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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Sergey Fydorovich Sokolov/State Museum and Exhibition Centre Rosizo, Moscow/Bridgeman Images
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Fellow-travellers and useful idiots

Western apologists for the Soviet Union believed they were in the vanguard of history.

When the Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky reported to Beatrice Webb that Winston Churchill had told him, “Better communism than Nazism!” she was not surprised. Views of this sort were not untypical of the British ruling elite. But Churchill did not really belong in that class. “Churchill is not a true Englishman, you know,” the celebrated social scientist said. “He has negro blood. You can tell even from his appearance.” Webb went on to recount to Maisky “a long story” about Churchill’s mother coming from the American South and her sister looking just like a “negroid”.

Possibly aiming to change the subject, Maisky mentioned Henry Stanley, the explorer of Africa. At this point Webb became “agitated”, and began talking about Stanley’s marriage to a “beautiful young girl” who came “from a very good family”, while Stanley was a “real upstart, a coarse, uncouth fellow”. In support of this judgement Webb appealed to her husband, Sidney, “whose expression and gestures indicated full assent”. Maisky concludes his account of the conversation with the comment: “The crux of the matter is that Stanley was a true plebeian, and this matters.”

Maisky recorded the episode in the journals he kept of his 11 years as ambassador to Britain, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky and published as The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James ­(1932-1943). Maisky was familiar with the quirks of the progressive mind. A former Menshevik, he was never trusted by the Bolsheviks, or by Stalin. Born in 1884 and growing up in the Siberian city of Omsk, where his Polish-Jewish father worked as a medical officer, he was the target of anti-Semitic prejudice both in Russia and in Britain. At the Foreign Office he was described as “that little Tartar Jew”, and not long before Stalin’s death in 1953 he was charged with involvement in a “Zionist plot” and imprisoned. Released in 1955, he spent his remaining years in obscurity and died in 1975.

If Stalin had lived longer, Maisky might have joined the millions who perished in Soviet labour camps. Stalin’s regime had been eulogised by the Webbs in their book The Soviet Union: a New Civilisation?, published in 1935, after visits to the USSR from which they returned gushing with enthusiasm. In this they were not unusual. Throughout the 1930s – the most savage and bloodstained period in the history of the Soviet state, though Stalin’s methods were only those of Lenin applied on a larger scale – streams of Western fellow-travellers went to the Soviet Union and came back convinced that it embodied humankind’s best hopes for the future. By way of testimony to this ardent faith, the Webbs removed the question mark from later editions of the book.

The Webbs, who founded the New Statesman, had never been communists and had no great sympathy with Marxism. Sidney, a founding member of the Fabian Society, became a Labour MP and served as secretary of state for the colonies in Ramsay MacDonald’s government. Beatrice, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, inherited a substantial private income and thought of herself as belonging to a class that “habitually gave orders”. The largest intellectual influence on her was Herbert Spencer, the prophet of laissez-faire capitalism, who visited her family’s home often and for whom she worked for a time as an assistant. An apostle of the idea of social evolution, Spencer believed the world was progressing towards individualism and minimal government; in his final years, when this failed to occur, he fell into depression. Sidney and Beatrice were also believers in social evolution, but for them it had a different direction. They had no doubt that Soviet collectivism represented the next phase in history.

The gaggles of bien pensant writers and journalists, liberal teachers and academics, radical aristocrats and businessmen who flocked to the Soviet Union and later Mao’s China went to these countries convinced that their own societies were stuck in the past. They believed that only a thinking minority – themselves – could see the outlines of a better future. Plainly, it was these advanced minds that could direct the new society that was coming into being.

The Webbs took it for granted that when socialism came to Britain, they and people like them would still be giving the orders. Anthony Eden – whom Maisky reports as saying that socialism was inevitable – assumed the same. A belief that they would form part of the coming ruling class inspired the Cambridge spies. Describing his recruitment as an agent of the NKVD (later KGB), Kim Philby wrote that he did not hesitate when offered “enrolment in an elite force”. Throughout his long exile in the Soviet Union, Guy Burgess wore an Old Etonian tie along with the Order of the Red Banner that he had received for his services to the Soviet state. For these and others in the upper reaches of British life in the 1930s, it was clear that British imperial power was in decline. Identifying themselves with the Soviet cause was a way of securing their place in the new world order.

Eugene Lyons, a left-wing American journalist who spent the early 1930s working as a Western correspondent in Moscow, wrote in his forgotten autobiographical masterpiece Assignment in Utopia (1937) that the Americans who visited the Soviet Union during those years fell into distinct groups. Some had “a professional interest” in being on amicable terms with agents of the state. Walter Duranty, the British-born Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, used his columns to ridicule the notion that there was famine anywhere in the Soviet Union, while confiding to officials at the British embassy that about ten million may have died of starvation. Described by Lyons as being “curiously contemptuous” of ordinary Russians, Duranty was provided by the Soviet state with a spacious apartment, a large car, sumptuous meals and the services of attractive women, “former persons” from the old regime who had been coerced into working for the secret police. For Duranty, fellow-travelling was a ticket to a kind of life he could not have enjoyed in a Western country.

