Barack Obama’s on a diplomatic roll that shouldn’t end with Iran | Jonathan Freedland

After the Geneva nuclear deal there is a path to peace in Jerusalem. But it will mean confronting Binyamin Netanyahu

There was no hesitation in pointing out the obvious loser from last weekend's breakthrough deal between the world's leading powers and Iran – and it wasn't the scriptwriters of Homeland. True, the US drama has taken a blow: the current storyline centres on Tehran and its runaway nuclear programme, depicting a regime utterly beyond the reach of conventional diplomacy. Yet while Carrie and Saul plot and scheme, there's secretary of state John Kerry shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart in Geneva – the actuality once again outdoing the talents of fiction, to paraphrase the great Philip Roth.

No, the obvious loser is Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. His driving mission, the raison d'être of this, his second spell as Israel's prime minister, has been the total removal of what he sees as Iran's nuclear threat. To Bibi, Iran is the existential issue to which all other questions – including Israel's relationship with its neighbours, the Palestinians – are secondary. For two decades he has warned that Tehran is within touching distance of acquiring nuclear weapons – in 1992, he gave it five years, max, before Tehran had the bomb – and he has been bent ever since on the total eradication of that danger, almost certainly by force.

But the Geneva deal does not guarantee total Iranian disarmament. The pact struck last week is interim and incomplete: Iran retains some limited ability to enrich uranium and the like. It is not an Iranian surrender. Which is why Netanyahu denounced the agreement as a "historic mistake", making him a lone public voice against the international chorus of celebration and relief. (As it happens, the Saudis and the Gulf states also oppose the deal, which they think lets Iran, their great regional rival, off the hook: but only Bibi said so out loud.)

Bibi-watchers are focused now on how the Israeli leader will play the next six months, in which the Geneva agreement will either blossom into a lasting accord or break apart. But it prompts another question: what will be the impact on Israel's conflict closer to home? Could the breakthrough with Iran somehow presage a breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians?

The wisest bet would be on no. Peace talks are officially under way, Kerry having pushed both sides to the table in late July. What got Bibi there was, chiefly, Iran: participation in Kerry's talks was the quid, US support for Israel on Iran the expected quo. But now that leverage has gone. Bibi no longer needs to make nice to Kerry or Barack Obama: as far as he's concerned, they've betrayed him and he owes them nothing. One western diplomat sympathetic to Israel explains that no leader of that country will ever dare move in peace talks unless reassured that "the US president has his back". Bibi, he says, has lost that confidence.

A similar dynamic could operate in reverse. Obama knows he has angered his Israeli ally and that might make him reluctant to do so a second time. The US president already has a job on his hands winning congressional blessing for the Geneva pact. Given the wide support Bibi enjoys on Capitol Hill, Obama will only make his task harder by demanding Israel concede to the Palestinians.

Add that Kerry's "bandwidth" for the next six months will be consumed by closing the Iran deal, and that Israeli-Palestinian talks are said to be stalled anyway, and you can see why few expect a Geneva bounce. The safest wager would be on Bibi "managing" whatever pressure comes from Obama, going through the motions with the Palestinians and waiting for the US president to be a certified lame duck. Meanwhile, he'll do what he can to undermine the accord with Iran.

But there's another, riskier bet to make. It says that Obama now has momentum in the Middle East, using diplomacy to solve problems previously deemed soluble only through military action. Perhaps it's true that he stumbled on a remedy for Syria, but progress on the destruction of Bashar al-Assad's chemical arsenal is real. And now there is Iran. That pair of triumphs might give the US administration the confidence to push hard for a third success – even in a conflict so long deemed intractable.

Despite appearances, Washington retains leverage: Israel needs America. However great the temptation, Bibi can't simply give Obama the finger. And, if Netanyahu is serious about resisting the six-month push to a full and final agreement with Tehran, then he will surely calculate that he cannot fight on two fronts at once. Given the primacy he attaches to Iran, he could well decide that it's on the Palestinian issue that he can afford to budge.

There will be domestic pressures pushing him in that direction, too. His stance has been heavily criticised by all wings of the Israeli press, not because commentators there think the Geneva deal addresses Israel's security angst – they don't – but because they believe Israel cannot afford to antagonise its American ally. They criticise Bibi for messing up that critical relationship.

Intriguingly, Obama's policy of restraint found a supportive echo in the Israeli securocracy: it was the loud, sometimes public opposition of current and former military and intelligence chiefs that made it all but impossible for Netanyahu to contemplate air strikes against Iran. It turns out that it was the fruit of a deliberate, planned effort by Washington, patiently creating what one analysis calls a "United States lobby" within the Israeli security elite. Now established, there is no reason why that same US lobby could not be mobilised to pressure Bibi again – this time on the Israel-Palestine track.

With Obama freed of the demands of re-election, and Kerry apparently cured of presidential ambition, the pair could do what no US administration has attempted in a decade and a half: exert some meaningful pressure on Israel to make peace. That could come in the form of the US issuing its own "bridging proposal", a vision of the ultimate resolution of this conflict that seeks to reconcile the demands of the two sides.

Netanyahu won't like it, but one Israeli observer who knows his record well believes that is the only way Bibi will ever shift: "He never does anything unless he can show he was forced into it by someone or something bigger." If Obama issues the blueprint for an accord with the Palestinians for him, Bibi might just find a way to accept it. If he does, he will find ready support from Israel's opposition Labour party, which this week elected a new leader, one eager to join a Bibi-led coalition if the latter is serious about reaching an accord.

