Friday, 31 May 2013

Who said “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”?

No, it wasn’t Tony Blair, although it might as well have been and, given his enthusiasm for guitar axemen, he may just have later subconsciously paraphrased it:
If [Gaddafi] had been left in power while the west was willing to see President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt deposed, "the damage to the west's reputation, credibility and stature would have been not just massive but potentially irreparable. That's what I mean by saying inaction is also a decision.
By the way, the bit about credibility is particularly poignant, now the West's lies in tatters over Obama's "red lines" in Syria for precisely the same reason.

So, to wonderful, whiny-voiced Geddy Lee of Rush (in the UK this week, as it happens): you may not realise it but, in 1977, in some small way you were New Labour before there even was New Labour.

The full song, "Freewill", in a rather decent live version, is here.

FOOTNOTE: to be strictly accurate, the lyric was written by drummer Neil Peart. @christophe_read tells me it is a paraphrasing of Sartre, which sounds convincing. But for me it will always be sung in that whiny voice.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Where are we now, where are we now?

For those poor souls who don't recognise the title
 of this blog, it is the song-title of Bowie's rather
 brilliant comeback single, all about
returning to Berlin after 35-odd years
Having had a couple of months which have not, frankly, been pretty for Labour, this is the question its leaders must surely be asking themselves in the wake of the local elections.

The question is, will they ask it of robust friends who might level with them? Or others who might well-meaningly equivocate, in the name of keeping them motivated?

First, it is easy to base our hopes of success on this or that transitory effect, but that seems rather like building one’s house on sand. There may be a UKIP effect come the election, but history has shown that such things are not usually that big. Yes, there may just have been a fundamental realignment, but things may just as easily go against Labour (Tory voters returning and narrowing the gap) as for Labour (remaining UKIP voters splitting the right-wing vote and letting Labour in). And, in any event, it is a fool who bases his strategy on the failure of others. Stop it. If there is a boost from UKIP, that’s a bonus.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Woolwich, Islamism and the West

Just two little vignettes on the tragedy in Woolwich, where an off-duty soldier was murdered with a machete in broad daylight:
First, our old friend Ken Livingstone was up to his old tricks. I don’t for a moment suggest that he failed to condemn the attacks – he did – but he, apparently uniquely among the political class, made that old trick of moral relativism for the left, linking unspeakable terrorist acts to Britain’s foreign policy:
“In 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, the security services warned the Prime minister, Tony Blair, that this would make Britain a target for terrorist attacks. We are still experiencing the dreadful truth of this warning.”
Or, roughly translated, “I told you so, I told you so, ner ner ner ner ner”.

Apart from the crassness of trying to make that political point in a moment of tragedy, and whether you agree or disagree with the specific case of Iraq being a correct decision, it is obvious to all but the entirely bereft of intelligence where the logic of that ends up: you must never upset any religious group or foreign power, no matter what, because you might one day be attacked.

Further, it is precisely that logic that Al Qaeda and their miserable allies would like the whole world to take on, because it discourages Western countries from ever challenging them.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

We do not stigmatise your country, Deputy Prime Minister. It is you and your party we find distasteful

Last Saturday a senior European politician wrote an article in the British press which made you want to shout at the computer screen. Not such an unusual event, you might think, but this was not a debater’s disagreement as one might have had with the viewpoint of a Tory, a Gaullist or a Christian Democrat. It was one which also left the reader feeling a bit nauseous.

And that is because, rather than an honestly-expressed case justified with some evidence, it was rather a sneaky and disingenuous one, one that those on the left, and those who believe in democracy and liberty, should care about; because it is part of a smokescreen for a particularly unpleasant kind of populist politics taking place within an EU state, from a party leaning ever more towards authoritarianism and even open racism.

Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister of Hungary, questioned why his country was “stigmatised” because of “eruptions of racial hatred”, when others seemed to, as it were, get away with it.

You see, after a lot of recent criticism of his country, it seems that Mr Navracsics’ party is on a charm offensive. His boss, prime minister Viktor Orbán, has milked to death the meeting of the
World Jewish Congress in Budapest to present his regime as a forward-thinking, racially tolerant one. It is not.

Navracsics himself
told the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Phil Gordon, on a trip to Washington:
“I told the Senator that [such feelings] are not more prevalent in Hungary than in other countries of the region and that the Hungarian government is resolutely against racism and anti-Semitism.”
Oh, well that’s alright, then.

The question one had to ask oneself was this: was Navracsics (a) a concerned politician, worrying about the political direction of his country but who felt it was being unfairly criticised; or (b) slyly trying to divert attention from the ugly policies of his own government, crying “slur” and playing the victim, that ready recourse of the extremist and the demagogue?

