Time Out with Nick Cohen

In his search for England, Julian Baggini expected to find racism, sexism and fear. He found somethi

Julian Baggini seems a standard member of the liberal intelligentsia. The books he reads, the clothes he wears and food he eats match those of tens of thousands of others. He stands out because he has done what very few of his contemporaries are prepared to do and confronted England. Not by denouncing its government or letting out long sighs about its lack of sophistication, but by living among people he wouldn't ordinarily notice, in an attempt to understand the core beliefs of the England which doesn't listen to the Today programme.

It is a simple idea, and I'm surprised no one has thought of it before. Polly Toynbee and Fran Abrams have written poignant accounts of life on the poverty line, while the Sunday Times wasn't exaggerating when it described Michael Collins's The Likes of Us as an "absolutely essential" guide to London's white working class. There are also thousands of academic studies of the national character - from the British Social Attitudes Survey to Kate Fox's Watching the English.

But Baggini wasn't interested in the poor, of whom there are too many yet who are the exception, nor did he follow Collins by staying in London, a separate country, as everyone says. He determined instead to concentrate on the mainstream English who can't be found on the minimum wage or living in the capital, but among the homeowners of the prov inces. The piles of academic research and opinion-poll findings helped him, but they couldn't give him the feel of England. For that, he had to uproot himself mentally and physically.

He asked the computer analysts who compile demographic profiles for the Acorn marketing company to give him the postcode of the English district that was closest to the national average: the town or network of streets where he could find, in microcosm, the mixture of wealthy people and poor pensioners, struggling families and single men and women that best encapsulated the country. They consulted their databases and told him to head for S66 on the outskirts of Rotherham. Its working men's clubs, as-much-food-as-you-can-cram-on-to-your-plate restaurants, out-of-town shopping centres and local radio stations are indeed typical, but they are also about as far away from Baggini's liberal England as it is possible to get without crossing the Channel.

"Three of the last four constituencies I lived in went Liberal Democrat at the last election," he said, as he tucked into an un-English vegetarian breakfast. "And the Lib Dems only lost the fourth by a few hundred votes. I have been in a parallel country for most of my adult life."

Baggini expected to find sexism, racism, homophobia, celebrity worship, provincialism and unreasonable fears about crime. What makes his Welcome to Everytown: a journey into the English mind (Granta) a thought-provoking book is not that he didn't discover illiberal prejudices in Rotherham, but that he managed to come to terms with and, in a few instances, sympathise with them. For Baggini isn't quite the standard middle-class liberal. His mother is from the Kent working class and his father from an Italian farming family. His Italian side meant that he "never really felt entirely at home in this country", while his working-class background distanced him from the public-school boys and girls of the London intelligentsia. More important, I think, is that he is a member of a group of freelance intellectuals who gather round the Philosophers' Magazine and live by their pens. None has the security of a university job, and all are suspicious of intellectual orthodoxy. (Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, two of Baggini's colleagues, produced an attack on postmodernism, whose title, The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense, sums up the group's approach.)

Baggini's background and philosophical training gave him the intellectual honesty to be as critical of the biases he and his friends shared as he was of the biases of others. Even before he went to Rotherham, he was wary of the thoughtless anti- patriotism that lay behind David Hare's cry that "most of us look with longing to the republican countries across the Channel. We associate Englishness with everything that is most backward in this country."

Baggini told me he had noticed that when his friends went overseas "they always found something to delight in. They would tell me how wonderful it was to share a glass of wine with the old boys in a rural French bar, and not realise that if those old boys were speaking English they would probably be saying, 'That Jean-Marie Le Pen, he's got the right idea.'"

He moved to Rotherham, rented a modern house by a main road, bought a car, and read the newspapers and watched the television programmes his neighbours read and watched. He encountered many prejudices he disliked, but gradually his views on popular attitudes softened. Only the Daily Mail was too much for him. Six months of reading it turned a mild distaste into an unappeasable loathing.

The regulars of Rotherham pubs and clubs deserve credit for the softening. They didn't allow the strange, bookish southerner to sit by himself for long. But Baggini also realised that what he had taken to be idiotic views had a comprehen sible philosophical underpinning, even if it was a working-class philosophy that didn't always appeal to him. His reliance on the explanatory power of working-class attitudes may unnerve some, but his argument seems well grounded to me. Although the polls which report that almost six out of ten people still regard themselves as working-class invariably produce middle-class guffaws, Baggini says you only have to listen to the radio programmes he heard and go to the bars he drank in to realise that working-class culture dominates England. Many people may have more money than their parents had, but that does not mean that working-class attitudes have changed. Central to them is the importance of place.

The majority of the English still live within five miles of where they were born, and the attachment to locality keeps England a communitarian country. They want "local jobs for local people", local radio, local papers and raffles for local good causes. Complementing local pride is the strong notion that you can't enjoy England's benefits without belonging. Baggini got into endless arguments about the Human Rights Act, but his attempts to persuade his new friends that foreign terror suspects should never be deported if they could face torture always got nowhere. The new Labour slogan "you can't have rights without responsibilities" was the view of the English mainstream, he found. "It's an illiberal thought," he told me. "Liberals believe that you have rights on the basis of your membership of the human race. But most of the English aren't liberal. They believe that you only have rights if you are a fully paid-up member of this society. That's why they will be very illiberal about 'Muslim preachers of hate' and say, 'We don't care about their rights. What about ours?'"

Although he met a few real racists, Baggini doesn't see such beliefs as racist in themselves. Instead, he draws on the image of the "hefted" sheep of northern fells, whose instinctive knowledge of where they can and can't graze means they never stray from their patch of land, and uses it to explain the desire of the English of all classes to keep their little worlds intact.

"Frankly, I didn't believe it when people in Rotherham said they wanted immigrants to fit in. That's not quite right. If you go to Manchester or London, there are Chinatowns that advertise their differences, but no one ever says that 'the problem with these bloody Chinese is that they don't fit in', because there's no threat or no perceived threat. The multicultural agenda is that everyone must respect each other, but I don't think that's possible. We need to be far tougher with the minimal demands that people don't threaten each other and must respect the rule of law.

"On its own, upholding the law won't lessen what people call racism because sometimes threats are inevitable. People who have lived in an area all their lives are uncomfortable if the character changes because of a large influx of immigrants. But that doesn't make them racist. They just want their locality to stay the way it was. No one calls families racist when they object to large numbers of students moving in to their street or says that the residents of Hampstead were racist for wanting to live in an area without McDonald's."

He is far less sanguine about sexism. Watching the way women tried to please men in Rotherham clubs and reading semi-pornographic lads' mags didn't make him think that the reassertion of traditional stereotypes was "natural" or harmless fun. There is, he says, nothing natural or fun about a country where most women say that they are deeply unhappy with their appearance.

Baggini refuses to adopt the declamatory style of the polemicist. His writing is refreshingly self-deprecatory. At one point in Welcome to Everytown he says he had to leave Rotherham to visit London. Once in Islington, he couldn't resist the lure of "proper food". He went to an Italian restaurant, ordered pasta, olives and a glass of wine, then buried his head in a book. Minutes later, he looked up to see another man of his age and class come in and order pasta, olives and a glass of wine, and then bury his head in a book. "In Rotherham, I lost a certain sense of superiority I had about food, holidays and the things I did to enjoy myself. I now find it hard to say that liberal middle-class culture is better than looking after your garden, going fishing and watching ice hockey. There's nothing intrinsically less in that than in listening to opera. Some of the world's worst people have been opera buffs."

I was glad to find that he had not overreacted and become an inverted snob. He doesn't pretend that he would like to spend the rest of his life in S66. He's got his world and the mainstream have theirs, and he's not going to play the hypocrite by pretending to be something he's not. But he has relaxed.

After he had finished his breakfast, I asked if he felt more comfortable with his country. "I think I've learned that most people here are fine with you as long as you treat them fairly. I'm very pleased that my book has gone down well in Rotherham, even though I was unsentimental and didn't hide my disagreements. That speaks well of the people I wrote about, and so, yes, I feel more at peace with England."

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom