Saturday, August 05, 2006


What do I fear? Myself? There's none else by.
Richard loves Richard: that is, I am I.

So, Tony Blair has gone mad. This is no great surprise. Politicians go mad during their third term in office. The United States constitution recognises as much. Blair's recent speech to his bosses at News International provides us with a depressing insight into his current state of mind.

Blair says–stop me if you've heard this before–that the old political dichotomy between Left and Right no longer applies.

Most confusingly for modern politicians, many of the policy prescriptions, cross traditional Left/Right lines. Basic values, attitudes to the positive role of Government, social objectives - these still do divide along familiar Party lines. But on policy the cross-dressing is rampant and is a feature of modern politics that will stay. The era of tribal political leadership is over. But across a range of issues, there is no longer a neat filing of policy to the Left or the Right.

This is not exactly news: it's the theory on which New Labour was founded. Although Blair has stopped using the phrase, the concept of the Third Way is central to his thinking. It's the nearest thing he has to a political philosophy. Whatever he is talking about–foreign policy, education, law and order–he invariably says that in the Olden Days there was a debate between two opposing viewpoints; but that he, Tony Blair, discovered that this polarity was redundant, and everybody now agrees with him. In his recent speech in Bristol, Blair claimed that there used to be a difference of opinion between those who thought that you should deal with the social causes of crime and those who thought that you should simply punish criminals.

In retrospect, the argument looks sterile, silly even. New Labour finally arrived at what has now become the conventional position, summed up in the phrase: 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'.

The Third Way isn't moderation–navigating a mid-point between too-far-to-the-Right and too-far-to-the-Left. New Labour is supposed to be a new thing: neither Left, nor Right but somehow a synthesis of both.

Of course, this is nonsense: there is no such thing as a synthesis between two mutually exclusive actions. Blair's Third Way turns out to be a re-packaging of bog-standard centre-right ideology. The synthesis between punishing criminals and dealing with the social causes of crime turns out to be building more prisons and sending more people to jail; the synthesis between nationalisation and privatisation turns out to be, er, privatisation.

So, take a look at Blair's plans to abolish–I'm sorry, did I say abolish? I meant 'reform'–the welfare state. Blair says that 'old fashioned' welfare systems and public services can't bring about social justice.

Today's world means that social justice can only be achieved through education, not regulation; through enterprise flourishing and creating wealth, not being constrained.

But this has nothing to do with 'today's world'. In yesterday's world, there were people who thought that you should deal with poverty by redistributing wealth–taxing the rich and using the money to pay for social security cheques and public services. And people will doubtless continue to believe this in tomorrow's world, and in any parallel worlds Tony Blair chooses to visit. People who believe in this are called 'The Left'. And there always have been, and always will be, people who think that if governments would only stop taking money away from the rich then the rich would build factories, open shops, hire servants and thus create wealth and give jobs to the poor. People who think this are called 'The Right'. Blair thinks that the Right are right and the Left are wrong. You may very well agree with him. But it's nonsense to pretend that something in the Modern Age has changed the nature of the debate. This is the old, old clash between socialists and capitalists, and Blair knows very well which side he's on.

Oh: and he also says that 'fairness, equality, opportunity for all' are 'good progressive values' but that although 'the values are constant, their application has to be dynamic.' But hang on -- aren't 'values' supposed to be the one area where people are still divided along traditional party lines? So if, as a loyal Labour party supporter, Tony believes in the socialist Values of Fairness, Equality and Opportunity, does that mean that he thinks that they are the kind of values which the Conservative Party rejects?

Proclaiming a consensus where none actually exists is a classic tactic to disenfranchise the opposition. If 'everyone agrees' that the argument between the Left and the Right is over, then it follows that anyone putting forward a Left-wing position can be ignored. They're not exactly wrong; they're merely camped out in the jungle fighting enemies who don't exist any more. Tony Benn, George Galloway, about two-thirds of the Labour Party and myself are thus discovered to be un-persons. When Blair says that politics is no longer divided between the Left and the Right, he means that the Left, in the person of the Honourable Member for Sedgefield, has rolled over and died. Which is presumably why he has travelled all the way to California in order to ritually kiss the bottom of the most Right-wing newspaper magnate the world has ever known.

