Notes on the News
by Gwydion M. Williams
The Iraqis called it ‘Operation Monica’, it is damned obvious it was, and done clumsily too. One might also call it Desert Cigar, or the War of Monica’s Mouth.
[This was the Monica Lewinsky scandal, her relationship with President Clinton, now largely forgotten]
Politicians need to avoid the appearance of evil, just as much as the reality. Even if the timing were just coincidence, they should have seen how it would be taken.
Besides, what is the massive peril from one of the world’s smaller nations, a population of 20 million and seriously divided between rival ethnic group and rival understandings of Islam? Why is Iraq more dangerous than Syria? Or lots of other places, many of which probably now have nuclear weapons bought from the arsenal of the former Soviet Union.
Saddam runs a repressive regime – but what is it repressing? The Anglo tradition was highly repressive for many centuries, until people adapted to it and then reproduced its patterns automatically. Other peoples can be processed in the same way, if that’s what you want, and one in Iraq is likely to do it better than Saddam. Which is the problem with British and American attempts to get rid of Saddam, his people are also their kind of people on most issues. His enemies, Kurds and Islamists and Leftists, are their enemies are can not be allowed to triumph.
To see the Iraqi opposition, let up suppose that Thatcher had set herself up as a dictator rather than letting the Tory Party vote her out. And that then some foreign government tried to sponsor a Liberation Front that was a friendly get-together of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, Salman Rushdie and a mixed bag of Muslim clerics, Arthur Scargill and Michael Heseltine, white racists and black-power enthusiasts. Finding unity might be a little difficult, yet they have probably more in common than the Iraqi lot.
Britain and America want to keep the web but throw away the spider. So far the spider has proved to be a master of web-work. And while I’ve never been admirer of Saddam, his survival in the face of Anglo-American abuse of International Law is definitely the lesser of two evils.
For the Anglo establishment, lying and deception and evasion are not some flaw in the system. They are the system. Only public opinion forces some virtue on a system that has none by its own rules They are as corporate group place themselves at the centre of the moral universe. They may say ‘God’, but their vision of God is totally narcissistic.
In some cases, particular people will also place themselves individual at the very core. This is a fortunate weakness that helps bring them to ridicule and contempt. Far more dangerous are those who can be genuinely moral and self-sacrificing within the narcissistic vision. Thankfully, there are not many of these left. Enoch Powell was the last substantial example, though some lesser examples are still to be found.
Denouncing ‘repression’ makes for good rhetoric. But when the results suits, it’s not ‘repressive’ but ‘progressive’. The difference is often hard to spot, but Anglo politics has no trouble finding that two highly similar modes of politics are really quite different. Even the same mode of politics can be redefined overnight. Iraq and the Baath Party were ‘progressive’ for as long as they defending the West against first Arab Communism and the Iran’s anti-Western version of hard-line Islam.
Nothing much was said publicly, but somewhere in the covert chambers of the Anglo establishment, a decision must have been taken that with the end of the Cold War, various former allies were now ‘surplus to requirements’. Ceaucescu in Romania was one example, and he was indeed neatly toppled. But not Saddam.
Done more openly, it could have managed. If they’d decided to ignore the legalistic double-talk and said they’d support a replacement within the same structure, provided Saddam went into exile. But as I said, lying and deception and evasion are not some flaw in the system. They are the system.
Third-world leaders must now have formed the impression now is that it’s safer to ignore US advice than to obey it, for it is either malicious or ignorant – often both.
Saddam must be privately celebrating the early Christmas present he’s just got. If Iraqis overthrow him under present circumstances, they have no self-respect. Maybe some of them don’t, certainly the Arabian subjects of the Saudi dynasty have been surprisingly docile so far. Still, experience in Indochina, Bosnia, Congo etc. suggest that it’s no safer to try to play the American game, not if you’re a Third World nation.
[I over-estimated the wisdom and common-sense of Western leaders. The 9/11 attack by Islamic extremists was used as an excuse to destroy the successful secularism of Iraq. No one seemed to realise that removing a repressive regime would lead to an upsurge of the things they had been suppressing.
[I was spot on when I compared the ‘United Opposition’ to “a friendly get-together of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley, Salman Rushdie and a mixed bag of Muslim clerics, Arthur Scargill and Michael Heseltine“. Naturally they failed to produce a coherent government, and power passed to pro-Iranian Shia Arabs.]
A nation that was founded by treason and rebellion, that grew by land-theft and genocide, that built itself on slavery and then on denying the slave-owners the rights of self-government that had been the justification for their revolt against Britain. And it’s got moral principles that have to be imposes on the rest of the world. Though no independent forum may ever judge the US. The key is to have judges who basically see it your way. Because the formal rules can mean anything or nothing.
America is also notable for the peculiar notion of sex that dominates its social life. Sex for selling goods is continuous and blatant, yet sex as such is unacceptable.
The real ideal seems to be pompous Puritans doing filthy things in secret places. And it cannot be said that Clinton departed from this ideal.
President Clinton’s basic crime is to be a successful Democratic candidate. A man who can cope better than the Republicans with the mix of commercial greed and decaying Puritanism
US constitutional law, on an official judicial view that broadcaster Alistaire Cooke is fond of quoting, that the constitution means whatever the judges say it means. It would be better to say, it means essentially nothing. Or that it is only given a meaning by custom and habit. By not relying directly on custom, habit and public opinion, as the British did, the US gave an undue weight to the selfish corporate interest of lawyers.
If having a few crooked friends is grounds for removal, then Mrs Thatcher should have gone long before she did. And so would most US politicians.
When legal gibberish is used to move in onto private life, takes an equally legalistic defence. Making an ultra-fine distinction between sexual activity and sexual relations is no crazier than much which is central to the system.
The logic of impeachment is to protect the democratic process. Nixon was protecting people whose tactics were dirty even by American standards. Kennedy did misrepresent himself, and had people known what he was doing he would not have been elected. But it was well known to the voters in both elections that Clinton was a vain philanderer. The Republicans are annoyed that he was preferred even so to the best of their own candidates. But that’s democracy.
Having talked about Britain at the heart of Europe, Blare chose to move to the peripheries by backing a war that has achieved nothing beyond killing some innocents and making Saddam look good again. Why? Thinking about it, I see two possible explanations.
One is that it was favour or payoff to the world’s only Superpower. A gesture of shared criminality, that means that both Democrats and Republicans are kept sweet, agreeable both to Euro and to Britain joining it.
The weakness of anti-European or ‘Atlanticist’ case is that the other side of the Atlantic does not want us. An alliance in which Britain could reasonably expect a fifth or sixth of the political power would not suit. For the USA is itself ceasing to be Atlanticist. Moving away from East-Cost WASP values that had retained a lot of British feeling. Moving in alien directions. And for the time, they see both Europe and China as allies, with alien values but better as friends than enemies.
In same spirit as a small business might make a payoff to their friendly neighbourhood gangster, so as to carry on free of fear, joining in with what America was maybe a wise move. In the unlikely event of Mr Blare seeking my advice, I might have said do just that.
Much more worrying possibility is he believes it was the right thing to do. If he can be that far wrong on such a major issue, who knows what he’ll do next?
One morning over the Christmas holiday, I heard Paddy Ashdown putting forward Gladstone as his nominee for BBC Radio 4’s British Personality of the Millennium competition.
It was interesting to learn that that Mr Ashdown has other concerns besides boosting Tony Blare. Then again, our present Prime Minister might be rated a man of the next millennium. (New Millennium, Same Leader?)
Ashdown favoured Gladstone, because he presided over the British Empire at height of its powers. Which I found odd, because a chief executive who leaves his organisation in a state of slow unavoidable decline would not normally be rated very highly.
Victorian Britons in general were Imperial spendthrifts who wasted the grand legacy of Georgian empire-building and industrial revolution. By letting the Irish starve in 1848, they threw away one of their biggest assets. A people who could have been a bridge to the wider world became a Fifth Column instead. And that was the moment when Gladstone chose to switch from Tory to Liberal, was a loyal supporter of a government that allowed market forces to massacre millions!
The error was still repairable in Gladstone’s time, and maybe had the right idea. But he did not achieve the result, which is what a politician is supposed to do, just as a cook is supposed to make food edible rather than just have nice ideas for how this might be done.
Gladstone pompously declared “my mission is to pacify Ireland”. Mission not accomplished.
One can always find excuses to explain away success or failure. From a Gladstonian-Liberal viewpoint, Georgian Britain rose and laid the foundations for Victorian greatness despite the determined interventionism of its rulers. Victorian Britain laid the foundations of 20th century decline despite its brilliantly correct commitment to Free Trade.
It was also the era that presided over the rise of Imperial Germany without either stopping it or accommodating it. One can always find excuses. But greatness should not need excuses.
