British politics and culture with an American accent.
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.”
Read Next: Andrew Ross explains why the UK lives—for now.
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.
Manchester—Is the United Kingdom ready for its first Jewish Prime Minister? The last time Labour held its annual Conference in this northern metropolis the question would have seemed not just parochial but preposterous. I remember watching Former Nation intern Ed Miliband looking distinctly uncomfortable at a Labour Friends of Israel reception just a few days after his come-from-behind 2010 victory as party leader. Despite the kvelling, there was still a palpable reluctance to embrace this newly-anointed Jacob so soon after he’d elbowed aside brother David’s embittered Esau. But then the whole Labour party seemed too consumed by internal anguish to notice that behind the mask of coalition and compromise the Conservatives were pushing forward an aggressive program of cuts and privatization that no one had voted for.
Part of the problem was that during a disastrous election campaign Labour, too, had embraced a version of the austerity narrative that became the coalition government’s founding myth. For months after their defeat Labour remained too obsessed with fiscal rectitude—and fratricidal drama—to offer any real alternatives.
All of which made this year’s Conference seem like Ed Miliband’s coming out party. Although never one to deny his heritage, Miliband is a thoroughly secular Jew. But having decided to use his leader’s speech this year to tell the nation “Who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country,” he needed to get up close and personal, outing himself not just as a Jew, but as the son of immigrants—even an unabashed intellectual.
Speaking without notes or teleprompter, Miliband told the delegates he was “a person of faith, not a religious faith but a faith nonetheless”—going on to use the f-word a total of 12 times in his remarks. The only concept that got more of an airing was a piece of deft borrowing from another speech in Manchester, given 140 years earlier by Benjamin Disraeli, in which the leader of the Conservative Party called for a “One Nation” Toryism.
In tracing a line from Disraeli, the Victorian Prime minister whose Reform Act gave British working men the vote, through the victory over fascism in the Second World War to the postwar Labour government of Clement Atlee, which created the National Health Service and the modern welfare state, Miliband was doing more than just stealing the clothes of David Cameron’s now discarded compassionate conservatism. By reminding his own party of their duty to build a country “where prosperity is fairly shared” he finally put a stake through the heart of New Labour. Yet in reaching across the aisle to Disraeli he also rejected the narrow tribalism of those who yearn for a return to old Labour.
Instead of the politics of nostalgia, or neo-liberal accommodation with the machinations of finance capital, Miliband’s “One Nation” Labour offered a left populism that embraced both economic justice and what Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who spoke to a huge, and occasionally bemused audience here two days before Miliband, referred to as “what money can’t buy.” But the choice of Disraeli, born a Jew but baptized at the age of 12, was also a way of turning his own “otherness” into a source of strength rather than shame.
“I think he cracked it,” Sally Gimson, a Labour councillor from Highgate in London, told me afterwards. Judging by the rapturous applause most of the other delegates agreed. Even the national press, which has long derided Miliband’s adenoidal accent and geekish tendencies, called the speech a “game changer.”
My own verdict is a little more restrained. As an orator Ed Miliband, on his best day, is no Bill Clinton—or even Tony Blair. The few times he had to stop for applause came not in response to policy proposals or personal revelations but after blistering attacks on an “incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable … Prime Minister.”
With the next election not expected until 2015, political debate here often seems more a matter of symbol than of substance. So when Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, said that if his party were in power today he would take £2.5 billion due from the sale of 4G mobile phone licenses and use it not to pay off the national debt—as Gordon Brown did with the proceeds of the 3G auction—but instead to finance the construction of 100,000 affordable homes, critics hastened to point out that Labour isn’t in power, and even if they win the next election the money will already be gone.
But symbolism sometimes wins elections. Whatever chancellor George Osborne actually does with the 4G windfall will now be compared with those shiny new—if entirely imaginary—houses. Lately the symbols have been running Labour’s way. Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s fracas last month, in which he cursed at police officers and called them “plebs” after they refused to let him cycle through the gates at 10 Downing Street, confirmed an image of his party as sneering snobs. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comment last week that abortion ought to only be legal up to 12 weeks was promptly disavowed by David Cameron—but the impression of a party who want to turn back the clock was not easily dispelled.
As mood music, Miliband’s invocation of “One Nation Labour” is already a hit. But Maurice Glasman, a Saul Alinsky-style community organizer who was the new Labour leader’s first appointment to the House of Lords, hopes for a more substantial change of tune. “Capitalism cannot be regulated at arms length,” he has written. “It needs to be domesticated at source.... The redistribution of power is as important as the redistribution of wealth.” The architect of “Blue Labour”—a strategy sometimes described as a blend of economic radicalism and social conservatism—Glasman, like Jon Cruddas, the MP in charge of Labour’s policy review, is neither an old fashioned statist nor a neo-liberal preaching accommodation to market values.
Instead Glasman, who describes his own politics as “Bundist”—a nod to the Yiddish socialist rival to communism—has long called for the kind of synthesis suggested by Miliband’s “One Nation” vision. “It’s about strengthing and supporting associations and institutions that aren’t defined by the market,” he told me. “That isn’t how liberals see it. They efficiency, choice, progress. But Labour politics is rooted in the democratic resistance to the commodification of human beings.”
At ground level that means forging links between trade unions and religious groups. It means campaigning for a living wage so that cleaners and cooks and security guards can earn enough to support their families without having to work two jobs—or to rely on state benefits. And it means acknowledging that working class fears about immigrants undercutting wages have some basis in reality.
In his speech Miliband admitted “the last Labour government didn’t do enough to address these concerns.” But he went to explain that his own approach would not be to demonize migrants, but to crack down on employers who refused to pay the minimum wage, or recruitment agencies who only hire overseas—a neat left-hand turn on an issue that his predecessors seemed afraid to grapple with.
On the night after Miliband’s speech there was a panel devoted to the American election, where a packed room received a brief induction into “swing states” and the mysteries of the electoral college. Ronald Reagan admired Margaret Thatcher, but on the left the intellectual current across the Atlantic has lately been west-to-east. Ed Miliband spent a summer at the Nation and three semesters teaching at Harvard. But if he can manage to flesh out the sketchy, if seductive, parameters of his “One Nation” speech into a politics that genuinely redistributes power along with wealth, and does so while offering an economic policy that goes beyond “austerity lite,” it will mark more than just a turn in the intellectual tide. And that really would be something to kvell about.
Hamlet: Or did you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That's a fair thought, to lie between maid's legs.
London—The Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, to give the proceedings unfolding in the Royal Courts of Justice their full title, has rewarded its faithful followers with an ample supply of low farce and even, in the accounts of some of the victims of phone hacking, some moments of high tragedy. But this week’s testimony by Prime Minister David Cameron was the first time your correspondent felt impelled to brush up his Shakespeare.
Thursday’s grilling went on for five hours, none of which is likely to be remembered as one of Cameron’s finest. He gave an account of the 1,403 meetings he had with journalists as leader of the opposition. He claimed, with a straight face, that he hired Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who resigned over the phone hacking scandal and has since been arrested, because he was the only tabloid editor available at the time. He squirmed a bit when Robert Jay, the Inquiry counsel, read out an October 2009 text message from Rebekah Brooks, a former Sun and News of the World editor promoted by Rupert Murdoch to run the parent company News International. Even though we already knew that Cameron was wont to sign his own texts to Brooks “LOL”—until she informed him that wasn’t an abbreviation for “Lots of Love”—the cloying tone of this communiqué reached a crescendo with Brooks’s declaration that she would be “so rooting for you tomorrow [during Cameron’s speech at the Tory party conference] not just as a proud friend but because professionally we're definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam.”
So that’s what he meant by “We’re all in this together”—the Conservative party campaign slogan. Still, as I watched Cameron give what my Tory journalist friend Andrew Gimson aptly termed “a masterclass in the mellifluous deflection of blame,” I couldn’t help worrying over an earlier part of Brooks’s text message, where she suggested that any froideur remaining between the Times and Cameron over his failure to appear at a News International party the previous evening could be dispelled “over country supper.”
It has been a mostly unspoken—because universally understood—aspect of the phone hacking scandal that every time Rebekah Brooks appears, the story gets new legs precisely because her own are so shapely. The photographs of Brooks in a Peter Pan collar, raven tresses streaming, that decorated the front pages after her arrest last month were like Christmas in May on Fleet Street. Ed Milliband’s eminently sensible suggestion, on Tuesday, that there should be a legal limit on how much of the British media market one person should control was simply no competition.
Even if Brooks was knowingly alluding to Hamlet’s bawdy pun in her text to Cameron, the element of sex scandal has been sadly lacking throughout the Murdoch saga. Rebekah Brooks may be a world-class toadie, but her claim on David Cameron’s attention was as the wife of one of his oldest friends, his fellow Old Etonian Charlie Brooks. Hopeful readers might protest that even a nodding acquaintance with the novels of Jilly Cooper suggests an awful lot of neighing and whinnying among the horsey set. However, Cameron’s lunchtime telephone call to his wife yesterday, in which he asked her help in calculating just how often he’d met with Rebekah Brooks and then relayed the results to Judge Leveson, indicates a man with a clean conscience—at least where country matters are concerned.
He was easily able, therefore, to deflect the innuendo in Robert Jay’s query as to whether a “country supper” was “the sort of interaction you often had” with Brooks by a brusque “Yes. We were neighbours.” David Cameron met with Rupert Murdoch ten times as leader of the opposition. He met James Murdoch fifteen times and Rebekah Brooks nineteen times. After the election, in December 2010, he met James at a Christmas dinner at Brooks’s house where the Murdochs’ bid to take control of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB was discussed. When Vince Cable, the business secretary in charge of deciding on the BSkyB bid, revealed that he was prejudiced against the Murdochs, Cameron removed Cable from the process and replaced him with Jeremy Hunt, whom he knew was prejudiced in their favor. Cameron also showed himself willing to do Murdoch’s bidding on any number of issues, ranging from reining in the BBC to hobbling the independent communications regulator Ofcom.
But it seemed pretty clear on Thursday that David Cameron did not have sex with that woman. If only he had.