Appreciation: Alexander Cockburn

Remembering the writer and polemicist, who died last week at the age of 71.

Once asked why he became a permanent resident of the US in 1973, Alexander Cockburn tersely replied: “Oh, England was horrible.” It was perhaps appropriate, then, that the radical journalist’s death on 21 July at the age of 71 was barely reported in the land he spurned. Though he wrote for a succession of British titles in the early years of his career, including the New Statesman, it is for his columns in the Village Voice (the pioneering Press Clips), the Wall Street Journal and the Nation, that he will be remembered.

His column for the latter, which appeared bi-weekly for 28 years, was entitled “Beat the Devil” after the 1951 noir novel by his Irish father, Claud, best known as one of the finest practitioners of 20th-century muckraking journalism. Though his mother longed for him to become an oilman – “she dreamt of me becoming the vice-president of Exxon”, Cockburn quipped – his father’s radical politics (he was an activist of the British Communist Party) and exemplary prose, alternating between comic irony and lofty invective, provided Cockburn with a model to emulate. Among Claud’s bon mots was the rule that one should “never believe anything until it’s officially denied”. Alexander adopted this gently mocking style, once declaring Gerald Ford to be “America’s greatest president” on the Hippocratic grounds that “he did the least possible harm”. Such qualities are also present in the work of his brothers, Andrew and Patrick, who collectively represent one of the greatest journalistic dynasties of modern times. Patrick, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, is responsible for much of the best reporting from Iraq, and Andrew’s books, including Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy and Saddam Hussein: an American Obsession, are essential chronicles of America’s imperial decline. To this list, one can add Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s economics editor, who is a half-niece of the brothers. But through the range of his journalism and the strength of his political commitments, it was Alexander who emerged as his father’s successor.

Intellectual odyssey

Much of his finest writing is collected in The Golden Age is in Us (1995), an intellectual odyssey in which Cockburn turned his pen to Colette, transvestism, sexual manners and hate mail. His polemics against US and Israeli foreign policy were clear-sighted and often prescient, but his political writing was marred by nostalgia for Soviet Stalinism. Cockburn was at his best when assailing the “lesser evilism” of an American left that excused policies enacted by a Democratic president (in this case, Bill Clinton) which it would never tolerate from a Republican. Yet he exhibited just this defect in relation to the Soviet Union, celebrating it as a “counterweight to US imperialism”. He never recognised that it was a rival empire to be denounced, not an ally to be applauded. Even more egregious was his denial of man-made climate change and insistence that the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen was “quite reasonably exploiting the intense social discontent in France”. To describe these stances as “contrarian”, as so many did, would be to unfairly impute bad faith to Cockburn. He was simply and unforgivably wrong.

Announcing Cockburn’s death from cancer, Jeffrey St Clair, with whom Cockburn co-edited the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch, wrote that his friend “kept his illness a tightly guarded secret”, adding that he “didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done”. For much of his life, Cockburn’s name was indelibly linked with that of Hitchens. Both were expensively educated émigrés who recognised early in their careers that there was a market for Oxford radicals who would say the outrageous things their staid American counterparts would not. Comrades for years at the Nation, Cockburn terminated their friendship after a succession of feuds, branding Hitchens a “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian”. When I interviewed Hitchens for the NS in 2010, he told me that he “avoided responding in kind” out of respect for the rest of the Cockburn family, with whom he enjoyed more fraternal relations. One sensed that Cockburn’s pathological criticism of Hitchens was partly born of envy at the greater fame of a man, eight years his junior, who first emulated his achievements in US journalism and then surpassed them.

While Hitchens emerged as a literary critic of distinction, writing elegantly about Proust, Bellow and Nabokov for the Atlantic, Cockburn retreated into the world of pamphlet wars and quick-fire polemics. But his best political writing was still infused with a range of literary and poetic reference now rare in the industry. Like Hitchens, Cockburn stood in the radical tradition of James Cameron, I F Stone and Gore Vidal. In this age of high specialisation, one searches in vain for their successors.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.