The New Statesman Profile - Hugo Young

The liberal conscience of the nation despairs of the grubby hypocrisy of our politicians

When asked what influence he would name upon his writing, Hugo Young said instantly - before the question was fully out of my mouth - "Macaulay". There is, in fact, much in his prose that could be called Macaulay-esque, as we shall see. But in most respects, it is a bizarre choice for the country's foremost liberal commentator to make.

Macaulay was a Whig; indeed, he was in many respects the Whig, the man who gave the Whigs their history. He was entirely a party man, and was an MP (for Edinburgh) for part of his life. His History of England was wholly partisan, constructed as much as a polemic as a historical narrative. Though a liberal in the sense he was not a Tory, he was terribly illiberal in his absolute determination to elevate his party's heroes and abase his party's villains.

This is not at all how Young, 60, sees himself. The Guardian's chief political commentator (he also chairs the Scott Trust, which runs the Guardian) has never joined a party, and though he has had John Biffen in his house and mentions his friendship with the ardent Eurosceptic William Cash, he says that he feels much more comfortable not to have politicians as friends, for it leaves him freer to attack them when he feels it is deserved.

Young, like his writing - aside from the journalism there is the seminal One of Us, his 1989 biography of Margaret Thatcher, and, newly published, This Blessed Plot, a study of Europe from Churchill to Blair - is passionate but detached from party. Except in one respect. He is, as he has made clear in at least one column, a "liberal Catholic". This is, especially these days when agnosticism is probably the common currency of most commentators, quite an engagement. To profess adherence to a faith whose head is understood to be divinely chosen and who is a strong social conservative is to be much more committed than any adhesion to the portmanteau of beliefs that a semi-detached member of a political party implies. Indeed, the recent column in which he confesses his attachment is a curiously schizophrenic one, as if he were unable fully to square liberalism with Catholicism; while making clear that the socially conservative Pope John Paul II poses problems for liberal Catholics, the Ampleforth-educated Young commends John Paul by saying that he is a giant in the witness he gives - "there are certain messages of transcendent wisdom that only an unaccountable autocrat now seems able to utter". Autocracy seems to have its advantages, for "liberal relativism hasn't given us such a perfect world that we can't learn from its opposite". Yet liberal relativism, while it can allow illiberal societies and sects to exist and flourish in its midst, can only do so if it is not challenged by them to the point of a contest for state power and can "learn from" them without betraying its essence.

Young's prose is rarely less than elegant. At times it raises journalism to a precision of expression and an excitement of meaning which this most hurried and sloppy of professions rarely sees. Writing in September this year about Clinton, Young balanced the distaste he has often expressed for the US president with the observation that "the public's calm satisfactions do not echo the raging of the political class" - a sentence of which Macaulay would have been proud. In another September column, on the passing of the Terrorism and Conspiracy Bill, he described Labour's backbenchers as "sacks of potatoes lumpenly arrayed" - a wonderful double use of "lumpen" to echo the lumpiness of potato sacks while putting the word to its literal service as a synonym for an underclass. Other phrases - such as "seigneurial isolation" (March 1997) or "louche cannon" (July 1998) - pop up, giving a sudden surge of pleasure. He can occasionally fall off the verbal cliff; constrained to use "loose cannon" (of the late James Goldsmith, in October 1996) without the "louche", he seeks to avoid the cliche by making the phrase "loose, unbridled cannon", a slightly absurd redundancy. But given that this is high-pressure, deadline stuff, the range is astounding.

The Young approach is to start with excoriation - a bravura approach, which cauterises the hypocrisies, half-truths, ignorances, opportunism, shoddy thinking and dirty dealings which lurk about most politics - and then to commend the move or measure in question as the best available in a fallen world.

Reviewing the recent publication of the government's document on the family, he begins by saying that "the Blair-Straw [Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is rarely mentioned without a curse] picture for British families conjures up a bureaucratic hell. Even for the faithful Guardian readership, where serious citizenship meets active government in happy congress, it must seem thoroughly intimidating". Yet "this is an appropriate document for our times" because "the family is a fading force, in need of all the sustenance that government can give it".

The threnodic nature of the conclusion is not untypical; serious citizenship and active government are both Guardian virtues and his, but they are perched over an abyss. Sometimes, it is as if Samuel Beckett has come to columnising.

There are many constants: a profound distrust of state coercive power is among the most notable, which seems in no way to have diminished. His scorn for Straw proceeds from the Home Secretary's mimicking - as Young sees it - of Michael Howard when the latter was Conservative home secretary. On Ireland, Young rarely lets a column pass without reflecting on the damage the struggle there has had on British liberties; indeed, in some columns that often appears to be the primary importance accorded to Ireland.

He is against the right, but not in a party spirit. Chris Patten, the former Tory cabinet minister and governor of Hong Kong, ranks higher in his esteem than almost anyone, right or left; in a March 1996 column, Patten is hailed as "civilised, educated, large-minded and an instinctive rejecter of doctrinal nostrums". Here, Young is celebrating a man who took on his party - and, in Patten's case, asserted a principle (of democracy) against the established wisdom of Foreign Office mandarins such as Sir Percy Cradock.

Major must have been tortured by Young, especially because his writing can be infuriatingly de haut en bas. Yet Young, perhaps sensing exactly this, writes one of the most brilliant thumbnail descriptions of him: "It took a long time for him to surmount the chippiness of the outsider, privately fuming against the presumption of the establishment . . . the insecurity that existed at a deeper level - a doubt about his political vision - never entirely disappeared." Major is not comprehensible without this "chippiness"; indeed, much of contemporary and recent British politics is not.

Young's style can carry him, and you, away - into a near ecstasy of disgust for the squalid nature of the political process on which he has commented for over three decades. (Before the Guardian, he worked for the Sunday Times for 19 years.) Though he says he is privileged and insists that journalism - which he had wanted to enter since he was a law student at Oxford - is an end in itself and not a passage to something higher (like politics), he habitually reminds his readers of the degraded nature of the men, women, movements and parties which are his feedstock.

In only one of the many columns I read or re-read did he show his hand - or rather, betrayed a kind of longing for a purity he evidently sees being violated daily. On Christmas Eve 1996, under the headline "Forget politics, the real life is in art", he stated baldly that "there are no heroes in my life and work . . . I cast about for men and women to celebrate and find none." Instead, he must poke about, with evident distaste, in the "dross of argument, the sediment of Euro-rage, the multiple manipulation of truth, the impotence of power". Against these he holds moments from the theatre (Ian McKellen's Richard III, Paul Scofield's John Gabriel Borkman, Harold Pinter's then new play, Ashes to Ashes), from the concert hall (Harrison Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus), or from the cinema (Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies).

Young has been unusually positive about Blair, warmly endorsing him as a man of real, if over-earnest, belief, always (at the end of columns front-loaded with downside buckshot) in command of himself, his party and, for the past 18 months, his country. Yet Young subordinates the political world to the artistic, refusing to come to the aid of the men and women who are his subjects, with the observation that they are condemned by their choice of career to compromising and juggling, to switches of view - and so much of it, increasingly all of it, in public.

There is evidence of a deep disgust. Hugo Young's very power, the unique force of his language, the great good luck we have that a man so talented should elevate political commentary as he does, may be a very significant contributor to the low opinion in which politics is now held. He insists engagement is essential for the good public life. Yet he paints a Stygian picture. It is the contradiction running through the liberal; the darkness behind a font of illumination and delight.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie