George Osborne is not the only big newspaper appointment to make waves. Our editor-at-large Alastair Campbell explains why he’s joined The New European
I have been talking to Philip Gould a lot of late. Yes, I know he died more than five years ago, but don’t we all have chats with the dead from time to time?
Philip was my closest friend in politics. We argued, but we basically thought alike. We talked every day, sometimes the conversations going into double figures. Our families went on holiday together. We loved each other’s children much as we love our own. We were like the closest of brothers.
It helps that his grave, in Highgate Cemetery, is a 15 minute walk from where we live in north London. John Merritt, my best friend in journalism who died when we were in our early 30s, is also there, diagonally across from Karl Marx’s grave. So I can take in two chats with my two closest friends from my two worlds of media and politics in a single day, and leave the tourists and Corbynistas to lay flowers for Marx.
I have often talked to John about the way my own life has gone since he died, away from journalism and into politics, and now something of a hybrid. With Philip, the recent conversations have been more intensely political, and rooted in the question I ask myself every day – ‘what the hell would he have made of it all?’
Trump. Brexit. Corbyn. As Rory Bremner said recently, it is like your worst enemy has given you three box sets. You don’t want to watch any of them. You just want to know they end. That is how I feel. That is how, I know, Philip would feel, though he would be endlessly fascinated about how we got to where we are and, more important, how we get out of it.
It’s strange to think the word Brexit didn’t exist when he died in 2011 and is now probably second only to Trump as the most used political label on the planet. Given what has happened since, I think Philip might have been surprised that Michael Gove was at his funeral, though he would have loved the huge turnout from across politics, and all the chatter and gossip that mingled with the sadness. He had heard of businessman Donald Trump, of course, and was aware of Jeremy Corbyn as a backbench MP, but had anyone suggested on his deathbed that one would become US President and the other Labour leader, he would have let out a long, shoulder-heaving, rolling laughs. ‘Keep it real’.
But here we are. And why do I find it so hard to work out what he would have thought? Because Philip, perhaps more than me, had an unwavering belief in ‘the people’ to make the right choices. Yet I know he would think that the people have made very much the wrong choices when it comes to Bremner’s box set trilogy.
Trump, of course, is reversible. He may last four years, he may last eight, or he may not last the first term in full. But one day he will be gone. Corbyn likewise is unlikely to last, and will surely eventually be persuaded that having the demise of the Labour Party as your most notable achievement is not a great way to be remembered, let alone secure a huge Marx-style tomb/statue in Highgate cemetery.
So for all his obsession with American and with Labour politics, Philip would be most consumed by Brexit. And how would his ‘trust the people’ mantra apply right now? He would trust them to realise, as the debate moves from the theoretical to the real, that they have made a mistake, and correct it.
He would share my analysis that, as things stand, the obstacles to that are huge – no obvious mechanism for a second referendum, especially with a new Prime Minister (he would never have seen her coming, I don’t think) who has gone from soft Remain to hard Brexit; a right wing media cartel determined to pretend Brexit can deliver milk and honey for all and anyone who questions such nonsense is a quisling and a traitor; an enfeebled Parliament cowed, with a few honourable exceptions, by the above; a weak Opposition, a confused, becalmed public.
But he would also share my optimism at the stirrings beneath. He would love the fact that Tony Blair seems to have rediscovered his mojo and is now motoring hard, making arguments on Europe the depth of which show up today’s ‘Brexit means Brexit’ leaders as second if not third order. He would enjoy the strange alliances of view that are forming. Nick Clegg getting together with Nicky Morgan and Lucy Powell this week for example. Grammar schools was the issue, but they sing the same song on Brexit too.
He knew that I always had a soft spot for Michael Heseltine, but he would be amazed to hear me saying ‘John Major made a brilliant speech on Brexit … I agreed with every single word’. He would know, given Scotland was one of our regular holiday haunts and that I feel way more Scottish than English, and don’t much like the way Brexit England is going, that I would be finding my dead parents’ lifelong Unionism tested if an independent Scotland can provide a possible route back in to Europe. He would be amused and intrigued by George Osborne’s decision to become editor of the London Evening Standard. He would be even more amused that partly as a result of Osborne’s move, I have decided to get my toe much more deeply back into the journalistic world as well.
‘Come on,’ said the message from New European editor and founder Matt Kelly, ‘if Osborne can fit in The Standard with all he is doing, you can fit us in too.’ Matt has been trying to get me to take on a formal position as editor-at-large for some time, but my addiction to personal freedom has made me leave it in the tray marked ‘dip in and out when I feel like it’. That has meant doing something for Matt most weeks, whether writing, commissioning, or just feeding in barmy (and sometimes not) ideas as they come to me. But getting a title and actual responsibility? I’ve never been much of a title person.
Part of my resistance was the worry that at the start the paper was just an emotional spasm. A good idea, for sure, but would it stay the course? Matt, and the readers, have answered that one for me. There is not just a need for a paper that challenges the Brextremist Lie Machine cartel, but there is a market for it, and a place for the kind of longer, in-depth analysis for which The New European has been providing a home.
Having been on both sides of the media/politics fence, I am still of the view that it is on the politics side that real change is delivered. But Brexit, though ultimately driven by politicians – I still believe Leave would not have won without Gove and Boris Johnson joining them – would probably never have happened without the years of Eurosceptic media coverage that provided a propaganda ramp before, during and since June 23.
Those papers, like it or not, made a difference, and helped sway the country to make the wrong choice. They are helping the country stick to the wrong choice now, with their ‘booming Brexit Britain’ lies and their unspoken promise to Theresa May that they will pretend she is the new Thatcher provided she continues to sing the Brexit-whatever-the-cost tune.
Never has the truth about this debate been more needed. The New European cannot alone take on a Lie Machine built on the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph and the Express, not least because unlike them, we have no desire to lie. But we can make a difference to the terms of the debate. We can give a platform to important and interesting voices the Lie Machine would not countenance because they do not fit with their narrow, nasty worldview. We can also perhaps help put a bit of spine in all those politicians busy saying ‘I know this is a total disaster, but I have to support it’.
So yes, this is what Philip would say. If you think something is a disaster waiting to happen, you have to do what you can to prevent it from happening. So if Matt Kelly comes along and offers you the chance to get a new paper established, one which fights for something you believe in as much as he does, one which is determined to ensure the 48% who voted Remain are not forgotten, one which gives you an additional instrument with which to fight the fight, then get off your arse and do it.
I know I am in a minority right now, in thinking Brexit can be stopped. But I also know I am far from alone in thinking that it should be. The prospect has to be kept alive as we enter the uncertain world that lies beyond the triggering of Article 50, and the lurch towards the cliff edge. And therefore, The New European has to be kept alive too, and I am determined to help it grow, prosper, and win the most important argument of our lifetime. We may fail, but at least let’s make sure we can look our children and grandchildren in the eye in years to come, and say with honesty that we did our best to save the country from calamity and decline.