Vol. 25 No. 14 · 24 July 2003

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Another Dodgy Dossier

John Lanchester’s disaffection with New Labour (LRB, 10 July) and the recent squabble between the Government and the BBC brought to mind an encounter that I once had with Blair’s press secretary. It was in the autumn of 1995, shortly after the party conferences in which patriotism had been a pronounced theme. Still in power but already mired in sleaze, the Tories had retreated to the last refuge of scoundrels with unusual gusto. For John Gummer, who was Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, patriotism was a rural theme: he deplored liberal incomers who tried to ‘ban cockerels from farms’ and hoped that the Tory outlook would not be further ‘clouded by urban thinking’. The Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, blasted great clouds of Europhobic vapour over the assembled loyalists, vowing that he would never surrender ‘our brave soldiers, sailors and airmen’ to faceless functionaries in Brussels who would probably oblige them to undergo paternity leave. There was even a fringe meeting entitled ‘The German Enemy’.

Meanwhile, at the Labour Party Conference a week or so earlier, Tony Blair had called for a ‘new British’ patriotism. This was plainly going to be a big theme over the months to come, and I wanted to hear more about it, and how it differed from the last-ditch nationalism of the Tories. So I phoned the Labour Party. I was hoping to talk to Blair himself, but I started with Alastair Campbell. When I explained that I intended to write an article on New Labour patriotism, he asked me to fax him a description of the issues I’d like to address.

I did as requested and, on phoning back, found Campbell himself willing to expound on my questions. He had helped write Blair’s conference speech, prompted in part, he explained, by Labour Party research demonstrating that what voters wanted out of politics could not be reduced to the money in their pockets. They talked a lot about Britain, worrying about declining standards and feeling ‘a real sense of shame’ over, for example, English football hooliganism in Europe. He also said that Tory patriotism was often a kind of theft: wrapping your cause in the flag and then suggesting that everyone else is running the country down. This sort of behaviour was, he said, ‘sickening and nauseating … We have got to stop thinking that patriotic feeling is somehow inherently Conservative.’

Campbell told me that Blair’s cultivation of a ‘new patriotism’ had been spurred by something that had happened on the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, a few weeks earlier. After the celebrations, Blair and a number of Tory ministers had walked back down the Mall to their cars, and people along the way had shouted at him to kick out the Tories, deriding them as impostors in their easily assumed patriotism. Campbell recalled that Blair came back in some amazement, telling his colleagues that they wouldn’t believe what had just happened.

Campbell was known for ‘spin’ even then, but it didn’t seem to be just a superficial ‘rebranding’ of Britain that he had in mind. Contemptuous of those who thought all patriotism reactionary, he wanted a version that would be democratic, as much urban as rural, inclusive rather than exclusive, forward rather than backward looking. He didn’t want to invoke ‘crude nationalism’ or appeal, even indirectly, to chauvinism, yet he knew that Labour was unlikely to win by projecting Britain only as the ‘hybridised’ or ‘mongrel’ nation advocated in a recent Demos pamphlet. Better, he considered, to connect your patriotism to a rediscovery of society and the virtues of social democratic citizenship.

I thought our conversation was going pretty well, so I came to the point. Could I continue this discussion with Tony Blair? The moment of silence that followed was not filled with the sound of fingers redirecting my call, or of feet carrying the phone into an inner sanctum. Instead, Campbell guided me to a place in the note I had faxed outlining my questions, and told me I could start there.

I was a bit slow on the uptake, but eventually I realised he had just dropped a quotation mark into one of my hastily improvised sentences. He then counted his way through 13 words of my text and, having rounded off the statement with another quotation mark and checked that I understood precisely what he intended those marks to contain, he concluded: ‘You can have that from Tony.’

So there it was. ‘You can stress the community of the nation state, without diminishing your internationalism.’ It wasn’t a bad statement of ambition, and it still seems to capture some of the promise with which Labour swept to power less than two years later. Perhaps Campbell generated such ‘quotations’ every day. Perhaps Tony Blair would have found himself in sincere rather than calculated agreement with the statement anyway. But I still felt uneasy as I typed the words into my article. I remember worrying that they might even be picked up by a diligent historian, and placed on the record as a direct expression of the spirit in which New Labour set out to rejuvenate the country. In the event, the Guardian spiked my article for unrelated reasons. I was irritated for a while, but now feel relieved that my own dodgy dossier on New Labour patriotism never saw the light of day.

Patrick Wright

The Cowbells of Kitale

S. Daniel (Letters, 10 July) writes that no children in Kenya are now ‘too poor’ to go to school, and that my article reflects conditions before President Moi Kibaki came to power. He is partly correct, although the children of whom I wrote were (in 1997) unable to go to school not for lack of money to pay fees but because they could not afford uniforms. And in Kenya, as in many parts of the so-called developing world (and as it was in 16th-century England), the children of peasants cannot always be spared from the workforce to receive an education that may not be relevant to their perceived needs. It is not enough to wave a magic wand, which is perhaps what Moi Kibaki has done.

Patrick Collinson
Trinity College, Cambridge

Who was Jesse James?

Richard White (LRB, 5 June) says that because Missouri remained in the Union during the Civil War it was never defeated and so never reconstructed. The best work on Reconstruction sees it as beginning in 1863, meaning that it can be viewed as an assault on the society and culture resulting from slavery and not merely as a set of laws and Constitutional Amendments following Confederate defeat. But even the more traditional dating, which has Reconstruction begin in 1865, allows historians to include Missouri. The state remained in the Union primarily because pro-slavery Missourians believed that the Republicans would not interfere with slavery in states where it was legal, merely prevent its spread into new territories. The Emancipation Proclamation of September 1862 freed all the slaves in those areas remaining in rebellion after 1 January 1863 (those areas, in other words, that the Union did not control) and kept slavery legal in the areas it did control (primarily Kentucky and Missouri). Between 1863 and 1865 the vast majority of slaves became free, in large part as a result of Union victories in rebel areas. So when the 13th Amendment, declaring slavery unconstitutional, was passed in December 1865, it was confirming the already existing freedom of more than 90 per cent of former slaves. The Amendment made most difference in states untouched by the Emancipation Proclamation: Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. It is entirely plausible that pro-slavery Missourians felt betrayed, and championed Jesse James, as T.J. Stiles argues in the book White reviewed, for striking back at those denying them the Constitutional right to enslave.

Andrew Shankman
Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago

It has to be prose

‘A faithful version with notes and commentary’ such as John Glenn calls for in the case of Dante (Letters, 5 June) is usually preferable to a poetic translation of poetry. John Sinclair’s prose version of the Divine Comedy, full of craft if not art, is better than Dorothy L. Sayers’s terza rima, for Sayers is not smooth, and the ease of the original does not come through. Yet the music of a poem is part of its meaning and there should always be translators who try for it. It means writing one’s own poem to an extent, inferring from the original; it requires technical ability, and these days it may need a new openness on the reader’s part to the idea of rhyme. But the ideal should not be lost of a great poem that crosses barriers of time and language, and retains its music too.

Joe Winter

How did they do it?

Donald MacKenzie (LRB, 22 May) says that Enron was ‘sailing close to the wind, but that’s the way to sail fast’. That may be so in the business world. On the water, however, sailing close-hauled may feel faster, primarily because the boat is heeling over, but you move more quickly in the upright position, running before the wind.

Paul Simon
Norbury, Shropshire

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