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1st June 2020


The physicist Stephen Hawking described the journalist Bryan Appleyard as the closest thing that the British gets to an intellectual of the French type. In his recent telephone interview with British Intelligence Nick Cohen subscribed to Hawking’s view. “We’re not intellectuals and we don’t get drawn into these terrible experiments with the human race from Jacobinism through to Fascism. Oswald Mosley couldn’t win a parliamentary seat, the Communist party could barely win parliamentary seats…we are safe and solid, we might be boring but there’s nothing wrong with being boring. And alongside that Orwell, Priestley and Dickens to an extent….are saying well, we’re gentle, kind people…and don’t like conflict, don’t like ideological visions.”

However, alongside Appleyard, his fellow journalist, Cohen could safely be described as being pretty close to an intellectual, in his case, of a left-wing complexion. Born in Stockport, he went to Altrincham Grammar School and Oxford where he took the same route as many of those he writes about by studying PPE.

After embarking on a career as a journalist in local newspapers in the Midlands he made his way via the Independent to the left-wing citadel of the Observer. He now also writes regularly for the Guardian and Standpoint and has even secured himself a berth at the more right-wing Spectator. He has written five books, largely on political themes.

Until recently it may be fair to say that, coming from the Left, he held the writings of George Orwell in high regard. However, that is not to take into account the seismic psychological shock that Cohen (and many others in the Remain camp) underwent on the morning of June 24, 2016, when the great liberal certainty of Britain’s membership of the EU was swept away before his eyes. To some onlookers he has appeared a changed man ever since.

After four years of infighting, when Boris Johnson’s considerable majority last December confirmed that Brexit will not be thwarted, Cohen wrote an article for Standpoint, in January this year titled ‘The Necessary Death of Orwell’s England’ about England now in relation to views expressed by Orwell in 1940. The article centred around the contention that:

‘Closely tied to the notion of national unity is [Orwell’s] view that the English possess an innate hatred of extremism. If you have ever found yourself insisting the English are decent patriots, not dangerous nationalists, Orwell’s view that the British Army could never instruct troops to goosestep “because the people in the street would laugh” is ready made for you. English patriotism wasn’t based on hatred of foreigners but a “refusal to take foreigners seriously,” he explained.’

Trying to explain and rationalise the psychological trauma of Brexit, Cohen then turns his back on Orwell’s article of faith regarding the English character. All, it seems, is changed for the worst. As proof positive of the change in the English he cites Enoch Powell in the Sixties, the government-destroying “industrial militancy” of the Seventies, the war in Ulster, the miners’ strike, the Poll Tax riots and the collapse of the pound in 1992. After this “conflict, racism and hatred” the recent cherry on the cake has been “the extremism of the Brexit right” and “nativist politicians”. He also cites the more than ten million votes received by another extremist, and an anti-semitic one at that, Jeremy Corbyn.

Too many of the British have become “dangerous nationalists”, and this is how he explains the Brexit vote and Boris’s victory in December. Cohen says: “I think left-wing parties under-estimate the appeal of nationalism. Karl Marx said ‘The working class has no country.’ It’s actually if you haven’t got much your country may be all you have. You rely on your country. You rely on your state. So there’s that … I think that after the financial crisis it could have gone two ways. It could have gone to holding the City, financial capitalism, to account to a kind of Rooseveltian New Deal but there’d been a very, very strong pushback from the nationalist right wing, not only here but in America, places like Hungary, places like Italy to say, no, no the way we respond to it is, you know, ‘Ourselves alone’ and….. concentrate on the nation against outsiders and that won really….partly because many centre left parties didn’t really try it.” 

It is noteworthy that, as with many on the left, Cohen casually assumes that it is “a fact universally acknowledged”, rather than his opinion, that the wickedness of the populists in the USA, Hungary and Italy, and, by extension, the UK, is taken for granted by all sensible people.

Later he returns to the theme of irresponsible nationalism, which he differentiates from patriotism, saying: “I would say Scottish and English nationalism which is essentially…… both Alex Salmond and Boris Johnson have pretended to people saying we can have an independent Scotland and it won’t cost you anything. We can leave the EU and it won’t cost you anything. These things are simply not true.”

A further strand in his argument is a demographic one. He says: “Uniquely in human history, there are more old people than ever before and they are in the majority. It was some time about ten years ago that for the first time the average age of the voter was over 45 rather than under 45. We’ve never had this before. This is the danger of generalisation but it is undoubtedly true that a majority of people over 65 voted in favour of Brexit (I put the figures in the piece) and very unusually compared to the past. In the past age didn’t really matter that much in voting. It did a bit and the elderly were more likely to vote conservative but on the whole, you know, if you were a working class Labour voter when you were 18 you were a working class Labour voter when you were 65. Now age, culture, educational attainment matter far more than class. And again, if you look at the Conservatives’ victory in the last election (again I’ve got the figures in the piece) older people were far more likely to vote for Boris Johnson. So that’s the point that needs to be made first…is that even if it were true that you got more right wing as you got older there are now an awful lot more older people. This is happening across the west. You know, it’s grey power, it’s the grey vote.”

And what’s more, he adds: “Old people are unlikely to be…they’re unlikely to be economically productive,….they are (and I’m almost…I’m 65 myself. I’m not some whippersnapper), they are likely to need vast amounts of money spent on healthcare and on social care……they are less likely to get caught up in new ideas. By new ideas I don’t just mean new political ideas; I mean new ways of organising the economy, new industries, new science and so on.” This brings in a strand of neophilia in Cohen’s thinking.

He explains those who rebel against change do so not as conservatives but as neosceptic, reactionary snobs, adding: “On the whole the tendency in British culture from the end of the 19th century was to be very snobbish …in elite British culture, in literary culture… Of, not of democracy really but very snobbish about new towns, new places, new ways of doing things…you know, Virginia Woolf, all the rest of them… but optimistic writers and politicians said no, no, no no no…it is precisely in, you know, the new towns and new businesses…you know, from HG Wells onwards the motor car, the electric, the dynamo, you know, this is a new country that is being created.”

I mention upper-class John Betjeman’s lampoons of gleaming, Wellsian optimism and Cohen says: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but Betjeman was….Betjeman’s style was the dominant style. That’s what most of the intelligentsia thought. Those who didn’t would say, no, there’s a new Britain being forged here. Whereas now, if you wanted to see what was new you’d go to a retirement village.”

It seems, for Cohen, there is a straight opposition between the good Wellsian neophiles – he cites Harold Wilson and David Cameron in their favour – and the bad neosceptics. It’s almost a class thing.

This suggests to me a kind of reactionary behaviour amongst the elderly so I ask him if he thinks it’s impossible for older people to be wise, benevolent and unselfish, a proposition which he dismisses a little irritably, as obviously not the case. In this part of the conversation he does concede that he’s no “whippersnapper” himself at the age of 65, though Wikipedia, intriguingly, has him at 59.

A blinkered selfishness amongst the British is mentioned more than once: “[There is] no sense of ‘Well, what’s best for the country?’ On a rational level. If you’re for Brexit, it seems to me now, or before the virus, you’ll tolerate anything to get what you want…”

At this point I decided to tax him on what might have seemed to me another way in which he had turned his back on George Orwell. This time I was thinking of Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, in which Orwell warns that “Language can corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient.” Orwell also writes: “The word Fascism has no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something undesirable.’”

I suggested that his application of “extremist” to modern British society and, in a more recent Guardian article, his description of the government of Johnson, Sunak, Hancock and Gove as reverting to “thuggish type” were unjustifiably exaggerated and disproportionate usages in a proper historical perspective. I ask: “You seem to be saying that Orwell is wrong in saying that we are insulated against extremism. Is there any evidence that such extremist influences are in play. For example, among the Red Wall voters is there any evidence that something like that is actually happening? You know, we don’t have people goose-stepping down the High Street.”

In answer to this he said: “Look, do you remember what happened in Bosnia, the massacre of Muslims and prison camps? And an official in Clinton’s administration was asked why on earth wasn’t Nato intervening and just stopping this and the official said: ‘Yeah but you’ve got to understand, this isn’t Nazism, they’re not being gassed. I mean quite a few have been shot, quite a few women have been raped. Most Muslims are not being murdered…it isn’t Nazism.’

