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Twilight of the postwar era

This Brexit-focused election is just one milestone in a long and complex relationship between the UK and the EU.

On 25 March the European Union celebrated its 60th birthday in Rome. Of the 28 members, only the United Kingdom declined to attend, signalling, to quote one senior EU diplomat, that it didn’t think the occasion was “appropriate for us”. The Daily Express called this a blatant “snub” to Brussels.

On 29 March Theresa May sent her “Dear Donald” letter – not, of course, to that dear Donald but to “President Tusk” at the EU in Brussels. It was delivered by a senior British diplomat with an antique and strained politesse reminiscent of his predecessors in Berlin in August 1914 and September 1939.

On 18 April the PM declared that it was in the national interest to hold a snap general election on 8 June, having five times in person or through official sources denounced the idea of going to the country before the set date in 2020.

On 29 April, a month after the PM’s letter, Donald Tusk secured agreement from the remaining 27 member states for the EU’s negotiating guidelines.

The following day the press reported a total face-off between May and Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, and EU negotiators at a Downing Street dinner. She was living “in a different galaxy”, Juncker is said to have exclaimed. May dismissed the story as “Brussels gossip”. But then, on 3 May, in an address outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister hit back, accusing senior EU politicians and officials of meddling in the British election campaign.

Whom you believe depends, as usual, on which side of our national chasm you are standing. Of one thing we can be sure. The spin and the propaganda will go on remorselessly, day after day, for years to come, as this country tries to talk its way out of a European union in which it has never felt at home. To keep our bearings amid the dizzying intergalactic spin, it is worth taking a longer view. Because history matters in this debate and few of our “leaders” seem to have any historical perspective.


At 60 the EU is a senior citizen – rather stiff in the joints, grossly overweight and often a bit of a bore. It’s hard now to recall the heady hopes that its birth aroused. After two ruinous wars in three decades, many western European leaders were determined to escape from the vortex of belligerent nationalism.

Six countries signed the original Treaty of Rome in March 1957 to set up the European Economic Community. The EEC was a common market and customs union between Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and two defeated Axis powers from 1945 – Italy and West Germany. Britain could have been present at the creation; in fact, most of the six wanted us to join. But then, as now, the message was: “We don’t think it is appropriate for us.”

In part, the motives behind founding the EEC were economic. Hard borders and high tariffs would hamper recovery after the war. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had already formed the Benelux customs union in 1948. They were also natural trading partners with Germany, sharing the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta, and Germany had vied with France for decades over the mineral resources of the Saar and the Ruhr. Now the six countries decided to pool these vital assets. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952 was a stepping stone to the Treaty of Rome.

None of these states had abandoned the pursuit of national interests; rather, they were going about it in less confrontational ways. Electorates, still haunted by the Depression of the 1930s, now expected their governments not only to ensure order and security but also to stimulate growth and provide welfare. In these circumstances, some erosion of national sovereignty seemed necessary, even desirable. Prosperity wasn’t a zero-sum game, built on hard-nosed “us first” policies, but would be fostered by calculated yet enlightened interdependence. For the modern state, in short, absolute sovereignty could not be an end in itself.

That said, the essential imperative of European integration was not economic but political. For France and Germany, 1914 and 1939 were just the most recent manifestations of their bloody past, a cycle of wars that stretched back to the days of Bismarck, Napoleon and Louis XIV. Sedan 1870, Leipzig 1813, Jena 1806, Valmy 1792, Turckheim 1675 – the victories were emblazoned on public monuments and celebrated in school textbooks, the defeats quietly forgotten. ­European integration offered a chance for the French and the Germans to break free from centuries of tit-for-tat conflicts; a belated acceptance of the dictum “If you can’t beat them, join them”.

The Benelux countries were caught in the jaws of that Franco-German antagonism: whenever the two big beasts bit on each other, the three little ones felt the pain. ­Italy, the other founding member, was – like West Germany – desperate to jettison its pariah status from the Fascist era. So Rome 1957 served as a belated peace treaty, drawing a line under the Second World War for western Europe.

This zeal to transcend hard nationalism is seen most strikingly in the life of Robert Schuman, the man now celebrated as the “Father of Europe”. Born in 1886, Schuman grew up in Luxembourg but was educated at German universities and practised law in the city of Metz, in Lorraine – then part of Germany thanks to its victory in 1870-71. When the next war broke out in 1914, he was conscripted into the kaiser’s army: only medical problems saved him from having to fight against the French.

In 1919 France recovered Alsace and Lorraine, so Schuman became a French citizen and got into French politics. From 1942 to 1945 he fought in the wartime Resistance and then, amid France’s postwar kaleidoscopic politics, served variously as finance minister, prime minister and foreign minister. It was Schuman’s celebrated declaration of 9 May 1950 that paved the way for the ECSC and the Treaty of Rome.

Today the “Schuman roundabout” lies at the heart of the EU quarter in Brussels – an apt memorial, because his experience of the (un)merry-go-round of belligerent nationalism inspired his commitment to European integration. He was not alone. The West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer (born 1876) was a Rhinelander from Cologne who served as that city’s mayor from 1917 to 1933, until he was sacked by the Nazis. Over the years he had in turn chafed at Prussian domination of the Rhineland, feared French annexation, and endured two stretches of British military occupation.

The Italian premier Alcide De Gasperi (born 1881) had started his political life in the Austrian parliament before 1914, when his homeland, Trentino/South Tyrol, still belonged to the Habsburg empire. After the region was transferred to Italy in 1919, De Gasperi resumed his political career not in Vienna but in Rome, opposing first the Fascists and then the Communists.

The early lives of these three men along the shifting borderlands of war-torn Europe brought home to them the suicidal futility of hard nationalism. They also shared a profound sense of Catholic Europe, extending back through the Holy Roman empire to the era of Charlemagne.

It was from this historical platform that Schuman approached European integration. “If we don’t want to fall back into the old errors in dealing with the German problem,” he said, “there is only one solution: that is the European solution.” Coal and steel were an ideal starting point because they were double-edged – vital for industrial growth but also for waging war. Surrendering national control over these critical assets could enhance prosperity and peace.


The British approach to “Europe” was very different. In the mid-20th century Britain still saw itself as a global power. The sterling area took half of all British exports: western Europe, struggling to recover from the war, less than a quarter. In 1951 British industrial production equalled that of France and West Germany combined. And although Britain worked closely with France in 1947-49 over the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty, its engagement with the Continent had clear limits.

“Our policy should be to assist Europe to recover, as far as we can,” senior British civil servants advised in 1949. “But the concept must be one of limited liability. In no circumstances must we assist them beyond the point at which the assistance leaves us too weak to be a worthwhile ally for USA if Europe collapses . . .”

“Limited liability” was a philosophy rooted in Britain’s experience of the war – also markedly different from that of the Six. In May and June of 1940, Germany conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, with Italy jumping in to grab some of the spoils. That summer is now engraved in British national mythology. It was immortalised in David Low’s Very Well, Alone cartoon for the Evening Standard, depicting a pugnacious Tommy breathing defiance to the world from a rock in storm-tossed seas.

Victory was eventually achieved not with the Continentals, who seemed to be either foes or failures, but in alliance with those whom Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples” – above all, the United States. From this perspective, “sovereignty” clearly worked: we successfully defended our iconic southern border, the white cliffs of Dover, and gained ultimate victory. Only those who had been defeated (in 1940 or 1945) would imagine surrendering any national powers to a higher authority.

In 1950, therefore, when the Labour cabinet decided that the Schuman Plan was not appropriate for us, it was following the majority view in Whitehall and Westminster. Ernest Bevin, the ailing but still doughty foreign secretary who had led Britain’s drive for closer intergovernmental co-operation with France in the 1940s, had no time for the dread word “federalism”. In his inimitable phrase, “If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out.” Pressed by the Americans to take these ideas more seriously, he questioned how he could go to his London dockland constituents in Woolwich, blitzed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, and explain that the Germans would help them in a war with Russia. As for France, he sniffed, “the man in the street, coming back from a holiday there, was almost invariably struck by the defeatist attitude of the French”. Great Britain, he exclaimed, was “not part of Europe”; she was “not simply a Luxembourg”.

This was a bipartisan attitude, endorsed by the Tories when they regained office in 1951. Churchill conjured up the image of three overlapping “circles” of global power, with Britain involved in each but not confined to any: the Commonwealth and empire; the “English-speaking world”; and, as he put it to the cabinet in November that year, “United Europe, to which we are a separate, closely and specially related ally and friend”. He and his successor Anthony Eden welcomed European integration for “them”, not “us” – as a way of reconciling France and Germany. After the Six embarked in 1956-57 on talks in Brussels about further integration, the British sent not a government minister but a Board of Trade official, and then merely as an “observer”.

