November 01, 2004

Inch imperfect

Not long before the General Election of 1997, Richard Neville was widely quoted in the British press as having said something to this effect:
The difference between Labour and the Tories may only be an inch, but it's an inch worth living in.
It was quoted so widely, because it struck home in so many hearts: it was a philosophy which, for millions of people, represented their thoughts. One by which many of them cast their votes. I think, in fact, that Neville said it with Australian politics specifically in mind, but it didn't really matter because it was, every inch, just as applicable to British politics.

It wasn't that they liked New Labour. (It never really asked them to and there was never much there to like.) It wasn't that they wouldn't have taken anything better. But even if there had been anything better to take, they knew too many other people didn't seem to want it.This, it seemed, was as could as they could hope for, and it was certainly as good as they were going to get. So if New Labour were only an inch better than the Tories, then that inch was the inch which they would take. And it was an inch worth living in. For the Tories would always be Tories, while Labour, when all was said and done, were still Labour.

I never really went for it in any way, except for the gut identification that it made with Labour, almost any Labour, against the Tories. Even now, when it seems almost inconceivable to cast a vote for Labour in all but the most exceptional of circumstances, that feeling remains, uneroded, atavistic. Whenever the Tories attack Labour, that feeling always comes straight to the surface. These are our people, being attacked by theirs, and it is in our interest to defend them. Even now, it is possible to warm to Gordon Brown when he speaks out in defence of the public sector and its ethos, in a way that one could never warm to an equivocatory Charles Kennedy. Even now.

But, as I said at the time, as I have said since, and as I would say both now and in the future: live in that inch if you must, but beware of what happens, to both you and the inch, if you do. Because it's not just that that inch is an unsatisfactory inch, a truncated inch, an inch you would never have settled for when you were young. We all of us make compromises. We all of us settle for less than we once hoped, perhaps less than we should have settled for. That's not the issue. The problems are otherwise. The problems are these:
  1. If you settle for the inch, it is the most you will ever settle for.
  2. If you settle for the inch, that inch will move.
  3. If you settle for the inch, you will try and stop other people fighting for more than the inch.

I could have added a fourth to the list, which I never anticipated at the time, but which has become repeatedly obvious since: that if you settle for the inch, the people who are offering that inch will grow arrogant and self-satisfied beyond measure. If this wasn't obvious from the start, it was because many Labour people - I mean, elected Labour people - seemed to be accepting the New Labour inch only with the same reluctance as their supporters. Very often, this was true. But over the last few years - indeed, over the last two decades, since the process began with the triple defeats of 1983, the miners' strike and Wapping - the suits have first emerged and then completely taken over, arrogant and ambitious men and women who, if they believe anything at all, believe that their careers and the careers of people like them come before any other considerations.

While there have always been opportunists and arrogant careerists in the labour movement as there are anywhere else, they were previously constrained by the need to believe things, and the need to debate things. From the mid-Eighties, all that was gone. There could be no arguments, because they would suggest a divided Labour Party and a divided Labour Party could not win elections. And who is more arrogant than a functionary whose orders cannot be questioned? Nobody. Nobody anywhere, for these people got everything they wanted not out of fear but out of party loyalty. Out of loyalty to the inch.

Peter Mandelson begat Derek Draper, and Tony Blair begat Alan Milburn. All of these begat David Aaronovitch. All of them beget arrogance. Why can an Aaronovitch be so smug, be so pompous, be so easily able to back each successive governmental outrage with such aggression? Because nobody can stop the side he's backing. He has chosen the winning side. He knows that they're the winning side, because their opponents have many times sworn to let them win without a struggle. Without a peep. And so he, and they, can get away with anything. They have come to expect it. They have come not even to notice that they expect it.

If you settle for the inch, that inch will move. It's moved a very long way. It's moved many, many inches away from the particular inch in which we were supposed to consider it worth living. And of course, it will, and must. If you say that you will occupy the space just to the left of the rightwing party, then of course, when they move, so do you. You can move successfully, as New Labour have done. Or you can move with mixed results at best, as have the Democrats. But you will move, all right. It is the only policy you have. The Democrats adopt policies on welfare that would have shocked a Richard Nixon. New Labour adopt policies on students that did shock John Major. Two brief examples from a very long and ever-longer list. Wherever the Right goes, the inch goes also.

If you settle for the inch, it is the most you will ever settle for. All sorts of issues and causes drop off your agenda. Indeed, you have no agenda, other than occupying the inch. It is noticeable how vacuous, how intolerably trivial, is the coverage of the US Presidential Election. On and on it goes, dominating the news, and yet scarcely a word of any interest is ever spoken. We hear, interminably, about swing states, we are told, incessantly, that the candidates (well, two of them) have been campaigning hard in them, but when we listen to their campaigns they don't actually appear to be about anything. At most, they are about "leadership" and such seems to be the subject of almost the soundbites we ever hear. (In normal circumstances, reporting them through soundbites trivialises political campaigns. Here, for once, this is not true.)

Now leadership may matter, but in months and months of campaigning, can they find nothing else to talk about? Alexander Cockburn observes that they cannot, because it is an election about almost nothing, where the candidates agree on nearly everything, where so much that is crucial to almost any election is simply taken for granted, and not discussed:

At a quick count, off the agenda of debate this year are the role of the Federal Reserve; trade policy; economic redistribution; nuclear disarmament; reduction of the military budget and the allocation of military procurement; the role of the World Bank, IMF, WTO; crime, punishment and the prison explosion; the war on drugs; corporate welfare; forest policy; the destruction of small farmers and ranchers; Israel; Cuba; the corruption of the political system.
Most especially, the war is off the agenda. Which is strange, because when they are talking about leadership, it's mostly the leadership required in the war to which they are referring. But not the war itself. And this is odd, because the one issue which has caused the Democrats - meaning their supporters, rather than the corrupt old party itself - to hate Bush more than other is his disastrous and illegal war. But the Democrats select, enthuse about and presumably fool themselves about a candidate who, if anything, is likely to widen the war.

How could this madness happen? Because of the inch. We settle for the inch that says instead of opposing the war, we just have somebody who will prosecute it less incompetently than George Bush has. And we cover up for that by attacking those who have not settled for that. Because if you settle for the inch, you will try and stop other people fighting for more than the inch. Ralph Nader has not settled for the inch. He points out that to settle for the inch is, indeed, to let that inch move far away from where it was supposed to be, because, indeed, you refuse to ask for anything else. You tell them they can get away with anything as long as they are not the other side, and, in saying so, throw away any leverage you ever had in the first place:
This is the collapse of the Left ... They have in effect put a figurative ring in their nose. They have said to the Democrats, 'because the Republicans are so bad, we collapse. We're going for the least-worse.' When you don't make any demands, when you engage in unconditional surrender, why should Kerry ever look back at you? Why should he give you the time of day?"
Why should he? You've already told him not to. And this is the tragedy of this stupid election, in which nothing is really being decided, an election whose length, news coverage, expense and passion are in inverse proportion to its content. Four years ago, Ralph Nader, rejecting the inch, did really well. Five, six per cent in a number of states, a decent start, a platform. A platform for having something real to say. Which you cannot have, and have the inch.

You cannot have real politics, and not hurt the Democrats, any more than you can have any real politics here and not hurt New Labour. So to complain afterwards, to complain now, to complain about the consequences, is asinine. Either everybody votes for the Democrats, and settles for whatsoever Democrat we get, or they do not. And yet, in 2004, people have thrown up their hands in horror as if they hadn't known what they were doing in 2000. Or as if it could ever be any different.

So they have thrown that platform away. Perhaps for a generation, perhaps for longer. And for what? For this amoeba. For this clod of a man, this mediocrity, this man who makes Al Gore look like Martin Luther King. But what else could you have? If you want a politics without content, who, except a politician without substance, could deliver it? And hence all the hoopla, all the hysteria, all the sound and fury signifying nothing. All for a man whose sole claim to our affections is that he is not a monkey. He's an inch short of being a monkey. So he should be. It is all we asked for. It is all we want.


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