2015 was a victory for Britain's Ancien Regime

But Tolstoy’s War and Peace – soon to be adapted by the BBC – shows how quickly things can crumble

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The Independent Online

I doubt if Rupert Murdoch, the people’s plutocrat, composes his party invitations in courtly French and has them hand-delivered by “a scarlet-liveried footman”. Neither, I suspect, do they solicit attendance by suggesting: “If you have nothing better to do, Count [or Prince], and if the prospect of spending an evening with a poor invalid is not too terrible, I shall be very charmed to see you tonight between seven and 10.” Nonetheless, on the Monday before Christmas, at his St James’s flat in London, the executive chairman of News Corp hosted a bash to turn Anna Pavlovna Scherer emerald with envy.

It is Anna Pavlovna who, as Tolstoy’s War and Peace begins, gathers the upper crust of St Petersburg together for a soirée intended to proclaim that the old order lives and thrives. Whatever the machinations of Napoleon abroad and reformist malcontents at home, in 1805 the hierarchies of rank, wealth and office still support the majesty of imperial Russia on gilded columns of duty and deference. As his 85th birthday approaches, Murdoch might have been forgiven for feeling Tsar-like as he held court at St James’s.

Answering his summons was David Cameron, ever the loyal acolyte, handsomely re-elected in May after a propaganda bombardment by Murdoch’s and the rest of our right-thinking media. Along came George Osborne, de facto chief executive of the UK state and a stalwart ally who has cleared the path for Murdoch’s business interests. Above all, Rebekah Brooks graced the party: the favourite courtier once embroiled in phone-hacking unpleasantness, but now both vindicated in court and reinstated at the head of News Corp’s UK press titles. A future Tolstoy might look back on Murdoch’s Christmas party of 2015 and marvel at the sheer brazen resilience of the Ancien Régime in Britain. His “few dozen friends” could lift a toast to 2015 as a pinnacle of restoration, indeed of reaction, on almost every front.

The past year has left Labour both defeated and divided beyond all hope of decisive opposition. It saw the Leveson Report’s modest demands for curbs on Murdoch-model media banished to the wind-scoured steppes, if not Siberia itself. The rival aristocracy of the BBC was both hamstrung by a vicious fiscal punishment (Osborne’s insistence that it pay the cost of free licences for the over-75s) and browbeaten by the prospect of a Charter Renewal process that promises to clip its wings and, in contrast, help the Murdoch-dominated Sky channels to soar. Bonuses paid by UK companies in 2014-15 bounced back to the near-record levels (£42.4bn) last seen prior to the financial meltdown of 2008. Prices of London property, that gold-bricked asset class for a globalised nobility, rose a further 12 per cent. 

Osborne even ousted Martin Wheatley, the insubordinate head of the Financial Conduct Authority who had dared lighten the wallets of UK bankers by £1.4bn in fines within a single year. The salt mines beckoned for him. New Year’s Eve brought the revelation that the FCA has halted its investigation of malpractice in UK banking. Like Murdoch’s own lieutenants, spared any further phone-hacking investigations by prosecutors in the US and UK, the bankers have been thoroughly absolved. Short of hiring Sir Lynton Crosby to knout a few serfs as a floorshow, it is hard to see how the British super-class could have enjoyed a more effervescent end to their year.

Still, readers of Tolstoy’s epic novel – and, let’s hope, viewers of the six-part dramatisation by Andrew Davies for the BBC that begins on Sunday – ought to know that chance trumps choice, that accidents make a mockery of power, and that victory plants the seeds of eventual defeat. Enjoy this adaptation while you can. Should the Murdoch camp have their way and shrink the BBC into a “market failure” backwater for minority pursuits, we may never see such another classic blockbuster again. In Murdoch’s preferred future, the next BBC-funded War and Peace would take the form of a two-part radio abridgement for secondary schools recorded in a draughty church hall in Ealing, with bisected coconut shells for cavalry charges and a budget box of firecrackers for the Battle of Austerlitz.

