Perpetual screaming: An interview with Simon Jenkins

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.

James Waddell is a journalist, writing about books, art and theatre for The Economist and elsewhere. He holds an MPhil in Renaissance Literature from the University of Cambridge, having defected from Oxford, where he read English and edited The Isis. He tweets at @james_waddell