The accepted wisdom in London remained that Britain’s trading interests were global and that a protectionist European bloc would be dangerous. Yet that kind of common market was not a foregone conclusion. Britain had a powerful potential ally within the Six in the form of West Germany, and especially its influential economics minister, Ludwig Erhard.

Almost as much as London, Bonn’s trading interests were global: 40 per cent of its exports went beyond Europe and much of West Germany’s European trade was outside the Six, with Austria, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the UK. Like the British, Erhard wanted a reduction of global tariff barriers to promote free trade, rather than the high-tariff, protectionist bloc favoured by Paris to defend France’s flabby economy. Yet a common market was inconceivable without the French, and Chancellor Adenauer – focused on postwar reconciliation – insisted that politics mattered more than economics. Erhard was told to get the best deal he could as long as France was “in”.

So that left the French able largely to dictate their terms. Among these were a steep external tariff, inclusion within the EEC of France’s overseas territories, acceptance across the Six of France’s high welfare payments and the development of a Common Agricultural Policy (Cap), which subsidised inefficient farming. By 1970 the Cap consumed 70 per cent of the EEC budget. But, as a senior Italian official observed ruefully, “Europe cannot organise without France and, to get her in, prices must be paid which may seem exorbitant.”

What would have happened if Britain had been fully engaged in these negotiations from the start? Might it have strengthened Erhard’s hand and helped forge a strong
Anglo-German axis in favour of a looser, more open free-trade area? That would have put pressure on Paris to accept London and Bonn’s terms, or be left out in the cold. In which case European integration could have developed along very different lines, with a Franco-German-British triangle operating in creative tension at the heart of the new Europe in an EEC that, in effect, would have been 3 + 4. A tantalising “what if”, but it would have required a very different attitude
in Britain towards its future and its past.


And so the EEC was born on New Year’s Day 1958 with six founder members, not seven. The British had been completely wrong-footed. In 1950 they expected Schuman’s pipe dream to go up in smoke; they were equally complacent about the Brussels talks in 1956-57; and they repeated the mistake yet again in assuming it would take years for the EEC to become a reality. Instead, not only was the EEC now a fact, but the Six made rapid progress in dismantling tariff barriers and agreeing the basics of the Cap. By 1961 they were seriously debating political union, or at least a common foreign policy.

London struggled to believe that those despised Continentals, who in their various ways had botched the Second World War, could bury the hatchet and work together. British complacency, even arrogance, has aptly been called the “price of victory”. And we’ve been paying the bill ever since.

Once the Six was up and running, there was a grave danger of Britain being marginalised. The European community threatened
to become “the only Western bloc approaching in importance the Big Two – the USSR and the United States”, a senior Whitehall committee warned in 1960. Aside from the economic damage that would ensue, “if we try to remain aloof from them” Britain would “run the risk of losing political influence and of ceasing to be able to exercise any claim to be a world Power”. The economic case for membership was still finely balanced: commercial and emotional ties with the Commonwealth, strengthened by the war, remained strong. Yet, for Harold Macmillan, like Adenauer in 1956, politics took precedence over economics. In August 1961 his government applied to join the EEC.

But the price of victory kicked in again. Charles de Gaulle had not forgotten or forgiven Roosevelt and Churchill for treating his Free French as second-class members of the wartime alliance. A fierce nationalist, he accepted the European project but sought to turn it to France’s advantage, or his conception of this. Crucial to his strategy was keeping Britain out of the EEC.

“My dear chap, it’s very simple,” the French agriculture minister told his British counterpart. “At the moment, with the Six, there are five hens and one cock. If you join, with other countries, there will be perhaps seven or eight hens. But there will be two cocks. Well, that is not so pleasant.”

Determined to rule the roost, de Gaulle blocked first Macmillan’s application to join and then Harold Wilson’s. By the time he retired and Edward Heath had negotiated terms of entry, 15 years had elapsed since 1 January 1958. The original deal-making among the Six had set hard, to their advantage. Any new member had to accept the club rules as given: the “acquis commun­autaire”, in Eurospeak. Worse still, in 1973, just months after Denmark, Ireland and the UK had joined the community, the bottom fell out of the world economy with the oil crisis, recession and stagflation, making it nigh impossible amid all the crisis management to force the EEC into reform as Heath had hoped. The good ship Europe had been launched on the high tide of postwar prosperity. But as the Six became the Nine, that tide began to ebb. We have never had it so good – ever again.

Since the 1970s and Britain’s “entry” into Europe, successive prime ministers have tried to undo the damage caused by their aloof predecessors. Most have done so “alone” – in 1940 mode – rather than working to form alliances with reform-minded colleagues on the Continent. In particular, as in the mid-1950s, they failed to build creative partnerships with the Germans.

Margaret Thatcher was a notable example. Her cantankerous “handbagging” secured rebates on British budget contributions in excess of what probably could have been obtained by “normal” diplomacy, but it alienated many of her European colleagues. And her visceral suspicion of the Germans, dating back to the Second World War, poisoned relations with Bonn. “She doesn’t really believe that there’s any such thing as useful negotiation,” observed Sir Nicholas Henderson, a high-ranking British diplomat. “She doesn’t see foreign policy as it is, which is a lot of give and take.”

Yet Thatcher was only the extreme case. Even prime ministers who were more “pro-Europe”, such as John Major and Tony Blair, were hamstrung by domestic politics – meaning both the rooted Euroscepticism of Tory backbenchers and also the tabloids’ determination to treat every encounter with “Europe” as a replay of old battles. Woe betide any British PM who returned from Brussels without being able to proclaim victory in another Waterloo (though the 1815 battle was won in tandem with the Germans, plus Dutch and Belgian support).

The Brexit frenzy is only the latest round in that story. Even on the Remain side, the Cameron-Osborne campaign – a breathtaking blend of arrogance and incompetence – chose to make its case almost entirely by economic scaremongering about the dangers of Leave (through “Project Fact”, aka “Project Fear”), rather than highlighting positives of the European project, especially its enduring contribution to postwar peace.

Of course, the EU has often been its own worst enemy. Reform has been slow: the Cap, for instance, accounted for 73 per cent of total EU spending as late as 1985 and did not fall below 40 per cent until 2013, still a remarkable figure for one of the most industrialised regions of the world. Institutionally, the bureaucracy is flabby; financial control is weak; decision-making is ponderous; the European Commission frequently locks horns with the European Council (the heads of government); and the persistent “democratic deficit” has exacerbated a popular sense of alienation.

Repeatedly, too, politics has trumped economics, particularly over the question of enlargement. In the 1980s the Nine ­became 12 in order to embrace three underdeveloped countries that had recently thrown off authoritarian regimes: Greece, Spain and Portugal. In the 1990s the euro was driven not just by the ambition of Jacques Delors but by the determination of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl to anchor the financial and industrial power of a unified Germany firmly in European structures – updating, if you like, Schuman’s vision. And since 2000, the EU has welcomed in from the Cold (War) those countries of eastern Europe that were anxious to escape the Russian bear hug. All these politically inspired moves have come at an economic price. To be sure, the EU28 is far more truly “European” geographically, but the original Six (apart from southern Italy) had a coherence as developed economies and functioning democracies that today’s mixed bag of members conspicuously lacks. Yet the EU project has continued to be animated by aspirations for close economic and political union that date from the 1950s.


Sixty is a ripe age. Many institutions do not survive that long and the EU (like Nato, founded in 1949) is painfully aware of the need to think imaginatively about its form and direction. The “Future of Europe” was firmly on the menu even at the Rome birthday party. On 29 March 2017 the UK, by contrast, began Year Zero – reborn into a brave new, Britain-shaped world, if you believe the Prime Minister; tumbling into the abyss, if you heed remaindered Remainers. Now Old EU@60 is about to meet New UK@0 for a long and bruising battle.

The stakes are high on both sides. Brussels is in no mood to let Britain off lightly: an easy exit would encourage other waverers and jeopardise the whole European project. Across the Channel, if May puts politics before economics (“control” of borders over access to the single market) her hard nationalism could alienate Scotland, undermine the Irish settlement, rupture the United Kingdom and end in no deal. A “full English” Brexit might prove very expensive.

The tabloids will doubtless report it as a replay of 1940 and “Our Finest Hour”: an earlier Brexit moment. Attentive as ever to them, May has embraced the description of herself as a “bloody difficult woman” who is eager to “fight for Britain”, in Churchill-Thatcher mode. Is her snap election intended to pave the way for a hard, nativist Brexit? Or does she just hope that a bigger majority will give her more room for manoeuvre in battling Brussels? No one knows, probably not even May herself. Current negotiating strategies, like battle plans, will not survive the first encounter with “the enemy”.

