Cruel Britannia : reports on the sinister and the preposterous /
Nick Cohen.
London ; New York : Verso, 1999.
viii, 247 p. ; 21 cm.
More Details
London ; New York : Verso, 1999.
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One



When David Evans, the Conservative MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, pushed liberal tempers to the limit by calling his Labour opponent `a single girl with three bastard children' and demanding the castration of `black bastard' rapists, worldly Conservative commentators lectured his detractors on the facts of life in the real world. The Telegraph did not doubt that its finger was on the pulse of popular feeling. `It is not Mr Evans, but the prissy ideologues who express deep shock at his words who are out of touch,' wrote its old-Etonian editor. Richard Littlejohn, a millionaire journalist who affects to be the voice of the people, said in the Mail that Evans spoke for the `great unwashed' who paid MPs' wages. `While the incestuous worlds of Westminster and the chattering classes were working themselves into a lather of indignation, in saloon bars and supermarket queues the length and breadth of Britain most people must have been wondering what all the fuss was about. What really frightens the bien-pensants is that they know millions of people in Britain think in exactly the same way as Evans.' The unwashed voted on 1 May 1997, and Melanie Johnson, `single girl with bastard children', thrashed the upright Evans. `Perhaps prejudice does not have a home here,' she said. `Hundreds of voters mentioned his attack on me and wanted to disassociate themselves from him.' People crossed the road to shake her hand. Churches circulated petitions defending her reputation.

    In Exeter, which had not been seen as a centre of sexual experiment, the gay-and-frank-about-it Ben Bradshaw faced Adrian Rogers, president of the Conservative Family Institute and one of God's noisiest botherers. Rogers, who had described homosexuality as `sterile, disease-ridden and God-forsaken', ran the nastiest campaign of the election. He implored Devon voters not to `let the pink flag fly'. Exeter City supporters were assumed to be unreconstructed on the homosexual question and were given leaflets at home matches telling them Bradshaw was gay. Rogers's last tract was, Labour alleged, handed to children who were told to take it home to mummy and daddy. `I ask every Exeter parent and everyone concerned about our country's children: Do you want an MP who wants to promote homosexuality in schools?' They did. Bradshaw won with the biggest swing to Labour in the South-West. `I think the press fails to understand the decency and tolerance of the British,' he told me.

    Gisela Stuart, Labour contender in Birmingham Edgbaston, was a target because she was born a German and did not move to Britain until she was a teenager. A local Conservative councillor warned the electorate `not to vote for a Kraut'. `I'm knocking on people's doors telling them to vote British, not German,' he said. `She's wrapping herself in the Union Jack and it's a damned cheek.' The party of the family said she had misled the voters by losing her German and taking her English husband's surname. The wealthy suburb was one of the first seats to fall to Labour on election night and became the Basildon of the 1997 campaign.

    To those who knew the West Midlands, Stuart's victory was nothing compared to the end of the career of Nicholas Budgen, the austere representative of the racism, Unionism, anti-Europeanism and monarchism which had dominated politics for 20 years. He had appealed to John Major to make an election issue of Labour's plans to relax a few immigration controls. To the surprise of jaundiced commentators, whose number included your correspondent, Major refused to play the well-thumbed race card. Once again, the tribunes of the far-right press knew that they and Budgen spoke for the nation. Simon Heffer of the Mail said Budgen's views `were popular with the public' and added, without irony, that Tory MPs had `winced with shame at Major's failure to see the importance of the issue'. Budgen defied his leader by running in Wolverhampton South West -- the seat he had inherited from Enoch Powell -- on an anti-immigration ticket. Powell sent a personal endorsement and the Conservative right consoled itself with the thought that although Major would lose, Budgen would triumph. Powell's support was `ominously prescient,' the Mail said. Powell would be proved right and was `now surely entitled to feel some wry satisfaction'. Powellism would, surely, triumph in the old brute's former stamping ground and provide the ideas around which the Tories could revitalise themselves in opposition. Budgen lost on a 10 per cent swing to Labour's Jenny Jones.

    A New Era, free from bigotry and fear, seemed to have dawned. `Goodbye xenophobia,' sang the Observer 's lead headline. Six months later, Johnson, Bradshaw, Stuart and Jones pushed through Conservative cuts to the benefits of the poorest women and children in the country.


They tripped out of Church House on a bright May day and lined up in the Westminster sunshine for the defining picture of the New Era. Blair's babes exploded with colour and promise. When Fleet Street's cameramen instructed them to surround the leader, only the sourest critics noted the similarities between their pose and the shots of Playboy bunnies encircling Hugh Hefner. The 101 New Labour women dismissed the comparisons as patronising. They did not strip -- thank you very much -- and weren't babes or bunnies for that matter, but serious, principled politicians. Their success was not merely a victory for a clique of courtiers on the make, but a triumph for all the women of Britain. They would modernise the macho Commons just by being there, and place women's concerns at the centre of the nation's affairs.

    Maria Eagle, the newly elected Labour MP for Liverpool Garston, was confident that `male-dominated' Westminster was dead, because `The fact that there are so many of us will change the way things are run in the House and in the country.' Shona McIsaac, MP for Cleethorpes, believed that the women's magazines Chat and Bella , where she used to earn a crust, were forces for emancipation. Cherie Blair read the glossies and through her they were influencing her husband's politics. `If you look at Tony Blair's speeches, you will see that they're softer, more compassionate.' Who could doubt the feminisation of the Labour Party, when the previous year Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman had promised to reverse an attack on the income of single mothers? The Conservatives had decided to cut additional income support (worth £4.95 a week per mother) and additional child benefit (worth £6.05). From the opposition benches Harman developed the obvious but none the less reasonable argument that you do not help the poor by `plunging them further into poverty'. She echoed Chris Pond, the articulate director of the Low Pay Unit. The loss of benefit, he said, `was particularly spiteful, given that it only raises £300 million. This is small change for the Treasury, but will make it much harder for families to make ends meet.'

    Labour's opposition did not survive election victory. Within weeks it embraced the doctrine that the poor were poor because they were stealing all our money. The feckless mares would have to live on less. Harman, as a female colleague said, `made her career standing up for women and is now standing on their backs'. There is talk of the Parliamentary Labour Party rebelling. I'd sooner expect to see veal calves savaging butchers, but if a revolt takes place it will be too late. Dissident MPs are objecting to a social security bill which will cut £40 million from the child benefit budget. Far greater penalties were imposed at a meeting of the Commons social security standing committee when Labour MPs agreed that from April 1998 new single parents will lose special rates of income support and contributions to council tax and housing bills.

    Joining New Labour is like joining the Mafia -- you must kill what you love to prove your loyalty to the capo -- and the MPs who had shouted loudest about the the triumph of women were put on the committee and ordered to fight the class war against the poor. Eagle and McIsaac were there. So was Caroline Flint, New Labour MP for the very Old Labour Don Valley, who had appeared alongside McIsaac in a fashion shoot of five `sexy, stylish and spirited' politicians in Elle . It's `time to get some glamour into politics,' she told the magazine. The whips also recruited Siobhain McDonagh, a new MP whose first recorded intervention at a Labour Party conference began: `I'm a real Cosmo girl. Cosmo is more influential than the New Statesman .'

    Now, I've bumped into members of the 1997 intake of Labour MPs over the years and would have said, even on election night, that no matter how right wing and unscrupulous they appeared, whatever else they did in the future, the remnants of their youthful feminism and egalitarianism would stop them picking on women and children. Here was a line in the sand, albeit a long way up the beach. I'm therefore likely to become a bit of a bore on this subject now that the hope that there are some things they wouldn't do, on principle, has proved a chimera. I don't think anyone who believed a Labour government would make life slightly better for the poor could read the record of the committee hearing without embarrassed disgust. New Labour's spirited representatives sat through a meeting determining the livelihoods of 1.5 million women like hirelings from an escort agency at a tycoon's party. They looked stylish -- maybe even sexy -- and said absolutely nothing. Pond, who is neither, was told to join them and could not find the words he found the year before or the courage to vote against the cuts he had previously deplored.

    It was left to Damian Green -- a Tory man, of all things -- to ask if it was for this that they `spent years in the political wilderness as Labour activists, hoping to become members of Parliament'. No one answered. Afterwards shyness prevented many going on the record. I phoned Maria Eagle's office on a Thursday. `I had a word, she won't have time to talk to you,' her secretary said.

    `Friday or Saturday, then?'

    `She'll be in her constituency, she won't have time.'

    `It'll only take a minute.'


    Eagle is clearly rushed off her feet. One New Woman did chat anonymously. She dismissed the evidence that two-thirds of single parents live below the poverty line with a remark that would be endorsed in the nineteenth holes of every Home Counties golf club: `These aren't desperate people. Most of them have got men somewhere in the background.' She continued in this dreary vein, until my prodding about breaking promises and letting down supporters led her to say it all in two sentences. `I appreciate there were some people who voted for us who thought we would make a difference. They didn't understand.' Silly of them, really.

    Flint in public and others in private said they were happy to see cuts because Labour's plans to take the poor from welfare into work would counter impoverishment and forgot to add that Welfare to Work is not aimed at women with children under five. A single mother now on benefit who takes an insecure job will be £4.95 a week worse off if it falls through and she returns to the dole after April 1998, when the new regime begins. The government has given her every incentive to stay at home and carry on collecting the money because existing claimants will not be affected by the cuts. She will be in a classic poverty trap. Single mothers in low-paid work will be £10.25 a week worse off from June and may well decide to live on benefit instead. Labour has approved an absolute cut in the living standards of single mothers in low-paid jobs, of unemployed mothers who want to work after 1 April and of mothers who stay at home because -- heaven forfend! -- they love their children and don't want to dump them in slum nurseries.

    Stephen Pound, an eager young MP, maintained at a private meeting of the Parliamentary party that women were foolish to complain about the loss of trivial sums: `It's no more than the price of a couple of packets of cigarettes,' he said, neatly articulating the new establishment's distaste for fag-smoking slags without personal trainers. Denis MacShane did his chances of promotion no harm by saying that single mothers were recipients of `state charity'. Only Old Labour MPs -- Alice Mahon, Helen Jackson, Maria Fyfe and Ann Clwyd -- said that £10 buys several meals, and that a party which professes to believe in `inclusion' should not dismiss help for the weakest as charity. Their best friends wouldn't call them glamorous and they will never appear in Elle , but they at least know the difference between politics and power-worship.

    While Blair's babes sat silently as the cuts went through, a group of single mothers at the back of the Commons committee room forcefully compared them to the Stepford Wives. In the film, intelligent women were turned into robots, programmed to cry in ecstasy when their repellent masters screwed them. It is a faintly sexist comparison, but a simile does not fail because it will not pass in polite society. This analogy collapses because the babes will be fine. It's their constituents who are about to be shafted.

Observer November 1997


Imagine (if you can) being a New Labour MP. The party you thought gave voters a left-of-centre alternative has left the left and is taking a sharp right out of the centre. Your pager tells you what to do. The Prime Minister, whose wife once said she wouldn't have the Sun in the house, now ushers its proprietor to the easy chairs in the Downing Street study. The ministers you admire are impotent. Cabinet government has been replaced by a monarch's court.

    Briefly, your glum meditation is brightened by a happy if paradoxical thought. The supposed control freaks are giving away control. Like Lear, they are dividing up the kingdom and handing out freedom to Labour MPs and party members; to the Scots, the Welsh, Londoners and anyone else who wants an elected mayor or regional assembly. There's a closing-down sale in Whitehall and every centralised power must go, gift-wrapped in boxes labelled devolution, modernity and choice. You start to cheer up, then the whips spoil it all. They send you a ballot paper where you can express your choice on who should sit on the National Executive Committee, Labour's ruling body. The form must have been printed in North Korea. Although you thought you might nominate any colleague who impressed you, the boxes where you were to identify your favourite MPs have been filled already by the Government machine with the pre-printed names of Anne Begg, Clive Soley and Pauline Green, two Westminster politicians and one Euro-pol. You make inquiries and discover that if you decide not to endorse the leadership's preferences you will have to fill in another form and make a dangerous public declaration that you are off-message.

    Oh, well, what about ordinary, decent Labour Party members, surely they can pick who they want in the people's section of the NEC? After all, Tony has taken power away from union barons and given it to the party. But democracy has become a complicated business. A marketing company has been hired at great expense to cold call the members and tell them to vote for the leadership's favoured candidates. The rank and file will be told to dismiss Mark Seddon, the amiable editor of Tribune (who reminds you of your younger self) and his left-of-centre slate as Trotskyist wreckers who will bring back the division and poison of the Eighties. From the look of him Seddon must have been in nappies when Benn was in full flood.

    Your eyes turn north to Scotland, where Labour men and women standing for the new Parliament must, you hope against hope, be able to free themselves from metropolitan fixers. They're a fierce bunch up there, who don't take kindly to English bullies. But, and your soul is numbed by yet another but, but even in Scotland a panel is vetting candidates, blackballing those whose bearing or views are not slick and correct. Murray Elder, a kind man who worked for John Smith (remember him?), has been banned, along with Dennis Canavan, a left-wing MP who supported devolution in the days when other comrades (memo to mouth: never utter that word again) were hostile.

    You have heard in the Westminster bars about the case of Ian Davidson. Everyone knows his persona is non grata because he leads the trade union rights campaign in the Commons. Anonymous `sources' -- why don't they bloody come out in the open? -- deny he's been blacklisted for being a leftie (the very thought!). Good grief, no. Davidson made an unforgivable political error. He arrived at his panel interview in a T-shirt. What a slob. Obviously unfit for office. The fact that his trousers were smart and, he assures you, the T-shirt was actually a polo shirt of which he is rather proud, could not save him. Nor could his plea that he was going on to play for a Labour team in a charity football match. It was Sunday -- a scorching Sunday at that. You'd never have guessed that prized rarity, a hot Scottish day, could be used against you.

    Is Wales safe? No. There are panels vetting candidates for the principality and for local council elections. The Mayor of London? It's been made painfully clear that the people will be allowed to vote for anyone they want, as long as it's not Red Ken. European elections? Ah, here you come to the mother of all buts. For Europe we have chosen a system of proportional representation the Stasi would have rejected as hopelessly biased. The party's `closed list' will mean it is Millbank apparatchiks, not the electorate, who decide which Labour candidates win.

    In your heart you know that Parliament will be next; that panels will soon be vetting Labour MPs, throwing out supporters of union rights and those who, wilfully pushing old ideologies to the extreme, insist on wearing polo shirts on Sunday. You realise that Britain will soon be a collection of truly weird islands. People will be voting almost monthly in referendums and on citizens' juries; in parish, local, mayoral, regional, Parliamentary and Euro elections. Yet the only Labour candidates the exhausted electors will be able to support will be Blairite. The public will, you think, have all the freedom of choice of a shopaholic in an Albanian supermarket.

    You think. You don't say.

Observer May 1998


In 1970 DeAnne Julius, a young and by several accounts bright American, left the University of California in Santa Barbara and joined the CIA during one of the ugliest periods in its history. Her career choice would not have disturbed far-right Americans with no qualms about the CIA-inspired massacres in Vietnam and their country's decision to create the conditions for Pol Pot's victory by bombing Cambodia `back to the Stone Age'. What is surprising is that it has not prevented a Labour government from putting a former agent of a foreign power on the Bank of England's monetary committee.

    Gordon Brown's decision to end democratic control over the setting of interest rates gave Julius her entrée into British politics. Ever since their elevation, Julius and her colleagues have decided what homeowners and businesses should pay for their mortgages and loans and, indirectly, set the rate of the pound for exporters. Julius is 48 and is described by her friends as an open woman. She closes up when asked about her past. She confirms she did work for the CIA as an analyst based in the United States.

    `It was just a civil service job,' she said. `I was looking at the economy of Ceylon as it was then called.'

    `Why? What was the CIA's interest?'

    `I'm not prepared to discuss it.'

    A CIA spokeswoman was equally vague. She described Julius's labours as `classified academic research'. This meant, she explained, that Julius would have provided financial commentaries based on secret information. She was pleased to hear her former colleague was at the heart of British economic policy. Her job was `a logical progression,' she told the Scotsman : `a good assignment'. There is a faint possibility that Julius did mention her life as a spook before Brown appointed her. The Chancellor's aides say they knew nothing and there is no mention of her time with the CIA in the potted biography issued by the Bank of England. But now Brown knows, he says her covert past does not trouble him. `She was just a number cruncher,' explained an insouciant Treasury official. `It's very hard to find American economists who have not worked for the CIA. We wanted her because she's very good. She gives the bank credibility.'

    The Treasury's justification was feeble to the point of infirmity. Our civil servant does not explain why an American is running monetary policy. Nor does he recognise that thousands of American economists would not work for the CIA. `Credible' was not an adjective many would have used to describe the agency in the early Seventies, when its role in inciting the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende's elected government in Chile -- and in the mass murder and torture that followed -- was exposed along with its involvement in the Vietnam atrocities and the grotesque betrayal of the Kurds of northern Iraq. (They were encouraged to rise against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned to his tender mercies when he did what the US wanted and stopped troubling the Shah of Iran, America's client.) Even US legislators were troubled and ordered the first and only robust inquiry into CIA outrages. But Julius does not appear to have been bothered.


