25 August 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 August 2005

There's nothing like the death of a prominent politician still in his or her fifties to remind you that, if a week is a long time in politics, a couple of decades can pass in the blink of an eye.

It seems only yesterday that Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam were 30-something rising stars of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, the brightest hopes of the soft left. I met them both in the mid-1980s through European Nuclear Disarmament (the bit of the 1980s peace movement that was most critical of Soviet nukes) and over the next 15 years saw a lot of them while I was working as a political journalist. They were both Tribune regulars in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I was on this paper, and both were valued sources of copy and talk when I was on the New Statesman and New Times.

As personalities, they were radically dissimilar except insofar as they were both irrepressible individualists, engaging and friendly. But in their politics they were remarkably close. They shared many of the same causes — Europe, proportional representation, civil liberties, environmentalism — as well as a political trajectory. Both threw in their lot first with Kinnock, then with John Smith and then with New Labour; both served in senior roles in Tony Blair’s Government; and both returned frustrated to the back benches after being frozen out by the Blair cabal (though in very different circumstances).

Mowlam died after a long illness and retirement from the Commons; Cook died suddenly when he still had every chance of returning to cabinet. But they will be missed in much the same way by their personal and political friends. Both were the life and soul of any gathering. And without them, it is difficult to think of anyone quite so charismatic who can carry the torch for the radical democratic Left politics they espoused.


But it’s not just the Left that should be worried by their deaths. Cook and Mowlam were members of a generation that remains the mainstay of the current government — and is not getting any younger.

No fewer than 19 of the 23 members of the cabinet today are, like Cook and Mowlam, in their fifties, born in the first postwar decade, brought up on the welfare state and the Beatles and the Stones and that revolution stuff. Perhaps most importantly they were formed politically by the implosion of the Labour Party in the wake of the 1979 defeat by Margaret Thatcher. Only two of the current cabinet, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, are over 60; only two under 50, David Miliband and Ruth Kelly (40 and 37 respectively). (There’s also Douglas Alexander, 38, who goes to cabinet but isn’t actually a member.) By 2009, when the next election comes, a majority of current cabinet members will be eligible for bus passes within a couple of years if they haven’t got them already. And by 2014 — well, do the sums.

OK, by historical standards, they’re still young as a cabinet — and there’s nothing to rule out serving as a minister into your eighties. OK, there are a few junior ministers coming up who will make it to cabinet before too long. OK, you don’t win anything with kids.

But parties need to rejuvenate themselves, and Labour is going to find it difficult to do it, just as the Tories have since the late 1980s. Most of the PLP is of the same generation as the cabinet. There has been little turnover of personnel in the past couple of elections, and there are few undiscovered stars. A handful of old-stager MPs might retire next time just as they did in 2001 and 2005. But the party in the country is hardly brimming with enthusiastic activists in their twenties and thirties:the replacements for retiring MPs are likely to be uninspiring apparatchiks, just as they have been for the past decade or more.

Sorry if this sounds pessimistic, but I’ve got a hunch that a tired and ageing Labour will lose in 2014, then spend 15-20 years in the wilderness desperately searching for fresh blood, just like after 1979. And when we win again, I’ll be in my seventies.


On another subject entirely, I’ve just got back from a holiday in Scotland, during which I visited George Orwell’s old house at Barnhill on the island of Jura with my friend (and fellow Tribune contributor) Kevin Davey.

I knew Barnhill was remote, but I’d not quite got my head round how remote until we got there — after driving some 20 miles down a single-track road from Craighouse, the nearest village with a pub and a shop, then walking six miles from where the road ends. Orwell first visited almost exactly 60 years ago, in late summer 1945, and lived there during the summer of 1946 and for most of 1947 while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Most of Orwell’s friends thought he was crazy to move there, and until last week I wondered what the attraction could have been. But now I think I know. Jura is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in Britain — rugged, wild, silent, wet. If it weren’t for the midges it would be a major tourist attraction. Long live the midges.

13 August 2005


I'm off for a week in Scotland, in the course of which I hope to visit George Orwell's old house in Jura. I'm looking forward to it the same way I looked forward to holidays when I was six.

10 August 2005

7/7 – 7

Not for the first time, Harry has posted before me on something I’ve been chewing over: the strange way in which, on Iraq and 7/7, a lot of the left has adopted a traditionally right-wing isolationist position – “The 7/7 perpetrators wouldn’t have done what they did if we’d not been in Iraq. So if we’d wanted to be left alone, we should never have got involved in Iraq in the first place. And if we want to be left alone now, we should now get out as soon as possible. What happens in faraway countries is none of our business.”

Harry suggests that this is a new phenomenon, but I’m not so sure. I first noticed something like it 25 years ago in that rather large part of the 1980s peace movement that opposed the deployment of cruise missiles in Britain mainly because they made us more of a target.

People who thought like that were particularly resistant to the idea that anything was wrong with the Soviet Union – not because they particularly admired “actually existing socialism” (they generally took no interest in it) but because they thought that censuring Soviet foreign or military policy or the absence of democratic rights in the Soviet bloc gave succour to the nuclear hawks of the west. This was bad because it made more likely the nuclear Armageddon they so feared – so it was “none of our business” if the Soviet Union jailed dissidents, was entirely undemocratic and terrorised Afghan villagers. Those on the left in Britain who sided publicly with Solidarnosc in 1980-81 and attacked the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan were a tiny minority.

Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, the “anti-imperialist” left in Britain often came perilously close in its propaganda to accepting the isolationist right’s argument that Britain should get out of Ireland because what a bunch of psychotic paddies got up to wasn’t worth the life of a single British squaddie.

And if you go back to the 1930s, there was a significant element of “none of our business” isolationist thinking on the left over British rearmament against Germany. Time and again in left-wing newspapers of the period you find opponents of rearmament arguing that, although Hitler was bad, Germany was a matter for the Germans to sort out (and they had been badly done by at Versailles). The last thing we want is to provoke an imperialist war in which we’d be the targets and thousands would die.

It was only after Munich that this mindset was seriously challenged, though it survived long enough to be exploited by the Communist Party between 1939 and 1941 during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

Left anti-imperialism and right isolationism have played footsie for rather a long time.

7 August 2005

ROBIN COOK 1946-2005 – 2

Two snippets from New Statesman and Society (as it then was) in 1994, one from a piece by Ian Aitken and one a leader I wrote while the boss was away:

Why Robin Cook should lead Labour
Ian Aitken, 3 June 1994

. . . Forget all that patronising guff in the newspapers comparing the shadow trade and industry secretary to a garden gnome, and recalling how he used to be referred to as "Yon wee Scottish health pixie" at the time when he was destroying a succession of Tory health secretaries with his withering tongue. Cook is, quite simply and without qualification of any kind, by far the most effective party warrior currently operating in the House of Commons.

Even if you do not entirely share his left-of-centre attitudes . . . it is sufficient in electoral terms to recognise that Robin Cook is the only frontbencher who regularly makes the eyes of Tory ministers water when he steps up to the despatch box. Most recently, he laid waste to none other than Michael "Tarzan" Heseltine over Post Office privatisation and the DTFs ludicrously over-hyped white paper on competition.

But as I learned the hard way during my first encounter with him, Cook is not just a parliamentary performer. The story is worth repeating, even though it happened 20 years ago. At the time, Cook was still only a prospective candidate, and he had been sent down to London with some other Scottish candidates to learn how to cope with television interviews.

Percy Clark, the then press officer at Transport House, had been let down by some television grandee, and he conscripted me at short notice to stand in as the interviewer. My instructions were to try to make them all cry, and I honestly believe that a few lips quivered as they reeled out of the make-believe studio one by one.

The very last candidate to be wheeled in was a small ginger youth. By now I was actually enjoying my role as a budding Robin Day, and I failed to notice the steely eyes and the belligerent jaw-line. When I gave him the full benefit of my scornful wit, which I had perfected on the others, I was astonished to find my supposed victim lashing back vigorously. Within minutes he had wiped the floor with me, and I was the one with the quivering lip.

I made a mental note, as I tottered into the green room for a restorative, that this was a young man who had leadership potential, and I have stuck to that judgment ever since. So when my ballot paper eventually arrives, I shall be marking it Cook 1, Prescott 2, Brown 3, Blair 4 — which is precisely the opposite of the order in which Fleet Street evidently wants me to vote.

No Cook, no contest (leader, 10 June 1994)
By the time most readers of NSS get this issue, voting in the European election will be over and the runners in the Labour leadership will have declared—as indeed will the non-runners. But as we go to press the only certainty is that Gordon Brown will not be putting his name forward. All the others who have been mentioned as possible contenders have kept their intentions to themselves as planned.

All the same, it is increasingly likely that the best person to lead Labour into the next election is not going to be in the race at all.

Robin Cook has this week apparently been swayed by his poor showing in opinion polls of Labour Party members and supporters not to go for the top job. Far and away the most intelligent and radical of all the would-be contenders – and easily the most effectively combative in the House of Commons and as a public speaker – he seems to have decided that standing would mean risking humiliation and subsequent demotion from his current job as Labour's trade and industry spokesperson.

Many of Cook's supporters will be disappointed, and with reason. He is the most able representative of Labour's libertarian left, a political tendency that deserves a voice in the leadership contest. Given that his economic policy differences with Tony Blair are nowhere near as big as those between Bryan Gould and John Smith, there is no reason to expect that he would have been given the Gould treatment in the event of a Blair victory.

As it is, however, if Cook sticks to his decision not to run, Tony Blair is now virtually unstoppable. The reason is simple. Put bluntly, there is no credible challenger apart from Cook. Of the two hopefuls who seem almost certain to run against Blair from the left, John Prescott cannot win and Margaret Beckett has even less chance. Both Prescott and Beckett are generally admired in the Labour Party, and each has undoubted qualities. Prescott is blunt, pugnacious and sharp-minded, and Beckett has an unrivalled head for detail.

But neither, unlike Cook, is widely considered to be leadership material. On the level of image, it is difficult to imagine Prescott living down his reputation as a loose cannon or Beckett suddenly acquiring a television manner that matches the warmth of her off-air personality.

More important, both are out of tune with the politics of the time. They are very much of the old left – Eurosceptic, against proportional representation for the House of Commons, lukewarm about green politics. Neither will get more than grudging support from the increasingly important part of the Labour left that is pro-Europe, pro-PR and environmentalist . . .

ROBIN COOK 1946-2005

The death of Robin Cook yesterday is a real shock. I knew him well when I was working as a political journalist – he was a member of European Nuclear Disarmament when I deputy-edited its magazine and was a Tribune columnist when I was the paper’s editor, and from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s I met him regularly to talk politics. In 1994, I kept the pages of the New Statesman open until the last minute for a Cook declaration of interest in the Labour leadership that never came. And in 1998 I spent six months helping to organise a big talkfest on Europe for the Foreign Office when he was foreign secretary. I didn’t see much of him after I moved from journalism to lecturing, but remained in fitful contact and was looking forward to seeing him again at Labour conference this autumn. I am, I suppose, a Cookite politically, though the label seems strange. But I also really liked him. It’s a very sad loss.

Cook was by a long chalk the most intellectually impressive figure among his generation of leading Labour politicians. My first vivid memory of him is of an END meeting in the mid-1980s at which I’d been put up to debate him on Labour defence policy. He made mincemeat of me – I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so comprehensively out-done in argument, though others may disagree – but he did it in a thoroughly civilised way. I ran into him a couple of weeks later and he greeted me warmly. I told him I thought he’d had me for breakfast: he raised his eyebrows, looked at me quizzically and informed me that I’d made a coherent case but that I needed a bit more practice.

He was never one to mince words if he disagreed with you – I remember him telling me in the most direct manner that Tribune or the New Statesman had taken idiotic positions on dozens of issues: industrial policy, the intentions of every Labour leader under whom he served, Europe and the euro (on which he was once much more sceptical than he became as foreign secretary), military intervention in the Balkans (which he opposed in the early 1990s) and much more besides. But, contrary to received wisdom, he was neither cold nor arrogant. He was friendly and chatty and personally kind. He always listened, always engaged – in itself unusual in the upper echelons of the modern Labour Party – and always gave the impression that he was open to changing his mind if he was persuaded by arguments and facts.

He had principles, of course: he never wavered in his civil libertarianism, his commitment to democratisation of the British state or his environmentalism. He was one of the first British politicians who articulated the concerns of the 1968 generation, on everything from gay rights to nuclear power. But he was no dogmatist. On Europe, he moved from outright anti-Europeanism in the 1970s through pragmatist acceptance of Britain’s membership of the European Community during the 1980s to out-and-out enthusiasm for British membership of the euro in the late 1990s – not from opportunism but from weighing up the arguments. He opposed western military intervention in Bosnia in the early 1990s but by the end of the decade was prepared to press Nato to act against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. Again, it was the arguments that counted.

As foreign secretary he rebuilt Britain’s damaged relationship with the EU and played a major part in dragging the FO into the modern age. He should never have been removed from the post: he fell victim to a combination of Tony Blair’s desire to woo George Bush and Gordon Brown’s antipathy to Cook’s backing for euro membership. After that, as leader of the House of Commons, he was frustrated by Blair on reform of the House of Lords – and then resigned over the Iraq war.

Whether or not he was right about Iraq – and I’m less convinced now than I was at the time of his resignation – quitting government on a matter of principle was brave and honourable. And the way he conducted himself after his resignation, writing trenchant articles criticising Blair yet also pitching in big-time during the election campaign this year to make it clear that the war was no excuse not to vote Labour, was exemplary. He was not a machine politician, but he knew that democratic politics requires machines – parties – to function.

He was 59: he should have been the voice of the reasonable libertarian Labour left for at least another decade and probably more. But it is not to be. RIP.

Denis MacShane has a touching piece in the Observer here.

3 August 2005

7/7 - 6

Norman Geras has an incisive pair of posts on apologists for the 7/7 outrages:

"There are those who say that terrorist bombing isn't justified but the whole emphasis of whose comment is either to minimize the responsibility of the perpetrators and their 'managers' and supporters, or to deflect the consideration of this responsibility on to other targets. Here are a couple of questions for such people.

"First . . . if understanding and not justifying or condoning is what it is really all about, why is this 'understanding' discourse never deployed by the same people when racist thugs, angry about immigration, carry out hate crimes? It might be said, well, because their anger is unjustified, whereas Muslim anger over Afghanistan and Iraq is justified. But it's understanding, remember, and not justification, that this has just been said to be about, so the fact that the anger of the racists is unjustified is neither here nor there. It could still be a contributory cause and in need of being understood as such. You don't, however, read hand-wringing pieces in the Guardian or the Independent about that. It suggests that the apostles of (apologetic) understanding are caught between two places. They don't want to say that terrorism is justified because ... they don't want to say it. But they do want to dwell on the anger which feeds it, not merely as cause, because they don't do this in pleading on behalf of white racists, or on behalf of those who, angered by acts of terrorism, attack Muslims. It looks like something else, both psychologically and in terms of subtextual meanings, must be going on - as if they felt that some of the justification for the anger might just seep over towards the act, even though they profess to believe that the act isn't justified.

"Second, most of those who opposed the Afghan and/or Iraq wars, though some amongst them did let us know how very angry they were, have not resorted to the bomb and the wrecking of other lives. The vast majority of them, in truth, haven't even engaged in civil disobedience over it. They have remained within the framework of democratic procedure: of protest, argument, use of their votes, and so on. Since these people do not invoke anger on their own behalf towards explaining why they might (one day) violate the usual democratic norms as well as other human beings, why are they so ready to indulge others with this type of understanding? If anger is not a sufficient cause in the way they themselves react, how do they judge it such a mammoth cause of what the bombers do?"

Read the lot here then here.

7/7 - 5

I’m late on this, but what the hell. On Monday, Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman, had an extraordinary column in the Guardian’s Media section (click here) ruminating on the reasons some left-wing journalists fall out with the left consensus and adopt stances that most on the left consider right-wing. His particular target was his friend and one-time employee Nick Cohen, of whom he wrote:
What are we to make of Nick Cohen, the most uncompromising left-wing columnist in the British press for most of the past decade? How far right is he going? He cheered the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq and, despite all that has happened and all that has been revealed since, continues to do so. He has also questioned harshly the motives of the anti-war movement.
Cohen, wrote Wilby, was following a similar path to Christopher Hitchens, “another jewel in the left-wing crown, who, since September 11 2001, has stood shoulder to shoulder with the American neocons”. Wilby went on:
What causes left-wing commentators to slip their moorings in their 40s? Perhaps some just follow the cliché that if you are not a socialist up to 40, you have no heart and, if you are still one after 40, you have no head. Others find that property ownership or parenthood make them right-wing. Others again get mugged or burgled. I suspect a good many just want more income; after all, there are only a few left-of-centre newspapers and magazines and most of them pay badly, or not at all.

But I fear there is another reason. Left-wing commentators get bored. The past 25 years have not been a fertile period for ideas on the left, and new Labour has induced further timidity, lest bold thinking reawaken Tory devils. Though it now shows signs of fading, the intellectual ferment of our age has been on the right — which, to take just one example, has given far more intelligent consideration to the legalisation of drugs. Leftwing writers and publications are often accused of being too predictable, and the charge has some justice to it.
Norman Geras had a go at this nonsense (click here), making some sound points with which I agree entirely:
[Wilby] gives not so much as a hint of any consciousness of a left broad enough to embrace more than one view about the Iraq war, foreign policy, bringing down oppressive tyrannies, ending genocides in progress, humanitarian intervention, that sort of thing. On the contrary, Wilby's left is delineated in terms of notions like 'betrayal' and 'deserting the cause'. He should look around him a bit. Beyond Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen — for all their deserved prominence — he will find there are quite a few people still on the left thinking differently from him, not because they're bored but just because they think, and because they didn't spend whatever time they did spend in acquiring left values in order to end up marching to the greater benefit of one foul dictatorship or another.
But I think Geras is wrong in one key respect. Wilby’s simplistic conception of “the left” as a monolithic entity with no room for dissenting views on the Iraq war, foreign policy and so on is not eccentric: it is the mindset of most people on the British left. If it is contested, it is only at the margins. The left consensus at present is precisely that capitalism and American imperialism are the root causes of all evils in the world, that the war to topple Saddam Hussein was simply criminal, that the Cohens and Hitchenses and Gerases are renegades.

There is of course reason to hope that this might change. The experience of 7/7 has rocked the consensus – even my most fervent Stop the War Coalition friends admit that the bombings were not simply the result of the Iraq war – and there is a minority on the left (Labour Friends of Iraq and so on) that has challenged the easy assumptions of Wilbyism. But there is still a very long way to go.