Perpetual screaming: an interview with Simon Jenkins

James Waddell
April 23, 2019
Online Only
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Simon Jenkins is aptly described as a journalistic veteran. The  depth of his experience merits the term: among other roles, Jenkins has  served as editor of the Evening Standard and political editor of The Economist, and is now a columnist for the Guardian. The  word also conveys, though, the combative and campaigning character of  much of Jenkins’ work. Without apparent partisan prejudice, Jenkins has  fought on countless political battlefields, becoming known to some as a  reformist crusader, and to others as a “professional miserabilist”.

Before paying a visit to Jenkins’ West London home to make up my own  mind, I sampled some of his journalistic output. As he is the first to  admit, it is difficult to build up a coherent political picture from his  oeuvre. “I’ve worked for left-wing papers and right-wing papers”, he shrugs: “When I was at The Times I felt mildly left-wing, and at The Guardian I felt mildly – mildly –  right-wing. But no – because I don’t work for a political organisation,  I don’t have the problem of loyalty”. It was for this reason that  journalism, rather than politics, beckoned: “I remember some wise old  man saying to me that you really shouldn’t go into politics. I was  rather upset, and I said to him well, why not? And he said, because  you’re too interested in politics; go into journalism. Because a career  in politics is not about politics, always remember this. It’s about  loyalty”.

When I spoke to Jenkins in the spring of 2018, it felt as if the  political alignments he described had shifted, becoming more polarised  and identity-driven, almost to the extent of an American-style culture  war. “‘Twas ever thus”, Jenkins reckons. He cites Jonathan Haidt’s study  ‘What Makes People Vote Republican’: “It was fascinating because it  hadn’t occurred to him until he studied it as a psychologist, but  secondly it was fascinating because it demonstrates why people don’t  vote right. They vote a particular way for a particular set of  values, which appears to be on the right when asked questions like Trump  or Brexit. And they are small-c conservative values, to do with  security, faith, getting what you deserve in some sense”.

And what about the polarisation? Have the values that we can all  agree on as a country been eroded in some way? “If you take the period  from 1945, right through to about the 1970s, you had a broad consensus  that the welfare state was a good thing, that redistributive taxation  was a good thing, that we ought to an extent to dismantle the corporate  state – or statist corporatism, if you want to put it that way. You  didn’t have any big arguments over, say, education, until the 1960s. I  think consensus was definitely less under Thatcher. To me, Thatcher was  the great seismic change of the post-war period. It stayed under Blair  and Brown – they were more Thatcherite than Thatcher. And it’s still the  case. There’s this extraordinary indulgence of money, a craving towards  big business, and I just find it very odd. And until Corbyn came along,  at least, that was totally cross-party”.

Throughout our interview, Jenkins places contemporary events in the context of a 20thcentury longue durée.  The ructions of 2016 were, he claims, part of a longer historical  narrative: “I think the great change was Callaghan, in 1976, when he  said ‘the game is up’. From 1976 through to ’86, through to  deregulation, the Big Bang, and all these things – I mean that was just  seismic. When Callaghan said it, almost all heavy British industry was  owned by the state: the railways, the ports, the docks, the airlines,  British steel, British coal, I mean all these commanding heights were in  the public sector. After 13 years of Toryism! And it just went. And it  was, to my mind, holy beneficial. And Blair didn’t touch it – in fact,  Blair denationalised the Post Office and the railways which Margaret  Thatcher swore she’d never denationalise, and it was Major who  introduced PFI – a catastrophic move, in my view; just simply too far.  As always in life, you seek the golden mean. But you know, the NHS is  now paying for it, just bleeding into these PFI projects. So, I think  that was the change, I think it produced initially a kind of burst of  almost exhilaration in the 1990s and into the 2000s, up until the credit  crunch. And I think now you’ve just got a very, very cynical public,  who when asked a specific question, which was the Brexit question: ‘Do  you trust us, the government?’, that was the question. And they said ‘no  we don’t’!”

In an attempt to bring things closer to home, I ask about (yet  another) issue in which Jenkins has extensively intervened: higher  education. What did he think of the UCU pensions strike action? “I mean,  I laughed. Compared to the rows when I was a student, and compared to  the 80s and so on – you know, people got very, very angry. I mean, there  is no more privileged group in society than universities. There is just  none. They survived all the cuts, they’ve come through everything with  their building programmes, these crazy three or four year degrees. My  mother, who was a university student in the Forties, laughed at me when I  was a student. She just said, ‘you think you’re radical? You’ve got no  idea what it was like in the 40s’. When I was at Oxford, we were out in  the street all the time – it was Vietnam, it was colonialism, it was the  bomb. We’d never dream of going and protesting in London for our  income. For the last sort of 15, 20 years, students have only  demonstrated for their own income. I just find it indefensible. There  couldn’t be a more blessed group than students today…If you go to any  provincial city in the north now, the building projects downtown are  almost all student residencies. They’re private companies, making a  fortune, out of students who are being paid for (initially at least)  with student loans, half of which will never be paid back. It’s the new  social housing. I find it completely indefensible”.

There are other issues, I demur, that get students out on the  streets—race, gender. Indeed, Jenkins himself made some controversial  comments about such identity politics, attracting criticism for claiming  that being a white man in the 21stcentury is the same as being a black man 30 or 40 years ago. “Yes, I’ve got to be careful about that”, he says, sotto voce for  perhaps the first time in our exchange. I note that racism continues to  systematically disadvantage black and minority ethnic people,  statistically – in the justice system, in the employment market. Is that  really comparable to the position of white men? “I was talking about  public appointments”, Jenkins retorts. “I said that a seriously able  ethnic minority person standing forward for a public appointment now  will have discrimination in favour of them. I’ve been involved in public  appointments and they’re desperate for firstly ethnic minorities, and  secondly women. But that’s a very limited area—we’re talking about, in a  sense, the elite”.

I press further—the numbers just don’t seem to bear that out, do  they? Jenkins pushes back: “Well it isn’t 50%, if that’s what you mean.  But all I said in that context was this business of the desperate desire  of all organisations to try and find able people from ethnic minorities  to fill these posts. There is not a discrimination against them in the  appointments system; there may be in the career structure, yep, I can  accept that. But anyway, that’s not identity politics. Identity politics  has become a quite different thing, where quite a lot of bright people  have found that sort of politics easier than the rather difficult  politics, which is issue-related or party-related. And I think that’s an  indication that politics is actually rather relaxed, nowadays. It’s not  about prosperity, or the poor – we’ve left that to other people to  worry about. I now worry about being Welsh?! You know, come on. Being an  old, white male? I can handle that”.

Perhaps he can, I say, but being Welsh isn’t quite the same as being  black, or being transgender, is it? “You should talk to the Welsh”,  Jenkins counters. “They genuinely feel oppressed by the English. I don’t  know in what sense transgender is persecuted. Are they persecuted? I  mean, I’m prepared to believe it. I’ve fought for homosexual law reform  for a long while. The question is how do you value oppression, the  degree to which certain sections of the community are oppressed. When I  was young, I would have said that one third of the population is  entitled to feel oppressed. It’s just not the case now, and policy  reflects that by championing perfectly deserving people, but championing  them I would have said out of proportion. Politics is now  hyper-sensitive to groups, in a way that it just isn’t hyper-sensitive  to the homeless, or to the mentally ill, a cause close to my heart.  Honestly, you will not get any people marching in the streets for the  mentally ill. These are disadvantaged members of society, and I just  don’t see students in universities marching in the streets for them”.

These issues, I suggest, intersect: the suicide rate amongst  transgender people, for example, is much higher, and in turn that  intersects with class, and so on. Can’t we care about more than one  cause at once, especially when they interact so frequently and are so  interlinked? “Well, the question is, what flag are you carrying? I heard  an excellent documentary about transgender on the radio the other day.  They were trying to get somewhere near what size of population it  applies to; it’s a miniscule section of the population. So much so that I  say, I’m sure you can handle this, if it costs money it’s not very  expensive, whatever it is. And the problem with transgender is it does  actually throw up problems that are real problems, problems that are not  just those of persecution or whatever. But no, I don’t think that meets  my point – I think there are sections of the community now, because  most people are rich, most people are sane, most people are reasonably  settled, most people have got chances in life, most people almost are  graduates, they feel that these other groups are no longer statistically  significant, and they suffer for it”.

Moving on, I pick up on the suggestion that more people are, on the  whole, better off than in the past. Does Jenkins agree with the Stephen  Pinker thesis, whereby things have broadly been getting better in most  places for most people, and we can explain and prove this using  “Science”, with a capital “S”? “I know the attacks on [Pinker]”, he  answers, “but there’s a sense in which the necessity of politics is the  necessity of pessimism. Politics, particularly now when you’re trying to  get mass anger going—the anger in politics is quite extraordinary  now—you get it going through activating groups. I used to say about  journalism, no one ever put on the front page of The Evening Standard that  200 planes took off safely from Heathrow. We expect them to take off  safely from Heathrow. But in the case of politics, I think part of the  purpose of politics is to put right things that are wrong. And I do  think that one of the consequences of prosperity and Pinker’s secure  society thesis is that there is no lobby, no electoral lobby, for  genuinely disadvantaged—I hate this word, disadvantaged—genuinely poor  groups of people. I feel very strongly about mental health, and mental  health is really appalling. We see these pictures of child asylums in  Romania, and so on, and say how can these people be in the EU. Look at  some in this country!”.

To conclude, I ask for a veteran journalist’s opinion on the other  great societal change of recent times: the New Media. Jenkins takes a  balanced view: “I think it’s more or less where printing was in the 19th century. I don’t think anyone’s done a PhD on the evolution of copyright, but it’s very interesting. In the 19th century,  it was much the same – people were just printing anything, stealing  anything. There were no libel laws, there was no control. The famous  Pulitzer Prize? Pulitzer was one of the most muck-raking, mendacious men  anywhere, and founded a prize to cleanse his name, really! But, there  slowly evolved the thing that every market needs which is regulation.  And the internet has been so swift, so smart, and so all-encompassing,  and has hoovered up money and attention, that no one’s really stepped  back and thought (a), is it a good thing, although that is happening  more now, but no one’s really begun to say how can we regulate it. I  simply believe that the one great error was anonymity. Anonymity with  the printed word was difficult, because you’ve got to print the thing,  and anonymity is now easy. And if you have open access to all servers,  and so on, you’re going to have a real problem, because that brings out  the worst in communications as well as the best. I regard Wikipedia as  one of the most culturally benign inventions of all time. I regard  Facebook in particular, and Twitter, as not, and as having huge  potential for evil”.

Jenkins goes further in his criticism of social media: “In my book, I  note that it’s very curious if you look at the French revolution—as it  degenerated, at the moment of degeneration of the Terror, every meeting  that took place in Paris, outside in the street were the sans-culottes,  shrieking endlessly. And no one dared go out because they’d be killed,  by guillotine. And I think this is rather like Facebook; there’s just  perpetual screaming”. A pessimistic note for a life-long journalist to  strike—but, perhaps, appropriate for one whose career spans a transition  away from a technological, political, and cultural ancien régime.


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James Waddell