Tuesday, August 29, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore is a recovering politician. It’s a joke he must made a thousand time since he lost the 2000 US Presidential election, and I heard him crack it three times in Edinburgh this week alone. Politicians at this level have to develop a capacity to repeat themselves almost indefinitely without getting bored by the sound of their own voice.
Gore has been repeating himself on the threat of climate change for thirty years and many of his critics say he has bored for the world. But it’s beyond a joke now. This deeply serious politician, one of the most intelligent and persuasive I have ever met, has dedicated the remainder of his political career to repeating an argument he has been consistently making since he entered Congress in 1976. Namely, that man-made climate change poses the most serious challenge to mankind since the last Ice Age ten thousand years ago.
So, what’s new you say? Heard it all before a thousand times. What more is there to be said? Well, that was my attitude before I saw Al Gore’s film “ An Inconvenient Truth” and had the opportunity to question him about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Indeed, I had rather suspected that Gore’s climate change offensive might merely be a convenient platform on which to launch a Presidential campaign for 2008. But his film convinced me otherwise.
“An Inconvenient Truth” could become the most influential documentary in history. It is already the third largest grossing documentary of all time. All the more surprising then that it isn’t really a film at all, but a lecture - an illustrated talk. A summation of the state of scientific knowledge on climate change and our role in it. This is not just another polemic about man’s destruction of the planet. The very sobriety of its delivery is what makes it sensational.
And it poses this question: How is it that there can be an historic consensus among the world’s scientists about the nature of the problem, and yet such resistance to it by the US political establishment - both Democrat and Republican? Why isn’t this the paramount issue not just of this forthcoming Presidential election campaign, but of the last one and the one before that?
. The National Academies of Science of all the industrialised countries, including India and China, all agree that we are changing the climate in a potentially catastrophic manner. The United Nations Climate Change Panel is unanimous as are US Nobel Prize in all relevant fields. A random survey by the University of California at San Diego of all peer-reviewed scientific papers on climate change published in scientific journals over the last decade discovered there is simply no significant disagreement with the fundamental science.
Of course, it’s the same in Britain. Yet here we are, continuing to pursue policies which pump ever greater amounts of C02 into the environment, through wasteful industrial processes, poor insulation and transport policies which favour the car and the plane Yesterday, it was reported in the Times that the government’s chief transport adviser, Sir Rod Eddington, is to reject a new fast rail line between Glasgow and London on grounds of cost. Cost to the planet clearly didn’t enter into his calculations Both the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail have argued that the British rail network is already at capacity and cannot meet the existing demand, let alone future growth.
So, why is this? The answer most people give is the dominance of corporate interests in the corridors of power. Sir Rod is, surprise surprise, a former chief of British Airways. Certainly, the influence of the oil lobby in the US Republican Party is a major cause of the failure of the Bush administration to recognise the seriousness of the problem, or even recognise its existence.
However, private companies aren’t stupid. They have scientists who advise them on the state of the planet and many of them realise that their own bottom line is in danger if climate change isn’t addressed. In June, 14 of the UK’s largest firms, including Shell, Tesco, B&Q and Standard Chartered Bank, lobbied Downing St to demand tougher action on greenhouse emissions. Wall Mart has unilaterally introduced a zero emissions policy. Even the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, we hear, has been persuaded.
And still nothing happens. Except that he British government casually admits that we have failed to meet out climate change targets set after Kyoto. America never had any, and the growth economies of the world, China and India, with a third of the world’s population, have embarked upon industrial booms which, if unchecked, will quintuple the current unsustainable levels of C0z in the atmosphere within a generation.
It’s not as if we don’t have alternatives to fossil fuels - they’re all around us, in the wind, tides, solar rays. “An Inconvenient Truth” is actually a very positive film which argues that even with existing technologies we could reduce CO2 emissions to 1970 levels within about 20 years - and boost the world economy doing it.
Al Gore blames the frogs. If you boil them slowly enough, frogs don’t notice they are being cooked until it’s too late, and that he thinks is what is happening to humanity. We need shocks to bring it home. But while I don’t disagree with that, I feel there is more to it. After all, it is only a year since Hurricane Katrina showed the devastating impact of warming oceans when it destroyed half of old New Orleans. Look at the pictures of disappearing glaciers, heat waves in Europe and England, and the evidence of drought and desertification across Africa and the Middle East.
It’s at this stage that you start to wonder if there is some kind of death wish gripping humanity, so wilful is the resistance to doing something about this extinction level event. It defies logic, reason. Al Gore concedes is that rationality - or rather a failure of it - is the heart of this problem. We literally have stopped thinking straight.
Half a century of political spin, anti-science quackery, religious and spiritual fads and declining standards in schools have undermined the status of the scienctific view of the world. People have started believing in anything. In America, creationism is taught in schools as being ‘equally valid’ as evolution. Look at our celebrity culture, where obscure pop singers are given more prominence in obituary columns than leading scientists.
This is taking us a long way from the practical issue of what to do about climate change, into what are issues of epistemology and ethics. But I make no apologies for that. Some things are too serious to simplify, even if there is no space here to explore the complexity.
But here's one simple thought: you simply have to see this film. Everyone has to. And Al Gore had better not get himself assassinated.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Edinburgh Festival Must be Saved from Edinburgh

The Naked City - How the Edinburgh Festival is too important to be left to Edinburgh.