Navraciscs makes three charges: that Western European countries see the East as threat to their hegemonic power; that they have a romantic view of Eastern Europe, conditioned by the image of plucky dissidents fighting the Cold War regime; and that they are actively stemming the free flow of labour from East to West, contravening the basic principles of the EU.

These all contain elements of truth. The trouble is that they also have little to do with the criticisms made of Hungary. How does he answer the criticisms of his government? By speaking in non sequiturs and fatuously claiming that we are all out to get the Hungarian people.

First unrelated issue: in the main, it is not Hungary itself per se that is being criticised, as Navracsics implies; the largely tolerant people of Hungary are not in question, although as the excellent Hungarian writer George Szirtes pointed out in the Guardian recently, the line between Fidesz and the Hungarian state is one that they increasingly blur.

No, it is Hungary’s politicians that are called into question; the deeply unpleasant far right of the Jobbik party, who hold over a tenth of the seats in the country’s parliament; and the more polished and plausible government of the “mainstream” right that is Fidesz. These people prey insidiously on the insecurities and the history of the Hungarian people, to make them feel like outsiders in the European Union, so that they will stand with them and away from liberal values.

Second unrelated issue: Navraciscs cleverly makes common cause with the other countries of Eastern Europe – to side with emigrants from Poland, Romania or Bulgaria who have sometimes been made less than welcome abroad.

His “they’re out to get us” message is therefore useful to feed his countrymen’s paranoia; a good way to get a country to turn in on itself. But Hungary is not being singled out for resentment at its immigrants any more than those other countries.

No, Hungary is being criticised because of its slow slide into
single-party authoritarianism; because of Fidesz’ treatment of Jews and Roma (his founding Fidesz colleague Zsolt Bayer, referred to Roma as “animals”); because it has made four anti-Semitic writers part of the secondary school curriculum and handed the state’s top journalism prize to another.

Oh, and this is a good one:

“We, just like our regional partners, have to prove our commitment to democracy every day…”
But you don’t, do you, Mr Navracsics?

In fact, your party is being criticised for precisely the opposite: it is being criticised for tinkering with the constitution, hobbling the Constitutional Court and limiting judicial independence, invariably danger signs for a democracy.

Fidesz, essentially, echoes the neo-fascists of Jobbik, just a little less stridently; twisting proud Hungarian nationalism into something less wholesome. As Szirtes commented on
Twitter last weekend:
It doesn’t take much skill to open the wounds of a nation that is deeply sentimental about its – quite genuine – wounds.
It doesn’t indeed. But it is a dangerous game, which will likely end in tears; no-one should be fooled by these people, above all on the left.

In truth, people are already referring to Hungary as a one-party state. And in countries with a relatively short history of democracy, that is a very short distance from a no-party state.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

1983. Never again.

I wrote this ten days ago and forgot to cross-post it; however, given that it's about something that happened thirty years ago, I don't suppose it matters. For the record, today's Labour's poll lead is only six points.

Today was the thirtieth anniversary of what was arguably Labour’s postwar nadir: the 1983 election.

If George Orwell had, by chance, chosen the title of his future-shock novel as one year earlier than that he finally settled on, the irony would have been complete: fact would have been competing with fiction for the most dystopian vision of the left's future.

Many of today’s Labour members and supporters were not even born then, and surely those who have only primarily known Labour as the established party of government must find it difficult to comprehend the dire state of the party back then.

We all laughed till it hurt at John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better, because my Labour generation empathised exactly with both his idealism and his pain.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Goodbye, Lord Ahmed. You will not be missed

Ah, Nazir Ahmed. There are two sides being put to your story. On the one hand, there is yours. Its claim is that you have been put upon by an unfeeling Labour party, which will not give you a “fair hearing”.

On the other, there is the more obvious, alternative explanation, that you were allegedly caught saying something anti-Semitic, following a long stretch of seemingly unpardonable behaviour from your good self, and then resigned from the party in anticipation of being pushed – via a letter which can only be described as weaselly – in order to hang on to some vestige of personal credibility.

I shall leave the reader to decide which explanation seems the more fitting.

Friday, 10 May 2013

In praise of Peter Tatchell

I must admit, I am pleasantly surprised to be writing those words. I didn't always feel that way.

In the 1990s, Peter Tatchell was in the news because of OutRage!, which had a policy of outing gay men still in the closet, with the motivation - or at least this is my understanding - that they were betraying those already out and that their keeping quiet would only delay public acceptance of homosexuality.

Although I understand the logic and respect his sincerity, I thought it was wrong then and I still do now, even when that acceptance has come such a long way as to have seriously diminished – although clearly not removed – the importance of the whole issue. To my mind, it is someone’s right to be in the closet as and when they choose, and come out of it when they choose. It is not for the state, or any third party, to interfere with that decision.

But recently, despite still differing with him on a lot of things, I have come to have a great respect for Tatchell for his work as a tireless human rights campaigner (a fact he might well be horrified to hear, in the unlikely event he has any idea who I am).

A good example is the resounding brilliance of
this post, in which he states what is clear to most thinking people, that hate preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi is an anti-Semite of the most unpleasant variety, and calls out the “so-called left” on their tolerance to such characters:
“When OutRage! and I protested against Qaradawi being hosted by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in 2004, much of the so-called “left” denounced us as racists, Islamophobes, imperialists and neo-cons. Sick!
I’m a left-winger but nowadays too many leftists are apologists for Islamism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia.”
Quite right, and arguments with which readers of the Centre Left or Harry's Place will be familiar. But I mention Tatchell also as a great example of a wider phenomenon.

What is happening in left-wing politics, including within the Labour Party, over recent years is a realignment.

It is not a realignment of right and left, as evidenced by the marked differences between my views and those of Tatchell, and others well to the left of me, with whom I fully share an abhorrence of this apologia for Islamism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and homophobia. It is a realignment which cuts across traditional left-right shades of “progressive” opinion, and separates into what Nick Cohen calls “the decent left”, and the not-so-decent left. The Galloways and, I’m afraid, the Livingstones.

In the middle, there is a large body of Labour supporters and other assorted leftists who are pretending that there is no issue here. Move along, nothing to see here. The easy explanation is that people like me are trying to stigmatise people with whose views they disagree; the Labour “right” trying to push out the Labour “left”.

But I am not so factional. I am not. The fact that I side with Tatchell, with whom I disagree on many other things, and have a strong desire to keep people like him within spectrum of mainstream left debate, gives the lie to that.

I do not expect everyone to agree with me on the size of the state, or borrowing versus austerity, immigration or healthcare. I want a pluralistic party which debates all those things. In some my views may win out, in others they may lose. That is the battle of ideas.

But I do expect – no, I demand – that Labour be a decent party. That we turn our back on that way of thinking that Tatchell describes. Because those little outward signals already damage us a little in the eyes of the public now, and that is nothing to what will one day happen when they and the media truly realise the extent of the problem.

What is abundantly clear to me is that, at some point, that large, neutral body in the middle of the Labour Party is going to have to take sides.

All I hope is this: that the members of the not-so-decent left, who have a history of entryism into mainstream bodies such as my beloved party stretching back to the 1980s and before, have not by then infected part of the “neutral middle” with their tolerance of intolerance. And, quite probably, made another part leave the party in disgust.

Bravo, Peter Tatchell, bravo, for your stand against those who pretend to be left but are really of the far right. And may we long disagree about some other, to me less important, stuff.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The three words Labour needs to hear from these elections are “change course now”, not “one more heave”

My seventh piece for the Independent's IndyVoices, on last week's local elections, is here. I'm afraid it makes rather uncomfortable reading.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Boston was all the West's fault, of course

Ah, and in the excitement of the local elections (well, I don't get out much), I had missed this gem from our old friend, Ken Livingstone. 

For face time on TV he is now reduced, like Galloway, to speaking on the none-too-fussy PressTV, mouthpiece of the repressive and undemocratic government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, talking here about the Boston bomber:

Naturally, it was all the West's fault (see Centre Lefts passim, ad nauseam).

No longer encumbered by political office, funnily enough, that was not at all like the message he gave after the London bombing of 7/7, as Guido Fawkes pointed out. This time his apologies for the cause of radical Islam remained unhindered.

It is fairly obvious that, had he made similar comments back in July 2005, he would have been, rightly, hounded from office by the families of the terrorists' victims.

Livingstone seems still not to have realised that what finally did for his credibility more than anything was precisely this: being seen to say one thing to one audience and another to another. In the age of the internet, you just can't get away with that any more.

It is clear that he is no longer a serious politician: what is frustrating for Labour is that he was considered one for so long.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

A dangerous game

Recent weeks have not exactly been glory days for Labour. The latest chapter, Monday’s car-crash World At One interview – with Miliband refusing to answer whether Labour would increase borrowing, thirteen times – made for excruciating, if compelling, radio; worse, yesterday’s official admission that Labour will do just that – increase borrowing – has left it exposed. As Nye Bevan might have put it, it enters “naked into the parliamentary chamber”.

But among the various pieces of bad news, there is one which particularly stands out, because it seems not only bad, but irreversibly so.

It is now a week since Len McCluskey’s
extraordinary intervention, where he proposed a radical reworking of Labour’s programme, including the sacking of three shadow cabinet members. Not to mention the Labour leader’s robust and accurate response that McCluskey “does not speak for the Labour party”.

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