Kipling’s phrase ‘half devil and half child’ would have applied better to the European explorers, pushing into the unknown, often getting themselves killed, but also making wonderful discovery. Never before had any one people been in touch with all of the world’s regions and all of its old cultures. Yet in more than 200 years of Imperial rule, the British ruling class were taught French, Latin and Greek, and perhaps Hebrew also. Only a few learned Hindu or other languages of the people they ruled.
The British Empire got pompous and silly in Gladstone’s day. India had been governed successfully for many years by a handful of Europeans, because the Hindu notion of life was of many different sorts of people, with different roles. They were quite ready to accept British as rulers, Warriors who were less important than Priests but still worthy.
What ruined Hindu loyalty was when they found in the High Imperial age, that they had been downgraded to animal status, with British as zoo-keepers. This happened before Gladstone, but he was part of it. Part of those who could not understand why ‘good government’ would not be acceptable on such terms.
The British Empire had the same problem with freed blacks before the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, finding that these well-treated individuals constantly got involved in slave rebellions. The fact is, people are much more likely to accept being inferior members of a superior group, that superior members of an inferior group,
Gladstone presided over a series of fatal wrong turns without doing anything sensible about it. And I assume that the same false attitude lurking at the back of the minds of Thatcher, Ashdown and now Blare and Clinton. White Man’s Burden. What else was The Economist Magazine thinking of, when they described the Gulf War as not costly in human lives?
The Victorian era was Britain’s time of greatest power, but based mainly on momentum from earlier more creative eras. It should have been seen the at least the older civilised centres would react.
Napoleon with view of China as “sleeping giant” was on the right lines.
As it happened, the finalists in that BBC competition were Cromwell and Churchill, along with Newton, Shakespeare and Caxton. Cromwell and Churchill were sensible choices, each of them did turn around a very uncertain war, with gigantic historic consequences. The others too are fair enough – except Caxton.
William Caxton – unlike Watt, Arkwright, George Stephenson, the two Brunels and a host of others, was not a significant innovator. He merely introduced in to England what he had learned in Cologne. One of many who copied Gutenberg’s invention of European printing, which was innovative even though it may have been inspired by earlier development in China and Korea.
Does the public mind still have no idea of who were the significant achievers?
[I later learned that Arkwright was mostly a stealer of other people’s ideas.]
Having apparently stalemated Labour on the reform of the Lords, William Hague found himself outfoxed by Lord Craborne. Not so odd really – Hague looks like part of the Tory decline, while Lord Craborne is a Cecil. The current representative of a Welsh family who came up with the Tudors, and lasted rather better.
Never trust a Cecil, indeed. But do not take a Cecil lightly either. The deal he fixed up was a sensible defence of tradition. 91 hereditary peers, 42 of them Tories, reasonable balance in a house with a majority of Life Peers. Whereas 759 hereditary peers as an inert right-wing mass was another matter and not defensible.
Nothing is more permanent than a temporary arrangement. Though the heritage of the past had too much power with 759 hereditary peers, I see no harm in having a few among all of the Industrialists, Technocrats and Neurocrats
It is said of Hague, that there is now no doubt he is leader. Indeed not. But what is he leading? Is it any more competent that Hitler’s final very decisive leadership of the Third Reich?
Tory traditions had always been broad. They included a popular traditional-minded protest against ruling class abuses. And Tories in the 19th century did pass factory legislation and variously protect the new working class against the mainly-Liberal industrial middle class. And it was also once a British tradition, with substantial Scottish politicians making up a fair fraction of the cabinet.
But all of that is long dead
Thatcher narrowed Toryism down to England. Now Hague as an over-age Young Turk is going further, and one could see a further massive reduction of the Tory tradition. Hague should be vaguer if he wants to lead a party of government. He seems to be thinking that everyone else will be so bad that people will turn to him, much as the Labour Left once did.
Hague has managed to position the party as a niche for people who despise the past, hate the present and fear the future. And only if they’re also English, or wish to pass as English.
Those who would govern should recognise that their own social impulses are English (or whatever) and that other people have legitimately different views. In particular, Scots are determined to remain Scots and no longer feel at home in the Tory Party.
The New Right suppose that carefully constructed social forms are ‘common sense’ that appear naturally. They cannot therefore cope with the diversity of actual life. Just assert their own values and expect other people to get into line.
There is a fault in reality. Please do not adjust your mind.
[This was written before Scottish Nationalism got so big. At the time of the 2014 independence referendum, people had to be reminded that Tories used to be Scotland‘s biggest party, despite the greater impression made by radical areas like Glasgow.]