R.W. Johnson

R.W. Johnson is an emeritus fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught politics and sociology for many years. His most recent books are How Long Will South Africa Survive? and Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age. He lives in Cape Town.

In​ his monumental biography of De Gaulle, Jean Lacouture describes a meeting of the Free French in London in 1941 at which several of the younger members expressed their admiration for Churchill. In response De Gaulle warned them ‘never to forget that within him breathes the soul of Pitt’. What he meant was that every true Englishman is, at least potentially, an opponent of...

Trump: Some Numbers

R.W. Johnson, 3 November 2016

Whatever our dismay about the US election result, this year was always meant to have been a Republican year. If you looked at the postwar presidencies that ran across two terms, and then at who won the mid-terms in the sixth year, you would have been able to predict the presidential result two years later in all but one or two cases. In 2014 the GOP heavily defeated the Democrats, gaining nine Senate seats, thus giving them a clear majority in both houses. On that basis alone any Republican should have won this year. If you add in the fact that the GOP went into this election holding the governership in 31 of the fifty states – a powerful fact once the state administration is effectively put behind the governor’s party – 2016 should have been a shoo-in for a Mitt Romney or a John McCain, especially against such an unpopular candidate as Hillary Clinton.

Already a Member: Clement Attlee

R.W. Johnson, 11 September 2014

There is an old​ Pathé News clip of Attlee being interviewed on the stump in 1950. He has so little to say that the interviewer, in some desperation, asks, ‘Have you anything to add, prime minister?’ to which Attlee replies: ‘No, I don’t think so.’ The idea of a modern politician turning down such a soundbite opportunity makes one sigh.

Similarly, Michael...

Forever on the Wrong Side: Jean Suret-Canale

R.W. Johnson, 27 September 2012

Jean Suret-Canale, or Suret as everyone called him, was one of the finest Marxist historians and geographers of the last century. A pioneering Africanist, his books on Francophone Africa were translated into many languages and won him a large audience in Africa, China, Russia and Eastern Europe. The lives of most historians are lived in the comfort of libraries and university departments and...

Running for Congress in Louisiana in 1961, Joe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat and militant segregationist, faced a tough challenge from the Republican candidate, a wealthy oilman called Charlton Lyons. Waggonner came up with a novel – and winning – argument: he warned that electing Lyons would help bring about a competitive two-party system in which a contest could easily be...

If the polls are right, the ANC will suffer its worst ever electoral reverse in the local elections due to be held in South Africa on 18 May. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, seems poised to win not only Cape Town, its main base, but to gain seats right across the country. In the Western Cape the DA will probably win a majority of towns and cities; it will make inroads in...

Living on the Edge: Nukes

R.W. Johnson, 28 April 2011

One of the unheralded heroes of the end of the Cold War was General Y.P. Maksimov, the commander in chief of the Soviet strategic rocket forces during the hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991. He made a pact with the heads of the navy and air force to disobey any order by the coup plotters to launch nuclear weapons. There was extreme concern in the West that the coup...

A Man without Regrets: Lloyd George

R.W. Johnson, 20 January 2011

Reading this Life of Lloyd George is like watching one of those old James Cagney movies where it’s established early on that the protagonist isn’t simply an anti-hero but, for all that he’s lionised, an irredeemable villain. The fun comes from watching him get away with all sorts of caddishness early on and then carry on the virtuoso act long after everyone has got his...

Diary: World Cup Diary

R.W. Johnson, 22 July 2010

R.W. Johnson’s article in this issue is taken from some of his blog posts during the South Africa 2010 World Cup. More of his posts, and those of some other LRB contributors, can be found at lrb.co.uk/blog/world-cup-2010/

6 June. South Africa is being worked up by an endless media barrage into a state of great excitement and expectancy about the World Cup. The advertising tends to stress...

Sudanitis: Au coeur des ténèbres

R.W. Johnson, 11 March 2010

When Captain Paul Voulet presented his plan for a new expedition to the minister of colonies in January 1898 he was accorded a good reception. He was, after all, a promising young officer whose previous mission to French Sudan had shown exemplary firmness towards the natives, and only a few months earlier the president of the republic, Félix Faure, had given him an audience. He proposed...

Diary: The World Cup

R.W. Johnson, 17 December 2009

The new Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit, on the edge of the Kruger National Park, is cheek-by-jowl with a large settlement of shacks. When the Franco-South African consortium arrived to construct this monstrosity, they said they needed one or two modern buildings (i.e. buildings with electricity and air conditioning, for it gets unpleasantly hot in the lowveld in summer) to house their accounts, architecture and surveying departments. The only two such buildings available were the local schools, so these were taken over and the children booted out.

Diary: Magdalen College

R.W. Johnson, 19 November 2009

Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William Waynflete, a farmer’s son who became the bishop of Winchester and chancellor of England, and so endowed the college as to make it the richest in Oxford or Cambridge until the foundation of Cardinal College (renamed Christ Church after Wolsey’s fall). It did no harm to Magdalen that Wolsey, who was one of its fellows, himself became...

A Formidable Proposition: D-Day

R.W. Johnson, 10 September 2009

In his account of D-Day Antony Beevor comes to many surprising conclusions: that the Germans were by far the better soldiers, more experienced, disciplined and confident; that their weapons were generally better, not just the Tiger and Panther tanks and the 88mm anti-tank gun but even their MG42 light machinegun, which was far superior to its British and American equivalents; that the Allies...

They had amputated the toes on my left foot and then, when the leg continued to swell, amputated my leg at the knee. But the poison had already invaded other parts of my body and all my systems – kidneys, lungs, heart etc – began to switch off. Multiple organ failure: that is, I began to die – that’s what dying is. I came close to fulfilling one of Woody Allen’s ambitions: ‘I don’t mind dying,’ he once said, ‘I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’

End of the Road: The Undoing of the ANC

R.W. Johnson, 20 November 2008

South Africa is midway through a political revolution attended by many uncertainties, but it is already clear that the African National Congress, which has ruled the country since 1994, will never again enjoy the moral authority it had in the early Mandela years. Corruption, factionalism and rank incompetence have seen to that, but it’s important not to overlook the lingering force of...

Short Cuts: Robbie Gets His Gun

R.W. Johnson, 25 September 2008

My friend Robbie’s always had a bit of a thing about guns. In a country like South Africa this is difficult to avoid. A murder rate of roughly four hundred a week and a rape every 26 seconds concentrates the mind. Since we got our freedom in 1994 we’ve had more than 270,000 murders. Once a government fails that badly to provide law and order any old Hobbesian will tell you that...

The sequence of events that produced the current deadlock in Zimbabwe began on 11 March last year when Morgan Tsvangirai and a number of other members of the Movement for Democratic Change were arrested, tortured and beaten. Robert Mugabe had banned all MDC meetings and rallies in the hope of suppressing the MDC completely before this year’s elections.

The Second World War is the conflict that shaped all our lives and will go on shaping lives for generations to come. Looking at it in terms of the key decisions that determined its course and outcome – all of them taken in a period of about eighteen months – could have had the effect of disposing of the war as the sort of heroic recitation that too much TV history has turned it...

Rivonia Days: remembering the trial

R.W. Johnson, 16 August 2007

The political climate in South Africa when the Rivonia trial began in November 1963 was so poisonous that Joel Joffe, then a young lawyer, took the case on only because he had already decided to emigrate. Two years later, he wrote up his lively insider’s view of the trial and allowed Lionel Bernstein, the only defendant to get off, to rewrite it to the point of virtual co-authorship. It...

Ducking and Dodging: Agent Zigzag

R.W. Johnson, 19 July 2007

In December 1940, Ben Macintyre’s anti-hero, Eddie Chapman, was in jail in Jersey – he already had a long record, including everything from safe-breaking to blackmail – when the Nazi occupiers threw a young hotel dishwasher, Tony Faramus, into the same jail; Faramus became Chapman’s cellmate and friend. At Chapman’s suggestion they both offered to spy for the...

Up the Garden Path: Michael Foot

R.W. Johnson, 26 April 2007

One day in 1993, I found myself on a bus in Oxford with Michael Foot. He looked shambolic even by my standards – donkey jacket, stick, long hair all over the place. But nobody minded. You don’t often see leading politicians on a bus and passenger after passenger came up to say hello. He smiled and was the soul of friendliness. As he stood up to get off he half-stumbled and six or...

In Time of Famine: In Zimbabwe

R.W. Johnson, 22 February 2007

When I was in Harare recently I inquired about an old naturalist I’d known there. He knew he had cancer, had told his friends he’d finished his book, was all through and would like to be cremated. Since nothing works in Zimbabwe any more he’d got in a nice store of mopani logs and was sure his friends would know what to do. They did. When he died they came round, wrapped his body in a blanket, made a funeral pyre and stood around it, glass in hand, till it burned low. The few doctors left in the country are so badly paid that it wasn’t hard to get the various necessary certificates made out. Anywhere else DIY cremation might raise eyebrows, but not here.

Her Boy: Mark Thatcher

R.W. Johnson, 16 November 2006

Mark Thatcher, talentless, and so graceless that the most charming thing about him was that he would sometimes introduce himself as ‘charmless Mark’, was – is – doted on by ‘Mummy’, in whose eyes he could do no wrong and who insisted, against all the evidence, that he was a ‘born businessman’. What this meant was that he traded endlessly and ruthlessly on her name and had better access to her than anyone except – maybe not even except – Denis; and that he was happy to get involved with all sorts of shysters and downright crooks in order to become rich. Being rich seems to have been something Mark thought he was born to, that he had a right to, and he was in a great hurry to get to it.

‘I am not a superstitious man and indeed I should not greatly care if I were never to be PM,’ Neville Chamberlain told his sisters, still in mourning for his brother, Austen, ‘but when I think of Father and Austen and reflect that less than three months of time and no individual stands between me and that office I wonder whether Fate has some dark secret in store to carry...

Young Brutes: the Amerys

R.W. Johnson, 23 February 2006

Leo Amery, who lived and breathed the British Empire and could claim to have invented the Commonwealth, would doubtless find it sad that he is chiefly remembered for helping to bring down Neville Chamberlain. When, in September 1939, Arthur Greenwood, the acting Labour leader, rose to reply to Chamberlain’s ludicrously inadequate response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, he began...

In Pyjamas: Bill Deedes’s Decency

R.W. Johnson, 17 November 2005

Bill Deedes is justly celebrated as a nice man and an English archetype, the sort of character Ian Carmichael used to play in Ealing comedies: Woosterish, emollient, never standing on his rank, always accepting Tory family values – usually expressed more forcefully by a fearsome, chauffeur-driven auntie figure, as played by Margaret Rutherford, or, in Deedes’s own life, by...

Find the birch sticks: a spy’s diary

R.W. Johnson, 1 September 2005

On 2 February 1940, Guy Liddell, MI5’s director of counter-espionage, wrote in his diary:

An elderly statesman with gout When asked what the war was about In a written reply Said ‘My colleagues and I Are doing our best to find out’

A not inapposite comment on the Phoney War (and we learn from Liddell that there was a good deal of hidden last-minute talk between Chamberlain...

“In the violent farm occupations that followed the February 2000 vote, the media generally focused on the attack on the four thousand white farmers. A far more significant target were the 2.2 million farmworkers, who were made to sing Zanu-PF songs, beaten and tortured and then dumped at the roadside, traumatised and, as it were, re-peasantised. Of those who did not flee to surrounding countries, most will have had to return to subsistence agriculture and are vulnerable to food-for-votes blackmail. The Murambatsvina is the application to the urban environment of the same strategy: urban political dissidents are being punished for their views and driven into the countryside, where those who survive will be brutally ‘re-educated’ in the ways of single partyism. It is as pointless to expect mass popular resistance to this as it was to expect the Irish to rise up during the Great Hunger.”

In the spring of 1974, as reports multiplied of his involvement with crooks such as John Poulson and T. Dan Smith, Reginald Maudling disappeared to Paris with his wife, Beryl. The Daily Mail’s Harry Longmuir had little difficulty locating him in the ‘Président’ suite of the George V. Checking in himself, Longmuir spent a whole Sunday morning with a confused,...

Growing up in Durban in the 1950s, I could see how keen Coloured and Indian cricketers were, how much everything was tilted against them and, at the same time, how good white South African cricket was. Take the schoolboy generation I saw rising around me. Playing against Hilton College, I came up against Hylton Ackerman and Mike Procter – the latter opening both the batting and bowling...

Harold Macmillan, Harry Crookshank, Oliver Lyttelton and Bobbety Cranborne all arrived at Eton in 1906, the first two from the affluent middle class and the other two from aristocratic families. Lyttelton went on to Cambridge and the others to Oxford, but they all served in the Grenadier Guards in 1914-18, and all four entered Churchill’s cabinet during the Second World War.


Associated Prigs: Eleanor Rathbone

R.W. Johnson, 8 July 2004

When Susan Pedersen writes that Eleanor Rathbone was the most significant woman in British politics in the first half of the 20th century she might have added that another Somerville alumna, Margaret Thatcher, clearly earned that title in the century’s second half. No one can doubt the extent to which Thatcher stamped herself on the 1980s, but the effect of reading this fine biography...

This book begins with real passion as Ronald Hyam and Peter Henshaw lash into those historians who they believe have made unwarranted assumptions about the links between Britain and South Africa: to wit, that Britain fought the Boer War to get its hands on the gold and that economic considerations remained the motivating force in its difficult relationship with South Africa thereafter. Early...

Brought up Jewish and soccer-loving in the Netherlands, Simon Kuper has come to realise that he accepted too easily the myth of Dutch wartime heroism. The result is a long litany of hurt feelings, awkwardly transposed onto the world of soccer. He starts with a snapshot of interwar football, when international encounters were still few and English players enjoyed such unquestioned primacy that...

Bad Timing: All about Eden

R.W. Johnson, 22 May 2003

Harold Macmillan’s judgment on Anthony Eden, that ‘he was trained to win the Derby in 1938; unfortunately, he was not let out of the starting stalls until 1955,’ was echoed by Anthony Nutting: ‘he had for too long been the Golden Boy of the Tory Party, the glamorous Crown Prince awaiting the summons to mount the throne in place of the ageing Emperor.’ Indeed, a...

Just Had To: LBJ

R.W. Johnson, 20 March 2003

The French prefer an allusive style in biography, with as little as possible of the scaffolding of scholarship showing. Jean Lacouture’s magisterial De Gaulle is virtually unfootnoted, has only a small bibliography and contains many verbatim conversations or remarks by De Gaulle that we have to take on trust, as well as many ironic thrusts and tight logical turns which can nearly knock...

Every book about the Cold War and the nuclear threat that dominated it should probably begin with a chapter about what would have been the biggest invasion in human history, dwarfing even the Normandy landings. In this case, D-Day was to be 1 November 1945. An American army of five million men was to be assembled for the invasion of Japan, with smaller but still significant contingents from...

Diary: Don’t you carry?

R.W. Johnson, 25 April 2002

In Harare to watch Mugabe steal the election I quickly got some reminders I didn’t really need that I wasn’t too welcome. The state-owned media repeatedly declared that foreign spies posing as journalists were flooding into Zimbabwe and would be harshly dealt with. The Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, went on TV to say that such people had better be prepared to spend a very...