To repeat, you wouldn't want to bet your house on such a hopeful scenario. But there is a path that could lead from Geneva to Jerusalem. Barack Obama opened that path – he should now take it.

Twitter: @Freedland

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Are smartphones causing a bonking crisis? | Jonathan Freedland

Research suggests the British are having less sex, and points a finger at our love affair with technology

Britons are having less sex than they used to, says the latest medical research published in the Lancet: down to just under five times a month for the 16-44 age group and three times a month for the overall adult population. This represents a 20% decline since 2000.

The researchers have a few theories, including demographic changes – fewer people living together, more single-person households – along with an accusing finger pointed at the recession. According to one of the study leaders, Professor Kaye Wellings, rising numbers of unemployed people have reported low sexual function: "That is to do with low self-esteem, depression," she says. So that's another thing we can blame on the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Thanks to the banking crisis, there's a bonking crisis.

But the more intriguing suggestion is that at the other end of the economic scale, those in work are increasingly blurring the boundary between the office and home by taking their laptops and smartphones into the bedroom. The most obvious impact is simple: if people are still checking emails after midnight, that leaves little time to do anything else. They are too busy for sex. And if it's not work they're doing when they stare at the glowing screen but playing a game or checking Twitter, then they're still too distracted to notice the living, breathing person next to them.

But the impact goes deeper than that. I've written before of the evidence that the online world is already altering us sexually. Because of the ready availability of internet pornography, even the very young are now exposed to imagery they would once have had to work hard to seek out. Compared to the kind of hyper-sexuality on show in porn, it wouldn't be a surprise if, for many, the real thing feels like a disappointment – simply unable to match the dopamine hit available from the screen.

The intrusion of the smartphone into our lives works in other ways too. Another survey found one in 10 Americans used their iPhones or BlackBerries during sex, a figure that doubles among the young. What are they using them for exactly? Is it mainly as a camera, to produce a string of X-rated selfies? Or is something else going on?

The online adult performer who tweets as @chaosintended wrote a fascinating piece for Business Insider, arguing that the relationship we are developing with our smartphone has become almost erotically intimate, that we are confiding our innermost desires in those sleek, shiny gadgets. She raises the troubling notion of a new generation of human – a kind of cyborg that is part flesh, part electronic device. But she might be on to something. Note the case in Japan – where there has been a striking decline in sexual activity and where electronic devices enjoy a high degree of, ahem, penetration – of a man in his early 30s, still a virgin, who can only get sexually aroused if he watches female robots on a computer game similar to Power Rangers.

Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself here. But the internet revolution is changing so much about us – our work, our memories, our homes – why wouldn't it change our sexuality too? © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The Paul Flowers affair confirms it: 2015 will be a dirty election | Jonathan Freedland

From the Co-op to Mid Staffs, the Tory smear machine is operating at full throttle – and it won't relent till polling day

There is no shortage of advice when it comes to the politics of the smear. For the would-be smearer, there's "Throw enough mud and some of it will stick". For the potential smearee, there's George Bernard Shaw's warning never to wrestle with a pig: "You both get dirty, but the pig likes it." I'd bet that at least one of those aged nuggets of wisdom was served up in the backrooms of Westminster this week, as the two big parties engaged in a form of combat likely to dominate from now until the general election of 2015.

One of those backroom meetings was on Thursday, when the two Eds – Miliband and Balls – and Labour's campaign boss, Douglas Alexander, decided on their approach to the story that began as a ready-made Have I Got News for You gag but ended as a political row posing serious problems for the opposition.

Labour sources admit that when word broke last weekend of Paul Flowers, the former chairman of the Co-op Bank, filmed allegedly paying for illegal drugs, they were slow to spot the political risk. Flowers had taken over at the bank in the closing weeks of the last Labour government, with the vast bulk of his tenure overseen by the coalition. Labour had had no hand in Flowers' appointment. Besides, whatever Flowers had done – he was arrested late Thursday in connection, said police, with an ongoing drugs investigation – this appeared to be a story about the personal conduct of an individual rather than anything that could be blamed on Labour.

That was naive. Those Labour officials underestimated how easy it would be for opponents to conflate the Co-op Bank and the Co-operative party, a movement dedicated to the ideal of mutualism and aligned with Labour for nearly a century, and suggest that Flowers' behaviour was no one-off, but indicative of something rotten in the state of Labour.

This relied on that deliberately blunt instrument favoured by all smearers: guilt by association. Flowers may have been on the outer edges of the Labour extended family – Ed Balls insists he has never had a meeting, email exchange or phone call with him – but the Co-op link was enough for Tory spinners to rebrand him a close "adviser to Ed Miliband". By the week's end, readers of the right-leaning press would have been forgiven for assuming that Flowers had a seat at the shadow cabinet table, doubtless sandwiched between Len McCluskey and the ghost of Karl Marx.

"Labour engulfed by Co-op scandal", bellowed the front page of Friday's Times: that claim ultimately rested on the fact that in 2007 Balls had backed a Conservative private member's bill that allowed co-operatives and building societies to merge and stay mutual. True, that bill paved the way for the merger two years later of the Co-op and Britannia, now widely blamed for the black hole in the bank's finances. True, too, that Balls bragged about that in his 2010 leadership campaign, when seeking to woo Co-op members. But that hardly puts him in the backseat of the car where Flowers was filmed allegedly engaged in mergers and acquisitions of a more physical kind. What's more, it's George Osborne who has the most serious questions to answer, as the Co-op went off the rails on his watch.

Not that that matters. When engineering a smear, the practised professional knows that detail is strictly for nerds and the inside pages. What matters is getting Labour and Flowers in the same sentence, repeated enough times for the damage to be done. Who can be bothered with precise facts? More important is to create an overall impression: Labour adviser, money, drugs. Job done.

You might imagine this work would be performed by the grubby grunts at the bottom of the Westminster food chain, those extras from The Thick of It who work in the shadows. But no. Those at the very top are not too grand to get their hands dirty. Witness the astonishing sight of David Cameron using prime minister's questions to suggest Miliband had enjoyed drug-fuelled nights out with Flowers, and that veteran MP Michael Meacher was high. The PM would probably say it was no more than harmless banter, but the low political aim was clear: to tar Labour MPs with a brush of Flowers, to smear them with dirt.

Miliband says: "Cameron is determined to smear his way through the next 18 months." That sounds hyperbolic, but there are reasons enough to see a pattern here. When the Libor scandal broke, Osborne suggested Balls was "clearly involved" and had questions to answer: a charge that brought a furious series of exchanges between the two, Osborne eventually beating a quiet retreat.

On the series of appalling scandals within the NHS, typified by the revelations about Stafford, the original Conservative approach was to see these as systemic failings of no party political colour. Cameron told the Commons he did "not blame the last secretary of state for health", Labour's Andy Burnham, and that he would "not seek scapegoats". But then the strategy changed, with Jeremy Hunt now regularly hounding Burnham, in effect accusing him of a cover-up of NHS deaths.

It's the same tactic with Unite, Cameron regularly using PMQs to pick on any accusation, however local or small, to discredit that union and with it the wider union movement, suggesting that the millions of people involved are complicit in activity that is malign and corrupt. It helps that each and every one of these themes is dutifully amplified by a clutch of supportive newspapers ready to serve as the Tories' megaphone.

To Miliband, all this is the clear handiwork of Lynton Crosby, whose election-winning toolkit has long relied on the smear. Australians recall how he knocked out Labor candidate Sue Robinson in a 1995 byelection by having "pollsters" call up voters, asking if they'd be more or less likely to vote for her if they knew she backed abortion up to the ninth month of pregnancy. Robinson had said nothing of the sort of course, but that detail was irrelevant. She lost the election.

Balls focuses less on Crosby, believing these tactics reveal the true character of Cameron and Osborne, but the high command agrees on this: Labour can ignore these attacks no longer. They have to hit back hard, fast and in detail. If they don't, the papers and – more importantly – the broadcasters will repeat the charges so often, voters will believe they are true even if they are not.

The temptation will be to smear back. Very gently, Labour might say that, since Cameron has raised it, it welcomes the suggestion that all senior politicians should speak candidly of their past use of class-A drugs – and looks forward to Cameron and Osborne's answers. It could further note that, since we're on the subject of former close advisers, one of Cameron's is currently on trial at the Old Bailey.

But Labour should fight that urge and remember what the old man said. You'll both get dirty – but the other guy likes it.

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Kennedy assassination: memory and myth refuse to die after 50 years

JFK's 1,036 days as president exert an enduring grip on the public imagination, but opinions are divided over his record

These days, it is only the world's grandparents who can tell you where they were when they heard John F Kennedy was dead. For decades that was a staple of the global collective memory, a question that could be asked in Berlin or London as readily as New York or Los Angeles. Today that memory becomes exactly 50 years old.

Despite its age, it's going strong. While some presidents, including those who occupied the White House for a full eight years, have struggled to be remembered at all 50 years after their deaths, Kennedy continues to loom large. His 1,036 days as president have been the subject of an unending stream of words – filling 40,000 different books by one estimate – as well as countless documentaries, TV dramas and Hollywood movies. Like much else of this vast output, the latest film, Parkland, focuses on the very last of those thousand-odd days: 22 November 1963.

Interest in JFK peaks for an anniversary, especially a big one. But the truth is, it hardly ever wanes. The Kennedy aura remains a factor in US politics, even when there is no Kennedy on the ballot paper. The standout moment of the 1988 campaign? When Lloyd Bentsen squashed a callow Dan Quayle by telling him: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." One of the lasting images of the 1992 race? Archive footage of JFK shaking the hand of a 16-year-old Bill Clinton at the White House, cherished as if Camelot had witnessed King Arthur anointing a new prince. There was similar symbolism – the passing of the torch – when in early 2008 Barack Obama won the endorsement of Kennedy's brother, Teddy, and daughter, Caroline: once he had their blessing, Obama looked unbeatable.

What explains this enduring grip on both the public and political imagination? The manner of Kennedy's death is central to any answer. The story of the 1963 assassination is so compelling, so full of human drama and pathos and, to this day, mystery – even those who accept that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole killer cannot agree on his true motive – that it refuses to rest.

But the greater significance of that day in Dallas – beyond the arguments about the grassy knoll and the Zapruder film – is the effect the killing had on how the Kennedy presidency would be viewed thereafter. It would, forever, be a story of what might have been, of potential snuffed out before its time. As David Ormsby-Gore, then Britain's ambassador to Washington, wrote to Jackie Kennedy: "He had great things to do and he would have done them."

