Saturday, April 19, 2008

Some Catching Up Required

I didn't post on last Sunday's Nick because I really hoped someone else would. Also, every so often, I get a life. Sorry about that. Lets the side down, I know.

B2 said somewhere that he thinks Nick is a good writer. Let me say this: I rate David Aaronovitch much more highly. Our Dave only slips when he makes some argument which he knows is disingenuous or at least akin to the three cups trick. In poker terms, the drop in style is a 'tell'. Let me show you where I have a problem with Nick Cohen. I'll pick, almost at random, the first paragraph from his latest Observer contribution.

Magna Carta is such a Fellow he will have no sovereign,' snapped the Jacobean jurist Sir Edward Coke as he fought the arbitrary power of the Stuart monarchy. Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Sullivan might have lacked Sir Edward's succinctness, but last week they delivered a defence of the rule of law that was as stirring.

I think this would pass the tests of all my English teachers of good prose: colourful, but the right side of purple. But for me, while 'snapped' is an unexpected verb, it does presume an emotion on Sir Edward's part which Nick has never witnessed: it's pure projection. I'm not sure where Windows is with innovations, but Mac OSX has had a thing called 'Stickies' - a sort of virtual 'Post It' notes' - for ages. I've got the advice of those I consider 'good writers' on mine - Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, and Elmore Leonard. From the last of those:

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

And quite right too. Shakespeare doesn't tell you how people say things.

Nick then sets about a very sensible column, which is why I'm writing this now. I want to get this up before tomorrow's edition comes online. He makes one mistake early on which I think is worth jumping all over.

Brave and undeniable, but Whitehall did have a cynical argument against the judges, though not one that would stand up in court. Saudi Arabia is a special case, it runs. Most despotisms are like Zimbabwe, nasty, corrupt and poor. Saudi Arabia is nasty, corrupt but fantastically rich because of its oil wealth. So when it threatens to cancel orders for Eurofighters or suspend co-operation in the war against al-Qaeda unless we obey orders, we can appease it, safe in the knowledge that the Saudi monarchy is a one-off. No one else has the strength to hurt our economy. No precedent is being set.

But this isn't all that's happening. Craig Unger wrote on the Comment is Free a much more trenchant analysis of Saudi corruption. But let's take the example of Saudi "co-operation in the war against al-Qaeda". I agree that they've threatened to withdraw this, but what evidence is there that it ever existed? IIRC, Unger's book "House of Bush, House of Saud" suggested that the reason the US under Bush Snr was so keen on the Gulf War (short version - crazed despot invades fascist state, spreading reactionary racism, sexism, torture, depravity, and corruption to a state already steeped in reactionary racism, sexism, torture, depravity, and corruption) was because Saddam could in theory push through gallant little fascist Kuwait into gallant enormous fascist Saudi Arabia. This was in 1991. In 1993, al Qaeda attacked on US soil for the first time with the bomb in the Twin Towers. Everyone was surprised. Saudi Intelligence had been silent. Ditto with the Embassy bombings in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000. A retarded six year-old may have concluded by this point that either a) Saudi Intelligence had overtaken chocolate teapots as the image of inappropriateness or incompetence of the moment or b) they were on the other side and weren't going to help us anyway. Then came September 11, 2001 [1] The Saudis didn't warn about that either. They did get, to quote Unger:

But ultimately at least 140 Saudis, including two dozen relatives of Osama bin Laden, were evacuated without having gone through a formal interrogation. In addition, the Saudi role in financing radical Islam somehow escaped being a central focus of the war on terror.

What can I say? Saudi "co-operation" on terror is entirely bogus. Saudi Arabia is proudly theocratic (OK, not in the usual way; the clerics have a deal with the royal family) and anti-Semitic. I don't understand why Norman Geras hasn't resigned his Labour Party membership over this and started writing to the relevant government departments at least daily. The government treats the contract as if the Saudis were giving us £40bn - they're not. Like anyone in a deal, they think paying us will cost them less than doing it themselves. We get some jobs and some profit, which all goes to tax revenue, and perhaps fewer benefits paid out. That's not worth losing our integrity for.

I don't want to go overboard on the economics here, because B2 may jump in and show me up for the clown I am, but I remember the 'Jobs Not Bombs' crusade in the early 80s (as I'm sure Nick and regular here Justin do too). I don't think armaments spending is ever the way to go. It's wasteful and, if anything, it encourages governments to go to war (see the past decade or so or WWI).

(I used to prefer the Robert Wyatt version but I've decided that "The King's" original is superior.)

But then it all goes wrong.

This year, David Miliband announced that the forward march of democracy had halted. The Foreign Secretary didn't just mean that countries such as Zimbabwe had sunk into thug-rule and penury. He meant the belief that societies could prosper only if they embraced representative government was vanishing. He could no longer reassure Aung San Suu Kyi and other dissidents that history was on their side.

I don't have a source for the Miliband quote, but I can't see why a single case (Zimbabwe) proves this. I'd have thought that better examples would have been Pakistan (where democracy has clearly seen better days) or Putin's Russia. I doubt however that David Miliband, much as I dislike him, would ever have meant anything so stupid. There seem to be at least three possible things here: the forward march of democracy a) goes forward; b) stands still; or c) goes backward. Miliband seems to have gone for b; Nick interprets this as c - without any justification I can see. Whose belief? Why is it vanishing? I'd think the important point for Aung San Suu Kyi is that history is on her side - or not: not what David Miliband believes.

Nick does get back to his old indignant stride at the end:

The 'light touch' regulation of the City Gordon Brown boasted about for so many years meant in effect that Britain profited from offering international finance a latitude it couldn't find in New York. We can't shake off our dependence on funny money, as Gordon Brown and David Cameron showed when they reacted to the judges' ruling by moving to curb the power of the judiciary to expose corruption and intimidation.

I was going to do Aaro's missing (from here) columns too, but it's too late for me. Some other time perhaps.

[1] God, I sound like Martin Amis. But Yanks do have dates wrong, you know.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually the original version of "Shipbuilding" was the Robert Wyatt version. Clive Langer wrote & recorded the tune and played it to EC, who then wrote the lyrics and later re-recorded it for Punch the Clock. That's Mark "Bedders" Bedford on double bass; thought you might like to know.

4/19/2008 10:46:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

Personally, I agree with this, but I've probably read more novels by Capt WE Johns than any other writer and he hardly ever used it.

re: "Jobs not Bombs", I'm chuffed to learn that I'm regarded as the symbol of early-Eighties radicalism in the comments boxes, but to be honest, you probably want the previous commentor rather than me. For what it's worth I don't recall a particular "Jobs not Bombs" crusade, but I seem to remember it was a slogan (remember slogans?) very widely used and there was a controversy when CND voted against adopting it officially. A decision I disagreed with at the time but would probably [puts on slippers] view more favourably today.

4/20/2008 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Does anyone really believe the Saudis have significant intelligence capabilities in the UK, which is after all where we're most worried about? God, I hope not.

Pakistan, well, they actually might - they've been wired in to the ISI since 1979 and Nawaz Sharif is their man.

4/20/2008 04:53:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Meanwhile, somewhere on the outer fringes of Decency, you can find Clive James praising the Will-You-Condemn-A-Thon. (TThough he doesn't half drone on a bit, before and after.)

4/20/2008 06:06:00 PM  
Blogger Paul McMc said...

"Shakespeare doesn't tell you how people say things."

To be fair, Shakespeare wrote drama, not prose. I'm no expert myself, but my missus thinks Leonard was talking about of his arse, and she's an English teacher.

4/20/2008 09:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There were some attempts on the Left in the late 70s and early 80s to address the fact that workers who make arms or work in nuclear power stations want to keep their jobs and don't look kindly on people wanting to eliminate the arms industry and nuclear power stations. Socially useful work etc. Is this what you're thinking about?


PS I can answer questions about the sixties as well.

4/21/2008 07:28:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Doesn't Miliband's line mean "China"?

4/21/2008 08:48:00 AM  

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