By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 22/04/06):
You will have to read the Euston Manifesto (PDF) in full for yourself. Likewise the churning arguments that are developing about it on commentisfree.com and other weblogs. But there are two big things you need to know as the debate on this latest leftwing prescription begins to move into the mainstream press. The first is that the authors’ main purpose is to rescue what remains of the British left from an obsession with the Iraq invasion and American imperialism and to shake it out of apologising for violent Islamists. The second is that the document is a cry of pain.
You are entitled to ask how much any of this debate, launched in the New Statesman a week ago, actually matters in the wider scheme of things. In one sense, not much. A small bunch of people have got together and written a political manifesto which a number of other people disagree with. Exercises of this kind litter the history of the left – and few of them have left much trace on the rest of the world. They bring to mind a line in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties about a meeting in Zurich in 1917 of an organisation called Social Democrats for Civil War in Europe. “Total attendance: four. Ulyanov, Mrs Ulyanov, Zinoviev, and a police spy.”
It isn’t difficult to pick holes, including large ones, in the Euston group’s work. For something that apparently aims at creating “a fresh political alignment”, theirs is a surprisingly loosely drafted document. They have little to say about some very large issues, most notably economics in general and the place of markets in particular. Their agenda only marginally overlaps with what day-to-day politics and government in Britain are overwhelmingly about. Reading it this week, just when our politicians have been saying important things about the health service and the environment, it is striking that Euston says nothing at all about either.
Nor do you have to read very far before you get lost. What, for instance, is Euston trying to say about the emotive, difficult and central issue of equality? I have read the manifesto several times and I still don’t understand whether the authors think it is the role of the state to strive to achieve social and economic equality (I suspect that their answer is no), or whether the goal is the rather different one of reducing inequalities at the margins. These are hugely important questions in any progressive project and the Euston group has few answers to offer.
Part of this is because the Euston Manifesto starts in the wrong place for an exercise of this kind. Any attempt to explain the modern world – and thus to set out a course of political action designed to master it – has to start with the development of the global economy. The Euston authors have something to say about globalisation, though what they say also happens to be wrong. They concentrate exclusively on the threat from corporations, while ignoring the massive benefits from globalisation within our lifetime to billions of historically impoverished people in Asia whom state socialism has failed. But the main point is that to the Eustonians this is all an add-on, not a starting point.
That is because the focus of the manifesto is not the modern world but the British left – and these are far from being the same thing. It may be true, as some claim, that the current splits in the British left predate the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq, but there is little doubt that the Euston Manifesto would never have been written before September 2001 or even March 2003. This is because the manifesto is essentially a protest against the perceived obsession, dogmatism and influence of post-Iraq left politics.
There is a lot to relate to in what the manifesto says here. It is right about the core things – democracy, liberty, universality. But it is also right about the immoral excuses sometimes offered on behalf of reactionary terrorist actions under the “my enemy’s enemy must be my friend” rubric; right too about the disproportionate indignation about unjustifiable acts on the western side as compared with similar acts on the anti-western side; about the susceptibility towards anti-semitism in some discussion of Middle-Eastern issues; about the numbskull dishonesty of the left about its own crimes and failures; and about the need to champion, not scorn, the principle of international humanitarian intervention.
But there is a huge disjunction here too, and it goes back to Iraq. Importantly, given that several of the manifesto authors are associated with the “pro-war left” position, the document avoids that stand. Its case for interventionism is rightly internationalist not unilateralist. In effect it says that international interventionism is right in principle while implicitly acknowledging that Iraq, as conducted, was not such an intervention. Though I am one of those anti-war critics who think all this has become increasingly sterile, I also think that the pro-war writers of the manifesto need to face up to the effect of what they are saying.
It is also time that both sides looked the question of the United States more fully in the eye. America is not the problem; on that the manifesto is right. But the Bush administration unquestionably is. The pro-war school, both among the authors and in the British government, never properly acknowledges the historic rupture represented by Bush. But it would not have been like this if Al Gore had won in 2000.
When I started out on this article, I thought that I would be more sympathetic to the Euston Manifesto than has turned out to be the case. Ultimately, that is not because the manifesto has got it wrong on individual questions but because, in the end, it does not really address the kind of society that we live in and the kind of politics that is appropriate to it. One forms no picture of what the good society, as seen from Euston, would look like. I can see why it may choose not even to mention Tony Blair, but the failure even to address what has been happening in this country under a moderate progressive government for nearly a decade is extraordinary.
Instead the focus is all on reclaiming a British left which is obsessed with the past, has nothing important to say about the future, and for which only a small minority are ever likely to vote. But what precisely is the point of that? The anti-war movement was right about the war but wrong about everything else. The debate that counts in Britain today is in the centre, not on the left. The Euston Manifesto half acknowledges that we live in these changed times. But too much of it seems like an argument about the ownership of a corpse.