Victims of vitriol
Nick Cohen Verso, 247pp, £16
Nick Cohen once wrote that I was the only new Labour person you could have a drink with. Ploughing through this diatribe, I realise what a compliment that was. He doesn't have a good word to say about anyone or anything connected to "Master Tony". I doubt that either his readers or his employers mind: polemic is what they pay for. Yet such a blinkered viewpoint weakens his case. Jack Straw is slated remorselessly, yet no mention is made of, for example, his abolition of the "primary purpose rule", which used to devalue and wreck many mixed-nationality marriages. Gordon Brown gets a good going over, but the New Deal and his covert redistribution merit no mention. You won't read here about David Blunkett's literacy hours, just his "outdated Thatcherism".
Cohen believes that "on any issue apart from constitutional reform and Europe, you can predict what Labour ministers will do by imagining what their Tory counterparts would have done". You'll remember, of course, Norman Tebbit bringing in the minimum wage and the legal right to join a trade union, Nigel Lawson taxing the pension funds so that he could raise child benefit and Margaret Thatcher's pioneering work on social exclusion. Rather than portray the government as it really is - sometimes wrong but often right, if over-cautious and unnecessarily covert - Cohen gives us an incomplete picture.
To practise what I am preaching requires me to offer some praise for this collection of Cohen's recent writings. Occasionally he reveals or investigates a genuinely startling fact. I didn't know, for instance, that DeAnne Julius, a Brown appointment to the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee (which sets interest rates), is not only American but used to work for the CIA. Neither was I familiar with the extraordinary tale he tells about the National Blood Tranfusion Service.
Cohen is skilled at taking apart the myths that our apparently diverse but actually largely homogeneous media create out of the news. The death of Princess Diana offers him one such target; Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, another. Indeed the media come a close second to new Labour in Cohen's demonology. There is one highly enjoyable outburst at Newsnight's editors that easily matches the vitriol poured on, for example, Harriet Harman ("What wild man would have invented her?" he asks en passant). Cohen can certainly turn a phrase, but his humour is too petulant - it suffers from the same lack of generosity of spirit that mars the rest of what he writes.
As a loyal Observer man, Cohen tells the authorised version of the Lobbygate scandal of last summer, which resulted in my forced life change. This isn't the place for my rebuttal, but I must correct Cohen when he claims that "Draper was given an early copy by the Mirror of their front page [which alleged that Greg Palast was a liar] to spring on the Observer during Newsnight". In fact I'd borrowed the paper from one of the show's researchers. A small point, but one, I feel, that shows Cohen's temptation to suspect conspiracy before cock-up or even chance: I wonder to what extent that tendency infects the rest of his theories.
Running through the collection is Cohen's contempt for Blair's cosying up to the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch. Each of the government's pro-Murdoch decisions is picked over, though not its decision to refer Murdoch's takeover of Manchester United to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Every bit of Campbell spin is taken at face value. It is this fixation with the interface between the media and politics that is Cohen's biggest weakness. It reveals him, ironically, to be a victim of what he so despises: government spin.
At the height of Lobbygate I met Cohen and reminded him about his comments regarding having a drink with me. I asked what I had done to deserve what I was going through. Did he really believe I was corrupt? He replied that he didn't. I asked him how, in that case, he could justify what had happened. He looked me straight in the eye and said: "Because, Derek, you're a Tory." I'm not, Nick, and neither is Tony Blair. Don't make the mistake of believing the hype.
If he saw through the no-tax-rise pledge to Brown's redistributive working families tax credit, or got to grips with what the Social Exclusion Unit is beginning to do with problem estates, he might be forced to tell a different story, and that would spoil his fun.
It would be cheap and unfair to ask Cohen for his alternative: he is a columnist, not a politician, but I couldn't help wondering about his own ideas while I read yet another condemnation of someone else's. Finally we are given a clue (buried on page 238), but it's such a surprise that I had to read it three times to make sure it said what I thought it did: "I won't bore you by discussing the abandoned pledges to redistribute wealth, end American control of foreign policy and renationalise the utilities. We all know these were impossible and, on mature reflection, undesirable notions that Mandelson was right to fight." I examined the quote and its context for signs that it was meant ironically but I could see none.
Leave aside utilities and the US. The first aspiration was my reason for joining the Labour Party and is my reason for remaining in it. We have a government that has started to deliver on it. It was with some pleasure that I realised, despite this book's detailed attacks on policies and personalities, that I am more radical than the author.