Others used their visits to showcase their intellect and wit. Lyons reports how in 1931 George Bernard Shaw celebrated his 75th birthday at a banquet in Moscow, which he visited that summer with Nancy, Lady Astor. Giving a speech, Shaw recalled that when his friends heard he was going to the Soviet Union they loaded him with tinned food in the absurd belief that Russia was starving: “But I threw all their food out of the window in Poland before I reached the Soviet frontier.” He had been overstuffed ever since he reached Moscow, he joshed. Shaw’s listeners gasped, then managed a little forced laughter. Even the members of the Soviet elite who had been assembled to listen to the old prankster knew how scarce food had become. “At this gathering,” Lyons writes, “Shaw achieved the apex of cynicism. In any other man it might have been ignorance or stupidity; in Shaw it was a cold and calculating taunting of the audience.”

And yet the largest numbers of fellow-travellers coming to the Soviet Union were far from being cynics. Most belonged to the category Lenin is reputed to have called “useful idiots”: “Professors or liberal clergymen, they were deeply disturbed by the shattered economic and social orthodoxies in which they were raised; if they lost their compensating faith in Russia life would ­become too bleak to endure.” The Great Depression had destroyed their belief in the ideas that governed their own societies, and they desperately needed a surrogate creed. When they travelled to the Soviet Union, it was a pilgrimage of faith.

The great majority of these pilgrims closed their eyes to signs of brutal repression which – despite being cosseted guests of the Soviet state – they must have glimpsed at some point during their stay. Describing the fate of the peasants, Lyons writes:

A population as large as all of Switzerland’s or Denmark’s was stripped clean of all their belongings – not alone their land and homes and cattle and tools, but often their last clothes and food and household utensils – and driven out of their villages. They were herded with bayonets at railroad stations, packed indiscriminately into cattle cars and freight cars, and dumped weeks later in the lumber regions of the frozen North, the deserts of Central Asia, wherever labour was needed, there to live or die . . . The spectacle of peasants being led by soldiers with drawn revolvers through the streets even of Moscow was too commonplace to win more than a casual glance from the crowds on the sidewalks.

Somehow, most Western visitors seem not to have witnessed these everyday scenes – or if they did they soon managed to forget them. Impelled by a sense of honesty or shame, some later reported what they had seen. Arthur Koestler, who had turned to the Soviet Union as embodying a semi-mystical vision of order and a bulwark against fascism, recounted in The ­Invisible Writing (1954) what he had witnessed when travelling in Ukraine, where he lived for some months in 1932 and 1933 and where he saw the effects of the famine Stalin had engineered in that country:

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe . . . At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rags, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a load of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows – infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims.

Very few fellow-travellers recorded such scenes as Koestler did in his superb memoir. An “inner censor”, he believed, stood in the way. After all, what were these miserable peasants anyway? It was irrational sentimentality to waste one’s tears on these ignorant, superstitious and obsolete specimens when a new humanity was being fashioned. ­Koestler soon recognised that this was a fantasy and he left the British Communist Party in 1938. Other fellow-travellers persisted in their quest, some moving on to other countries to salvage their illusions.

More than any particular shift in allegiance, fellow-travelling is a frame of mind – an urgent need to believe that a new and far better kind of society is emerging in some other land. Not all progressive thinkers have succumbed to this weakness. When Bertrand Russell visited Russia to meet Lenin, he quickly perceived that the regime the Soviet leader was building was intrinsically despotic. Writing on his return in The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism (1920), a remarkably prescient book, Russell identified the chief source of Soviet repression as being not the exigencies of the civil war nor the continuing influence of tsarist authoritarianism, but Bolshevism itself: “A great part of the despotism that characterises the Bolsheviks belongs to the essence of their social philosophy, and would have to be reproduced, even if in a milder form, wherever that philosophy became dominant.” He concluded: “Bolshevism as a social phenomenon is to be reckoned as a religion, not an ordinary political movement.”

These observations did not make Russell popular with his fellow progressives, by whom he was mistrusted for many years. He was pointing to a fact that most progressives refuse to confront to this day: that the regime Lenin founded engaged in systematic repression from the beginning.

***

The Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited Peoples, promulgated in January 1918 as one of the founding documents of the Soviet state, created the category of “former persons” – class enemies who were to be deprived of civil rights, including entitlement to food rations. These retrograde human types and anyone economically dependent on them – in other words, their families – had to be excluded from the new society that was under construction. The summary executions of landlords, priests, sex workers and other obsolete groups that followed served the same imperative. When Lenin ordered the execution of refractory peasants in his “Hanging Order” of August 1918, instructing that they be killed “in full view of the people”, so that everyone “for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out”, he had no doubt that this was a necessary condition of human progress.

So was crushing the large-scale peasant rebellion in the Tambov region several hundred miles south-west of Moscow in 1920-21. Peasant forces in the area had fought against the Whites during the civil war. This did not stop the Red Army destroying whole villages, using poison gas to flush out villagers from the forests where they had fled and herding women, children and old people who survived the attacks into camps, where many of them died. Accounts of these events were available in Russian émigré publications and occasionally surfaced in the Western press, but they failed to dent the image of the Bolshevik regime. If Western progressives were aware of such atrocities, they explained them as showing the new regime’s need to defend itself against the forces of reaction.

The ease with which fellow-travellers pass over the casualties of the regimes with which they identify is one of their defining traits. The most inveterate among them do not limit their enthusiasm to any single state. They are attracted by any large political experiment that seems to prefigure a new order of things. Not long after accompanying Shaw on his frolics in the Soviet Union, Nancy Astor emerged as a moving force behind the set of pro-Nazi appeasers that frequently gathered at her stately home in Cliveden, Buckinghamshire.

On the European continent, ­intellectuals who had been communist sympathisers found reasons in favour of the new European order that they saw emerging in the late 1930s. One of the precursors of post-structuralism, the French literary critic Georges Bataille, who some years earlier had been a member of a dissident communist group, delivered a lecture in 1939 in Paris entitled “Hitler and the Teutonic Order”. There is nothing to suggest Bataille was being ironic.

Fellow-travellers may sometimes look like opportunists, but it is opportunism of a particular kind – the belief that the regime with which they identify is being propelled by irresistible historical forces. Yet history mocks all such certainties. Those who embraced the Soviet cause in the 1930s did so in the conviction that capitalism was doomed, along with nationalism and religion. In the introduction to his 1968 account of his years as a Soviet agent, My Silent War, Kim Philby wrote complacently: “As I look over Moscow from my study window, I can see the solid foundations of the future I glimpsed at Cambridge.” Philby died in May 1988. Just a few years later, the solid foundations he admired from his study window had collapsed. Blending authentically Bolshevik methods of government-by-fear with crony capitalism, ethnic nationalism and resurgent religious Orthodoxy, the regime that emerged from the ruins would have been inconceivable to him.

Fellow-travelling did not end with the fall of communism. Many who had believed in the Soviet Union latched on to other states they supposed were in the vanguard of history. For some former Trotskyites, the United States became the emancipatory power they believed the USSR could once have been. According to the late Christopher Hitchens, the invasion of Iraq was only the first in a succession of revolutionary wars of liberation. Possessed by the fantasy that another new world was in the making, former leftist visionaries such as Hitchens became the Bush administration’s useful idiots.

As some of us warned in this paper before the invasion began, toppling Saddam Hussein would lead to the break-up of the state of Iraq and an explosive increase in support for radical Islamist forces. But Iraq was attractive to some who had been on the far left as a laboratory for a political experiment of a kind that had failed elsewhere. US-style democracy would be installed, not only in the Middle East, but in countries throughout the world. Since then, the United States has undergone an unexpected mutation. Today the standard-bearers of a new world order are chafing under the whimsical rule of a would-be despot. The US system of government is struggling to survive on its home ground.

***

Given the powerful psychological needs it serves, fellow-travelling is unlikely ever to disappear completely. True, there are not many candidates for a new civilisation at present. For some, “Europe” – the ethereal project, not the diverse and interesting continent – has replaced visions of socialism; but European institutions are in disarray, possibly disintegrating and at best stagnant and immobile. Some enlightened circles appear attracted by Norwegian petro-egalitarianism; but Norway is small, dull and lacking in the violence that fellow-travellers seem to crave. It may be no accident that many of them lost interest in Russia when the Soviet state became less repressive after Stalin’s death. Some transferred their allegiance to Mao’s China, where the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution answered to a need the Soviet Union no longer satisfied. When the frenzy that fuelled these upheavals passed, many lost interest in China as well.

Russia remains perennially fascinating. But those on the left who defend Vladimir Putin do so more through hatred of their own societies than any virtues they discern in the regime over which he presides, while liberals who rage against him seem more indignant about his crimes than they were about any perpetrated by his communist predecessors. Both groups seem to feel a certain nostalgia for the former Soviet Union,
which may have killed far more people but did so for, as they see it, progressive reasons.

A wistful yearning for revolutionary violence may be one reason for the rise of a later generation of fellow-travellers who identify with Islamism. Apart from the hereditary dictatorship that governs North Korea and a failed state in Venezuela, there are no revolutionary regimes left in the world. Islamist movements fill this gap by combining hatred of the West with Leninist methods of remodelling society by force – a mix that some on the left evidently find appealing. But the glory days of fellow-travelling are gone. One benefit of globalisation is that nobody can imagine any longer that a utopian society is coming into being in some remote corner of the planet.

No doubt there will be some who regret the passing of the large political hopes that fellow-travelling once expressed. But this loss afflicts the privileged groups from which fellow-travellers are commonly drawn more than the shadowy and mute figures for whom they claim to speak. The populations of the countries that fellow-travellers visited were as alien and unknown to them as the “negroids” whose ancestral traces the Webbs and others detected in Winston Churchill.

The principal goal of fellow-travellers has always been to sustain their own sense of having a special place in history. The millions whose lives were destroyed in the course of grandiose political experiments that led nowhere served a cause of which they were unaware – keeping up the spirits of the Western thinking classes.

John Gray’s books include “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry into Human Freedom” (Penguin)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit