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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Farewell Jacques Delors

Delors’ political vision was spot on for the time, just as it is now

Image: The New European/ Getty

Jacques Delors’ death was announced as we were driving north to Scotland and my immediate reaction to a request to write an obituary for the Independent was to decline politely, given the awful weather and the several hundred miles ahead of us. But then listening to the BBC radio reports of his life and times, with the description of Delors as a “federalist fanatic”, the repeated references to Margaret Thatcher’s “No, no, no” refrain, and to the Sun’s “Up Yours Delors” headline, I changed my mind and pulled over to pen a tribute.

As it happens, Delors found “THAT headline” moderately amusing, and observed that it reflected a British grassroots debate about Europe that was all too often lacking in many parts of the EU. Also, though there was a respect of sorts between them, there was also genuine animosity between him and Margaret Thatcher, who likewise saw domestic political capital in demonising the European Commission president.

But there was so much more to him than the Thatcher-tabloid tag-team caricature. I was indebted to Neil Kinnock, who knew him well, and whose brains I picked for my article, for the line that Delors “wasn’t a fanatic anything.” Perhaps the closest he got to fanaticism was in his belief that the lessons of the history that led to Nazism and war in Europe should be properly learned, and acted upon to prevent ruinous repetition. A Europe of nations pooling sovereignty in the pursuit of common interests, such as peace, prosperity and power, was the key to his vision.

He was not wrong then, and the vision is not wrong now. It is certainly a lot better than the alternative 3Ps which have done so much damage to politics around the world – populism, polarisation and post-truth.

Tweet of the Week award to Frédéric Moreau (from the acute accents I am guessing he is French), whose reaction to the news coverage here was clearly similar to mine: “I watched the Jacques Delors obit on BBC News and it turns out his life was about Margaret Thatcher and the Sun. If only he could have made his mark on his native continental Europe.” (Irony alert.)

Good point, well made, Frédéric. What a ridiculous, small-minded, inward-looking country we have become, thanks in no small measure to a ridiculous, small-minded, inward-looking media. And talking of measures, only a country with a media as ridiculous, small-minded and inward-looking as ours could turn a near-total climbdown from Boris Johnson’s “Brexit benefit” dumping of metric measurements into an orgy of blah about how Churchill liked to drink champagne from a pint glass.

All very ironic then, and sickening, that one of the few Tory tributes to Delors’ skills in statecraft came from Johnson, who cemented his reputation as a 3P newspaperman, and as a “good laugh” in the eyes of people who would later become his client journalists, inventing stories about the Delors’ Commission banning bent bananas and salt and vinegar crisps. That Johnson went on to be the UK’s first 3P prime minister, while Delors resisted the many efforts to persuade him to stand for the French presidency, is alas proof that the cream does not always rise to the very top.

Sticking with death – forgive me, I am prone to gloom around the New Year – whereas once, several decades ago, there seemed to be a wedding to attend virtually every week, these days it is sadly funerals that take up too many slots in the diary.

The last two of 2023, of Glenys Kinnock and then Alistair Darling, had something in common beyond the attendance of many of the same members of the Labour family… namely that the hymn Jerusalem was sung. It is, to be fair, a beautiful hymn, William Blake’s words stirring, Charles Hubert Parry’s melody a wonderful accompaniment. The line about “chariots of fire” inspired the title of the award-winning film of that name, because at athlete Harold Abrahams’ funeral, there too, Jerusalem was sung.

But there are three references to England in the hymn, “England’s mountains green… England’s pleasant pastures… England’s green and pleasant land,” which makes it an odd choice for the farewell to any Welsh person – Glenys was very Welsh – or Scot – Alistair was very Scottish.

I have always read Blake’s poem as indicating that Jesus will come to England and create a new Jerusalem in contrast to the “dark satanic mills.” Sure, there were fewer satanic mills in Wales and Scotland than in the industrial heartlands of England, but if I have read it right, and Jesus is coming here, I think he needs to recognise there is more to our country than England. Indeed, the English nationalism at the heart of Brexit is to be resisted as a curse, not a blessing.

Recently I was a guest on comedian Kathy Burke’s podcast, Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wake, which has as its cheery theme the planning of your own death and funeral. Much more fun than it sounds. I explained that I would like a bit of Jacques Brel, plenty of bagpipes, and I want mourners to leave to the sound of Hebridean folk band Skipinnish playing their hit song Alive.

I hereby add an extra instruction for my funeral. Jerusalem must not be sung, unless by then a campaign has been fought and won to change “England” to “Britain” in recognition that the mountains and the green and pleasant land extend well beyond Hadrian’s Wall or the Severn Bridge.

If I have misread Blake’s words, part of his epic poem Milton, I would not be alone. Milton was written in the early 1800s, and set to music by Parry more than a century later, during the first world war. It was first performed in public at a meeting of the organisation Fight for Right, which existed to boost national morale.

But Parry resented the way his new composition was co-opted to spread jingoistic anti-German sentiment, and within months he had given the copyright to suffragette Millicent Fawcett, in the hope it would become “the women voters’ hymn.” The man who composed Jerusalem! Woke! Who knew? So if you’ve ever wondered why the Women’s Institute sing Jerusalem, now you know. The New European: education, education, education.

David Cameron seems to be enjoying himself as foreign secretary, and is certainly putting in the hours and the air miles. But unless he manages single-handedly to broker a deal to end the nightmare in Gaza, and lay the foundations for an enduring two-state solution, surely he knows that ultimately he will be remembered as the man who decided to hold the Brexit referendum as a way of, ahem, ending the Tory civil war on Europe.

Though that call misfired spectacularly, he didn’t get everything wrong in his time in No 10. I was always a supporter of his attempts to put happiness and wellbeing at the heart of government policy-making. Key to this was the “What Works Centre for Wellbeing” which had a role in influencing ministers and the public sector more broadly to make sure the wellbeing agenda was properly understood and reflected in policy.

Well, after a decade, it is to be scrapped, thanks to our old friend austerity. Whereas when he was prime minister Cameron could have pulled rank and got the money sorted, as foreign secretary he lacks the clout, and Rishi Sunak doesn’t seem terribly focused on anyone’s happiness save for that of the various factions in his party, the donors bankrolling him and the taxpayer-funded video teams clearly charged with turning his every move into a Hugh Grant parody.

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