I, Claud, and that damn worm

What is ‘the worm’? It is a line chart that records how a small sample of TV audience members are responding to what politicians are saying, as they’re saying it. It leapt into life in the UK during the prime ministerial debates and is now slithering into a dark corner of our collective unconscious. I hate it.

The worm is a fitting symbol for today’s personality-led politics. Forget policy, forget ideological difference, forget principles; the media agenda is led by the snap sentiments of a handful of individuals. If the worm turns, there’s a story. And so the leaders’ communications advisers work on ways to keep it happy – a softly ascending form of happy.

As anyone who has had their creative work ‘considered’ by a focus group will tell you, this is no way to assess big ideas, still less formulate principles and policy. Luke Johnson, Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts, captured the problems with such research-led methods in an excellent FT article in March. “Great breakthroughs in fields such as new product development are frequently achieved by avoiding surveys and committees altogether,” says Johnson. Ditto profound political principles, like celebrating the huge benefits of immigration and open borders.

How I have longed for Claud Cockburn to leap from the afterlife and hold all this timid, worm-headed political thinking up to inspection. I recommend an evening with ‘I, Claud’ when the electioneering finally leaves you cold. This book brings together Cockburn’s three volumes of autobiography published between 1956 and 61, and spans everything from his determination to set up an independent weekly political paper free of the controlling fingers of the establishment (he succeeded, it was called The Week) through to his days as a Times correspondent, a war reporter for the Daily Worker, a Punch columnist and a member of the editorial board of Private Eye. Along the way he describes his experiences as a combatant in the Spanish Civil War, an interviewer of world leaders during international crises (Hitler blacklisted him) and a long-term target of Special Branch.

Cockburn was an irritant to reactionaries, especially those in the Labour Party, and the wry wit in this book suggests he made for a formidable adversary and entertaining company. Along with the incision of his analyses into hubris, oppression, corruption and war, ‘I, Claud’ is sustained by an inspiring belief in our desire and ability to change the world for the better. Whether you lean his ideological way or not, you might find his optimism refreshing.


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