‘You are one of the most difficult men to work with that I have ever known,’ Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, once told FDR. ‘Because I get too hard at times?’ Roosevelt asked. ‘No,’ Ickes replied, ‘because you won’t talk frankly, even with people who are loyal to you.’ Joseph Persico, whose admiration for FDR, like that of...

In this short book, Christopher Hitchens sets down the main charges against Kissinger: murder, violation of human rights and complicity in mass atrocities on a scale equalled only by Eichmann, Heydrich and the like. As Hitchens admits, he isn’t the first: Joseph Heller in Good as Gold was as blunt about it all as it was possible to be. Anyone who has studied the 1968-76 period has long...

Apocalypse Two: Rwanda’s genocide

R.W. Johnson, 21 June 2001

Jean de Dieu, 11, was curled up, a ball of flesh and blood, the look in his eyes was a glance from nowhere … without vision; Marie-Ange, aged nine, was propped up against a tree trunk … her legs apart, and she was covered in excrement, sperm and blood … in her mouth was a penis, cut with a machete, that of her father … nearby in a ditch with stinking water were...

Diary: Breakdown in the Bush

R.W. Johnson, 10 May 2001

Finding out too late that what was marked as a main A route was in fact a dirt road – this can happen only too easily in Zimbabwe, where the roads have decayed along with everything else – I continued grimly across increasingly rough terrain until I heard a stone fly up against the underneath of the car. The power cut off that instant. As I learned much later, the impact had damaged the fuel pump and the electronics within it, shorting out the ignition fuses.

Into the Second Term: New Labour

R.W. Johnson, 5 April 2001

Throughout the time that he was Prime Minister Clement Attlee read only the Times. He was, he said, too busy to bother with other newspapers. The fact that the Times was firmly Tory and, after a few years of Labour Government, almost hysterically anti-socialist, didn’t worry him at all. ‘That’s what one expects,’ he said. ‘It’s quite reliable in that, which...

How Mugabe came to power: Wilfred Mhanda

R.W. Johnson, 22 February 2001

It’s not an easy thing to have on your conscience that you were personally responsible for putting Robert Mugabe in power but Wilfred Mhanda has had to live with that knowledge for the last 24 years. You might think the last year, which has seen 32 murders, countless cases of rape, torture, arson and beating, all to help Mugabe steal an election, would have made it even harder, but the...

At Thomas Hodgkin’s memorial service, in 1982, Christopher Hill, formerly Master of Balliol, used the pulpit of the college chapel to give an address entirely free of religious reference, quite a feat in view of Hodgkin’s Quaker roots and Hill’s status as historian of the Puritan revolution. ‘God was dead all right when you wrote that speech,’ I said to Hill...

Peter Hennessy’s new book hasn’t persuaded me that its central preoccupation, the current dispute over prime ministerial power and its extent, is not sterile and, indeed, rather boring – yet it is a splendid read. The truth is that the Westminster system is quite inadequately democratic and transparent, and Hennessy is, if anything, too respectful and conventional in his...

After the Election: in Zimbabwe

R.W. Johnson, 20 July 2000

I was in the Harare headquarters of the Movement for Democratic Change when news came through that two boxes of uncounted ballots had turned up in Buhera North, the constituency in which the MDC’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had been narrowly defeated by his Zanu-PF opponent a few days before. I asked Tsvangirai what he made of this. ‘Well, it means we can apply for that election to be declared null and void too. But frankly I can’t look forward to contesting it again, not if it means Zanu-PF is going to go round beating and torturing people who support me.’ You can’t blame him: his home village is near Buhera and many of his family live there.‘

Getting to Dave Lewis’s farm was not easy, even though I had instructions. Travelling any distance out of Harare is fairly tense stuff because you can never be sure you’ll have enough fuel to get back (I freewheeled on all the downhill stretches, keeping a careful eye on the engine revs) – not to mention what’s been happening on Mashonaland farms these last three months. After you get to Norton, you make several fancy turns and then find yourself on a long stretch of dirt road overgrown with trees and with ruts so deep you really need a 4x4. On my humble Mazda 323 the oil sump and exhaust were very vulnerable, so I drove on the verges and hoped. I saw two African women on their way to church – an independent Zionist sect, inevitably – and gave them a lift. Even without knowing Shona, I thought I’d get directions to Dave’s farm out of them. This was indeed a cinch and in no time I was rolling into a beautiful farm with spreading lawns and large thatched buildings in perfectly maintained gardens.’

I’m all for it

R.W. Johnson, 30 March 2000

When I was a child we were taught to sing a hymn whose last lines were:

The voice on the phone was terrified and tearful. ‘I’m in such trouble, such trouble.’ It took me quite a while to get Josephine to say what had happened. She is the 18-year-old daughter of my domestic servant here in Johannesburg. Josephine, like her two sisters, is a boarder at a school near Pietersburg, 350 kilometres away. In the school holidays the three girls come and stay with their mother, Doris, who lives in a cottage in my garden – I had waved them off back to school only a few weeks before, Josephine, the eldest, shepherding her smaller sisters.’‘

On 5 October 1990, Britain entered the ERM: on 16 September 1992, ‘Black Wednesday’, Britain left the ERM. These two events and the years between them were crucial in recent British politics. They are the source of the divisions in the contemporary Tory Party and all the leading participants are obliged to state and restate what they said and did then in much the same way that the members of an earlier Tory generation had to spell out the position they’d taken over Munich. And just as Chamberlain’s deal at Munich was immensely popular for a short time and then reviled, so the conventional wisdom in October 1990 was that the ERM was a fine thing (our entry was acclaimed by the whole of the press as well as by Neil Kinnock and John Smith): a view which held until, roughly, September 1992, when the conviction grew on all sides that it had been a colossal mistake. Few will argue with John Major’s asssumption that the 1997 election was lost on Black Wednesday. But when the conventional wisdom shifts so fast the temptation for a politician to retouch his (or her) biography must be close to overwhelming.

From The Blog
24 October 2016

When the issue of Britain joining the EEC was raised following Harold Macmillan’s opening of negotiations in July 1961, Hugh Gaitskell had no time for those who saw the issue as one of principle, whether they were passionate pro-Europeans like Roy Jenkins or passionate opponents like many on the left who saw it as ‘a kind of giant Catholic, capitalist conspiracy’. (All quotations come from Philip Williams’s magisterial 1979 biography of Gaitskell.) Everything would depend on the conditions.

From The Blog
28 August 2015

I had just finished writing an article for the LRB and was attaching it to an email when suddenly all the files saved as icons on my screen vanished. I thought at first I had pressed some wrong and incomprehensible button – something that happens to me – when a message flashed up on my screen telling me that all my files were gone. If I wanted them back I would have to pay the equivalent of $500 in Bitcoins (at the current rate of exchange, that was 2.3 Bitcoins) within 130 hours, after which the sum would rise to $1000. Absurdly, I thought of Tarquinius bidding for the Sibylline books of prophecy, and every time he said the price was too high, the Sibyl burns three books and offers the remainder at the same price. Clearly, I was in that sort of auction. To help concentrate the mind the time remaining was set out in hours, minutes and seconds, with each second ticking off: looking at this merely increases one’s manic state as the loss of all one’s files kicks in. I was always promising myself to back everything up but hadn’t.

From The Blog
27 November 2012

The race for the African National Congress presidency will be settled at the ANC Conference in Mangaung (Bloemfontein) at the end of the year. The winner at Mangaung will be the ANC's presidential candidate in 2014 and therefore, given the ANC's continuing electoral dominance, president of the country to 2019. The incumbent, Jacob Zuma, is widely seen as corruptible, uneducated, incompetent and unable to provide leadership even on basic issues, more interested in using state funds to build a palace for himself and his wives at Nkandla, the village in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) where he was born. Long ago the chattering classes of all races, including most newspaper editors and the black middle class in the economic capital, Gauteng (which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria), pronounced another Zuma term utterly unthinkable.

From The Blog
6 September 2012

The sequels to the Marikana massacre continue to develop in a number of different directions. It looks worse and worse for the police as evidence comes to light suggesting that several of the 34 miners killed by the police were cornered and shot in cold blood quite separately from those the world saw mown down in a rifle fusillade. This has now been further supported by the tales told by the 270 miners just released from the police cells.

From The Blog
19 August 2012

The key point to grasp about the Marikana shootings (we're not allowed to call them a massacre because that makes them sound like the bad old days of Sharpeville) is that the National Union of Mineworkers, South Africa's biggest union, is in apparently terminal decline and has been losing control of one pit after another to its new rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which has no political affiliations. The NUM is the spinal chord of the ANC alliance. Its leaders are always Communist Party members, it has provided the last three secretaries-general of the ANC in succession, and it is the dominant presence in the labour federation, Cosatu. The decline of the NUM threatens the whole structure of ANC power.

From The Blog
11 July 2012

The Financial Times entitled its recent lengthy interview with Tony Blair 'Waiting in the Wings'. Blair, though claiming to be all-consumed by his current Middle East job, also declared himself ready to drop it like a hot brick if only someone would offer him the top job at the EU, the IMF or the World Bank. He angrily dismissed the notion that he wanted to be rich – he's earning £20 million a year – and said the whole point 'is not to make money, it's to make a difference'.

From The Blog
2 May 2011

The news that Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace were among the million people (including 22 ‘world leaders’) who thronged St Peter's Square for the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II lends a piquant note to what was already a gothic occasion. Their presence was not, in itself, surprising: Mugabe tends to remember he is a Catholic whenever it is convenient – as in the case of his marriage to Grace, celebrated in a Catholic high mass in Harare, although they had by then already had two children. More recently, however, the main point has been to evade the EU's targeted sanctions and thus provide Grace (widely known as ‘Dis-Grace’) with opportunities for her extravagant shopping trips. The Mugabes were in Rome in 2005 for John Paul II's funeral, and again in 2008 and 2009 for UN food conferences – they get a free pass from the Vatican and from the UN, of which Zimbabwe is still a member.

From The Blog
18 September 2010

The recent brouhaha over Naomi Campbell's blood diamonds cast a somewhat lurid light over the comings and goings at the Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Children's Fund. For many years there has been a stream of celebrities eager to shake hands with Mandela, share a photo opportunity with him and of course contribute to the fund. But looking at the famous photo of Mandela, Campbell, Charles Taylor et al., you have to wonder what such an unsavoury character as Taylor was doing there. And now there’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who got his photo op with Nelson Mandela last month, as well as a separate one with Winnie.

From The Blog
20 August 2010

It was the 90th anniversary this week of the achievement of women's suffrage in the United States. On 18 August 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment – ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex’ – and it passed into law. For those who remember how the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in the 1970s thanks to die-hard Republican opposition, it may come as a surprise to realise how much women's suffrage was a Republican achievement.

From The Blog
12 July 2010

My sympathies were with the Dutch. Rather endearingly, the Dutch team only booked its hotel accommodation for the World Cup to last until 5 July and thus had to find themselves a new hotel once they did better than they expected. The Sunnyside Park Hotel, to which they moved, is an extremely pleasant but middle market establishment which almost certainly never expected to house any of the overpaid footballers in South Africa for the tournament. All the other teams, and the celebrities, stayed in Sandton, Johannesburg's most affluent and whitest suburb. The Dutch alone moved out of Sandton. I know their hotel well, and hotels well known to me are not usually the sort of places frequented by celebrities and could, indeed, be termed WAG-free zones.

From The Blog
9 July 2010

The press here seems flummoxed by the failure of the players who were much-vaunted pre-tournament to shine – Mssrs Ronaldo, Rooney, Messi and Kaka – so somewhat half-hearted attempts are being made to promote Miroslav Klose and Arjen Robben into the vacancies. Football fans seem to demand stars to personalise their dreams and attachments, though most fans choose their team first and then who to idolise within it, roles which naturally change down the years as players come and go. This makes the objective assessment of players very difficult. If you ask the average manager who was the best player he ever saw, he will normally choose either someone he played alongside when young or someone in the team he manages, or seek refuge in saying that there are so many good players it’s hard to choose. I once heard Bill Shankly asked that quest­ion and, quick as a shot, he replied ‘Dennis Law’, the sort of remarkably honest choice you might have expected from Shanks: he had never played with him or managed him, on top of which Law was a thorn in Liverpool’s side.

From The Blog
7 July 2010

Yesterday's game between Holland and Uruguay was the last in Cape Town – tonight's semi-final will be in Durban and the final in Jo'burg. Quite probably Cape Town's many visitors in the last month failed to notice that they could still drive on roads named after Hendrik Verwoerd or even on a main boulevard named after Oswald Pirow, a prewar cabinet minister who became an open Nazi. This is not a comfortable situation for many Cape Town residents who would like such names removed, along with such others as Settlers' Way and Jan Smuts Drive. But there the problem starts. Smuts was clearly a racist but he was also South Africa's greatest prime minister and his statue still sits outside Parliament. So, many whites who would be happy enough to ditch Verwoerd and Pirow would like to keep Smuts and, as descendants of settlers themselves, say that you can't get rid of Settlers' Way without implying that a substantial segment of the population is illegitimate. Which, of course, is exactly what the apartheid law against racially mixed marriages made the Coloured (mixed race) population feel.

From The Blog
6 July 2010

We received a number of complaints about this post and have taken it down.

From The Blog
4 July 2010

Whatever happens next, this has been a good World Cup for Europe. It's not just that the Dutch and Germans thoroughly dispatched Brazil and Argentina – the latter almost a rout, presumably costing Maradona his job (Dunga has already gone) – but three of the last four are from Europe. This despite the early exit of Italy, France and England. This matters in Fifa politics, and Fifa is bigger than the UN. There are already 207 Fifa members entered for the 2014 World Cup; the UN has only 192 members. This is not just because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sneak in separately from England. The same thing goes on elsewhere: thus China is a Fifa member but so are Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau and Mongolia. And of course while the UN is always badly in debt, Fifa has billions in the bank.

From The Blog
3 July 2010

When I was four my father decided to teach me about football. He had been a star of the Lancashire Combination League, scoring 120 goals in one 40-game season, after which Liverpool signed him. I asked him about the 120 goals. Well, he said, it's not as good as it sounds. Ten of them were penalties. I asked how many penalties he missed. He looked surprised. None, he said. No footballer should ever miss a penalty. Never ever.

From The Blog
2 July 2010

As we get to the final stages of the World Cup it’s worth looking at the track records of the major football nations. To hear the hullabulloo from the losing English camp one would think England was one of them but actually it has only made the last four twice ( one win and one 4th place). This compares with the other six winners as follows:

From The Blog
1 July 2010

Now that we're down to the quarter finals it's perhaps worth noting the Ladbrokes odds: Brazil 9-4, Spain 3-1, Argentina 7-2, Germany 6-1, Holland 7-1, Uruguay 14-1, Ghana 33-1 and Paraguay 40-1. The long odds on Ghana are not something to mention here in South Africa where the fact that this was supposed to be Africa's World Cup is still a sore point. Marcel Desailly, one of the French cup-winning team of 1998, says that the reason African teams haven't done better is that it's still too early for Africa. ‘Local players in the African leagues, no matter where, battle to cope with the level at a global tournament, the pressure exerted at this level and the intensity of the game,’ he says. Dismissing this, the Times columnist S'Thembiso Msomi angrily writes that South Africa, with by far the most resources and best technology, should easily have had the continent's top football team following the advent of democracy in 1994 but that the early promise of 1996 (winning the African Cup of Nations) has been squandered by endless factionalism within South Africa's FA. Much the same, he argues, has happened to South African's political leadership in Africa, for much the same reasons

From The Blog
29 June 2010

After last night's World Cup games, Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands and Germany are through to the last eight. One has the strong feeling that it's unnecessary to play the other games, that the eventual winner is already in the above four. What is very striking, after the boring slugging matches of the group games, is how easily and massively these four have imposed themselves, scoring lots of goals against opponents who were, after all, in the top 16. Perhaps it is a mistake to have a group stage at all; the whole tournament would be so much better as a sudden death event like the FA Cup – though of course the point of the groups is to guarantee every team at least three games on the big stage.

From The Blog
29 June 2010

England's ignominious exit from the World Cup has launched the usual storm, including here on this blog. Perhaps the most surprising suggestion so far is that Maradona is a good manager and that England could do with the likes of him. The Sun, inevitably, demands that the next manager be English. Given England's pivotal position in the game, it's worth pondering. One statistic unearthed by the debacle is that fewer than 3000 Englishmen have qualified for the top UEFA coaching certificate, a fraction of the number in most rival countries, and already an indicator that the FA may need to look abroad.

From The Blog
28 June 2010

After Germany’s complete demolition of England yesterday there will be many post-mortems, starting with demands for the head of Fabio Capello. But the English players never once looked fresh, energetic and as if they were enjoying themselves. They came into the World Cup tired and stale after a season in which most of them had played some 60 games: not only far too many but far more than any other national football schedule requires. The English game is also weighed down with foreign imports. The results were all too obvious yesterday, with a thirty-something English team run off the park by a German team which is the youngest in the tournament and bounding with energy. English football lacks an upcoming generation like that because their place it would occupy is already taken by foreign professionals. If England wants to do better than this, it should cut the Premier League to 17 clubs (providing a 32-game season), restrict each club to two foreign players and abolish the League Cup.

From The Blog
27 June 2010

Now that we're down to the last 16 things begin to get interesting because – at last – defensive play is no longer enough. Yesterday was especially interesting because Uruguay are beginning to look like serious inheritors of their heady tradition. It is often forgotten that Uruguay has a tradition in the World Cup surpassed by only Brazil and Italy. In the other match the professional money was all on the USA but Ghana triumphed nonetheless – and South Africa was thrilled, for the public has to an astonishing degree accepted the government's injunction that this is Africa's World Cup and that we must therefore all support the Black Stars, the sole remaining African team in the tournament.

From The Blog
26 June 2010

South Africa's exit from the World Cup – the first time ever that a host nation has failed to get through the first round – hasn't punctured the buoyant mood here. Partly because of the victory against the former world champions, France; partly because it was, deep down, always expected; partly because the team was so low-ranked that it did well to be competitive at all; but also because France and Italy and all the other African teams except Ghana also went out. If such a fate could befall even the title holders, it was no disgrace.

From The Blog
23 June 2010

I seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest by referring less than respectfully to the notion of ‘soccer colonialism’. Perhaps the subject is broader. No doubt the gladiators who hacked one another to pieces for the delectation of the ancient Romans were heavily drawn from colonised races. What is certainly true is that the team photographs of any of the leading European squads look very different today from the way they did in 1966 when – it's hard now to credit it – neither of the two finalists, England and Germany, had any players of colour in their ranks.

From The Blog
21 June 2010

Today's match between Portugal and North Korea has stirred memories of the encounter between the two teams in 1966. Today the South African Communist Party formally wished success to North Korea as fellow Communists but what mattered more in 1966 was that North Korea played its matches up in England's north-east and their plucky performances – especially the victory against Italy – won the hearts of Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough fans and they flocked to cheer them on. That game was more of a contest than today’s 7-0 thrashing: North Korea led 3-0 before Eusébio scored four and Portugal won 5-3.

From The Blog
19 June 2010

My neighbour's gardener, a Malawian called Charles Banda, lives in a shack in Khayelitsha, Cape Town's biggest squatter camp. 'It was really dreadful after South Africa lost to Uruguay,' he said to me yesterday. 'Most of my neighbours were watching the game on TV, either at a shebeen or at a friend's. They were drinking as they watched, of course, and by the end they were very angry and disappointed. They've always said they would avenge themselves on foreigners once the World Cup was over but now they didn't feel like waiting for that. So groups of them started going house to house looking for foreigners. They caught two of my friends and shot them. I ran away and slept at a friend's last night.'

From The Blog
18 June 2010

The World Cup atmosphere has suffered a noticeable deflation after the 3-0 thumping of South Africa by Uruguay and Nigeria's 2-1 defeat by Greece. Everything suggests that South Africa is about to become the first ever host nation not to get through the group stage of the Cup and that Africa's biggest country is also all but out. The local consensus is that it's time to write off these two and support Ghana and Ivory Coast instead, but the larger probability is that after all the fanfare, Africa will flop again simply because the continent's undoubted talent on the field is matched by a completely disastrous mismanagement of the game in almost every African state.

From The Blog
16 June 2010

In the run-up to the World Cup there was a constant rumble of threatened strike action by groups keen to take advantage of the unbeatable blackmail opportunities the staging of such an event presents. Now, however, we have seen wildcat strikes by the stadium security guards in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg – with a quite serious clash between police and strikers in Durban – and by bus drivers, so that fans at some Jo'burg games have found there was no way for them to get home. We are also threatened by a civil service strike, and electricity workers have rejected a 7 per cent pay offer (inflation is 5 per cent) and are demanding a fantastical 18 per cent by the end of the week or they will plunge the country into darkness. Other groups of workers are watching, poised to follow suit.

From The Blog
15 June 2010

Fifa are much exercised about all the empty seats and are investigating. The reason given by most commentators is the failures in public transport in getting people to the ground but there are other problems. First, the suburban railway system has been arriving at the Port Elizabeth and Jo'burg grounds with empty passenger cars. This is because criminal violence on those railways is so common that anyone with a choice avoids them. Ditto black taxis.

From The Blog
14 June 2010

It should have long been obvious but is now beyond doubt: the South African vuvuzela needs to be banned. Stupidly, in the run-up to the Cup the local authorities and media celebrated it as an authentically patriotic piece of equipment although doctors long ago testified that to have one blown next to you throughout a football game would leave you with permanent hearing damage. The noise is considerably louder than a chainsaw and not much more melodious and it is seriously bad for the game as well as the spectators. A stadium full of such horns guarantees that the players can't hear the ref's whistle or their team-mates' words and that broadcasters are drowned out. The only hope lies in the fact that the stadiums aren't full – several thousand seats were going begging at the England-USA match at the anyway small Rustenburg stadium and the Nelson Mandela stadium in Port Elizabeth hasn't yet been more than two-thirds full.

From The Blog
11 June 2010

So, finally we've kicked off. South Africa v. Mexico was pretty dull and scrappy, a typical over-cautious World Cup opener with both sides desperate to maintain position. Neither could afford to lose this game whereas a draw keeps them alive. But, that said, South Africa, ranked 83rd in the world, didn't really look much inferior to Mexico, ranked 17th, and certainly the fans here liked it. (The fact that Mexico were able to equalise so quickly made one wonder whether it was only when they went one down that they really turned it on a bit.) The last few days have not been easy. The Opposition Democratic Alliance is still trying to resurrect the corruption charges against President Zuma that were conveniently dropped as soon as he came to office. Zuma's lawyers have frantically pleaded that to continue with the charges now would jeopardise the World Cup. Since the whole country is up in arms against anythjing that could jeopardise the Cup, this is a smart plea if one with a brief life.

From The Blog
8 June 2010

With only days to go before the start of the 2010 World Cup, South Africa is awkwardly poised between euphoria and anti-climax. The multiple crowd injuries at Nigeria's practice game with North Korea due to an audience stampede were a sharp warning both that expectations are madly high (besotted Nigerian immigrants are blamed for the stampedes) and that no amount of preparation can make anything foolproof.

From The Blog
6 June 2010

Just over a year ago I had a friendly breakfast with Mo Shaik, who was being widely touted as the probable next head of the South African Secret Service. I asked him if it would be a challenging job. He looked thoughtful and said: 'Well, there are quite a few men with turbans and long beards who would like to use our soccer World Cup to make, shall we say, an explosive political statement of their own.' Mo was duly appointed and has since turned predictably silent and invisible. In the last two weeks, however, there has been growing media anxiety that al-Qaida will try what Mo was hinting at. One American security analyst has said there's an 80 per cent chance of an attack but how he came up with that number is anyone's guess. One thing that's certain, however, is that South Africa is wide open to international criminals of any type.

From The Blog
25 May 2010

The World Cup in South Africa is on the brink of chaos. Transport and electricity workers, realising the fabulous blackmail possibilities of tournament disruption, are either already on strike or threatening strikes during the event and other groups of workers are poised to emulate them. The state electricity company is so worried about the power supply that it is handing out warnings that it may cut power to many users in order to guarantee that the floodlights don't go out on games. Householders have been told that they may need to switch off all appliances except their TVs (so that they can receive announcements of coming power outages). Sex workers have been making loud and angry declarations that security regulations are being invoked to cramp their trade. South Africa's police chief has announced that he is hoping against hope that the US team will not get through the opening round since that will signal President Obama's arrival and an enormous increase in the security load.

No book in recent South African history has attracted such venom as Anthea Jeffery’s analysis of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She has been accused of wanting to defend the apartheid past, of having a desire to hurt and humiliate black people and of much else besides. Yet none of her attackers has dared to take issue with her on the basis of fact or evidence – Jeffery’s scholarship is beyond reproach. She is one of the few people who have actually read the five volumes of the TRC Report and is probably the only one who has tested it against the evidence uncovered by the various judicial inquiries, special investigations and court cases which had – in far greater detail – covered much of the same ground as the TRC and their findings. Jeffery has, moreover, done something of the sort before. The Natal Story: Sixteen Years of Conflict (1997) displayed the same impressive scholarship and, with almost painful evenhandedness, sought to put forward the opposing interpretations of every incident in which Inkatha and the ANC had been protagonists, leaving the reader to make up his own mind. This was, in current South African terms, a brave thing to do, but it is as nothing compared to the courage required to lay bare the procedures of the TRC.’

An Unreliable Friend: Nelson Mandela

R.W. Johnson, 19 August 1999

One of the oddities about living in South Africa is that a whole lot of people who have left the country still believe that they know better than those of us who live here what goes on. The reason for this is that South Africa is seen as the supreme paradigm both of colonial exploitation and of black-white relations – what Nadine Gordimer called ‘the last great colonial extravaganza’. Having seen apartheid crumble and the ANC come to power, such folk know that good has triumphed over evil and that if any problems persist, they can only be due to the legacy of apartheid. Any suggestion that the truth is actually a lot more complicated is often met with rage and moral disapproval.’‘

Diary: Goodbye Zimbabwe

R.W. Johnson, 4 March 1999

Harare is morose under the rains, more drenching this year even than last year, and longer than most can remember; five or seven centimetres, day after day. It’s made the water table too high and water lies permanently on the surface, sewage floating in it, for the city’s long-neglected sewage system is on the point of collapse. This wouldn’t be easy for anyone to bear, but it’s particularly hard for the residents of Harare, who point to the colossal mansion which the mayor, Solomon Tawengwa, is building for himself and the Mercedes cars which he and his municipal colleagues have awarded themselves. Most angry of all are the council workers whose pay cheques bounced. They went on strike despite a ban on strikes decreed last year by President Mugabe, in the wake of a second round of urban riots caused first by food and then by fuel price hikes, themselves the result of a 60 per cent devaluation of the Zim dollar (which, having started life at two to the US dollar, is now 67 to the US dollar). Mugabe wasn’t bothered by the council workers’ strike any more than he has been by the recent teachers’, doctors’ and telephone-workers’ strikes. It is ZCTU, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, that he fears.

Both The Pity of War and the reception it has enjoyed illustrate aspects of British culture about which one can only feel ambivalent. Anyone who has been a victim, let alone a perpetrator, of the Oxbridge system will recognise Niall Ferguson’s book for what it is: an extended and argumentative tutorial from a selfconsciously clever, confrontational young don, determined to stand everything on its head and argue with vehemence against whatever he sees as the conventional wisdom – or, worse still, the fashion – of the time. The idea is to teach the young to think and argue, and the real past masters at it (Harry Weldon was always held up as an example to me) were those who first argued undergraduates out of their received opinions, then turned around after a time and argued them out of their new-found radicalism, leaving them mystified as to what they believed and suspended in a free-floating state of cleverness.’

‘I am wholly preoccupied with the war between England and the Transvaal,’ Tsar Nicholas wrote to his sister at the outbreak of the Boer War. ‘Every day I read the news in the British newspapers from the first to the last line … I cannot conceal my joy at … yesterday’s news that during General White’s sally two full British battalions and a mountain battery were captured by the Boers!’‘

Ross McKibbin’s remarkable study of the way the cultures of class shaped English society has, at a stroke, changed the historiographical landscape. One learns more about almost any aspect of English society by reading this book than one would by reading, for example, A.J.P. Taylor’s English History 1914-45 – which makes it indispensable for anyone studying the politics, sociology or history of English society. Only once, while discussing the impact of The Goon Show, does McKibbin’s guard slip enough to reveal that, despite his sure touch for the niceties of English society, he is Australian.’

Redheads in Normandy: The 1997 election

R.W. Johnson, 22 January 1998

No one this time last year would have predicted a victory for the Left in France, yet it is in a sense far easier to explain Jospin’s triumph than Blair’s. President Chirac, elected in 1995 on a promise that he would reduce unemployment, had actually done the opposite; and, faced with the need of his deeply unpopular prime minister, Alain Juppé, to squeeze the economy yet further to meet the Maastricht criteria, called a snap election simply because he feared things would get tougher by the time Parliament’s mandate ran out in 1998. He was eager, too, to take advantage of the fact that the Socialist Party was still in a mess after the devastating unravelling of the Mitterrand Presidency and its own catastrophic defeat in the 1993 election, which left the Party with 56 seats in a chamber of 577 Deputies.

High Priest of Mumbo-Jumbo

R.W. Johnson, 13 November 1997

On the face of it, Quintin Hogg ought to be a great historic figure. He comes into the history books as the victorious pro-Munich candidate at the famous Oxford by-election of 1938, is Under-Secretary for Air in Churchill’s Government by 1945, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time of Suez, the head of various other ministries, Tory Party Chairman and, for a record 12 years, Lord Chancellor, formally the country’s highest office. (The Lord Chancellor has often earned more than the prime minister and outranks him on all official occasions.) He had every advantage: a wealthy background, a Lord Chancellor as a father, a good brain, Eton and Christ Church – the classic pedigree of the Tory grandee – and easy social connections wherever it mattered. (When Hogg’s right-wing polemic, The Dilemma of Democracy, was published, in which he spoke of Labour’s victory of 1974 as proof that democracy was breaking down, the Queen wrote him a long handwritten letter to tell him of the ‘intense interest and enjoyment’ his book had occasioned: she was, she said, sure that it would help ‘many slightly muddled, BBC-battered people to see things more clearly’.) The title of Geoffrey Lewis’s biography could have been ‘Quintin Hogg’, ‘Quintin Hailsham’ or just ‘Hailsham’. No one, after all, would dream of writing a biography of, say, Harold Wilson and calling it ‘Lord Wilson’ because deep down we know that was all a hollow sham. But Lewis clearly feels that Hogg is, well, lordly.’‘

Mediterranean Man

R.W. Johnson, 16 October 1997

By the time Albert Camus received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 the nuanced position he took on the Algerian revolution had caused a scandal in orthodox progressive circles. Camus kept as quiet as he could because he feared terrorist reprisals against his mother, who was still living in Algiers. At the Nobel ceremony, however, he was harangued by an FLN enthusiast and forced into making a statement. ‘I must condemn a terrorism that works blindly in the streets of Algiers and one day might strike at my mother and my family,’ he said. ‘I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.’ This produced a further explosion. ‘I was totally sure,’ remarked Hubert Beuve-Méry, the editor of Le Monde, ‘that Camus would say some fucking fool thing.’ Sartre and Beauvoir’s response was very similar – they had long ceased to be on speaking terms with Camus because of his ‘reactionary’ tendencies.’’

Diary: I was William Hague’s Tutor

R.W. Johnson, 17 July 1997

Johannesburg, one can never forget, is a mining town. There are physical reminders – great pyramids of spoil from the mines litter the landscape – but more entrenched is the psychology of the mining town. People usually come to Johannesburg because there is money to be made here and they often go as soon as they have made it. The crassness of the place is, roughly speaking, Texan – South African golfers playing the American pro circuit tend to live in Houston, another skyscraper city in the middle of nowhere. But Johannesburg is changing at a remarkable rate: more and more obviously it is becoming Africa’s capital as traders flood in from Zaire, Nigeria and all points between. The result is high-quality African masks and curios on sale in the streets, Nigerian drug barons running a whole suburb, Francophone accents everywhere and an extraordinary dynamism.’

Stick to the Latin

R.W. Johnson, 23 January 1997

It’s a dependable party game: who was the MP who sat from 1950 to 1987, emerged as a strong and early opponent of hanging and supported homosexual law reform; was fiercely anti-Nato, anti-American and opposed to Britain possessing nuclear weapons; pioneered the Clean Air Act, vociferously opposed subsidies to farmers, attacked the monopoly of the big drug firms as suppliers to the NHS and was the first person to take the anti-smoking cause to the Cabinet; became a vehement critic of Empire and hugely embarrassed a Tory government by a passionate condemnation of British treatment of Africans confined in the Hola Camp in Kenya? (The MP in question was so infuriated by the racist excuse that different standards applied in Africa that he/she actually cried with vexation at the end of the speech.) As Minister of Health the same politician earned an extremely progressive reputation by attacking the mental hospitals as oppressive Victorian institutions which ought to be closed to allow more humane care within the community – and by taking the Tube or walking home after working late so as not to make the ministerial driver wait up late. This MP was a radical critic of Tory incomes policy, was the first in any party to argue for a minimum income for the old and the unemployed, argued for the nationalisation of the universities and completely free education for all students, and refused both the offer of a life peerage and, when it was proposed to him, the editorship of Private Eye. In retirement he/she wrote a learned but scandalous book on the Gospels which tried to prove that the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Sermon on the Mount were all historical fictions.’

The Ingenuity of Rural Life

R.W. Johnson, 12 December 1996

Kas Maine sharecropped on the marginal farmland of Willem Nieman, a staunch Afrikaner, chairman of the local National Party branch and hater of the English and the Jews. When Kas’s first son was born in 1921, he and his family celebrated in Sotho fashion. Kas then picked his way across the stubbled fields to Nieman’s house to enact his part in one of the seigneurial rituals of the Western Transvaal. Sixty years later, among the thousands of hours he spent recalling his life for Charles van Onselen – Kas was blessed with a memory from which nothing faded – he described how the ritual went:’

Digging up the Ancestors

R.W. Johnson, 14 November 1996

Political parties need a tradition, a line of descent – in a word, heroes. In this respect the Labour Party has always had some difficulty. The obvious candidate would have been the first man to lead Labour to power, but Ramsay MacDonald put himself beyond the pale: indeed, the psychological wound he left as ‘the lost leader’ was of more lasting significance than anything he achieved in power. Oswald Mosley, the most impressive of the Young Turks to contest MacDonald, lurched into even deeper disgrace, while Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury were simply not memorable. Clement Attlee, the leader for twenty years and the man who led Labour to the new Jerusalem of 1945, was, in the event, the most serviceable hero, but he was never beatified, let alone canonised. Not only did he lack charisma but, as a former army major educated at Haileybury, he was always something of an oddity within the Party, and despite many attempts to suggest the contrary, a dry stick. An old trade-union hack whom Attlee sacked from the Government pleaded his case with passion: ‘Why, Clem, for God’s sake why?’ ‘Not up to it,’ came the cheerful reply. Throughout his premiership Attlee read only the Times, partly for its cricket coverage but also, he said, because knowing its bitterly anti-Labour views in advance, he always found reading it ‘restful’. Attitudes of this sort did not sit well with a party which has always seen itself as a crusading organisation.’

On the Way to First Base

R.W. Johnson, 17 October 1996

South Africa’s first democratic government is midway through its first term, an obvious moment at which to take stock of the transition. The rhetoric of ‘nation-building’ which predominated in 1994, and which is now more or less dampened, except among the political élite, projected three key policies: first, there was to be a huge push towards national development; second, there was to be much increased welfare for the disadvantaged majority, fully incorporating them within the nation for the first time; finally, there was to be a multi-faceted drive for racial reconciliation (which the President himself took as his main task), to be effected by the transformation of institutions (schools, the media, universities, the Army etc) with the aim of moulding a single, common South Africanism.

End of an Elite

R.W. Johnson, 21 March 1996

When Joe Slovo died in 1995 his body was carried on an army gun carriage through Soweto in post-apartheid South Africa’s first state funeral. Forty thousand people sat through the long tributes in Orlando Stadium, the ANC high-ups arriving in Nyala armoured cars. Impala jets – developed by sanctions-struck South Africa to fight the likes of Slovo – flew overhead in salute. Apart from this ceremonial flummery there was much genuine grieving, for in the last five years of his life Slovo had won an enormous army of admirers. In many ways he was an even more important figure than Mandela in South Africa’s transition. He was the man who made the key constitutional deals, who set the election date and who effectively removed socialism from the ANC’s agenda, thus making possible the symbiosis between white capitalism and the rising black middle class which is the central reality of the ANC’s ‘revolution’. It was an ironic achievement for a Communist.’

Famous Four

R.W. Johnson, 30 November 1995

In the early Seventies I began work on an analysis of the British Parliamentary élite which made very evident both the decline of direct working-class representation among Labour MPs and the rise of an upwardly mobile middle class. As I ploughed through one biography after another, however, I became painfully aware of the generational limits to mobility. The perfect stereotype of meritocratic success was the working-class dad whose son became a teacher, whose son in turn became a doctor or barrister. But there wasn’t a single case of this being completed in two generations. Only slowly did it dawn on me – for this was a time of Labour electoral triumphs – what bad news these data held for Labour. Take, for example, Bill Rodgers and Roy Jenkins (both grammar school and Oxford, Jenkins the son of a miner MP) not to mention Shirley Williams (professional parents, St Paul’s and Oxford): social mobility had already carried them to Labour’s outer limits. At the least, it had to be expected that they and others like them would put their own children in private schools and that the next generation would move away from Labour altogether. What the data suggested was a terrible haemorrhage of talent away from Labour, listless working-class recruitment, indeed a general disassembling of Labour’s old class coalition, and the possibility of a major schism as the successful meritocrats inevitably broke away. Even allowing for the fact that they represented a more substantial group of meritocrats in the electorate at large, could Labour’s meritocrats possibly provide the basis for a new party? One couldn’t be sure; but the basic sociology of the SDP, I later realised, lay before me a decade before the event.’’

Fear in the Miracle Nation

R.W. Johnson, 2 November 1995

This is one of the bravest and most important books to come out of South Africa in several years: as an exercise in truth-telling it bears comparison with Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart but whereas Malan derived many of his insights from his long exile, Jill Wentzel is one of the very few who have made the long march through the institutions. She was a founder member of the Black Sash, the women’s organisation which, from its inception, fought apartheid with exemplary passion and courage. As a student in 1962 I remember how a ‘flame of freedom’ was lit in Durban, where we mounted a vigil, scheduled to end with the passage of the Bill providing for detention without trial. The affair was treated as a provocation by the Government and every night huge Afrikaner rugby types came to beat up anyone who kept the vigil. They were, frankly, terrifying. I also remember the shame I felt at seeing a lone middle-aged white woman from the Sash remain impassively by the flame while the rest of us scattered at their onslaught. They knocked her down and stamped on her stomach time and again and yet she made no sound. The Black Sash were the real thing.

Diary: Major Wins the Losership

R.W. Johnson, 3 August 1995

Nothing provides a better insight into our antique political culture than a party leadership contest. I remember talking with Robin Cook just as the Blair bandwagon began to assume unstoppable proportions. Cook had outfought and out-performed every other Labour contender by a mile; he was cleverer, more experienced, funnier. And yet what he was having to read in the press was an endlessly recycled remark about him looking like a garden gnome. The Gadarene rush to Blair told the rest. What on earth was this really about? Cook is neither handsome nor ill-looking, just somewhere in between, like the rest of us. The Labour Party hadn’t cared about looks when it picked the flaccid Wilson, the much-creased figure of Jim Callaghan or the stooping, stick-waving Foot. A bit of deconstruction suggested this was all a blind, that Labour had just had a Welsh boyo and an Edinburgh lawyer as leaders, neither of whom had made it. That was quite enough Scots, Picts and people from the periphery. The really important thing was to pull back in the SDP English, the sort of Labour supporters who sent their children to private schools. Blair, who’d been to a private school himself, was perfect for this. The English – if not the British – are a profoundly monarchical people: they wanted not just an elected leader but a young prince, so the leadership was as suddenly and completely Blair’s as if he had drawn a sword from the stone. He is now the Dauphin awaiting his inevitable inheritance and all men are on his side. His undoing is certain but it is far ahead and his courtiers do not yet talk of things like that.’

Rubbing along in the neo-liberal way

R.W. Johnson, 22 June 1995

There were plenty of stories, during the Queen’s visit to South Africa, about black radio commentators who talked of ‘Queen Elizabeth Eleven’ and her husband, the ‘Duke of Ellington’. The people who told you the stories were always white and they had never heard the commentator themselves; either ‘a friend’ had, or they’d ‘heard’ that it had happened, thus confirming that one, and possibly two, comfortable old South African realities were still in place. In any case such stories were rather put in the shade by the bristling denunciation of the visit by Robert van Tonder, leader of the tiny right-wing Boerestaat (Boer State) Party. Mrs Elizabeth Windsor, he said, was not welcome in the Boerestaat of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal: she was, after all, the great granddaughter of ‘a cruel queen who was guilty of the holocaust of the Afrikaner people’. But the worst thing about the royal visit, van Tonder continued, was that ‘the local British’ (i.e. English-speaking white South Africans) were making far more fuss about it than they would with any normal head of state, thus betraying a deeply colonial mentality; a mentality, he added, which was shared by ‘the new black English regime’. This was, in its way, a very reassuring sign, for it was clear that for those van Tonder represents the Boer War is still going on, just as it always has, and that even the arrival in power of Nelson Mandela has not disturbed their way of thinking. A little later, van Tonder applauded the Government’s decision to remove the names of Afrikaner Nationalist premiers from all the country’s airports. Johannesburg and Durban airports should never, he said, have been named after Jan Smuts and Louis Botha, both lackeys of British imperialism. All this had a distinctly comforting feel, especially since no one, months later, had actually got round to removing the offending names from the airport buildings.

The Presidents’ Man

R.W. Johnson, 25 May 1995

Throughout the Sixties rumours circulated in Paris political circles about the awesome powers of de Gaulle’s adviser, Jacques Foccart. Foccart had no elected position and was seldom seen, but he was said to have an exclusive hold over France’s African policy, the intelligence services and the whole shadowy world of covert action. Every now and again a coup would occur in West or Central Africa or there would be a kidnapping in Switzerland, or some OAS jackal would be run to earth in Latin America. There would be no official comment but those in the know would invariably say: ‘C’est Foccart.’ Foccart himself was never available to the press. Insiders would tell you, incredulously (and, it now seems, correctly), that while a cabinet minister might see de Gaulle every few weeks and the Prime Minister once a week, Foccart had access to him every day and whenever he wanted. For de Gaulle was fascinated by Intelligence, and as a military man, knew its worth.


R.W. Johnson, 9 March 1995

Will Hutton, the Guardian’s economics editor, has produced a book which is part show-biz – it carries a passionate puff from Ian McEwan on the front cover and leapt straight into the bestseller list – and part political event: it clearly aims to provide a sweeping economic and political platform for Labour, has been elaborated with the help of Tony Blair’s adviser, David Miliband, and sees Blair’s election as leader as an epochal event, finally settling Labour’s commitment to social democracy. All of which sounds very much as if Hutton hopes to become a key adviser in a future Blair administration, though the Tories may well want to know how much of the book really represents Labour policy. The State We’re In will almost certainly be a powerfully influential book among Labour’s élite, but many of its positions – particularly its out-and-out republicanism – are considerably bolder than any Labour’s leadership is likely to own up to.’’

At the Skunk Works

R.W. Johnson, 23 February 1995

In 1937 a small gas field was discovered near Whitby in Yorkshire. In 1943 in Nazi-occupied Holland drilling began in a search for gas which met success only in July 1959 when the Groningen field was discovered in Friesland. It became clear that Groningen, the world’s second largest gas field, stretched far out into the North Sea and geologists noticed that the strata in which the Dutch deposits were found were actually an undersea extension of a formation which began in Yorkshire. Oil companies began to search the sea and quickly found several sedimentary basins of the sort likely to contain gas and oil. BP rather perilously converted a barge into a makeshift rig, the Sea Gem, which in November 1965 discovered the West Sole gas field off the Norfolk coast. Six days later the Sea Gem capsized with the loss of 13 lives. The search for hydrocarbons in the North Sea led the oil companies into the deepest water and toughest conditions they had ever encountered. In 1964 it was reckoned that North Sea waves never got higher than forty feet, winds never higher than 53 mph. Gradually, bitter experience taught that nothing was ever quite tough enough for the North Sea, that you had to be ready for waveheights of 65-100 feet and wind speeds of 70 mph. The technology became more and more awesome, the rigs huger, the entire scenario more and more futuristic. It was, in Alvarez’s phrase, ‘outer space with bad weather’.