That is why it is important, amid the daily barrage of spin, sneers and aggro, to keep the bigger historical picture in mind. Because we may be entering the twilight of what can be called the postwar era, which began in the decade after 1945, when the horrors of belligerent nationalism prompted a fervent effort to make peace and build truly international institutions. The UN, Nato and the EEC were all products of that creative moment; likewise the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This fabric of postwar internationalism is now ageing and strained – often in need of radical modification – yet in a world where nationalism, protectionism and racism are on the rise, it provides some flimsy protection against the law of the jungle. If Brexit is handled belligerently, it could help to pull the threads from that thin tissue of coexistence and co-operation.

Our leaders show little awareness of what is at stake historically. According to US Vogue’s recent interview with Theresa May, “She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance.” Jeremy Corbyn seems to live in an ideological time warp of his own. Boris Johnson does have historical sensitivity, but of a typically self-serving sort: see his entertaining little (auto)biography of Churchill.

This Brexit election is just an early milestone on a long and painful road. It took the UK over 11 years from first applying to joining the EEC. It may take as long to complete a full, legally watertight exit from the EU. Certainly, for the next few years, at a time when so many global problems are crying out for creative policymaking, the EU and the UK will confront each other obsessively to the exclusion of almost everything else. A dysfunctional union and a disunited kingdom – each captivated by its contrasting past – will struggle and muddle towards divergent futures.

David Reynolds’s books include “Britannia Overruled” (Routledge) and “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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When Shaggy met Sting

What could a Boombastic Jamaican reggae character and a brooding Geordie rock star possibly have in common? An encounter in a New York boardroom reveals all.


Perhaps it is not as odd as it seems. For a start, they both have “ridiculous names”, says Sting, “which people no longer question”. Shaggy and Sting were born Orville and Gordon. Their nicknames arrived in their youth: Sting’s, from a black-and-yellow striped jumper he wore in his days as bass player in a Newcastle jazz band – even his mother called him Sting. Shaggy’s, from his resemblance, at the age of 12 when he was living in Jamaica, to the character from Scooby-Doo – his mother calls him Richard.

Richard?” says Sting, looking momentarily thrown. That is Shaggy’s middle name. His wife calls him Richard too. “Don’t think you can come in my house being Shaggy,” she warns him.

They sit in a boardroom overlooking Central Park. Sting wears a fashionably dishevelled pinstripe suit and traces the edge of the table with his finger. His hair is as bleached as it ever was and his expression bears decades of heavy thinking. Shaggy has a red shiny baseball jacket and a cap turned to the side, a bit like a cartoon rapper. His arms are thrown comfortably on either side of his chair. Through a mutual musical acquaintance, they met last year and jammed in a studio. The mysterious alchemy of collaboration ensued. The story is less how their new record came about, more the fact that it did at all – because, light and sunshiny as 44/876 may be (it is named after the British and Jamaican dialling codes), it is also very strange. Shaggy says this album will disrupt. Go against the status quo, and the grain.

Shaggy was delighted, visiting England around the time of his hits in the Nineties, to learn the ruder significance of his name. It allowed him to flesh out his “character”– for that is what Shaggy is to Orville R Burrell, who speaks in a New York accent. Shaggy is a wining, grinding, priapic reggae star, composer of baby-makin’ music, whom one journalist compared to a Jamaican Benny Hill. And he is developing. The mid-nineties Shaggy was Mr Boombastic (“Come lay down in me jacuzzi and get some bubble bath”). The millennial Shaggy was a wealthy Branson/Bond-villain figure, masterminding a younger man’s shagging via state-of-the-art surveillance in the video for the song “It Wasn’t Me”. Of that tuneful and explicit international hit, he tells me:

“It’s about three things: either you’re banging, or somebody’s banging, or you wish you were banging somebody. It’s something relatable in everyday life.”

And the 2018 Shaggy is more politically correct. “I’m actually giving better advice than before,” he says. On the new album, he has a turn as moral arbiter. Sting wrote a cosmic courtroom drama called “Crooked Tree”, in which a man is sent down for a variety of sins including arson, murder, blackmail, grand larceny and human trafficking. Shaggy, Sting said, was to play the judge.

“It made me think of Jamaica,” says Shaggy. “We have the British legal system, with the high courts – all the weight, and the wig, but with these really thick Jamaican accents.” On the song, the “Honorable Judge Burrell” barks “guilty as chaaaaarged!” and convicts the defendant, played by Sting, with a seismic bang of his gavel.

