I feel better about it than I expected. Maybe because turning fifty is just so incredible, so obviously ridiculous that, like Death itself, I can’t take it seriously or think about it too much. This is the first age milestone that I’ve actually feared as it approached, but it passed last Friday with that monotonous sense of continuity that time uses to fool you that nothing’s changed. It’s going to happen, it happens, it’s gone.
I STILL REMEMBER the day – it was 15 March 1986, an unusually warm, early spring Saturday – when I walked into an Our Price record shop and saw that cover for the first time: a scruffily bearded man wearing a country and western shirt and a replica of the Imperial State Crown. The sleeve simply said “King of America” but Our Price had helpfully put a sticker on the front: “The New LP from Elvis Costello: PLAY LOUD”. I did – more times than anyone around me will care to remember. But we all grew to love that record. Even my Dad liked it.
I already had a few Costello LPs – including his previous, slightly dodgy outing Goodbye Cruel World (1984) – but this was the moment I became a diehard fan. At some point I acquired a cassette of King of America (no idea why – I never bought tapes) and sometime in the 90s I bought a CD version too. I still have all three copies.
Mere months later, in September I think, another astonishing Costello LP appeared. Blood and Chocolate was recorded, unlike King of America, with his old band, the Attractions. Although they were very different records, I’ve always seen them as a pair. Not a day goes by without me singing at least one of these 26 songs in the shower or humming them as I walk down the street. Even today, songs I’ve heard a thousand times can make my eyes sting. They are the songs I turn to in both my brightest and darkest moments. They are the soundtrack to my life.
I had no idea that music was this powerful. That you could almost live inside the world created by a record. And here were two of them in the same year from the same man. To me they’ve become much more than mere recordings. King of America is a road movie, shifting between cheap Nashville motels, Las Vegas cabarets and the stifling streets of New Orleans. Its cast of characters includes nightclub singers and impresarios, prostitutes, drunken writers, army vets and unhappy GI brides. Blood and Chocolate is an altogether more claustrophobic affair: a howl of rage from the shut-up bedsits and shattered family homes of England. It contains one of Costello’s classic songs, I Want You, a desperate and dark ballad about sexual obsession and the suppressed anger of loneliness. Costello himself says singing the song night after night was a kind of punishment for all “the cruel and irrational things” he’d done – until he just got used to it. The American music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it “nasty”. It is, but it’s beautiful too. And so truthful, it hurts.
I immediately bought a guitar and tried to write songs. I didn’t get far with that, but I still play, the same guitar, almost as badly as I did in 1986. More importantly, it was these two Costello LPs that made we want to write. I got my calling. I knew I wanted to use words to spark feelings, to paint pictures, to tell stories. Within months, I’d given up my job as an accounts clerk and gone to university, with the intention of becoming a writer. I’ve ended up doing a lot of different things (they call it a “portfolio career” now; I think the old term was “no career”) but I’ve always kept writing.
As a lyricist, Costello has that Joycean knack of making a word or phrase seem to express two or three different things at the same time. His songs can swoop from menace and vitriol to the utmost tenderness in the same verse, with melodies that can both soothe and hurt. It’s odd that anger – such a powerful, ubiquitous emotion – was mostly absent from popular music until the mid-70s, and no one does anger in music better than Costello: cutting and witty, often self-deprecating, but also brimming with the guilt and remorse that anger brings on. And anger can be tender too. If you don’t think so, listen to Alison, or Bullets for the New-Born King.
Take this couplet from the song I’ll Wear it Proudly on King of America:
Well, you seem to be shivering, dear, and the room is awfully warm/
In the white and scarlet billows that subside beyond the storm…
I have no idea what that means to Elvis, but there’s so much packed in there, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s tenderness but also a hint of menace. There’s that beautiful (implied) association between the clouds outside and the pillows on the bed, and the reference to the passing storm which metaphorically suggests this is the aftermath of a row. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I’ve carried the image of that stifling hotel room – and the loneliness inside it – around in my head for more than half my life.
So, to Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, which is probably quite different from any other musician’s memoir you’ve read. First off, it’s actually written by the musician himself. In prose, Costello has a chatty, digressive style which is a million miles away from the gin-spiked vitriol of his early recordings. His 36 chapters follow a meandering course through his life (and those of his parents and grandparents – sometimes you wonder if he’s been lined up for the next series of Who do you think you are?), often veering off in the manner of Montaigne’s essays to talk about whatever takes his fancy before (sometimes) coming back to the point. It’s a bit like being holed up in a pub with Costello for a couple of days or sharing a long train journey with him. But unlike a long pub chat, it all begins to make sense towards the end.
whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, ELVIS sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.
This is also a book about music, rather than rock star excess and battles with drink and drugs (though Costello owns up to a lot of drinking and a fair few “pills”): it’s a book set in recording studios and concert halls rather than mansions and luxury hotels. The extent of Costello’s musical knowledge and influence will knock your socks off; even I had no idea how many pies he’s had his fingers in. To some reviewers this cast of collaborators, friends and other artists seemed like namedropping, but almost all of them are people Costello has made music with. What was he supposed to do? Refer to Bob Dylan as “this bloke from Minnesota I met in New York”?
If this isn’t exactly The Confessions of Declan McManus, it wouldn’t be Elvis Costello if there wasn’t plenty of remorse on show. He is particularly contrite about the philandering that led to the break up of his first marriage, to Mary Burgoyne, and the hurt caused to many “reckless and sometimes damaged” women. He makes no excuses for all that, or for the racially offensive comments about Ray Charles he is alleged to have made during the Attractions first US tour in 1978. Given Costello’s otherwise-impeccable track record in opposing racism, you have to be very harsh or very ignorant to think that he ever harboured racist beliefs, and if his numerous apologies were good enough for Ray, they’re good enough for me.
No apology is necessary for the nastiness in some of Costello’s lyrics, especially his early stuff. If Elvis’s song-writing has been about anything, it’s confronting the emotions that people really feel, not just the ones that are laudable or even understandable. Some people are spiteful and young men do rage against women. We all feel bitter and angry from time to time. Holding Costello personally to everything expressed in his lyrics over 40 years is as stupid as attributing to Charles Dickens the violence and misogyny of Bill Sikes or accusing Martin Amis of psycopathy for putting the thoughts of John Self down on paper.