The argument between the Left and the Right was an argument between two intellectually plausible positions. People became Socialists or Conservatives as a result of an intellectual process. Michael Foot used to meet up with Barbara Castle and other friends in order to study the writings of Karl Marx together–not something which you can really imagine Gordon Brown and John Prescott doing. It was therefore possible for both sides to engage in an intellectual debate; and even for a genuine consensus to emerge. If we both want a socialist utopia, then we can discuss whether this would be better achieved by incrementally increasing workers rights, or by storming the gates of Buckingham Palace. And you can challenge us about whether the workers would be happier under Socialism than under a prosperous Capitalist system. In the meantime, we can work together to provide free health care for poor people.

But according to Blair, this Left versus Right debate has been superseded by–I promise I'm not making this up–a debate between Open and Closed. The three most important debates in European politics are about protectionism, isolationism and 'nativism', which Blair defines as 'relating to immigration and national identity.'

In each case the issue is: 'Open or Closed'. The response to globalisation can be free trade, open markets, investment in the means of competition: education, science, technology. Or it can be protectionism, tariffs, tight labour market regulation, resistance to foreign takeovers.

Countries can choose foreign policies that are engaged and activist, seeking to sort out the world's problems; or try to avoid their problems; refrain from controversy or picking sides, isolating a nation from the pain of the hurly-burly of the world's challenges, but also from the opportunity to shape their outcome.

And not a major country anywhere is not riven by the debate on migration: do we welcome it as infusing new blood and ideas; or do we fear it as undermining our identity?

It isn't immediately obvious what the views which Blair has labelled as Open and those he has labelled as Closed have in common. Surely you could support a non-interventionist ('Closed') foreign policy, but a liberal ('Open') immigration policy? And what would inform your decision about whether to be Open or Closed in a particular instance? Not, says Blair any kind of political theory or ideology:

Where leaders stand on these issues has little to do with being on the Left or the Right but everything to do with modern or traditional attitudes to a changing world.

But in Blairspeak 'modern' means good and 'traditional' means bad, so to say that 'traditional' people support the Closed position is simply to say that the Closed position is wrong. Closed people are against education, science and technology; they don't want to sort out the world's problems; they don't like new ideas. Left vs Right was a debate between two credible positions. Open vs Closed is a row between the obviously right and the obviously wrong. It's an argument between nice and nasty, sensible and silly, modern and old fashioned–which, by a staggering coincidence, turns out to mean 'between those who agree with Tony Blair, and everyone else.'

Blair is absolutely explicit here: the Closed half of the debate has absolutely no merit and nothing to offer:

In this battle - 'Open versus Closed' - those on the 'Open' side of the argument will meet fierce opposition. Yet the 'Closed' side of the argument in truth has nothing to offer a nation except the delusion that the tide of change can be turned back; or alternatively a weaker version of the same delusion, namely that hard choices can just be evaded.

He references his 1999 conference speech, in which he labelled his enemies 'the forces of conservatism'. This was, he says, widely misunderstood: he wasn't attacking the Conservative party, but small-c conservatives who opposed change. Of course, anything a government does involves changing something. If you oppose a particular change, you are, by definition, a conservative. To say that the 'forces of conservatism' are the baddies is perilously close to saying 'change is always good; to oppose change is always bad'. But how is this different from saying 'whatever the government does–whatever I, Tony Blair do–is right'?

If you opposed the war in Iraq, it follows that you support isolationism and that you don't want to sort out the worlds problems. You feel this way because you are Closed; which means that, as the result of a delusion, you hold 'traditional' views of the world. You are part of the forces of conservatism; a baddy. It follows that we don't have to listen to anything you say: indeed, as Leaders, our job is not to engage in a debate with Closed people, but to simply press on, resolutely, with what we know is right.

But how do we leaders know what is right? Not through conventional religion or morality. Both Tony Blair and George Bush have drawn some fire for saying that they think that God influences their decisions. It is slightly too easy to lampoon Bush's folksy religious language: when someone from the evangelical tradition says 'I feel that God told me to do this' they probably only mean 'I feel that I did what was right'. Whatever you may have read in the Guardian, neither Blair nor Bush have ever suggested that a supernatural being appeared unto them and said 'Invade Iraq!' or 'Expand the provision of nursery school places for the under-3s!'

However, if you suggest to Tony that he acted reprehensibly in the run-up to the Iraq war, his response is to assert that he sincerely believes that what he did was right; although he accepts that other people believe, equally sincerely, that he was wrong. 'Beliefs' seem to be something like birthmarks or allergies; you have them, you're stuck with them; but you certainly can't change them through rational discourse. When asked about how the Iraq war related to his religious faith, Blair didn't try to prove that what he did was correct according to the precepts of the Bible or the writings of Christian holy men. He certainly didn't pay much attention to what the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope thought. He simply said that he believed his actions would some day be judged by God.

Some people might think that the way to find out if an action is 'good' or 'bad' is to see if it follows some agreed set of rules: the Bible, the Koran, the Constitution, the Geneva Conventions, the Boy Scout Law. But Blair thinks that his actions were good because he was experiencing a subjective emotional state called 'sincerity' at the time. And he trusts that in the future they will be declared to have been good according to a set of ineffable divine criteria. Only Tony Blair knows whether he really was sincere or not; only God knows what will happen on Judgement Day. So if you aren't Tony Blair or God, you had better shut up.

The present speech doesn't mention God, thank God. But it does say that Tony Blair's foreign policy is right because Tony Blair feels that it is right:

My anxiety over foreign policy is not in relation to the debate about terrorism or security. I have many opponents on the subject: but complete inner-confidence in the analysis of the struggle we face.

And what to do when those pesky Closed people suggest that it's possible that, even if you are very, very confident indeed, you might still be wrong?

The world changes fast; the policy changes necessary to cope are hugely challenging; opposition from traditionalists is immense. In these conditions, political leaders have to back their instinct and lead.

'Back your instinct.' Well of course. With ideology abolished, and with 'God' appearing to be synonymous with 'my own conscience' all you can do is follow your instinct; your gut feeling. And gut-feeling, unlike Das Kapital, isn't something that you can argue with. I like Marmite. Look, you know, I just happen to sincerely believe that Marmite is delicious. I have an inner-confidence about that. I accept that you sincerely believe that Marmite is disgusting. But there is no way that I can prove to you that you are wrong. We'll just have to wait until the Day of Judgement and let God sort it out.

In the meantime, if you are a leader, just do whatever comes into your head. In fact, do the first thing which comes into your head, because 'caution is error, to hesitate is to lose'. It doesn't necessarily matter what you do, provided you do something. 'Back you instincts, and lead.' Being a leader is an end in itself–not necessarily a leader of anything; not the spokesman of a party or the representative of an electorate, but just a leader.

For a leader, don't let your ego be carried away by the praise or your spirit diminished by the criticism and look on each with a very searching eye. But for heaven's sake, above all else, lead.

'For heaven's sake, lead.' The real distinction is not between Open and Closed. It's between Us, the Leaders, and you, the Led. Our function is to follow our gut-instinct; you're function is to follow us. The direction doesn't particularly matter.

So. For the next few months, we are going to being ruled by a raving lunatic who thinks that the basis of political decision making is 'whatever Tony feels like at the time.' But this is not the problem. The problem is that after a brief interregnum, David Cameron is going to be exactly the same.


culfy said...


The media seems pretty fixated on this greeting. Shock Horror, two people who often work pretty close together and probably have a close relationship great each other in an informal way.

The concept of the third way seems to be related to a particular type of fallacy that I can't remember the name of. Two people are arguing about what 2+2 is. One says 4, one says 6. A third man comes along and says they should compromise on the answer being 5.

Paul Brown said...

"And people will doubtless continue to believe this in tomorrow's world, and in any parallel worlds Tony Blair chooses to visit"

Now, now, you know as well as I do that, in any parallel worlds, everyone will believe unanimously in taxing the rich and using the money to build airships.

Culfy - as far as I can tell, the thrid way seems to consist not of compromise, but rather of pretending that the question isn't there; so one person claims that 2 + 2 = 3, the other claims that 2 + 2 = 5. The third way is to claim that people who try to evaluate 2 + 2 are mistaken, because it cannot be evaluated precisely and both points of view are equally valid (whilst secretly assuring yourself that the answer is obviously 4.8).

Andrew Rilstone said...