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The Edinburgh Festival Theatre on Nicholson St. has been around in one form or another since 1830. It’s auditorium is an exotic collision of art nouveaux and neo-classicism. Colin Ross’s bold glass exterior, added in 1994, turns the theatre into an event in itself, revealing the crowds swimming around inside like exotic fish in a giant tank.
When it is illuminated, that is. But this year, every time I have passed the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on my way to shows at the Edinburgh Festival, it has been dark. The lights seem have gone out. There have been performances there - seven of them - but you really wouldn’t know there was a festival going on at all.
It’s the same across Edinburgh. We’re always told that this is the biggest arts festival in the world - but Edinburgh goes to remarkable lengths to conceal it. The Ross Bandstand in Princess St. Gardens is dead and sad despite the best summer weather Edinburgh has enjoyed in years. Princess St is decked out as usual by cheap shops and sale signs. There are no flags, no celebrations, nothing to remind you that - right here, right now - you are in the greatest concentration of cultural capital on the planet.
They have a name for this kind of civic salesmanship in the marketing world. It’s called “dressing the city”. Well if so, Edinburgh should be called the naked city - it certainly hasn’t put its glad rags on. Even the Royal Mile, which used to be a mayhem of street theatre seems constrained to a confined pedestrianised space. Indeed, were it not for the Military Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade, which booms and bangs every night, you could be in any provincial city at the end of the holiday season.
The lack of any obvious sense celebration of the Edinburgh Festivals - or even recognition of their existence - is an acute frustration for the Fringe venue producers, who mount the vast majority of the shows running in Edinburgh in August. These are the arts-entrepreneurs like Bill Burdett-Coutts, of the longest-established independent venue, the Assembly Rooms; Ed Bartlam, of the upstart Underbelly; Julian Caddy of Sweet, the newest and smallest of the venues. They all tell the same story: Edinburgh is complacent, apathetic, ignorant of the value of its Festival.
The City doesn’t support it with adequate infrastructure, transport or promotion, despite increasing the cost of theatre licences this year by 300%. The arts Establishment in Edinburgh, I’m told, is riddled with amateurism and complacency, and sometimes behaves as if the Festival is its own private club, which they would really rather not spoil by letting new members in the door. As for the Scottish Executive and Holyrood - they might as well be on a different planet.
Granted, the Fringe venue producers aren’t the only “stake holders” in the Edinburgh Festivals, and they aren’t above criticism themselves. They have been steadily allowing ticket prices to rise year on year, and the venues take in around seventy five million pounds in the space of three weeks. Organisations like the Pleasance are big commercial enterprises, with rich backers, who perhaps could be recycling a little more revenue into promoting themselves.
Last week, they formed a new association of independent venue producers to get theri act together. But the big four - Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance, Assembly Rooms and Underbelly - have been responsible for the phenomenal growth of the Festival in recent years and they really have to be listened to. Anyway, you only have to look around Edinburgh to see what they mean. It’s like being at a party where there is no host, and where the guests are left to amble around looking for the action until they get bored.
Now, I grew up in Edinburgh and one of the main reasons I wanted to return in 1999 was the Edinburgh Festival, which still has no parallel anywhere, and remains one of the cultural wonders of the world. But I am increasingly perplexed at the crazy way this unique cultural asset is being managed. Something is missing; it is slipping away.
You feel that Edinburgh is like an over-inflated balloon, puffed up by its own pretensions, and about to be pricked by sharp newcomers from the North of England, like Manchester and Liverpool. Festivals who want a piece of Edinburgh’s cultural action and know exactly how to go about it. The Manchester International Festival has offered the outgoing director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Brian McMaster, a place on its board.
Edinburgh is awash with statistics at this time of year. But here’s the important one: Liverpool is spending more promoting its “spend a day in Liverpool” campaign than the entire annual promotion budget of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Some other numbers: Taking all the Festivals together (film, fringe, official, jazz etc..) there were 2.4 million attendances in Edinburgh in 2004. This year, there could be around three million bums on Edinburgh seats. That’s a colossal attendance, matched only by events like the Olympic Games - and it is every single year. Yet who outside the arts promotion world actually knows this, let alone appreciates its significance? Precious few in Edinburgh, let alone Glasgow or London.
More numbers: London is spending pounds12 billion on the 2012 Olympics. The Scottish Executive is prepared to spend at least pounds 200 million on the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But the Edinburgh Fringe, the Olympics of the arts world, selling 1.4 million tickets, gets a grand total of - wait for it = pounds 64,000. That is simply absurd. It is an act of cultural self-mutilation.
It sometimes appears as if city is actually embarrassed by its Festivals. That like its celebrated absence of knickers, Edinburgh would prefer to conceal them behind a genteel exterior. The bulk of the Fringe is hidden in in subterranean caves in the Cowgate, in the sandstone fortress of the Pleasance, or behind the concrete blocks of Edinburgh University.
This absence of celebration would be more understandable if the people of Edinburgh were hostile to the arts community that descend on the city to pay their inflated rents, but they aren’t. Incredibly, the majority of tickets for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe - around six hundred thousand of them - are sold in Scotland, predominantly around Edinburgh and the Lothians. The days when Edinburgh folk grumbled about there being “nothing for us” in the Festival are long gone. Imaginative promotions, like the two-for-one deals have created a huge domestic market.
However, this is a mixed blessing. The big venue promoters all complain that the Edinburgh Festival is in danger of becoming parochial. It is not attracting the punters from London and beyond that it needs if it is to maintain its pre-eminent world status. The performers still come, but the metropolitan critics are losing interest, and if they stop coming, so will the acts.
The Independent commentator, and playwright, Johan Hari, says that “if you can’t afford a ticket to the world, a ticket to Edinburgh is the next best thing”. Perhaps - but the world isn’t coming back. And the newer generation is going taking its tickets elsewhere. The Edinburgh Festival is becoming middle aged. Even at the youngest and most lively mega-venue, the Underbelly, the majority of tickets are bought by people over forty years of age.
There is a lot of slack too. This year, the Fringe venues say that they are only filling, on average, around fifty percent of their seats. Many come, but more are needed. The writing is on the wall, and it says: “Thundering Hooves”. That’s the title of a report published in May, part-sponsored by Edinburgh City Council, which warned in the starkest terms that the Edinburgh Festival’s days could be numbered, This is because of the number of rival arts festivals galloping behind. But if so - and nobody disputed the report’s findings - why is Edinburgh lying back and waiting to be trampled?
It’s easy to attack Edinburgh City Council - and in many ways that is unfair. The council is no longer filled with prudes and philistines complaining about nudity and bad language. Councillors nowadays are right behind the Festival - as they should be given the hundred and twenty million it generates for the local economy - and say they are prepared to put a million pounds into keeping Edinburgh ahead of the race.
But the municipal commitment is belied by unbelievable acts of bureaucratic pettiness. Example: There have been repeated appeals this year to the city authorities to make space available for a camp site so that people who can’t afford to blow #500 on a long weekend in the city can take part in the Festival. This might put Edinburgh on the UK festival circuit and open up a new market. Individual councillors I have spoken to believe it is an idea worth looking at, but the official line is that Edinburgh isn’t in the business of camp sites - except for one off events like the G8 last year, when it accommodated some fifteen thousand people around the Jack Kane Centre. But why not? Twice as many come to the Festival every year as came to G8.
The council has rejected the idea of a tent city on the Meadows, which is fair enough. It is a World Heritage Site. However, I simply cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of Edinburgh’s city fathers to organise a bit of green space. Similarly with transport. You can’t get back to Glasgow after half eleven, which makes attending late shows impossible for people who can’t afford the high prices of staying over. Why not special trains to take the pressure off accommodation and give Glasgow a stake in the Festival?
Indeed, why not go one step further and get the West of Scotland properly involved in the Edinburgh Festival? Too many people still believe that Edinburgh is only about orchestras and obscure foreign language dramas. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is challenging material at the Edinburgh International Festival, which which is as it should be, but there is a huge amount of highly accessible art like Ron Mueck’s incredible shrinking sculptures. Every comedian worth knowing about comes to Edinburgh. Plays like the sensational “Black Watch” by the new National Theatre of Scotland echo the epic productions staged in Glasgow in the 1980s by Bill Bryden, and match the production values of the West End of London at a fraction of the price.
The point is that the Edinburgh Festival is now too big for Edinburgh - it needs to be embraced by Scotland as a whole, both politically and economically. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is not like subsidised theatre. This is a consumer-led phenomenon, unique in the British arts sector, indeed in the world - 1,867 separate productions over 231 venues No one curates the Fringe, no one tells it what to do, which means you can get everything from “Puppetry of the Penis” to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” under the same roof. You get shows as diverse as the hip hop musical, “Into the Hoods” round the corner from “My Name is Rachel Corrie” - a sobering play about eath in Palestine.
What the Edinburgh Festival needs isn’t artisitc direction and it isn’t even really about money. It is a huge attraction requiring elementary infrastructure. What is required is essentially an information exercise - a project in mass communication. Everything is there, it just needs to be broadcast, to Scotland, Britain and the world. “T in the Park” is better promoted than the Edinburgh Festival, especially in Glasgow where the Festival is regarded as something for the Edinburgh cultural establishment
This isn’t just a tourist attraction, or an opportunity for student thespians to express themselves - it is a window into the way the world sees itself. Created sixty years ago as a means of reviving war-torn Europe through artistic endeavour, the Edinburgh Festival represents one of the great achievements of European civilisation. From the writers who flock to the Edinburgh Book Festival in Charlotte Square, to the stand up comedians in the Cowgate, all human life really is there. But it may not be for very much longer.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

On day in the life of the Underbelly

First find your belly. For the locationally-challenged, getting to a show at the Smirnoff Underbelly can be a test of endurance as well route-finding skills. There are twelve separate venues across seven city centre sites, all with similar-sounding names - Big Belly, Baby Belly, Belly Button, Belly Dancer, Delhi Belly etc.

It's eleven forty am and I'M trying to find “Netochka Nezavanova - Nameless Nobody”, a stage adaptation by Russkiya Notchi of a little-known and unfinished novel by Dostoevsky. This is surely the ultimate Fringe experience - a dark story of madness, death and violins performed in a dank cave on an Edinburgh morning.

It wasn’t bad either. The luminous Ukranian actress Vera Filatova is clearly a future star, though she doesn’t yet possess the range to carry off this demanding one-woman play. But she won the hearts of the Baby Belly audience - even the guy in the front row who fell asleep during the performance. (I asked him afterwards). Most of the audience seemed to have actually read the book. One had come back again to sketch Vera for a sculpture.

And so begins another day at the extraordinary Underbelly. Not so much theatre-going as pot-holing in the stone vaults under Edinburgh’s Bridges. Since it was established five years ago by two ex-Edinburgh University students, Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood, the Smirnoff Underbelly has grown into a two million pound subterranean culture factory. They mount seventy different productions here every day. Last year they sold over 100,000 tickets and this year they will sell twice that number.

You can’t argue with that - except of course you can. For critics, the Underbelly sums up how the Fringe has lost is way, become commercialised, entertainment-led, unadventurous and dominated by comedy. For me - I’m just astonished that it happens at all in dour old Edinburgh.

After lunch I go to a rare performance of “Flood”, by the German novelist, Gunter Grass. First performed in East Germany in 1957, its theme of denial in the face of catastrophe takes on a new resonance following Grass’s own denial about his own involvement with the SS. The retelling of Noah's Ark through the eyes of the rats also served as a rather clunky allegory for global warming.

But the performance was impressive, the pace urgent. So urgent indeed that the cast were dismantling the stage before the audience had entirely left the venue. They'd run into the slot assigned to “Krapp’s Last Tape” and Andrew Dallmeyer, the renowned Beckett actor, was in the gents making himself up – truly - next to punters like me queuing for a pee.

Where else would you find prominent thespians dressing in public toilets? Undressing perhaps – but not preparing for a performance. Or directors serving in the bar, which is where I found Allegra Galvin, of “Flood”. Underground, everyone is equal.

Booze is very big for the vodka-sponsored Underbelly where there are a dozen bars and everyone seems to go into shows with a glass in their hand - even at three in the afternoon. This year, Underbelly was concerned it might lose its license because of the smoking ban - not because of obstinate actors, but through English theatre-goers lighting up in ignorance. They needn’t have worried.

By now I'd taken in “Bloggers” a diverting trawl through look-at-me internet sites, and “Radio” a meditation on militarism and middle America by a wannabe astronaut. It took a little time to achieve lift off, but accomplished its mission.

Later, I emerge into daylight to speak to Ed and Charlie, the monsters of mirth, at their newest venue, a huge purple inflatable cow called “The Udderbelly”, which dominates Bristo Square in the heart of Edinburgh University. Looking less like culture capitalists than disheveled students, they talk wearily about the need for better marketing and infrastructure by the city authorities.

The Godfathers of the Edinburgh mega venues, Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded etc got together last week to bury their feuds and form a united front the Voice of the Independent Producers. About time too. The last thing they need is the council calling the shots.

Ed and Charlie want Edinburgh to become more like Glastonbury, complete with a tent city and a three-day festival pass, so that it can tap into the huge UK-wide market for music and mud. At present, according to credit card receipts, 70% of their punters come from Edinburgh and the Lothians – a figure I found staggering. Time was when Edinburgh folk wouldn’t touch the Festival, except to rob the actors through exorbitant rents.

Back in the steamy vaults I take in “Painters”, engaging physical theatre and slapstick but about as challenging as Norman Wisdom. Unlike the amazing Taylor Mac, who is a cross between Tom Lehrer and Leigh Bowery, but with a ukele. Not just another ‘performance artist, Mac really can sing and his songs were witty, sardonic and sad and laced with acute political commentary.

At eleven, Paul Provenza hosts a chat show with comics Demetri Martin and Jimmy Carr where they talk about the ethics of cracking jokes about rape. And my day in the underworld ends at Spank, a showcase for stand ups. I’m still laughing at three am, which must mean something.

All these shows were packed and rowdy and young. The theatre I saw was a little uneven (I deliberately avoided the well-reviewed big-name productions like Eric Bogosian’s “Talk Radio”) but it certainly wasn’t unadventurous. And at #7.50 – 8.50 a pop, represented good value.

Call me naïve, but I don’t see this kind of enterprise as any kind of threat to the spirit of the Fringe or to artistic standards. Nor is it “cultural colonialism” as one over-wrought figure described it last week. The Underbelly is surely a portal through which an entire generation can gain access to the arts - on its own terms. Roll on Glastonbelly.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The polls might actually be right.

It might seem easy to dismiss the latest Guardian/ICM opinion poll showing the Tories in contention to win the next general election. It’s deep summer, Blair’s away leaving “crap” John Prescott’s in charge, and we’ve just had a serious security scare. Hardly surprising, then, if the polls are all over the place.

Except that they aren’t. There has been a secular trend of Labour decline now for fully a year. And while it’s too soon to forecast a Tory victory, the opinion poll evidence of the last year shows Labour has lost it - at least in terms of an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons.

We really can’t ignore this. The Tories are at their highest in the polls for 19 years and we are living in a new political era. For the first time since the Black Wednesday debacle which destroyed the Tory government of John Major in 1992, there is now an established Conservative lead. And Labour are doing everything to maintain it, by presenting a divided front over issues like Lebanon and immigration.

David Cameron may have been having difficulties with some of the old guard in the Tory Party who think he should be tougher on tax and immigration and don’t particularly like the idea of having women candidates foisted upon them. But there’s no doubt that the Tory leader’s strategy is working. He has erased a lot of the reasons people didn’t vote Tory in the past - hostility to immigrants and homosexuals, public service cuts etc.. Labour used to call this “eliminating the negatives” in the 1990s and the Conservatives have shown they can do it too.

However, the modernisation of the political right isn’t all that’s going on. There are messages in the recent polls which should be profoundly worrying for Labour - and Gordon Brown in particular, since he stands to inherit the ruins of this government. Indeed, there is a very disturbing message for whichever party comes to power in Westminster.

In the ICM poll, only 1% of voters said they believe the government’s foreign policy has made Britain safer . One percent! That is a devastating commentary on the “war on terror” which Tony Blair has been fighting - with Brown and Cameron’s help - for the last five years. Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to make us feel more secure, not less. In times of international tension and terrorist attacks like last week’s abortive plane bombing, voters are supposed to rally behind the government of the day. It’s the Churchill effect. Not this time.

Moreover, only 20% of voters say they think the government is telling the truth about the threat, 26% suspect the government has exaggerated the danger to the public and 51 % think the government is not telling the full truth. This comes as dramatic confirmation of the rampant paranoia that I examined in this space last week and which has been been unleashed by the war on terror.

People clearly now regard this government as toxic to the body politic. This is could readily evolve into an “anyone-but-Labour” movement in the country, similar to the popular revolt against the Tories in 1997. In this state of mind, voters don’t really need to have huge expectations of David Cameron - they just need a credible alternative, an opposition party which seems to have learned some lessons, has made its peace with the modern world and that looks half competent.

The question is: what is Gordon Brown doing about all this? The Chancellor has disappeared from the face of political map while he is on paternity leave with his one month old son. Good for him. Shows he means it about restoring the work/life balance. But the troops are getting restive. “Gordon’s fiddling with nappies while Labour burns” as one Labourite put it. Apart from releasing the bank account details of the alleged plane bombers, the Chancellor has said nothing of substance since he made that string of commitments to keep Trident, build more nuclear power stations and press ahead with privatisation in the NHS.

Some unreconstructed modernisers evidently think that it’s safe to come out of the woodwork again, which is why the former industry secretary, Stephen Byers, made his call for the Chancellor to scrap inheritance tax relief this week. John Reid, the Home Secretary, has re-emerged as a possible leadership contender who is tough on crime, tough on terror and tough on immigration - well, tougher than Gordon anyway.

But the Chancellor is unmoved. Perhaps he believes that the challengers are so feeble, they’re not worth dignifying with a response. It has been left to Alastair Darling (surely now the Chancellor of the Exchequer-in-waiting) to slap down calls for tax cuts for the top 6% of home owners and remind people of the economic benefits to Britain of immigration from the EU.

The Chancellor would have no truck with Guardian liberals like Polly Toynbee who want to curb immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. In the Chancellor’s eyes, the 600,000 who have come from new accession states in the last two years are a measure of the success of the British economy. Their taxes easily pay for their limited welfare rights and they constitute no proven threat to wage levels of British workers. That’s according to the Treasury - though I suspect people working in the building trades, hotels and catering might disagree.

But the debate on immigration is not one the Chancellor has engaged with, and nor has he been doing anything obvious to counter David Cameron, or present a different front on Iraq. Presumably, Gordon Brown’s silence is designed to prevent at least some of the mud from the Middle East from sticking to him. So long as the Chancellor keeps silent about the Lebanon and the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the less he will be seen to be to blame for it.

But he can’t ignore the polls. The situation is a critical one for Labour. They face an acrimonious conference in Manchester next month in which the pressure will be on Tony Blair to announce his departure date - though all indications are that he will not oblige. This means a prolonged leadership struggle against a background of deepening uncertainty over national security. So long as Blair is Prime Minister, and continues uncritically to support the Bush foreign policy, Britain will remain in the front line and therefore a prime target of terror.

Then, next May, the Labour Party is expected to get a severe drubbing in the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections. Jack McConnell’s people are bracing themselves for losses, and able politicians, like the former Health Minister, Susan Deacon, seem to have decided there is little future in Holyrood for Labour.

All this means that there is little real chance of a Labour revival until 2008/9. It will be a massive task for Brown when he finally takes over undoing all this and measuring up to David Cameron. Labour’s party organisation is largely bankrupt and activists have left in droves following the cash-for-peerages scandal. But they were leaving in droves even before that.

Of course, a change of leadership might work wonders, and Brown showed his popularity in the 2005 electin campaign when he rode to Blair’s rescue. But the risk is that Labour has left it too late. Gordon Brown may be the leader who has to take Labour back into opposition.

Apocalypse Book Festival

For hacks like me, chairing sessions at the Edinburgh Book Festival is a little like going back to university. The difference is that you get to interrogate in person some of those academic authorities whose works are held in awe by undergraduates and politicians alike. It can be a disarming experience.
I'm not quite sure what I expected the US neo-conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama - author of "The End of History and the last man" - to be like in person. But I assumed there would be at least some of the trademark neucon swagger, intellectual arrogance and God-bless-America chauvinism. After all, he was the soul mate of the arch Republican hawk, Paul Wolfowitz. I couldn't have been more wrong.
In the author's yurt I discovered a diminutive, unassuming academic in jeans who'd lost his bags on the Edinburgh flight. When I got him on the stage he was subdued, almost penitent about the Iraq war, which his neo-con colleagues championed.
He described as a dangerous mess, which should never have happened and which could destabilise the entire region, if not the world. 'The end of history' began to take on a new and sinister connotation. Indeed Fukuyama's attitude to the Iraq folly and his contempt for the handling of the subsequent crisis he reminded me of the late Robin Cook, who used to be a regular presence in Charlotte Square in August.
Nor did he subscribe to the bellicose 'Third World War' rhetoric of George W Bush and Tony Blair. Fukuyama insists that the way to defeat al Qaeda is through patient intelligence and policing work. New wars and suspensions of civil rights only enlist more to the terrorist cause.
I think the audience too were somewhat unnerved by his apostasy, humility even. It just didn't compute. Here was one of the inspirers of the neocon Project for a New American Century coming over like a member of the Stop The War Coalition.
Clearly, history has a habit of starting up again when you least expect it. Fukuyama's misfortune is to have had his name linked unfairly to a project for American hegemony lover the planet. Now, with the rise if radical Islam, we’ve suddenly got more history than we know what to do with.
Fukuyama wasn't the only penitent in the EBF tent city last week. George Packer, the celebrated writer for the New Yorker magazine, is another former supporter of the Iraq war who’s changed his mind. An old Middle East hand, he'd hoped to see Saddam's bloody dictatorship replaced by an Eastern European style popular revolution. Big mistake. His prognosis for the Middle East following the Lebanon is even gloomier than Fukuyama's. Packer fears an all out regional war an Islamic terror threat to the West for a generation.
In one sense this chimes with the views of the thinking man's Tory MP, Michael Gove, with whom I also crossed swords in the Spiegel Tent. He agrees there is a big fight coming - though unlike Packer he doesn't believe the upcoming apocalypse is a down to a botched scheme for world domination from a handful of pro-Israeli ideologues who somehow got their levers on power in the Pentagon. The fight can’t come soon enough for Gove.
Gove is one of those on the Right who think that the West was always going to have to settle accounts with what he calls "Islamic totalitarianism", which he claims is to this century what fascism or communism was to the last. He berates liberals and "cultural relativists" for failing to defend Western values and thus allowing muddleheaded Muslims to be "bewitched" by Islamists.
Gove, who is a very bright and congenial guy -one of David Cameron's best assets - simply doesn't buy the line that the West has been a cause of its own misfortune. That we inflamed Islamic resentment because of our policies in the Middle East. It's all their fault for rejecting liberal democracy, capitalism and the end of history.
Well, I don't know about Osama, but he sure as hell frightens me. It leaves little scope for reconciliation if we simply demonise Islamists and declare ourselves to be in a life and death struggle with evil. I can't help thinking that it plays into the hands of terrorists to compare them with Hitler and Stalin, who posed real and serious threats to civilization.
But I would say that, wouldn’t I as a fully paid-up member of the "liberal left elite" who Michael Gove claims, are really running the country. For such a clever guy, he speaks an inordinate amount of rubbish.
This was all pretty sobering stuff, notwithstanding the effects of the excellent Orkney malt in the hospitality tent. I can't recall a bleaker Book Festival - at least in terms of the views expressed on world affairs. But all credit to the EBF for allowing them to be aired. Packer lamented the supine US media and the lack of any serious conversation about the reality on the ground in Iraq and what to do about it. But it's the same in Britain. It's not as if there isn't public interest. The tens of thousands of people who come to Edinburgh in August are extraordinarily well informed and eager for engagement with the issues – but where do they go to engage?
As for solutions, I'll be doing the man some hope to see as the next Democrat presidential candidate, Al Gore on 27th.. Worth a visit if you can beg or borrow a ticket.

Festival Faith

There is an unwritten rule on the Fringe that, unless the venue is packed, no one ever sits in the front three rows. It’s as if there is an invisible barrier beyond which no mortal may cross, a kind of embarrassment force field. Which is why, as a curmudgeon, I generally sit in the front row.
Yes, it does mean that you invite the attention of stand up comedians who’ll attack your dress sense and speculate about your sexual orientation. But just try answering back as if you are a German tourist and see what happens.
However, I went one step beyond the front row last week when I turned up to an event and actually became part of the show. It was an event at the first “Edinburgh Festival of Spirituality and Peace” (St Johns), chaired by the esteemed arts commentator, Brian Morton, exploring the predominance of religious themes at this Festival. Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh and chair of the Scottish Arts Council, had been unable to make it. I was invited to take his place on the platform.
Now, this was ambitious casting since I’m an atheist who’s never voluntarily gone to church, let alone pontificated about the state of the human spirit. Fortunately, there were people who knew what they were talking about, not least in the audience. We discussed the decline of radical theatre and the search for values and meaning in the post-Marxist millennium, and other lofty themes.
Then I made the rather tendentious aside that, while the Judaeo-Christian morality may have been a foundation of civil society, there remains a dark side to religion, which is all too apparent in the Middle East. A heated debate ensued. I was taken task for failing too look behind the surface of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. It’s not about religion but about the occupied Palestinian territories, American foreign policy, the thirst for oil.
Funny, but that’s what I used to think too. Only I’ve been forced to the conclusion that religion, while perhaps not the sole cause of these conflicts, really does make them peculiarly difficult to resolve because of the unholy passions released. Something to do with jealous Gods and golden calves; martyrdom and 72 virgins. The assurance of a afterlife does make people less concerned about their longevity in this world.
Anyway, anyone who’s interested in the interplay of religion and politics, the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, should take a look at the programme at St Johns. And I promise they won’t have to listen to me. Tomorrow Moazzeem Begg will be speaking about his incarceration in Guantanamo Bay. David Greig, Jo Clifford, Karen Armstrong will be looking at everything from sex and religion to the women and Islam. And a week tomorrow, the comedian Bill Bailey will be trying to discuss humour, religion and cartoons - hopefully without sparking another Jihad.
But what of the premise: that faith is invading the Festival this year? Well, there ‘s no shortage of shows on religious themes - I counted over sixty. Something’s clearly going on , though it’s too early to conclude that spirituality is occupying the space left by politics.
However, I’m not sure if it’s particularly good news for the Festival, because none of the religious-theme shows I’ve seen so far have given me much to write home about. “Mary and the Stripper” (Hill Street Theatre) is an interesting attempt to recast the story of Mary Magdalene in Soho, which failed to convince, despite being based on a real story and having a ‘saved’ ex-stripper in the cast. “We Don’t Know Shi’ite” (Underbelly) is a review based on the cast’s experience of trying to understand Islam, which I’m afraid rather lived up to its title. The project foundered on its attempts to ‘understand’ aspects of Islam like the subjection of women, creationism, homophobia.
The Egyptian comic Omar Marzouk (Pleasance), who has a fine track record of poking fun at obscurantism, rather lost my sympathy this year by declaring his support for the censorship of those Danish cartoons of the prophet. Elsewhere, the Black-Jew Dialogues (CVenue 34) tries intelligently to exploration of the competitive victim culture of Jewish and Afro-Americans groups. But as comedy it didn’t quite achieve lift off.
It all left me wondering whether religion has a dampening effect - like Bob Dylan after he fund God in 1978. But my faith was partially restored by “Jesus the Guantamo Years” (Underbelly). This extended sketch about Christ coming back as a stand up comedian, and being incarcerated as a suspected terrorist, contained some brilliant material, including a wicked reworking of the Monty Python Parrot Sketch with a man bringing back a dud Messiah. “If he hadn’t been nailed to the cross, he’d be pushing up the daisies”.
Offensive perhaps, but the show contained a moral message: that humour is an expression of the human spirit, and laughter unites rather than divides. Which perhaps why fundamentalists aren’t funny.

We Must Take Power Away from the Prime Minister

A week really is a long time. That’s all it took for the discredited Deputy Prime Minister, John “croquet” Prescott, to go from zero to hero, after making those unguarded remarks about George W Bush’s “crap” foreign policy. Suddenly he was being feted by antiwar MPs as a blunt, no-nonsense spade-caller. The Independent, announced that “everyone needs a Prezza”.
John Prescott also criticised the American President’s “cowboy” mentality, which was pretty rich coming from a politician only lately in the dock himself for pursuing his own Wild West fantasies at the US ranch of billionaire gambling magnate, Philip Anschutz. Though Prezza at least had the decency to acknowledge this himself.
There will be few who would disagree with the scatological assessment of American policy in the Middle East. Even some US neocons, like the former national security adviser Richard Perle, have begun to disown George W. Bush - though mostly for the wrong reasons. They think he hasn’t been hard enough, resolute enough in prosecuting the war for civilisation in the Middle East.
These are the people who think that the USA is involved in a war of Christian good against Muslim evil, and that only the absolute triumph of Israel over its Arab neighbours is going to make the world safe for America. Somehow, despite the disaster in Iraq, these people still seem to exert an extraordinary influence in the Pentagon and the White House, as America’s support for the abortive Israeli invasion of Lebanon confirmed.
That the policy is crap seems beyond argument. The latest Israeli incursion, supposedly to deal a fatal blow to Hezbollah, has ended with the nearest thing to a defeat that the Israeli Defence Force has experienced since 1948. The pro-Iranian militias of Hassan Nasrallah have lived to fight another day, and launch their rockets at Israel and spread their virulent anti-semitism across the Middle East. To have made heroes of Hezbollah is surely the greatest cock up in the Middle East since, well, the last one.
Where do they go from here? The Republican Right have set the Middle East on fire by the attempt to occupy a Muslim country. They have turned Iraq into a seething cauldron of hate and terrorism, immeasurably increasing the threat to the world. They have alienated young impressionable Muslims in western countries like Britain and turned Islamism, a profoundly reactionary fundamentalist creed, into a global phenomenon. In their present state of self-delusion, it could be that the Republicans may even go for broke and attack Iran for failing to abandon its nuclear programme.
After 9/11, the world was united behind America and its values of liberty, tolerance, freedom of speech and religion. But the actions of the Republican leadership since then, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay, from Baghdad to Beirut, have shattered faith and trust in the United States a beacon of liberal democracy. The Bush Republicans, by insisting on their right to launch pre-emptive war, abandoning international law and the conventions of war, have made the world a more dangerous place - if only because of the likelihood that other countries will emulate them. This is one hell of a charge sheet.
But here’s a question: if the US policy has been so misguided and Bush such a cowboy, why have we been so prepared to ride shotgun? Why did Prescott not call a halt earlier, lead a cabinet revolt against this policy, mobilise opposition on the Labour backbenches to exercise restraint on Tony Blair? If the PM has been captured by the neocons and deployed as a useful idiot by Bush, why didn’t someone try to rescue him from himself. Why did the Deputy Prime Minister not support a return of parliament a fortnight ago to express Britain’s rejection of the crap policy in Lebanon. In short, why does Labour do nothing as the world burns?
In the wake of the attempted London bombings, and as we await to see the next disastrous turn of events, there really is no bigger question in British politics. And we need to be asking it of Gordon Brown also. The silence from the future leader of the Labour Party has been deafening. Yes, he is on paternity leave - but that doesn’t mean he can’t open his mouth, or let his views be known indirectly.
By his inaction over the years, the Chancellor has made himself complicit in this global train wreck. He has repeatedly failed to disown the disaster wrought by his boss, Tony Blair - presumably in the hope that this will ensure that “orderly transition of power” in Number Ten. But this isn’t just passive acquiescence.
During the last general election campaign, the Chancellor announced that he would have done “exactly the same” as Tony Blair faced with the Iraq WMD crisis. Are we to presume that he would have done ‘exactly the same’, again, over the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon? Well, we need to know.
Of course, some have interpreted Brown’s mega-silences as an indication that he is a closet dissident. I’ve flirted with this argument myself. Deconstructing the Chancellor’s words, it is possible to make the case that, in endorsing the war, he has only been following collective cabinet responsibility - in other words accepting the form but not the content of Tony Blair’s foreign policy. He has not made the policies his own, or indulged in triumphalism.
But that’s really not good enough. Politicians have ways of getting their messages out through unofficial channels, and no one knows this better than Gordon Brown who is a master at media politics. There are any number of ways he could have consciously distanced himself from the Iraq chaos, just as he did over variable tuition fees, foundation hospitals. Yet, he and the rest of the Labour ministerial hierarchy have simply failed to act.
Of course, he has to be careful not to cause a fall our with Blair. But this is not Saddam’s cabinet, where dissent means death, but a democracy in which all ministers are supposedly equal. The Prime Minister, as the cliche goes, is merely the First Among Equals. So where have all these supposedly co-equal Labour ministers been all these years? Why didn’t they act over the dodgy dossier of February 2003 which falsely claimed that Britons could be attacked by WMD in 45 minutes? Why didn’t they revolt in March 2003 when Blair broke his promise of a second United Nations resolution on using force in Iraq? Or over the failure to let the UN weapons inspectors do their job.
And when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, why the the Labour ministers then not draw a line in the sand? Instead, they allowed the BBC to be emasculated for trying to tell the truth about how intelligence was manipulated by Downing Street to bounce Britain into a war it never wanted. As the insurgency grew in Iraq, through 2004 and 2005, why did British ministers not then again call a halt - after Abu Ghraib? Fallujah? and now Lebanon?
Where were they all? Presumably forming huddles in the liquid dungeons of Westminster, where they wrung their hands and moaned about US military adventurism - as Prescott did last week - hoping that the policy would somehow come right in the end. A lot of good that has done us. Some probably supported Saddam’s removal for humanitarian reasons, at least initially. But they should have seen that this was not what George W. Bush was looking for in Iraq, but a demonstration of US military might in the region.
Others no doubt believed America to be justified in hunting down the killers of 9/11. But if so, they should have called a halt after the invasion Afghanistan in 2001. Everything since has been an unmitigated disaster. But only the late Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had the courage to stand out against the perversion of British foreign policy in the interests of American neo-imperialism. (And the former Development Secretary Clare Short, who resigned so belatedly it no longer counted). Where stood Harriet Harman, Charles Clarke, Jack Straw?
It is a truism that UK cabinets have become weaker in recent decades, as the power of the Prime Minister and his private office have become immeasurably greater. However, Tony Blair isn’t an absolute monarch, even if he sometimes behaves like one. He hasn’t scrapped the constitution of the United Kingdom. Parliament is still sovereign, and if Labour cabinet ministers - even three of them - had made a stand, then Blair could have been stopped in his tracks. Even the threat of a cabinet revolt might have halted the madness, because Tony Blair would have realised that he faced his own political ruination in sticking by Bush.
But clearly, the existing constitutional arrangements are no longer working. Relying on the conscience and independence of ministers, individually and collectively, is no longer enough. Something has to be done effectively to curb the arbitrary and unaccountable power of the Prime Minister - if only to prevent him being captured again by powerful American interests.
Reading accounts of the origins of the war, what comes over most strongly is the enormous discretion a British Prime Minister seems to exercise. It was Tony Blair, personally, who signed up to the Middle East strategy, not his government, still less Britain. Millions marched in the streets against a war in Iraq. Members of the security services, and weapons analysts like the late Dr David Kelly, warned Number Ten about the strategy. We know from the Butler Report that there was widespread disagreement in British intelligence about the reliability of the sources on which the PM based his assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
The opposition was reflected in parliament. In September 2002 and March 2003, Tony Blair suffered two of the worst rebellions inflicted a British Prime Minister since Irish Home Rule. It did no good, because our system of election confers something close to dictatorial powers on a PM between elections. Labour’s inflated 160 seat majority in the last parliament did not reflect the true minority support for Labour in the country, but it allowed Tony Blair to do more or less what he liked. A messianic politician, who has an unshakeable conviction in his own infallibility, he exploited this to the full.
Now, of course, the British voters had an opportunity to pass their verdict on his conduct in the general election of 2005. Tony Blair was re-elected, which reignited his own faith in himself. However, that election was an unreliable guide to the popularity of Tony Blair himself.
After the opinion poll meltdown in the first week of the 2005 election campaign, Gordon Brown allowed himself to be ‘joined at the hip’ with Tony Blair in order to save the Labour government. So desperate were Labour ministers to retain their own precarious hold on power, they lined up behind their discredited leader and pretended that Iraq was a dead issue. Like royal courtiers, their own fate became inextricably linked to that of their leader. The power of patronage places too much power in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day.
Perhaps Brown was under the impression that Blair intended to hand over power shortly after the election. But if so he was singularly naive - Blair had broken his promises before and Brown had nothing in writing. As things stand today, the PM seems minded to hang on and on until 2009 if he can.
The only way of holding politicians to account is to keep them on a tight democratic rein. The reality is that, while the PM may have theoretical powers, derived from Royal Prerogative, to declare war without a vote by MPs in parliament, in practice, he needs their political support.
We can’t rely on ministers. Only parliament can exert democratic control. It is therefore imperative that there is the introduction of proportional representation in Westminster, to strip the Prime Minister of his powers of elective dictatorship. Party representation in Westminster must reflect votes cast in the country, and not the vanity of the party leader. Under a co-operative system, no PM, however headstrong, could steamroller legislation or bounce the country into war simply because of his thirst for glory. If the House of Commons had been elected on the same electoral system as Holyrood, Britain would never have gone to war in Iraq. And we wouldn’t have been landed in the crap we are in now.

True Lies in Middle East

“There are no facts, only interpretations”, so said the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Godfather or relativism. His words echo down the generations and some believe he is at least partly responsible for the mess we are in today. For, truth is in crisis.

Never has it been more important than now to know what we know and why we know it. We live in an age of rampant paranoia, conspiracy theories and mistrust, beautifully parodied by the play “I am Nobody’s Lunch” at the Edinburgh Festival. No one believes what governments say anymore, because they all spout lies crafted by spin-doctors.

We don’t believe scientists because they’re all supposedly in the pay of corporations and want to destroy the planet with frankenstein foods. So we start to believe in anything and everything - from Cosmic Ordering to the Da Vinci code; crystal therapy to Creationism.

We seem to have lost any sense of intellectual discrimination - credulity is rampant and the division between fact and fiction becoming dangerously blurred, not least on the internet, where all ideas are equal, no matter how misconceived. Just look at the websites which claim that 9/11 never happened/was a “Jewish-Christian” plot/ was organised by the CIA.

I’ve been amazed at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year by the number of people who suspect that the latest bomb scare was created to distract attention from Israelis military action in Lebanon. It even crossed my own mind. But journalists an writers are professional sceptics. We face a much more profound conflict of truth about the nature of the alleged conflict between the West and Islam.

How do you answer those one third of young British Muslims - according to a recent NOP survey - who believe the London bombings were justified because of British foreign policy? Who believe that there is a systematic attempt by the West to crush Islam?

We know that this is untrue - that the British- American invasion of Iraq, however misguided and malevolent, was not part of a Christian-Jewish crusade against the Muslim world. But just try proving it.

After all, Islamists will say, there is a pattern to history. The Western powers have been meddling in the Middle East since the end of the First World War, when the victorious powers redrew the map of the Arab world, creating first Iraq and Lebanon then, later, Israel.

Doesn’t America use Israel as a base from which to attack Muslims? Aren’t American weapons used by the IDF to crush Hezbollah? Why has the West turned a blind eye to Israeli breaches of UN resolutions in the West Bank and Gaza?

No use saying that in 1948 the American government was actually rather cool about the creation of Israel, or that the main pro-Zionist backer at the time was Soviet Russia. Or that Israel would fight even if America abandoned it. Or that it’s the only real democracy in the Middle East.

Nor does it cut much Islamic ice to say that Western forces defended the Muslims of Kosovo against Serbia in 1999, or that America financed the Afghan Mujihadeen in 1980’s against Russia. Or indeed, that in Iraq today, the vast majority of Muslim deaths are caused by other Muslims.

No, to many, it looks as if there has been a long campaign of Western double standards from Chechnya to Kashmir, where Islamic people always comes off worst. It can’t be accidental, they say. Look at the recent invasions of Afghanistan, and Iraq? Iraq had nothing to do with al Qaeda and 9/11. Don’t these confirm that the West is trying to occupy the Arab world, seize its natural resources, subjugate its people and destroy its religion? You don’t see the West invading Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Communist Korea or any other non-muslim dictatorships.

Around fifty thousand Muslims in Britain, we are told, think along these lines. This paranoia isn’t helped by the intemperate remarks of Western leaders, such as George W. Bush, about the “war against Islamic fascism”. Or the Home Secretary, John Reid, that we are fighting the greatest threat since the Second World War. Who exactly are the enemy, the new axis powers? It’s easy to misread all this as a generalised declaration of war on the Muslim world as a whole.

Apocalyptic theories about the “Clash of Civilisations”, as the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington called it, feed suspicion. Moreover, if we really don't want to be misunderstood, perhaps the West could stop invading so many Muslim nations.

The danger is that paranoia could become the intellectual default for many young British-born Muslim men. It is going to be exceptionally hard to eradicate this, not least because Islam - in its more radical forms - is a religion which doesn’t really go in for doubt and argument. God’s law is there, in black and white, in the Qu’ran, and all the true believer is required to do is accept it. This inclines more suggestible young people to accept what they are told by self-styled Islamic authorities, like Abu Hamza and Hizb ut Tahrir. For some Islamists, scientific argument is itself suspect, as is democracy, women and gay rights, freedom of speech.

We have a duty to oppose obscurantism, whether from Christian fundamentalists or Islamists. In fact, these modes of thought drive from the same Abrahamist religious origins in the Bible- which means, theologically speaking, that muslims are descendants of the Jews - which is an irony lost on the Islamists.

Some on the political Right argue that the intelligentsia in the West are partly to blame for the situation, that it is a symptom of the West’s own intellectual decadence and Nietzschean defeatism. The Tory MP Michael Gove, in his book “Fahrenheit 7/7” attacks our “culture of relativism” which he sees as: “a failure to display moral clarity, a corruption of thought on both right and left, as well as a strain of Western self-hatred, that combine to weaken, compromise and confuse our national response to a direct totalitarian challenge”.

So are philosophers to blame? Is multiculturalism to blame? Should we be enforcing Western modes of thought on Muslim communities in Britain? Well, we certainly shouldn’t do the converse. Earlier this week, British Muslim leaders called for the introduction of Sharia law as far as family matters is concerned. Is that acceptable?

Well no, it isn’t - if it means women being treated as second class citizens. But it is important to say why. We have to engage intellectually with the proposition that women are inferior to men, or that adulterers should be punished. We need to affirm that all humans are equal and that the freedom to form relationships is a basic human right. Assertion won’t do.

We need a more robust approach to intellectual debate. The philosophers have to come down from their concrete towers and engage in public affairs. Politicians have to start thinking beyond the next press release. We have to curb the spin, distortion and sensationalism which corrodes any sense of objectivity and truth.

Above all, in schools, where we learn how to think, it is time to start teaching the art of reason. And that’s a fact.

We Do Get It Mr Reid


If we are indeed “at war with Islamic fascists”, as George W. Bush claimed last week, then it’s not going too well right now. The mighty Israeli army has been halted in the Lebanon by a handful of Shi’ite militia. America has effectively lost the war in Iraq, sacrificing as many servicemen’s lives as civilians who died in the 9/11 to create a dysfunctional state heavily influenced by Shi-ite Iran. The same Iran has defied America by continuing to declare its intention to build nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the British in Afghanistan have been stunned by the fighting capacity of Islamic militants who were supposed to have been defeated four years ago. In Helmand, we are told, British soldiers have been involved in their most sustained military engagement since the Korean war half a century ago. And now, of course, the civil air services of the west are paralysed after the bottle bomb plot. The shadow of al Qaeda is again darkening the skies nearly five years after Bush promised to get him “dead or alive”.
People often wonder why Islamic extremists continue to target civil airliners, when the security is now so tight that it must be almost impossible to succeed. Why not softer targets, like nuclear power stations, shopping centres. The answer is that air-terror is a no-lose option for the terrorists. If they get through, then there is a “spectacular” which will dominate the attention of the world, and likely provoke America and Britain into ill-judged and counterproductive retaliation. But equally, if they fail, they still dominate the world’s media, spreading anxiety among the civilian population and blocking the arteries of global capitalism.
Terrorists measure their success, not in body count, but column inches. Unable to mount a conventional war, they rely on the media to magnify minor acts of violence into national emergencies, and targeting air travel is the surest way to do this. Striking at the height of the holiday season ensures maximum media attention. Politicians overreact by declaring world war three, thus elevating a cowardly mass murder into an act of war.
Such atrocities also leave a wake of conspiracy theories. Look on the web and you’ll find no shortage claims that the latest plot was an invention. We’ve been here before, they say, with anthrax, Ricin, Menezes, Forest Gate, those tanks at Heathrow. Some Islamic websites seem convinced that the scare is merely the latest attempt by the “Jewish American” world conspiracy - aided by Pakistan - to justify new anti-terror laws and a crack down on anyone with brown face and a beard.
Well, of course, I don’t know whether last week’s plot was genuine or not - though all the evidence suggests that there was indeed a conspiracy to blow up several civil airliners. We know from the London bombings that there are many young British muslims prepared to martyr themselves by killing civilians, and we know they have the means. Britain is a prime target because of Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq in vasion and his support for Israel’s assault in Lebanon. It all fits. There’s no need to make it up.
But there is one other semi-plausible conspiracy theory. That America instructed British intelligence to move against a network they had been monitoring for over a year in order to distract world attention from the bloody Israeli action in Lebanon. They needed a breathing space so that the IDF could establish those “facts on the ground” prior to a UN-brokered ceasefire. It also serves as a justification for Israel’s actions. ‘See - Hezbollah types are trying to blow us up too’. It’s all part of one big war against terror and we should be grateful to the Israelis for taking them on.
Well, I’m as parnoid as the next man , but I still don’t buy the conspiracy . The pretence would have been too hard to sustain, and the consequences of being found out too great. Moreover, I don’t believe that, after the Forest Gate debacle and the accidental death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Metropolitan Police would play along with such a ludicrous deception.
No, in my view, this near miss simply confirms that the proper answer to terrorism is good policing and intelligence work - not launching wars against countries you don’t like in the Middle East. However, thewave of suspicion that followed last week's abortive bombing confirms the gulf of trust that is opening between the government and he people - especially Muslim people. It is therefore imperative that we learn exactly what those twenty four individuals have been arrested for, and that proper charges are levelled against them. No doubt the White House would like the would-be plane bombers to be sent post-haste to Guantanamo Bay - but this must be resisted, if only to prevent the paranoid conspiracy theories from gaining traction.
The British press, of course, has already condemned them. Individuals like Don Stewart-Whyte, aka Abdul Waheed, the first double-barrelled terrorist, who, we learn, came from a suburban Tory-voting family. He had drifted into a world of drugs and drink until he discovered Islam. Within six months he had grown a beard and become a terrorist. Allegedly.
But for the sake of good relations with the two million British Muslims, Stewart-Whyte’s trial must be handled fairly, or else his place will be taken by ten misguided young men deluded into thinking that they are at war with the West.
Trouble is, our political leaders are as guilty of the Muslim fanatics of promoting war fever. When Tony Blair talks of the “arc of extremism” and a “war against civilisation”. When his Home Secretary, John Reid - who seems to have replaced John Prescott as Deputy Prime Minister - says the current threat is the “worst since World War 11” and compares bin Laden to Hitler. When George Bush declares “war” against “Islamic Fascism which will stop at nothing”, they are simply following the terrorist script. Bin Laden is laughing all the way to the West Bank.
Terrorism is a localised problem, which causes great inconvenience, but relatively little loss of life. Even the deaths in 9/11 - appalling thought that atrocity was - do not compare with the losses in a real war, which are counted in millions. Adolf Hitler commanded the greatest mechanised army in history, a force capable of seizing mainland Europe in a matter of months. He was only halted by the combined power of America and Russia and after the deaths of twenty million people on the Eastern Front alone. To compare Osama Bin Laden to Hitler is not only ludicrous, it flatters a relatively isolated fanatic who happened to own a building firm with access to explosives.
This overreaction is the mirror image of the Islamic websites and bookshops which claim there is a “Jewish-Christian crusade against Islam” and show images of women and children killed in the Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir. There has been much comment in the press and in TV programmes like Channell 4 “Dispatches” documentary about how these websites distort and misrepresent the situation in the Middle East. How they pollute young minds with hate. Use emotive images to convey simplistic messages. They surely do that.
But while the messages are distorted, the images are not. We have indeed killed tens of thousands of innocent women and children in Iraq and in Lebanon and we have seen some of the pictures of the Lebanese dead recently in the last few days. We have not seen similar images of the tens of thousands dead from our invasion of Iraq because the press was so tightly controlled, and the British press “embedded” with the occupying forces.
Hardly surprising, then, if lost young men, looking for a meaning in life, are seduced by the recruiting sergeants of Jihad, the Mullahs who greet them as they leave the Mosque. “Your faith needs you” - they cry, “Defend Muslim women and children. Death on the infidel”. These are were sentiments that converted London bombers like Shehzad Tanwer and Sidique Khan to extremism. According to British security sources, there are now at least 1,000 home-grown Muslims prepared to die in order to kill
Of course, America is not to blame for Islamic extremism. The fundamentalists were around before 9/11 and Bin Laden was hatching his plots long before the invasion of Iraq. But what Britain and America stand accused of is monumental incompetence and irresponsibility in their response to it. The ill-judged occupation of Iraq, the suspension of human rights in Guantanamo Bay, the abuse in Abu Ghraib. And now, the apparent willingness to endorse any action taken by Israel in Gaza or Lebanon, were exactly what Bin Laden and his crew wanted. A disproportionate response, preparing the ground for a regional war and a possible clash of civilisations.
By playing into Bin Laden’s hands, we have now turned thousands of British Muslims into converts to the cause of martyrdom. Even those moderate Muslims, like the ultra-loyal Labour MP for Govan Mohammed Sarwar, have been forced to criticise British foreign policy in the wake of this latest crisis."US foreign policy”, he said last week, supported by Tony Blair has weakened moderate, enlightened and liberal Muslims and has strengthened extremists". An NOP Poll for the Dispatches programme “What Muslims Want” suggests that 23% felt the London bombings were justified because ofBritish support for the US war on terror, and he figure rose to 31% among under-25’s. How many were privately cheering the plane bombers last week?
There are signs that the Labour Party in Scotland is beginning to get the message. Jim Sheridan’s resignation from his post as parliamentary private secretary to the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, suggests there is life on the Labour backbenches. There is even a suggestion that the MP for Paisley had the tacit endorsement of his boss. The Scottish Secretary, Douglas Alexander, had already made a stand against Prestwick being used as a stopover in munitions flights.
This belated dissent is to be welcomed, but it has come far too late. Britain has been dragged into the front-line of an unnecessary conflict by leaders who seem unable or unwilling to understand the magnitude of their failure. The invasion and occupation of a Muslim nation, under the bogus pretext of defusing weapons of mass destruction, as seen by many in the Muslim world as a war crime. The chaos in Iraq and the daily death toll testifies to the folly of the policy, as does the continuing threat from terrorist bombing in the West which the invasion of Iraq was supposed to eradicate. And still, in their uncritical support of Israel, Tony Blair and George W. Bush are alienating the entire Muslim world, from Birmingham to Baghdad.
We are led by fools, global agents provocateur who exploited our fears of terrorism to justify a show of force in the Middle East that has only demonstrated their weakness. Who pretend they are Churchills and Rooseveldts defending western civilisation, but who have, by their own stupidity and ignorance of history, undermined the very foundation of that civilisation by flouting international law and the human rights conventions established by the victors of WW11. Who lecture the world on liberty and freedom while dismantling civil liberties at home.
And now, after the abortive bottle bombs, comes another raft of security measures from a hard-man Home Secretary, John Reid, who is clearly revelling in this “super critical” terror alert. A Spinal Tap statesman turning his level up to eleven. Who says that”traditional concepts of individual rights and freedom are outmoded in the face of the 21st century terror threat”, insulting the memory of the millions who died in the last century to defend those rights and freedoms.
Oh yes, Mr Reid. We get it all right. Your “war” is possibly the greatest policy disaster ever perpetrated by democratically elected leaders. And it was lost even before it began.

Tale of Two Parties


There’s been a lot of earnest sucking of teeth and shaking of heads about how the Tommy Sheridan trial has damaged the image of devolution. How could we have given a platform to that rabble of immature malcontents? Who will take the Scottish Parliament seriously, when it’s most recognisable member (no pun intended) is Tommy Sheridan ? Surely any system that gives the oxygen of publicity to toy town trots is doing a disservice to democracy?
And so on and so forth. However, I think the political grey-hairs have got this completely wrong. On the contrary, the tale of Tommy and the Witches - apart from being better than anything on at the Edinburgh Festival this year - has been a vindication, not only of Scottish home rule, but of the proportional electoral system. The SSP have been found out. That’s surely what democracy is supposed to do.
The affair has exposed the sordid reality of ultra-left politics: the vanity, self-delusion, paranoia. Ranting about integrity, honour, truth; accusing each other of lying, betrayal, sexual misconduct. I particularly liked Carolyn Leckie’s description of Tommy Sheridan this week as “a cross between “Goebbels, Walter Mitty and Benny Hill” Benny Hill!. That hurt.
Though not as much as Sheridan’s rejoinder that the United Left Faction (or whatever they’re called today) are “scabs” in the pay of Rupert Murdoch and international capital - as if Tommy Sheridan’s sex life was an industrial relations issue. Mind you, how many people under the age of forty know that scabs are strike breakers. rather than congealed blood platelets? In the good old days, the Tommy problem would have been resolved by the traditional means of an ice pick in the back of the head. Not any more, they now use the legal system. The muppet Marxists seem determined to pursue their poisonous vendetta through the courts. The SSP wimmin are now promising to sue Tommy for 2 million pounds for impugning their integrity.
All this in the vainglorious pretence that they are representing the working class, the poor, the bombed children of the Lebanon. “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your libel briefs!” “Solidarity with the Palestinian Dispossessed in the Court of Session”.
The point is that no one will take the SSP seriously again, in or out of parliament - though Tommy Sheridan could still translate his celebrity into a massive personal votes. This is a democratic experiment which has run its course. The six SSP MSPs rode to Holyrood on the back of the popular rebellion of the Scottish electorate against the established parties which took place at the Scottish elections of May 2003.
Sick of sleaze, officegate, and MSPs who could barely utter a coherent sentence, Scots voters used the additional member system imaginatively to lever in Greens, Reds, greys and also independents like Denis Canavan and Margo MacDonald, who had been ostracised by their parties for daring to show independence of mind. It was an inspiring exercise in participatory democracy and a tribute to the sophistication of the Scottish electorate.
The voters wanted to upset the applecart; introduce new ideas, diversity, and a bit of character into the faceless parliament that the late Donald Dewar bequeathed. So, the Scottish Socialists returned with six seats, the first time the far left has ever entered parliament under its own name. The Scottish Greens did even better, returning seven. It was an amazing departure from the staid and colourless tradition of British parliamentary politics. .
While less experienced than the disciplined Marxist activists of the SSP, the Green MSPs soon found their feet. They thrived in an atmosphere of intellectual debate, worked constructively on parliamentary committees, entered into tactical relations with rival parties, made contributions to legislation, promoted single issue causes, like asylum and civil partnerships, and generally tried to win respect as legislators.
The result is that after the next Scottish parliamentary elections in May, the Scottish Greens could, just conceivably, be participating in government. If Jack McConnell loses as badly as some Labour MSPs believe they could, then there is an opening for a Liberal-SNP Coalition, in which the Scottish Greens might hold the balance of power. Especially if, as seems likely, the Greens inherit many of the SSP votes.
So, it’s a tale of two parties: the Greens have grown the reds have withered. Unable to manage the transition from the politics of protest and gesture, the Scottish Socialist Party indulged instead in the fratricidal divisions that have so often afflicted the ultra left. Blinded by their own rhetoric and unable to cope with Tommy Sheridan’s commanding personality, the SSP parliamentary group fragmented almost as soon as it was elected.
Much of the antagonism arose because of Sheridan’s apparent willingness to ‘play the game’, become a real politicians, use his media skills to get the party taken seriously.Sheridan accepted that, in a real parliament, you have to win arguments and conduct debates, play by the rules, do your homework on committees and generate initiatives and policies. He made attempts at legislation, with his bill on warrant sales, his campaign for free school meals. His speeches on asylum, Iraq and poverty were powerful and resonated beyond the wiggly walls of Holyrood. They certainly made erstwhile left-wingers on the Labour benches distinctly uncomfortable. The other SSP MSPs seemed more interested in staging student occupations and walkouts - as if anyone cared whether they were in our out of the place.
What it confirms is that parties like the SSP can really only function on the outside of politics as extra-parliamentary organisations. The far left thrives on exclusion from the centres of power. Unburdened by any legislative responsibility, the SSP could devote its time to surfing the alienation of the housing estates of Scotland, backing ethnic minorities and attracting the cameras with their elaborate gestures of nuclear defiance at Faslane. Tommy Sheridan was never happier than when he was in the arms of the police, being carried to the paddy wagon, pursued the nation’s press and TV.
Contrast again, with the Greens, who have largely made the transition from extra parliamentary politics, and have largely abandoned stunts. They still make themselves heard though, with a hyper-eneretic press operation, run by the ubiquitous George Baxter, and produce copious background briefings and policy initiatives. The Greens remain inexperienced have been accused of political naiveté in their dealings with the Scottish Executive over sustainability and the “green thread” that was supposed to run through Scottish Executive policy. They have no public figures of the calibre of Tommy Sheridan and some of their MSPs still seem a little bewildered at their own prominence. However, they are clearly on their way.
The Scottish Parliament has done British democracy a service by drafting in the irregulars of British politics, and explosing them to the harsh scrutiny of a real legislature. The SSP couldn’t take the heat It’s a ruthless business, parliament, but effective. And in the end, like John West, it’s the politicians they reject that ensures Holyrood will, in the end, get the best.

Sheridan verdict


The SSP may be facing oblivion, and Tommy Sheridan may never fully live down the lurid publicity, but the real losers are the press. The Tommy Sheridan case is more than a salutary lesson for the sensation-seeking News of the Screws - it is a condemnation of an entire industry.
Consider: a mighty news organisation, News International, lines up witness after witness to testify to Tommy Sheridan’s sexual hypocrisy. These range from party members, alleged sexual partners and people who claim to have seen Tommy swinging. The judge instructs the jury that if only one of them is telling the truth, and Sheridan is a hypocrite, then the News of the World is vindicated.
And what happens? The jury discuss it for a couple of hours, dismiss five weeks of testimony and award the largest defamation damages in Scottish legal history to Tommy Sheridan. It was hard not to smile at Tommy’s triumph, even if this case could have serious implications for journalistic freedom.
It was indeed an incredible verdict, though not - as the News of the Screws said - a perverse one. It was a rebuke to an industry which preys on human misery and disclosure; which uses chequebook journalism, spin, sensation, distortion. This has been a long time coming. The public has long disbelieved what newspapers say in print - now they refuse to believe what newspapers say in court, or indeed what witnesses say in court in their defence.
Forget the facts of the case. The jury, in the end, were faced with a moral choice: Did they side with this eccentric, but intensely principled man, Tommy Sheridan, his insanely voted wife and loyal family. Or did they side with people who admitted playing fast and loose with the truth in order to sell newspapers. With so-called journalists who trade in salacious gossip and kiss-and-tell. With fractious and spiteful SSP activists who couldn’t get their story straight about the transactions of their own executive?
Well, surprise surprise, they decided in favour Tommy Sheridan, whatever may or may not have happened in his private life. We will never know what the jury thought about the lurid tales of Tommy's exploits, but I suspect they just didn’t care, so long as Gail didn’t. Their verdict was a vote for family life, honour, personal dignity, privacy and accurate journalism.
The reaction among some in the press has been of amazement and hurt. How could a court dismiss such compelling evidence? How can journalists hope to win cases in future if juries are going to demand such high standards of proof? The insurance companies who ultimately pay the costs of such defamation rulings will look anew at the content of papers - sensing that nothing is safe.
So, this historic ruling could have implications for the freedom of the press, in privacy cases at least. The News of the World and its stablemates are going to have to clean up their act, or face future defamation damages of increasing magnitude. Being able to establish what lawyers call “veritas” - ie having substantial evidence to back up a story - is no longer enough.
Most journalists and lawyers that I spoke to believed that Sheridan would lose the case simply because the News of the World had so many witnesses. But witnesses are no longer enough, it seems. It may seem implausible that all of them lied - but the jury didn’t see why it should believe any of them. Anyone connected with the press is suspect in their eyes.
The Sheridan represents an inversion of the traditional defamation doctrine that you cannot defame someone who has no reputation to defend. That if you blacken a public figure’s image sufficiently, they will not be able to win substantial damages in court. Now, every time a newspaper enters court in any future sex case it is going to have to prove its own reputation, its own integrity. Well, maybe that’s no bad thing.

Walter's World


Oh to be a fly on the wall at Labour’s National Executive Committee meeting, when Tony Blair greets the arrival of it’s n newest member, Walter Wolfgang. The octogenarian left-winger was roughly ejected from last year’s Labour Party conference for heckling the Foreign Secretary, and was detained by police under one of the PM’s Prevention of Terrorism Acts. His election last week by Labour’s constituency parties is an eloquent snub to the authority of Tony Blair.
That these two figures are expected to coexist on what is supposedly Labour’s ruling body tells us a lot about the current state of the Labour Party. Walter Wolfgang is the very model of unreconstructed old Labour - as principled as he is uncompromising; as tenacious as he is sometimes tedious. Blair loathes everything he stands for, and the feeling is mutual.
I moderated a debate on Iraq during one of Wolfgang’s recent speaking tours - but you don’t moderate Walter, he doesn’t really attempt to engage with different points of view. In Walter’s World everything done in the name of Israel, America or Britain is evil and to be condemned, while the actions of its enemies are invariably excusable and more often than not the result of past infamy by the West.
Okay - he’s probably right on most counts. And as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, he can neither be accused of being anti-semitic in his hostility to Israeli “imperialism”, nor naive about the nature of dictatorship in his opposition to the toppling of Saddam. But while Walter Wolfgang is an independent spirit, and represents signs of life in Labour, there also is a troubling naiveté his brand of anti-American conviction politics. It is the Manichean mirror image of Tony Blair's. In a strange way, they were made for each other.
The Prime Minister dismisses complexity and misrepresents the reality of politics in the Middle East. He wants a clear cut case of good versus bad, and wants very clearly to be seen in the former camp. The bad guys are clearly those Islamic extremists, with bombs and beards, their penchant for martyrdom and their “lack of concern for human life”. Simplistic analysis invites simplistic solutions - of which the most simple-minded is to place an unjustified faith in military action. The Prime Minister’s apparently uncritical support of Israeli foreign policy has alienated much of the world and most of the Labour cabinet.
I say “apparent” because, of course, Tony Blair is not wholly uncritical of Israel’s attitude to the dispossessed Palestinians. He said again, last week, that Anglo-American objectives in the Middle East would be lost if there wasn’t movement on the creation of a Palestinian homeland. Unfortunately, this did not stop him endorsing the Israeli military action in southern Lebanon, which in its indiscriminate ferocity amounted to state-sanctioned terrorism if not actual war crime. Indeed, Israel’s apparent determination to clear hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims from their homes in Southern Lebanon could be seen as a kind of ethnic cleansing.
It emerged last week, that Tony Blair knew in advance of Israel's plans to bomb Lebanon back to the stone age, and that he did little if anything to try to stop it. He clearly believes - despite all evidence to the contrary - that massive military retaliation is a legitimate and effective way of winning the hearts and minds of the Middle East to those Western values he is so enthusiastic about. Lebanon may have to be destroyed so that it can be liberated from “extremism”. And if they don’t want to be liberated, well, they’ll just be destroyed.
But military supremacy is not enough, it is never enough, otherwise he Arab-Israeli dispute would have ended after the Six Day War in 1967. It may well be that the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is an anti-semitic ogre. But killing 900 Lebanese and destroying the country’s infrastructure is hardly going to endear us to the people on the ground.
In Iraq, the Lebanon and the West Bank, we have blundered around, supposedly spreading democracy and freedom, but actually killing tens of thousands of civilians and destroying the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands more. Hard to appreciate the moral superiority of the liberal democratic West when bunker busting bombs and fragmentation grenades are being lobbed at you by your liberators.
In Iraq. as the leaked memo from the former British Ambassador to Baghdad, William Patey confirmed last week, the country is fragmenting and falling into civil war - just as critics forecast. The invasions of Iraq and Lebanon have immeasurably strengthened the very terrorist and fundamentalist groups which the invasion was supposed to eradicate. We have destroyed what unity the nation of Iraq possessed by a vainglorious display of military firepower and botched nation-building.
As for security - well, British soldiers are dying once more in Afghanistan, four years after the dispatch of the Taleban. Hezbollah rockets are killing civilians deep into northern Israel. Pro-Western Arab states are speechless with fear, while demagogues like Iran’s Ahmedinijad and Hezbollah’s Nasurrah (?) are becoming popular heroes of Muslims across the region. The terrorist threat has receded for now from Europe and America, for the time being. But the bombers will be back - many home grown. The Muslim communities in Britain are alienated as never before - as was made clear by condemnation of British policy by the moderate Muslim Labour MP Mohammed Sarwar.
Rarely in history has a foreign policy proved to be such a comprehensive failure as the Bush/Blair doctrine on the Middle East. We have allowed ourselves to be portrayed as the aggressors by being, well, the aggressors. We invaded Iraq on a false pretext about weapons of mass destruction, then claimed that it was Saddams’ infamy, and now belatedly rationalise the exercise on the grounds it was necessary to to spread Western values. We have indeed “changed reality” in the Middle East, but it is the reverse of what was intended. Instead of creating a democratic domino effect, spreading liberal values across the Arab world, we have united much of the Arab world against democracy.
We have given credence to the fundamentalist claim that the West is on a religious crusade against Islam. Well, that’s what it looks like on the ground. The worrying thing is that Mr Blair seems positively to relish the fight against what he now calls the “arc of extremism”. He sees a dark conspiracy of Islamic fundamentalists, a kind of Muslim Mafia, behind ever suicide bomber every insurgent, be they Ba’athist, Hezbollah, Palestinian, Taleban, Chechen. Forget the aching religious and communal differences in the Muslim worlds. Forget that Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden loathed each other; that the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect was born in pro-American Saudi Arabia.
Forget also that Hezbollah and Hamas have been playing the very democratic game in Lebanon and Gaza which we are supposed to be fighting for. Hezbollah is part of the elected government in Lebanon and Hamas was freely elected by Palestinians. What clearer testimony to failure than that the people we say we are fighting for should vote for the terrorists?
You would think that this might raise some question in the back of the PM’s mind about the wisdom of pursuing Israeli-American military adventures. But this is one Prime Minister whose conviction in his own correctness is an of article fo faith. He never asks questions, and when they are put to him, he invariably responds that the wisdom of whatever he has embarked upon is self-evident. It is simply “the right thing to do”.
This is Messianic nonsense, and deeply worrying. It’s often said that Tony Blair, too long in office, has succumbed to Thatcher disease - an inability to see past your own rhetoric. However, Margaret Thatcher was never as bad as this. At her best, the former Tory Prime Minister was an intelligent woman who confronted a very real nuclear threat to civilisation posed by a decadent Soviet Imperialism. No need to invent weapons of mass destruction then.
Now, I don’t want to indulge in Thatcher romanticism - she was in many ways a blinkered class warrior. However, Thatcher didn’t go around starting wars for the sake of it and she had the wisdom to realise that the emergence of the reforming Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachov represented a real opportunity to achieve international reconciliation. Would Tony Blair have seen half as astute?
There was indeed a clash of civilisations during the Cold War, a nuclear threat to democracy by the Soviet Union, and many on the British Left have failed to come fully to terms with the extent to which they ignored or diminished that threat. I suspect Walter Wolfgang would find little to applaud in Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy, even with the passage of time. But Tony Blair has gone to the other extreme - he has gone out of his way to seek a generalised clash with the Muslim world. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he is the prophet.
“We are fighting a war, not just against terrorism”, the PM said in Los Angeles last week, “but about how the world should govern itself in the 21st Century”. It is all about “values”. At the court of Sun proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, in San Francisco, the PM insisted that it was a battle between “modernity and tradition”.
So, what would the MP regard as victory in this battle of values? Presumably, a pro-Western Christian Lebanon with a subordinated Shia minority. Acceptance by the Palestinians of a Gaza ghetto. Pro-American governments in Iraq and Iran and a commitment to liberal capitalism throughout the Middle East? He is getting precisely the reverse - a headlong flight by moderate Arab opinion into the arms of militants. Even a majority of Christians in Lebanon are now supporting Hezbollah. As in the London Blitz, the Israeli bombs have united Lebanon - against Western values.
Back home, the Labour Party is preparing for what will be its most difficult party conference since the dark and divisive days of the 1970s, when the party was split between Bennite socialists and moderate social democrats. In many ways the situation is worse today. The membership has dwindled, the trades unions are a shadow of their former selves, and Labour is bankrupt. The police are investigating charges of corruption over the sale of honours. Labour MPs openly condemn their leader over a range of issues from health service reforms to detention without trial.
The party is not so much divided amongst itself , as united against its leadership - at least as far as the Middle East is concerned. The fact that opportunists like Jack Straw have stood out against Blair, by calling for the ceasefire which their leader didn’t, are a sign of the PM’s collapsing prestige and authority in Labour. So is the election of Walter Wolfgang to the NEC.
Labour people are no longer afraid of Tony Blair, and even the most supine and biddable cabinet in post war British history seems belatedly to be getting off its knees. All it needs is a leader. Unfortunately, Gordon Brown has retreated, as so often over Iraq, into one of his deafening silences. The Chancellor has given formal backing to the Prime Minister’s war on terror, even remarking during the election campaign that he would have acted exactly same over Iraq as his leader.
It’s one of those intriguing “what ifs” of modern political history. Should Gordon Brown have seized the moment and delivered the coup de grace to stricken Blair? A broader question: could Brown, by acting earlier, have prevented this disaster in the Middle East? And will he have stored up trouble for himself when he takes over?
What we do know is that whatever Gordon Brown thinks of the Bush/Blair approach, he has never lifted a finger actively to oppose it. Even now, when the party is crying out for leadership against the Chancellor remains in the shadows, hoping still for that “orderly transition of power”, which Tony Blair is hinting might now be delayed for another year. I don’t think the Labour Party can wait that long.
If Tony Blair delivers his usual “I’m-going-on-and-I’ve-only-one-gear” speech in Manchester next month, the party could be plunged into turmoil. The divisions may become so deep, they simply cannot be healed. By his own inaction, Gordon Brown risks inheriting, not just ruins in the Middle East, but the ruin of his own party.