Costello’s father – the big band singer Ross McManus – looms large over the whole story. Without Ross, there would’ve been no Elvis Costello – and not just in the biological sense. Their relationship is the golden thread running through both the book and Elvis’s career itself. All his musical magpie-ism finally makes sense in the context of a shared musical heritage in the McManus family which goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. There are no boundaries in popular music: it certainly didn’t begin in 1976 with punk or in 1954 with rock and roll.
Costello’s current series of “Detour” gigs (apparently – I’m going to see the Paris show next month) feature a selection of Costello classics, music hall and big band songs going back to the 1920s and an miscellany of more recent country and rock and roll covers which change each night. In between, Elvis tells stories and shows video clips from his life and career. Much like those shows, this book is not just Costello’s own biography, but a sort of biography of popular music itself.
Passages about Ross’s slow decline and death from Alzheimer’s drift in and out of the story, especially towards the end. They are deeply moving for anyone who has lost a parent, and they also show why Costello is such a great songwriter: whether he’s writing about marital break up, war, unemployment or the loss of a loved one, he sees straight through to the emotional core of the situation.
If you’re already a Costello fan, you will lap this up and wish there were more than 674 pages (and an index!). If you’re not, this is an extended pub conversation with a real musician who knows everybody and has done everything. If you also buy the accompanying soundtrack LP, you might just see what I’m getting at.
I THINK WE’D BE better off staying in the EU, but I can’t honestly say whether my family will be £5 or £5,000 worse off if we leave. I’ve no idea what sort of trade deal we will get with the EU if we leave, but I can’t see it being better than than the one we’ve got already. Brexit will give us more control over some types of migration, but that will come at a considerable price. I’m fairly certain it will do nothing to protect us against Islamist terrorists. Although I’ve been lobbing around the same statistics and arguments as everyone else, the real reason I will vote to stay on 23 June is much simpler: I’m pro-EU simply because I’m a European – and if you’re part of something, I think it’s better to be an active participant than a passive bystander.
As an Englishman, I speak a language which is basically a mixture of German and French, with some Danish and Celtic bits thrown in. The land we now call “England” has been ruled over by Celts, Romans (Italians), Anglo-Saxons (Germans), Danes, Frenchmen, Welsh, Scots, a Dutchman, then Germans again. We were a profoundly Catholic nation which became profoundly Protestant, then profoundly secular; these are all solidly European traditions. Our culture – cuisine, literature, music, art, sport, politics – is eclectically European, mixing French, Italian and German traditions with later influences from across the world. When it comes to the things we really want, we tend to choose European things – French wine, Greek beaches, German cars, Italian clothes, Scotch whisky and Spanish villas. And for all Paris’s charm and Berlin’s youthful dynamism, everyone knows the real capital of Europe is London. If we’re not European, what the hell are we?
Most Brexiters don’t deny our European heritage, but like to say the EU is not Europe. Sorry, but it more or less is. The only sizeable European nation outside the EU who don’t want to join are the Russians (not that Putin has asked them). More importantly, the EU is where the power is. Other countries know this – despite all the EU’s problems and failures no one else is anywhere near the exit door. Even Greece, which has been treated like shit by the rest of the EU, is desperate to remain. Greeks know that, like it or lump it, the EU is where the destiny of our continent is decided.
We’re in the club, whether we like it or not. So why would we want to be skulking in the corridor outside the committee room when the important decisions are taken? It may suit tiny but super-rich Norway and Switzerland – a money-laundering operation pretending to be a country – to stay outside the EU, but the price they pay is having less influence over European affairs than Slovenia or Estonia. That’s not good enough for a big internationalist country like Britain.
I’m not a pro-European because I like the way EU institutions are run or because I like everything the Commission comes up with. I’m not even pro-European because I like the overall direction of EU policy, which – contrary to what Europhobes pretend to think – is far too free-market and plutocratic for my taste. And, yes, I know the EU institutions aren’t very democratic.
But so what? Nato is even less democratic than the EU but you don’t hear many Brexiters demanding that we leave that Brussels-based institution (and you won’t hear it from me either). Many people, from left and right, don’t much like the way the UK parliament works either. An electoral system which hands so much power to a man as short-sighted and divisive as David Cameron, with the support of less than a quarter of the people, is ridiculously undemocratic. In common with most Brits, I don’t like government policies on austerity, schools, housing, transport or the NHS. I detest this government’s spineless kowtowing to Beijing over the future of our steel industry. But none of this makes me want to leave the UK or do away with parliamentary democracy altogether.
The EU isn’t democratic because democracy mostly operates at the nation state level – which is exactly what Brexiters say they want. But if nation states are to survive and prosper (and I rather like nation states), they have to work together. We live in a connected world and you can’t pretend, as Brexiters do, that it hasn’t happened. Complete sovereignty has probably never existed, but it certainly doesn’t exist now – not for us, not even for America. When it comes to money, trade, information, ideas, pollution, disease – or even people – the national borders Brexiters are so desperate to “control” have vanished. Almost everyone recognises this – that’s why we have the African Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of American States – and Nato. Leaving the EU won’t stop bad things happening to us. But it may stop some good things and it will certainly stop us from having a say in what the good things are.
Europe makes sense as a group of countries working together. We are a close-knit group of mostly related peoples packed together on and around a small peninsula. Our common heritage includes democracy, the rule of law, Christianity and secularism, booze, scientific method, the dignity and rights of the individual, distinct national and liguistic identitites, the Roman Empire and everything good and bad that flowed from it. That is Europe. During the last 60 years, one of our worst traditions – killing each other in wars – has become almost unthinkable within the EU. I can’t prove the EU is responsible – maybe it’s just coincidence. But history suggests countries which co-operate politically and economically don’t make a habit of fighting each other.
Brexiters never explain why we would we better off with less influence over European affairs. They never explain why we should go through this rigmarole in order have less access to European markets (I don’t care how well the post-Brexit negotiations go, we’re not going to end up with more, are we?). Or why Britons should have less freedom to move around than other Europeans.