Copyright © 1999 Nick Cohen. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-07:
Readers looking for a fresh perspective on contemporary Britain should run, not walk, to find this new book. Cohen, a columnist for the Observer in London, is a spirited essayist, and his pieces on the foibles and hypocrisies of Tony Blair's Labour government are brimming with wit and insight. Cohen is certainly no fan of the current prime minister or his entourage, which he describes as a "bickering and faintly risible elite, whose ranks are filled with old Thatcherites, downsizing executives, aging media monopolists and New Labour modernizers smelling slightly stale after less than two years in power." Elsewhere, he says that the "British elite may not govern wisely, but if you cover its absurdities it brings moments of exultant pleasure." These sharp jabs are accompanied by incisive forays into crime, corruption, public policy, and the judicial process, drawing on extensive research. This is the sort of collection that can restore a reader's faith in journalism. Recommended for all libraries.ÄKent Worcester, Marymount Manhattan Coll., New York (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-07-05:
A leftist British journalist, Cohen is the kind of writer who must relish making enemies. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party cohorts are his main targets in this collection of columns on politics and society that were previously published in the British press, mostly in the Observer. Cohen's big issue is that Blair's New Labor has mimicked its Conservative Thatcherite predecessors. As he writes in his introduction: "The same themes kept being heard, the same vices were displayed, only the suits were different." Cohen's caustic tone indicates that he feels personally betrayed that Blair's government hasn't adhered to the unionist politics that Cohen obviously favors. With the class-based anger that is a tradition in England, he also takes on the legal system, psychologists and the media. Occasionally, as in a piece criticizing Britain's unwillingness to impose trade sanctions on Burma's military regime for its support of the drug trade, Cohen hits his mark. As often as not, however, his razor pen misses, as in a McCarthyesque column excoriating Labor for hiring an economic consultant who once worked for the CIA. To most readers, the sum total of these columns will add up to a dogmatic voice from the leftist wilderness. Of course, a minority will relish the questions he raises, and more than a minority will take pleasure from the sharpest jottings of his poison pen. But even Americans who share his views (and those who feel toward Bill Clinton the way Cohen feels toward Blair) will have to be avid followers of British politics and society to fully appreciate this collection. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, July 1999
Publishers Weekly, July 1999
Wall Street Journal, August 1999
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Bowker Data Service Summary
Nick Cohen has been a consistently sharp and witty scourge of Tony Blair and his bandwagon babes, whether he is tearing into Labour's plans for the prison system or the government's dealings with the money traders, as shown in these writings.
Main Description
While the rest of the media lounge in the warm glow of New Labour's rosy dawn, one journalist in Britain has been a consistently sharp and witty scourge of Tony Blair and his bandwagon babes. Step forward Nick Cohen, denizen of the Observer newspapers celebrated 'Hold on a Minute' column and a writer who has regularly identified Labour's Third Way as the mid-point between truth and lies, decency and hypocrisy, honesty and corruption.
Main Description
While the rest of the media lounge in the warm glow of New Labour's rosy dawn, one journalist in Britain has been a consistently sharp and witty scourge of Tony Blair and his bandwagon babes. Step forward Nick Cohen, denizen of the "Observer" newspaper's celebrated 'Hold on a Minute' column and a writer who has regularly identified Labour's Third Way as the mid-point between truth and lies, decency and hypocrisy, honesty and corruption. Whether he is tearing into Labour's plans to privatize the prison system and introduce curfews for teenagers, or detailing the government's cozying up to Rupert Murdoch and the hot money traders in the City, Cohen maintains a peerless grasp on the power that flows from fusing invective with scrupulous investigation. Even Downing Street Policy Advisor Andrew Adonis was forced to concede that 'no one is better at getting under the Government's skin'. A coruscating barrage of dispatches from his sniper's post, "Cruel Britannia" celebrates Cohen's lonely stand. It will revivify the disillusioned who anticipated something better from Labour's ascent and fortify those on the left who expected little and received precisely that.
Unpaid Annotation
A coruscating barrage on Tony Blair's New Labour, from the celebrated Observer columnist.
Table of Contents
Introductionp. 1
Portraits from a new erap. 7
Ethics and efficacyp. 53
Rights and responsibilitiesp. 75
The news is what we say it isp. 123
UK plcp. 172
Focus group fascismp. 208
Afterwordp. 229
Indexp. 240
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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