Wednesday, July 26, 2006


The Ruin of Two ‘Glamorous’ Prime Ministers, Fifty Years Apart

Fifty years ago today, Egypt’s President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The British Prime Minister compared him to Hitler, and mounted an invasion with a remarkably small number of allies; it all ended in tears. The BBC website’s ‘Eden: A man under strain’ calls him a man who “entered Downing Street as… dashing and glamorous” but left “with his reputation in tatters”. Anthony Blair must be wishing comparisons with Anthony Eden weren’t so glaring on this anniversary. I wish they weren’t, too. Mr Eden’s tragedy was that he didn’t have America on his side. Mr Blair’s is that he does.

Comparisons are, of course, slightly unfair – to Mr Eden. Mr Blair is still hanging on by his fingernails, and every day he and Mr Bush remain in power is another day that poison grows against our countries in much of the world. The poison grows for the Labour Party here, too, and while that’s been an opportunity for our party, I can’t pretend it’s healthy for democracy. A large body of voters who used to support the Labour Party now loathe and despise it; Labour ministers respond with arrogance, bile and locking themselves into wilful denial. Yes, I want Labour to lose support, but not like this, not for any party, even though they’ve brought and are still bringing every tiny bit of it upon themselves. And they’re deluded if they think it’ll just go away; sure, feeling won’t be as strong as it was immediately after the invasion, but again, I can’t help but remember Conrad Russell telling me that, as he was wrestling with a move from Labour to Liberal half a century after the First World War, his father told him that “he could never vote for the party of the Somme”.

I wrote a few months ago about how the superficial analysis of the mid-’90s thought Labour and the Lib Dems were much the same, because 18 years of Tory government meant different opposition parties could see the same egregious faults. Few people think we and Labour are particularly close today, and while their relentless authoritarianism keeps digging away, the biggest individual mover has been the war in Iraq. While a few people are now talking about the Tories moving closer to us, but that’s one of only several directions in which they’re casting glances, and not yet policies. Again, Iraq is perhaps the most glaring example. Are they still more gung-ho than the government, as they were at the time? Are they retrospectively opposed to the war, as they were for the Dunfermline by-election? Or do they say it was the right thing to do, but with some hand-waving about how it wasn’t done well (checks watch: still Mr Cameron’s position of the hour).

These are the eerily prescient closing words of the Epilogue to Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, published in 1999. If you haven’t read it, you might go there first; it’s quite short – but this paragraph, written several years before it became starkly relevant, still sends shivers up my spine:
“At present, though this is not a Liberal government, and on many issues we must oppose it accordingly, it is closer to us than the alternative, and it would be foolish not to recognise that fact. Yet this fact is not eternal. We are no closer to Labour now than we were to the Conservatives in 1955, which is perhaps the year of greatest closeness to them in my memory. The next year, we had Suez, and the closeness vanished in a puff of smoke. What will be in the next puff of smoke?”

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The French, British and Israelis were in it from the beginning. The plan was for Israel to start the war, then Britain and France would come in to save the day and seperate the two armies as a sort of peacekeeping operation. Many people in the Arab world must be wondering if a similar deception is underway in the Lebanon.
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