The idea that America and the rest of the world will pay more attention to us than to the collective weight of 27 other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, seems to come from the peculiarly English delusion (it doesn’t affect the Welsh, Scots or Irish so much) that we’re somehow special or even superior to other European countries – or that we’re not really a European country at all. But this English exceptionalism doesn’t make us special, it just makes us weird and irrelevant. It isn’t patriotic, it’s demeaning.
Maybe we could afford to stand aloof from Europe when we ran a global empire. Standing aloof now just makes us look silly. We would be negotiating our way out in order to negotiate our way back in as a second rate nation. Why are even thinking about this? Why are we being so stupid?
Photo: © 2013 European Council/Creative Commons 2.0
IF THE LABOUR PARTY wasn’t in such a state, lefties like me would have enjoyed the last few days. The IDS resignation affair is omnishambles, squeaky bum time and headless chicken syndrome all rolled into one. Just ten months after his triumphant re-election, David Cameron now leads a sort of rump cabinet, despised by many of its own backbenchers, and reviled as heartless by – of all people – Iain Duncan Smith.
IDS says he never agreed with the proposed cuts to disability benefits and only reluctantly went along with them because he accepted deficit reduction was the government’s overwhelming priority. I’m inclined to believe him. But when Osborne unveiled his budget, it turned out deficit reduction wasn’t that important after all. The priority was tax handouts to the better off. That is count one.
Count two is that Cameron and Osborne, faced with a barrage of criticism they – bizarrely – weren’t expecting, pressured IDS into defending the cuts. Accepting collective responsibility, IDS dutifully did so in that “Dear Colleague” letter on Thursday. But within hours, Cameron and Osborne had abandoned the policy, hoping that they had left IDS holding the stinking package. Osborne – never one to underestimate his own genuis – probably thought this was very clever. Ha ha! That letter would make it impossible for IDS to resign over the issue. Like so many of Osborne’s improvised political devices, it blew up in his face.
I’ve no idea what IDS’s real reasons for resigning are, but the ones he gave seem perfectly reasonable to me. People have resigned over far less. It may well help the Brexit campaign, but so what? Cameron and Osborne pissed IDS off, then gave him the ammunition, primed the gun and put it in his hand. Did they really expect he wouldn’t fire it? Yes, he may well have some personal scores to settle with Osborne, but when you serve in a cabinet, the personal is always mixed with the political. I can’t think of any resignation over policy that hasn’t been spiked with some personal animosity.
As for Downing Street’s briefing over the weekend that IDS is half-mad and “a fraud”, that only begs the question why Cameron appointed him in the first place and kept him in charge of such an important department for six years (and apparently begged him to stay last week). Judgment, especially over appointments, has never been Cameron’s strong point (his retention of Osborne now being another example). Cameron is always at his most peevish when responding to criticism he knows to be valid; Downing Street’s petulant and highly personal attacks on IDS will only strengthen the feeling, especially on the Tory backbenches, that he’s got a point.
By giving a huge boost to the Brexit campaign, Osborne’s ridiculous budget may end up doing far more damage to the economic interests of working people than any of the silly measures he announced on Tuesday. Some of Osborne’s budgets have a short fuse and blow up almost immediately. Others have a long fuse and blow up further down the line. This might be the first to have both. Thank God it’s probably his last.
FRANÇOIS MITTERRAND WAS around for so long (he first held office in 1944-5) and got up to so many things, almost every year is some sort of Mitterrand anniversary. My regular reader will know that I’m something of an obsessive about the former French president and don’t need much excuse to write about him. This year I will have plenty – 2016 marks not only 20 years since Mitterrand’s death, but also the centenary of his birth, in the market town of Jarnac, deep in the Cognac country of south-west France, on 26 October 1916.
I already have a stack of Mitterrand-related reading on my desk, including a new book on the president’s last days by the editor of L’Express, Christophe Barbier, and Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s dauntingly huge 1996 biography, François Mitterrand: une vie, which I’ve promised myself to finally get round to reading this year. But I was drawn first to Georges-Marc Benamou’s Le Dernier Mitterrand, the book on which Robert Guédiguian’s celebrated 2005 film on the president’s last days in office, The Last Mitterrand, was based. I’ve watched this film so many times that Michel Bouquet’s superb portrayal of the president has largely displaced my memories of the real Mitterrand.
Benamou was the Globe journalist given “unprecedented access” to Mitterrand during his last year as president, and the rather sad eight-month coda to his life after he left office (actually, quite a few people claim to have had such access – Barbier among them – I guess Mitterrand didn’t like being alone much). There’s a scene in Benamou’s book which doesn’t feature in the film – surprisingly, because it seems to capture the essence of the Mitterrand mystique. It’s certainly made a big impression on me. I can’t get it out of my head. I can picture the scene from the film even though I know it isn’t there.
Mitterrand starts speaking enigmatically – even madly – about an “unknown war” with America, a “a permanent war, a war without death, apparently” but which is also “a war to the death”. Mitterrand seems to imply that although the war is “permanent”, it is a war that France – and Europe – have already lost. It doesn’t make much sense but, as the president continues talking, Benamou senses that he is no longer talking just as himself, but as all his predecessors.
Benamou claims to sense De Gaulle’s tone, and then those of other French leaders stretching back into the middle ages. The image he cites is a striking one: a photo-montage by the artist Krystof Pruszkowski, a sort of visual palimpsest in which portraits of all the Fifth Republic presidents up to that point — De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard and Mitterrand — are superimposed on one another. This was the ghostly figure, Benamou says, who was speaking to him in that darkened room at the Elysée in October 1994.
I managed to dig up a copy of the picture (I don’t have the rights to post it here) and spent some time staring at it. Benamou is right: you can recognise features from all four men, but the only people you really see are De Gaulle and Mitterrand.
Benamou felt that all France’s past leaders were incarnated in this frail body, this “national corpse” (Mitterrand was dying from prostate cancer, which it was later revealed he’d been suffering from since at least 1981). And that Mitterrand is the last in the line, the last real leader of France, perhaps the last real political leader in Europe. Mitterrand says something similar elsewhere in the book (and in the film): “I’m the last of the line, the last of the great presidents. After me there will just be managers, technocrats, bankers.” This extinguishing of politics is perhaps what Mitterrand means by the war Europe has lost.