“And people there said: ‘Well, you’re setting the bar really very high’. I mean if your definition of extremism is Hitler and Stalin then pretty much anything is permissible so put it like this, would you say that it is impossible to believe that what has happened in Britain is noticeably different from what’s happened in Trump’s America or what happened in France with Le Pen or what happened in Italy with Salvini? You know, we are part of a global trend. We are not as bad as some parts of the world. We’re not as good as others. But to say that we are separate and alone with our own peculiar culture doesn’t seem true to me.”

Cohen’s argument seems to go that, just because you don’t aspire to the dizzy heights of Stalin’s or Hitler’s extremism does not mean you get a free pass on accusations of fascism or extremism. The fact that the majority of British people would find any kind of equivalence wildly disproportionate did not faze Cohen. Pressed further by me on how I simply could not see how the Johnson government could fairly be described as of a “thuggish type” and how this gave me visions of Mussolini goons, Cohen seemed nettled. He said: “OK the thuggery is this. Anyone who is in your way is the enemy. You had that with Vote Leave. You try and bully them into silence. They did it with the CBI, they frankly shut up the CBI during the Brexit debate. They said, when independent economists raised doubts, the only reason they were raising doubts about Brexit was because they were in the pay of the EU. They get into government and Brexit goes ahead. Boris Johnson tries to suspend Parliament, which is the absolute essence of British democracy, to push it through…only stopped by the Supreme Court from doing that and then the Conservatives don’t hold their hands up and say we are wrong, we realise we were against the law. They go into an election with a manifesto promising vaguely to reduce the power of the courts to stop them in future. Everyone went on about Corbyn and the Labour Party trying to deselect MPs. Actually from the point of view of the governing party – I’m quite happy to talk about Corbyn if you want – they forced out at least 20 Conservative MPs who disagreed with them. They put to the back benches an awful lot of the talent in their party which is why we have a very, very weak and ill-equipped government to deal with this crisis. If you don’t like extremism I’ll find another word, er, fanaticism, ideological, heedless, non-evidenced.”

I didn’t ask him if the attachment of this word to the tactics of the Leavers rather than to Project Fear, government and media support for Remain, interference from the US president and so on was completely arbitrary as no  government-sponsored violence had actually taken place.

Later, trawling for the right word, he happened on ‘demagoguery’ to describe better what he had previously called ‘extremism’. I told him it still made me think of Mussolini and the 1930s with the implication that this might be a little irresponsible.

The interview then entered a phase where I seemed to encounter Cohen’s ambivalence on a range of subjects which moved me to speculate about his intelligence. If one accepts that the need for a certain type of Hobbesian and Burkean conservatism is the intelligent conclusion to draw in the political sphere then intelligent people who espouse the Left may, eventually and inevitably, find that their innate intelligence leads them to being doubtful in their heart of hearts about what they affect to embrace. I felt Cohen went on to show these petticoats more than once.

I asked him if he thought the European Project had made mistakes and I was surprised at how unequivocal his response to this was. “Oh loads. Single Currency mainly. I mean having a single currency without having a single government was never going to work and hasn’t worked. And I mean the EU from the point of view – I don’t know if you’re an anti or pro EU paper – it could destroy it, the EU would fall apart. I mean their failure to resolve that. And to sort of lie to people, particularly in Northern Europe to say, look, we can have a single currency without this government distributing funds or something close to that is a terrible mistake and may be fatal.”

As if this wasn’t enough, when I asked him if New Labour’s policy of permitting heavy immigration was what killed the golden goose of the EU for the British he said: “Like most countries in Europe we are becoming an old country, like China which is quite interesting, we’re going to need immigration. The problem with what they’re signed up to, without knowing, they didn’t really know what they were doing…they just…it was the Foreign Office really, they just said we want good relations with Poland, why not let Poles in before other countries in the EU. It was a different sort of thing. They only thought about 13,000 would come. The problem with it in terms of democracy was you couldn’t have an argument about immigration and say: Do you know what, if I lose this argument – say you’re on the pro-immigration side – if I lose this argument we’ll clamp down on immigration from the EU because that was impossible so the problem was it did tie in to racial, including racist feeling, but it also tied into democratic feeling of people just not liking something that can’t be changed. It feels very undemocratic to say, well, whatever you think, whatever you as a country think, or the majority of people in the country think, you can’t change it. There’s nothing you can say or do that will stop immigration from the EU or not stop it but slow it.” Cohen, surprisingly, seemed to have no doubt about the undemocratic nature of the EU.