This Sporting Life

R.W. Johnson, 8 December 1994

It was one of the most attractive aspects of Iain Macleod that he was not easily taken for a professional politician. After depressing his hard-working doctor father by getting a lower second at Cambridge, he was quickly sacked from his first job at De la Rue’s, mainly because he found it an almost impossible struggle to get to work in the morning after staying up into the wee hours playing bridge and poker at Crockfords. Sometimes he would have to write his father urgent letters asking him to bail him out of his card debts; but more often he won. He was earning £3 a week but sometimes won £100 at a sitting. After he got the sack he became a full-time card-player and, until war broke out, earned up to £2500 a year tax free (at a time when average male earnings were about £200 per annum). An international player, he and his friends sat up late into the night at a club in Acol Road in Hampstead, devising the Acol system – still the most widely used in the bridge world.


R.W. Johnson, 20 October 1994

Stung by press comment that South Africa’s new government had achieved little in its first hundred days, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, addressing the Cape Town Press Club, suggested that the problem lay with the press. It had, he said, been ‘perfectly correct for the press to criticise the previous government’ – the word ‘correct’ is worth lingering over – but such behaviour was now inappropriate. Instead of looking for crises, he said, the press ‘should ask what its role is in building a democracy’. Mr Mbeki, it turned out, had been particularly incensed by an article in the Financial Mail accusing him of laziness and unexplained absences from important meetings.’

The Greatest

R.W. Johnson, 4 August 1994

Much of the history of France in the last century is embodied in the strange trinity of Philippe Pétain, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. Pétain, born in 1856, was old enough to remember the humiliation of France at the hands of Prussia in 1870, and like other French officers of his period, spent his entire military career in anticipation of what he believed would be the inevitable revenge for that defeat. By the time the young second lieutenant Charles de Gaulle joined the 33rd Infantry Regiment at Arras in 1912, Pétain, the regiment’s colonel, was on the point of retirement. The war intervened and gave Pétain an extended military life. In 1925 the hero of Verdun and Marshal of France appointed the promising young de Gaulle to his staff and repeatedly intervened to promote his protégé, even raising his marks when de Gaulle graduated from the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre. Pétain then imposed him on the School as a lecturer, and insisted on going along to introduce him. De Gaulle dedicated his writings to Pétain, acted as his ghostwriter, and called his own son Philippe. But Pétain, presumed too far and de Gaulle, his pride wounded, asserted his independence. The relationship had already grown cool when de Gaulle ended it: on 18 June 1940 he condemned the deal Pétain, had done with Hitler and appealed for resistance. It was a war to the knife. De Gaulle made resistance to Pétain, such an absolute principle that he overcame his previous prejudices and joined forces with the Communists in the struggle against him. Pétain, had de Gaulle condemned to death in absentia, while de Gaulle had Pétain, live out his last few years of life – by then he was over ninety – as a prisoner on a windswept little island in the Bay of Biscay.’’

Here for the crunch

R.W. Johnson, 28 April 1994

‘The good news’, said the man from the US Embassy, ‘is that there’s lots of money for voter education. The bad news is that we hear Richard Gere and Kim Basinger are coming out to spend it.’ ‘It’s getting like the late Sixties in Vietnam,’ said his colleague. ‘Last time I saw so many people working such frantic hours on politics. Didn’t make a damn bit of difference there in the end. Probably won’t do here, either. We had Bob Hope there, of course. We were lucky, we didn’t have Jesse Jackson like we’re gonna have here.’ I asked how the funding worked. ‘Well, Washington has this idea that democracy is something you can sorta buy. They say: will it be free and fair? If we say no, not really, they say: well how much more do we have to allocate to get it free and fair?’ I was called to the phone. It was my friend, Jim, who’s been election-watching down on the Natal south coast. He’d just come back from seeing the bodies of a family of nine killed at Folweni. ‘They were butchered, I mean almost literally,’ he said. ‘Of course, neither the local Inkatha guys nor the ANC will say who did it but they obviously know. You can be sure the revenge mission has already begun. It’s getting kind of heavy. Come on down for the weekend. I’ll introduce you to the local killers and we can do some surfing and have a barbecue.’ In Lesotho last year, I talked to an American who’d been an election-observer in Kenya, Namibia, Zambia, Angola and Pakistan. What preparations, I asked, was he making to monitor the South African election? ‘Oh boy,’ he groaned, ‘that one. That’s the eight-hundred-pound gorilla.’

Bevan’s Boy

R.W. Johnson, 24 March 1994

At the Party Conference following Labour’s crippling defeat in the 1983 election Michael Foot stood before the massed ranks of the faithful to account for his stewardship of the Party. ‘I am deeply ashamed,’ he began. Unfortunately for Mervyn Jones, who both loves and admires his subject and would have us dwell on other things, it is the freeze-frame of that moment which lives on. For Foot had led Labour to its worst defeat since 1922, a defeat so bad that it handicaps Labour still. In almost exactly half the country’s constituencies the SDP-Liberal Alliance ran ahead of Labour. Eleven years later, despite the implosion of the Alliance and two better elections for Labour, the Liberals have clung onto the majority of those bridgeheads: for Labour to win a Parliamentary majority of any comfort now it has to perform the difficult trick of going from third to first place in a considerable number of seats. This ‘Foot deficit’ may well live on to haunt Labour leaders into the next century, and with it will go the memory of Foot as the most disastrous Labour leader since Ramsay MacDonald.

The Last Days of Bhambayi

R.W. Johnson, 6 January 1994

Just outside Durban lies the vast black squatter camp of Inanda, whose huddling shacks house half a million people or more – the only way to perform a census is to take an aerial photograph and allow for six people per shack. On Inanda’s eastern edge lies the historic Gandhi Settlement, founded by the Mahatma before he set off to lead the struggle against the British in India. Ninety per cent of South Africa’s one million Indians live in Natal, more than half of them in Durban, and the community is intensely proud of having produced the man who launched India’s independence. The Settlement itself became a focus of the Gandhian movement and a place of pilgrimage. It was also a place of reflection and refuge: during the hardest apartheid years this was where radicals of every stripe would retire for workshops and seminars or, on occasion, for Gandhian fasts of protest against the apartheid laws. Rick Turner and Steve Biko used to hold weekend retreats there, as did many of the activists who later built the trade union movement.’


R.W. Johnson, 2 December 1993

‘What Tory MPs really wanted,’ Margaret Thatcher writes of the Westland affair, ‘was leadership, frankness and a touch of humility, all of which I tried to provide.’ A great deal of indignant energy has fired the reviews of this book, many of them by Mrs Thatcher’s former Cabinet colleagues, largely because of the sheer outrageousness of those claims to frankness and humility. And there has, of course, been no difficulty in showing that, in these memoirs as in her career, Thatcher has been neither frank nor humble.

Stitched up

R.W. Johnson, 21 October 1993

At one point in this book, except that it’s not so much a book as a series of sharp-eyed digressions, Breyten Breytenbach tells the story of his friend Tobe. We’ve already got used to Tobe’s name cropping up in unlikely places in French Africa, or as a character in the dreams, the take-offs into magical realism or the one long drinking bout that make up this book. The notion of a famous literary figure on an inebriated progress across a continent has a certain raffish hilarity to it and once produced a study called Dylan Thomas in America. This book is a sort of ‘Dylan Thomas in Africa’, with the difference that Breytenbach has written this one himself and cares about the continent he’s travelling through and getting drunk in. As he says, to be African is not a choice but a condition and he’s got it. Even worse he’s an Afrikaner: ‘I am of a people who are the mortification of Africa, a people of colonists without a metropolis, with whom nobody wants to share history.’

Magical Socialism

R.W. Johnson, 5 August 1993

According to the New Nation (the nearest thing there is to an ANC newspaper until Tiny Rowland sets up an official one), what really drove Janusz Waluz and Clive and Gaye Derby-Lewis to plot the assassination of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani was the belief that Hani was the most likely successor to Nelson Mandela as head of the ANC – and thus the next-President-but-one of South Africa. It’s an interesting thought partly because its airing in an ANC paper signals both that the matter of the succession is in the air and that it is now publicly thinkable that a Communist could succeed Mandela.’

When that great day comes

R.W. Johnson, 22 July 1993

‘The saddest thing about the death of Comrade O.R. Tambo,’ wrote one of the black students in my local university newspaper, ‘is that he will not now be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Comrade Mandela on that great day when freedom comes.’ Other, more radical students are less respectful of the ANC luminaries and their chosen strategy of negotiation. ‘The only thing to negotiate,’ they are given to saying, ‘is the transfer of power’ – or sometimes, ‘the seizure of power’. Only then – and here all concur – can we get ahead with the great task in hand, that of ‘building the new nation’.’

Beloved Country

R.W. Johnson, 8 July 1993

The four-hundred-mile highway from Johannesburg to Durban – drivers of big Mercs (and they abound in South Africa) boast of doing it in three and a half hours – leads one through the Dali-esque environs of Harrismith. Here, on the featureless plains of the Orange Free State, one suddenly sees huge rock formations soaring up to great heights with an effortless geometry. The six-lane highway curls around them but even at 150 kph they take half an hour to fade from your rear mirror. Last week as I tore past these rocks, I saw, lying on the margin of the motorway, a large brown horse, its hoofs sticking straight out and skywards, a fine glossy beast with flowing mane and large muscles. As I whipped past it I saw what was wrong. Its head had been torn off. Its neck ended half-way up in a jagged red mess; no clean execution there. A second and I was gone but the image lingered, Guernica-like, a symbol of spoilt promise and of the senseless killing amidst which one lives. For the violence here is not a simple tale of good versus evil (if violence ever is that simple); as with that headless horse there is a mystery as well as a horror to it. Such are the images of the state of nature in which we live.

Nixon’s Greatest Moments

R.W. Johnson, 13 May 1993

Winding up his efforts in the 1954 mid-term elections Vice-President Richard Nixon handed an aide the notes of his last campaign speech and said: ‘You might like to keep it as a souvenir. It’s the last one, because after this I am through with politics.’ Suffering one of his periodic depressions, Nixon had considered the matter with his wife Pat, and decided that he should retire from politics once his term as Vice-President finished in 1956. Except, of course, that he hadn’t really decided anything. Typically, he wrote himself a little memo on the subject headed ‘Reasons to get out’, the reasons divided into Personal and Political, with the main personal reason being ‘Wife – (columns, personal, staff hurts)’, meaning that Pat didn’t like the newspaper comment or imagined sleights from Ike’s staff. Under Political came a set of points:’

The Kennedy Boys

R.W. Johnson, 28 January 1993

‘The first thing he did,’ recounted one of JFK’s helpers in his first Congressional campaign of 1946, ‘was to get one of Dowd’s staff pregnant’ – Dowd being one of the army of functionaries hired by Joe Kennedy to ensure his son’s victory.’

So much was expected

R.W. Johnson, 3 December 1992

On 4 July 1934 Harold Wilson, an 18-year-old schoolboy waiting to go up to Oxford, proposed to Gladys Baldwin, the pretty young typist he’d first seen playing tennis only three weeks before. Gladys (who later came to prefer her second name, Mary) was somewhat bemused, particularly since Harold, already, in Pimlott’s words, ‘cheerful, boastful, absurdly sure of himself and confidently planning the future’, went on to tell Gladys that he intended to become an MP and, ultimately, prime minister. For these were things he had more or less been promising himself ever since the famous Boy Scout photo was taken of him posing in front of No 10.

The massacre at Boipatong and the subsequent breakdown of talks between the ANC and the Government have set the seal on a mood of almost panicky pessimism in South Africa. The high hopes of two years ago seem impossibly distant now. To be sure, there was always bound to be a period like this in the middle of the negotiation process, but there is certainly nothing finite or controlled about the gloom that grips the country. White morale and confidence have never been lower, and since they and their media still set the tone for the whole society, and since blacks and Coloureds have less in general to feel happy about anyway, this means that the gloom is general. It does also happen to be winter, a beautiful but drought-stricken winter.

Ahead lies – what?

R.W. Johnson, 12 March 1992

As Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias, lay dying in 1725, the future of the Imperial dynasty hung on his choice of successor. Peter, the first to take the title of emperor, had issued a law granting to himself the power to appoint whoever he liked as successor, but had continued to ponder the question, having had his own eldest son condemned and executed for serving as a rallying-point for opposition. The end was cinematic. As he expired, he scrawled ‘Leave all to …’ But his fingers failed him and the name was illegible. The result was chaos: seven emperors followed in rapid succession – four women, a baby, a drunkard and a boy.’

Who’ll man the fax?

R.W. Johnson, 13 February 1992

One of the great lessons of the Nineties is that democracy can be a doomsday machine: some states – Yugoslavia, East Germany, the Soviet Union – are unable to survive its coming. This may be the year in which we see whether South Africa is one of those that can. With the launching of Codesa – the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, whose first plenary session was held on 20-21 December – the march towards a democratic, non-racial South Africa has entered its climactic phase. Nineteen of the country’s political groups attended, but ominously, the absentees included the extreme Africanist Left – the PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress) and AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organisation) – and, perhaps more significantly, Treurnicht’s Conservative Party and such far-right groups as Terreblanche’s AWB. ‘More significantly’, because the white Right may now command 40 or 50 per cent of the white electorate and because these whites are often armed to the teeth. Currently, at least, the PAC and AZAPO lack that sort of political and military firepower. On the other hand, some of those who did attend, such as the generally unelected Bantustan oligarchs and the various Asian groups, represent comparatively little. Nonetheless, the summoning of Codesa – its working parties are in session now and will report to another plenary meeting in March – represented a great day in South African history. The road ahead is studded, no doubt, with symbolic walkouts, furious ultimata and all the other necessary histrionics of a meeting, called after centuries of oppression and exclusion, to re-found a great and divided country. But no one, after all, is going to die of histrionics: the real dangers lie elsewhere.’

What Buthelezi wants

R.W. Johnson, 19 December 1991

As multi-party negotiations on a new constitution for South Africa get under way at last, there is a widespread impression that what is really in prospect is a two-party deal between the Government and the ANC. Of the many groups this leaves out of account, Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement is the most significant. In preparation for this new phase, Inkatha has transformed itself from a ‘national cultural movement’ into the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Hearing mention of an old friend who is a long-time stalwart of the South African Communist Party, I enquired how he was. ‘Oh, the same as the rest of them,’ our mutual acquaintance replied. ‘You know – clinging onto his collapsing world view as best he can.’ The man in question holds a powerful position within the ANC and is spoken of by some as a possible future cabinet minister: in that sense his world is hardly collapsing. But his case exemplifies the strange paradox of the SACP, a paradox which has become all the sharper in the wake of recent events in the USSR.’

Aids in South Africa

R.W. Johnson, 12 September 1991

An Aids epidemic is coming to South Africa. The countries with the highest Aids incidence in the world are grouped in East-Central Africa – Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi are probably the greatest sufferers of all – and gradually the virus has been making its way southwards. It has indeed been possible to work out South Africa’s ‘HIV prevalence lag time’: nine years behind Burundi, eight behind Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi, seven behind Zaire, Zambia and Rawanda, five behind Kenya and Angola – and so on. South Africa has been protected not only by its position on the continent’s southern tip, but by its social and economic isolation: trade sanctions and the inhibitions on tourism have been an ill wind blowing some good. However, 60 per cent of the world’s Aids victims are to be found in Africa – and there is no prospect of South Africa avoiding the scourge.’

Lions, Princes, Bosses

R.W. Johnson, 15 August 1991

A year ago you could probably have got odds of 100-1 against the proposition that the man chosen to open the ANC’s first national conference back in South Africa would be Jacob Zuma, the frequently feared chief of intelligence of the ANC’s guerrilla arm, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). But supreme among Mr Zuma’s qualities is the fact that he is one of the rare Zulus in the ANC’s leadership, a status which quickly earned him promotion to head of the ANC’s Southern Natal region, which includes Durban. From this position he earned a reputation as a charming and moderate diplomat in the tricky negotiations with Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement. Welcoming delegates to the ANC’s Durban conference, Mr Zuma caused minor gasps by talking of how Shaka Zulu, virtually Inkatha’s patron saint, had had ‘his own ideas of how to build a nation’ (essentially, conquest, mass murder and forced assimilation). He also reminded delegates that ‘everyone has wished this conference well; no one who has spoken of it has spoken against it’ – a scarcely veiled reference to Buthelezi and a hint that it would be as well to avoid furious denunciations of the chief in his own backyard.

President de Klerk’s further instalment of reform leaves no doubt that South Africa is moving away from the era of apartheid at some speed. His speech follows hard on a truce agreement between the ANC and Inkatha – the first step towards ending a conflict which has cost some five thousand lives in Natal and on the Reef since 1985. Whether the truce will hold and whether it will stem the creeping ethnicisation of black politics remains to be seen. But Mandela’s public embrace of Buthelezi has inaugurated a new and intense phase of politicking within and between the two organisations. With Inkatha now poised to play a major role alongside the ANC in the negotiations for a new constitution, it will in any case be harder for conventional radical opinion to maintain its simple demonisation of Inkatha and its leader.’

Further Left

R.W. Johnson, 16 August 1990

Many years ago it was the habit of the PPE tutors in Magdalen College, Oxford to hold a discussion group for their undergraduates. At one such meeting we were somewhat disconcerted to find we had been gatecrashed by an extremely loud and talkative outsider of Marxist bent who laid down the law about everything, referred to the dons as ‘comrade’ – he did not know my name, so I was ‘the red-headed comrade’ – and rather capsized the whole evening. Not long after, the discussion group was disbanded. The gatecrasher’s name, we learnt, was Christopher Hitchens, and he apparently did this sort of thing rather often, being famous for a sort of pyrotechnic brashness. Looking back, one realises that these were entirely apposite qualities for the successful journalist, which is very much what Hitchens has become.’

At an enormous ‘peace’ rally in Durban at the end of February Nelson Mandela called upon the warring Inkatha and UDF factions to ‘throw your arms into the sea’, an appeal which met with considerable applause. Perhaps the loudest ovation of all, however, came when Mandela announced, at the meeting’s end, that he had ‘a wonderful present’ to offer the crowd – ‘the mother of the nation’. This was not, as it might once have been, an introduction to Winnie Mandela – who sat silently by – but to a frail old lady of 86, the widow of the former ANC leader and Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Chief Albert Luthuli. It was a master card to play, not merely because of the continuing public ambivalence towards Winnie, but because Chief Albert Luthuli still occupies a special place in the hearts of the predominantly Zulu crowd, irrespective of whether they were ANC or Inkatha supporters. Luthuli had been a dignified, almost saintly man, who died in restriction, his movement banned.’


R.W. Johnson, 8 February 1990

Raymond Williams’s death in January 1988 has been followed by an avalanche of obituarial tribute. To some extent, the tributes were a matter of the Left giving a last, sad cheer for one of its most versatile and prolific heroes. Alan O’Connor’s bibliography of works by and about Williams covers an extraordinary 47 pages and includes 29 critical works, five novels, five short stories and five plays by Williams (which, together, have sold over a million copies in Britain alone), as well as perhaps a thousand articles.

Paul Foot has a shocking story to tell, the story of Colin Wallace. It is, quite literally, a story of gunpowder, treason and plot. The fact that Foot’s publishers have had to rush the book out in weeks in order to beat the deadline of the new Official Secrets Act, and have deliberately forsaken all advance publicity for fear of pre-emptive action against the book, says something rather disgraceful about the difficulty of getting a fair hearing in this country. And Wallace deserves, at the least, a fair hearing.

Is this successful management?

R.W. Johnson, 20 April 1989

In February 1981 Mrs Thatcher made an ecstatic pilgrimage to Washington to commune with the new President, Ronald Reagan, about such then modish topics as supply-side economics and the evil empire. Hugo Young recalls the ‘patronising astonishment’ with which her Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, witnessed this effusive display. Asked by a colleague, on his return, how the visit had really gone, Carrington replied: ‘Oh, very well indeed. She liked the Reagan people very much. They’re so vulgar.’

The Revolution is over

R.W. Johnson, 16 February 1989

Eugen Weber, who contributes one of the essays to this interesting collection, writes of the way the Revolution became a national obsession in 19th-century France. The reason was, at least in part, that throughout the century the threat – or indeed the reality – of violent political change was never off the agenda. One can go further, however. Historical awareness of the Revolution may not run deep among the mass of Frenchmen, but it often does among the élite, for whom it constitutes an elaborate dramatic metaphor shadowing the practices and institutions of contemporary life. Thus at the height of the May Events of 1968, the French Communist Party, full of quasi-revolutionary rhetoric, announced that it would hold a large public demonstration through the streets of Paris. A route-map of the demonstration was published which showed that it would lead past the Hôtel de Ville (which houses the mairie of Paris); then, just before the march began, the route was altered so as to bypass the Hôtel de Ville. The point which the PCF was (rightly) sure would not be lost on the governing élite was, of course, that the seizure of the Hôtel de Ville has been the customary first step in any revolutionary seizure of power. In other words, the original announcement constituted an implicit threat that, unless concessions were made to it, the PCF might run up the red flag over City Hall; the revision absolved the PCF of all responsibility should, for example, any Trotskyites among the marchers try to take matters into their own hands. The authorities, in their turn, would have responded within this well-understood, if unstated tradition, which is still sufficiently alive to allow such creative improvisation: indeed, stays alive through it. Many of the central traditions of British political life, by contrast, such as the state-encrusted flummery of Black Rod, the Mace and the Queen’s Speech, are quite dead: the rows about the handling of the sacred Mace are really to do with the blasphemous disturbance of a corpse.’

Via Mandela

R.W. Johnson, 5 January 1989

Nelson Mandela, incarcerated for over a quarter of a century, writes frequently to his wife, Winnie, about his vivid and often rather frightening dreams.

Black on Black

R.W. Johnson, 24 November 1988

‘Of course, liberal English-speaking whites like you are really the worst sort,’ said my dinner guest, Mr Precious Tshabalala, glaring at me with real hostility. ‘Most of us black revolutionaries’ – he broke off to complain to the wine waiter that his claret was slightly corked – ‘actually prefer straight talk with Afrikaners. At least you know where you are with them.’ Actually, Precious (despite that opening gambit we were quickly on first-name terms) seemed to know just where he was with me – he knew his way round the plush hotel we were in as if he lived there, the hotel staff greeting him with deferential familiarity wherever he went. Precious had been a personnel manager in a large firm, but was now in business on his own as a personnel consultant. An articulate, educated man, he is in great demand, taking part in any number of the where-do-we-go-from here conferences that white business anxiously sponsors. Before the end of the month he was due to give talks about South Africa’s future in Toronto, Washington and New York, for the coming South African revolution has frightened many people with large financial or political interests here into creating an international jet-set circuit of concern on which able and intelligent blacks are sought after.’

Scenes from South African Life

R.W. Johnson, 13 October 1988

The thing that really got to me after a while was the prostitutes. As I drove back from Cape Town city centre to suburban Mowbray at night along the old Main Road, I would see dozens of them beckoning to motorists, and sometimes as I waited at the traffic-light at Mowbray bus-station, the pimps would genially slap the side of my car to attract my attention to their Xhosa or Coloured charges. Going to a late-night café in Mowbray, the somewhat mixed area in which I was staying, meant threading my way through clusters of begging small boys and prostitutes who ranged in age from schoolgirls to quite old women. The ambience was such that after a while you got to be curious about how safe it was to be a white café-owner (they’re invariably Portuguese or Greek) in such a district. After all, loitering round their shop doorway, however good-humouredly, are a lot of decidedly poor people; the shopkeeper is, at night, the only white face to be found in quite a large area; and the shop’s goods and till represent not only a tempting but almost the only target around.


R.W. Johnson, 7 July 1988

Tom Nairn has, for many years, been pondering the peculiarities of the British state with impressive intelligence and originality. His earlier work, The Break-Up of Britain, remains a landmark – but had the curious deficiency of devoting relatively little space to England, which is, even from Nairn’s Marxist and Scots nationalist vantage-point, the heart of the matter. He has now repaired this lacuna with a long and brilliant meditation on the nature of the British or, as he calls it, the Ukanian or Anglo-British state, its identity and national culture. For we are not, he feels, a nation state – not only because there is not one nation but four, but also because we are a state-nation in which the antique ruling structure unites and defines the nation rather than the other way round. Nairn thus finds, somewhat angrily and almost reluctantly, that the monarchy must stand at the centre of his picture, and parts of his book are a form of polemic against those of his friends on the left who feel the subject to be unimportant alongside the issues of class. Nairn derides not merely the ‘Royal Socialism’ of the Labour Party but the whole Ukanian notion of ‘class’, which here denotes a sort of lumpish, self-encapsulating and self-perpetuating corporatism: knowing-one’s-place erected into social theory and a servile national identity. Less a nation of shopkeepers than of butlers – the most that can be said of a true patriot in Ukania is that he is ‘a loyal servant of the Crown’. The ideal, it seems, is the Admirable Crichton. We even have a labour movement so denatured and corrupted by instinctive Ukanian authoritarianism that it takes a reactionary government to impose elementary democratic procedures on it, while in the party of Royal Socialism itself the democratically obvious idea of one-member-one-vote is bitterly resisted even by self-described ‘democrats’. Nairn despairs utterly of this royal Left and is reduced to feeling grateful for Mrs Thatcher’s transparent dislike of the Queen and the right-wing republicanism it implies.’


R.W. Johnson, 2 June 1988

One of the many delights in Passion and Cunning is the description of the author’s attendance at a National Party election rally in Springs (Transvaal) where P.W. Botha makes his appeal to English-speaking South Africans via a programme featuring 1. ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes’. 2. ‘My Bonnie lies over the ocean’. 3. ‘Daizy, Daizy [sic], give me your anser [sic] do’. Such Afrikaner wooing of English-speakers, reflects O’Brien, has fortuitously coincided with the need to rephrase apartheid. Once it was Bantu Administration. Then it was separate development. Then it was community development, then co-operation and development. Perhaps, muses O’Brien, Afrikaner Nationalists simply had need of ‘the richer rhetorical resources of Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy’.

Doctor Feelgood

R.W. Johnson, 3 March 1988

‘Would you believe,’ asked Ronald Reagan, opening his campaign for Governor in 1966, ‘that 15.1 per cent of the population of California is on welfare?’ A pretty shocking figure, you might think, for the Golden State in the midst of the Vietnam War boom: no wonder Reagan’s well-heeled backers were so righteously indignant about all their tax money going to all those layabouts. But we haven’t answered the question: would you believe it? Well no, actually – the real figure was 5.1 per cent. Unfazed, Ronnie’s backers simply redoubled their efforts and their campaign contributions. The expert handler put in to manage him discovered that ‘he knew zero about California when we came in, I mean zero.’ Instead, everything had to be reduced to little memorisable gobbets on 5 × 8-inch cards and, above all, Ron had to have a handler with him at every waking moment: ‘goofproofing Reagan was a task that called for eternal vigilance.’

Diary: Kinnock must go

R.W. Johnson, 10 December 1987

The Opposition is at a low ebb. Labour consoles itself for its third consecutive thrashing with the thought that at least its leader put up a good show and the Party was well-prepared and ran a good campaign. None of these things was true: Kinnock trailed Thatcher massively in the leader polls and was far less popular than his party; the campaign, largely a matter of a few videos and avoiding the London press, was good only in comparison to Foot’s; and the Party was so ill-prepared that, despite four years of reflection, it was still chronically unsure even about such key issues as its taxation policy. For some years now, the most impressive intellectual input to the Kinnock camp has been that of Eric Hobsbawm, who is actually a member of quite another party, a fact which is surely comment enough in itself. But Labour still exists, which the Alliance no longer does. In their different ways all the members of the old Gang of Four have effectively admitted that it was 1987 or bust. Three of them have moved purposefully towards retirement while the fourth seems to have gone mad. The resulting collapse in Alliance support has seen the Tories reach 50 per cent in the polls, a fact which, like the tremors from the Stock Exchange, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Thirties. Why has the Opposition done so badly? Two recent books afford a clue.

Public Enemy

R.W. Johnson, 26 November 1987

‘Dick, you will come to depend on Edgar. He is a pillar of strength in a city of weak men. You will rely on him time and time again to maintain security. He’s the only one you can put your complete trust in’: thus Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon, 1968. It is not often that a book casts fresh light on American history throughout this century, but this biography of Edgar Hoover does just that. Not only was Hoover, as head of the FBI, America’s leading policeman: he enjoyed an extraordinary political longevity – his career, which ended under Richard Nixon, began under Woodrow Wilson. That Hoover persecuted Martin Luther King is notorious, but Hoover was also the man who drove Marcus Garvey out of America. Similarly, the Hoover who turned his malign attention upon the anti-Vietnam War movement was the same man who had, half a century before, hounded Emma Goldman and John Reed and, later, put Leon Trotsky under surveillance in Mexico. This longevity makes Hoover’s biography a wonderful subject. Powers’s book is painfully neutral and somewhat pedestrian at times, but his authoritative command of his sources makes it unlikely that it will be surpassed.’

Peter Wright, Judges and Journalists

R.W. Johnson, 3 September 1987

Let us first dispose of Spycatcher – a well-written book which eschews a sensationalist style even when dealing with sensational matters. The widespread impression that the book is mainly about MI5 attempts to destabilise the Wilson Government is quite wrong – there are just a few pages about this. Most of the book is an account of the endless mole-hunting undertaken in the aftermath of the Burgess/ Maclean/ Philby affairs and the construction of Wright’s case that the MI5 chief, Roger Hollis, was a Soviet spy. This latter question is, for Wright, very much the heart of the book, but I doubt whether readers will be universally convinced by his case or even that they will be chiefly interested in it. Most, one suspects, will savour more the chillingly casual way in which Wright details how even friendly embassies were bugged and assassination schemes plotted, and also the sheer Le Carré-like richness of the bureaucratic and diplomatic intrigues, particularly when they involve characters as colourful as Edgar Hoover or James Angleton. Wright describes how Angleton ingeniously contrived to enjoy simultaneously his three main hobbies of drinking, smoking and fishing. Having bought a stretch of river, he buried bottles of Jack Daniels at regular intervals in the river bed, so that he could always fish with a whisky and a cigarette in hand.’

Going for Gould

R.W. Johnson, 23 July 1987

Election post-mortems concentrate, reasonably enough, on how the electorate actually behaved – which class, which region or which sex swung most. In 1987 the most striking finding was surely the highly differential way in which the sexes behaved. Among men the pro-Labour swing from the Tories was a mere 0.5 per cent, but among women it was nine times greater, at 4.5 per cent. (All figures here are based on the vast MORI sample of 23,396 voters interviewed in the course of the campaign, weighted to the actual outcome.) Further analysis of that swing shows a peculiar age distribution among women: among the 35-54 age-group women moved only 2 per cent towards Labour; the 25-34s swung 6.5 per cent; and the 18-24s a massive 11 per cent. (The shift among men aged 18-24 was only 1.5 per cent to Labour.) The real peculiarity is that women aged 55-65 also moved 4.5 per cent to Labour and women over 65 showed a 7 per cent Labour swing. That is to say, it was the middle-aged who were the odd women out: not only did far more younger women swing to Labour, but so did many more older women. Without doubt, most of these middle-aged women who stuck with the Tories lived in the South: Southern women showed a pro-Labour swing only one-third as great as that of Northern women. Even so, women in the South did show a pro-Labour swing, while the men swung clearly towards the Tories.

In the first few pages of Walter Laqueur’s The Age of Terrorism (largely a reworking and updating of his 1977 work, Terrorism), the author attempts to confront the old adage that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ Laqueur will have none of it:


R.W. Johnson, 4 June 1987

British attitudes to the intelligence services are governed by two separate obsessions. The discovery of Maclean, Burgess, Philby and Blunt as Soviet agents has produced a long-lasting preoccupation with hunting down moles, ‘agents of influence’ and the like. Newspapers love it, the public are interested, and the whole business is endlessly stoked by the more enfevered spirits of the Right. There is no doubt that this is a compulsion which goes beyond reason: Blunt, after all, had given up his allegiance to Communism by 1951, yet the whole business is still breathlessly featured by the quality Sunday press several times a year. The second obsession is that of all British governments to prevent their voters knowing even the most elementary facts about the intelligence services their taxes pay for. The Peter Wright trial in Australia has recently brought out the full absurdity of this, with Sir Robert Armstrong attempting at one point to suggest that the very existence of MI5 and MI6 (let alone the identity of their directors) was a secret which could neither be confirmed nor denied. There is no other state in the world which behaves like this and national security cannot be the reason for it. The Russians, after all, are fully cognizant of the existence of MI5 and MI6 and of their directors’ identity – and even the Soviet state tells its citizens that the KGB exists and who the head of it is.’

Their Affair and Our Affair

R.W. Johnson, 23 April 1987

John Weightman, reviewingJean-Denis Bredin’s monumental work in the Observer, wrote of the Dreyfus Affair that ‘it was perhaps a good thing for France that the abcess burst when it did, because this brought tensions out into the open and revealed the “undeclared civil war” which would need to be resolved in the 20th century.’ It is, perhaps, a curious notion that there could be any time when it would be ‘a good thing’ for a country to experience a racking political scandal which, over a 12-year period, led to the unparalleled expression of group hatreds, brought about suicides, the ruination of careers and the fall of governments, and which produced anti-semitic riots without number in which Jews were robbed, vilified and killed. But it is worth pausing over Weightman’s judgment, for it encapsulates a marvellously Anglo-Saxon misunderstanding not only of the Dreyfus Affair but of the ways in which social cleavages operate and opinion is formed and crystallised.

Why Barbie may never be tried

R.W. Johnson, 5 March 1987

Modern states very seldom acknowledge their own crimes. In 1944, however, France had to assume responsibility for the fact – unlike Germany or Italy, there was no army of occupation to do it for her – that in almost every field her élites had been compromised. The resulting purge was not only a comprehensive attempt to found a new moral order: it had undeniable echoes of the Revolutionary Terror. Indeed, prosecutors and ministers alike frequently compared themselves to Danton and Robespierre, often with a note of genuine admiration for the latter. Robespierre, they said, had always had the guts to take public responsibility for his actions: Liberation justice, too, should have no truck with anonymity. Teitgen, the Christian Democrat Minister of Justice, for instance, boasted that he had purged more people than the sea-green incorruptible himself.

Rising Moon

R.W. Johnson, 18 December 1986

Jean-François Boyer’s book on the Moonies is one of the most striking pieces of investigative writing that I have read for a long time. It tells the story of how Sun Myung Moon (his American name – real name, Young Myung Mun), from his origins as a North Korean peasant, has built a politico-religious empire with an annual revenue of over half a billion dollars (making it one of the world’s largest 50 private corporations). The young Moon seems to have been an ordinary enough peasant child until, at least, the age of 14, when his father, shaken by a series of family disasters which saw several of his children fall mentally ill, had the family converted to Christianity. But this domestic crisis was overshadowed by the terrible national disaster of Japanese occupation and annexation. The context was ripe for messianism. The Buddhists, among whom Moon had grown up, hoped desperately for a new Buddha to lead them, Moses-like, out of their cruel new subjugation, while Korean Christians believed Armageddon was nigh and looked likewise for a Redeemer. Sure enough, Jesus appeared to the 16-year-old Moon and informed him that he was the chosen man, thus making him one of the hundred-plus messiahs Korea had spawned in only a century.’

Secondary Targeting

R.W. Johnson, 23 October 1986

Throughout the time I was working on my own book on the KAL 007 tragedy I heard reports that Seymour Hersh was working on a parallel book, and I looked forward to it keenly. Ever since he sprang to prominence with his exposure of the My Lai massacre 17 years ago I have read his writings with respect, sometimes with admiration. It is thus with some regret that I have to say that I found his KAL 007 book a very considerable disappointment. One hastens to add that Hersh has few rivals in the culling of Washington gossip; that his fame and pertinacity mean that many will talk to him who will not talk to others; and that his book includes much fascinating material on the technology and internal rivalries of the US intelligence world. I found myself informed, stimulated, nodding in agreement, with much of what he writes. But I was disappointed: his book is poorly organised; it omits a great deal of pertinent evidence; and, above all, he has accepted almost lock, stock and barrel a quite absurd explanation of how KAL 007, on its way from Anchorage, Alaska to Seoul in South Korea, came to be 365 miles off-course, deep over Soviet territory, when it was finally shot down with the loss of all 269 civilians aboard on 1 September 1983.

Le Grand Jacques

R.W. Johnson, 9 October 1986

When Mussolini was making his last desperate flit from Milan in April 1945, Nicola Bombacci, his old comrade – the two men had been revolutionary socialist schoolteachers together thirty years before – climbed into the Duce’s car carrying only a small suitcase. ‘What else would I need?’ he said. ‘I am an expert in such matters. I was in Lenin’s office in Petersburg when the White troops of Yudenitch were advancing on the city and we were preparing to leave, as we are doing today.’ In the space of a quarter-century Bombacci, an old Communist and Comintern hand, had progressed right across the ideological spectrum, beginning as an intimate of Lenin’s and ending as an adviser to Mussolini: by fluke he stood next to both men in their supreme hour of crisis.’

Apartheid’s Apocalypse

R.W. Johnson, 3 July 1986

‘South Africa,’ write Adam and Moodley,

Reasons of State

R.W. Johnson, 5 June 1986

A hoodlum’s job done by honest men. With us, you only kill for reasons of state.’ This is the opinion of Maurice Robert, research director of the French secret service (and later Ambassador to Gabon), as recorded by Faligot and Krop in their excellent and well-researched book. It is difficult to accept such a verdict on the DGSE (originally the BCRA, then the DGER, then the SDECE). A more accurate summing-up would be that the service has proved both ruthless and frequently incompetent, that it has known its fine romantic hours and impressive coups, but that it has depended on a low-grade and poorly educated cadre prone to tough-guy tactics, and that many of its problems derive from the political purges to which it has been subject, and the chronic distrust it arouses in all its political masters. None of the purges and shake-ups has ever been quite complete: they have always left a cave within the organisation owing loyalty to the ancien régime and not above sabotaging their new political masters in the hope that this will help bring the old lot back. Politicians, knowing this, act accordingly: in the Greenpeace affair, the Elysée first heard of the disaster in New Zealand, not from the DGSE, which comes under the Defence Ministry, but from the Interior Ministry, whose internal secret police, the DST, routinely tap the phones of the DGSE. Similarly, the Government was furious to discover that in the frogman training school whose agents sank the Rainbow Warrior, a portrait of Giscard still hung where the obligatory portrait of Mitterrand should have been. The training school has since been closed down.

Diary: Alan Taylor, Oxford Don

R.W. Johnson, 8 May 1986

When I became a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, the fact that my vote at college meetings counted the same as that of A.J.P. Taylor seemed to me, as it still does, a glorious democratic quirk of the Oxford collegiate system. I was just 26 and the youngest fellow; he was probably the most famous historian in the world. I was not long to think of him by his initials, for Alan was the least standoffish of the senior fellows, the least likely to stand on his dignity. He loved talking – and being listened to. One could safely bring any guest to dinner and place them near him. They would be bound to come away delighted with a stream of funny stories, historical anecdotes and sly shafts of perspicacity. Some of this was due to his courtesy and gregariousness, but he also simply loved performing for an audience. If you provided the audience, he provided the performance.

After the first five years of left-wing government the Fifth Republic has known, the result of the March 1986 parliamentary elections is already, and quite universally, taken for granted. The Left will lose its majority and without much doubt the next government will be formed by the leader of the RPR (Gaullists), Jacques Chirac. This result seems so inevitable that pollsters are amusing themselves by asking such questions as whether voters would object to voting for a candidate who was two-timing his wife with another woman (78 per cent would not object), while political sophisticates are already turning their minds to the real showdown, the Presidential election of 1988. Without much doubt Mitterrand hopes to neutralise a Chirac government via his considerable Presidential powers and then secure the election of another Socialist President in 1988 – who would dissolve the Assembly and hope to sweep in a Left-Centre coalition, thus reducing 1986-88 to the proportions of a brief interregnum. Chirac, naturally, has other ideas and since no one knows what will happen in 1988 there has been a Gadarene rush towards him by key élites. The RPR boasts that every single head of a nationalised industry has already been in touch with them. This is unlikely to save many of their jobs. The heads of TV channels are equally unlikely to survive.

Seven Days

R.W. Johnson, 4 July 1985

Paul Johnson does not, as they say, need much introduction. Whatever one thinks of his opinions, one has to admire his frenetic energy. From 1955 to 1970 he poured forth strong left-wing views in the New Statesman, and since then has moved to pouring forth strong right-wing views in a whole host of publications, books and speeches. This collection of 76 pieces, culled from the Conservative press of 1976-84, shows him again in full spate on subjects as diverse as ‘The Decline of the Hat’ and ‘The Family as an Emblem of Freedom’. The essential unity of the book is, however, political. It is not just that extreme Thatcherism breathes from every page: both the strength of Johnson’s writing and its often dreadful thinness derive from its sheer polemicism. Here, at least, the continuity with his New Statesman days is clear, for there is the same fatal, though exciting, tendency to go over the rhetorical top, the same eye for what will make ‘our side’ hug themselves with glee and what will most infuriate the enemy. The whole effort is a form of literary baiting which works up the troops on both sides and generally creates a deal of heat, sound and fury. This style of writing was the sole (and rather measly) contribution to English letters made by Kingsley Martin, and has been imitated by successive New Statesman columnists – Richard Crossman, Paul Johnson, Gerald Kaufman, Matthew Coady et al. (One only has to listen to the Parliamentary speeches of Gerald Kaufman to see how this sub-genre, once picked up, is hard to drop.) The origins of the style lie, only too audibly, in the world of the public school and Oxbridge debating society: it is at once over-heated and un-serious, and has a sort of neighing ring to it, as of a clash of young geldings.’


R.W. Johnson, 20 June 1985

It is difficult to communicate to those too young to remember Pierre Mendès France (‘PMF’) the passionate enthusiasm his name generated. For a whole post-war French generation he was the de Gaulle of the Left: a man of total integrity, a beacon of intelligence and republican principle in the darkest hours. Yet he was prime minister for just 245 days. George Holoch’s fine translation of Jean Lacouture’s excellent journalistic biography is thus especially welcome.

Making things happen

R.W. Johnson, 6 September 1984

As for his secret Spials, which he did employ both at home and abroad, by them to discover what Practices and Conspiracies were against him, surely his Case required it: He had such Moles perpetually working and casting to undermine him. Neither can it be reprehended. For if Spials be lawful against lawful Enemies, much more against Conspirators and Traytors.

From The Blog
11 July 2010

Several people have asked about fascism and football. The key figure here was Mussolini, who saw soccer as a key tool for creating national unity and international prestige. He created the Serie A as the first national league in 1929 and, once the World Cup had been launched in 1930, he made Fifa an offer it couldn't refuse to hold the 1934 Cup in Italy. It was, of course, essential that Italy should win (they had already won the first European Cup), so Mussolini himself invited a favoured Swedish referee to run the semi-final between Italy and Austria, in which the Italians were allowed to barge the Austrian goalkeeper into his net from three metres out. The ref duly gave a goal. Mussolini naturally selected the same ref for the final, Italy v. Czechoslovakia, and the ref again failed to notice a rather prominent Italian handball, so Italy won.

From The Blog
18 May 2010

In the coalition negotiations between the three large British parties, both the Tories and Labour offered the Liberal Democrats the possibility of changing to the Alternative Vote electoral system, and in the end David Cameron committed himself to holding a referendum on the issue. This was assumed to appeal to the Lib Dems because the AV generally favours centrist parties: very few Labour or Tory voters would cast their alternative vote for the other but large numbers of both Tories and Labour voters would give the Lib Dems their second preference vote. In particular it is assumed that AV would cement the ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour and the Lib Dems as the majority of both their voters would cast their second preference votes for the other. In fact AV might well not do that.

From The Blog
4 April 2010

I don't often find myself agreeing with the Archbishop of Canterbury. On reading his remarks about Irish Catholicism ('an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society... suddenly losing all credibility – that's not just a problem for the Church, it's a problem for everybody in Ireland'), I was transported back to my Catholic boyhood when, before a rugby game against an Anglican school, our Christian Brother teachers would warm us up with stories of Catholics being burnt at the stake by the Prots, with the coup de grace being 'and since this is a Protestant school we're playing at, don't leave any valuables in the changing room.' I can only imagine the depths of chagrin within the Church right now at having an Anglican divine dilate upon the Church's moral failings.