Says Shaggy, “Here is this Englishman that comes to Jamaica to create a lot of felonies, and I’m just going to convict his ass!”

Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” in 1982 in Ian Fleming’s Golden Eye estate on Jamaica’s northern coastline, at the desk where Fleming had written his Bonds. He was 31, already hugely successful and hiding out after a scandalous divorce. Seventy miles down the road in Kingston town, the 14-year-old Shaggy was already enjoying the Police, who’d had six hits in the US by then, and more in the UK, and whom he describes as “the gateway band to a lot of reggae music”. Songs like “Roxanne” were huge in Jamaica: Sting’s voice was high and strange, Shaggy says, and he could hold long notes for a very long time – it got through to you. The Police’s punk-reggae “brought that art form to the mainstream masses”. They’d toured with Burning Spear and Aswad. The child Shaggy lived with his mother. He wore Jamaican punk garb – a tie, a collar and no shirt – to parties.

“Jamaica has influenced pop culture in such a huge way,” he says.

“Profoundly,” says Sting. “Profoundly,” says Shaggy.

Sting’s interest in reggae was both political and academic. “Rock music is a very reactionary form,” he tells me. As Gil Evans’s jazz arrangements appealed to him as a teenager, so did calypso and ska, “in the way that the drums were played, and the bass was brought out on top. I had an understanding of Caribbean music, so for me it was always a homage, and not cultural appropriation.” You feel a bit sorry that he felt he had to bring up the phrase, but Sting is a questioning person. His first band after the Police consisted of black jazz musicians, and he asked then, “Am I the patrician white rock star? Or am I the novice?”

Another point of similarity between these two surprising counterparts is that, in the collective consciousness at least, they are both very sexual. Shaggy and Sting are the twin poles of masculine libido – one pursuing bikinied booty on a beach like a sniffer dog; the other a paragon of psychosexual stamina, who’d mastered the practice of tantric yoga, which led to a joke boast in the early Nineties (five hours) that has followed him ever since, but which pointed to a certain spirituality in Sting that few people knew what to do with.

When they interviewed him back then, male music journalists couldn’t get thoughts of Sting and sex out of their heads. They all mentioned his muscle tone, his chest, chiselled bones and tantric life. I was almost afraid to be in the room with Shaggy and Sting together, thinking the sexuality might be overwhelming – but Sting looks studiously into the middle distance and Shaggy merely admires my leg warmers.

Their first single, “Don’t Make Me Wait”, is a classic shagging song – Sting is thoughtful: “I’m already sold on the idea of you and/Just tell me where I need to sign” and Shaggy is horny: “Come on, girl!”

“In this climate, you know, the song could be misconstrued,” muses Sting. “As married men, you learn about compromise, you learn about…”

“Patience,” says Shaggy.

“Patience, as a man,” agrees Sting. “It’s not a natural thing for us! So the song needs to reflect a more balanced view. I hope we achieved it. But of course, you know, we are keen, we are conditioned that way. But asking a woman what she wants is one of the most important things a man can learn.”

“We’re fans of women,” concludes Shaggy. A survey by his record label around the turn of the millennium revealed that women are fans of him too. Has Mr Boombastic found his feminine side?

“Have I?” he says, eyes wide. “Embrace it all, man, and live!”

A live performance of “Don’t Make Me Wait” at the Grammys, in January, was met with some confusion, being the first that many people knew of the collaboration. It segued from Sting’s 1987 hit “Englishman in New York”, which was an interesting medley: that hymn to Quentin Crisp and the exceptional richness of what Jung, whom Sting studied in the Eighties, would call the hermaphroditic soul, followed by a classic banging song. Sting once said that the image of the hermaphrodite soul in art – Bowie, Boy George – was an ideal we all strive for. Crisp, “a singular man, a very brave man”, was one of the older figures he befriended in the Eighties; Crisp actually said those words to him – “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”.

Sting performed the song in Trump’s New York, because of “the ludicrous idea of calling anyone an alien”. He seems a bit reluctant to talk about hermaphrodite souls today but then says: “I think it’s important for an artist to see the world through other people’s eyes. I wrote a song a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I started to channel a transgender prostitute. I have no experience of that but I thought it was interesting as a thought experiment. Music is an empathy machine, and I take that job seriously, even though it might be odd sometimes.”