The result is that historians do something unusual when confronted with the 35th American president: they debate his actual record less than his potential record. Take the Vietnam war, the shadow that would hang over the 1960s, thwarting its attempts to be the decade of peace and love. US involvement in that war escalated on JFK's watch; by November 1963, the number of US troops in the country had risen to 16,000. It was Kennedy, say his critics, who set the course his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would follow – by increasing the US military presence to 480,000 during the next four years. After all, Johnson was surrounded by Kennedy's advisers and always insisted he was merely continuing Kennedy policy. By contrast, JFK's defenders insist he was, in fact, a sceptic about the use of ground troops in Vietnam, distrusted gung-ho voices in the military, and would have found a way to wrench America out of that quagmire.

On civil rights, that other defining struggle of the 1960s, the argument is equally divided. Admirers cite Kennedy's televised address to the nation, referring to the battle over racial segregation as a "moral crisis", and his readiness to use the National Guard to force the whites-only universities of the south to open up to black students. Those less enamoured say he was late to the issue and that he was unlikely to have been willing or able to ram through the landmark civil rights legislation eventually passed by Johnson. "Kennedy had no great understanding of the impatience of African Americans or the intransigence of white southerners, while Johnson – from Texas – understood both," says Tony Badger, professor of American history at Cambridge. JFK, says Badger, was more "scared of the south" than LBJ, adding the reminder that Jackie Kennedy referred to Martin Luther King as that "terrible" man. There's a similar debate over Johnson's "war on poverty", with Kennedy advocates insisting that everything LBJ did JFK would have done too, if he only had the chance.

More clear-cut – and usually held up as the unambiguously golden part of his legacy – is Kennedy's handling of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. As those over 60 cannot forget, the world held its breath for those few days, genuinely believing that the stand-off between Washington and Moscow over the Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons in Cuba could end in Armageddon. Kennedy was cool-headed, faced down Washington's hawks and showed great creativity, and even empathy, in his dealings with Nikita Krushchev. In pulling back from the abyss, JFK secured his place in history (and laid the ground for the nuclear test ban treaty signed weeks before his death). Knowing his standing would never be higher, he turned to Jackie when the crisis was finally resolved and said: "Well, if anyone's ever going to shoot me, this would be the day they should do it."

And yet judging Kennedy by this standard – assessing his policy failures and successes – is slightly to miss the point. His appeal, and the enduring power of his memory, lies elsewhere.

For one thing, he was that rare politician able to inspire. The young especially responded to his call: "Ask not what your country can do for you … ," while his declaration in a city divided by the cold war that "Ich bin ein Berliner" resonated throughout eastern Europe. Less than three years in office, Kennedy nevertheless conjured up oratory and imagery that retain their hold half a century later.

There's no use pretending that sex and glamour were not at the heart of this. JFK looked young, vigorous and handsome with a beautiful wife to match. Stark was the contrast with both his predecessors in the Oval Office and his counterparts abroad: how different Kennedy looked from Macmillan, Adenauer and De Gaulle. He appeared like a new leader for a new era.

That image has endured far beyond the archive footage. Kennedy established a template for political leadership that is still in place, in America and around the world. Kennedyesque is still the style, the demeanour, candidates for high office aspire to: slim, energetic, accompanied by a supremely elegant spouse. Whether it's Obama in Ray-Bans or Cameron on the beach with Samantha, JFK remains the model.

Of course, much of it was fake. Unknown to the voting public, their fit young president was, in fact, crippled with back pain from Addison's disease, taking industrial quantities of drugs to get through the day. Equally concealed were his serial infidelities, his affairs with women ranging from 19-year-old interns to Marilyn Monroe – a record of womanising inside the White House that makes Bill Clinton look like a boy scout.

Yet none of this seems to diminish the Kennedy legend; it only enhances it. For JFK, the first president of the TV age who understood and exploited the medium, remains, even in death, a celebrity. He is the hero of a story that has everything: sex, lies and 8mm film; gossip, intrigue and lust – all set against a background of peace and war.

What's more, all that is combined with something that is, perhaps, as powerful as sex: hope. Despite everything, the Kennedy brand still stands for idealism – for the ambition of the moon landing and the call to public service enshrined in one of his most popular programmes, the Peace Corps.

Celebrity and hope: it's a powerful, quintessentially American combination. Fifty years ago the man who embodied it was gunned down. But the myth lives on. Not even a magic bullet can destroy that. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The selfie’s screaming narcissism masks an urge to connect | Jonathan Freedland

The Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year, 'selfie' seems to be all about me, me, me. But its social nature reveals a desperate search for an us

What greater testament could there be to the "me generation" than the rise and rise of the selfie? Anointed by Oxford Dictionaries' editors as the word of the year after a 17,000% increase in its usage, the selfie is surely the ultimate emblem of the age of narcissism. Like the doomed figure of ancient myth, we cannot stop gazing at our own reflection. This July, there were an estimated 90m photos on Instagram – the go-to platform for the selfie – with the hashtag #me. And that figure will be far, far higher now.

At first glance, everything about this phenomenon reeks. It is self-centred in the most literal sense. Not for nothing is the word just a breath – a mere "sh" – away from selfish.

What's more, it's selfishness of the most superficial kind. It's not just about me, me, me but how I look, look, look. It invites judgment based on appearance alone. You post a picture of yourself and wait for the verdict, your self-worth boosted by a happy spate of "likes", or destroyed by the opposite – a resounding silence. At least on Twitter, people are judgmental about each other's wit or ideas, rather than their hair.

To understand the sheer scale – the depth, if you like – of this superficiality, look no further than this Tumblr dedicated to selfies at funerals, including the image captioned: "Love my hair today. Hate why I'm dressed up #funeral".

And yet condemnation cannot be the only response to a phenomenon this widespread, which clearly delights so many tens of millions. The informality of the word "selfie" suggests something true about these instant self-portraits: that they don't take themselves or their subjects too seriously. To quote the artist Gillian Wearing: "The word 'selfie' is brilliant. It really encapsulates a time: instant, quick, funny. It sounds ironic and throwaway."

It is also true that, while the technology may be new, the instinct it satisfies is not: since the dawn of civilisation, humans have yearned to depict themselves and their faces – whether through cave paint, clay or, today, the megapixels of a smartphone.

Above all, and this might be the selfie's redeeming feature, they are not designed to be looked at solely by the subject. The selfie's usual purpose is to be transmitted by social media – with "social" being the key word. They may be focused on the self, but they also express a timeless human need to connect with others.

In that respect, the selfie is like so much else in the digital world – all about "me," but revealing a sometimes desperate urge to find an "us". © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Why even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis | Jonathan Freedland

Francis could replace Obama as the pin-up on every liberal and leftist wall. He is now the world's clearest voice for change

That Obama poster on the wall, promising hope and change, is looking a little faded now. The disappointments, whether over drone warfare or a botched rollout of healthcare reform, have left the world's liberals and progressives searching for a new pin-up to take the US president's place. As it happens, there's an obvious candidate: the head of an organisation those same liberals and progressives have long regarded as sexist, homophobic and, thanks to a series of child abuse scandals, chillingly cruel. The obvious new hero of the left is the pope.

Only installed in March, Pope Francis has already become a phenomenon. His is the most talked-about name on the internet in 2013, ranking ahead of "Obamacare" and "NSA". In fourth place comes Francis's Twitter handle, @Pontifex. In Italy, Francesco has fast become the most popular name for new baby boys. Rome reports a surge in tourist numbers, while church attendance is said to be up – both trends attributed to "the Francis effect".

His popularity is not hard to fathom. The stories of his personal modesty have become the stuff of instant legend. He carries his own suitcase. He refused the grandeur of the papal palace, preferring to live in a simple hostel. When presented with the traditional red shoes of the pontiff, he declined; instead he telephoned his 81-year-old cobbler in Buenos Aires and asked him to repair his old ones. On Thursday, Francis visited the Italian president – arriving in a blue Ford Focus, with not a blaring siren to be heard.

Some will dismiss these acts as mere gestures, even publicity stunts. But they convey a powerful message, one of almost elemental egalitarianism. He is in the business of scraping away the trappings, the edifice of Vatican wealth accreted over centuries, and returning the church to its core purpose, one Jesus himself might have recognised. He says he wants to preside over "a poor church, for the poor". It's not the institution that counts, it's the mission.

All this would warm the heart of even the most fervent atheist, except Francis has gone much further. It seems he wants to do more than simply stroke the brow of the weak. He is taking on the system that has made them weak and keeps them that way.

"My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost," he tweeted in May. A day earlier he denounced as "slave labour" the conditions endured by Bangladeshi workers killed in a building collapse. In September he said that God wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world and yet we live in a global economic order that worships "an idol called money".

There is no denying the radicalism of this message, a frontal and sustained attack on what he calls "unbridled capitalism", with its "throwaway" attitude to everything from unwanted food to unwanted old people. His enemies have certainly not missed it. If a man is to be judged by his opponents, note that this week Sarah Palin denounced him as "kind of liberal" while the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs has lamented that this pope lacks the "sophisticated" approach to such matters of his predecessors. Meanwhile, an Italian prosecutor has warned that Francis's campaign against corruption could put him in the crosshairs of that country's second most powerful institution: the mafia.

As if this weren't enough to have Francis's 76-year-old face on the walls of the world's student bedrooms, he also seems set to lead a church campaign on the environment. He was photographed this week with anti-fracking activists, while his biographer, Paul Vallely, has revealed that the pope has made contact with Leonardo Boff, an eco-theologian previously shunned by Rome and sentenced to "obsequious silence" by the office formerly known as the "Inquisition". An encyclical on care for the planet is said to be on the way.

Many on the left will say that's all very welcome, but meaningless until the pope puts his own house in order. But here, too, the signs are encouraging. Or, more accurately, stunning. Recently, Francis told an interviewer the church had become "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. He no longer wanted the Catholic hierarchy to be preoccupied with "small-minded rules". Talking to reporters on a flight – an occurrence remarkable in itself – he said: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" His latest move is to send the world's Catholics a questionnaire, seeking their attitude to those vexed questions of modern life. It's bound to reveal a flock whose practices are, shall we say, at variance with Catholic teaching. In politics, you'd say Francis was preparing the ground for reform.

Witness his reaction to a letter – sent to "His Holiness Francis, Vatican City" – from a single woman, pregnant by a married man who had since abandoned her. To her astonishment, the pope telephoned her directly and told her that if, as she feared, priests refused to baptise her baby, he would perform the ceremony himself. (Telephoning individuals who write to him is a Francis habit.) Now contrast that with the past Catholic approach to such "fallen women", dramatised so powerfully in the current film Philomena. He is replacing brutality with empathy.

Of course, he is not perfect. His record in Argentina during the era of dictatorship and "dirty war" is far from clean. "He started off as a strict authoritarian, reactionary figure," says Vallely. But, aged 50, Francis underwent a spiritual crisis from which, says his biographer, he emerged utterly transformed. He ditched the trappings of high church office, went into the slums and got his hands dirty.

