Waiting for the Etonians, By Nick Cohen

Blogging and journalism blur in these essays
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The Independent Culture

This is Nick Cohen's fourth book and his second collection of magazine and newspaper articles. Readers are much warier these days of journalists' "selected works". Newspaper deadlines are shorter now; there are more columns to be filled, and less of what is written today is worthy of publication in a book.

The eye-catching title and jacket blurb give the book the impression of a greater coherence than it actually has. Cohen's title is explained in the introduction, which condemns Blair and Brown for their timidity, and blames them for the revival of David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris and the chums. But in the rest of the text Cohen never comes to term with what this New Conservatism means. Most of the articles are about Labour and its faults, and many are three or four years old. The title seems to have been added opportunistically to make the book feel more up to date than it is.

The best recent collections of journalism have been put together by writers who published in different sorts of media. David Widgery, for example, went from editing Oz, the magazine of the 1960s counterculture, while Richard Neville was in prison, to publishing freelance in the Guardian and the British Medical Journal. Paul Foot would write in the same week for the Daily Mirror and the London Review of Books.

The great bulk of Nick Cohen's book by contrast comes from just two sources, The New Statesman and The Observer. The New Statesman pieces are generally longer; they also seem more considered. In the first third of the book, they constitute a narrow majority. The Cohen that emerges from these pages is kind towards those without power, comfortable in the space between liberalism and social democracy.

This Cohen is clear as to his friends (the unions, the poor) and equally certain of his enemies (New Labour, the spivs of the City). He spends a day working in the kitchens at the Gay Hussar on Greek Street. This Cohen notices that, at six foot one, he is too large to fit in a working kitchen. He spots squalor where others miss it. "It is only when you see catering from the other side," he writes, "that you realise how the media's celebration of the chef as a bully is sickening in its cowardice."

One piece from 2004 blames Labour's crises on David Blunkett's cosying up to the rich. Another records a revolt of Sussex villagers when the BNP stood for the parish council of Upper Beeding. In The New Statesman in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, Cohen spoke out against the danger of an authoritarian reflux: "Interning Abu Qatada in our age is as much a suppression of free expression as interning Karl Marx would have been in the Victorian era."

The rest of the book is very largely composed of Observer articles, and the sense of place diminishes. Rather than searching out stories in London or its hinterland, Cohen relies on the world that flickers past him on his TV screen. Cohen of course has a page each week in The Observer, and the danger of this privilege is that it invites a certain laziness. When you know that you will be published whatever you write, the temptation is to blog rather than to investigate.

So we get Cohen on Iraq (Neo-cons good) and Zimbabwe (Mugabe bad). This Cohen lectures his readers on the danger of conflating "Islam" with "Islamism" without noticing that his own term "Islamist" jumbles together movements as diverse as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. (If any readers need persuading of the difference between these forces, one example illustrates it neatly: in Lebanon the contemporary gay-rights movement emerged under the shelter of an anti-war movement in which gay activists marched side by side with Hezbollah supporters; in Saudi Arabia sodomy carries the death penalty.)

This Cohen tells his readers that Amnesty International is wrongly "obsessed" with America. "At Guantanamo Bay," he insists, "no one has died of starvation, disease or exhaustion and no prisoners have been executed." But four Guantanamo inmates have hanged themselves at Guantanamo since Camp Delta opened, while the US military reported 120 hanging attempts at Guantanamo in 2003 alone. Indeed such was the glut of incidents that the army chose to re-classifying them, not as suicide attempts but "self-injurious behaviour". Starvation, disease and exhaustion have all no doubt played their part.

More to the point, Cohen's line displays the lawyer's trick: where your case is uncertain, change the subject. The primary criticism of Guantanamo is that not that the inmates have been starved to death but that under Bush and Rumsfeld the world's greatest military power has reintroduced torture as state policy.

Cohen's shift rightwards in recent years also explains the difficulties he has with the Etonians. Navigating by the politics of the Iraq crisis, he doesn't seem sure whether he should be denouncing the Tories or voting for them.

Cohen ends his book with a brief apologia: "Great polemicists have a guilty secret. They rant when they have to but they are also terribly reasonable people."

Nick Cohen's last New Statesman piece was published in June 2007, and on his website he no longer lists that magazine as one of his publishers. It is a shame, really. The best parts of this book were published there. His rants were better then.

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