Gordon Brown, one of Jason Cowley's subjects Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler +++No resale, no archive+++

At the heart of the action

A magazine editor's entertaining essays on the politics and culture of the last 10 years
November 14, 2018

Jason Cowley has been close to the heart of UK politics for the past decade. He became editor of the New Statesman, the flagship magazine of the British left, in autumn 2008. At the same time, he has watched Britain’s evolution from the social democracy of Gordon Brown to David Cameron’s soft Conservatism, to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s hard leftism and, of course, Brexit.

The strength of this outstanding essay collection lies in Cowley’s access to the key players in British politics, his considerable powers of social and political analysis and his excellent prose style.

The collection is designed to make sense of a world that is defined by “entrenched wealth inequality, the mass movement of people… and astounding technological innovation and disruption.” It does that job. Cowley understands that as we moved from Thatcherism to Blairism we moved from “having a market economy to being a market society.” The backlash was inevitable.

And then there is the access. He takes a train ride with Gordon Brown, who has “the forlorn air of a man who believed himself to be profoundly misunderstood.” This is as good a description of Brown’s sense of victimhood and simultaneous belief in his own intellectual brilliance as I have read.

His profiles of the key players are always detailed, entertaining and on the mark. Cameron is “this charming man”—as Cowely gently but ruthlessly nails his profound superficiality. Jeremy Corbyn is, unsurprisingly, “the rebel,” the hapless Theresa May, the “Brexit Prime Minister” and Nigel Farage “the arsonist.”

Alongside the politics are his literary essays, with excellent pieces on Christopher Hitchens, Kazuo Ishiguro and John le Carré. As a guide to the political and cultural life of Britain over the most tumultuous decade since the war, Reaching for Utopia is superb. It entertains and elucidates—as all good books should.

Reaching for Utopia: Making Sense of an Age of Upheaval by Jason Cowley (Salt, £12.99)