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High Profile

Hard to place

Interview by Nick Spencer

When it was reported that Rod Liddle was on course to become editor of the Independent, there was a great storm of protest. Third Way met him in a safe haven in central London. Most of the expletives have been deleted.

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What kind of legacy do you have from your upbringing?
A pretty strong legacy. Father from a family of train dri­vers. Respectable, northern working class, absolutely rock solid. I was known as Joe Liddle's grandson and then Ned Liddle's son and at the age of five I used to sit on Darling­ton Stat­ion all day by myself with a packed lunch - can you im­agine that now? - and sometimes the drivers would let me ride on their trains.
Mother from slightly less respectable Bermondsey working class. For the first eight years of my life I lived in south-east London, in Abbey Wood and Bex­leyheath, and then we moved up to Middlesbrough. That's why my accent veers between north and south - it's bizarre.

By then my dad had got a job as a civil servant in the Inland Reven­ue; but he was down-the-line Labour. His entire family was - they were very traditional. All of them were stewards in the Methodist church. My moth­er's side were less obviously Labour (and indeed on one occasion voted National Front). When I look at my friends at Millwall (1), not really a step away from them.

What were the values that you absorbed then?
Thrift. Saving money. Work hard, don't expect too much from life - a very Methodist thing to think. Don't be flashy (another very Methodist thing to think). Both my parents did a lot in the community.

Were you a church-goer then?
Twice every Sunday. Without fail. Sunday school. In Bexleyheath, I even ran up and held the hand of the vicar during services.

It strikes me that Margaret Thatcher came from a similar background in some ways - and yet you are poles apart.
Politically poles apart. Some of her attitudes I have. The Protestant work ethic. The notion of a deserving poor. Obviously, I share her disdain for the aristocracy and for the high-born members of her party.

I don't have anything to do with her idea that there is no such thing as society - that seems to me inhumane.

Presumably you went to state schools?
Yeah. I was expelled from nursery school for smashing a child over the head with a chair. I had to give him my favourite Bat­man car because I fractured his skull.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
As a kid, I always wanted to be a train driver. Later, I wanted to be a footballer - I played for my county but I was out of my depth. At the age of 14, I wanted to be a pop star, a journalist and the prime minister. Fair en­ough, you know.

Did you want to change the world then?
Yeah. Yeah. I can remember standing in school elections - when I was 14 I stood for the Communist Party. And won. Largely because I was in the football team and I was gobby and people liked that.

Journalistically, my heroes were always [George] Orwell and Daniel Defoe, and later Hunter S Thomp­son and Tom Wolfe. And Arthur Koestler. And a lot of the Left Book Club stuff from the Thirties and For­ties, which I collected avidly. Mixed in with all of that was Kerouac and Ginsberg. At the age of 14, 15, I was never without a Penguin Modern Classic sticking out of my back pocket. What a twat!

I was also into music that no one else liked. That was very important as well.

So, you were coming to a political maturity around the time of the Winter of Discontent in 1977/78 -
I was in the Socialist Workers Party. I think 'mat­urity' is stretching it a bit.

A lot of people who reached some degree of political maturity in the late Seventies were hugely disenchanted with the left because of the three-day week and all the rest of it. You clearly weren't -
I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I'm not sure how much of it was affectation and how much of it was real. I believed in the community values of the left and I believed we have a responsibility to our fellow humans and I bel­ieved very strongly in a welfare state and all that sort of stuff. I could make the case for the unions - which was, of course, the big issue at the time - but in a way it was the short-term aims of the SWP that I found attractive.

The issues that bothered me at the time were wom­en's rights and equality for blacks and Asians - and of course those were the two the SWP really pushed on. I think I was the third person in the country to join Rock Against Racism, when I was 15. I was in a punk band and I remember turning down an incredibly lucrative gig because we would have been supporting the Motors, who were said to be supporters of the National Front.

Did your parents approve of all this?
No. They saw that I was a member of the SWP, had a pierced ear and a T-shirt I'd made myself that said 'Fuck the Queen' and I can remember my dad looking at me and saying, 'Yer can't sink any bloody lower, Rod, can yer?' And I thought: 'Give me a chance! Just you wait.'

It was a rebellion against that straitened upbringing that I'd had. Actually, when I think of it, I had a fabulous childhood, but nonetheless it carried with it the im­plication that you're not going to do owt with your life: you've got to work hard and if you're lucky you might get a nice two-and-a-half-bed­roomed house like my parents had. And that's yer lot.

