Well, no. This is image politics. Some BBC chuffer let go a lovely example: there are aides to Gordon Brown, he said, who are urging an early poll because they're scared his honeymoon lease has all too short a date. Act now, seize mandate, change Britain and fuck the other side (the toff, and his mate the toff) over the cliff.
Now I like to see a Tory shafted as much as the next champagne lefty. I couldn't however help the semi-drunk sense of disorientation I got whenever I contemplated this remark. If Gordon isn't sure the vows will stick beyond the first fortnight's bedevilled loving (tickle me with pledges for a fairer NHS! suck my have-a-go hero!), then he either believes his will make a poor government (ie, political weather will deteriorate so gravely that his crack team will emerge looking bad however they respond), or assumes that our perception of him as voters has little or no relation to what success in office he’s determined to realise. For why call a poll, Mr Brown, if you are not confident the country, after the two or so years you’re electorally authorised to lead it, would be in as robust a state as you'd promise on campaign, say, tomorrow?
I would like to note in passing that ‘have-a-go hero’ is a clumsy phrase for what it defines; clearly in its popularity consists its poetry. The words alliterate and rhyme.
Brown is not the path of this excursion. (I am a political ignoramus.) My inspiration has rather been Oliver Kamm, a fellow blogger whose website is devoid of comments not because it has no visitors, like this one, but because he doesn’t invite them — that I presume would make for the anarchy of Cif, or Wikipedia, which on many occasions he has branded ‘anti-intellectual’.* Kamm is a clever man, for his independence persuasive in argument, enviably well-read, and a stylist of mandarin brutality. (He has a weakness for namecalling: I don’t see that it follows from Mark Steel’s membership of the Socialist Workers’ Party that he is a supporter of the Islamist war effort. If you asked him he would say he was not. Many Labour backbenchers, even Ministers, disagree with policies their party espouses.) I know little of his biography, but a reference in passing to Julian Glover suggested he had read PPE, which made his banking career and historical erudition testament of polymathy. His most important opinion is his backing, as soi-disant leftwinger, of the Iraq War. It is this opinion over which I want to cast an eye.
My own opinion of Iraq is not important, because I have never been there, have no relationship with any Iraqi and have read exactly one relevant book. It’s enough to say I’m emotionally against it and rationally unconcluded (for at a guess twenty more years). Mr Kamm’s matters because it is one of the few to remain on the pro-war side that is attentively reasoned as it is vigorously expressed. I even sent fanmail a couple days ago to tell him something similar, so you’ll imagine I was pleased when it was announced he would be debating Iraq at the Labour Conference, for a ‘fringe debate’ organised by Newsnight. I duly tuned in.
Kamm was the weakest debater on the panel, both in presentation and content. In what little the editors left of his remarks he spoke with an air of scrupulosity, a nervousness, that impugned his arguments before he’d finished them — if Paxman let him. On TV bravado appears as relaxed confidence and careful humility a cowed kind of diffidence. But fault of presentation is easily forgiven if the speaker’s words are thoughtful: Mr Kamm’s, in this case, offended me. It is the foible of pro-war commentators (labelled ‘neoconservatives’, with passable accuracy) to portray themselves as unillusioned, as realist with the self-possession or courage to admit to themselves the full gravity of Islamist jihad. We know that many Americans were not realistic, or had illusions, about the situation on the ground in the country they were to invade. We know that many commentators argued and are still arguing for an illusory Iraq War, one which was not prosecuted by those men who had illusions about the situation on the ground, who were in the circumstances always going to show the venality and make the mistakes and commit the blunders they did; in this regard they are naïve. We, or I, did not know before that it was possible to invoke an illusion, thinking oneself unillusioned, to justify this war. Mr Kamm in his concluding words resorted exactly to that. I paraphrase of necessity, but his point was: If we hadn’t invaded x would have happened, so the invasion was right. This fairly disgusts me, since one of my life’s principles is that as the future is unknowable, so is the counterfactual past. Absolutely. To seek morally to account for the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent people and thousands of troops by a jerrybuilt utilitarian calculus of suffering whose complement** exists only in the mind of the calculator is itself corrupt, and morally wrong.
I end this post angrier than I started. I suppose it’s upsetting that a writer whose intelligence, in his recent hiatus, I missed more than I’d suspected, could so abase himself in defence of a position to which he has committed his reputation and almost his dignity. After anger, to Geoffrey Hill I’ll give consoling final say.
Offertorium: December 2002
For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,
with restitution if things come to that.
—*Yes, Mr Kamm, but if you want expert contributors you have either to pay them, or remain small-fry as Citizendium: the only way to build an internet encyclopedia as popular and as comprehensive as this is to open contribution at first to everyone. The prose is dire, but Nature has shown that it is accurate; why are not ‘anti-intellectual’ costs — and if these are real you have to assume Wikipedia’s ethos will become the world’s default ethos of knowledge, if it wasn’t before — underwritten by educative and other benefits, and why is not its success evidence of its usefulness doing duties for which the scholarly encyclopedias were neither intended nor designed? I take the cost-benefit method of reckoning value from your own reflections on morality; you seem to judge whether an act is good by your calculation of how it has affected the world’s balance of suffering.
**I don’t know the noun. This is my best guess.