Mitterrand’s point was overblown – you can’t say that Chirac was just a manager or that Sarkozy was a techno-anything, although Hollande – ironically, a Mitterrand protégé – fits the mould perfectly. But Mitterrand does now look like the last of the big, ambitious political leaders in Europe. By 1995, he was the last significant politician of the wartime generation still in office. If the past is recoverable at all, it’s through the people who lived in it. When they are gone, the way back becomes fogged. We are working with ghosts – and ghosts are unreliable and personal to each and every one of us.
The past is the ultimate mystery, the ultimate fantasy world. (How can it be here, in so many forms all around us, and yet not be? How weird is that?) The easiest way to access this fantasy world is through the people we knew and loved. Our memories of them become entwined with the ghosts of public figures and our knowledge of the times in which they lived. I tend to conflate memories of my Dad with stories of people like Mitterrand and Denis Healey, because they lived through the same period and went through many of the same experiences. They are all characters in my own fantasy story of the 20th century – a time which is gone, but which refuses to settle down and feels like it will never be still.
For years, I have carried around a story in my head: my Dad, shortly after going into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with the Royal Artillery in 1945, encounters a bossy French official called François, who has arrived in haste from Paris. The story takes different forms (in one they argue about access to a toilet, in another they get drunk on Courvoisier), but I’ve always believed it was spun around a core of truth: that Dad and Mitterrand were at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, possibly on the same day (Mitterrand was the French official responsible for repatriating French prisoners from the concentration camps).
I can’t remember now whether the story comes from something my Dad told me (it isn’t there in the extensive notes I took shortly before he died in 2009), a dream, something I read about Mitterrand, or whether I just made the whole thing up. That’s how the past works on us – endless versions, real and imagined, and most a mixture of the two, superimposed on one another: a rich soup of memories, facts and fantasies, spiked with that sense of unbearable loss.
But reading Benamou’s book, I’ve now know that Mitterrand never went to Bergen-Belsen at all, although he was present at the liberation of Dachau by the Americans in the same month. Even though I’ve seen the film countless times, I’d missed the fact that the camp Mitterrand describes was Dachau, not Belsen. I’d believed it because I wanted to; it fitted with my storybook version of the past.
In the same way, my version of French history, and of Mitterrand’s presidency, will be different to yours – much of mine comes from that film and what I’ve projected onto it. Just as I was disappointed to find out that the history of Imperial Rome didn’t unfold the way I saw it as a child in I Claudius (no, Augustus wasn’t at all like Brian Blessed), no doubt all this Mitterrand reading will dispel more of my illusions. But it will only replace them with others: a fresh set of fantasies to weave into my personal version of what we call “the truth”.
In my head, two men still emerge hand-in-hand from the mist on that April morning on the North German Plain. I know one of them well enough. I may never get to know the other. So I can make of him whatever I will.
Photo: Jacques Paillette/Creative Commons 3.0
HERE ARE A FEW first thoughts on Labour’s upcoming defence review – or rather the Trident bit of it. I don’t expect anyone to take much notice – most of the people involved seem to have held entrenched views for at least thirty-five years. You might want to put on some 80s music while reading this. If you’re old enough, it might make you feel young again.
Trident (and I mean here Trident with nuclear warheads, not the “I can’t believe it’s not Trident” version without them) is not essentially useless. It could be used, perhaps in some circumstances it would be used. So, it has uses. But Trident as a defence mechanism is, literally, useless. It’s value as a defence lies purely in it not being used.
There are no conceivable circumstances in which we could use Trident and remain “defended”. I find it impossible to imagine a British prime minister firing a Trident missile at a non-nuclear target. I tried hard to conjure up the image of some deranged figure in Downing Street, presumably drunk and egged on by a latter-day Dr Strangelove, moving his or her quivering finger towards the “button” (yes, I know there isn’t really a button) to fire a 4.8 megaton nuclear bomb at some god-forsaken desert town. But I just can’t see it. Can you?
If Trident is ever going to be used it would be either in retaliation for a nuclear attack on Britain which has already taken place or as a pre-emptive first strike against someone who might attack us with nuclear weapons. In both cases, we would have lost. In the first case, there should be no need to explain why. In the second, we have assume that anyone with nuclear weapons who is nasty enough to be worth nuking would retaliate with a nuclear strike against us. We end up with the same result. In either scenario, Trident would have failed to defend us.
Trident has no military use — it cannot be used in any military situation to further any military objective. Defence chiefs like the prestige Trident brings but I wonder how many would resist a credible promise to spend the entire cost (now estimated at £167bn) – or even half of it – on their conventional forces. Trident’s main value is diplomatic and “pre-military”: that it could defend us, not by being used, but by deterring someone from attacking us, whether or not they had nuclear weapons.
The deterrent argument has changed since I used to have these arguments in pubs in the 1980s (when I shifted from being a unilateralist to being a warmongering US lackey, apparently), when it was all about a complex game of bluff and counter bluff with the Soviet Union – a game which, like death itself, could drive you mad if you thought about it too much. Now, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is there anyone out there who is likely to behave differently towards us because we have Trident from how they would behave if we didn’t?
Trident did not deter al-Qaeda from attacking us. It’s hard to believe that the reason Islamic State/Daesh have not yet attacked Britain is because we have Trident submarines lurking in the ocean somewhere (France is also a nuclear power after all). Kim Jong- un? Really? Does he even know where Britain is? The theory of deterrence rests on a degree of rational self-interest on the part of your opponent – it doesn’t apply to madmen.
There is also the argument that Trident is needed to protect us against future threats we don’t yet know about – Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”. The problem with this is that, if these threats are genuinely “unknown”, how do we know that Trident is the best or even a good way of protecting ourselves against them? We might just as well double the size of the army, build a fifty-foot wall around Britain or fill the channel tunnel with cement on the grounds that it might protect us against something.
Perhaps we think we can discern the faint outlines of these potential threats (the shadows of Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”). What if China or Russia turn nasty? What if a relatively sophisticated state with a slightly unhinged leadership (Iran?) decides to have a pop at us, or tries to hold us to ransom? The problem here is that what evidence we have already points to Trident being useless in these situations. You might well think China and Russia are already quite nasty: Trident (or the French nuclear deterrent) didn’t stop Putin from annexing Crimea, destabilising our “ally” Ukraine or unleashing radioactive weapons on the streets of London in 2006. And the Iranian leadership has been slightly unhinged for most of my lifetime. Where is the evidence that Iran has ever posed a significant threat to Britain, or that the behaviour of the Iranian leadership has been changed one iota by the existence of Britain’s four Trident submarines? In these circumstances, Trident is, at best, a very over-priced insurance policy against a very remote risk – like paying thousands of pounds a year to insure yourself against a meteor strike. (Yes, it could happen, the results would be catastrophic, but, really, are you going to bother?)
The best argument for Trident is one its supporters are obviously reluctant to put forward. It’s that Trident is simply about showing off, in a world where showing off is, like it or lump it, important. Possession of a big fat nuclear weapons system is like a ticket to the VIP enclosure – it gets you noticed, it impresses people, it makes them think you must be a very important country indeed. It’s no coincidence that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are the world’s five oldest nuclear powers. No country that has acquired nuclear weapons has ever been willing to give them up. Viewed this way, Trident is a big fat fee we pay (much of it to the Americans) for a seat at the top table. It’s about diplomacy, not military defence.
I think it’s this loss of diplomatic face that Trident supporters really fear. And they may be right – diplomacy is an important component of defence, perhaps the most important part. But the question is whether this diplomatic golden ticket is really worth it, or whether we can do something better with a quarter of a trillion dollars.
My final thought is that if we do need a nuclear deterrent, why does it have to be Trident? Could we not develop our own fully independent system, as the French have managed to do? That would create even more jobs in the UK and give a welcome boost to our science and engineering sector. It might be on a smaller scale than Trident, but I reckon no one likes being nuked, by a Trident submarine or anything else.
All of this assumes, of course, that the defence review is looking for the right defence strategy for the country, not just the right one for the Labour Party – which may be a different question entirely.
Photo: PAUL O’SHAU/MOD
THE NEWS OF David Bowie’s death from cancer at the age of 69 didn’t register with me when it first flashed up on the screen. The words said “Breaking News”, but it didn’t feel like news. It felt like an intrusion from another world or another time, as if I’d been catapulted years into the future. Then it felt like a mistake or a cruel hoax. My mind went blank and I paused for a moment, thinking, “Did I know that already?” Then I wondered why the sky hadn’t fallen in.
I didn’t grow up listening to Bowie. When I first started getting into music at the end of the 70s, we didn’t have much time for anything before punk. Bowie was going through his “Berlin period”, producing music that was critically acclaimed but hardly designed to catch the attention of a young teenager buying his first records in 1979 (I didn’t even hear “Heroes” until years later, which is odd because it’s actually a very “1977” sort of record). He wasn’t on Top of the Pops much. Of course, I’d heard some of the “early stuff” – Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and so on – but that belonged to the era of flared trousers and long hair. Bowie was a kind of elder statesman. Whatever you were into – punk, ska, heavy metal, reggae, soul, pub rock, early synthesiser music – Bowie was someone you were supposed to respect. Unlike most of the other big stars of the early 1970s, he had carried some credibility into the era of The Jam and The Human League.
This was shown in spades a year or two later by Ashes to Ashes, a song from an LP (Scary Monsters and Super Creeps) which was so perfectly of its time that it was if the Daddy had come back to show New Romantics how it was really done. I bought Let’s Dance, of course. I liked it but I never loved it. Tonight seemed a fairly ropey LP by Bowie’s standards, but over the years I’ve come to love the title track. Sometime in the mid-80s, I bought the Berlin trilogy. Or I thought I had. I actually ended up with Station to Station instead of Lodger, which still seems like a more coherent triptych to me. I could hear this was something very special indeed, and I wondered at how it must have sounded even fresher and more startling ten years earlier.
Over the years, I kept delving back and back, into the hazardous terrain before 1976, and finding more gems – Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie didn’t give you songs to sing in the shower. He had a fair few hit singles, but he was really an albums man. With each new LP he seemed to be announcing a rebirth (one of the reasons his death feels so shocking is that it comes just two days after his latest “renaissance”, with Blackstar) as well as telling us something new about ourselves. With Bowie LPs, you felt you were buying into a piece of art, a slice of culture, a style and a story, even if it was, at the end of the day, just a bunch of songs with a bloke from south London posing on the cover in a ridiculous costume. And that’s a very British thing – that mixing of art, high camp and blokeishness. Bowie didn’t take himself too seriously while taking his work very seriously indeed. Or perhaps it was the other way round.
I never learned to like Space Oddity and I’m too much of a product of the early synth music and pub rock of my time to rate myself as a “proper” Bowie fan. But as a cultural icon of late 20th century Britain, he is second to none. We won’t see his like again.
Grief at the death of a public figure is a funny thing. It can be self-indulgent or maudlin, a version of nostalgia. But we all feel it from time to time, and never more than when part of our own life seems to vanish along with someone we never knew.
Even though he was 98, the death of Denis Healey choked me up. Healey was a special figure to me because he always seemed to be just like my Dad. I even remember having a vague notion when I was very young that they were almost the same person, that Denis was a kind of “public” version of Dad, or perhaps some sort of important uncle. They were about the same age, with similar hairstyles and the same riotous eyebrows, and shared a taste for jumpers and casual shirts. The cover picture of Healey’s My Secret Planet still causes me to do a double-take whenever I catch sight of it. Subliminally, I suppose I’ve always thought of “Denis” as a sort of distant member of our family.
Dad, who died in 2009, shared with Denis a special kind of wisdom which comes from not from formal education (Denis had a very good one, while Dad had almost none), but from sustained contact with ordinary people through extraordinary times. It gave them a sort of super-charged humanity, an appreciation of people as they really are, warts and all, and a stubborn determination to pursue solutions to problems to the bitter end (summed up in Churchill’s favourite call to action: “keep buggering on”). In 25 years, Healey’s memoirs have never strayed more than a few feet from my writing desk. They are thick with annotations, from a time when I tended to underline things in books that I agreed with. When I read them, it’s usually Dad’s voice that I hear in my head.