Still, like the Russians in 1812, the BBC and those who value it will stage a scorched-earth resistance. Over its 1,400-plus pages, Tolstoy signposts War and Peace with turning-points where hubris meets nemesis, triumph morphs into disaster, and the vanquished rise to fight again. Above all (and here Murdoch’s Christmas festivities come to mind), that glorious moment of fulfilment merely marks the pause that breeds some unforeseen calamity. The “greater” the man, the less he understands – and the harder he falls. “A king,” as Tolstoy writes before Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, “is history’s slave.” 

For Tolstoy, that history never moves in a straight line. The chaotic interplay of a million wills exposes the highest power to checks, shocks and reversals. The cult of leadership, meanwhile, is just a superstitious fiction. After Napoleon’s debacle at Borodino, Prince Andrey reflects: “Not only does a good army commander not need any special qualities; on the contrary, he needs the absence of the highest and best human attributes... God forbid that he should be humane, should love, or pity, or think of what is just and unjust. It is understandable that a theory of their ‘genius’ was invented for them long ago because they have power!” For “commander”, read mogul, tycoon or, perhaps, prime minister.

The mighty and the humble alike should digest War and Peace as a supreme master-class in the fragility of power. For our present rulers, smug in their good fortune, the clouds on the horizon will not take the form of a sabre-rattling swarm of hussars primed to gallop over the ridge at first light. They are gathering all the same. The chief threat arises from a Europe split, as in Napoleon’s day, between dreams of unity and chaotic instabilities. Peering into 2016, a Tolstoyan soothsayer might identify the EU referendum – most likely in the autumn – as the trap that history has laid for our commanders. The Prime Minister, we know, will do just about anything to secure a “Yes” vote. Riding at his side, Osborne has no intention of presiding over the financial suicide of “Brexit”. No more does Cameron seek a historical role as the premier who broke the Union by driving the pro-European Scots into a second vote on independence, and the inevitable choice of the EU over London.

Murdoch himself, however, has no love for Brussels. His major interests lie beyond continental Europe: in the US, UK, Australia, India and east Asia. After his ousting from China, he has begun to negotiate with Beijing again. In September, he met President Xi Jinping. Beyond the part-owned Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia, only Fox’s half-share in the Dutch-based reality-show and drama producer Endemol – begetter of Big Brother and Deal or No Deal  – tethers the Murdoch empire to the Old Continent with a substantial stake. 

So the outlines of a Tolstoyan irony on a world-historical scale begin to take shape. The licensed Europhobia of Murdoch’s UK media properties means they need to talk tough about the referendum, and cut the nervous Count David very little slack. Whenever some deal is done, the terms of any British “renegotiation” may draw shrill charges of betrayal and sell-out from just behind the general. He will fear mutiny among the very regiments who did so much to stiffen the Tory front line last May.

Murdoch and his officers have zero loyalty to Europe. They do, though, have good reason to keep faith with a Tory government as the trustiest guarantor of their British investments. In mid-2015, a well-sourced story hinted that the anti-EU contempt of the boss himself had “mellowed” into acceptance of membership. We shall see. In any case, by 13 December Murdoch himself was tweeting: “UK’s EU negotiation a joke ... EU has much more to lose than UK from exit.” That does not, so far, spell: “Vote to leave.” Prince Rupert’s legions may well harry Count David. They will probably not desert him. 

But such a plan, as War and Peace explains, can go drastically awry. For his detractors even more than his admirers, Murdoch counts as the Great Man of history: a Napoleonic figure of sweeping vision and iron will who pulls strings and shakes nations. Tolstoy would have none of that specious heroism: “The higher a man stands on the social ladder ... the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.” Besides: “In historic events the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself.”

History can always erase the label, and drag the conqueror down. This new year dawns with Count David and Prince Rupert confidently in the saddle. Cameron, though, has gambled almost everything on a referendum battle that could see him unhorsed by the Europhobic legions of his ally. As War and Peace ends, Tolstoy does not show us Napoleon’s ultimate endgame. It came not amid the bloodbath of Borodino or the rout of his retreat from Moscow, but three years later at Waterloo. That village lies just a brisk canter south of Brussels.