Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The forces of conservatism strike back

Tony Blair's sally into the world of Euston certainly has all the hallmarks of a classic, using the techniques that Jamie Whyte mercilessly pilloried. There are instances when banality poses as profundity - what on earth does "We are a much older people than we were" actually mean? These are supported by generalisations asserted without empirical foundation - I am sorry Tony, but being employed in the public sector feels more like being a participant in a continuous revolution than working in institutions that "were established in something like their current form in the 1940s".

However, the heart of his appeal for the support of the left in his programme of public sector reform is more important and is contained in the following statement.

"There is always a progressive case for reform. What progressive case is there for the status quo, except in utopia?"

The obvious question that arises is what reform? The introduction of compulsory human sacrifice to propitiate the Gods would certainly be a reform, but hardly a progressive one. The debate is not about reform versus stasis; it is over which out of a range of reforms are preferred. Trying to make a case for reform per se is not enough to convince.

There is more though. There is a progressive case to be made against change. This was beautifully put by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook:

We began to wonder if the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed, who had been compelled to change, too much. … In this context the desire to conserve, to protect, to safeguard, to rescue, to resist becomes the heart of a radical project. A form of conservatism – to be most sharply distinguished from its multitude of imitations, its travesties and caricatures, and scarcely know to those who carry the banners of conservatism in the modern world – becomes indispensable to this work of resistance. This conservatism leads us to search for all those valuable resources that have been thrown away in the process of eager industrialisation. For the greatest casualties in this version of development have been human, perhaps even more than material, resources.
(The Revolt Against Change. Towards a Conserving Radicalism. Vintage, London. 1993. pp.3-4)

Part of the reason for the decline in Labour support does not lie in those issues that the media obsesses over, notably Iraq, but in an inchoate desire for a more stable and kinder future. Blackwell and Seabrook saw these 'forces of conservatism' being the centrepiece of a left project. They were ignored. Instead, they are David Cameron's secret weapon. Labour take note.

A stout defence

As if it was not enough for us persons of girth being seen as responsible for global warming now the Euston Manifesto site has Tony Blair citing us a reason for the need to reform the NHS (more on that later). I have news for them, we actually live longer so stop obsessing about our weight and deal with the pensions crisis caused by the extra longevity of fat, happy people.

Fatties of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but ... OK a few pounds here or there wouldn't go amiss.

Life and Fate

No, I cannot hope to encompass these themes in one post. Vasily Grossman has done so though in 800 pages of prose that, at times, leaves the reader breathless at its brilliance, even in translation.

I have just finished reading this magnificent novel. It is to be relished, read slowly, and absorbed. Its theme is totalitarianism, set against the background of the Battle of Stalingrad. The power of the novel lies in its moral clarity whilst exploring the human origins of the brutalities of the Twentieth Century. In a self conscious literary reference to Chekhov, Grossman celebrates individuality. It is a book of hope set in the most despairing of times. At its heart lies an evocation of "The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitting kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good."

The theme of human liberty is also strong; "Man's innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot renounce violence. If it does, it perishes. Eternal, ceaseless violence, overt or covert, is the basis of totalitarianism. Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future."

This is an astonishing novel, both intelligent and moving, and one of striking relevance for the current day.

Monday, October 30, 2006

All blogs do this so... on the veil

I am a libertarian and so I fully support the right of all those who wish to wear the veil to do so. However, I also fully support the right of those who do not wish to wear the veil, whatever pressure the may come under, and in whatever country. This is not just about women's rights but human freedom which I feel to be indivisible.

As a secularist and atheist I would love to see religious symbols disappear altogether, but I also believe in tolerance. Thus, I deplore religious hatred as much as I deplore being hated by the religious.

Isn't it depressing that in a supposedly liberal, but in reality vaguely authoritarian, society, we cannot find a consistency that allows free choice but defends resistance to oppression?

I suppose this is necessary too ... on Iraq

The only reason for refusing to support the war was one that questioned the utility of war as a method of regime change. There were two aspects to this; the first was that war (as with revolution) is destructive, kills people and has unexpected and unpredictable outcomes. The second is that, in consequence, as much emphasis has to be put on the way wars end as on how they are to begin and be fought. In this case, the post-war settlement was crucial.

My agonised opposition to the war was based on both of these but the second factor was decisive. I was struck by the poor quality of Western political leadership and a post-war vision that smacked of complacency and historical ignorance. In addition, the fact that the war was sold on an inflation of the military threat posed by a country devastated by two wars and ten years of sanctions hinted that less consideration was being given to post-war development and opposition to tyranny. I did not think that these were the people to give us a Marshall Plan for the Middle East.

The important point behind the pro-war left position was that the war could have worked. This war was not a new one it was the conclusion of the earlier war over Kuwait, which had been left unresolved. The brutal cynicism of a policy of containment and sanctions, which left Saddam untouched and plunged much of the country into misery, had to cease. Surely, the ending of sanctions with Saddam still in power was unconscionable. Regime change was the sole position the left could have taken. The only question was how. There could have been a reasonable post-war settlement, but only with swift action for security, democratisation and reconstruction which could have organised and mobilised against the horrific insurgency (in retrospect a re-reading of Makiya's "Cruelty and Silence" could have prepared us for what was to come). This is where the failings of much of the left were most manifest.

Their choice to cheerlead for murderous would-be tyrants and to will failure in Iraq is a betrayal of everything the left should stand for. Perhaps, just perhaps, if some of the millions who mobilised against the war had launched campaigns to demand democracy, free trade unions, women's rights, full employment, social justice, emergency relief and economic development for Iraq, maybe if their criticisms of the occupation had not been wrapped in fatuous concepts of "imperialism" but had been limited to its failure to provide security, democratise fast enough and to give Iraqis control over their own development, if they had passed resolutions and staged demonstrations for massive aid to Iraq, then maybe the pressure would have had some effect. It is doubtful that this would have been the case but at least the left could be proud of their role rather than wallowing in a sanctimonious sense of their own rectitude, gleefully seeing each Iraqi death as another weapon with which to beat Bush and Blair. History will not view them kindly. They had a moment and they missed it.

The first post

This is a new blog that comes from a libertarian left perspective. It is my own personal catharsis, I hope others might enjoy. The main aim is to give blessed relief to friends and other bloggers who have been uninvited recipients of my emails and big speeches.

Whilst I hope to mainly write on political themes, it will cover thoughts on the other obsessions of my life; music, literature and Rugby League.

During the next few days I will post an instant archive. Then there may be something worth reading.