Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Waiting for the Etonians, Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is one of the most interesting and readable journalists working in Britain today, and this is a collection of his old columns.  It consists mostly of material first published in the Observer, the New Statesman and elsewhere.

Cohen's principal subject is the wealthy but dysfunctional world of late New Labour Britain.  A financial bubble had developed, based on cheap money, crushing asset price inflation and massive levels of debt.  The old, culturally based class system had faded away, along with traditional class prejudice, just as sexism, racism and homophobia had ceased to be acceptable in polite society.  Yet economic inequality had risen, and there developed a super-rich stratum that priced most members of the ordinary middle class out of the lifestyle, housing and opportunities that their parents had enjoyed.

It wasn't surprising that right-wingers placed their faith in the efficacy of the deregulated market.  But what was happening on the left?  Not much, was the answer.  Blairite ministers claimed to have abolished boom and bust.  They liked businessmen these days, and they were more eager to milk the financial sector to fund their public spending plans than they were to plan for what would happen when the music stopped.  Liberal intellectuals sold their souls, falling over themselves to appease the clerical fascists of fundamentalist Islamism on the grounds that anyone who was against George Bush and Israel couldn't be all bad.  Meanwhile, native far-rightists were on the rise as the immigration system broke down, while in the conservative mainstream there appeared a posh young man called David Cameron whose PR was good but who didn't seem to believe in anything much.

A considerable amount of the book is devoted to the problem of progressive writers and activists refusing to defend the left-liberal tradition - the BBC scrapping plans to broadcast The London Bombers because it might offend Muslims, the director general of Amnesty International channelling Lenin in saying that the world's poor weren't interested in bourgeois freedoms, the European left vilifying Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a victim of female genital mutilation who dares to attack Islam from an atheist perspective.  This is Cohen's stock-in-trade, and it gets slightly old after a while, but one finds it difficult to disagree with the substance of much of what he says.

There are some memorable vignettes, such as the BNP's attempt to go looking for votes in the depths of the English countryside, Cohen's stint working in the kitchen at the Gay Hussar restaurant, the left-wing art critics who fawned over Damien Hirst's obscene diamond skull, the trade unionists who drove a camel around the country to protest against a private equity boss, and the TV executives who refused to let their own children watch the rubbish they broadcast. 

Overall, this is an interesting and atmospheric record of a period which has now passed into history - the debates of the New Labour years over mega-casinos, faith schools, David Blunkett, private equity taxation, foreign nannies and even 7/7 now seem almost as distant as Westland and the miners' strike.  It was an era when a progressive journalist could afford to be more worried about banks not paying their cleaners a fair wage than about them going bankrupt and taking the rest of the economy with them.  Après Blair, le déluge.  But all journalism is ephemeral to some extent, and Cohen's writing deserves to be re-read more than most.