Tuesday, October 24, 2006

 

Sion Simon on New Labour

Sion Simon, Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington, contributed a charming little essay to last month's edition of Prospect (which I'm only just getting around to reading). It's about New Labour, which he sees as being roooted firmly in Old Labour; although it's very pleasant to read, it is every bit as lacking in insight as Mr Simon himself was when I watched him debate in the Oxford Union two years ago. But an interesting point arises nevertheless, which really encapsulates precisely what it is that I dislike about British politics. (Read his article here.)

Amidst much soppy sentimentality, Simon makes two main points. The first is that Labour is all about "justice, equality and prosperity", and that this characteristic is fundamentally continuous between Old and New Labour. As he puts it, in an anecdote that has clearly gotten a lot of mileage, "if one old lady gets one hot dinner she wouldn't otherwise have had under Labour, and that was the best we could do, then it was worth it." Labour is the caring party; the Tories, on the other hand, stand for Bad Things. "You can't just bolt kindness, fairness and reform to a party whose core values are status quo, untrammelled markets, small state, low tax, nation state, church, monarchy, land."

Simon is, clearly, partisan, and can thus be expected to say such things about his newly resurgent opponents. It is the second point that is the irritating one. As well as saying that New Labour is still the same (good) thing as Old Labour, he also makes the point - defensively - that it's the same sort of people who're now in charge. Sensitive to charges that Labour was taken over by a southern, middle class mafia (an Islington coup), he does his very best to rebut them. "Yes, Blair himself and some of his friends were a bit middle class. And over the years he's had a few posh boys around him. So did Attlee and Wilson, so does everybody. It's in the nature of middle-class posh boys that they crop up where the power and the glory are. Blair also had his quotient of clever grammar school types, and plenty of "normal" people from bog-standard backgrounds too. Look at Blair's three Downing Street political directors (titles have changed): Sally Morgan, Pat McFadden, Ruth Turner, none of them southern, none posh; or his two chief spin doctors: Alastair Campbell and David Hill, neither of them southern, neither posh."

Why is this irritating? Because Simon is inextricably linking politics to class. Labour is the only good party, and one of the reasons that it's the only good party is that it is run by good, solid, working class types. "Middle class posh boys" are treated with contempt as opportunistic; the rich (all presumably Tories) are clearly bad beyond redemption. New Labour is thus, implicitly, not a good thing purely because of the ideas that it presents; the ideas themselves are not sufficient. Politics is not just about a clash of ideas; it is about a clash of social classes.

David Goodhart, Prospect's editor, sees straight through this, and softly condemns Simon's stance as "workerist" (whatever that means), asserting somewhat cynically that class-based politics is a thing of the past, with modern political cleavages in the UK based around "faction and personality". With all due respect to Mr Goodhart, who is one of the very few figures in modern British journalism worthy of admiration, this is a nonsense; politics may seem to be dominated by petty squabbles only because there has not been a credible alternative to Blairite Labour for quite some time. When the debate is between the sensible people in the centre and the loons to the left and right, serious politics might indeed take on the appearance of petty farce, but the underlying cleavages are still there, and one of them is, indeed, class. I'm not certain that I could ever join the Labour party. For all that I agree with Mr Blair and his policies, I rather doubt that a "middle-class posh boy" like myself could ever be taken seriously there.

This division of British politics along class lines is implicit but clearly still present; Mr Simon may be an exemplar of a fading breed of ideological politician, but he's not the only one who thinks along the lines identified. Such a mode of thought is antiquated and irritating. One does not have to be working class to care about social justice, which is how east coast aristocrats like John Kerry and Howard Dean (and the Kennedys) can make their ways to the top of the Democratic party. Politics is at its best when it's a battle of ideas, not of interest groups. Mr Simon has stumbled his way into putting his finger on the precise reason why British politics is so tiresome and American politics so inspiring.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

 

Russia (cont'd)

A Finnish friend contacts me last week, clearly somewhat shaken. The reason? A brave, independent journalist has just been shot in Russia. The murder of Anna Politovskaya, although not generally thought to have been directly instigated by the Kremlin, is nevertheless an extremely bad sign.

Back in May, I posted on here about the similarities between modern Russia and Weimar Germany, and it seems that I'm not the only one who's been making the link, as this Economist article shows. Intelligent observers, such as the Economist's excellently well-informed Edward Lucas, are getting truly worried.

And so they should. One of the key points of my May comparison was that the Soviet Union's collapse has left a hugely powerful, resentful Russia surrounded by tiny states with sizeable, discontented "Russian" minorities. Since then, Russia has presided over a farcical referendum in the breakaway Moldovan mafia-run statelet of Transdniestria which resulted in a near-unanimous wish to hem closer to Russia, and, more sinisterly, a growing rift between determinedly pro-Western Georgia and Russia over two Russian-occupied slices of Georgian territory that the Georgians very much want back.

But while my previous post ended on the "optimistic" note that nuclear deterrence should prevent the outbreak of a new world war, the lack of any viable options to genuinely punish North Korea for its nuclear test shows a downside to deterrence. There is nothing that outside powers can do when nuclear-armed states mistreat their people. The war was not the only tragedy of Nazism, and Russian xenophobia, paranoia, and unhindered official harassment of unfavoured minorities point to greater dangers yet to come.

On a slightly different note, I have just started work. Blogging will be severely curtailed until I've found out what the company policy on personal blogs is - apologies to the loyal readers who've persevered beyond the big gaps in the summer.

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