My view is that what actually happens is this:

Person A: "Two plus two equals five."
Person B: "No, two plus two equals three."
Person C: "We need a new kind of mathematics in which the old distinction between "three" and "five" no longer applies. And when you have adopted this new kind of mathematics, you will see that the the answer is in fact "five".

Tom R said...

It's true that on individual issues, there's usually ("preferred flavour of ice-cream" aside) one answer that's morally or fatcually the right one. Either the globe is warming or it isn't. Either redistribution is theft, or it isn't.

But when people select a range of issues, they often do so on the basis of an ideology or religion, and this can mean that someone who agrees with you on A but disagrees on B might accuse you of "incoherence" when, in fact, you have a different meta-criterion for what the deciding criterion is.

Take a biggie: abortion. SOmeone who believes "adult women should have the maximum free choice in their childbearing" would not just want abortion decriminalised but also fully paid for by the state, and possibly individual doctors, nurses and pharmacists compelled by law to provide abortions, contraceptives, and advice about them. OTOH, someone whose lodestar is minimal-state libertarianism might agree with decriminalisation but would oppose subsidisation, and support individual freedom of conscientious objection. For examples, contrast Katha Pollitt with Eugene Volokh.

C/f also how conservatives who praised Pope John Paul II for his "stalwart" opposition to communism and abortion later saw him as distressingly "left" on capital punishment and the Iraq war. The conservatives' lodestars were "use the full power of the state to punish those who murder innocents" (viz Saddam, convicted murderers, and abortionists) and "take the fight across the whole world". JP2's lodestars were "avoid killing people unless in immediate self-defence" and "avoid one country militarily occupying another".

And again, someone who attends a rally calling for "Israel Out of The Occupied Terr-..." -- err, these days that would have to be "Israel Out of Israel", it seems, but that was always obvious in hindsight... anyway, whether their coalition holds on other issues (gay marriage, eg) will depend on whether they're radical young Muslims or earnest young anti-Zionist Jewish Marxists.

So for this reason, "beyond left and right" or "neither left or right" makes a lot of sense when applied to a person's world view, rather than issue by issue.

I mean, Andrew, there must be a few Pullmanites out there to whom it Does Not Compute that you vote LibDem and oppose Blair over Iraq, but also defend the racistmisogynistimperialist CS Lewis...

Eric Spratling said...

Insane? Hardly. Politicians boiling down "left and right" to "I'm right, and you're stupid" is a worldwide phenomenon. Why give your political opponents the dignity of holding wrong yet reasonable and at least modestly-defensible viewpoints, when you can just dismiss them with cliched adjectives that don't mean much of anything: "traditional," "closed," "outdated," "simplistic," "flag-waving," "old-fashioned," etc.? If Tony Blair's a maniac, then so are most of the politicians in the world.

Of course, that's too easy.

Endie said...

It is an understatement to say that I am no fan of Mr Blair. But your dismissal of his analysis of "open vs Closed" seems unsupported by the arguments you put forward.

The debate on each is real. The "closed" positions may very well seem clearly and instinctively wrong to you or I, but to many of those who voted conservative in the last election (re migration) it is real.

Similarly, to those who worry about globalisation of trade (which I would suggest comprises the bulk of those who don't think much about or understand economics, not just a few crusties and grebos) then the debate is equally real.

And to those who wish an isolationist rather than interventionist UK stance in international relations ("we can't fix *everywhere*, why intervene anywhere/in Iraq/in Afghanistan?"), especially those dupes who are caught up in the SWP/Islamo-fascist/Respect-dominated Stop the War coalition, then there may be no debate but they certainly disagree with the "open" stance (this is not a dig at those who have well-thought-out worries or concerns about these issues, which are not simply inherited from such victims of SWP entryism).

Oh, and by way of a PS, Murdoch isn't close to being the most right wing newspaper magnate in history. I could start with peripheral cases like Streicher's Der Sturmer and work towards the central cases in the 1930s US landscape, but I suspect you knew it was hyperbole...

Andrew Rilstone said...

The debate on each is real. The "closed" positions may very well seem clearly and instinctively wrong to you or I, but to many of those who voted conservative in the last election (re migration) it is real.

Blair frames the argument in such a way as to make the "closed" position self-evidentally false. I don't think that they false: on Blair's definition, I am "open" on immigration and "closed" on welfare reform.

Of course there is more than possible view on immigration.