I won a national essay prize when I was 15 and I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. 'Oh, Rod! Don't do it. Don't do it.' You know, my upbringing wasn't re­press­ive: it was just the same as everyone else's of my class, which was narrow.

So, what happened then?
I left school at 18 with A-levels, but I wanted to be in this band and so when my parents moved down to Wales, I lived in a bedsit in Redcar. I genuinely thought that, you know, six months from now we'd be playing San Fran­cisco. It didn't even occur to me that we wouldn't.

That lasted for a year and a half, and then I moved down to live with my parents and got a job on the South Wales Echo. I thought that journalism was sort of selling out, an easy option - which was incredibly arrogant - but Woodward and Bernstein were always at the back of my mind - you know, holding the powerful to ac­count, social justice, all that sort of stuff. How I thought I was going to do that at the South Wales Echo is another matter; but I wrote the editor a letter saying why I thought the paper was a bit crap. And he took me on. I had three years at the South Wales Echo and I abso­lutely adored it.

You gave that up to do a degree at the London School of Economics. Why did you choose to do social psychology?
It was one of those multi-purpose humanities degrees from which you bizarrely got a BSc. If I'd gone [to university] at 18, it was just assumed I'd do English. By 20, it would have been politics. By 23, it would have been down-the-line sociology. I think that's a general rule, that most people, the older they get, so their interest in science grows. (I'm ab­out to start another degree by dis­tance learning, in physics and astronomy.)

While you were at the LSE, you also had a full-time job as a speech-writer for the Labour Party. This was the time when Neil Kinnock took over as leader from Michael Foot and the party began to change.
Yes. I wrote for the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Barry Jones. I had an office in the Shadow Cabinet corridor, and it was lovely. I had enormous respect for Barry and so on, though it disabused me about politics a little bit. There was something about the House of Commons that seemed to be centred in spite, confront­ation and nastiness. One of my closest friends was a member of the far-left Campaign Group and he was sent to Coventry by the other people working in the Shadow Cabinet corridor. They actually wouldn't speak to him - it was so fucking petty! These awful people!
Quite a few people boycotted my leaving do in '87 because I invited some Tories along. You know, you meet them - and I thought they were wrong but, you know, I liked 'em. And Lib Dems as well - or Liberals, as they were then.

But I never felt myself a political animal and I don't know I ever have been.

Did you believe the speeches you were writing?
Sixty per cent of the time. Sixty per cent of the time. I believed in the party I was working for, utterly - and particularly Kinnock, who I've always liked. And particularly with respect to what Thatcher had done to my part of the world.

I wanted to ask you about that. The kind of communities you grew up in were changing very significantly.
They weren't changing, they were being destroyed.

You know, there was a time [in the early Seventies] when Teesside produced something like 26 per cent of Britain's GDP. Fucking incredible! Biggest steelworks in Europe, two of the biggest chemical works in Eur­ope, nuclear power station, shipping, the lot. Twenty-six per cent of GDP! What did 'Boro people get out of that? They got pollution, shit housing; they got jobs, but they were low-paid jobs - primarily manual and semi-skilled. And Thatcher took it all away and she re­placed it with nothing but desolation. Unemployment at 27 per cent. You know, appalling. This place that had kept Britain afloat, left with nothing. You can't do that!

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In 1988, you got a job on BBC Radio 4's Today programme as a junior producer. Was that as much of a flagship then as it is today?
It was even more of a flagship, you might argue, be­cause there was much less competition. Although I'd never heard it. I'd never heard it. But working at the BBC was fun. And fairly challenging. Radio was a new medium to me, so I had those skills to acquire and everything.

When I joined the Today programme, I think there were about 50 people on the programme, of whom six had been to Eton. (Six! Can you imagine if six had gone to the Laurence Jackson Comp in Guisborough?) They were charming people; but you'd be trying to do an in-depth investigation into drug-dealing and you'd send a reporter down to an estate down in Deptford: 'Excuse me, could I buy some crack?' It was just hopeless!

There were a few people like me; but by and large the majority were… It's something that is beginning to figure a lot in the way I'm thinking, that it's partly class but it's also geographical. I mean, up in Middlesbrough we lived in Nunthorpe, which was once described by the Guardian as 'a select area of Teesside'. You could buy the biggest house in Nunthorpe for about £300,000. You know? I suppose, coming from Nunthorpe, some people up north would have thought I was middle-class. Fucking hell! You only realise how little you have when you move down south, you know? I've read of quite a few people who've had similar experiences.

Did that mean you didn't feel at home either on Teesside or in London? You were now too middle-class for where you grew up and…
No. No, no, no, I still felt at home up north. I still felt at home. And at home in south London. You know, that pocket of south London that has been bypassed effectively by the flows of revenue. Only now is it beginning to get Tube trains, you know?

The BBC has a reputation for being run by, and often for, the liberal intelligentsia -
Intelligentsia? Middle-class liberals. They are almost all white, male, middle-class liberals. I don't have any great animus against them - I mean, I think they genuinely mean well. I just don't think they fucking get it. They're very similar to the people who didn't want me to be editor of the Independent. (Actually, I'm not able to talk about the Independent at the moment.) It's - again, geography. It's a very metro mindset. In my early days on the Today programme, it exemplified itself in the atti­tude that anyone who was not in favour of Britain joining the ERM (2) was a xenophobe. By and large, the civilised people in the Conservative Party and the Lab­our Party - and definitely the Lib Dems - were all very pro-ERM, and if you weren't, you were somewhat out in the wilderness. And yet once you got north of Lough­borough, or may­be even Watford, the entire population was anti-ERM. Nobody wanted it.

You can say the same about almost every subject. Crime. Race. Immigration. Foreign affairs. The BBC does­n't reflect the views of the population outside this golden crescent of London from which we're ruled.

What do you think shapes its point of view?
Class, partly. Partly gender. Partly people educated in the humanities at university. Partly a complete and ut­ter detachment from how the rest of the country lives. I just don't think they get it. They don't experience it. They don't understand it. It just isn't there.

You were with the BBC for 15 years. Did it change you?
I think I became a bit of a twat for a while.

Would you like to expand on that observation?
Well, I wore an Armani suit, because I could afford it - a proper Giorgio Armani - and I thought I was the bee's knees for a bit. My hair was neat and I did as I was told. And I think that was probably the wrong thing to do.
But by the time I became editor of the Today programme, I had gotten better. I had this idea round ab­out '98 that it would be fun to be editor of the Today programme, to have a novel well reviewed and to have an album in the top 200. I got two of them, and I was only that far away with the album. I mean, we recorded it. And I think that was better than this progression through the BBC, you know? There is something ghastly about corporations that is de­hum­an­ising.

In your 2006 TV documentary The Trouble with Atheism,
you said: 'History has shown us that it's not religion so much that's the problem but any system of thought which insists that one group of people are inviolably in the right whereas the others are in the wrong and thus must somehow be punished.'

That strikes me as being incontestable.

But it strikes a note of reasonableness that is rather at odds with being a columnist, isn't it?
No, it's not! It annoys me to be called 'a controversialist' or 'a provocateur'.

One commentator called you 'a self-styled iconoclast'. Another has said: 'Making mischief is his delight.'

I make jokes! I make jokes. But the actual hub of most of the things I argue I don't think is remotely controversial. See, I get myself into trouble on immigration, [but] 80 per cent of the country agrees with me. And 60 per cent of second-generation immigrants. I'm just out of step with most of what media Lon­don says. (The Daily Mail serves Middle England very well but it has a very narrow and bitter view of the world, I think. It's certainly not my view of the world.)

And columnists have to entertain, of course.

But where is the line between being entertaining and upsetting people for the sake of it?
Have I upset people? Yes, I have. I upset cat-lovers for the sake of it, because I hate cats. And London liberals. I think they deserve upsetting for the sake of it.

I think you have to be able to see things objectively, to see all the sides; but I think it's a columnist's job to be on the side of the powerless. My line on immigration has always been never, ever to blame the immigrants but to blame the people who allowed them to come here - and then, when they did, didn't treat them properly.

Is it a columnist's job to provoke? I think you should sometimes provoke debate. I think one of the damaging things in a democracy is when you have everyone ar­guing the same thing. There's usually a rat to be smelt there. And I think that needs to be challenged - and you can challenge things by saying, 'What if…?'

It goes back to that line about people believing they are right and everyone else is wrong. I do not have 100-per-cent conviction that I am right. I think there is a very good chance that I may be wrong. When I describe Islam as homophobic, illiberal and authoritarian, I think that's probably right; but then Islam may be right. It may well be that God hates homosexuals. It may well be that he wishes men and women to have different roles in life. It may well be that he wants apostates to have their heads chopped off. My suspicion is that he doesn't, but I'm not convinced. I'm never convinced by anything.

Does that mean that sometimes you find yourself saying things in your columns you don't actually believe?
If I say I believe it, I believe it; but more often than not I'm saying 'What if…?' You look through my col­umns, you'll find loads of 'maybe', 'perhaps' and 'Ooh, I dun­no.' Not enough people do that, I don't think. I sometimes think that columnists really believe that they are in sole possession of some truth they have been given and that they are handing down tablets of stone. Which is why they always complain about the comments at the end of their pieces online. I mean, get a grip!

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You identify yourself as an Anglican today. Did you fall away and come back?
Yeah. I stopped believing entirely when dialectical materialism got hold of me round about 1974/5. My father very, very kindly bought me the entire works of Marx and said, 'Yer think yer a fucking Marxist. Well, bloody well read that, then, and good luck to yer!'

And did you?
Yeah. Yeah.

And it persuaded you?
I think the weight of it persuaded me. I mean, the phys­ical weight of it. It's a deeply flawed system. But it led me away from the church for a bit.

Would you consider yourself a Christian now?
Yes! Yes. Yeah, oh yeah. If you consider the Church of England Christian.

What brought you back?
In a way, I was the opposite to [Richard] Dawkins: the more science I read - particularly quantum mechanics, particularly the formation of the universe - the more it seemed to me that a Christian explanation is both more compelling and less far-fetched than some of the man-made explanations. And also, you know, you look at the stats on the balance of the universe and what needed to be in place and the likelihood of it. I mean, there's the Anthropic Principle, which is 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here'; but I'm not absolutely sure it's compelling.

I can see how that led you towards deism - or theism, even. It's still a leap from there to Christianity.
Yes. Part of that would be upbringing, or being En­glish. Part of it is political, in that I believe very, very strongly in community, and church seems to me to be a community. And part is, of course, the very reason that people often - and even I, sometimes - criticise the Church of England, which is that it's a pretty laissez-faire commitment. I can remember talking to a Church of En­g­land bishop, you know: 'Don't be silly! Heaven? No!'

Is it the praxis of faith that appeals to you, then, rather than the creeds? The practical presence of the church in the community, for example.
Well, yes, that's very important to me. That's very im­portant. But I find a certain unchangeable truth in the Creed. It seems to me fair enough.

And Christian morality?
Yes. Yes. I mean, it depends what you mean by 'Christian morality'. To me, it means a love for your fellow man, and that you have a duty to look out for him and help him - which ties in with what I believe as a socialist. Whether it means beating homosexuals over the head is another issue. I don't think it does.

Your name hit the headlines five years ago when you left your then wife for a much younger woman. From what I've read, that was rather antithetical to the kind of moral outlook you have been articulating.
Yes, I think that's right. I think that's right.

What happened?
I think… It's difficult, because I've never talked about it and I don't like talking about it, because it involves other people. I think it was a selfish decision to leave her and I'm in no doubt about that whatsoever. I am not proud of it at all. It's not something my parents would have done.
I mean, I did the - Did I do the right thing? I think - and I hope this isn't wishful thinking - it was the best thing for the kids. I hope that. I hope that. It wasn't the best thing for Rachel, undoubtedly. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

You know, I can't separate myself from the processes that occur within society, one of which is the downgrading of marriage and, you know, the propensity for multiple relationships. I'm weak and flawed. There's no doubt about that, you know. And I'm not happy with it.

The 21st century looks set to be a challenging one for Christianity in Britain. Do you have any predictions?
Have you read Christopher Caldwell's book [Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West (3)]? He concludes that, by and large, if a strong and vibrant faith system comes into conflict with one that is somewhat wishy-washy, the wishy-washy one will dissolve. Meaning that Islam will sweep all before it.

I always assumed that we might be able to buy Mus­lims off with pornography and white goods, but…

It's not looking promising, is it?

It's not looking great, is it? It's not looking great. I don't know, is the answer. I genuinely don't know.

I think we're beginning to see a re­turn to communi­t­arian values. I think the bank[ing crisis] has suddenly put nationalisation back into people's minds, that actually there are things that we all have a stake in and that we therefore have to support. I think the BBC falls into the same category, and I would argue that the utilities and the railways do as well. I think there's a greater communal sense now than there was.

For 25 years, we've had the paradigm: 'The market dictates everything.' Well, now we can see that the market's fucking useless, actually. It's indicative at best, and oc­casionally downright deluded. And destructive.
'Individualism is right.' Well, you look back to when Thatcher took over as leader of the Conservative Party: Thomas Cook was state-owned. A fucking travel agent! You know, we were that far away from having an eco­nomy like Hungary or Yugoslavia. And, of course, the unions. And the move towards individualism came about as a consequence of getting rid of all that. But we always go too far. We always go too far.

So, you detect a swing of the pendulum?
Yeah. The pendulum's got to swing. It has to. And ac­tually, if you're a Christian - or, indeed, a Muslim - that's not bad. That's not bad.

Do you see the Church of England playing a role in that? This is very much what Rowan Williams has been saying for quite a while - in his own particular cadence.
Yes, his own particular cadence, yes. Bring back [Mich­ael] Nazir-Ali! That's who we want for Archbishop of Canterbury.

I don't know. I do fear for the church. You know, in a way the very thing that has sustained Islam is its certitude and the thing that has sustained the Church of En­gland has been its ability to compromise, its openness. I can see there being a final schism at some point. I could never see myself becoming a Roman Catholic - I've written 'the whore of Rome' too often for that to be an easy path. But I can see more people doing it.

I dislike fervently the rapidly growing evangelical side of the church. I can put up with Alpha - it seems to be a nice, lower-middle-class way of spending a Sun­day, with a nice bowl of food. But the other end of [ev­angelicalism], the 'Burn the queers, burn the Moss­ies!', is really nasty.

But, then again, at my end of the church it's 'Yes, homosexuality. Come, bugger one another!' There is a certain lily-liveredness that I see in my own beliefs.

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BIOGRAPHY

Rod Liddle was born in 1960 and was educated at Laurence Jackson School, Guisborough on Teesside. As a teenager, he formed and sang in the punk band Dangerbird.
 
In 1979, he joined the South Wales Echo and the Western Mail as a general news reporter, and for a while also covered rock and pop music for them.

In 1983, he became a mature student at the London School of Economics for three years, reading social psychology. At the same time, he worked full-time for the Labour Party as a research assistant and speech-writer until 1987.

He was then taken on by the BBC as a junior producer on Radio 4, in 1988 being appointed a deputy editor of Today. He later worked on PM and World at One and edited The World This Weekend and The World Tonight, before returning to Today as its editor in 1998. He resigned in 2002 after the BBC decided that comments in his Guardian column had breached his commitment to impartiality.

He then presented BBC4's The Talk Show in 2002/03 and BBC2's short-lived Weekend with Rod Liddle and Kate Silverton in 2003.

He wrote a weekly column for the Guardian from 2000 to 2003 and has been a regular columnist for the Spectator (of which he is now an associate editor) and Country Life since 2002 and the Sunday Times since 2005. He also writes for GQ and Arena.

He has appeared often on BBC1's Question Time, and has authored and presented a number of television documentaries, including Some of My Best Friends Are… (2004), Evangelism and Immigration Is a Time Bomb (both 2005), The New Fundamentalists and The Trouble with Atheism (both 2006) and The Bible Revolution and Battle for the Holy Land: Love Thy Neighbour (both 2007) for Channel 4 and Infidelity (2005) for Sky. In 2003, he presented Seven Ways to Topple Saddam on BBC2.

He is the author of Too Beautiful for You: Tales of improper behaviour (2003). His Spectator columns were collected as The Best of Liddle Britain in 2007.

He married his partner of 12 years in 2004 but was divorced soon after. He remarried in 2005. He has two sons and a daughter.

This interview was conducted on February 25, 2010.

NOTES

1  Millwall Football Club, which is based in Bermondsey. Its supporters have a historic reputation for hooliganism and sing 'No one likes us - we don't care.'

2  The Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) was introduced by the European Community in 1979 to achieve monetary stability in Europe in preparation for the introduction of the euro in 1999. Britain entered the ERM in 1990 but was forced to leave it on 'Black Wednesday' in 1992.

3  Published by Allen Lane in 2009