3 May 2017

Free Exchange: CapX meets Nick Cohen


Years before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, Nick Cohen had diagnosed the pathologies that led to his rise. Cohen – a columnist on The Observer and blogger for The Spectator – became first disillusioned and then enraged by how his colleagues on the Left would leap to the defence of any tyrant, not least Saddam Hussein, so long as he was anti-American.

The book that resulted, ‘What’s Left?’, is required reading for anyone who wants to understand where Corbyn came from – and why he’s got it so wrong. But Cohen is a fascinating and provocative writer on all manner of other issues: a passionate defender of the freedom of the press and an equally passionate critic of Brexit.

In this latest edition of our Free Exchange podcast, he spoke to me at CapX’s London offices about the state of the Left, the marooned Remainers, and making peace with his old sparring partner Tony Blair. (NB This interview was recorded before Theresa May called a snap election.)

Nick Cohen on… Brexit (2 mins)

“The way Brexit was sold to the British public – as if we can have it without tears – was just open mendacity. And I wonder what is going to happen when it turns out there is a price to pay for this. I do wonder how 17 million people who voted to Leave are going to react…

“They’re kind of anti-Churchillians, all these modern politicians. There’s never any blood, sweat, toil and tears. Everything is going to be easy. Everything is going to be fine.”

Nick Cohen on… growing up on the Left (5 mins)

“I grew up in a family where it was sort of axiomatic that the West was at least morally equivalent to the Soviet Union. What you protested about was Vietnam or the Greek colonels…. It’s this world, which you still see in Corbyn’s Labour Party, and the Greens and Lib Dems in a way, where what you know about is protesting against Western democracy… It took me probably until I was in my thirties to be able regard anyone who was Conservative as anything other than immoral.”

Nick Cohen on… the Iraq war (9 mins 30 secs)

“It wasn’t that people were opposed to Tony Blair or George W Bush. It was the way they went automatically in support of a regime you could genuinely describe as fascist. It had the great leader, the omnipresent terror state, the golden statues – and it actually gassed impure ethnic minorities.”

Nick Cohen on… why Corbyn will go on and on (14 mins 30)

“By the end of the Miners’ Strike, the miners are virtually starving – they’re begging for food. The union movement is broken. And someone asks Scargill: ‘How do you feel, Arthur?’ And Scargill comes out with one of the most terrifying lines in Left-wing history. He says: ‘I feel pure.’

“And Corbyn will be like that. Whatever happens now, he will feel pure. I don’t think he will give up the leadership. I don’t think it will matter if Labour go down to 55 seats, as they did in 1931. He’s got to keep going until he can hand it over to someone equally Left-wing. Otherwise he’ll be impure.”

Nick Cohen on… a liberal recovery (23 mins 30)

“Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but I do think the seeds of the next 1997 are being sown now. I do think that because the Right has chosen to go for the hardest Brexit they possibly can, there will be a big liberal realignment, and if you like a liberal backlash. I can’t prove it, but you can see it happening.”

Nick Cohen on… Tony Blair (25 mins)

“He called me in [before making his speech on Brexit] and said ‘Do you think I should do this, because so many people hate me?’ That wasn’t a verbatim quote… And I said, just get on with it. Speak.”

Nick Cohen on… the state of the Right (33 mins 30)

“After the crash, there is less thoughtfulness from believers in neo-liberalism and free-market economics than I would expect. Not just about what went wrong in 2008 but about the big, big questions of why average incomes are stagnating, productivity is stagnating. In other words, are the reforms generally associated with Thatcher and Reagan running out of steam, and if so what can be done?”

Nick Cohen on… the impact of Donald Trump (39 mins 30)

“All kinds of politicians are thinking, first, ‘we can lie’, and second, ‘when they expose us, we can say that they are the real liars’. It’s worked for Trump. Success in politics produces many imitators – and people are doing it on the scoundrel Left as much as the Right.”

You can listen to the full episode here:

Or catch up with our recent interviews with Daniel Hannan:

Peter Oborne:

And Lord Lawson:

To automatically receive the latest episode, just subscribe via iTunes.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX. His book 'The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster' is out now in paperback from Bloomsbury