard, Osborne survived his test: there were no obvious, fall-down-flat stumbles. If you were looking at the small picture, it looked acceptable. But the big picture was bleak. The chancellor came to the House of Commons to announce that everything he had once promised and predicted was wrong.

The old, optimistic growth forecasts were torn up, replaced by the glum admission that this year the economy will have shrunk by 0.1%. The initial, bright-eyed vow that served as the defining mission of the coalition – to eradicate the deficit by 2015, thereby winning re-election as a reward for clearing up the economic mess – has turned to dust.

Osborne had to admit that the nation's debt won't even begin to fall as a share of GDP until a full year after the next election, in 2016/17. The age of austerity, once scheduled to last a single parliamentary term, will now stretch to 2018. Paul Johnson of the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies said the appropriate reaction to these numbers was to be "appalled". Osborne tried to prettify his bulletin of gloom as best he could but, in US parlance, he was putting lipstick on a pig. He succeeded in wrongfooting Labour with the boast that the deficit – the amount by which the debt is increased each year – was shrinking.

That worked long enough to throw Ed Balls off his stride, but soon unravelled. The small print revealed that Osborne claimed a fall in borrowing largely by factoring in the proceeds of a 4G telecomms auction that has not yet happened. In the technical argot of economics, this is known as counting your chickens before they are hatched. And there was plenty more in that vein, plumping up the balance sheet with sums of money that have not yet come in and are far from guaranteed.

Osborne has two roles in the government, chancellor and chief electoral strategist, but it is a mistake to think of these as separate. Every decision he takes is political and this was an intensely political mini-budget. For one thing, he gave a clear preview of the strategy he will run in 2015. Since the message cannot now be "job done", it will be instead "we're on the right track, don't turn back." But if growth remains elusive, if Britain does enter a triple-dip recession and loses its cherished AAA credit rating in the new year – both of which are highly possible – that will become a harder argument to make.

Politics throbbed through every line of the speech. He announced a below-inflation, 1% increase on benefits, thereby cutting the living standards of some of the poorest members of society – to be approved in a Commons vote. Such a vote is not strictly necessary, but it is politically useful: now Labour will have to declare whether it's for or against such a real-terms benefits cut. Osborne is calculating that the Labour base will demand a no vote, thereby positioning Ed Miliband on the side of the scroungers against the strivers, as the Tory machine will cast it. Crude, but the polling suggests public opinion will side with the government. That was one among several moves that suggested Osborne's ear was finely tuned to the Conservative Home frequency. Its favoured groups did well, whether motorists rewarded with the cancellation of a 3p rise in fuel duty – the headline move designed to win tabloid cheers – or the elderly given a 2.5% rise in the state pension. The pain was to be most acute for those on benefits: squeezed already, they will bear the brunt of a £3.75bn cut in welfare spending. According to the Resolution Foundation, the poorest 10% will lose 1.2% of their income as a result of the main measures announced yesterday, while the richest 10% will lose just 0.2% of theirs.

There were some clear political winners and losers. Michael Gove emerged stronger, his education department praised for underspending its budget and rewarded with the scrapping of national pay scales for teachers. School heads will now be able to set their own, performance-related pay, setting up a confrontation with the teaching unions which Osborne and Gove may relish.

As for losers, it's hard not to point once again at the Liberal Democrats. They briefed that it would have been so much worse if the wicked Tories had been allowed to have their way unimpeded, that Osborne would have slashed £10bn from welfare rather than £3.75bn.

But that argument wears thin when Nick Clegg has to sit silently while the chancellor trashes his mansion tax policy and spends so much more on his pet policies than on those demanded by the Lib Dems. The age of austerity is hard for the Lib Dems, but harder still for the country. And now we know it will go on and on, no matter how much George Osborne tries to make ugly numbers look pretty.


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