was the chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, with a reputation as a maverick, when Nick Spencer met him in Westminster on 9 June 2014 and tried to work him out.
Photography: Andrew Firth
What did you inherit from your parents in terms of attitudes and values?
My father was an officer in the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards and I spent the first 10, 12 years of my life, you know, living in places like Munster and Detmold with the British Army of the Rhine. They were a very particular kind of people, because they were driven by a set of values which were to do with service.
Was there a particular notion of Britishness?
Yes, very much. A notion that Britain was about tolerance, and decency. Virtually everything I write now, I think, is guided by my parents in that way.
There is something much more enduring than political parties or TV or… I’m not putting this very well, but Britain is a sort of collective identity: whoever we are, wherever we come from, no matter what our background or colour, we are all British. And I was taught that in the whole history of this island the greatest moment was World War 2, when we came together to fight the madness of Nazism and money didn’t matter at all and it was simply a matter of serving your country.
Actually, I’ve just been out with my father’s regiment to the beach where they landed on D-Day…
Would the man you are today be recognisable to the person you were 40 years ago?
I think so. We all go on various journeys in life and try to assimilate things and become a different type of person and so on; but I think that at some point one tends to return to the values one got from one’s parents.
At the age of 16 or 17, I was searching for the truth and I felt that Marxism was a key to unlock it. I read virtually all of Das Kapital. It was almost unreadable
You read history at university. Did that study confirm or erode the idea of Britishness you’d grown up with?
History as taught at Cambridge in the 1970s was basically a destructive thing: you were meant to analyse, in a very sceptical way, the various propositions that guided… They were taught simply to be myths, almost, or fabrications. So, it was quite difficult to cope with.
And in any case I was trying very earnestly to be a Marxist at the time!
Was that just a student affectation?
Well… At the age of 16 or 17 in the mid 1970s you looked at society and – it was half-baked, indeed it was rather conformist, but you thought that the world was unjust and you had to change it. I remember vividly that I was searching for the truth and I felt that Marxism was a key to unlock it. I read virtually all of Das Kapital.
It was almost unreadable, most of it.
I also read a lot of incomprehensible French philosophers like [Louis] Althusser, who has now completely gone out of fashion, and Sartre.
Did you take anything lasting from it, do you think?
It was an enormous waste of time and effort, I think.
Funnily enough, thanks to reading books like Francis Wheen’s wonderful book on Marx,1Karl Marx: A life (Fourth Estate, 1999) I sort of get the point now: that Marx was really a very good journalist. The Communist Manifesto is brilliantly written – I mean, sensational.
After Cambridge, you attempted to write a novel…
I started a PhD. I hung around doing research, and actually at that stage I really felt that I had some great historical work inside me. I still do, to some extent… I still do. But it was quite clear I wasn’t going to go down that academic route and so I gave that up and went into the City. But it was quite clear that I was wildly unsuited to that, too.
I think I have too general a mind, really. What I was no good at – or just not interested enough in – is that deep attention to legal or accounting detail.
I was so appalled, after what I’d been brought up to believe about politics and how it was done, to arrive in Westminster and hear people lie, all the time…
What I did come away with, though – I think it is very important to say this – is a sense of the great integrity of City institutions. I worked for N M Rothschild & Sons in a very junior sort of capacity on an offer-for-sale document (which is to sell stocks and shares) and, you know, the sense was that you really couldn’t tell lies of any kind, or make any statement that was even misleading. All of the people who worked there were of exceptionally high calibre – in fact, I met my wife there – and people of very high personal integrity.
I mean, compare an offer-for-sale document in the City and Tony Blair’s dossier of September 2002,which was to sell the need for an invasion of Iraq.2‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The assessment of the British Government’ asserted that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and had revived its nuclear weapons programme. The foreword by Tony Blair declared: ‘The document discloses that [Saddam Hussein’s] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them’ – enabling the Sun to announce: ‘Brits 45mins from Doom’. The dossier was so shoddy – and if it had been a City offer-for-sale document, the chairman of the company would have gone to jail, [and so would] the directors, the finance director and the PR people.
Perhaps that difference in standards is less between the City and the political world than between Britain in the early 1980s, say, and Britain in the early 2000s.
I think there’s an element of that; but I think also there is a difference in approach between banking, in which contracts have to be adhered to, and politics, in which on the whole they are there to be broken.
I wrote my book The Rise of Political Lying3The Rise of Political Lying (The Free Press, 2005) because I was so appalled… There was a now-forgotten Cabinet minister called Stephen Byers who lied [on national television in 2001].4See, for example, bit.ly/1kFriTl. I was expecting Blair to sack him, instead of which he protected him. And I was so angry about that – actually, I was in church and a light bulb went off on my head and I said: I’m going to write a book about this!
After what I’d been brought up to believe about politics and how it was done, to arrive in Westminster and hear people lie, all the time…
Is that culture of lying genuinely new or was it merely hidden 30 years ago?
I think it’s new, and I think it’s a result of several things. One is the emergence of postmodernism. [Jacques] Derrida and [Michel] Foucault argued that truth was just something you played with, a manifestation of power; and you can see that attitude towards truth echoed in the language of people like [Peter] Mandelson (and, to some extent, Blair). The intelligent New Labour people talked about ‘creating the truth’.
I think that some of it came from the United States of America, and some of it was Marxism, where the end justifies the means and so it’s OK to lie, to cheat… There’s a very good book by Thomas Sowell, the American philosopher, called A Conflict of Visions,5A Conflict of Visions: Ideological origins of political struggles (William Morrow & Co, 1987; rev’d 2007) which sets out very beautifully, actually, this distinction between what he calls ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ thought. The ‘conservatives’ are suspicious of grand schemes to change society because they take a humble view of what human beings can do, they don’t believe we are Godlike, they understand that attempts at sweeping radical social change tend to go wrong, whereas ‘progressive’ thinking prioritises, you know, these grand visions and is contemptuous, really, of what Marx called the ‘bourgeois’ virtues.
I think I’m a conservative; but I’ve noticed that I get more and more left-wing as I get older – certainly in terms of foreign policy. I no longer regard the British state as benign
That’s why, as a general rule, left-wing figures are more likely to become monstrous…
Let’s park that idea.
What political label would you be comfortable with yourself?
Well, I think I’m a conservative; but I’ve noticed that I get more and more left-wing as I get older.
Well, I – certainly in terms of foreign policy, I get more and more sceptical of the British state. Before ‘9/11’ and Iraq, I trusted the state and the security apparatus and I thought they were good people, doing patriotic things; but as a result of Iraq and what followed – the dossier business, the complicity in torture and terrible abuses of human rights, and our inability to come to terms with any of it, I no longer regard the British state as benign.
So, was Iraq an epiphany for you?
Very much. Politically, it changed me profoundly, because I suddenly found myself agreeing with the Stop the War Coalition about quite a lot of things. Their foreign-policy judgements have been far wiser than those of the main political parties or the Foreign Office or the intelligence services or whatever.
In a blog for the Daily Telegraph, you argued that George Osborne’s tax policy ‘make[s] the rich richer at the same time as making the poor poorer’ and you said this was ‘squalid, immoral and disgusting’. Some people might see you as a rather unconventional Conservative.
I’d say I was reasonably in the mainstream conservative tradition of [the 18th-century political philosopher and Whig politician] Edmund Burke, a tradition of thought that values community and is very suspicious of both the state and the market. Burke was also very sound on overseas involvement.
Conservatism, you know, is the idea that ‘we’re all in it together.’ That’s a brilliant phrase. And ‘the Big Society’ – I really, really like that. And [David] Cameron’s early Demos speech,6bit.ly/1lmpLaE which basically said we have to build up civil society… But one of the things that has happened while he’s been in power is that the rich have got an awful lot richer, and it’s very dangerous – you know, that ultimately is the way societies collapse. In London, there really are two separate populations.
I wouldn’t call Osborne a conservative at all – I’d call him a free-marketeer. Actually, his intellectual formation appears to be very American, very Republican –and America is a different country with a fundamentally different sense of values, and Republicanism is a totally different kettle of fish to British Conservatism.
How did you find yourself becoming a journalist in 1985?
Blair was a very appealing proposition – the idea that he was neither right nor left, [that] he was going to change Britain. I definitely fell for it. Partly because I wanted to
Well, when I left Rothschild’s I realised that I’d made a complete balls-up of my twenties – and actually I’d always wanted to be a journalist really. I don’t know why I hadn’t sort of done it straight away, actually.
I used the fact that I knew about finance to get into financial journalism and I turned out to be very good at writing newspaper articles. I remember my first day at the Financial Weekly, sitting in front of this typewriter and feeling entirely at home…
And how did you find yourself in political journalism?
I had enormous fun at the Financial Weekly and then I went to the Evening Standard, and one day in 1992 the [then] editor, Mr Paul Dacre, asked me if I’d go into the Lobby, which I did. I was not very well equipped for it and I owe the political editor of the Standard an enormous debt, because he tolerated me being very bad at writing news. I really owe my career to a lot of people.
Journalism has a reputation for being as cut-throat as politics, but that has not been your experience, has it?
I’m not sure that politics is that cut-throat, to be honest. Is journalism cut-throat? It’s quite cosy, quite a lot of it. The Lobby, once it accepts you, looks after you.
You’ve talked about the change you’ve observed in the culture of British politics. Have you seen a similar change in the culture of political journalism?
Well, there have been three phases, actually. I went into political journalism when we were just coming to the end of the Thatcher period, when [relations with the media] were quite disciplined. And then came Major, when it was free rein. After Black Wednesday,7The day Britain was forced to leave the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM), 16 September 1992 the view was that Major was a contemptible, weak man, a figure of fun. It was outrageous. He’d actually just won an election with the biggest popular vote in our history – 14.1 million. It was an enormous achievement, yet the press became completely out of control. You had endless sex scandals, endless… Many of them were very cruel. It was the nastiest period of British journalism.
Some people kept away from it, but I’m ashamed to say that I joined in. The trouble was that if you wanted to get a story in the paper, you had to kind of jump onto that narrative, that the Government had been ‘plunged into another sleaze scandal’ or ‘a fresh economic crisis’. If you could find a sleaze scandal, there you were, you were away!
I’m being slightly – there are some things I’m quite proud of that I did during that time, too. But there’s no question at all that I was, you know, a junior member of John Major’s media firing squad.
If the press was, in your words, nasty and completely out of control, perhaps that accounts for what you call New Labour’s ‘mendacity’ towards it?
I definitely think there’s truth in that. In the Eighties, the senior figures around Thatcher and her ministers, the close advisers and handlers, tended to be civil servants, not media people. Major suddenly becomes the victim of the media, and then Blair surrounds himself with people like Alastair Campbell, who’d worked for [the Daily Mirror], and Peter Mandelson, who’d been at London Weekend TV. They were both formed in the media – protecting Neil Kinnock, actually, against the Tory press – and they felt that the media were so contemptible that you could do or say anything to them and it was justified, because you were protecting Blair.
When Blair won power in 1997, were you caught up in the euphoria?
Oh, definitely – I very nearly, you know… Blair was a very appealing proposition – you know, the idea that he was neither right nor left, he was somewhere in the middle, he took on the left, you know, he was going to change Britain. I definitely fell for it. Partly because I wanted to.
Though I found Gordon Brown a more attractive figure than Blair…
He just struck me as having a more broadly-based personal morality to him.
So, when did it all turn sour for you?
What was the key…? When did it start to fall to bits for me? It was partly that the press was so sycophantic to New Labour – it literally couldn’t do anything wrong. There was a period from about ’96 to ’99, or even 2000, when you couldn’t get an anti-Labour story into the newspapers. The press was pathetic. Grovelling. From ’97 to 2003, it was quite like – I mean, it wasn’t, but it was quite like being in a one-party state in some ways.
I wrote my book about Alastair Campbell8Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the rise of the media class (Aurum Press, 1999) because I wanted to understand how that government worked – he was then the second-most powerful person in the country, quite a lot of people thought. And, as a result of writing that, I did understand how it worked – and I understood things that did not become apparent until years later, like [the conflict between] Blair and Brown, like the centralisation, the way Labour sought to politicise…
The idea of the British state is that huge parts of it are neutral: the Civil Service, the armed forces… You know, huge parts of the British polity can work equally well with right or left. New Labour set out very carefully to create a society in which the civil servants had to be New Labour, the generals had to be New Labour, the spooks – this terrible moment when the Secret Intelligence Service became New Labour – the leaders of all the charities, I regret to say, and (I think I’m right in saying this) the church.
I know that your wife is a priest in the Church of England. Are you a practising Christian?
I go to church, yes.
What influence has that had on you?
The Church of England is very attractive. I think that the beauty of the language and the beauty of the buildings, the way it has been constructed, as I understand it, to enable people to live together – you know, it’s a compromise between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation, so there’s something very tolerant about it…
You can learn so much from studying Jesus: the willingness to walk alone, the willingness to take on establishments, the determination to speak the truth, the readiness in the end to go to the cross…
So, your attachment is more cultural than doctrinal?
