John Cole dies aged 85

The former BBC political editor has died after a long illness.

The BBC’s former political editor, John Cole, has died in his Surrey home aged 85. As editor throughout most of Thatcher’s time at Number 10 he covered stories from the miners’ strike to the Falklands war and the Brighton bombing.

Cole’s career began at the Belfast Telegraph in 1945 where he managed to secure a major scoop by interviewing the then-prime minister, Clement Attlee, whilst he was holidaying in Ireland. Cole recounts, in his memoir, that this interview spurred him on to work in Westminster. In 1956 he joined the Guardian successively as labour correspondent, news editor and finally deputy editor. He moved to The Observer in 1975 before succeeding John Simpson as political editor at the BBC in 1981. After retiring in 1992 he penned many books including the aforementioned political memoir As It Seemed to Me (1995) and the novel A Clouded Peace (2001) set in his native Northern Ireland.

Having a Spitting Image puppet alone is an indication of his importance in Westminster. He was known for his Ulster accent and gentle yet probing interview style. Nick Robinson, the current BBC political editor, tweeted that Cole “shaped the way all in my trade do our jobs.” 

The following is an article John Cole wrote for the New Statesman on 5th February, 1993, entitled "A tragedy in three acts":

Imagination is sometimes defined as an ability to connect apparently unconnected subjects. I hope readers will not find me guilty of excessive imagination in suggesting that the plight of the British miners, the devastation of the Irish punt, and the anger of the French government over transfer of Hoover jobs from Dijon to Cambuslang, near Glasgow, are all part of the legacy of the eighties.

The miners first. I have just been in the South Yorkshire coalfield, preparing for a forthcoming BBC2 programme in unemployment. The miners there are in a desperate situation. Other places suffering from unemployment often do not realize how much painful the experience is for mining communities than for most others. First, they are often geographically isolated, people living in districts that are made unattractive to fresh industrial developers by the environmental devastation inseparable from their trade.

Second, the miner’s skill, perhaps his temperament, make him not easily assimilable into gentler jobs. When the Wilson government cancelled the TSR military aircraft, as a cut in defence spending, in the declared belief that the skilled engineering workers would be gobbled up by civilian companies hungry for such skills, that was not what happened.

I was then news editor of the Guardian and, being of skeptical nature, dispatched a reporter to the Preston area six months later, to find out what jobs the displaced TSR men had taken up. A depressing number of them – the majority, as far as we could judge – had moved out of engineering altogether: to door-to-door salesmanship, milk rounds, the whole range of service jobs.

Whenever more pits close – as, sooner or later, most miners believe they will – we need not even expect to see many of the, in these occupations, or their modern equivalents, like double-glazing. Most of them will remain unemployed, or perhaps living a half-life between reliance and a part-time job as a security guard, which appears to be one of Britain’s most thriving growth industries.

Many miners believe they are paying a political price for having defeated Edward Heath’s government in 1974 and half-humbled Margaret Thatcher’s eight years later. The memoirs, most notable Peter Walkers and Nigel Lawson’s, leave little doubt that, before 1984, ministers were awaiting the miners’ later assault, under Arthur Scargill’s unpredictable leadership, with a large club, down a darkened alley.

A shrewd friend of mine on the Observer once observed of our then editor-in-chief, Conor Cruise O’Brien, a man whose intellect I revered, as someone said of Shakespeare, “only a little this side idolatry”: “Conor needs an enemy.” In other words, he performed best, as a controversialist, when he had identified an adversary whose opinions or behaviour he could engage. Charles James Haughey, sometime Taoiseach of Ireland, was one such (as I would argue) worthy enemy.

Margaret Thatcher has the same characteristic. Her comparison of General Galtieri with Arthur Scargill’s “enemy within” may be notorious, but it reveals much about her way of thinking. She was a reactionary – still is, some would say – not in any vulgar sense, but because she operated most effectively when reacting to something she disliked strongly, like trade union power. Leave out the rights and wrongs of the issue: she needed a target, an enemy. We shall see if she proves as effective, in her afterlife in the Lords, in reaction against Maastricht; John Major will fervently hope that her talent has faded during her travels on the international lecture circuit.

The miners’ strike was the leitmotif in the gathering tragedy, but the overall cause was the government’s drive towards privitisation. What has caused their present misfortunes is not so much the plan to privities coal – which seems, to put it mildly, some way short of attainment. Rather it is privitisation is electricity. By the end of the last decade, it was clear that the consequences for the pits would be dire. Once any matter is left to the markets, politicians are at risk, not least legal risk, if they interfere with that market.

Which brings us to the Irish punt, and the state of the international money markets. Nigel Lawson, in the most enlightening of all ministerial memoirs of the Thatcher period, acknowledges that financial deregulation has consequences that its protagonists never foresaw: “a climate of unusual optimism, the consequences which were greatly exacerbated by the follies of the lending institutions, and in particular the banks . . .” He asks rhetorically: “Was the government responsible for the banks taking leave of their senses?”

The mountain of debt that built up after deregulation has overshadowed the world’s economy in a much more damaging way that butter mountains ever affected Europe. It is a veritable Aberfan of economics, and has engulfed us all in the worst recession since the thirties, causing untold misery in the coalfield I have been visiting, and far, far worse hardship in the poorest nations of the earth.

Attempts by politicians to control the activities of the speculators, through institutions like the ERM, look increasingly feeble against the forces of near-nature they face (in the shape of man’s age-old desire to make a fast buck). With the influence that modern chancellors have over what actually happens, you wonder whether we can afford their salaries, much less their legal expenses.

The Irish punt, so recently fortified by the pledges of a new government, is the latest casualty. Doubtless there will be more. But, one day, the world will have to return to a sustainable system of exchange rates that will allow its commerce an industry to be conducted in a way more rational than the gambling tables of Monaco.

And then we have the case of Hoover, where the French are accusing the British of unfair poaching of jobs, by undercutting other European countries to win investment. This is an issue that will not go away, as indeed John Major does not intend that it should. Ever since Maastricht, he has been engaged in an increasingly vocal campaign to claim that the UK is the best place in the Community for inward investment.

Maastricht was our subject last week, and I will not tax readers’ patience by plunging into its minutiae again. But it has always seemed improbable that the European single market will prove sustainable if social conditions and, most significantly, unit costs of labour in the member countries do not begin to converge. Britain’s opt-out from the Social Chapter may increase Britain’s comparative advantage for a time – and bring much-needed jobs to Cambuslang at the expense of France. 

John Cole in 1984. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.