How the left always loses. In being so right about so much that has gone wrong, Nick Cohen shows exactly why new Labour has thrown itself in the dustbin of history. But he's not quite negative enough, writes Will Self

Pretty Straight Guys

Nick Cohen <em>Faber & Faber, 296pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0571220037

In his introductory remarks to this exercise in sustained rage, Nick Cohen writes: "As a believer in the basics of news journalism, I try to supply evidence to show how I've reached my conclusions." However, he concedes that he no more tries to be neutral than he does to be comprehensive: "This," he concedes, "is an argumentative book." I have always had a soft spot for Cohen's journalism; he picks his targets well and he goes for them hard. His New Statesman and Observer articles have for years been a must-read for all on the left who either weren't taken in by the Blairite "project" to begin with, or else came to enjoy that peculiarly British kind of disillusionment (a sort of introjected schadenfreude) which comes from recognising that you've been had.

Quite a lot of Pretty Straight Guys is taken up with bulked-out versions of the kind of polemical pieces that Cohen does so well. Here we have compendious resumes of his takes on law and order, asylum policy and the bubble market of the late 1990s. Unsurprisingly, as a democratic socialist of liberal bent, Cohen sees new Labour's arrant hypocrisy and threadbare ideological credentials writ large in the government's response to all these issues: the tireless outflanking of the Tories when it came to appealing to the worst of Little Englander paranoia following the James Bulger case; the bright, shining lie that there was an increase in "bogus" asylum claimants; the venality, ignorance and outright hysteria that allowed ministers in a notionally Labour government to be even more credulous when it came to the corporate scam merchants than the corrupt regime they had succeeded.

From the Mittal affair to the Dome fiasco, from Peter Mandelson's manipulations to the debacles of the PPPs, from Murdoch's sour sweeteners to the Hindujas' hoodoo - Cohen may not be comprehensive, but there is sufficient dirt here for the aspiring student of those eponymous "pretty straight" guys to look them up one by one in the index and then turn to the relevant example of evasion, shiftiness or outright duplicity. The title is a quotation from Tony Blair's deliciously emotional rebuttal of any charges of corruption surrounding Bernie Ecclestone's donation of £1m to the Labour Party coffers. How refreshing it is to read Cohen's analysis of the likely relationship between the Mittal and the Ecclestone "donations" and the subsequent "favours" tendered by the government: "Money was given and services were rendered." Especially when compared with the "analysis" offered by most of the lobby, hacks who have been only too keen to report on the spotlessness of King Augeas's stables for all these years.

No, Cohen hammers nails into the coffin of the Labour movement's hopes straight and true; as he says himself, a good alternative title for this book would have been How the Left Always Loses. But more controversially - and in the end more disastrously - he widens his remit both to analyse the philosophical underpinning of new Labour, and attempt a deconstruction of the left's auto-destruction over Iraq. In a way, there is no arguing with Cohen's identification of a trail that leads from the postmodernist, post-Marxist cadres of Marxism Today and Demos (Jacques, Mulgan, et al) to the pay- per-view policy-making fashioned by the pollmeister Philip Gould, and the elitist anti-elitism of Blair himself. But implicit in the way the book is organised, with its lengthy penultimate section on the raging bull stock market and the Enron collapse, is a linkage between the mania of investors in valueless dotcom stocks and the mania of the British electorate, who invested in the stylish but vapid Blairites.

In fact, Cohen's is a very Marxian take, a resolution of political change into the relationship between economic baselessness and over-toppling superstructure that is strongly reminiscent of all the Trots, Gramscians and soi-disant Stalinists whom Cohen so strenuously anathemises. However, we needn't be surprised by this, because he has set out his stall in his introduction: ". . . as I hope to show, there are elements in the opposition to the reigning order on both the right and the left which are frankly sinister". So, far from being a commonsensical assault on new Labour, all along Cohen has been sharpening his knives for whichever Mensheviks come out of the woodwork once the tsar is dead.

In truth, whatever the inelegant route he took to arrive at it - from Holocaust Day to Hitlerian appeasement - I found his magisterial rejection of the anti-war movement both compelling and central to his analysis of the left's failure. In two words: he's right. Judging by its own values, the British left's opposition to the toppling of Saddam Hussein's vile regime became the very vaulting horse upon which its already vulnerable crotch was finally and irrevocably split. But Cohen doesn't stop there, characterising the left's stance as one of unthinking opposition to all the works of the US's evil empire - from Starbucks to Star Wars. He dares to suggest that, at some numinous point, we began to entertain the idea that our enemy's enemies might not be so bad after all. Hence the unholy alliance of the Muslim Association of Britain and the Socialist Workers Party which dominated Stop the War.

It is plainly wrong to tar everyone on the left who opposed the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq with this brush. No, Nick, not all of us in the anti-war camp predicted a Stalingrad-style battle for Baghdad; and no, hardly any of us lost sight of the repellent character of the regime, which is why - as you make great play of - the huge coalition assembled in the weeks before the war melted away as soon as the air strikes began. Prisoners of our own uneasy conscience, when the choice was between superannuated commie cant and hegemonic hypocrisy, we opted out altogether. However, you have only the vaguest of principles - "Fraternity" - to paper over the realpolitik, while your argument that there is a certain natural justice in the British and the Americans toppling a dictator they originally helped to prop up has all the casuistry of the historicism you reject. As for deriding the leftist predictions of "Vietnam-style quagmire", this smacks of wanting to be right, in just the same way as those Cassandras - such as Robert Fisk - who fervently wish you to be wrong. The jury is out after all, probably for ever.

If I have allowed myself to get a little personal here it is because Pretty Straight Guys is a gut-wrenching read for all of us who have remained engaged with the Gotterdammerung of Blair's premiership. In being so right about so much that has gone wrong, Nick Cohen shows exactly why it is that the British left has balled itself up, and thrown itself into the dust-bin of history. Far from agreeing with him as he agonises that his readers will think he's suffering from a severe case of "negativity", my view is that Cohen hasn't been negative enough. In the end, the contortions he has to go through in order to support a superpower fighting a resource war in an unstable region of the world reveal to perfection the redundancy of the whole Promethean cast of the socialist world-view. Cohen calls upon us to pop the "bubble world" of the Blairites and never fall for it again, but the bubble world is this world, and once it is popped I'm sure another one will be blown, because that's what humans do.

Will Self's next book, "Dr Mukti" and other Tales of Woe, will be published by Bloomsbury in January

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