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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.