My Teenage Mistakes
It’s been a weird few days. A week ago I was thrilled to be offered the job of Economics Correspondent at Newsnight. Given my current role at the TUC and brief stint as a Labour adviser, I fully expected my appointment to raise a few eyebrows. Even so I wasn’t quite prepared for the howls of outrage from some quarters. Some senior Tories were said to be “furious” about my hiring. One un-named source declared “Arthur Scargill or Len McCluskey would have been a more objective appointment.”
Never mind that I have spent more of my career working in the apolitical worlds of the Bank of England and fund management than working for Labour or the unions, or that several right wing economists and commentators familiar with my work warmly welcomed my appointment, or that I have frequently been critical of Labour’s economic policy – none of that seemed relevant to those who saw me as a dangerous leftie corrupting the BBC’s coverage of economics.
Then on the weekend, things took a surreal twist. I was asked not about my left wing credentials, but about whether I had ever been involved with the far right. It would have been laughable had it not had, back in the hormone-charged mists of adolescence, a kernel of truth.
That truth is that as an unusually geeky, politically-interested 16-year-old, I had a brief and misguided flirtation with the ideas of the far right. It began when I read Robert Skidelsky’s biography of Oswald Mosley and found myself feeling some sympathy with the ‘early Mosley’, the idea of a politician who seemed to grasp the need to tackle unemployment where other politicians did not.
There has been much academic debate over the years over whether this early incarnation of Mosley’s “New Party” – which attracted interest from the likes of Harold Macmillan and Nye Bevan – can be separated from the later blackshirted British Union of Fascists. It took my curious, naive 16-year-old self a year or so to conclude that it could not. During that time I never joined any political organisation or attended any meeting but read ravenously – as teenage rebellions go it was pretty tame stuff. By the time I was 18 I had joined the Labour Party, horrified by the racism, homophobia and anti-semitism I had encountered on my sorties into far right literature.
All of which might have remained the embarrassing stuff of teenage diaries had I not, a couple of years later, done a dumb thing. In my second term at Oxford, I told a student journalist friend about my teenage flirtation and he asked me to write about it for the student newspaper, Cherwell. Socially awkward and keen to impress, I obliged, even gilding the lilly to make my far right adventure sound more dramatic than it had been. I was 19.
The story appeared pseudonomously under the cringe-making headline “I was a fascist”. It described how I had believed for a few months as a teenager that it was possible to hold extreme right wing views like a commitment to destroying the trade union movement (irony of ironies), without being a racist or homophobe. It recounted my growing disillusionment and ultimately rejection of far right politics as I was confronted with its reality. Among the many lines in it that now make me wince with embarrassment was the opening one: “Like a lot of bad things this started with the Tory party.” I suspect I may be reminded of that line a few times in the coming months.
Even in a pre-social media age, I learned soon that youthful stupidity can come back to haunt you. In my final year at Oxford I was picked to be the Labour Club candidate for student union sabbatical office. A few weeks before the election itself, after a summer of reflection, I decided that I didn’t want to take a year out and dropped out of the race. To my horror rumours began doing the rounds that I’d pulled out for fear of being ‘exposed’ as a closet former far right supporter. This weekend I was being asked similar questions by a Sunday newspaper. The answer was that my decision had absolutely nothing to do with my teenage political fumblings but something tells me I won’t have heard the last of that story either.
None of this should be read as a plea for sympathy. This chapter of my teenage life was witless and intensely embarrassing and I compounded the idiocy with a boastful and ill-judged piece of student journalism a few years later. I don’t believe anyone who has known me as an adult would recognise the adolescent prat I have been describing here, but I’m sure many of us know of teenagers who have done worse too.
Reflecting on the last week it’s hard to escape the irony that I have been accused of being a dangerous leftie and also a fascist within 48 hours. I hope I’m neither. I think I’ve got a long track record – from the Bank of England to the TUC – of examining the economic facts and letting the chips fall where they may. The BBC is full of journalists from a wide range of backgrounds who left their political baggage at the door the day they started work. I’m confident that once in the job I’ll be able to do just that.