Friday, 30 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 30 2004

OK, I’d heard the rumours that Tony Blair was toying with the idea of doing a U-turn on the European constitution. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have written my incisive column of a month ago (click here), which ran under the headline “We don’t need a referendum” (an accurate summary of its content).

Well, actually, it was so incisive that no one noticed — not even one of Tribune’s gaggle of geriatric Europhobe letter-writers. As for the government, the weekend before last our great leader announced that, contrary to previous declarations, the European constitution would be put to a plebiscite (or perhaps even two if the first one doesn’t turn out right).

As Private Eye’s caricature of Harold Pinter might put it: the bastard! But I’m not taking this personally. Really. Like most pro-European members of the cabinet, I’m angry because Blair’s decision was a shameless sop to the anti-European press, a surrender to the opportunist populism on Europe of Jack Straw and Gordon Brown — and totally unnecessary. It would have been completely legitimate to leave the endorsement (or otherwise) of the constitution entirely to parliament, and to do so would have saved us all from a truly gruesome fate.

Unless some other country rejects the constitution before we’ve voted (which is by no means impossible), we now face the prospect of at least 18 months and perhaps two years in which British politics will be dominated by a tedious debate about a document that will be read by hardly anyone and will make barely any difference to our everyday lives.

The “no” camp will trot out its familiar (and mendacious) claim that the constitution means an end to civilisation as we know it, a Brussels super-state swamping our dearly beloved democracy. The “yes” camp will counter with the equally well-rehearsed line that the constitution is mainly a means of streamlining the European Union as it expands eastwards that will do nothing to undermine national sovereignty. (This point happens to be true — but it is also about as inspiring as the paper clips sitting on my desk as I write this).

It will all be balls-achingly boring, an immense turn-off to an already pretty much turned-off electorate. If and when the vote takes place, plenty of people will vote “no” just to have a go at the government or because they think a “no” vote would be a way of getting rid of Blair. Hardly anyone who votes “yes” will do so out of enthusiasm for the constitution: I have yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s anything but an intergovernmentalist carve-up that does little to give the EU’s institutions the democratic legitimacy they need and is thus at best a stop gap. Rather, the motivation of “yes” voters will be simply that the “no” camp consists of the Tories, the BNP and the most ghastly elements of the brain-dead hard left.

And all for what? Well, if Britain were to vote “yes”, Blair would be able to claim a famous victory against the Europhobic press. That would, I suppose, be a good thing for democracy, though I don’t for a moment believe it would make the Sun or the Mail see the error of their ways and embrace all things European.

On the other hand, if, as is more likely, Britain were to vote “no”, the effect would be to give a massive boost to the xenophobia and parochialism that have blighted Britain’s relationship with Europe since the 1940s, effectively ruling out for the long term the possibility of Britain joining the euro or of otherwise playing a full part in the European project.

No one but the Tories could possibly benefit from such a disastrous outcome, and simply by risking it, Blair has been almost incredibly irresponsible. What on earth was going through his mind when he made his decision?

* * *

Almost as mystifying as Blair’s about-turn on the European constitution is the decision of the British National Party to invite Jean-Marie Le Pen to Britain this week to launch its campaign for June’s European Parliament elections.

Le Pen is undoubtedly the face of the contemporary continental far-Right most familiar in Britain. But that’s precisely the problem with him.

Far from reassuring voters that the BNP is now respectable — which was presumably the point of its parading him at a press conference in Cheshire then taking him to a rally near Welshpool — the appearance of the fat French fascist with Nick Griffin, the BNP leader who looks the epitome of an oily spiv, has served only to show that the BNP keeps some extremely unpleasant company.

Saturday, 17 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 23 2004

It's rare that I read a book and find myself in a mounting and increasingly uncontrollable rage. In fact, I can’t remember the last time it happened before last Wednesday.

But last week I was reading Scott Lucas’s new diatribe against George Orwell and the contemporary left-wing writers who supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century — and by the time I’d got two chapters into it my blood was boiling.

Lucas is an American academic, the professor of American and Canadian studies at the University of Birmingham, and a contributor to the New Statesman. Last year, he published a slim tome on Orwell, which rehashed the familiar and mendacious old Stalinist line that Orwell was not a real socialist (see Ian Williams's Tribune review here). He spiced up his argument with a denunciation of Orwell for handing over a list of communist fellow-travellers to a Foreign Office propaganda unit — in Lucas’s eyes an unforgivable act of treachery, even though Orwell was doing no more than advising a Labour government not to waste its time commissioning Stalinist apologists to write propaganda pamphlets against communism.

The Betrayal of Dissent picks up where the Orwell book left off. It starts by arguing that Orwell was a “policeman of the left”— mainly because of the list but also because he was rather rude in print about people with whom he disagreed. It then goes on to argue that several polemicists who have argued from a left or liberal position in support of military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq — in particular Christopher Hitchens, but also Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Johann Hari and various Americans who are less familiar this side of the pond — have taken the same role in stifling discussion of the rights and wrongs of the “war on terror”.

Now, I don’t agree with everything Hitchens, Cohen, Aaronovitch et al have written since 9/11. I was a reluctant rather than gung-ho supporter of the toppling of the Taliban by force, and I opposed the invasion of Iraq (though once it started I argued that the best thing would be for it to be successful and quick, and I believe that now the priority is to do everything in our power to ensure Iraq becomes a stable, civilised democracy, which means I am against an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces). The tone of the pro-war left — particularly of Hitchens and Aaronovitch — has often been intemperate and hectoring.

But I simply don’t recognise the picture Lucas paints as even a vague approximation of reality. Even if one accepts that Orwell handing over his list to the FO was “policing the left” (and I don’t, because it had absolutely no effect on the ability of the fellow-travellers he named to get their opinions into the public sphere) there is no evidence at all that the writers Lucas identifies as “policemen of the left” today have even gone so far as to advise that their opponents should not be published by government agencies, let alone that they have successfully stifled debate.

Indeed, even the most cursory reading of the left and liberal press in Britain and the US shows that proponents of an anti-interventionist position have at very least had a fair crack of the whip and in some cases — the Guardian and Independent are obvious examples — have dominated not only the comment pages but also reportage. Sure, there have been bloody great rows since 9/11 about just about every aspect of US policy, but knockabout argument is the stuff of democratic politics. Vigorous disagreement with your opponents is not the same thing as suppressing their views.

So what exactly is Lucas’s beef? In the end, I think, it comes down to a visceral antipathy, common to many on the left, to anyone who questions the notion that “the system” — the military-industrial complex, capitalism, imperialism, statism, call it what you will — can do nothing but wrong.

In this worldview, it is axiomatic that US intervention cannot be right, that all opposition to US imperialism is justified, that the mass media are mere propagandist tools of the ruling class — and that anyone who disagrees with these propositions can only be an agent of reaction.

Of course, political life would be much simpler if things were really like this. But they are not, and pretending they are is not only deluded but dangerous for the left. The notion that only unyielding total opposition to “the system” counts for anything is a recipe for an all-or-nothing oppositional left politics that can end only in defeat and disillusion.

The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century by Scott Lucas is published by Pluto Press. For more on Lucas, see Norman Geras's blog here and follow the links. And for a brilliant humorous take on the general argument I'm making, see Geras's post here.

Friday, 2 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 2 2004

At first sight, nothing could be more democratic than a referendum. Referendums involve people deciding on things directly by simple majority, without the mediation of politicians or political parties. What could be more democratic?

But it’s not quite as simple as that. When one side in a referendum campaign has a lot more power, money and access to the media than the other, when voters are ignorant or apathetic about the issue being decided and when the vote takes place in an atmosphere of political hysteria, a referendum is anything but an exercise in democracy: it is no more than a means of guaranteeing that the rich and powerful and their hired demagogues and propagandists get their way.

And a referendum on the (still not finalised) European Union constitution, as demanded by Michael Howard and a cabal of Europhobic useful idiots in the Labour Party this week, would be a textbook case of such a travesty.

Just think about it. Hardly anyone in Britain has read even a summary of the draft constitution, let alone the whole document. A massive majority of people is completely clueless about what it contains. And this fog of ignorance would not clear during a referendum campaign. Most people simply couldn’t care enough about the European Union’s institutional arrangements to get clued-up.

And then there’s the press. The majority of the people might not give a damn about the constitution, but the press is overwhelmingly antipathetic to it. Of the national newspapers, the Murdoch, Mail, Express and Telegraph titles are all virulently anti-European and are already campaigning relentlessly for its rejection on crude xenophobic grounds, regardless of the consequences.

Against them would be the government, already unpopular and distrusted, backed up half-heartedly by the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent titles and the Mirror and its Sunday sister papers (if they could find space among the celebrity tittle-tattle) — none of them able to come up with a better case for the proposed settlement than the truthful but desperately unexciting argument that it’s not as bad as its detractors make out and a lot better than nothing, because nothing would mean the EU grinding to a halt.

In the circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate for the government to resist calls for the constitution to be put to a referendum.

The EU needs a political structure that works after enlargement, and it would be utterly irresponsible to endanger it by putting it at the mercy of a contest that would almost certainly be won by the populist propaganda of the Eurosceptic press. The argument that the government has denied the people a choice is easily answered: if the people care that much, they can always turf Labour out at the next general election.

Referendums are a fine means of deciding things that don’t really matter — whether Hartlepool has an elected mayor or whether smoking is banned in Norwich pubs — but for anything important we should rely on good old-fashioned representative democracy. Plebiscites are the refuge of populist charlatans.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I’m afraid I can’t resist taking issue with the editor of this great organ, Mark Seddon, who argued in the Guardian on Monday that Tony Blair should come out in favour of John Kerry’s candidacy in this year’s US presidential election.

It’s not that I don’t want Kerry to win — I do, for lots of reasons, although I don’t think he’s any sort of panacea. It’s just that I don’t think it would be wise for Blair to declare a preference in the outcome of the contest.

Blair is going to have to work with the US administration whoever wins, and there is no sense at all in making an enemy of either candidate. The race between Kerry and George W Bush looks likely to be very close. According to the latest polls, Kerry is marginally ahead, but with six months of vitriolic campaigning still to come the result is impossible to predict. To cap it all, an expression of preference by Blair would have no effect at all on American public opinion. Blair is respected in America for his expression of solidarity in the wake of 9/11 and his support for the US over Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Iraq) but he is not someone Americans look to for guidance in the polling booth.

Of course, Blair’s closeness to Bush in the past three years is a big issue in the UK, particularly among opponents of the Iraq war. But that is not a good reason to insist that he makes a complete chump of himself.