Observer journalist Nick Cohen has been one of the most consistent and intransigent opponents of Jack Straw’s Immigration and Asylum Bill. His weekly "reports on the sinister and preposterous" machinations of New Labour have captured that combination of rage and sheer disgust felt by so many at the continued venality of Blair’s government. As he puts it in his book Cruel Britannia, "Joining New Labour is like joining the Mafia you must first kill what you love to prove loyalty to the capo." Among the many reasons to interview Nick Cohen, two stand out beyond simply his consistency and commitment. He treats the Westminster soap opera with real contempt, and, as importantly, he’s one of a very few left wing voices in the mainstream press (Francis Wheen and Christopher Hitchens alongside) who combines rage and wit in equal measure. In person, he’s as scathing and funny as you’d expect, and as "off-message" as you could hope for.
BLACK FLAG: Nick, can you tell us a bit about how you came to be at The Observer?
NICK COHEN: Well... simply, I left University, started at the bottom with local papers, and downhill from there really! I worked on the Children’s page of the Sutton Coldfield News, the Birmingham Post and Mail, then came down to London, worked for the Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the Observer. The Independent on Sunday was then quite a strong left-of-centre paper in the classic English broadsheet tradition it’s since got a bit wet and essentially, I’m from a generation of people who were 18 when Thatcher came to power, and coming from the north I found the acceptance of the Thatcherite consensus in the media baffling. I’m form Manchester, I lived in Birmingham when the manufacturing industry was decimated, and I come from a radical, Labour family. These days you find that just by standing still you end up on the extreme left.
You’ve talked about becoming disillusioned with New Labour in office, of being a schmuck for believing any of the promises Labour made. Is that disillusion genuine - did you have expectations of Blair?
It was and it wasn't. I was a home affairs specialist when Labour was in opposition. I used to know Straw and Blair quite well. I quite liked them, particularly Blair. And then... you remember all the things they said to you... and you watch them abandon every tiny humane political commitment they made. I was genuinely shocked by them. This government is doing things quite proudly, with no sense of shame, which however far to the left you were, you would have regarded as inconceivable by a Labour government.
What do you think underpins New Labour’s agenda?
There was a brilliant essay written by Raphael Samuel
in the early 80s called "The SDP and the New Middle Class", which could be reprinted today, substituting New Labour for the SDP, and what he talks about is an English middle class that’s gone sour. It’s not frightened of an insurgent poor. The period that began with the rise of the organised working class in the 1880s is over. They’re not frightened any more. They’ve no sense of guilt or duty any more. They look at the people beneath them and just think "if you had anything about you you’d be me." So New Labour represents a set of politics that says the best thing that can be done for the lower orders is give them a good slapping. Get them to shape up. Get them to be like us, stop drinking and eat Italian food! We live in an age where racial hatred is persona non grata, so is hatred of women and hatred of gays, but the one thing that’s absolutely flourishing is class hatred.
It’s clear that that real contempt for working class people pervades a big chunk of the media as well.
In the 30s and the 60s there were quite serious attempts made to get authentic working class voices published, but now if you say in journalism or in publishing "where are working class writers?" people look at you like you’re mad.
And equally, the solution to working class problems, whether it be education or poverty, is to get them to ape the middle class more closely, or get the middle class to move back in and set an example. It’s seen as a moral not an economic or political issue.
I think there is something to be said for stopping white flight from cities, but I think what’s interesting is how much Blair has moved away from even the limited promises he made. The one real promise they had was that they’d increase democracy. Once you’ve got greater democracy, all kinds of things become possible, marginalised voices get heard, minorities get access to power. What’s interesting therefore is that on their own terms, by their own standards, by their own better instincts, New Labour have betrayed themselves. The debate about Old Labour v. New Labour is beside the point. New Labour isn’t carrying on as New Labour. We only have to look at its attitude to official secrecy, the lack of a democratic element in the health service reforms... on their own terms they are failing. I could have put up with, although it wouldn’t have been all I wanted... a Labour Party committed to democratisation, even that would still have been worth having. Even before the election, Peter Mandelson was saying the commitments to a freedom of Information Act were going to have to wait. "What we don’t want is rights to know what’s happening, we just want good people in office, people like me, for example. People you can trust"!
You've got to understand as well that New Labour inside the Labour Party is run as a clique. The majority of MPs, the majority of party members don’t like it. But New Labour is a clear ideological project, so they have to control. Conservative friends of mine often ask, "How do you attack this government from the right?"
One of the issues that’s never addressed, is what kinds of political organisation are likely to fill the vacuum left by Labour in working class areas. Darcus Howe
has just returned from a "tour of the North" for Channel 4 and was shocked at the extent of sympathy for the far right expressed by white working class kids in areas like Bradford.
The 1997 election was supposed to be the most important election since 1979. Everyone knew there was going to be a change of government. The turn-out 72% -was the lowest in the history of British democracy. In one sense, that’s understandable working class abstentionism. What scares me is that we’ll end up like America, where only the middle classes vote and so the parties compete for ever more rightward moving votes. The Labour Party have been wooing the upper middle class and taking the working class core vote for granted. What they’ve failed to realise is that if they can’t mobilise their core vote they could lose the next general election.
Also the nature of the kind of turbo-charged capitalism that we have now is such that whole communities are suddenly rendered surplus to requirements. In the past they’d look to the left, where do they go now? So we’re faced with two possible and equally depressing scenarios. 1) we become like America, with a massive underclass which is politically passive, and you lock up huge amounts of people (there are now 2 million people in jail in America you can now talk quite seriously about an American gulag) or 2) we become like parts of Europe, with a quasi FN on the rise.
Recently, youıve written a lot about the Immigration and Asylum Bill. Tell us why.
Partly because no one else was. Partly because it’s based on a gigantic lie. Partly because I’m the great grandson of refugees and one does get the feeling that if Tony Blair had been in power I’d never have been born. I’m in a very privileged position. I can write what I like, and if something very bad is happening you’ve just got to get stuck in, you’ve got to be relentless. On that issue I really tried. When it went through virtually unchallenged I decided I’d had it with the Labour Party. I genuinely couldn’t vote for them. They’re a bunch of sickos and child abusers really. They’re very good at telling everyone else that they must live up to the bracing standards of the private sector (where I’ve worked for most of my adult life, and where most of them have never worked), but if anyone who managed the Home Office like Jack Straw does, worked in the private sector, they’d be fired.
What sort of response do you get from Labour MPs?
NC: Oh, in private it’s all "keep going", "we’re right behind you". On one occasion I was with a Labour MP who told me, "It’s disgusting what they’re doing, I’m going to fight them in private etc." After our conversation I asked him to drop me in the bar. On the way we bumped into a tall, distinguished looking man in his early 40s. The MP practically throws me into the bar, going "Fuck! Fuck! That’s my career finished." Oh, I said, was that Alistair Campbell? I thought it was hilarious. This is an elected member, a representative of the British people Alistair Campbell when all is said and done is just a boring, brutish press officer.
One of the things that makes your column unique is that it’s not just about you. How difficult is it to write "politically" in the media now?
If you work for the Murdoch press, say, you’d think twice about taking them on. The Labour wonks do try and exert pressure. If you work for a reasonable paper and you’re not dependent on the New Labour spin doctors, what can they do? There are a lot of journalists who have been publicly humiliated who will one day take a chance to bite the hand that slapped them.
I’m very concerned about the decline of radical writing in Britain. The best of English writing historically has been from the left. Something has gone radically wrong if it is somehow considered low class to use all the skills of a writer to use bathos, to use rhetoric, to use irony. Although I think New Labour is an absolute disaster for the country, professionally it’s wonderful for me it’ll keep me in work forever! But seriously, one of the difficulties is that, with the amalgamations of modern business, it’s very difficult for an independent radical press to survive. Where is the advertising which would support it, when the local coffee shop has been replaced by Coffee Republic, and the radical bookshop has given way to Waterstones. To do something like, say City Limits
would be so much harder today.
Every age has a spirit, and the spirit of our age is deconstruction. It sounds absurd to suggest that a bunch of bonkers and boring and obscurantist Parisian philosophers can affect the spirit of the age but they at least represent it very well; so that there are no great causes, no great issues everything is suspect. They might think themselves very radical for saying this, but its effects are profoundly conservative, because all you breed is a cynicism, which substitutes facts for opinion and places a great premium on the personal. So debate gets reduced to journalists burbling on about Irritable Bowel Syndrome or aren’t husbands horrid. That works profoundly against a rational, radical journalism.. It’s a fault of mine that my work tends to depress people. I hope it doesn’t. Firstly, because you can’t do anything unless you see things clearly, and secondly, I think if I can get a bit of fire in someone’s stomach or a mocking smile on one person’s lips, then I’ve succeeded.
"Cruel Britannia" by Nick Cohen is published by Verso.