Very much. I understand that there are various factions within the Church of England. They bore me to death.
Do the doctrines not matter?
I believe that Jesus Christ existed. I read the Gospels and I study his life. I think he’s a fantastic… You can learn so much from studying Jesus – the willingness to walk alone, the willingness to take on establishments, the determination to speak the truth, the readiness in the end to go to the cross… So, yeah… We all should…
Many of the things you write must anger a lot of people. For example, you have denounced the pro-Israel lobby…
We’re actually incredibly lucky in this country. I mean, I’ve travelled a lot in countries where journalists get tortured or killed for writing the sort of things I do. Here what you get is, you might not get invited to a drinks party. Or you might not be given a briefing – or maybe, in certain extreme circumstances, an attempt is made to dislodge you from your job. That’s as far as it goes. I mean, when you’ve seen what courageous journalists face elsewhere, it really is nothing. It’s nothing.
Still, you are publicly vilified. Do you just shrug that off?
I think you should be prepared to be publicly vilified – and I don’t think that any of us are prepared enough to be, because obviously it can affect your living, and your family perhaps. I think that in order to [face] that, you have to have thought through what you’re saying.
I’ll give you an example. When the Syrian [civil war broke out], it was reported as an evil dictator waging single-handed war against his own people, and the opposition were represented on the whole as virtuous liberals being gunned down in the streets. I’d never been to Syria but I could see that that was not an entirely accurate representation and I wondered whether I should write a piece saying: Stick with Assad. I wish I had now. It’s not that he hasn’t got terrible crimes on his record, but it’s perfectly obvious that the people against him are, if anything, worse. Now you’ve got great tracts of that part of the world in which Isis are enforcing their dark, nihilistic perversion of Islam. And it was all predictable.
The reason I didn’t have the courage to write that piece is, I didn’t know enough about it. To have written it, I’d have had to spend six weeks in Syria, so that I was comfortable going on Newsnight – because if you write such a piece you have got to be prepared to take on all comers and defend it.
Would you say you enjoy a fight?
Yes, I think I do enjoy a fight.
Who do you admire among your fellow journalists?
I think the next great British politician will be the man or woman who goes back to what Britain stands for and doesn’t try to mimic the United States of America
I think Nick Davies of the Guardian is an astonishingly admirable figure. He did the research that [opened up] the phone-hacking scandal, and he did it by just working away, using proper journalistic methods. Before that, he wrote Flat Earth News10Flat Earth News: An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media (Chatto & Windus, 2008) and he did extraordinary work on the health service.11Murder on Ward Four (Chatto & Windus, 1993)
Obviously, we’re all formed by [George] Orwell…
And among politicians?
Well, I greatly admire Iain Duncan Smith12Interviewed for High Profile in February 2012 because of the way he coped with the humiliation of losing the leadership [of the Conservative Party], and then the work he did on welfare in opposition. I think that was extraordinary. You know, he’s worked out a different way to look at the welfare state, which under Labour, I think, had become too much a way to keep people on the dole, leading lives of dependency, unable to realise their potential. It may not be working perfectly, but…
I very much admire the way Ed Miliband has led the Labour Party, though he’s got all kinds of problems.
I think David Cameron is transforming Britain, on the domestic front. The reason he has been successful is that, first, he really prepared in opposition and, second, he has got great reforming ministers who he doesn’t try to interfere with too much: Duncan Smith, Michael Gove,13Interviewed for High Profile in March 2010 to some extent [Jeremy] Hunt now, definitely (to some extent) [Theresa] May.14Interviewed for High Profile in February 2003 I think he’s restoring the style of government we had before Thatcher. I think it was Jim Callaghan who said: The easiest job in the Cabinet is being Prime Minister, because you don’t actually have to do anything, you just let your ministers get on with it – whereas Thatcher and, above all, Blair took a view that they do what you tell them.
I really admire this government. I mean, obviously there are certain things I criticise Cameron for – I think his foreign policy is hopeless. I think that’s one thing we [need] to see in Britain: a politician at the top level who can step away from the United States of America.
You seem to be very critical of the US.