The only thing, indeed, that made it tolerable was our wise decision to stay out of the single currency. The problem was, though, our unaccountable turning “round and allow(ing), frankly, hugely dishonest and unscrupulous people like Johnson, like Farage, like Gove to…(do what they did)”.

At this point I was on a mission. Having asked him about British extremism and the government’s thuggery I asked him to explain a quotation from his Standpoint article on Orwell. He wrote: “Ethnic minority voters are (equally entitled) to worry about racism and the unspoken codes of English life that mandate their exclusion.” It seemed to suggest a deep-seated and pernicious racism in our society.

Cohen says: “English history is not your history. The culture of our institutions is…you know black and brown faces are never at the top. It’s the exact opposite to pernicious, it’s more our social life, the white people in your organisation only have white friends. It’s the exact opposite to pernicious. It’s just how life is. This feeling that you get that it’s still not really your country even if you were born here. So you had Jeremy Corbyn sounding like a golf club bore saying it doesn’t matter how long Jews have lived in Britain they don’t get our sense of irony, and Matthew Parris in the Times the other day saying second generation immigrants aren’t really British, it takes longer than that. It’s just social, it’s not anything written down in laws or coercive procedures.”

Moving from “black and brown faces” to long-standing European immigrants in the UK of Cohen’s acquaintance, he adopted the anecdotal emotional approach sometimes used by the BBC to make the impact of something like Brexit seem a bad thing. Cohen lives in North London with his wife and son. He told me that Brexit had torn apart the “sense of who they were” of some of his European friends, married to English spouses and with English children, and that, finding themselves “overnight” a kind of ethnic “minority,” it had “cut to people’s souls”. He conceded, though, that “They’re not going to be thrown out” and irritably said - “No, I’m not saying that” – when I asked him if he expected a country not to make changes to its wide-ranging immigration policy on the basis of such anecdotal evidence.

It was interesting to return to his intellectual ambivalences. He conceded that Tony Blair admitted that real socialism was unelectable when he ditched Clause 4. He showed, in a discussion of the less anti-American Euston Manifesto Group of which he was a member that he was aware that the right was always looking for apostates. Cohen adds: “I once came up with the phrase, ‘the Left look for traitors, the Right look for converts’. You know people on the Right are always very, very keen to say people in the minority position on the Left disagreeing with left-wing orthodoxy…ah! We’ll jump on that and then the next stage is we get them to say ‘We’re really Tories’. They’re desperate for that as though conservatism is the only thing that works. There was that kind of interest in it from the Right”

Asked directly if he could see himself crossing the floor, he returned to his orthodox line saying he might vote tactically for a nailed-on Remainer Tory moderate but the answer was no generally because of “the betrayal of national interest”, ie Brexit.

It was well known that he supported what might seem the messianic “end of history” notions where, through interventionism, democratic Western ideas could be successfully exported to Iraq, Libya and Syria. He conceded that he was conflicted, saying: “You can’t just keep a regime that’s committed genocide in power.” But, similarly, he says: “From a British point of view I find it very hard now to justify sending British troops to Iraq.”

His current reading material showed further ambivalence. Careful to signal reassuringly that he could never support Trump, he admitted to enjoying the work of American “small c conservatives” who eschewed Trump like Anne Applebaum and David Frum. This led to a further admission. He liked these people because they were “heretics” who “remain in the church and say the established church is wrong because I’ve been on the inside”. He went on to describe himself as “A left-wing heretic. I understand how the Left works. I can give people, you know: “This is how these people think and this is where they’ve gone wrong”.

Finally, asked about art that he enjoys Cohen cited the photographer, Andreas Gursky, and finished with another little surprise, considering his position at the Guardian: “I’m a conservative in everything except my politics,” he said. “I have rather conventional artistic and literary tastes…”

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