Shaggy was described as a Jamaican Benny Hill. Credit: Rex


Three years ago, at the Public Theater just off Broadway, I watched a workshop of Sting’s musical The Last Ship, which is currently wending its way around regional theatres in Britain. It is the latest sign of a prediction Sting made in 1987 to Q magazine: that one day, mass appeal and his personal tastes would separate. He has done symphonies, lute music, gangster movies, Quadrophenia, a Stravinsky adaptation with Ian McKellen and a Threepenny Opera among many other things. The Last Ship is the story of a group of men who build a ginormous tanker in Newcastle and sail it to the New World. Jimmy Nail sang at the New York performance, perched alongside Sting on a stool.

Sting grew up on Gerald Street in Wallsend, where the hulk of a 10,000-tonne ship twice as high as the houses cast a permanent shadow from the Swan Hunter slipway. Such a ship would be built every year, and everyone would watch the launch. As it blocked the space and was then released, the vessel represented a constant cycle of constraint and departure for the child Sting. His father was a milkman: the class divide between him and his Police band mate Stewart Copeland, son of a CIA diplomat, fuelled much press interest in the early days.

“I always thought class ruled,” he says. “I wanted not to be judged by my accent. So I developed no accent. It made it easier to be fluid and not be judged. There were no regional accents on television. Now, I only speak Geordie when I’m angry or I’m with a Geordie – and I can speak it well.”

Sting and his brother would take part in the milk round, going to the dairy at 4am. He was particularly good at picking up the empties because he had big hands. He could do ten at a time, he once said. His father was hard to please – not overtly impressed by Sting’s academic achievements, his passing of the 11-plus, his athletics trophies or his music career. Grammar school alienated him from his family. Sting was a bus conductor and a labourer, before teaching English at St Paul’s First School in Cramlington. He wasn’t “ambitious” until he discovered music.

He lost both his parents at the height of his fame, within seven months of each other. His mother, whom he credits with his musical education, was a strong character – she died of cancer, and wanted to volunteer at Chernobyl, pointing out that she was already full of radiation. He found a point of connection with his father towards the end of his life, when he sat with him and noticed how similar their hands were. He didn’t write any lyrics for two years after his parents died, but his famous rainforest campaign followed instead.

At the theatre, Sting told a story about the time the Queen Mother came to their road in Wallsend. As she passed in her car and everyone lined up to wave, he told himself that he would one day be on the inside of a car like that. The wealthy donors in the theatre cheered. Sting’s is a truly American tale – the very way he put his sentences together riled a UK music press that liked to see musicians hymning their roots rather than escaping them. The rainforest campaign saved an area the size of Belgium, but that too was a sign of stepping outside one’s box. “The source of pain is your motives being misunderstood,” he told Q. He spends most of his time in New York these days. But he votes in Britain, and by the time we talk about Brexit he is slapping the boardroom table.

“The people who voted for it are as dispirited as the ones who voted against it, and at least we’re joined in that. We’re all in this fucking mess, no one knows how to fucking get out of it.”

Shaggy points out that they are both “citizens of the world”.

“But we have the privilege of our careers, we can do that,” says Sting. “Most people don’t have that privilege, they’re stuck. I find it depressing and dispiriting. Our society is violent and confused – and yeah, maybe all this is important for us to ‘figure out something about ourselves’. But I see things from a different perspective than someone who lives in Sunderland and is stuck, and saying, ‘I just want to vote for something different, that sticks a spanner in the works.’ It’s those people who will suffer, and that’s a tragedy.”

“I know people who have never seen the ocean,” Shaggy muses. “I was in the military with a guy, we were on the fighting roll together, and his first time he’d ever been on a plane was when they flew him over to the desert on a jet.”

Agitprop is worse than off-putting, it’s counterproductive”: Sting enjoying a glass in the 1980s. Credit: Graham Wood/Daily Mail/Rex


Shaggy’s mother, who raised him without his father, moved from Kingston to Flatbush, Brooklyn as an illegal immigrant and worked as a medical secretary, leaving him with his grandmother and then sending for him when she’d saved enough money. She was, Shaggy says, “the biggest dreamer”. He brings up their new song “Dreaming in the USA”, about the American Dream. Sting says: “It’s a love letter to Americans. It’s about culture, and this engine that is basically fed by immigrants. America is in danger and we know why.”

Shaggy worries that Americans will take the song literally, jingoistically, like they did Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. He is not bothered about class – “I am motivated to better myself” – but he’s bothered about racism. “I don’t want our children to be raised with that. Which is why I am raising them in Jamaica.”

