Tcha. There ought to be a word for the frustration of a working hack unable to express themselves, during a fast-pulsing, dayglo-coloured political melodrama like this one. I am now in the last days of my formal BBC employment, lacking an open microphone, and will begin at the New Statesman as political editor and columnist in February, and join LBC for a brand-new politics and news show soon after. I’m excited, but in the meantime I’m sitting motionless over my computer, like a skewered deathwatch beetle in a lepidopterist’s glass case, observing everybody else’s commentaries, unable to twitch an antenna of my own.
Gaaa. Hnugh. And also mumph. Frustration doesn’t begin to cover it. I’ve observed the fall of plenty of one-time political bosses: the final tear-stained days of Margaret Thatcher looking vainly for safety on the Tory Serengeti; the agonised rictus of Tony Blair’s smile as Gordon and the Brownites closed in; David Cameron, weirdly, plumply relaxed having destroyed himself with the Brexit referendum; and Theresa May, having been thoroughly Borised in the back.
But never have I seen a prime minister bumping down so many flights of stairs having tripped over his own shoelaces, not once but many times, the victim of so much personal recklessness. It cannot be much fun. But I have found the right word for what’s happening to BJ. It comes from James Joyce’s chirpy Finnegans Wake and describes its hero’s fall. It goes, in full: “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoohoordenenthernuk!” If there has been a better executive summary of the events of the past few weeks, I’ve missed it. A tricky word for headlines though, I concede.
Since I now have a chance to speak to New Statesman readers directly in my own voice, what species of hack, staring around me after more than two decades at the BBC, do I hope to be? I’m not much of a shouter, sorry. But if democracies were made more effective, fairer or happier by the quantity of self-righteous bellowing from empurpled hacks, the UK would be the world’s happiest and best democracy. News just in: it ain’t.
No, I think our job is to listen intently and explain clearly – and by doing that, to give readers a more convincing map of the way power is working. That requires moral direction: a belief in decency, the rule of law, basic empathy, understanding of power’s dark temptations. It means perspective, sorting wheat from chaff. (I remember reading that a modern editor’s job was to separate the wheat from the chaff – and then print the chaff. This occasionally still seems relevant.)
Whether or not the UK sunders; where we find friends in a dangerous world; who our best trading partners are going to be; how we rebuild the public realm, and give shut-out families better chances… these are the prime themes. Philosophically, although I believe the market is a key driver of modern civilisation, it’s only tolerable when moderated by a politics of fairness and environmental restraint – or “modesty”, or “continence”; I’m slightly struggling for the right word.
Whipped into shape
Enough. I’m going back to where I started in the 1980s, with a dog-eared notebook in my pocket and cheap pens leaking on to my shirts. In these pages I’ll be joining writers I’ve relied on for years, but I’m conscious that I’m re-entering a different journalism, shaped by online platforms and start-ups, and given its tempo by the spiky heckling and humour of social media.
Is experience – having a few old hacks around – still of value? I hope so. It brings perspective. Watching the furore about the disgraceful behaviour of bullying whips, I think back to the placid days of the John Major government. I was walking down Whitehall with a very senior ex-minister who had just been fired. A grizzled whip saw us and walked through the traffic to confront my friend: “I just want to say that if you propose to shit on the prime minister, I will personally tear off your effing arms and legs. And then I will shove them up your effing arsehole. Got it?” He smiled, nodded and walked on. Presumably, saying this in semi-public in front of a journalist was the point. Gentler times?
Keeping my ear in
Nine years ago, almost to the day, I suffered a major stroke. As a result, my options for exercise are sadly limited. But almost every day I walk, sometimes for hours, through London. I have therefore discovered audiobooks. The big problem is losing concentration. So, if you stop me for a chat and I tap my ear at you, I am not suggesting you are a lunatic, merely that I’m listening to Ali Smith, or George Orwell, or whoever.
Andrew Marr joins the New Statesman as political editor and columnist in February
Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed