Friday, September 15, 2006
A Foreign Office minister has conceded that Tony Blair's refusal to call for a ceasefire during 34 days of slaughter in Lebanon may have been a mistake.
Did you read that correctly? Go back and read it again. Here's some more from the report:
Mr Howells also conceded that the decision to oppose - with the US - the international demand for an immediate ceasefire was not properly explained to the British public.
And there is more of a similar quality: we didn't explain ourselves very well, we took these decisions in good faith, people saw bad images on their TV screens and we maybe looked bad etc etc. A senior advisor "admits" to the Independent that: "We got it wrong. We didn't get the balance right. We gave the impression we were against the ceasefire." Denis MacShane, one of the principal architects of that antisemitic report about antisemitism, says: "In geopolitical terms, calling for a ceasefire would not have stopped a single bomb from being dropped or a single rocket from being fired, but the whole of Britain was outraged by what they saw on television and there are times when government must consider public opinion."
We are in familiar territory here: the Defense Committee's ruminations on how to manipulate the public's "emotional attachment" to the outside world resonates in this discussion, because that is all the above discussion is about: PR. There is no "admission" that the policy of blocking a ceasefire was wrong, because there is no acknowledgment that this was the policy. Britain blocked a ceasefire demand at the EU, and teamed up with Bush to block a ceasefire call at the UN. Oh yeah: "We gave the impression we were against the ceasefire". Yes, by openly opposing the ceasefire, by blocking the attempt to force one, you definitely gave that impression.
Every single time the government does something atrocious to the general amazed disgust of the public, they turn round and tell us that they didn't explain themselves very well. No: you explained yourselves perfectly well. We understood. And soon you will see the results of that understanding.
The government's nervous 'concessions' over Lebanon are part of the ongoing crisis: they are still panicking about what awaits them at the next local elections. Blair is worried about having to go at his lowest ebb. He and his clique are staving off a miniature revolt by party activists. Labour's chief whip is trying to ensure Claire Short's expulsion, a desperate measure that will probably give the Greens their first MP if it is successful.
Out of all this ferment is coming some rather unsightly froth: Nick Cohen has finally come out as a (faintly critical) Blairite; Jack Straw has mentioned the s-word and is trying to revive Tony Crosland; as is Roy Hattersley; Alan Milburn is making his pitch for the leadership by offering neoliberalism as egalitarianism. What all of this froth has in common is a curious, sometimes tacit, admission: New Labour isn't that new. The policies are certainly reactionary, inegalitarian and authoritarian, but this is not entirely incongruent with the legacy of the Old Labour right. Of course, the focus of Cohen, Hattersley et al is on an intellectual legacy, but in fact they miss the point: Labour doesn't have much of an intellectual legacy to speak of: it has always been characterised by 'pragmatism', an absolute paucity of real ideas, It is easy enough to say that Old Labour would never have gone this far or broken that taboo or been so hideous, but the fact is that Labour's policies have been determined by its status as (in Lenin's formulation) a "capitalist workers' party". The strength of the working class and the condition of capitalism has determined its capacity to deliver reforms. With strong unions and a reasonably robust capitalism, you got the postwar settlement. With capitalist crisis, stagflation and tumbling profits, you got spending cuts, roll-backs, strike-breaking, union-busting, privatisation and a 'return' to 'values' every few months or so. And now with the labour movement recovering but nowhere near its past strength, and with capitalism more threatened by its internal crises than it is by challenges from below, you get Blairism. If there is a real break at all, it is in Blair's Whiggish confidence that the whole idea of independent representation for the working class was a mistake and that there should be a renewed liberal hegemony. Aside from that, the 'ideas' of Labour have usually been the circumstantial by-product of contemporaneous struggles and bureaucratic maneouvering, as they are today.
Crosland's sole importance is that he was one of the few postwar figures to say that the distribution of power in society was not an obstacle to socialist advance. Strachey aptly retorted that if socialists lost sight of social ownership of the means of production, they would "subside into the role of well-intentioned amiable, rootless, drifting social reformers". That was 50 years ago, almost to the day, and it was published in the New Statesman. This week's New Statesman features a column from Jack Straw, an interview with David Miliband, opinion from Patricia Hewitt and Nick Cohen, a main article about shopping mania and a reader quiz that offers the chance to win John Pilger DVDs with champagne.