His Kingston youth spanned the changeover from the People’s National Party to the Jamaica Labour Party and a period of riots in the city. When he got to Brooklyn as a teenager, he enjoyed a mixed neighbourhood – Barbadians and Haitians, “a Caribbean-American kind of life” – but was shocked by the public laundromats.

“In Jamaica, you just wash it in the backyard, you put it up on the clothesline, with a little bit of bleach on the whites and the sun dries it,” he explains. “I’m sitting in Brooklyn and I feel embarrassed, because people were seeing my drawers. My mum would put me on folding duty: I’d sit there folding drawers. I’d say to her, ‘This is crazy: I’m doing this in public, there’s public people looking at my drawers.’ She’d say, ‘No, man, everybody’s doing it. They’re clean!’ That was a culture shock for me.”

Shaggy had an aptitude for pastels and won the Brooklyn Union Gas art competition more than once. He attended the Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, where “all the greats” had been pupils – among them Marky Ramone and Barbra Streisand.

“You went to the same school as Barbra Streisand?” says Sting.

“Second-oldest high school in the US,” says Shaggy proudly.

Didn’t Sting buy a house off Barbra Streisand?

“I did!”

After high school, Shaggy needed to get out of the house and away from his mother – “We weren’t getting along at that time, and still to this day we really don’t.” He joined the Marine Corps in 1988, aged 20, and stayed for four years. He served with the 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, and was sent to Saudi Arabia in 1991 for Operation Desert Storm, where he piloted a Humvee and worked as a cannon cocker. He became a lance corporal, but was not a committed soldier and was twice demoted in rank. His main problem was attendance – stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, he regularly drove back to Brookyln for reggae nights.

To this day, he believes in the power of music over conflict, telling the Military Times in 2011 that the best way to combat Isis would be to distribute a massive bag of Jamaican weed and play them “Shaggy music”.

“When you’re listening to reggae, you only want to do two things: get high and have sex,” he observed. “If they’re listening to Shaggy music, they’re not going to want to cut somebody’s head off.”

Shaggy during his military service in the US Marines 

Next door to Sting’s management office looms the Trump International Hotel. When an NME journalist came to meet him in New York in 1991, he commented that Trump’s buildings were the mark of a declining empire, “a property developer’s empire capsizing under the cultural meltdown at the heart of New York City”. Shaggy says he knows people who voted Trump and “wondered if they’d been like that the whole time”. Earlier this month, he played the president in an elaborate Late Late Show parody, with James Corden as Special Counsel Robert Mueller ("Can we talk about the pee tape? It wasn't me"). I ask Sting about the man next door.

“I’m daunted and terrified by what is happening,” he says. “I’ve been brought up with safety nets – the National Health system, my education. My further education was something I never had to dream about paying for, I could never have afforded it. So I cherish those things and they’re all under threat at the moment, as is democracy. Xi Jingping and Trump saying, ‘I’m going to be president for life’ – it is medieval.”

He believes, though, that political messages in music should be “veiled”. Agitprop is “worse than off-putting – it is counterproductive”. And veiled they are on 44/876. Shaggy claims to write four songs a day on average – but says he never thinks about instrumentation. Sting, who emails Shaggy in bullet points and tends to “squirrel himself away”, is all about instruments and key changes. “Shaggy brought the vibe and I brought the structure,” he concludes.

Shaggy turns 50 this year – “his birthday is 20 days after mine,” offers Sting. The party will happen in Jamaica and Sting is going. He is impressed with Shaggy’s charity work on the island. “I look for consistency. When celebrities take on projects I think, OK, let me see you in six months and we’ll see how serious you are. I call him the Pope of Jamaica,” he says. “He’s a personage. A citizen with duties and responsibilities.”

“There is always a fear that I may be losing it,” Shaggy says. “Am I not hip anymore?” But at the end of the day, he reasons, “Shaggy is what Shaggy does.”

And Shaggy, after all, is an act. Is Sting an act too? “Absolutely,” says Sting. “Of course he is. It’s been very useful for the past four decades to have a persona you can hide behind.” But it’s hard to recall a time when Sting has hidden behind anything. He’s been in the business for 40 years now. Peers like Elton John, just a few years older, are starting to retire.

“Yeah, and he’s going to do 300 gigs before he retires,” Sting says. “That explanation didn’t quite add up for me.”

44/876 is released on 20 April on Polydor “The Last Ship” is on tour in the UK now

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain