Euston, you don’t have lift-off

By Daniel Finklestein (THE TIMES, 26/04/06):

SO, ANYWAY, there I was on Monday night in Pinner Synagogue giving a speech alongside my mother, as one does. We were attending a Holocaust remembrance service and my Mum was telling her survivor’s tale, the story of her life as a young girl. I think I know it pretty well, but whenever I hear it, I always discover something I’d missed or hadn’t thought about properly before. And so it proved.

We’d got to bit where my mother was describing her family’s arrest and transportation from Holland to their first concentration camp. Then she noted this, almost in passing: “We were placed in cattle trucks and they were, as you would expect, terrible places to be. But our journey only lasted a few hours. It was not like my husband, whose journey lasted for days.”

This was something I’d never reflected on. You see, my father was not one of Hitler’s victims. His journey was to Siberia. His family (minus my grandfather, already serving 15 years hard labour as an “antisocial element”) was being deported by the Soviet army from home in Lvov to exile in a remote village. I suppose it should have struck me before now that this was a longer journey than that between Amsterdam and the Westerbork, but it hadn’t. Now that it has, I’m not sure it changes anything, but I was interested, that’s all.

As I was growing up I learnt gradually of the different, and terrible, experiences of my mother and father. And I have always been more interested in the similarities than in the contrasts. Of course the Nazi Holocaust and the Communist mass murder and imprisonment were not the same, but in my family we haven’t spent much time debating which form of totalitarianism was preferable.

You might think, therefore, that I would greet with enthusiasm the publication earlier this month of something called the Euston Manifesto (PDF).

The what? In the weeks after the general election, a group of liberal commentators, led by the politics professor and blogger Norman Geras and the impressive columnist Nick Cohen began meeting in a pub to Euston, not too far from where Karl Marx used to write his polemics.

The result — a manifesto that calls on the Left to support universal human rights, to abandon anti-American prejudice, to see all forms of totalitarianism as being essentially the same, to be willing to support miltary intervention against oppressive regimes if necessary, to promote democracy and women’s rights and free speech all over the world. And so on. Read it yourself, it’s really very good (www.eustonmanifesto.org/joomla/).

The authors believe they are reclaiming these principles for the Left, principles that originated with Left thinkers and were fought for by Left agitators, principles that commend themselves to any Left thinker on domestic issues but somehow do not when those same people consider foreign policy. And in this, the signatories of the Euston Manifesto have a good point, of course they do.

It is not necessary to go back to the Enlightenment to find the Left defending all this. Since September 11 2001, conservatives have taken much of the heat for their advocacy of intervention and the spread of democracy. Yet some of the most articulate arguments for this position have come from those who see themselves as left-wing — from our own David Aaronovitch and Oliver Kamm, for instance, or from the American intellectual Paul Berman. And no other statesman has matched the courage with which Tony Blair has put this case.

So here’s my position on the Euston manifesto. I admire its authors, I agree with its sentiments, I think it well written and timely. I also think this — the Euston Manifesto is a gigantic waste of time and energy.

There isn’t a meaningless sentence in the Manifesto; every one takes issue with a view widely held on the Left. And that is exactly where the problem lies. The authors want to save the Left from itself. I think — why bother? Tony Blair recently commented: “I keep saying to people: one of the greatest failures of progressive politics in my lifetime has been that, in the anti-American parts of the progressive Left, we have ended up on the wrong side with someone as evil as Saddam.” True enough.

Meanwhile, I wonder and I wait. I wonder when Mr Blair is going to stop being bewildered and frustrated by this failure and begin living with its consequences. I wait for the penny to drop that his war on Iraq required Tory support in the Commons, despite him having one of the biggest majorities enjoyed by a progressive party. I wonder and I wait for him to understand that while he might feel that progressives should support his views and those of the Euston Manifesto, in practice they do not.

The principles outlined by the authors of the Euston Manifesto may draw on the great history of the Left, but they are not its present or its future. The group supporting it has impressive quality. But quantity? No. All the hours spent drafting such a clear statement of principles has been wasted on people who do not agree and never will.

The task of persuading the Left is also unnecessary. For if the Euston Manifesto had been published by a group of rightwingers it might attract some right-wing opposition, but support would be overwhelming on the Right. This may not be a very attractive fact for a group of left-liberal authors to come to terms with, but it is the truth nevertheless.

I know how hard this is. I had to come to terms with it myself, after years of thinking myself part of the Left, and it was difficult to do and took me a long time. But it is now more than 15 years since I realised that the Left’s failure to treat all forms of totalitarianism as if they were the same was not going to change.

The Right has its failings, Lord knows that it does. But it is a better ally in the cause that the Euston Manifesto champions. It is as simple as that.