Friday, April 23, 2010

You would cry too if it happened to you...

Thanks yet again to the redoubtable Organic Cheeseboard in the comments, we present Is the Party Really Over for Labour? Andrew Rawnsley and Nick Cohen in conversation with Standpoint Daniel Johnson. Nick is as frustrating as ever. Take this:

Looking at the Labour government from 1997 to 2010, you'd say that these personalities could not work together. You've got Brown undermining Blair, doing supposedly left-wing things, not because he believes in them but because he thinks it's not what Blair wants him to do. Then you have Brown in power, and to me, more shocking than the bullying, is how nothing gets done. Brown just sits there, like this great spider at the centre of a web, wrapping all his ministers up like flies, and not letting them move or act until he's gone through every detail. Over the whole period — and they have achieved great things — it does look like a very strange way to govern a country.

I think that's quite percipient, actually. One of my problems with Brown from the early 2000s was that he hadn't moved to other ministerial posts. And if he intended to be a future leader, I thought he ought to do so. So, for me, the simile "like this great spider at the centre of a web" sums up Brown's career in Number 11. That was how he did things. The rest of that sentence just describes micromanaging rather poetically. But, well, I think anyway, that Brown did have some left-wing ideals during the Kinnock and Smith years. I thought he was very good in opposition, not just the surly reactive personality Nick describes. (I'll have to look at "Pretty Straight Guys" again, clearly.) I doubt it will surprise anyone that I find Andrew Rawnsley's view more credible.

There was a lot of synergy because they are quite different people: Blair, the master of communication, Brown better at detail, as long as he didn't analyse himself into a paralysis.

Both agree that Blair and Brown "are quite different people" but Rawnsley sees 'synergy' where Nick sees only entropy, but both agree that Brown may be too analytic to the point of 'paralysis'. Nick: "nothing gets done." Crime did fall last year. Now, I know you can argue that that sort of statistic lags behind legislation by a few years, and the credit might be Blair's, though the press would never acknowledge this. But Brown isn't that bad.

Still what got Organic (as his friends call him) going was this from Nick:

Let's start with foreign policy, because it's hugely unfashionable to say this at the moment but Blair was probably the most idealistic, and in some ways the most left-wing Labour leader there has ever been. He wanted to stop oppression, he wanted to overthrow tyrants, whether it was Milosevic or Saddam Hussein or the Taliban...

Overthrowing tyrants and stopping oppression are not the same thing. I agree about Blair being 'idealistic' but there's no use of that word I find positive. Rawnsley interrupts, and again, to me, he makes more sense:

...Or the Burmese junta. I admired that in him. I shared his frustration because I'm a liberal interventionist — not that you can do it everywhere but if you can't do it everywhere that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it somewhere. Milosevic probably would have got away with it had it not been for Blair. In Sierra Leone, he's a hero because his liberal interventionism worked there.

IMO, Rawnsley's examples are good, Nick's bad.

Fire away.


Anonymous BenSix said...

With the rise of radicalism certainly, with Russia possibly, it's not just that we sit here and decide whether we intervene or not as if we are all-powerful Westerners. There might be people coming for us, what then do we do about it?


4/24/2010 02:40:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Blair idealistic? Where's that Paxman/Saudi interview?

For the second time today, I'm going to use the term "projection" (which I don't usually much like) in a posting. People who thought the Iraq war was all about overthrowing a fascist dictator were projecting their own interpretation and motives onto the event. I think it's this which enables them to focus on that aspect quite so monomaniacally.

Perhaps his admirers think of him as Carlyle thought of Napoleon:

"False as a bulletin" became a proverb in Napoleon's time. He makes what excuse he could for it: that it was necessary to mislead the enemy, to keep up his own men's courage, and so forth. On the whole, there are no excuses. A man in no case has liberty to tell lies. It had been, in the long-run, better for Napoleon too if he had not told any. In fact, if a man have any purpose reaching beyond the hour and day, meant to be found extant next day, what good can it ever be to promulgate lies? The lies are found out; ruinous penalty is exacted for them. No man will believe the liar next time even when he speaks truth, when it is of the last importance that he be believed.

but really, that's at the most generous interpretation.

4/24/2010 07:51:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

People who thought the Iraq war was all about overthrowing a fascist dictator were projecting their own interpretation and motives onto the event. I think it's this which enables them to focus on that aspect quite so monomaniacally.

I think that's one of the best comments we've had. (But I like 'projection' more than you.) I think that the projection in that case took quite a lot of effort, since it doesn't fit the facts at all well. If 'Regime Change' was the aim, what was the regime to be changed to? No answer. (I consider 'democracy' when used as loosely as it is to be no answer. People voted for Saddam. IMO, it's hard to claim that that's different to US democracy when Bush actually lost.) And, as I keep saying, there wasn't regime change after Gulf War I. The argument that that was under Major, an unprincipled selfish Tory, and the Iraq War was under Blair, a far-sighted, bold, idealist and Labour leader doesn't have any purchase. Blair's cynicism was evident from 1998, if not earlier. ("Pretty Straight Guys" and "Servants of the People" are both full of examples.) Besides, the differences between Bush 41 and Bush 43 are hard to see. Dick Cheney (Secretary of Defense in 1991) moved to the Vice Presidency. Colin Powell (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1991) was Secretary of State. Donald Rumsfeld who was Cheney's boss under Ford and whose views (such as they are) are very similar to Cheney's was Secretary of Defense. I've never bought the 'change of heart' argument. And I've never understood how Saddam was worse in 2002 than he had been as a the man who started the Iran-Iraq War and gassed his own people. (1989-1993 Paleo-con; 2001-2005 Neo-con? Newp.) People like Cheney somehow trying to tie al-Qaeda into it all made even less sense.

Gaddafi (love that photo) met Tony Blair in 2004 (love the word 'dictator' in that). This seems to bother our Decent friends less than I think it should. Blair wants to overthrow all dictators? Again, this is one of my bugbears, but there were Jews in Libya when Gaddafi came to power. There aren't any now. They all just ... left. Nice man, eh?

4/24/2010 08:35:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I think criticising professed idealists for not being idealistic all the time is conceding far too much to them. For one thing, if we think of idealism as a kind of willed abstraction from the constraints of real-world decision-making, then it's entirely consistent for idealists to choose when they're going to be idealistic. The 'inconsistency' line also gives them a guaranteed get-out clause - politics is a tough old game, you can't live by your ideals all the time, but isn't it better to make the effort some of the time?

I think the answer to that needs to be No, it isn't. Idealism - in the sense in which it's associated with people like Blair - essentially means judging your past actions by your intentions rather than by their consequences, and to a lesser extent making plans in which intentions outweigh predictable consequences. This is a real tendency in foreign policy, and it's an enormously dangerous one. As I argued back here, the worst thing about idealism in politics is not that it's mostly fake but that it's sometimes genuine. (On the other hand, you could argue that it's inherently fake, or at least inherently inconsistent and unreliable - see above.)

4/24/2010 09:30:00 AM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I agree with all that, Phil. When I said that Blair was idealistic, I did think of something like "willed abstraction from the constraints of real-world decision-making" - very well put. I still haven't read the whole thing: the double act comes over as PC Sensible and PC Silly to me: but it appears that AR and NC get on, so I'm clearly missing something.

4/24/2010 10:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some idealists have ideals and try to work out how to get to them. Others are just naive and believe that it is a question of will. Decency is just as naive as simplistic forms of Marxism: a bit of force, out with the old and the new will be better.

Perhaps Blair was a naive idealist or maybe the idealism was a post-hoc justification of the decision to invade Iraq that was taken for other reasons (cosy up to the powerful Americans, drag the Labour Party to the right, cement the relationship with the Murdock press, a hoped-for Baghdad Bounce). The unwillingness to debate in public the assumptions behind liberal interventionism make me suspect that it is more a post-hoc justification than a thought-through strategy.

Anyway, the risk is that some time in the future Blair will be used as a stick to beat the Left if the "Blair was a left-wing idealist" narrative is allowed to take hold.


4/24/2010 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger flyingrodent said...

I think it says rather bad things about anti-war journalists that anyone can paint Iraq as a piece of left-wing liberal interventionism without being laughed out of the room.

After all, the Bush administration - the government that drew up the plans and provided what, 95% of the men and materiel for the invasion and occupation - were absolutely crystal clear that the world's only superpower was attacking Iraq in self-defence. The United States had to smash the pitiful remnant of Iraq's nasty military, in order to head off aggresssion by said pitiful remnant.

They were very, very open about this at the time, as I recall. That's why we got all the waffle about "pre-emption" and smoking guns being mushroom clouds, etc.

Priority one for responsible journos should've been keeping the actual justification for the war front and square in the papers. Any time Tony tried to paint the war as an exercise in freedomisationalising democratificational liberalistication, a swarm of journalists should have stood up and said But you said we were invading to prevent aggression. This humanitarian stuff is a post-hoc pack of lying bollocks, isn't it, you fork-tongued weasel you?

But very few people did - thus, Nick. As Renton says, it's a shite state of affairs.

4/24/2010 12:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Priority one for responsible journos should've been keeping the actual justification for the war front and square in the papers."

Yes indeed, Flying Rodent. Which is probably why we have this blog. Aaronovitch came along and muddied the waters when Blair was having difficulty gettng his second resolution. He not only write what he did but seems to have had some influence over editorial policy at the Guardian and Observer. How did that happen?


4/24/2010 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous saucy jack said...

"there were Jews in Libya when Gaddafi came to power."
I have no desire to defend Gaddafi (unless I get paid to do so) but the vast majority of Libya's Jews had left before he came to power.

4/24/2010 04:29:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

The Rawnsley examples are better because the majority are about stopping yer actual killings. Cohen manages to completely mess it up because he brings up Darfur over which Blair did, um, not much at all, just like the lefties Cohen despises; and also Iraq whih could never really have been sold as genuine humanitarian intervention because Saddam did most of the seriously bad stuff when he was an ally of this country and the US. And again, the Saudi example leaps out. I think Cohen's been whispered to by his new best mate Alastair Campbell about giving Blair a legacy as an idealist left-winger...

4/24/2010 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Aarowatch! Random suggestion: Have the entire content of each post available in the RSS feed. You know you want to do this!

4/24/2010 07:47:00 PM  
Blogger guthrie said...

Wait, is this the same Nick Cohen who has an entire book "Cruel Britannia" about the "sinister and the preposterous" activities of new labour, yet now he is saying they have achieved great things?

I wouldn't say Blair was a left wing idealist, rather a centrist idealist. A left wing idealist wouldn't force privatisation of everything they can get their hands on. A left wing idealist wouldn't continue to be anti-union. Whereas I'm sure we can agree that a centrist wants both markets and public services, and that is what Blair et al have done.

As for foreign policy, Labour has been keen enough over its history in power to maintain the empire and show that Britain is important by bombing people. Blair merely added extra messianic conviction.

4/25/2010 02:44:00 PM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Yes, Blair isn't any kind of idealist. This has all been gone through before; see for example discussion of New Labour antinomialism. Ideals fixed around policy, policy fixed around Blair's (reliably self-serving) gut instinct.

Regarding this best-the-enemy-of-the-good stuff, compare: being selective with the intervention is still idealism; being economical with the truth is still honesty.

If only action - and not inaction - need be justified, you get the New Labour GWOT method of criminalising everyone and then picking whom to prosecute on whatever basis you choose (this was pretty well advertised when ministers resisted proper drafting in favour of worthless assurances that 'this will only be used in extreme cases' and then defined 'extreme' by the decidedly unrigorous method of giving a couple of uncontroversial examples.) Discretion the first engine and all that. (See, e.g. Chomsky's textual analyses for examples of the US establishment's infinitely flexible definitions of 'extreme' or 'justifiably invadable'.)

The line is presumably that that's the US, and from a UK perspective there is no choice of targets, only the decision to back or not to back. Nonetheless this idealism stuff was indeed obviously a pretext - even if one which Blair's peculiar psychology permitted him to internalise - and the the stark obviousness of that fact has indeed not withered away.

Presumably the story goes that the regime-change motive had to be hidden because the bastards at the UN would block it, and (though this is not something to dwell on) because the lamentable state of post-Nuremburg international law makes it a hanging offence to start wars on that basis. So all the other lines of bullshit were part of a strategy of noble-cause corruption in pursuit of humanitarian intervention.

Trouble is, where was the sudden spur to focus on Saddam's evildoing in such a hurry? What was so overridingly bad about Iraq at that time that would justify going along with a US invasion that clearly had nothing to do with humanitarianism? It really seems unnecessary to dignify this shit with even this kind of cursory argument.

(btw the Kurd-gassing, as well as being ancient history, is very dubious. It appears to have been a village caught in the crossfire of the Iran/Iraq war; and there is some reason to think (not that it matters for these purposes) that the gas cloud may have been one of the Iranians', rather than the Iraqis'. I'll try and locate the sources for this if anyone's interested. I'm not (yawn) defending Saddam, just pointing out yet another reason to view the humanitarian case as humbug.)

On Decents projecting their own interpretation: yes - somewhere on the scale from self-deception to deliberate dissimulation. The question is, why? What prompted them to go through the difficult contortions required to get behind the war?

Because there was no longer any way to view Labour as Left, but they wanted to stay mainstream by supporting them (as the only acceptable one of the two parties)? Because they'd given up on Left principles in a gradual, unspectacular way without really embracing free market ideology, and so needed some new cause to attach themselves to? I think it was something along these lines.

If so (or even if not) how was this new cause conceptualised so as to include all this Muslims Under the Mattress/Israel-Hawk stuff? A commitment to human rights can't be the prime mover, for reasons basically already covered: no-one would come up with the requisite warped conception of human rights without some other motive to do the warping.

So what is the motivating cause as the Decent mind (or some compartment thereof) really sees it? Or does the question presuppose too much coherence in these peoples' attitudes?

4/25/2010 09:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Holy piss, have you seen Nick's latest? Clegg is Frodo Baggins? I'll have what he's having.

4/26/2010 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger Tim Wilkinson said...

Exellent. Can this analogy plausibly be elaborated? Probably at least as far as Cleggins's unwillingness in the event to relinquish the (oh dear) Ring of Power with which he had been entrusted only in order to destroy it.

Perhaps Brown can somehow be squeezed into the role of Gollum? It was his grasping - let us never forget! - provided the plot contrivance that finally got the Precious destroyed (along with himself) in the Crack of, er, Doom...

Can't see how that would work, but 'Gollum Brown' would fit the received view closely enough. I'm almost surprised that some cartoonist hasn't done it already (if one hasn't).

4/26/2010 02:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So what is the motivating cause as the Decent mind sees it?"

Dunno. Like in Freud's story of the broken kettle, if someone gives you a series of incompatible and unlikely excuses for something then you cannot know what the real explanation is; but you can be fairly sure that it's none of the ones you've been given.

I sometimes doubt if the Decents themselves know. Quite a lot of Decents are immersed in a political culture where you repeat talking points handed to you by someone else, vote for things you don't understand (or maybe even disagree with), believe that the Leader must be saying something profound even if you don't understand it and applaud cheap jibes against supposed enemies. In those circumstances it is quite easy to find yourself defending something that you haven't really thought through.


4/27/2010 07:51:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I agree with some of what Guano says, but not, I think, all of it. I think Decency is sort of grouped round a specific kind of wishful thinking as if it were the only source of heat on a cold night on a desolate plain. I don't think there's much coherence, and I certainly think the evidence is thin. (I think democracy is predicated on stability, not the other way around. Stability in the sense of rule of law; and it doesn't greatly matter what system it is, as long as it's fairly internally consistent and disinterested.) It would be nice if we fought wars for justice, and even nicer if fighting those wars actually resulted in justice somewhere. But believing that Iraq was ever about 'regime change' to a democratic state and that this was properly thought through is laughable.

Quite a lot of Decents are immersed in a political culture where you repeat talking points handed to you by someone else, vote for things you don't understand (or maybe even disagree with), believe that the Leader must be saying something profound even if you don't understand it and applaud cheap jibes against supposed enemies.

I don't know about this. I don't think it fits Geras, Kamm, or Aaronovitch at all well. Harry's Place is all about enemies. I went over their front page yesterday, counting the posts about some enemy or other. Result: all bar one. Norman Geras is the most atypical: he's possibly the most hard core Labour supporter of all of them, but he's had clear differences with Blair: as he said somewhere, "I'm a socialist, he's not." (I think that was from the FrontPage interview. I may have paraphrased.) OTOH, I think all three believe that simpler souls should act like Guano's description. They may make abstruse arguments, which others should swallow if they can't comprehend them.

It does fit Harry's Place and Nick rather better. I still see Nick as having come from a very far-left sub group and some of this is still evident. Labour is never going to be "really" left-wing, it just dresses itself up to beguile the rather sheep like proletariat; the city is intrinsically evil, etc. But no one agrees with me here.

But as always when trying to talk about an underlying philosophy (mine or someone else's), I feel like I've inadvertently described a beast of another genus altogether.

4/27/2010 08:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Democracy is predicated on accepted institutions: sets of rules, and rules for changing the rules and accountability that the rules are being followed. War has a tendency for damaging institutions and I don't think that many people (let alone the US government) have much idea about how to go about developing them.


4/27/2010 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I agree with all that, Guano. But with the proviso that the US did actually set up very decent social democracies in post war Germany and Japan. However, US administrations from the 80s haven't had a clue.

4/28/2010 06:34:00 AM  

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