Internationally, America has become an embarrassment. Its contempt for international law, its refusal to join the [International Criminal Court], the apparently targeted assassinations, the random killing of foreigners in Pakistan, and Yemen, with no court of law, nothing – America is a real menace to world peace. And it’s troubling for a proud country like Britain – our history of tolerance and decency and the rule of law is tarnished by some things, but that’s what we stand for – to be joined at the hip with a rogue state. And also with its social values – you know, the worship of money.
I think the next great British politician will be the man or woman who goes back to what Britain stands for and doesn’t try to mimic the United States of America. I mean, the other day Cameron was asked a question and he said: ‘I’m going to take the Fifth Amendment.’ I mean, what’s that all about? You’re not President of the United States, you’re Prime Minister, you know? We’re Britain, not America, yeah?
I think that we need to go back to the basic insights about what it is to be British.
What do you think your contribution to that should be?
Well, I think that I have to spell out – and I do try to do this – a system of ideas, and expose structures which – which need exposing.
To be honest, I’m lucky: I’m 56 and for the first time in my life I don’t have an overdraft. I have a column a week to write, and that’s not much; and I couldn’t give a damn if no politician ever spoke to me again. I’d actually be happier if they didn’t, in many ways. And so I have no excuse not to go out and tell the truth as I see it, in the time I have left.
This edit was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||Karl Marx: A life (Fourth Estate, 1999)|
|⇑2||‘Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The assessment of the British Government’ asserted that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and had revived its nuclear weapons programme. The foreword by Tony Blair declared: ‘The document discloses that [Saddam Hussein’s] military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them’ – enabling the Sun to announce: ‘Brits 45mins from Doom’.|
|⇑3||The Rise of Political Lying (The Free Press, 2005)|
|⇑4||See, for example, bit.ly/1kFriTl.|
|⇑5||A Conflict of Visions: Ideological origins of political struggles (William Morrow & Co, 1987; rev’d 2007)|
|⇑7||The day Britain was forced to leave the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM), 16 September 1992|
|⇑8||Alastair Campbell: New Labour and the rise of the media class (Aurum Press, 1999)|
|⇑9||See, for example, bit.ly/36fyNji.|
|⇑10||Flat Earth News: An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media (Chatto & Windus, 2008)|
|⇑11||Murder on Ward Four (Chatto & Windus, 1993)|
|⇑12||Interviewed for High Profile in February 2012|
|⇑13||Interviewed for High Profile in March 2010|
|⇑14||Interviewed for High Profile in February 2003|
Peter Oborne was born in 1957 in Poole. He was educated at Sherborne School and read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1978.
After a stab at a PhD, he got a job in the corporate finance department of N M Rothschild in 1981, but quit after three years. He tried to write a novel, and then found employment with the Financial Weekly.
In 1986, he moved to the Evening Standard’s City office. He was poached by the Daily Telegraph, but after ‘crawling back to the Standard and spending two years as a casual’ he was made a junior political reporter. In 1996, he joined the Sunday Express as a political commentator, writing also for the daily.
He was political editor of the Spectator from 2001 to 2006, when he became the chief political columnist at the Daily Mail. Since 2010, he has been the chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph. He remains an associate editor of the Spectator.
Besides his biographies of Alastair Campbell (1999) and Basil D’Oliveira (2005) – which won two awards – he is the author of The Rise of Political Lying (2005), The Triumph of the Political Class (2007) and a history of cricket in Pakistan, Wounded Tiger (2014).
His pamphlets include ‘A Moral Duty to Act There’ (2003); ‘The Use and Abuse of Terror’ (2006); ‘Muslims under Siege’ (2008) and ‘The Pro-Israel Lobby in Britain’ (2009), both with James Jones; ‘Churchill’s Legacy: The Conservative case for the Human Rights Act’ (2009), with Jesse Norman; ‘Guilty Men’ (2011), with Frances Weaver; and ‘A Dangerous Delusion: Why the Iranian nuclear threat is a myth’ (2013), with David Morrison.
For Channel 4, he has made three documentaries with Paul Yule – Mugabe’s Secret Famine (2003) and Afghanistan: Here’s One We Invaded Earlier and Not Cricket: The Basil D’Oliveira conspiracy (both 2004) – and has presented Why Politicians Can’t Tell the Truth (2005) as well as many programmes for the long-running series ‘Dispatches’, including Gordon Brown: Fit for Office? (2007).
He was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2009 for work for the Daily Mail, Prospect and Channel 4.
He has been married since 1986 and has five children.
Up-to-date as at 1 July 2014