I probably shouldn’t go to National Trust houses. Visiting one this afternoon I was accosted by an attendant, who wanted me to know that the strip of linen in a glass case on the wall was a garter which had been worn by Charles I. As I walked away, I couldn’t resist giving a quick finger-across-neck gesture, although I felt childish immediately afterwards. At least I didn’t do it to her face.
Fortunately I think I’m reasonably safe with regard to the criminal law. Contrary to some readings, the Terrorism Act 2006 doesn’t actually make it illegal to glorify political activity which involves carrying out or threatening personal violence, violence against property, economic disruption or a denial of service attack (otherwise known as ‘terrorism‘). It makes it illegal to glorify activity of any of these kinds in such a way that members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated by them in existing circumstances. So I think Garry can relax – as indeed can I, as long as I don’t say anything about the current Royals. (Update – on second thoughts I’m not so sure; see the comments.)
Anyway, there was one genuinely interesting exhibit in among the rich people’s playthings and copies of Old Masters: an early-nineteenth-century broadside ballad dedicated to the theme that British people wanted “King, not Consul” – more specifically, George III and not Napoleon. It seemed that what was particularly objectionable about Napoleon wasn’t the fact that he was a foreign ruler – and thus could only come to power by defeating the British armed forces and overthrowing the British government – but his religious faith, or lack of it. Napoleon was as happy to negotiate (from a position of strength) with Muslims in Egypt as the Pope in Rome: at worst he was a Muslim himself, at best he was a slippery and untrustworthy atheist. From the second verse of the broadside:
No Corsican despot in Britain shall rule,
No avowed devotee of the Mussulman school
Reading these lines I was suddenly reminded of the tone of the Euston Manifesto:
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently “understand”, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemyWe reject the double standards … [of] finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse.
Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today … like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.
the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the “anti-war” movement with illiberal theocrats … Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms.
The difference between the Left that I identify with and the Euston signatories seems less a matter of policy than of perspective. I look at the British government and I see several things that alarm me deeply: for example, the Terrorism Acts (2006 and 2000), the Iraq invasion, control orders, ASBOs, the creeping privatisation of health and education, an excessively friendly relationship with Berlusconi’s Italy, a far too friendly relationship with Sharon’s Israel and a downright subservient relationship with Bush’s USA. The Euston signatories, apparently, look at our government and see a democracy – what’s more, a democracy that’s under threat from enemies of democracy. Which means that, before we get into the details of what a Left project might look like in current conditions, there are hard questions to be asked. One hard question in particular: which side are you on? Do you want to be ruled by a Corsican despot, or don’t you? You don’t? Well then, you’d better stop complaining, and support the only people who are in a position to protect you. God save the King!
Back in Euston (surely not the Head of Steam…) the point is not to support democracy as a principle but to oppose selected opponents of democracy – and support the nations which also oppose them. It’s a retreat from politics into patriotism, essentially, sketchily covered by gestures towards universalism. (Like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, for example. Unlike the drafters of the Terrorism Act 2000, the authors don’t pause to define terrorism, which is probably just as well: I’m not sure there is a definition which would make that statement valid.) As I wrote earlier, “Taking up the cudgels for one relatively undemocratic status quo against another is a mug’s game”; in practice it may be locally appropriate or even necessary, but it doesn’t follow that we should treat it as a political principle. Unfortunately, the drift from tactical accommodation to statement of principle seems hard to resist.
It is all very well to be ‘advanced’ or ‘enlightened’, to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England?
- George Orwell, April 1940
It seems the time has come for Norm, Nick and friends. At least they’re in good company.
Small update (18/4)
Over at Crooked Timber, Marc Mulholland has an interesting angle:
The problem, I reckon, is the very vague formulation of the concept of agency. Classic manifestos identify a historic force (class, nation, the free-born or whatever) and pledge allegiance to it. For ‘Euston’, the agency seems to be ‘actually existing’ pluralist democracies as projectors of state power and example. But there is no examination of why governments should be privileged over, say, national communities, market-orientated civil societies or class alliance configurations as carriers of the democratic ethos.
I think this is backwards: I don’t think the concept of agency is vague, or indeed that it isn’t the starting point of the exercise (in the classic manifesto style). What the Eustonistas have done is precisely to identify an actually-existing (ha) historic force and pledge allegiance to it, then dress the whole in statements of liberal principle. That’s why the end result reads so oddly (“straight-forward neo-cons do this kind of thing a lot more effectively”, as Marc says).