From The Blog
27 January 2010

Just over a week ago the South African Football Association (Safa) –which is shortly to host the World Cup – sacked its chief executive, Raymond Hack, replacing him with the unknown and untried Leslie Sedibe. Sedibe happily announced that 'I can promise you parties, parties, parties all the way.' This week it emerges that Safa is having major cash-flow problems, owes a lot of money to the bank and a whole lot more to suppliers. Safa has to subsidise its 52 regions inside the country to help them pay their administrative costs. Many of these regions are on the point of closure, unable to pay wages, rent or phone bills. Safa itself is said to be 'paralysed'. Safa is the battleground for South Africa's famous soccer bosses, rich men who like cutting a dash and are rough: accusations of attempted or actual murder are not uncommonly flung at them and they are willing to use financial or actual muscle to solve most problems. The authorities are visibly afraid of them. When Irvin Khoza, one of the greatest of all the bosses – 'the Iron Duke', as he is known – was found not to have paid his taxes for some time the tax authorities merely called him in for 'consultations' and reached a quiet arrangement with him. There was no thought of court action. Similarly, a few years ago the police arrested dozens of referees in 'Operation Dribble', having discovered that they had been bribed to fix most of South Africa's Professional Soccer League (PSL) soccer matches. The police were very pleased at having caught the refs red-handed but then it dawned that they could not be sentenced without the naming in open court of the soccer bosses who had bribed them. This was obviously unthinkable so the refs were all released and continue to manage domestic games in time-honoured fashion.



7 October 2015

While I agree with the gist of Ross McKibbin’s argument that a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to make the sort of inroads required to produce a change of government, I would disagree about the causes he cites: the Tory press, Corbyn’s small base in the Parliamentary Labour Party, his inevitable compromises and the nature of Labour’s leadership election (LRB, 8 October).All...
Ross McKibbin, like many other analysts, dwells on the injustice of the Tories’ winning an overall majority on just 36.9 per cent of the vote (LRB, 4 June). It is worth pointing out that the great triumphs of the Gaullist party in France between 1958 and 1973 were all won on around 37 per cent of the first-ballot vote. In practice that was always enough to ensure a clear victory on the second...

Thatcher or Williams

19 December 2013

Writing about Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher a while back, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education who served both described the two as complete opposites of each other (LRB, 19 December 2013). When you entered Williams’s office she would welcome you and be very interested in what you had to say. As you talked she would put her head on one hand, look very hard at you and drink...

The Logic of Nuremberg

7 November 2013

‘In a short period of time,’ Mahmood Mamdani writes of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, ‘the Allies had carried out the most far-reaching ethnic cleansing in the history of Europe … the overriding principle here was that there must be a safe home for survivors’ (LRB, 7 November). This gives a wholly false impression. The major population flows the Allies...

Who benefits?

25 April 2013

I could not but sympathise with Ross McKibbin’s tearing critique of attempts to stereotype welfare claimants (LRB, 25 April). However, I am in Germany at the moment and the first point made in discussion of the subject here is Merkel’s: that the EU accounts for 9 per cent of the world’s people, 15 per cent of its GDP and 50 per cent of its welfare payments. Even if these figures are...

Our Joan

6 December 2012

Marina Warner begins her story of Joan by recollecting her time as a pupil at a Belgian convent school in 1954 (LRB, 6 December 2012). Had she been in a French convent she would have been overwhelmed by the celebrations of that year’s Joan of Arc, Geneviève de Galard, the only French woman among the beleaguered troops at Dien Bien Phu. Celebrated for her heroism as the Vietminh closed...

Military Catch-Up

5 April 2012

David French compares the battles of Isandhlwana (1879) and Maiwand (1880), where the British were worsted by the Zulus and Afghan tribesmen respectively (LRB, 5 April). As he says, these triumphs over modern armies caused a sensation, though neither of them quite as much as the similar defeat of Western arms at the Battle of Little Bighorn a few years earlier (1876). The key to these defeats lay in...
Charles Coutinho challenges what I say about the importance of the black vote to Truman’s victory in 1948 and JFK’s in 1960 (Letters, 9 February). He is right, of course, that black voters were nothing like as numerous in 1948 as they were later but I would still say their vote was decisive. The 1948 election, which Truman won by 303 electoral college votes to 189, turned on just three...
While miners might be hidden away down the mines or textile workers in the mills, domestic servants were often the only members of the working class that other classes got to know. What I thought was missing from Joanna Innes’s account of Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost was anything much about the felt experience of being servants (LRB, 14 April).My mother was the seventh child of an engine-driver....

Oh Obama!

22 October 2009

David Bromwich writes as if Obama’s main problem were a deluded search for bipartisanship in the face of intransigent Republican rascals – Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Fox TV and so forth (LRB, 22 October). It might be better to admit that the left has deluded itself into believing that Obama, a nice, eloquent young man from Harvard with no gubernatorial and little legislative experience,...

Lessons of Zimbabwe

4 December 2008

It may be true, as Mahmood Mamdani writes, that some Ugandans felt their real independence began when they kicked the Asians out, though President Museveni says it was the worst mistake the country ever made and has tried hard to persuade Asians to return (LRB, 4 December). Authoritarian populism has always had its imitators: Kristallnacht excited anti-semites throughout Europe at the thought of how...

Rivonia Days

16 August 2007

R.W. Johnson writes: No one doubts that Mandela spent a lot of time on his speech. However, I have found that among those close to the main actors there is a pervasive impression that he received considerable assistance with it. Bram Fischer, Lionel Bernstein and many of the others were able men in that regard and Bernstein’s role in drafting the Freedom Charter is well known, although ANC mythology...

Bombers not Martyrs

4 November 2004

Jacqueline Rose writes that suicide bombing is a recent phenomenon (LRB, 4 November), but dying gloriously facing the enemy has a long history. The first modern instance was in 1944-45, when the US navy was confronted by kamikaze pilots trying to fly planes loaded with high explosive into their ships as they approached Japan. Not only that: millions of Japanese schoolchildren were drilled in the use...


23 September 2004

A great deal of the cultural singularity of France between 1945 and 1978, discussed by Perry Anderson (LRB, 2 September and LRB, 23 September), lay in the PCF’s being one of the two biggest parties in the country. This guaranteed the continuing power of the Marxist current, flanked by strong Trotskyist, libertarian socialist and social democratic lefts, and meant that France had an unequalled...

Apocalypse Two

21 June 2001

R.W. Johnson writes: I plead guilty of absent-mindedness on Herman Cohen’s tenure. And of sloppy writing on the matter of the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia: it was the announcement that was immediate. Yes, I might have listed every single massacre and alleged massacre of Tutsis in the thirty or forty years before the 1994 genocide and I might have called Booh-Booh by his full title, Special...
I much enjoyed Robert Irwin’s essay about Albert Hourani (LRB, 25 January). I didn’t know him well but he was a gentle presence in Oxford for many years and, more specifically, at Magdalen, which has had a strange and continuous connection with the Middle East via Wilfred Thesiger, Thomas Hodgkin, Hourani himself, Roger Owen, Michael Gilsenan and, occasionally, princes and princesses from...

Recolonisation Issues

14 December 2000

Adam Thorpe (Letters, 25 January) is quite right about the scramble for Africa involving a great deal of looting. That wasn’t all: in Namibia it involved genocide. No one would wish to justify any of that. My point was rather different. By the 1950s, this sort of thing had pretty much stopped. Colonialism had seen a large increase in per capita income and life expectancy throughout the continent....

Consider the Cleavages

30 November 2000

‘What is this country that elected this man as its President?’ Hal Foster asks (LRB, 30 November 2000). I’ll explain.Foster says a map of the result ‘looks like the Civil War resumed’ because the South went Republican. This ignores the fact that the Plains states, which Bush also won, were the heartland of Lincoln’s support in 1860. The real point is different. Ever...

Johnson’s Bottom

30 March 2000

Robert Creamer seems to have been luckier in his experience of the Christian Brothers than me. All our Christian Brothers carried specially made leather straps with whalebone inside. These were about 18 inches long and were used to inflict a great deal of pain on one's hands (not bottom). In cold weather particularly, the pain could be quite awesome and sometimes one bled. Creamer's reckoning of a...

Unreliable Friend

19 August 1999

David Brokensha (Letters, 28 October) is quite right that living in a country doesn’t automatically mean you know more about it than those who don’t (though it helps). My point was rather that some choose to leave South Africa and some, like me, love the place and choose to come back here – and that this should count for something. V.M. Hunt, in the same issue, is equally right to...

Seeing Things

21 March 1996

Hilda Bernstein and Gillian Slovo (Letters, 18 April) make a number of criticisms of my review of Slovo: The Unfinished Biography.1. The story about ‘Joe and Ruth riding around in a limousine with a black chauffeur’ in Swaziland. Having rechecked my sources I must confess to error on this point. Quite right, Joe was not there, although the rest of the Slovo family, together with the black-chauffeured...


2 November 1995

In my review of Jill Wentzel’s The Liberal Slideaway (LRB, 2 November), a reference to the Government having, remarkably, legislated to amend the Constitution with retrospective effect came out meaninglessly as ‘without retrospective effect’.


20 October 1994

The tone of Kader Asmal’s letter (Letters, 26 January) is eerily similar to a missive I once received from one of his predecessors under the old apartheid regime when it banned one of my books. The oddity is that I suspect that I am in agreement on many points with Mr Asmal, a man for whom I have a deal of liking and respect.1. My praise of Mr Mandela was not patronising. I greatly admire him...
Russell Marshall takes me to task (Letters, 7 July) for alleged bias in my reportage of the massacre of some fifty people during the royalist Zulu march through Johannesburg just before the South African election. Marshall says that my report that there was ‘widespread suspicion’ that ANC activists had been responsible for the massacre on the library steps was quite wrong. Instead, while...
R.W. Johnson writes: Messrs Legum and Bernstein both reproach me, in effect, for being too gloomy about South Africa. In a sense I sympathise with them. They both belong to a South African generation which, having followed the country’s evolution form abroad for thirty years, has now, like the rest of us, to face the possibility that the ending of apartheid may not usher in the liberal, Communist...

Bad Fax

9 July 1992

Due to the scrambling of faxed proofs and the consequent need to dictate copy down the line, there were two errors in my article ‘Cheered in the street, much as Charles or Di’ (LRB, 9 July). 1. A sentence got garbled: ‘The growth rate, which averaged only 1.4 per cent p.a. over the whole decade of the Eighties, has been negative for three years now.’ 2. It would be quite untrue...

Not even a member

24 October 1991

I am sorry to have upset Gillian Slovo (Letters, 5 December). In fact, she criticises me for things I didn’t say. I did not say she was a member of the SACP, let alone ‘a leading cadre’, and I certainly never argued that ‘what a woman’s father and grandfather do must obviously determine who she is.’ The point I did make – that the SACP is in part bound together...
I’m sorry to have offended Robin Blackburn by my article on Raymond Williams (Letters, 8 March). Robin is wrong to talk of my ‘animus’ against Williams. I had and have none. As I said in my review, he was clearly a nice, gentle and generous man, and I have no doubt that his political writings, defective though I think them, stemmed from noble instincts, that his heart was, as they...

Via Mandela

5 January 1989

I was somewhat amazed to read the letter from Peter Strauss and Geraldine Cooke (Letters, 2 March) suggesting that the LRB was behaving oddly by carrying my review of Fatima Meer’s biography of Nelson Mandela. I should like to make several points. 1. Ms Meer’s book was certainly not banned in South Africa while I was there. The book was piled high in bookshops and Ms Meer toured the country...

Not strong on facts

10 December 1987

SIR: Hilary Wainwright’s attack (Letters, 3 March) is truly amazing. I point out that she makes no mention of Scargill’s refusal to ballot his members on a strike: so she accuses me of either trying to bully her or rescue her. (Surely it would be better for her to plump either for bullying or for rescuing? Indecision between two such opposites rather diminishes the moral force of any accusation.)...

Not Strong on Facts

17 September 1987

SIR: Hilary Wainwright’s logic (Letters, 7 January) still leaves me baffled. She says Labour has nothing to fear from an electoral system which would have banished all majority Labour governments from the history books – and then looks to a future in which ‘socialism’ (not just Labour) goes far beyond the always unattainable 50 per cent to gain ‘the overwhelming majority’....

Oxford and Labour

23 July 1987

SIR: Mr Xavier asserts that I ‘call for Labour to start selecting Oxford graduates as Parliamentary candidates’ (Letters, 15 October). I’m afraid this is quite untrue. The trends in Labour élite recruitment are a sociological phenomenon one could hardly influence by issuing ‘calls’ of any kind, and personally I have no ambition to change the way in which either...


4 June 1987

R.W. Johnson writes: Regan illustrates many of the habits of mind which seem to have led many of our mole-hunters down false trails. In particular, he repeatedly accuses me of saying things I did not say. Thus when I speak of Joe McCarthy’s allegations against Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White, he answers that McCarthy was not responsible for the investigation of either man. True, but then I...

Vichy and Vietnam

5 March 1987

R.W. Johnson writes: I meant, of course, that Vichy and Vietnam were both national traumas. Because they were national traumas there is a collective need to come to terms with them. The sharpness of Mr Raimi’s response to a two-line simile appears simply to make my point in another way.

KAL 007

24 July 1986

R.W. Johnson writes: Mr Oberg, who describes himself as an ‘imagineer, triviologist and expert in astro folklore’, has been pursuing me for some time now, writing to newspapers, demanding to review my book, sending me abusive letters. I have repeatedly asked him for a copy of his long critique of Shootdown – to no avail. LRB readers must forgive me for not replying in detail to Mr...

France under threat

23 January 1986

SIR: Jacques Beauroy, in his comments (Letters, 20 February) on my article on the French election (LRB, 23 January) is, of course, quite right to say that issues other than immigration will count in the election – and, of course, in saying that there is no shortage of issues on which to criticise the Socialist Government. The opinion polls give no support at all, however, to his contention that...

Althusser’s Fate

16 April 1981

SIR: May I take mild issue with Douglas Johnson’s review of my The Long March of the French Left? I take his strictures seriously, the more so since I have long been one of his great admirers, but he seems to have missed the central point I was making about Althusser. He is quite right to say that my tone towards Althusser was ironic, even sarcastic, for that is precisely what I feel his political...

Bristling Ermine: R.W. Johnson

Jeremy Harding, 4 May 2017

R.W. Johnson​ is a long-standing contributor to the LRB. His first appearance was on the letters page in 1981, where he took ‘mild issue’ with a review of his most celebrated book,

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Anyone in South Africa, white or black, rich or poor, who reads R.W. Johnson’s new book could be forgiven for rushing to the airport. It’s a familiar tale of African hopelessness,...

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Making things happen

Ross McKibbin, 26 July 1990

This Johnson is an energetic essayist. His energy is not simply physical, though he has plenty of that: it is mental too. He seems to write quickly – how else the productivity? – but...

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The scandal that never was

Paul Foot, 24 July 1986

Profound embarrassment has greeted the publication of R.W. Johnson’s book on the shooting-down of a Korean airliner over Russian airspace. Even its serialisation in the Sunday Telegraph...

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David Marquand, 19 September 1985

As late as 1951, the British economy was the strongest in Western Europe. Only the wartime neutrals, Sweden and Switzerland, surpassed us in income per head. In his magisterial new history of the...

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Althusser’s Fate

Douglas Johnson, 16 April 1981

‘Is it easy to be a Marxist?’ Louis Althusser put this question to a crowded audience at the University of Picardy in 1975. Is it possible to be an Althusserian? The question has to...

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