Practical: How many people can we conveniently have living in our country?

Moral: To what extent do we have a responsibility to let inconveniently large numbers of foriegners come to our country if they are having a very bad time in their own?

Constitutional: When someone comes to live in our country, what rights should they acquire, and at what point?

Religious: What values and norms are manadatory on citizens of our country; and which can be determined by the individual citizen? (If Jews can wear skullcaps, why can't Muslims wear Hajibs? Why can't Rastahs smoke pot and Christians teach their children that Jonah was swallowed by a homosexual in six days?)

Aesthetic: Would it be nicer to live in a world where different countries were very different from each other, or one where they are all increasingly similar?

I don't think that there is a self-evidently right answer on any of these points. (*) They seem to be eminently open to discussion: some of them are matters of taste or values; some of them are complicated technical questiosn where the experts disagree.

However, Blair has framed the argument as being between "open" people who agree with the "modern" world and who welcome "new blood and new ideas", and "closed, traditional" people who resist change, base their beliefs on a delusion, and have nothing to offer. He thus lifts the debate out of the rational sphere. Where in real life there are (at least) two points of view, in the Blairsphere there is only one -- his.

I don't think Blair literally kissed anyone's arse, either.

I thought "Islamo-fascist" was a Dave Sim coinage?

(*)Except the moral one: if you don't approve of torture, you can't send someone back to a country where he will be tortured, and this trumps all other considerations. But that still leaves open lots of practical questions of how you han

Endie said...

Yeah, my point was less about the particular points, or even about the idea that there are multiple valid positions on each side of the "Open/Closed" divide so much as that I, at least, find the distinction a useful one (alongside several other such) to discuss, especially if "closed" is replaced with a slightly less value-loaded term. I've certainly enjoyed your comments on it, so it already has merit.

And I can't help but see criticism of a prime minister for painting his answers as being the sole sensible and useful ones as a bit "rain falls in British winters". Don't hate da playah, etc...

Re the term islamo-fascism, I wasn't even aware of Mr Sim: I have friends who are huge comic fans, but my knowledge of the genre reaches about as far as Sandman, Preacher and Morrison/McKean's Arkham Asylum.

Wikipedia has the term originating with Malise Ruthven in the Independent in 1990, or as "islamic fascism" with Hitchens in 1989. If you have a date previous to those for Sim then it would certainly be worth an update.

Gavin Burrows said...

Of course it is nothing short of hilarious for the man who proposed detention without trial to suggest my views are closed! But why stop at open and closed? Why not try and say there are two points of view in the modern world, the exceedingly stupid one and the very smart one, and that extensive research has shown the very smart one to be smarter, and the very stupid notion that we should all impale our heads on large spikes while standing in custard is in fact not such a good idea.

I’m more interested in asking where he gets it from. Isn’t Blairist rhetoric really just a wholesale lifting of business-speak and transplanting it into the political context? Pep talks by your team leader don’t tend to talk much in terms of sides, but emphasise the fact that we’re all in this together. All until some team members start suggesting they don’t particularly want to work extra hours for no more money at a time when their employer’s well in profit, whereupon they’re labelled as “change resistant” and “stuck in old practices” etc.

When first in power Blair even used to issue ‘reports’ which parodied company annual reports to show just how well the Government was doing. Not only is this absurd and meaningless, but it’s self-contradictory. If it’s supposed to be desirable or even possible for the government to imitate a business, how come we need all this widespread privatisation?

I wonder if this is partly why so many people demonstrated against the war, then buckled as soon as it started. We had the part where the unpopular decision went to the team for feedback. The team replied it was the worst idea they ever heard, were thanked for their feedback then told the unpopular decision was happening anyway.

I can see how this replacement of one set of clich├ęs by another could even temporarily seem refreshing. The fact that it all seemed sort of familiar (ie what you were used to hearing in a work context) just stopped it seeming too strange and new.

However, not only was this a short-term trick but Blair also succumbed to the curse of the salesman in starting to believe in what he was peddling. Now when people are less and less convinced by such sound-bites Blair assumes they just haven’t got it, and ups the dosage. Whenever Blair says anything like this now, it wears off faster and faster. The interesting question is how people would respond if Brown or Cameron were to start?

Tom R said...

Other members of The Sims have also written on the topic.