Life & Culture

Sound of the suburbs

'There's an awful lot to be said for the so-called bourgeois life' says Daniel Finkelstein, whose first book, a collection of his columns for The Times has just been published


It often feels nowadays as though there is no place for moderates. You must have strong opinions and beliefs on everything, from mask-wearing to Brexit, you cannot allow that the other side’s arguments have any merit, and your loyalty may be regularly called into question.

It’s a departure for British politics, which spent decades transferring power between parties, but maintaining a centrist stance. The days of Blair, Major and Cameron feel like another age. So hurray for a book and a writer who reminds us, in a collection of his newspaper columns from The Times, that moderate, well-argued views are as important and powerful as emotive, passionately held tribalism.

The book is Everything in Moderation, and the writer is Daniel Finkelstein, known to his many friends as Danny Fink (Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis on the cover says “This is Danny Fink at his very Danny Fink finest, elucidating, wise and intensely curious”). His formal title is Baron Finkelstein of Pinner in the London Borough of Harrow, since being made a Tory working peer in 2013.

Pinner, the suburb of North West London where he lives with wife, Nicky Connor, who is a public health doctor, and their three sons is an essential part of his title — and more than that, the basis of his philosophy and politics. He has no time for those who sneer at the suburbs, or try to escape to supposedly more exciting urban grit.

“When we look at history we regard as heroes those who fought and those who conquered, those who were martyrs for their point of view, those who set out on great adventures, those who built fine cathedrals,” he writes in the first column of the collection. “Yet I think it is a fine ambition to have been an executive for extra-wet strength tissues. In the history of mankind how many better jobs have there been?”

This appreciation of quiet, pleasant stability — “there’s an awful lot to be said for the so-called bourgeois life” he tells me — and also the kind of consumerism on display at Brent Cross Shopping Centre, comes directly from the experiences of his parents. His father, Ludwik was exiled to Siberia as a child, his mother Mirjam survived Belsen. “They were always progressive,” he tells me, via Zoom from what looks like a deserted Times office “but extremely anxious about extremists. My father was a great admirer of Harold Wilson, but was always wary of the far left.”

His mother was politically moderate too. “She was always pretty wary politically of anybody — how shall I put this — over-excitable,” he writes. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords (watched by his mother) he said that compared to Belsen and Siberia: “Pinner is nicer.”

He grew up in Hendon, in a house full of books, and a bookish family. His sister Tamara is now Permanent Secretary at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, his brother Anthony is professor of software systems engineering at UCL and the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser for National Security. Danny studied Economics at the LSE, and then computer systems analysis at City, University of London. But politics was his priority, first as a member of the centrist SDP. He was a parliamentary candidate by the age of 24. Standing against Ken Livingstone in Brent East, he had no chance, particularly as he was still living at home with his parents and couldn’t drive.

He worked closely with party leader David Owen, learning a lot from him about politics, integrity and “how to think things through for yourself and ensure you never let being moderate make you go soft altogether.” But when the SDP collapsed, merging with the Liberal Party, he “rather surprised myself” by joining the Conservatives, mainly because he believes strongly that “you can’t promise everything if you can’t pay for it.” He worked closely with John Major and William Hague, David Cameron and George Osborne.

When he joined The Times in 2001, he knew he couldn’t pretend to be a neutral observer. No matter, because a columnist should, he says, be open about who they are and how their experience can inform the reader. “My column is much stronger if I tell people where I come from,” he says.

His columns about the Tory party are packed with anecdotes and an insider’s insight: George Osborne, for example, holding up a newspaper’s front page on which William Hague was pictured next to Jacques Chirac. “ Did you ever imagine,” says Osborne, “that one day, here you would be on the front page of the Financial Times, sitting next to the president of France?” Hague gave him a puzzled look and replied, “Of course I did, you idiot.”

Or this titbit from a focus group in Nottingham when the Tories were concerned that Michael Howard’s Jewish background might be a problem. Asked to name prominent Jews in British public life, the room fell silent. Eventually one man hazarded a guess. “Whoopi Goldberg?”

Today he is undoubtedly one of the most prominent Jews in British journalism, never hesitating about being open about his background, all part of telling the reader where he comes from. So when he tells Times readers about going on the unprecedented “dayenu” protest against antisemitism in the Labour party, he does it with humour (“ The mic didn’t work properly, leading people to shout ‘Can you repeat that?’ as if attending a supper quiz”) and mildly-expressed but nevertheless cutting anger (“Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t on those Facebook groups of antisemites by accident, nor did the mad conspiracy mural come to his attention by happenstance” ).

He believes Keir Starmer has “a good chance of succeeding” in his attempts to banish antisemites from the ranks of the Labour Party, “he is politically shrewd.” He’s glad for left-leaning Jewish friends that they are beginning to feel they can once again join Labour.

Moderation should never mean indecisiveness, he says. “There are few policies where there’s no argument on the other side. But in the end you have to come down on one side.”

On the current refugee crisis, for example, this son of refugees says “It is not harsh to say that there is a problem,” and that it is not somehow anti-Jewish to say that there has to be some sort of policy to stop people taking to sea in unsuitable boats.

His columns range much wider than politics, of course. In the index, Diet Coke sits alongside Diddley, Bo, and Theodor Herzl nestles between Michael Heseltine and Jimi Hendrix. He is exceptionally well-read, and regular readers know they can rely on him to tell them what’s in books they haven’t even heard about, let alone read.

A typical column finds connections between several seemingly random themes: “In just under 1,000 words I intend to link the suspension of an academic at the University of Leeds, the weight of an ox, the outcome of the 2002 football World Cup, the recent dissenting speeches of Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn and the state funding of political parties. And of course cakes, graphology and Denise Van Outen.”

It is not only The Times for which he is a columnist, as JC readers know well. How do his columns in these pages differ from those for the Times? He tells me that his father used to say some articles that appeared in the Jewish press were Jewish only because they contained the word “bagel”, so he tries never to produce that kind of column.

Recent JC columns included an account of his son’s Zoom-mitzvah and the nature of belief in God. So I reckon he passes the bagel test with flying colours.


Everything in Moderation is published by William Collins

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