Now inside the Vatican, he faces a different challenge – to face down the conservatives of the curia and lock in his reforms, so that they cannot be undone once he's gone. Given the guile of those courtiers, that's quite a task: he'll need all the support he can get.

Some will say the world's leftists and liberals shouldn't hanker for a pin-up, that the urge is infantile and bound to end in disappointment. But the need is human and hardly confined to the left: think of the Reagan and Thatcher posters that still adorn the metaphorical walls of conservatives, three decades on. The pope may have no army, no battalions or divisions, but he has a pulpit – and right now he is using it to be the world's loudest and clearest voice against the status quo. You don't have to be a believer to believe in that.

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The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman – review

Frustrated with the short-termism and complacency of democratic politics? This is a compelling, highly original guide to how it all works

In November 2011, Paul Mason, then economics editor of Newsnight, was struck by a pattern he observed while covering the G20 summit in Cannes. The only world leaders with a spring in their step during that meeting, held amid the crisis of a crumbling eurozone and apparent meltdown in Greece and Italy, were from China, Singapore, Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Those were the countries with money in their pockets and, Mason noted, something else in common too. With the exception of Brazil, these were nations unburdened by democracy.

In the aftermath of the crash of 2008, it was the democratic states who seemed to take the hit. Europe and the US shrivelled in the face of the Great Recession, while authoritarian China kept on growing. That G20 meeting was one of several where the democratic world seemed bereft of answers, unable to steady a tottering euro and much else. This did not look like coincidence. In the face of economic calamity, democracy itself seemed fatally hobbled. If Beijing or Moscow had decided on austerity, for example, they could have imposed it by instant diktat, with no need to build popular consent. Democracy lacked such potency. No wonder democratically elected governments in Athens and Rome were pushed aside in favour of technocrats who had won no ballot: they at least could get things done.

Such a sentiment did not begin with the 2008 crash. Frustration at the world's inability to act on climate change already had many cursing democracy. The planet might be choking from excess carbon, but in a democracy you can't put up a single wind turbine without the approval of villagers who complain it will spoil the view. That's just the way democracy is, the parochial and short-term trumping the bigger picture every time. Who could blame those who pined for the free hand of the autocrat, able to do what needs to be done – including the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who once said he wished America could be "China for a day".

Enter David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge, with a lucid, wholly original book that says those fears were, if not wrong, then embarrassingly familiar. The Confidence Trap charts a century of similar moments, when the public intellectuals of the day were seized by the fear that democracy had reached the end of the road. In chapters on 1918, 1933, 1947, 1962, 1974, 1989 and 2008, he reveals a pattern of repeated mood swings, in which complacency about democracy's supremacy and inevitable triumph gives way to despair about its limitations and inability to meet the challenges of the age. In 1933 HG Wells predicted that democracy would soon be discarded as "altogether too slow-witted for the urgent political and economic riddles, with ruin and death at hand". The sentiment is not that far off the report published by the Trilateral commission in 1975, whose eminent authors, anxious that inflation, stagnation and Watergate-era scandal posed an impossible menace, gloomily titled it "The Crisis of Democracy". Those worries echo, in turn, those voiced by Mason and others (including me) in the last two or three years.

For Runciman, that pattern is itself part of a larger phenomenon. Democracies develop confidence in their long-term resilience, based in part on their ability to adapt (in contrast with rigid autocracy). This confidence that all will end well leads democratic states to be complacent, allowing problems to fester, safe in the knowledge that, when it really counts, they'll solve them. Those problems eventually come to a head in the form of a grave crisis. But confronted with such a crisis, democracies usually do adapt just enough to survive. Confidence returns, which eventually turns into complacency and so it begins again. This is the confidence trap. Democracy, says Runciman, can never escape it.

It's a paradoxical idea that the author repeatedly expresses through paradox. "Lots of little failures combine to produce lasting success," he writes, referring to the way in which politics in a democracy appears, partly thanks to a free press, constantly to lurch from scandal to disaster to crisis and back again. At any given moment, everything is a mess. Only later, in hindsight, do we understand that those little failures were democracy's way of staying on course. Thus Watergate in the US, and the matching sense of political turmoil in 1970s Europe, racked by domestic terrorism and industrial unrest, served in fact as an "outlet for discontent" unavailable to the autocracies of, say, eastern Europe. Those regimes had to smother discontent, rather than being able to adapt, accommodate and eventually absorb it. Within 15 years, those brittle communist regimes had all been toppled – while the democracies, once so anxiously prophesying their own doom, were still muddling through.

By way of concrete illustration, he cites that favourite of the political press corps: the leadership crisis. At the time, these seem disastrous. Think of France in 1917, going through four prime ministers in a single year. That looked like chaos, but it meant France "could keep going until they got the right one", eventually settling on Georges Clémenceau. Contrast that with the German strongman of the hour, Erich Ludendorff, initially lionised as precisely the decisive master of events no democracy could ever produce. But when, in 1918, Ludendorff ran out of ideas, undemocratic Germany was stuck with him. In their own chaotic, often comical way, democracies stumble and stagger towards the right answer. Autocracies march with great purpose and in impressively straight lines, even when they are heading off a cliff.

The problem with this pattern – and, more importantly, with our knowledge of it, which increases as the years go by and our experience mounts up – is that we relax because of it. We know that it'll be all right on the night, so we don't act when we should. Every warning bell sounds the same as any other, the false and hysterical the same as the real and serious. In the cacophony of a democracy, with the media crying "crisis" seven days a week, it's hard to tell one from the other. So we screen it all out, believing that when it really counts, we'll know about it.

This tendency to fatalism was spotted early, by the 19th century French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville whose Democracy in America is the subject of an opening, admiring chapter. Runciman quotes Tocqueville's observation of early American ferrymen, sending passengers out on fragile vessels that were barely seaworthy. Why didn't the manufacturers make better ones? Because "the art of steamboat navigation was making daily progress", meaning the boats would soon be obsolete anyway. Their faith in the future prevented them taking necessary action today. As it was on the rivers, so it is with democracy.

All this is presented with a bracing intellectual confidence. Runciman roams across the century, drawing evidence from US, French, British, Italian and German history with equal brio. There is no havering, none of the anxious qualifying of every assertion that impedes so much academic writing. There are no graphs or conventional data. It is written colloquially – democracies don't "get hung up on tradition"; a democracy has "to suck up its mistakes" – and does not shy away from the sweeping generalisation. In a word of warning to his scholarly colleagues, and perhaps as a disclaimer, Runciman avows that "This book is not a work of political science."

It aims instead to describe the biggest possible picture, to reveal certain underlying truths about the political idea that aspires to be the universal system of mankind. The book is ambitious, in the best sense of that word.

But Runciman offers no manual; his is not a manifesto for how democracy might smarten up its act or extricate itself from the confidence trap. Indeed, he charts the failures of all such past attempts to shortcut what is an organic process, skipping over the intermediate delays and missteps and getting to democracy's long-term knack for doing the right thing more quickly. It cannot be done.

That can be frustrating for those readers hungry for an answer to, say, democracy's apparent powerlessness over the money markets. That group might well include Bill Clinton who, on realising he had to trim his economic plans to placate those who lend money to the US government, famously bellowed to his aides: "You mean to tell me that the success of my programme and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?" But Clinton will get little satisfaction on that score from Runciman, who detachedly observes that both left and right saw vindication in the 2008 crash without delivering a judgment on who was right.

His book ends with another maritime metaphor of Tocqueville's. Democracy is a river flowing through history, choppy and fast. Fix on the distant shore and you risk ignoring the perilous eddies and currents directly in front of you. Fix too closely on those, however, and you'll lose sight of your ultimate destination. None of this helps you steer, Runciman concedes, "But it is better to know." And he is a compelling guide. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Politics Weekly podcast: Douglas Alexander on Labour’s foreign policy

Labour's foreign secretary Douglas Alexander joins Jonathan Freedland to discuss the major issues facing Britain in the coming years: the rise of China, mass surveilance by intelligence agencies, the European Union and the Middle East.

His new book Influencing Tomorrow: Future Challenges For British Foreign Policy takes in contributions from a selection of authors.

Back in August the government was reportedly furious that Labour refused to back David Cameron's motion paving the way for military strikes on Syria - a move that can plausibly be said to have altered history, as the Barack Obama appeared to have second thoughts on intervention once Britain had ruled out taking part.

Another issue a future Labour government would be forced to address is Britain's place in the European Union - and how to frame the debate during any future referendum campaign.

Leave your thoughts below.

David Dimbleby’s tattoo is a sign of things to come | Jonathan Freedland

The 75-year-old presenter's scorpion may not prompt a rush of pensioners to get inked. But today's tattooed young will be tomorrow's older people

On David Dimbleby's shoulder we can glimpse the future. Fifty years from now, the sight of an old man with a tattoo will be no novelty. Indeed, rare will be the Briton over the age of 70 whose skin is unmarked by ink. That's not because the 75-year-old TV presenter, who's revealed he got his shoulder decorated with a scorpion as part of a new series on Britain's maritime history, is about to start a new trend for body art among senior citizens. On the contrary, skin ink could go out of fashion by Christmas and it would still remain a certainty that the older people of the future will be the tattoo generation. That's because tomorrow's old are today's young – and they are already covered in ink.

Scan a British pub or restaurant on a warm evening and the evidence is all around you. Not just discreet drawings on one shoulder, Dimbleby-style, or tiny marks on a foot, like Samantha Cameron's barely-there dolphin, but whole arms and legs covered with symbols, portraits or Maori-style lines. On the pitch, it's the footballer whose skin remains a blank canvas that is the exception.

In 2013 it's a look we still associate with youth. It may be ubiquitous but it still carries just the faintest hint of rebellion (though one that will soon, surely, be extinguished: it's hard to regard as rebellious an act that's been performed by the man who, after the Queen, is the face and voice of the British establishment).

In the future, the spider on the neck or the angel wings on the back will be associated with grandparents. Words on the body, etched in curly script, will be seen most often on wrinkled or sagging skin. The inked "sleeve" will be as identifiable a mark of old age as the walking stick is now. By then, you'd guess that the association with older people will have killed off the tattoo among the young once and for all. (Investment tip: buy shares in tattoo removal businesses - they'll be big in the 2050s).

For now, though, the veteran broadcaster has struck a blow for the country's senior citizens. Rather brilliantly, he explained his action by saying, "You are only old once," recasting one's later years as a time for fulfilling, rather than giving up on, long-held dreams. It turns out he had always wanted to have a tattoo done and he thought he might as well do it now. Good for him.

In the process he will have angered one group especially: parents of teenage children. The staple argument of the mother or father confronted with a child desperate to get inked has been, "You may like it now but imagine how it will look when you're old." Now David Dimbleby, the very embodiment of British respectability, has offered himself as a demonstration. And the sting in the tail is, it looks pretty good.

@Freedland © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Politicians, learn this: people cannot live by bread alone | Jonathan Freedland

Russell Brand, Grayson Perry and co are our new priests, plugging a gap the church no longer fills and that our leaders fear to address

If you're a regular viewer, you'll know the look. It's the one the politicians on Question Time – the ministers and their Labour shadows – shoot at the outsider, whose status is usually signalled by their position around the table: the more distant they are from the Westminster mainstream, the further they sit from David Dimbleby. Sometimes the occupant of that fringe seat is a politician from one of the smaller parties, a George Galloway, Caroline Lucas or, this week, Nigel Farage. Sometimes it's a journalist or entertainer. But the look from the political insider is always the same.

It combines disdain, condescension and disagreement, of course. But more intriguing is the envy. The Labour spokesman on this or junior minister of that watch jealously as satirist Ian Hislop or transgender activist Paris Lees get to say whatever they like, unguarded, tickling the audience's erogenous zones and milking the applause.

The politician watches, remembering the person inside them who once talked equally freely and who can still be funny or angry in private; but then they glance down at the talking points prepared by the party research department, the sheet filled with "the line to take" – and they talk the way they're meant to talk. And the rest of us zone out.

Rare is the day that a politician's speech becomes a YouTube hit or goes viral. But it happens to Mehdi Hasan laying into the Daily Mail or Russell Brand going head-to-head with Jeremy Paxman. The success of Brand's "Don't vote" riff probably frightens some in the political class. Perhaps a luckless special adviser is drawing up bullet points for a PowerPoint presentation on the "Brand demographic" as I write. But I'm not sure the gap Brand is filling is really political at all. I wonder if his tanks are parked on a very different lawn.

First, though, a word on the politics. The response to Brand's intervention surely gives the lie to the tired notion that people, especially the young, are not interested. It turns out that people can be gripped by political ideas when they believe in, or are even curious about, the people articulating them. One important qualification, it seems, is that you stand somehow at odds with the establishment norm, whether by virtue of your gender, your class, your race or simply your past. So Brand is white, male and fabulously rich – but he is also, as he puts it, "a right twerp … a junkie and a cheeky monkey". And so he gets a hearing.

That move is not available to most politicians (though the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, who this week admitted smoking crack, seems determined to give it a try). Even loosening the vocabulary is tricky. Nigel Farage can talk like Nigel Farage because he is not trying to build an electoral majority. If David Cameron copied his shtick, the Tory right would lap it up but he would lose two voters for every one he gained.

The same would happen to Ed Miliband if he adopted the voice of George Galloway. But this goes deeper than a rebel biography or knack for colloquial language. What makes an outsider strike a nerve is the sense that he or she is getting to the heart of things, talking about what really matters – not just to the country, which is an inevitably abstract notion, but in your own life.

This week, Grayson Perry concluded his widely acclaimed Reith lectures, which also broke through in a way that has eluded more conventional speakers. He too is white, male and wealthy but he doesn't look or sound like the establishment (wearing a dress tends to have that effect on men). When he wrote an essay for Prospect magazine's "If I ruled the world" slot, there was some politics in there – including a call for all government jobs to be performed by women for at least a generation. But that's not what gave the piece its force.

Instead, it was Perry's remarks about emotional intelligence, his admission that it was hard "to be aware of one's subtle feelings, responses and desires". Or his observation that "few people seem to have the confidence to measure subjective experiences", which is why they rely on brands to tell them what makes good art or even what makes them happy. He wanted people to connect with their true selves, hence his call for the banning of the business suit: "People hide behind it as a cipher for 'seriousness'."

Perry was touching something that almost always escapes the reach of politics: how people actually live, and their relationships with each other. When public figures enter this terrain they are often rewarded with a response that politicians can only envy. Note Brené Brown's TED talk on rethinking guilt and shame, which has now received nearly 12m views. Or the strong reaction sparked by Richard Dawkins' plea for us to see that public-spiritedness sometimes trumps narrow self-interest.

It's ironic, perhaps, to mention the master atheist in this context, for the gap he and others are plugging is surely the one once filled by men of God. This is the need he, Perry and even Brand are meeting – the yearning so many feel for understanding and for meaning. Brand makes an unlikely bishop, but note his Guardian sermon and its lamentation that inequality is "a warning sign of end of days", adding that past civilisations fell, despite their wealth, because they "had forgotten that we are one interconnected people". Amen.

This might give pause to the church, wondering how it ceded its role to a priesthood of comedians. But politicians should feel rebuked too. Those who seek to lead need to show they understand that we are not mere economic units, whose lives can be measured in growth statistics. Of course, that's easier to do when times are good. Before the 2008 crash, Cameron was tiptoeing on to this ground, speaking about life beyond the balance sheet – whether it was premature sexualisation or "big society" volunteerism. Recession shut that discussion down before it had really started, Cameron's talk of a "general wellbeing" index alongside GDP now a faded memory.

But Labour too – even when, in government, the public coffers were flush – has often seemed too economistic in its interests and obsessions, less able to speak about what constitutes a good life. In these straitened days, it's natural and right that Ed Miliband focuses on the cost of living, on energy bills and low pay. But what Brand, Perry and the others reveal is that a deeper need exists too – a hunger that cannot be fed by bread alone.

Twitter: @Freedland © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds