British politics and culture with an American accent.
London—Anybody who says they saw this coming is lying. When the London bureau went out to cast its ballots at lunchtime yesterday, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and 11 separate polls were confidently predicting a photo finish with neither Labour or the Conservatives winning enough seats to form a government on their own. And since the same polls also all agreed that the Scottish National Party, whose leader, Nicola Sturgeon, had already pledged to “lock out” the Tories from Westminster, were on course for a historic victory in Scotland, it seemed as if the only question was whether Ed Miliband would have the stomach to claim the prize whose legitimacy David Cameron and the right-wing press were already beginning to attack.
When the polls closed at 10 last night, and the results of the BBC’s exit poll showed not just a larger-than-expected Labour collapse in Scotland, but also a failure to gain any significant number of Tory seats in England or Wales, my first thought was “This must be wrong.” To steady my nerves, I went on Nate Silver’s web site to remind myself that the wizard of odds had predicted 278 seats for the Tories, 267 for Labour, and 53 for the SNP—easily enough, with a little help from the Greens and the Welsh nationalists to put together a left-wing majority. If the exit polls were right, even my gloomy Labour insider, who on Saturday told me he thought a minority Tory government a real possibility, was too optimistic.
Of course, the reality turned out to be much, much worse. When I went to bed last night it looked like the Tories and Lib Dems together might just have enough seats to govern. I woke up to a Tory majority, the certainty of five more years of cuts to social services, and the very real prospect—especially given the 4 million votes across the country for the UK Independence Party—that Britain will leave Europe. By lunchtime the former Nation intern Ed Miliband was also the former leader of the Labour Party, though he was beaten in resignation by former Nation intern Nick Clegg, who saw his party reduced to just eight seats in the new Parliament, where in any case the Tories now have no need of Lib-Dem support.
How did this happen? Though some pollsters have apparently already identified the “shy Tory” factor—personally I’d have thought “shame” entirely appropriate—the more searching debate ought to be about what happened to the Labour Party. Since the recrimination and finger-pointing has already begun, let me sketch out my own sense of what went wrong—and begin by saying that although Miliband was far from a natural campaigner (and the Tory press ruthlessly underlined every awkward gesture) Labour’s defeat did not stem from any of the candidate’s personal failings. Indeed in the past few weeks the conventional wisdom was that the Tories had fatally underestimated Miliband’s quirky charm.
There are, however, a few factors which, taken together, account for much of Labour’s difficulty, not just in this election but going forward:
Globalization has hollowed out the British working class. Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher broke Britain’s miners’ strike, the Labour Party still has not come to terms with the loss of the industrial unions who founded the party and remained its base. Tony Blair briefly offered a neoliberal vision of a consumer paradise, but the global financial crisis put an end to politics as an aspirational lifestyle choice, and Miliband—perhaps out of a desire to postpone the conflict that a real debate would require—never came up with a convincing alternative. The novelist James Meek offers much the most sensitive, and acute, diagnosis of this issue here.
Given the choice between austerity-lite and austerity, voters opted for the real thing. Among the many sickening sequelae of this latest defeat one of the most egregious has been the parade of freshly exhumed Blairites complaining that Labour was too slow to defend the party’s record in power, thus allowing the Tories and the right-wing press to embed firmly within the body politic the notion that it was Labour’s profligacy—money squandered on schools and hospitals—rather than the contagion from Wall Street, that caused Britain’s deficit to balloon. Like many half-truths, this is precisely half-true; under Miliband the party never effectively challenged the Tory narrative about the deficit. How could it, since it clearly accepted the Tory premise that, despite Britain retaining sovereignty over its currency, and even though Britain can currently borrow at historically low rates, the country was still somehow so much at risk of going the way of Greece or Ireland as to require a “triple lock” on spending. Every time Ed Miliband hummed a vaguely populist tune on the economy, Ed Balls, his shadow chancellor, would break into a rousing chorus of “No new spending.” (Watching Balls go down to defeat was one of the day’s few compensations.) The only politician to confront the austerity con head-on was Nicola Sturgeon—and look where that got her.
Scottish voters felt betrayed. For decades the Labour Party has treated Scotland like a plantation, where constituency parties of a few dozen members could be easily bullied—or bought—by London. And when the Scottish National Party began to challenge that docility, both in Westminster and in Edinburgh, Labour responded by making a Faustian bargain with the Tories to put down the cause of Scottish independence. In a referendum debate notable both for the unseasoned optimism of the “Yes” side and the naked appeals to fear by the “No” camp, Labour never made the positive case for a solidarity across nations, or for the sharing of risk and reward as part of a commitment to the common good. Instead, in a grim lockstep with the Tories—and the big Scottish banks—the party put its money on fear. That, it turned out, was the deal that broke Scottish Labour—and with it the party’s hopes of achieving a majority, perhaps in my lifetime. Labour may well come back into power in five years—but only as part of a coalition. Unless the Tories, who ruthlessly stoked up English resentment as a weapon against the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition, drive Scotland out of the Union.
Mobilizing and organizing are not the same thing. In the anthology Blue Labour, the veteran American community organizer Arnie Graf writes that “building public relationships precedes power.” For a time last year it seemed as if Labour, which hired Graf as an organizer (without bothering to apply for a work visa) was going to really do the hard work of reinventing itself. But the key to Graf’s method is finding, identifying, and empowering new leaders—enough of a threat to the party leadership that someone leaked his visa status to the Sun. And until this morning, that leadership had no reason for regret, since there were plenty of bodies to be mobilized—as I saw myself. Mobilization is task-oriented: stuffing envelopes, canvassing voters, handing out literature. Organization involves listening, and responding, and being willing to change—a process anathema to Labour’s apparatchiks.
Fear is the right’s home-field advantage. Asked why, after five years of grinding austerity, real-wage stagnation, and an economy that was outperformed in Europe not just by Stakhanovite Germans but by the joie-de-vivring French, so many English voters lined up for more of the same, one politician quoted Hillaire Belloc:
And always keep ahold of nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
That was a strategy Labour never seemed able to counter, whether out of failure of political imagination or fear of appearing fiscally irresponsible. As in Scotland in September, Labour let the Tories define the contest as a battle between hope and fear. Fear won, both times.
