The man in the telegenic mac
AS IT SEEMED TO ME: Political Memoirs by John Cole, Weidenfeld pounds 20
Sunday 21 May 1995
From 1981 to 1992, John Cole was the BBC's political editor and his accent was the rich and salty exception to Westminster's uniform Home Counties tones. The high-minded Cole evidently does not care to be teased about that famous voice - the Spitting Image and Private Eye spoofs are not mentioned - but he does recall a moment which could have come straight from either of them. Rehearsing a piece to camera for the Nine O'Clock News before the 1983 Conservative Party Conference, he referred to Mrs Thatcher's coiffure, a word he experimentally and agonisingly pronounced several times before Sue Lawley tactfully said: "John! Why not try 'hair- do'?"
The unfortunate thing is that in cold print, without the voice and that oddly telegenic mac, there is something a little dull about these lengthy "political memoirs": that is, the story of mainstream politics which John Cole covered, first at The Guardian, then as deputy editor of The Observer, then the BBC.
Unimpeachably objective from first to last, Cole nonetheless comes across as a man of the moderate Left, a tenacious view which caused him to be labelled a Trotskyite by the Gaitskellites at the beginning of his career and then again, at the end, by Denis Thatcher. He is a man of unshowy but strong opinions. His departure from The Guardian was at least partly due to his bitter objection to editor Alastair Hethering-ton's proposed support for coalition government in 1974, Cole wanting a more pro-Labour, pro-union stance.
Cole has a long memory - a precious commodity now that political journalism seems dominated by beardless youths. He remembers a convivial lunch with Harold Wilson at the Athenaeum in 1959, at which Wilson extemporised the speech he would like to give to unite the party over Clause IV: "Comrades, in our deliberations on what this great party must do next, let us never forget one undeniable fact: the Tories are a bunch of bastards. But as we consider the future of public ownership, let us not leave ourselves open to the slanders our opponents will throw at us. For never forget, comrades, that the Tories are a bunch of bastards. But do we really want the state to take over every corner sweet shop and petrol station? Of course we don't, but that's what the Tories will say about us, because the Tories are a bunch of bastards..."
Cole also discussed the "Down-ing Street Declaration" on Ulster issued by the Prime Minister - that is, by Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1969. No Whitehall high-flier appears to remember it now, as Cole tartly points out, but it led to a power-sharing executive in 1974 between the Unionists and Nation-alists, a promising initiative scuppered by a strike by Protestant paramilitaries - a failure about which Cole still feels strongly. Will roughly the same happen again?
These apercus aside, there is something basically pretty unadventurous about the history Cole serves up. There is nothing here to rock the boat. But now that we've all read Alan Clark's Diaries, we know it's not as plodding as Cole often makes it sound. Exasperatingly, he gives us little or nothing about the blood feud between the Conservatives and the BBC, and the Tebbit-inspired attacks on the BBC that followed the Libyan bombing in 1986 - a topic on which Cole is uniquely placed to give us the inside story.
His reticence comes close to insult-ing the reader's intelligence, and he tries our patience with such sentences as: "I can only say that personal experience has not convinced me that Margaret Thatcher finds it easy to acknowledge the legitimacy of alternative views." John Cole is surely a deeply intelligent and hum-ane presence in British politics. But I was hoping that "personal experience" would produce something a little more potent than this.
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