Spring 1999. A group of very left-wing, very disillusioned ex-pats sit in a dingy bar in Budapest, as above them fly B52s on their way for another night’s bombing of neighbouring Yugoslavia. Who will be the target of the “smart” bombs tonight, we all wonder. Another passenger train? Another embassy, or even some civilians on a bridge? The shame felt as our own country takes the lead in a brutal, illegal attack on a sovereign state that threatened no other is too strong to bear. To make matters worse, all the papers from home seem full of support for this shameful war, with the Guardian the most hawkish of all.
But wait, what’s this? A piece in the Daily Telegraph, of all papers, calling the continued bombing by Nato an “atrocity”, denouncing the “lying propaganda” and calling for the arrest of Tony Blair and Robin Cook for war crimes.
All of a sudden, our mood changes. Who was the writer of such a stirring, heroic piece? A veteran hack from the anti-Vietnam movement? Some crypto-Marxist columnist who had somehow been smuggled past the Telegraph‘s ideological sentinels? No, it was none other than Auberon Waugh, commonly considered the most reactionary journalist of his generation. It was his writing that had so cheered up our little band of erstwhile revolutionaries.
An “Unofficial Auberon Waugh Appreciation Society” was formed there and then. A letter was sent to him, care of the Daily Telegraph, pledging our wholehearted support. We received a reply from Combe Florey. “Thank you for your letter. Would it give you comfort if I suggest you call yourself the Official Auberon Waugh Appreciation Society? I know of no rivals.”
So that is how, to a group of thirtysomething leftist romantics in eastern Europe, Waugh became a hero, his popularity outstripping even our previous idols – George Lansbury, General Nasser and Fidel Castro.
But (pace Polly Toynbee) how can anyone on the left hold in esteem a man who hated socialism in all its manifestations, who was proud to call himself a class warrior and who, in 1984, suggested the police offer a £50 bounty for every miner’s scalp, thus saving redundancy payments and “giving the unemployed of Liverpool a chance to earn a little more beer money”?
The first answer is that, by lampooning the left’s most ludicrous and humourless excesses, he provided an invaluable service to the longer-term interests of the movement. In the Guardian in 1993, Philip Norman, a long-term Waugh adversary, wrote that, “far from being a bulwark against political correctness, Waugh’s writings give it precisely the ammunition it needs to justify itself”. Wrong way round, Norman. Those on the left who couldn’t see the joke and laugh along with the funniest satirist in the English language since Swift demonstrated the very boorishness Waugh set out to ridicule.
G B Shaw once remarked: “We should have had socialism already, but for the socialists.” Douglas Jay was a case in point. In 1939, Jay wrote: “In the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than people know themselves.”
Waugh saw it as his life’s work to lampoon such outrageous pomposity. At first, he thought politicians to be merely self-important and silly, but it was his experience of the machinations of the Labour government during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s that convinced him of their innate wickedness, too. “In their quest for power and self-importance,” he wrote, “to compensate for whatever feelings of social inadequacy or sexual insecurity, they are prepared to perpetrate something which is hard to distinguish from mass murder, if they think they can get away with it.”
As a result, countless “power-mad” politicians suffered from Waugh’s poison pen, starting with the “bully” Richard Crossman and finishing, 30 years later, with the “twerpish” Tony Blair. Yet those politicians who Waugh felt were genuinely activated by nobler motives than the desire to boss the rest of us around – such seemingly disparate figures as Eric Heffer, James Callaghan, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the “fragrant” Lady Olga Maitland and, in later days, the “saintly” Michael Foot – received different treatment.
Waugh opposed socialism because socialists always seemed to want to ban things or to discourage people from activities they enjoyed, such as hunting, boxing, drinking or smoking. He was first and foremost a libertarian, who felt as out of place with the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade at the Tory party conference as he would have done at a strike committee of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Coloured by his experience of the Fleet Street print unions, he was sceptical of the idea that unions were the blueprints for building the caring, sharing socialist utopia. Similarly, he doubted that the welfare state and transfer payments would in themselves produce kinder, nicer people. While Ferdinand Mount may have gone too far in describing Waugh as a “prophet of a generation”, it is surely true that Waugh helped to provoke a critical and much-needed self-analysis on the left; at the very least, he guaranteed that there were no taboo topics.
The other major reason why I believe Waugh can be held up as a hero of the left was his consistent opposition to the US/British “world policeman” foreign policy role that developed after the end of the cold war. Nato may once have been necessary but, in Waugh’s eyes, after the Berlin Wall came down it served no useful purpose, and its metamorphosis into a crusading “human rights” war machine left him mortified. Being sceptical of all politicians, Waugh was not fooled by the war-mongering hysteria of the Gulf war. He wrote: “I have stuck resolutely to my thesis that there is no Gulf crisis, it has all been cooked up by self-important politicians.”
Over the following decade, he was equally unimpressed by British and American justifications for sanctions against Iraq. In 1998, he wrote: “How can any intelligent person be expected to believe that a country of 15 million people, mostly impoverished desert dwellers, poses a threat to world peace?” In 1999, the “moral imperialism”, as Waugh saw it, went into overdrive with the bombing of Yugoslavia.
It took a man regarded as the most conservative columnist of his generation to see through the “lying propaganda” that preceded the campaign to bomb a developed European country back to the Stone Age. In April 1999, very few people were brave enough to state openly that Serb “atrocities” had been “deliberately exaggerated”. Waugh said it. And we are still waiting to see the evidence that a quarter of a million Albanians were indeed killed by Yugoslav forces, as British and American officials claimed.
For all his Private Eye diary entries, rants about miners and affected snobbery, Waugh did not see humanity divided along class lines. “My grand philosophical conclusion at the end of the day,” he wrote, “is that humanity does not divide into the rich and poor, the privileged and the unprivileged, the clever and the stupid, the lucky and the unlucky, or even the happy and the unhappy. It divides into the nasty and the nice. Nasty people are humourless, bitter, self-pitying, resentful and mean . . . saints may worry about them and even try to turn their sour natures, but those who do not aspire to saintliness are best advised to avoid them whenever possible, and give their aggression a good run for its money whenever it becomes unavoidable.” Waugh took the latter course, making it his life-work to give aggression a good run for its money, whether it came from politicians, union leaders or military alliances. Hero of the left or not, may he rest in peace.