In the next few days the media here will be filled with arguments between those who insist that Labour needs to lurch left and those who urge a swerve right. It will be ugly. And there will be blood. But this argument, which Ed Miliband worked so hard to avoid, needs to happen. Not because either side is correct—although my own sympathies are mostly with the left—but because some time in the Blair era Labour stopped standing for anything, and defeat on this catastrophic scale may just prompt a renewal from the ground up, rather than (as happened after 2010) from the top down. Nicola Sturgeon’s triumph in Scotland shows what can happen with idealism and energy and a genuine openness to change. But before Labour can again serve as a vehicle for change, the party itself will have to change, to decide not just where it stands but who it claims to speak for. And to do that, it will first have to do a lot of listening.
Read Next: D.D. Guttenplan on Ed Miliband’s uphill battle
London—Despite the headlines, the most interesting thing about the news that Katharine Viner will take over from Alan Rusbridger this summer as editor in chief of The Guardian is not that she will be the first woman to run a newspaper which, at 194 years old, is even more venerable than The Nation. Women currently run two British Sunday papers, one very downmarket tabloid, and the London Evening Standard. Rebecca Brooks famously—or infamously—was the youngest-ever editor of The News of the World before becoming editor of The Sun—a paper that still sells about ten times as many copies as The Guardian every day. The Observer, The Guardian’s Sunday stablemate, had a female editor in 1891!—though Rachel Sassoon Beer’s husband did own the paper at the time.
Viner does stand out from the London media crowd in being from Yorkshire, in the north of England, and for being a playwright and activist as well as a journalist. My Name Is Rachel Corrie, the play she and actor Alan Rickman wrote based the diaries of the 23-year-old American killed by an Israeli army bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip, has been produced in London and in US cities from Seattle to New York. But of the four internal candidates for the job who entered a staff ballot, three were women: Viner, Emily Bell, who helped set up The Guardian’s website and now directs the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and Janine Gibson, Viner’s predecessor as editor-in-chief of Guardian US who is now editor-in-chief of theguardian.com. Viner’s overwhelming victory in the staff ballot—she got 53 percent of the vote—made her the favorite, and also spoke volumes about her ability to retain the loyalty of colleagues and contributors, despite having spent several years thousands of miles away setting up The Guardian’s Australian website.
The presence of so many highly qualified women on the list is just one indication of the huge changes wrought by Rusbridger, who was himself only 42 when he took over in 1995 (Viner is 44). Whereas his predecessor, Peter Preston, handed over the leaked government documents that sent whistleblower Sarah Tisdall to prison, Rusbridger from the first showed a willingness to fight, successfully defending the paper against libel actions brought by the Police Federation and MP Jonathan Aitken—who ended up in prison himself after The Guardian obtained proof he had perjured himself on the witness stand. In 2013 Rusbridger decided to physically destroy the hard drives containing information leaked by Edward Snowden rather than obey an order to hand over the data to the government. The launch of Guardian Australia challenged Rupert Murdoch on his home turf. And of course it was Rusbridger and Ian Katz, then The Guardian’s deputy editor, who were the paper’s contacts with Julian Assange. (Katz, now the editor-in-chief of the BBC’s flagship Newsnight program, was the “outside” candidate who lost to Viner in the final round last week.)
In terms of print sales, The Guardian’s past five years have been a story of continuing—and relentless—decline, from just over 300,000 in 2010 to under 200,000. Yet in that same period the paper, and its website, has consistently set the agenda for British journalism, from the Assange and Snowden revelations to its lonely, persistent reporting on phone hacking. With the exception of the Parliamentary expenses scandal (broken by The Daily Telegraph) it is hard to think of a major British story that didn’t originate on its pages or its website, which is now the second-most-popular English-language newspaper site in the world.
Why should Americans care about any of this? Partly because, confronted by a shrinking market in Britain and the borderless fluidity of the web, The Guardian has become a significant enough presence in the United States to have won a Pulitzer Prize for public-service journalism last year for its role in reporting on the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens. And partly because The Guardian—a frankly left-of-center paper owned by the Scott Trust, a nonprofit obligated to invest all its earnings back into journalism—represents a very different model of how to run a news organization than anything of similar ambition in the United States. (When Rusbridger hands over to Viner this summer, he’ll become chairman of the Scott Trust.) Try to imagine The New York Times or CNN holding a staff ballot for the top editor’s job, and you’ll begin to realize just how different.
But mainly because there is no one on either side of the ocean who has thought as deeply as Viner about the relationship between readers, technology and the future of journalism. Even if you don’t share her messianic optimism about the brave new world opened up by the rise of the web and the disruption of traditional hierarchies of authority and expertise, Viner’s 2013 A N Smith Lecture still rewards careful reading. Her dismissal of paywalls as “utterly antithetical to the open web” might have been special pleading—as Viner admitted, “Journalism, particularly the serious and painstaking kind, is expensive,” and most papers don’t have the luxury of a trust fund—but her arguments for the importance of reader engagement, and for sustained, original reporting of information that someone, somewhere, wants to keep secret are compelling and convincing.
Anyone who cares about the future of journalism—daily, weekly, in any language, on any platform, should also read Viner’s candidate’s statement. She may not have all the answers. Personally, I’m not sure her eagerness to transcend print—“Print must not hinder our shift to digital,” she writes—isn’t reading too much into The Guardian’s own failures on paper and successes on the web. But she asks all the right questions, from how to speak to a truly global audience, to the importance of finding young readers “where they are, not where we want them to be,” to the looming shift from laptops to mobile. Her first priority: “report, report, report.” To do that, she argues, journalism needs to become “instinctively digital.”
What does that mean in practice? We are about to find out.
Read Next: D.D. Guttenplan on the referendum for Scottish independence
Edinburgh—On Thursday night this old grimy stone city felt like a carnival. The leafy streets of Morningside kept their counsel behind drawn curtains, but in the working-class “schemes”—as the Scots call their public housing—of Leith and in the tattered, fly-posted area around George Square there were bright blue balloons and painted faces and Yes buttons in blue (Nationalist), red (Radical Independence Campaign), pink (LGBT supporters) and green (Greens). Knots of excited young people caromed through the Grassmarket while high up the hill, under the brow of the Castle, someone had hung a washing line with three white shirts bearing the letters Y, E and S next to a sheet urging “Vote With Clean Pants”—a puzzling message until I realized the reference was to underwear (and the need to maintain intestinal fortitude). Or as one of the swarm of visiting Catalans, here for a taste of the debate the Spanish government has so far refused to allow, might put it: Coratge!
By Friday morning, when Alex Salmond’s government had scheduled a post-referendum rally outside the Scottish Parliament, the birth of a nation had become a wake, attended only by an Indian television crew and a few sodden tourists. Edinburgh rejected independence by a wide margin—61 percent to 39 percent—but either the dreich (local weather somewhere between rain and fog) or good manners had kept the No camp indoors. In the end only four of the country’s thirty-rwo councils voted Yes. Overall the vote split 55/45 against independence and in favor of…. what?
The final two weeks of the campaign had seen Yes supporters subject to a continuous barrage of threats. There would be a run on the banks, a collapse in house prices (and the pound), employers and jobs would leave the country, while prices on everything from petrol to peanut butter would skyrocket. The former head of the army, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, even wrote an article in the Sunday Telegraph saying a Yes vote would be letting down the families of soldiers who died in British uniforms. It was an ugly tactic, but it worked.
“Just too risky,” said Tim, a singer-songwriter from Elgin who came up from London to vote. “Can’t take the chance,” said a woman I met under a bus shelter in Cowgate. “My heart said Yes but my head said No, and I voted with my head,” the twentysomething desk clerk of my hotel told me.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s pledge, signed by all three pro-union party leaders, that a No vote would trigger a tight timetable for new legislation granting Scotland expansive new powers over taxes and welfare spending—the same “devo-max” option an overconfident David Cameron had ruled off the ballot—also probably helped. Yet it is Cameron who benefits the most from Friday’s result.
He has to keep his promise, of course. But his remark on Friday that it was also only fair that in future “English legislators should vote on English laws” put the so-called “West Lothian question”—a poison pill for the Labour party—firmly on the agenda. At the moment MPs from Scottish and Welsh constituencies vote on all laws passed at Westminster, even when—as in the case of charging tuition fees at English universities—their own constituents aren’t affected. One way to change this would be for England to have its own devolved legislature, like the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. There are plenty of Tories who favor such an approach—which also happens to be the policy of the far-right UK Independence Party—though some object to the cost of an extra layer of government. Ed Miliband, knowing that Labour would likely be a permanent minority in such a body, has never been enthusiastic.
But the alternative, which is for non-English MPs to abstain from votes on English matters, is even messier. Under such an arrangement if Labour win the next election it might still lose its majority every time Scots and Welsh MPs have to abstain. And since England has 84 percent of the UK’s population, and an even greater share of the economy—and the bureaucracy—such abstentions could be frequent enough to paralyse any Labour administration. Miliband’s call on Friday for a “Constitutional Convention” after the next election to consider changes outside Scotland was an attempt to decouple the promise made to Scots from the far more contentious question of how to rebalance British democracy. But it was also an attempt to stall for time.
The referendum result may have settled the question of Scottish independence—at least, as an optimistic writer I know put it, for a wee while. The cost of winning it, however, was to release forces that, though they may not mean the end of the United Kingdom, have exposed the ramshackle nature of the whole country’s constitutional arrangements.
Which comes as some consolation to Yes campaigners otherwise too stunned by sorrow to think about the road ahead. “We’ve forced constitutional change for the whole of the UK,” Brian, who described himself as a “gutted” Yes voter, told me over breakfast on Friday.
Within hours of the votes being counted Alex Salmond announced his resignation. So is that the end of the story? Wandering back from the Parliament on Friday, I found myself standing outside the Scottish Storytelling Center, a sleek modern building down the street from the statue of Adam Smith. Carved into the stone façade is a quote, attributed to the writer Alasdair Gray: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
Inside I asked Donald Smith, the center’s director, what he thought the next chapter might be. Smith, a Yes voter whose own baptism in Scottish politics came in the failed 1979 referendum on devolution, said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the result. “This isn’t going to go away because of the balance of the vote at this juncture,” he said. “Now we’ll see what the Westminster system will deliver. Meanwhile the cultural, social and political work goes on.” Or as somebody else once said, “Don’t mourn. Organize.”
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On the train north to Edinburgh, two songs kept running through my head. The first was “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell’s breakup ballad with its wry warning: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” In the past two weeks the British have finally, belatedly, realized that when they wake up tomorrow morning the “Great” in the country’s name may have already gone for good.
I’ve written about how Margaret Thatcher’s toxic policies, Tony Blair’s malign neglect and the bitter legacy of decades of deindustrialization brought Scotland, the cradle of Britain’s industrial revolution, to this point. But before the votes are counted, I want to acknowledge that whatever happens tomorrow, something has already been lost. As one commentator put it, Scotland has filed for divorce, and—even if the No campaign’s late, panicked cake-and-eat-it offer of newly devolved powers on taxes and the right to keep the current Westminster subsidy for social welfare proves sufficient to swing undecided voters—it is clear that this has not been a happy marriage.
The very terms of David Cameron’s promise—which exceeds by far the “Devo Max” he refused to allow on the ballot and which English Tories have already made it clear they resent and may well prevent him from being able to deliver—reveal the extent to which not just Scotland, but all of industrial England, has been left behind by London’s property-and-banking bubble economy.
There is a respectable argument that says the end of Britain should be celebrated, that the Empire itself was a nightmare for those on the receiving end and that any talk of “British” values or civilization is just Downton Abbey–style nostalgia. But the Scottish writer Ian Jack’s lament for the country that stood alone against fascism, and then came home to build the National Health Service and the welfare state, didn’t feel like that. I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard Alan Johnson, a former Labour cabinet minister, describe how as a young English letter-carrier he was drawn into politics by Jimmy Reid, the Communist leader of Glasgow’s dockworkers. In 1972, after the students at Glasgow voted to make him rector of the university, Reid warned that “giant monopoly companies and consortia dominate almost every branch of our economy. The men who wield effective control within these giants exercise a power over their fellow men which is frightening and is a negation of democracy.”
The result, Reid said, was “alienation,” which he defined as “the feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.” It is certainly possible to imagine a campaign that said even a nationalism as benign as the one offered by the Yes campaign, with its open-to-immigrants, open-for-business embrace of anyone willing to stake their clam to a Scottish future, is still another division between people who, united, have often been on the same side in the great struggles for justice and human dignity.
But that is not the campaign we’ve had. Instead Labor’s Alistair Darling has stood shoulder to shoulder with David Cameron and Nick Clegg to warn Scots they’ll lose their jobs, their pensions—even their currency—if they opt for independence. When Ed Miliband tried to tell voters in an Edinburgh shopping center that they didn’t have to leave Britain to end Tory rule, their shouts of derision forced him to abandon his tour. Only Gordon Brown—despised south of the border as a hopeless loser—commanded enough respect from his fellow Scots to gain some traction for his impassioned plea to “let no narrow nationalism split us asunder.”
Which brings me to that other tune, the Steeleye Span version of “Parcel of Rogues,” Robert Burns’s bitter denunciation of the Scots who agreed to the 1707 Union with England. Thanks to the Darien Disaster, which saw a huge proportion of Scotland’s national wealth lost in speculation on a colony on the isthmus of Panama (the fact that the land happened to be claimed by Spain was only one of the Darien Company’s problems), eighteenth-century Scotland was practically bankrupt. Would an independent twenty-first-century Scotland share the same fate? The No campaign has assiduously cultivated such fears, in the past few days mustering an impressive parade of bank and insurance CEOs warning they’ll take their companies—and jobs—south if Yes wins. They’ve even prodded the head of Marks and Spencer to warn Scots they’ll face higher prices on tea and jam in an independent country.
All of which may be true. Certainly Alex Salmond’s fairy-tale story of a seamless transition to a land of milk, honey and oil wealth, with the Queen still smiling on the currency and where no one has to pay for Scandinavian-style social welfare, has more than a dash of wishful thinking. But if Scotland wakes up on Friday still bound to England not by solidarity or a shared vision but by fear of the higher prices or higher taxes that probably would be the cost of independence, it will be even harder to banish Burns’s scathing refrain:
“We’re bought and sold for English gold
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
Although Tony Benn, the British politician who died earlier today, said a lot of things worth remembering, my personal favorite is his list of questions we should ask anyone in authority: “What power do you have?; Where did you get it?; In whose interests do you exercise it?; To whom are you accountable; and, How can we get rid of you?”
During the six months before I got fired as a writer on Newsweek’s foreign desk there were two stories where I was actually summoned by the magazine’s senior editors (known in house as “the Wallendas”) to explain myself. In writing about the removal of a “black spot” neighborhood in South Africa I had apparently been insufficiently attentive to the dangers posed by the “terrorists” in the African National Congress. More egregiously, in writing about the Chesterfield by-election, which sent Benn back to Parliament in March 1984, I had conspicuously failed to deliver the hatchet job ordered up by my editors. I can still remember my lead: “Something about Tony Benn makes the British press see red.”
The problem was that I had lived in Britain, and knew that whatever his failings, Benn in no way resembled the bogey-man described by Fleet Street—especially Murdoch’s Sun, which ran a front-page attack titled “Benn on the Couch” in which an American psychiatrist depicted him as a swivel-eyed lunatic. The funny thing was that in those days Benn wasn’t nearly as radical as he became later on.
Born to privilege—his father was a viscount, his grandfather a baronet who founded a successful publishing company—Anthony Wedgwood Benn (he was also related to the pottery Wedgwoods) enlisted in the RAF as a pilot during World War II, and then went to Oxford. Elected to Parliament in 1950 he was forced out after inheriting the viscountcy upon his father’s death in 1960, only to return in triumph following the passage of the 1963 Peerage Act, which allowed him to become the first member of House of Lords to renounce his title.
As a minister in Harold Wilson’s first cabinet Benn was in charge of “the white heat of revolution” in technology; he also famously launched a crackdown on pirate (unlicensed) radio stations. He later served as industry secretary and energy secretary in Wilson’s second term, where he raised wages for workers in nationalized firms and campaigned against Britain’s membership in what was then the Common Market (now the European Union) which he argued would inevitably be dominated by Germany.
Benn always said that the experience of high office is what radicalized him. With hindsight his decision to stand for deputy leader of the Labour party in 1981 against Denis Healey, the minister who had signed Britain’s agreement with the IMF, thus bringing the expansion of the welfare state to a halt, marked what was perhaps the last chance to stop the slide towards neoliberal decline. As Mike Marqusee writes, at a time when most Labour MPs, union leaders, newspaper columnists and even a significant portion of the British Communist Party chose accommodation, “Benn chose resistance.”
Of course, they hated him for it. From Michael Foot to Neil Kinnock to Tony Blair Labour’s leaders marginalized and patronized him, ridiculing his call for Britain to become a republic and ignoring his proposal that Labour’s leader should be elected by the party’s members. But they also feared him, because Benn represented not just Labour’s conscience but its soul—a living link to the radical England of the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragists and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
I can still remember the first time I heard him speak—at a benefit for the miners’ strike at Columbia in New York in the 1980s. He was eloquent, forensic, radical and unyielding, but what stayed with me—and still does—was the tremendous tenderness with which he listened to what I thought of as typical sectarian bullshit pseudo-questions, and the patient, comradely way he answered each one. So different from the macho posturing of most American leftists (at least in those bad old days).
When we moved to London I went to see him at the house in Holland Park where he worked, surrounded by his famous diaries—eight volumes have already been published—and still keeping up a blistering speaking schedule. When he left Parliament in 2001 he said he wanted “to spend more time on politics” and he meant it, becoming president of the Stop the War Coalition and opening the “Left Field” stage at the Glastonbury festival. He was generous, funny and surprisingly well-informed about American politics.
Ed Miliband, who interned for Benn when he was still in high school, was the first Labour leader in thirty years not to treat him like a pariah. Indeed, earlier this month Miliband finally pushed through the one-man-one-vote election for party leader Benn had proposed so long ago. “I did work experience with him at the age of 16,” Miliband
Running into Benn with his boundless energy, in his red sweater and union tie, was a highlight of every Labour Party conference. In an age where politicians seem to aspire to rock-star celebrity, Benn was something else: a superhero whose super power was to speak the truth. “Red cardy man,” as we called him in The Nation’s London bureau, was a model of what a deep sense of solidarity could give you. Tony Benn was the kind of politician who gives democracy a good name.
Imagine a world without the works of Noam Chomsky, Marguerite Duras, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michel Foucault, Edward Said or Studs Terkel. Then you will have some sense of the impact on the intellectual life of our time of André Schiffrin, who has just died at the age of 78. As editor in chief of Pantheon Books he published all those writers, just a small portion of a very long list that also included Julia Cortázar, Simone de Beauvoir, R.D. Laing, Gunnar Myrdal, Jean-Paul Sartre and Günter Grass, whose 1962 best selling novel The Tin Drum was one of his earliest acquisitions.
You can get a sense of André’s cultural importance from his New York Times obituary, which among other things notes that he was a frequent contributor to these pages. From a 1968 report on the Frankfurt Book Fair to an article, just over a year ago, exploring the implications of the Random House–Penguin merger André remained a remarkably clear-sighted observer of the publishing scene, as well as becoming himself something of a cause célèbre in 1990 when he was forced out at Pantheon by Si Newhouse’s bean counters. The New Press, which he founded with fellow Pantheon refugee Diane Wachtell in 1992, was more than just a triumphant second act. With financial support from the Ford and Rocekefeller foundations and authors such as Michelle Alexander and the ever-loyal Studs Terkel it pioneered a new partnership between readers, writers and the larger culture to enable serious publishing to continue in the Amazon age.
Doubtless others will have more to say about André’s publishing legacy. I want to talk about Pantheon as a place to work—and a little bit about André as a boss. I arrived at Pantheon as an editorial assistant in the winter of 1981, just a few months out of graduate school. In fact I owed my job to the Nation network: the books editor, Betsy Pochoda, put in a good word for me with her then-husband, Phil, who needed a new assistant. The pay was terrible—I managed to negotiate a salary barely into five figures only because their first offer, in the high four figures, would have meant a significant pay cut from my job as legislative aide/driver to a city councilman. But Phil was a brilliant intellectual provocateur with a list of writers I admired, so I was ushered into André’s presence for what was supposed to be a brief formality. Only it turned out my graduate school tutor had been André’s Cambridge roommate, so I got a warmer welcome than expected.
I also got a total immersion education in American and European intellectual life. Pantheon editors—and even lowly assistants—were expected not just to publish books but to read them. Like all Random House Inc. employees we were given our pick of four free books from each season’s list—the foundation, among other things, of my kitchen bookshelf. Pantheon books, however, were available any time. Nor were we expected to remain mere onlookers. When I asked André if I could leave work early to attend a meeting of publishing people in CISPES—the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador—he not only agreed, he came along. Inside the office, colleagues like Tom Engelhardt and Sara Bershtel were always willing to discuss the historical roots of contemporary politics, or the relationship between political and literary movements. Even official functions had a certain intellectual glamour—I recall first meeting Alexander Cockburn (with Lally Weymouth on his arm!) at the publication party for Edward Said’s Covering Islam, which was held on the wraparound terrace at André and Elena’s rambling Upper West Side apartment.
As the Times photo reflects, André himself had considerable European panache—though as it is in black and white you’ll have to imagine the purple or brown knitted tie, either of which he was liable to wear with a yellow shirt. The scion of a great publishing family—his father Jacques founded Gallimard’s Bibliothèque de la Pléiade before fleeing France in 1941—André viewed publishing as a vocation rather than a business. Not that he was averse to making a profit—I was probably never more in his good graces than when, encouraged to root around in the Random House basement for books we might reprint for free, I came back with The WPA Guide to New York City. But it did sometimes seem to make it hard for him to realize that not everyone who shared his passion for ideas could afford to indulge it. The only way to get André to raise your salary was to walk in with an offer from somewhere else—and of course most other publishers were far less interesting. And in the meantime he did eventually let me sign up a few books—and help to shepherd Victor Navasky and Christopher Cerf’s immortal The Experts Speak to press, as well as the first set of Pantheon Modern Classics, another reprint wheeze that brought Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Kemal’s Mehmet, My Hawk to a new generation of readers.
When I did leave—partly because I was worn down by André’s stubborn indifference to American fiction, but mainly because I was a young man in a hurry and book publishing seemed terribly slow—our parting was bitter. But looking back I remember his urbanity, his political courage, and above all his incredible intellectual energy and capacity for excitement and enthusiasm.
Britain's opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband. (Reuters/UK Parliament via Reuters TV)
London—On the weekend before the Conservative Party conference, on a day when the Tory press would normally beat the drums for the latest tax cut for the rich or a new scheme to punish the poor, why would Britain’s Daily Mail instead focus its considerable firepower on the corpse of Ralph Miliband—an academic at the London School of Economics who has been dead since 1994? As the playground bully of British politics, the Mail’s editor Paul Dacre has long been famed for both his temper—his frequent resort to the “c” word during Mail news meetings caused staffers to dub them the “Vagina Monologues”—and his iron grip on the mentality of Middle England. Unlike Rupert Murdoch, who was perfectly willing to be courted by Tony Blair—and whose papers backed New Labour—the Daily Mail has always been a proud beacon of British reaction.
But there was still something odd about the paper, during a week when the Conservatives were desperate for press attention, launching a full-bore attack not on Labour party leader (and former Nation intern) Ed Miliband but on his father. Under the headline “The Man Who Hated Britain,” the Mail described Ralph Miliband, a Belgian refugee from the Holocaust who fled to Britain in 1940 at the age of 16 and served three years in the Royal Navy, as a man with “a giant-sized social chip on his shoulder” who loathed his adoptive country.
The article’s thesis—that “Red Ed’s pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father”—was laughable. Ralph Miliband’s 1961 classic Parliamentary Socialism is a savage indictment of the futility of trying to bring about significant change through the British Labour Party. By choosing parliamentary careers, both his sons rejected their father’s worldview. As Ed commented last week: “My father’s strongly left wing views are well known, as is the fact that I have pursued a different path and I have a different vision.” Nor would Ralph’s own politics—a blend of Marxist skepticism of the intellect and social democratic optimism of the will—actually make him much of a red bogey-man. As the more genteel, but equally right-leaning Daily Telegraph noted in Ralph’s obituary, “Though committed to socialism, he never hesitated to criticise its distortion by Stalin and other dictators.”
So what was the attack—which largely rested on a quotes from a diary entry written when Ralph was 17—really about? Politically, it seems obvious that after two years spent dismissing Ed Miliband as ineffectual, and a summer in which the right-wing press clung heroically to the fiction that the Labour Party was about to indulge in an orgy of schism and self-destruction, the attack represented a desperate attempt to dislodge the inconvenient truth noted by The Huffington Post’s Mehdi Hasan back in August: “Labour has had a poll lead over the Tories from the moment Miliband was elected leader.” And by any rational calculus Labour remain the clear favorites to win the next general election.
Recent weeks have only underlined the Tories’ difficulties. The British economy, though technically out of recession, still stubbornly refuses to behave as chancellor George Osborn promised it would. Instead of delivering growth in time for the May 2015 election, the Tories now have to sell the public on seven more years of austerity! David Cameron’s personal appeal remains reasonably strong—but even that minority of Britons who didn’t agree with Ed Miliband’s successful move to block Britain from rushing to war in Syria now see him as a strong leader. Perhaps most worrying of all for the Tories and their friends in the press, the two signature policies unveiled by Miliband at the Labour Party conference earlier this month—a freeze on energy prices for two years and a promise to force property developers to build on the land they’ve been holding or force losing it to government confiscation—have both proved wildly popular with the public. Despite valiant efforts by both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express to suggest that such measures would send Britain back to the darkest days of the 1970s, British voters, who have experienced an actual wage cut for as long as the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government have been in power, simply weren’t buying. Even The Spectator’s exclusive revelation that Ed Miliband, when asked recently by a Labour activist “When will you bring back Socialism?” replied “That’s what we are doing. It says on our party card: democratic socialism” has not been enough to frighten the horses.
But if the politics of the smear are straightforward, the cultural meaning is more complicated—and much nastier. Miliband himself, feeling a line had been crossed (perhaps by the Mail’s use of a photo of his father’s headstone with the caption “grave socialist”), demanded a right to reply. The Mail duly obliged—only to re-run the offending article on the same page as his reply, along with an editorial attacking Miliband’s “evil legacy and why we won’t apologise.”
Paul Dacre was never going to back off. Indeed the paper followed up a few days later with a classic red-baiting attack on Stalin’s “left-wing British apologists” that struggled to link Ralph Miliband to the gulag. However even Dacre must have been surprised by the outrage his paper has provoked—not just among Labour supporters but by Tory grandees such as Michael Heseltine (John Major’s deputy prime minister) and John Moore, who served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Lord Moore, a former student of Ralph Miliband’s at the LSE, accused the Daily Mail of “telling lies.” Even David Cameron, though careful not to criticize the Mail, said “if someone attacked my dad I would do the same thing,” while Liberal Democrat leader (and former Nation intern) Nick Clegg tweeted his support.
Interestingly, the Twitterverse was also the setting for a furious debate that has only broken into print today—namely about how much anti-Semitism was a factor in the Mail’s attack. The Jewish Chronicle, a paper that, like the bulk of its readers, tends to lean rightwards in British politics, detected “a whiff of anti-Semitism.” Perhaps I’m being touchy, but it seemed stronger than that to me. Of course the Mail was careful—the initial attack was written by a hack named Levy, and when it was challenged by the BBC the paper but up not Dacre but a Jewish deputy editor, Jon Steafel, to defend it. (Though even Steafel eventually admitted that the use of Ralph Miliband’s grave was “an error of judgement”).
Levy’s article may have looked like a political hatchet job, but it relied for its emotional force on an appeal to a set of tropes and associations—Jewish Marxist, refugee intellectual, rootless cosmopolitan—that come right out of Der Stürmer. Or, as several commentators have pointed out, the Daily Mail of the 1930s, when Viscount Rothermere, the current publisher’s great-grandfather, backed Oswald Mosley’s Fascist blackshirts in Britain, applauded Hitler’s rise in Germany, and penned a personal paean to “the sturdy brown-shirted young men—and their brown-frocked girl helpers—who have taken over the rulership of Germany”!
As the novelist Linda Grant observed: “For Ralph Miliband to fight for Britain was not enough (actually, it was barely mentioned in the original piece). He had to bend his knee in obeisance to his adopted country. Surrender free speech and opinion. And his son inherits his ‘bad blood’, as another old anti-Semitic trope has it.”
Does the Daily Mail’s reversion to type mark a daring new departure for the “dog whistle” racism long favored by David Cameron’s election strategist Lynton Crosby? Or will the backlash against the Mail campaign actually spike that once deadly weapon? Stay tuned…
Britain's opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband is seen addressing the House of Commons in this still image taken from video in London August 29, 2013. (REUTERS/UK Parliament via Reuters TV)
London—So it turns out someone was paying attention after all. Earlier this week, as Britain and the United States looked like they were about to drift into yet another war with no clear justification, no defined objectives, and no exit strategy just to save President Obama from looking unmanly over his “red line,” the conventional wisdom, both here and in the United States, was that while the fig leaf of a “UN moment” might be required, there were no serious obstacles on the road to war.
Yet last night David Cameron’s government lost a House of Commons vote on a measure designed to approve—in principle—military action in Syria pending a report from UN weapons inspectors. This was the first defeat of a government motion related to military action in modern times. And even the failed measure was a climbdown from earlier proposals which would have simply authorized a military response, putting Britain once again shoulder to shoulder with the United States.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about David Cameron’s defeat was that the insurmountable obstacle on his glide path turned out to be Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, who after a summer of continual derision in the British press—and a barrage of friendly-fire briefings by his own MPs—suddenly seems to have found his missing mojo on, of all things, a matter of principle.
How much does Cameron’s defeat by Miliband matter? Well, thirty Tory MPs voted against the government. (Another thirty-one abstained). Nine Liberal Democrats also rebelled against their leader. (And fourteen more abstained) Meanwhile 220 Labour MPs held firm, though interestingly it was the Tory rebels who offered many of the most compelling arguments against rushing to war.
David Davis, who led the fight against the last Labour government’s proposal for mandatory identity cards, said: “We must have clear evidence to show this House that if there is a casus belli [justification for war], it’s real, not confected, not constructed, and that means perhaps a more aggressive disclosure of intelligence than we would normally have.” John Redwood, another former Tory leadership contender—and very much on the right of his party—asked, “How many soldiers and managers of soldiers and officers would you need to kill in order to guarantee that Assad will not do it again? I fear when you have someone as mad and bad as Assad, the answer might be very high. The question is would we want to do that much, are we sure it will work?”
Miliband was careful to say he was “not with those who rule out action,” leaving himself plenty of wiggle room to should the UN weapons inspectors conclude that poison gas was used and (a key difference between his position and Cameron’s) if compelling evidence is made available showing that Assad’s government, rather than the rebels, was to blame. But for the moment Miliband’s determination not to be hustled into hostilities has implications for both Westminster and Washington.
In Westminster the howls of outrage from the Tories—Defense Secretary Philip Hammond accused Miliband of giving “succor” to the Assad regime; another government source told the Times that Cameron and the Foreign Office “think Miliband is a fucking cunt and a copper-bottomed shit”—suggest that Downing Street realizes just how badly its claims to political competence have been damaged.
The same source’s suggestion that “the French hate him now” will do Miliband no harm—and may even help Labour with voters tempted by the isolationist United Kingdom Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, said, “We are a country tired of fighting wars that have nothing to do with us. MPs must listen to the people who have stated they are opposed to our involvement in Syria.”
What about the government claim that by derailing, however temporarily, the British-American war machine Miliband now has “no chance of building an alliance with the US Democratic Party?” There are worse fates, but really that depends on what Barak Obama does next. As the New Yorker’s John Cassidy points out, “Americans are almost as skeptical of military action as Britons are.” Thanks to Ed Miliband, people here now have what we were never given in the run-up to war in Iraq—a government that has been forced, at least for the moment, to consider the depth of popular opposition to war and to advance arguments and evidence to change the debate. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. Perhaps Barack Obama will seize this imposed detour to give Americans the same opportunity.
The UK Parliament voted—what about US Congress?
London—So it turns out that when Rupert Murdoch told MPs here looking into the phone hacking scandal that it was “the most humble day of my life,” he didn’t really mean it. Had his fingers crossed behind his back. If the revelation that the man behind Fox News, the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal might not always tell the truth doesn’t strike you as “hold the front page” stuff, it’s still well worth listening to the tape of Murdoch’s March meeting at The Sun here that surfaced last week on the investigative journalism website Exaro and was later broadcast on Channel Four television.
In it the billionaire tyrant faces a group of about twenty-five journalists, some of whom face charges either because of their role in phone hacking or for making illegal payments to police officers and public officials—the focus of Operation Elveden, which saw two more Sun reporters arrested last month. Only last April, Murdoch told the Leveson Inquiry that “paying police officers for information is wrong.” But on the tape Murdoch can be clearly heard saying, “Payments for news tips from cops: that’s been going on a hundred years, absolutely.”
He continues: “When I first bought the News of the World, the first day I went to the office…and there was a big wall safe.… And I said, ‘What’s that for?’ And they said, ‘We keep some cash in there.’ And I said, ‘What for?’ They said, ‘Well, sometimes the editor needs some on a Saturday night for powerful friends.”
When some of the journalists complain that they have been hung out to dry by the company’s Management and Standards Committee—which reports to former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein—who turned over millions of internal e-mails to prosecutors, Murdoch assures them the company “haven’t given them anything for months.”
Far from the contrite figure he presented at the Leveson Inquiry, Murdoch is defiant, dismissing the scandal—which has so far seen more than twenty of his current or former employees arrested—as “next to nothing.” Nowadays when the police ask for information company lawyers are no longer cooperative, responding “No, no, no—get a court order. Deal with that,” Murdoch tells them. And should any of those arrested be convicted, he assures them “I’m not allowed to promise you—I will promise you continued health support—but your jobs—I’ve got to be careful what comes out—but frankly, I won’t say it, but just trust me.”
Murdoch’s first problem is that they don’t trust him—at least not all of them, since at least one of them secretly taped this meeting and then leaked the tape. That matters because of Murdoch’s second problem—namely that the tape, while probably not admissible in court, is compelling prima facie evidence that Murdoch knew his employees made a regular practice of paying “bungs” (bribes) to police officers and other public officials. Which puts him personally right in the crosshairs of the US Justice Department for multiple violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Only a few weeks ago Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff speculated that one aim of the move, finalized last week, to split Murdoch’s empire into a publishing arm containing his British and American newspapers and the 21st Century Fox entertainment business, was to facilitate a settlement with the Justice Department—paid for out of the $2.6 billion cash hoard assigned to the publishing arm. In order to be politically acceptable, any such settlement would need to be accompanied by exactly the kind of gestures of contrition which the leaked tape have now shown to be completely worthless.
In February 2012 I asked, “When Will the Justice Department Get Serious About Murdoch.” The question remains unanswered—at least publicly. Along with Tom Watson, a Labour MP who had his own troubles this week, fellow MP Chris Bryant, whose phone was hacked by the now-defunct News of the World, called on U.S. authorities to press corruption charges against the media baron. “The interesting question,” writes Ross McKibbin in a fascinating review of Murdoch’s career in The London Review of Books, “is why those in political opposition were and are so reluctant to resist Murdoch.”
A year ago President Obama had an election to worry about—and may have felt that having the owner of Fox News’s balls in a vise was more useful than actually applying pressure. And of course the Justice Department has been very busy chasing whistleblowers and leakers. But now that Eric Holder has promised not to prosecute reporters, perhaps he could spare the time to consider the mountain of evidence against the Murdochs. (In one portion of the tape The Sun’s former managing editor, Graham Dudman, asks: “Will the company’s support vanish overnight if you’re not here?” Murdoch replies, “The decision would be…with my son, Lachlan”—which could make for a certain froideur if Rupert and James end up sharing accommodation at Allenwood.)
Because whatever else it has done, the release of the Murdoch tapes should make a quiet deal with Federal prosecutors political poison. So perhaps I can be excused for repeating the question: When will the Justice Department get serious about Murdoch?
London—1. What is Leveson and why should I care? Set up in response to the phone hacking scandal in Britain, Judge Brian Leveson’s independent “inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press” was the first time Rupert Murdoch and his good-for-nothing son James ever had to face serious questions about the way they run their media empire. Indeed James’s pathetic performance, and his monumental lack of curiousity about the way News International employees hacked the phones and computers of private citizens, slandered the company’s enemies in its papers, and routinely bribed public officials is the main reason Murdoch minor was ousted from the family newspaper business and packed off to New York in disgrace. More broadly the inquiry, which began in July 2011 and has just published its final 2,000-page report, offers a fascinating, detailed look at the what can happen when corporate power and influence are allowed unchecked and unhindered access to politicians desperate to curry media favor. Americans inclined to feel it can’t happen here should imagine—or just remember—a country where Fox News has a Republican administration in the White House.
2. So why have the British suddenly got their knickers in a twist? Because having set up the inquiry, picked the chairman and set his terms of reference Prime Minister David Cameron has now refused to back Leveson’s conclusions. Cameron claims that following Leveson’s recommendation for a system whereby voluntary self-regulation of the press by a truly independent body (unlike the current Press Complaints Commission, widely derided as a toothless club run by and for the big press barons) would be underpinned by new legislation giving the new body standing in law (and allowing Britain’s notorious libel courts to recognize the new arbitrator’s decisions) would amount to crossing “the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land.” Labour leader (and former Nation intern) Ed Miliband disagrees, calling on the government to implement Leveson’s recommendations in full. As it happens, so does Deputy Prime Minister (and former Nation intern!) Nick Clegg, who took the unprecendented step of making his own speech to Parliament setting out his disagreement with his coalition partner.
3. Crikey! Does this mean the government might fall? Probably not. But the rift between Clegg and Cameron is serious, and if Clegg had been looking for an excuse to flounce out of the coalition Leveson is a better cause than most. But Clegg knows his party would be wiped out if an election were held anytime soon; his only hope is to hang on till 2015 and hope either (a) the economy turns around and he gets some of the credit or (b) the economy is still flatlining but voters love the idea of coalition government only with Labour as the senior partner. Siding with Miliband over Leveson is the political equivalent of a “meet cute” between two people unhappily married to others: it gives them an excuse to talk, and a small sense of whether they might actually run off together someday.
4. But doesn’t Cameron have a point about press regulation? Index on Censorship thinks so. The former cold war scolds have been groping for relevance for decades (and sometimes, as in their Libel Reform campaign, actually finding some.) But the group’s warning that any action by Parliament “could be the start of a slippery slope of government interference in the media” is frankly, idiotic (but immensely useful for Cameron). Article 19, a group equally committed to free speech, welcomed Leveson’s conclusions, saying: “Statutory underpinning of self-regulation, proposed by his report, does not contradict international standards on press freedom.” It’s true that without a written constitution, Britain has no easy way to give the press protection comparable to the simple “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But Americans also have a constitutional right to privacy. Britons currently have neither, encouraging a prurient, gossip-obsessed tabloid press to hound the powerless while giving it neither the power nor the protection which would allow it to hold the powerful to account.
5. This “statutory underpinning”—is it some kind of weird foundation garment? No. The idea is that the press would regulate itself, setting up a body to arbitrate complaints, find facts and impose fines (up to £1 million) on offenders. Most members of this regulator would be drawn from the general public (instead of press owners or their employees); politicians would not be allowed to serve. However the body itself would be “underpinned”—given some standing—in law, which would allow the courts to treat its findings as conclusive evidence. It would also allow the courts to treat news organizations who refused to join (as the proprietor of the Daily Express, which published scurrilous lies about the McCanns, a Northern Irish couple whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in 2005, simply refused to join the Press Complaints Commission) differently from those who offered a chance of cheap, speedy redress through the new regulator. For example Leveson suggested that news organizations who stayed outside the new self-regulator would be unable to recover their own legal costs in libel actions—even if they won. Which would be a powerful incentive for joining. He also said that given the press’s history of failed self-regulation, the current broadcast regulator Ofcom would serve as a “backstop” able to step in if the new self-regulator fails to perform as it should. This places the state not just at arm’s length from regulating the press, but as Brian Cathcart of the Hacked Off campaign put it “at two arms’ length.” It is also worth emphasizing that Leveson says that Parliament should enshrine freedom of the press in any new law—not as an afterthought, but as a principal aim.
6. So what happens now? The government will prepare a draft bill turning Leveson’s recommendations into law. The Tories claim that they are only doing so to demonstrate why they can’t work—but given the real divisions between the coalition partners the process is hard to control, and harder to predict. Cameron may be gambling that by the time of the next election in 2015 this will all be forgotten. But defying such a groundswell of public support for hacking victims also has its risks. Miliband is clearly gambling that newspaper proprietors no longer have the power the break politicians. Meanwhile Cameron’s former spokesman Andy Coulson, and his BFF Rebekah Brooks both appeared in court yesterday on charges of conspiring to bribe public officials. If either of them are convicted, or decide to cooperate with prosecutors, those commentators who claim that Leveson let the Murdochs off easy—yes, Michael Wolff, I mean you—may have to change their tune.
Rupert Murdoch is under fire again, for claiming the “Jewish-owned press” was “anti-Israel.” Check out Eric Alterman’s coverage here.