Healey was one of the leading lights in a “golden generation” of Labour politicians who, thanks to the omnishambles politics of the 1970s, are generally seen to have underachieved — a view ignorant of both the odds they had to overcome and the very real achievements of the pre-Thatcher years. The 1974-79 Labour government had no majority for most of its term of office. Millions of days were being lost to strikes every year. There were wars all over the place. The oil price quintupled and inflation was out of control in all western economies. And there was a kind of madness in the air. Only a month before Healey became Chancellor, the problems of governing Britain had reduced the Cabinet Secretary to a quivering wreck, rolling naked on the Cabinet Office floor, chain-smoking and raving about the end of the world.
Most famously of course, Healey went “cap in hand” to the IMF in 1976. Quite rightly, he never apologised for it. The IMF was an essential mechanism in a global economic system which produced imbalances, and Healey used the tools available to him. We borrowed the money, we averted the crisis, and the loan was paid back in full within a year (Healey called it “sod-off day”). Why was it a “humiliation” to borrow from the IMF and not to borrow from gnomes of Zürich or the butchers of Beijing, as we do now, to finance much bigger debts? But the biggest irony of all was that the loans and associated cuts were based on Treasury forecasts. Had the Treasury got its sums right, Healey wouldn’t have needed the IMF at all1.
Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with.
Despite this wicked combination of crises, the government of which Healey was the key member still delivered rising living standards for working people, and slightly higher overall growth than the Thatcher government which followed it. It oversaw a significant reduction in inflation, passed Britain’s first race and sex equality laws, and made meaningful inroads into pensioner and child poverty. It presided over the most economically equal society we’ve ever known. It’s probably no coincidence that studies often show Britain was also at its happiest during the second half of the 1970s.
It’s hard to imagine today’s politicians delivering those results even in good times and with a thumping majority. Healey’s generation had to try much harder. They knew that, if western democracy was going to survive, it had to deliver for ordinary people. And one way or another, it had to survive. They had seen the alternatives — communism and fascism — and they knew we didn’t want to go there.
Dad and Denis were both born in south London, although Denis moved to Yorkshire when he was very young. Both were communists in their youth, Denis in the debating rooms of Oxford, my Dad on the streets of London, fighting the Blackshirts. They were both in the Royal Engineers during the war; Healey serving with distinction in North Africa and Italy, while Dad was part of the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, and later took part in the D-Day landings. (Incidentally, both were initially posted to different railway operating companies, and Dad thought he might have run into Denis during a stopover at Swindon in 1940 — Healey’s memoirs do mention a rather pointless posting in the Wiltshire railway town around that time, so it is possible). In their post-war careers, both had cause to visit the Soviet Union several times and were very unimpressed (but quite often amused) by what they saw there.
Of course, in many ways they were very different lives: Dad never went to Oxford and never became Chancellor (although he would’ve made a good foreign secretary in the Ernie Bevin mould, I think). Dad was a modest and private man, whereas Healey loved public attention and was famously arrogant, even if he had quite a lot to be arrogant about. But the fact they had much in common is important. When I was a kid, Harold Wilson’s cabinet didn’t seem like remote figures from another world; they seemed like people Dad might know, might work with, might drink with. It’s hard to imagine someone from my Dad’s background today feeling they had much in common with George Osborne or Alistair Darling.
There was something special in the outlook of that generation, a set of attitudes that came naturally to them but which prove elusive to politicians (and people in general) today: a seamless blending of principle and pragmatism; that pig-headed “can-do” attitude to tackling problems; an unimpeachable patriotism, rooted in love of the British people rather than a flag or a monarch; a profound suspicion of ideology; and, most importantly, a really powerful sense of common purpose.
And let’s be honest — they did enjoy a good crisis. They loved the buzz of high-pitched activity, the feeling that you were playing for high stakes, and that everyone had a part to play in getting out of a hole. If they said “we’re all in this together”, they meant it — and “this” was usually the brown stuff. They had quite a taste for the good life too; if you had a chance of a share of the pie, however fleeting, you grabbed it with both hands — and then asked for more. All this was accompanied by plenty of gallows humour and a love for childish pranks, dirty jokes and silly songs. And, of course, everything was done in a haze of (shared) alcohol and cigarette smoke.
Dad’s sort of socialism, like Denis’s, was moderate but robust, and came directly out of his experiences before, during and immediately after the war. For them, socialism was not an ideology, a theory of history or class war. It didn’t demand that you believed weird things or have a particular lifestyle. It was based on simple, sound principles about equality, solidarity and responsibility that everyone could understand, even if politicians had to get to grips with complex ideas to make it work. There was no final victory, just a lot of hard work and “seat-of-your pants” crisis management. But you didn’t give in, you didn’t take the easy option of going along with what suited the rich and powerful. Socialism meant a sense of common purpose between working people — and “working people” included politicians. Neither Blairites nor Bennites really seem to get that.
Like George Orwell, Denis ended up being defined more by what he opposed than by what he supported. His bellicose opposition to revolutionary Marxism and Bennite socialism leads many commentators to claim him as a figure of the right. Healey became an anti-communist, but that didn’t make him anti-socialist, still less a monetarist, a neoliberal or a stooge of international finance. It was Healey who promised his chancellorship would provoke “howls of anger from the rich” (it did) and who called Thatcher “la Pasionaria of middle class privilege”. He strongly opposed the Iraq War. In recent years, he even reversed his passionate support for Britain’s nuclear deterrent — simply because, as he saw it, the situation had changed. In Healey’s politics, like Dad’s, anti-fascism came first, and then it was all about making socialism practical, appealing, and meaningful to working people. And like Denis, Dad had no truck with the SDP breakaway in 1981; the idea of splitting the movement horrified him.
When I asked Dad about the things he was proud of in his long life, he once mentioned the liberation of Belsen in April 1945, but more often he said something about me and my sister and the lives we were able to have. What should we most remember Denis Healey for? Organising the assault on Anzio as beach master in 1944? Helping to rebuild Europe’s shattered socialist parties after the war? As defence secretary, for helping to keep us out of Vietnam? For beating Tony Benn “by an eyebrow” for the Labour deputy leadership in 1981? There are so many possibilities. But, for me, being Chancellor of the Exchequer when we were at our most equal and most happy might be the best thing of all.
- Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989), p433 ↩︎
We’ve had a four month leadership contest. There have been several TV debates, many hustings, hundreds of supporter meetings and countless discussions in CLPs up and down the country. Jeremy Corbyn alone spoke at 99 rallies. By now we should know exactly what the Labour party stands for.
Yeah, right. The leadership contest mainly consisted of people shouting past each other. We aired our differences but settled nothing. There was, at last, some talk about what the Labour party is for. But no decisions were reached, no consensus emerged.
Corbyn’s remarkable victory means something deeper and more important than a lurch to the left (after the shitstorm of recent days, we can forget about enjoying our “comfort zone”). Labour wasn’t a Bennite hard left party when I went to bed on Friday night and it hadn’t become one by the time Chelsea kicked off against Everton at lunchtime on Saturday. But for good or for ill, the party has reasserted itself as a political movement rather than an electoral machine. Labour will now, at last, have to stop fudging, nudging and grudgingly bending to the political winds. It will have to decide what the main left-of-centre party in a modern European democracy should look like. There will be a lot of blood on the carpet, and it may well cost us the 2020 election. But it had to be done sooner or later.
One of the most frequently heard complaints about Labour during the election campaign was, “I don’t know what they stand for”. Older voters often added “any more”. Younger voters just shrugged their shoulders. Some didn’t even realise that Labour is supposed to be a left-of-centre party (although they probably do now).
In recent years, Labour has sought out policies that might be popular with “swing” voters and then tried to stitch them together into a political programme. It didn’t work because it’s the wrong way round. One of the biggest fallacies in modern politics is that you “sell” policies like you sell oven-ready lasagne or flat-screen tellies. Labour in the 1970s and 1980s had a lot to learn from marketing techniques. But in the end they are just that — marketing techniques. They’re not a substitute for politics.
Voters know they’re not “buying” policies the way they buy things at the supermarket — apart from anything else because they can’t pick and choose the ones they like. They have to take or leave the whole package. Even if they like your policies, if they think your leader is a bit flaky or your cabinet is full of spivs and crooks, they probably won’t vote for you. Unless they strongly identify with a party already, they choose according to a complex mixture of motivations and previously-held convictions: their own material wellbeing; the effect on their community and the issues or causes they care about; the competence of the party leaders and the credibility of their programme; voters’ own sense of identity and how they feel about Britain’s place in the world. Many of these responses are emotional rather than strictly rational.
The American academic George Lakoff has argued the left often ignores the emotional impact of political argument, while the right ruthlessly exploits emotion and presents arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff.
We saw this very clearly in the 1980s. Voters weren’t suddenly converted to Margaret Thatcher’s free market mania once the Exocets started flying in the south Atlantic in May 1982. In portraying the Falklands as a sort of rebirth of the British nation, Thatcher wove her free market ideas into a story about Britain that a good chunk of voters responded to. It swept aside their previously deeply-held concerns about Thatcher’s destruction of industry and her uncaring attitude towards poverty and unemployment. In short, she created a myth around grains of truth and persuaded people to believe in it.
If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal consensus.
Voters seem increasingly reluctant to jump into the boxes politicians set out for them — “Worcester woman”, “white-van man” and so on. They keep changing their minds and their priorities. Sometimes emotion swamps reason, sometimes it’s the other way around. This is because they are complex beings responding to a world in flux. By the time politicians and pollsters have identified a group, let alone calibrated policies for it, the group has already broken up – if it ever existed in the first place.
White van man might be an English patriot who’s not keen in immigration, but he’s also pissed off with insecure employment, with paying through the nose for inadequate housing and that his local has been turned into another Tesco Metro. Is he left wing or right wing? Worcester woman might be concerned about tax rises and standards at her local comp, but she also does voluntary work for a refugee charity and is campaigning to save her local hospital. Pigeon-hole her if you dare.
To win power, Labour needs to win back voters from the Tories, UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and the Stay at Home party. It will have to persuade people who feel let down that it will do enough for them or for the things they care about. At the same time, it must persuade some people who are doing okay, or think they’re doing okay, that it won’t do too much and wreck things. Coming over as more “left wing” and more “right wing” at the same time will be tough to say the least, but as Jimmy Maxton said, “if you can’t ride two horses at once you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus”.
Forget policies that tack to the left or the right. For Labour, the only way through this is to come up with a completely different story about what Britain can be from the one offered by the Tories. Britain doesn’t need a second big neo-liberal party. We have a perfectly good (and rather effective) one already. If Labour wants to keep its place as “the other big party” in the UK, it has no choice but to define itself against the free market consensus which, whatever its merits, led directly to the banking crisis, wrecked European unity and has no answers to the three great economic problems we face: soaring inequality, stagnating living standards for working people and appalling levels of productivity.
We don’t have to lurch to the left or reject the moderate values that have always had a place in the Labour party. But there’s no point in Labour moderates pursuing neo-liberalism any further. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman is right to say that Corbyn’s triumph is “mainly about the strange, sad moral and intellectual collapse of Labour moderates”. If we want a moderate alternative to Corbyn, we’re going to have to come up with one outside the neo-liberal “consensus”. And it needn’t be that much of a wrench. Labour moderates like to talk about aspiration, but there’s nothing very aspirational about neo-liberalism. It’s a gloomy philosophy which assigns most people the status of losers in a global race which never ends.
The failure of the free market neo-liberalism to protect things people value is a huge weakness for the right and for the British Conservative Party, whose rhetoric still emphasises security, tradition and community while, in reality, trampling all over them. But it’s a weakness Labour, and the left in general, has failed to exploit.
Labour needs a vision that joins people’s instinctive “conservatism” — their need for a strong sense of identity and desire to protect things they treasure — with their equally instinctive feelings for fairness, equality and generosity. This shouldn’t be that hard for Labour people – right, left or centre — to get their heads round. Because it’s not just where the voters are, it’s where democratic socialism is too. Social democracy isn’t about destroying things, it’s about building things. And sometimes that means preserving things that we value. Let’s face it, most of us on the left have spent the last 30 years opposing change.
Mixing social democratic values with traditionally “conservative” ideas about national pride and local control makes a powerful cocktail.
Public alarm at the pace of change in our way of life is often dismissed as sentimentality or nostalgia. That’s patronising bollocks and the left should have no truck with it. Whether it’s Routemaster buses, Woolworths, local hospitals, pubs, railways stations and high street shops, or pensions, employment rights, affordable family housing and time with our kids that are under threat, it’s the same global free-market steamroller that’s crushing them.
This means coming to terms with the fact that socialism and (small c) conservatism maybe different but they’re not opposites, and global free market capitalism is pushing them closer together. It’s perfectly possible to build an alternative that will deliver strict fiscal rectitude without hitting the poor hardest (as James Meadway, chief economist at the New Economic Foundation argued recently in this excellent piece). What kind of socialist doesn’t want to wring the last penny of value from the people’s money? And you can make a powerful electoral cocktail by mixing social democratic values with more traditionally “conservative” ideas about identity, national pride and local control, as the SNP have shown in Scotland.
But we can’t do this if people pay lip service to the idea that Labour is a “big tent” while spending most of their time trying to push people out one end or the other. I no more think that Jeremy Corbyn is a Trot than I think Liz Kendall is a Tory; you can’t expect everyone on the left of politics to agree, nor would it be desirable if they did. And we can’t do it as long as we remain mesmerised by neo-liberalism – either meekly following it or just sloganeering against it. Just let it go. We need a serious and coherent alternative to neo-liberalism and we haven’t got much time. Let’s get on with it.
The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon is an insurgency. Insurgencies don’t always involve riots, or people sitting around bonfires for weeks in city squares. Insurgencies occur when people in a country, an institution or political movement refuse to play by the established rules and that defiance strikes a popular chord. Insurgencies feed on their own enthusiasm. Every attempt by the established political leadership to “talk sense” into the insurgents usually backfires and feeds the revolt. That is exactly what is happening in the Labour leadership election.
With very few exceptions, established political leaders are hopeless at handling insurgent movements. They don’t understand the mixture of anger and hope that fuels them (even when they say they do, they don’t). The messages they send out – which boil down to telling people to play by the rules (in this case choosing the an “electable” candidate from among the party’s existing leadership) – not only fall flat, but give the insurgency more fuel. This happens not because people don’t understand the rules – as the leaders usually think – but because people believe they can change the rules. Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s a very powerful thing. It’s a mobilising thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes things happen.
The Labour leadership has got this so spectacularly wrong, it’s becoming hard to see them as credible politicians at all. The über-Blairite John McTernan doesn’t seem to realise that publicly plotting a coup against Corbyn before he’s even won (and threatening “retribution”) only fuels the sense of thwarted democracy and rage against injustice that is driving Corbyn’s campaign. Chuka Umunna calling party members “petulant children” for being angry about the defeats in 2010 and 2015 just makes people angrier still. Alastair Campbell at least acknowledged that a dressing-down from Tony Blair’s spin chief might help the defiantly “unspun” Corbyn, but he doesn’t seem to get that stern lectures on winning elections look ridiculous coming from a leadership that led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row. And even a petulant child could have told Labour leaders that the timorous fudge over tax credits would push even moderate lefties in Corbyn’s direction. But no – on and on they go, piling stupidity on top of ineptitude.
The Labour party is not a fan club. Members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS.What’s wrong with these people? How could they so misread the movement they’re supposed to lead? Did they really think that opening up the contest to “registered supporters” would lead to an influx of centrists and ex-Tory voters suddenly eager to help the party they just rejected at the polls? My 22-year-old stepdaughter has been involved with various left-wing causes since sixth form, but has never been near the Labour party. She has now joined, specifically to vote for Corbyn. She’s not an “entryist”, just one of the very large reservoir of people out there with left-of-centre views who’ve been doing their politics outside the Labour party. Those are exactly the kind of people who are driving the Corbyn insurgency.
And why not? What Labour’s leaders – including the three beardless candidates – don’t seem to get is that Labour is a political movement. It is not a British version of the political machines thrown up in the US to mobilise support for a particular candidate. It’s not a fan club. Party members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS on their way to the green benches. Like any political movement, the Labour party is composed of people who give their time, energy and sometimes their money to a cause they believe in. Dismissing Corbyn’s campaign as a “protest movement” is a stupid way to try to change the mind of people who want to protest, and feel there is a lot to protest about. Protest is about persuasion, and persuasion is the stuff of politics. And isn’t politics what we’re supposed to be doing in the Labour party?
Campbell, McTernan and others like to lecture members about how elections are “won from the centre”. Of course, that cannot be literally true — the Tories are not a centre party and seem to be doing all right, while the Lib-Dems haven’t won an election for a while. In reality, elections are won by the party of left or right which best mobilises its own supporters at the same time as making a convincing appeal to voters who see themselves as neither left nor right.
But the lectures miss the point. The Labour party is not a centre party and never really has been. You can’t take a cow and convince people it’s really a horse. You can persuade them that it’s a really nice cow, that it’s a cow with some very horse-like qualities, but people still know it’s a cow. You can try to turn the Labour party into a centre party, a party which says more or less what it thinks centrist voters want to hear, but then you lose the movement. Because that isn’t politics, it’s just market research.
Politics involves a lot of compromise; that’s inevitable and even welcome. All effective political movements know that. But you have to have a position from which to compromise. What does Labour stand for? Do we accept the right-wing, neoliberal idea of society? How are we going to make a globalised, tech-driven economy work for most people? How are we going to reverse the transformation of London into an investment supermarket for overseas speculators? Are we actually going to do anything about ever-widening inequality and the sharp reversal of social mobility? If so, what? A political movement must be able to answer those questions, and many others too. You may not like the answers Jeremy Corbyn is coming up with, but the other candidates mostly dodge the questions, hiding behind platitudes like “ending child poverty” or trivia like changing the remit of the Low Pay Commission.
Once the accommodation with neoliberalism failed electorally, the movement was always likely to reject it sooner or later. The bloodless electoral calculus of McTernan, Campbell and others would leave the UK without a major socialist or social democratic political party. Whether you like it or not, there is at least very large minority who believe in and want to campaign for the ideas of the left. For the first time in a generation, many of them see the Labour party as a movement that can express those ideas. That is why Jeremy Corbyn will probably be elected leader of the Labour party next month.