Monday, September 11, 2006

The Age of Weariness


Any cousins across the Pond pondering possible reasons for their beloved Blair’s oh so Long Goodbye shouldn’t expend too many little grey cells on the matter, other than as an academic exercise. The details are debatable, the root cause is not: Tony is simply coming to the end of his term, and his government to the end of its tether.

Lord Acton’s observation about Absolute Power seems to have been absorbed into the Anglo psyche, and the Anglos won’t let anyone wield it for too long, however competent or revered or messianic or just deep-down decent he or she happens to be.

The President of the USA has an official shelf-life. The Prime Minister of the UK, who has far more or far less personal power than his American counterpart depending on how you look at it, does not. But the shelf-life is real nonetheless. Everyone knows it, including Blair. A drawback of the unwritten nature of the PM’s time limit is that the incumbent leader, addicted to absolute power, is tempted by the delusion that it is not there at all, and his or her exit will be accompanied by undignified kicking and screaming, mass reshuffles, resignations, sour grapes, backstabbing and disastrous Party civil wars. Great fun for the sharks of the press, who never waste a moment in publishing the inevitable Et Tu Brute? cartoons, but a dreadful bore for the general public.

And boredom is the heart of the matter. We’re tired of Tony. It’s nothing personal – for the most part, it’s not even his fault. As an international representative he’s been an eloquent, intelligent, reassuringly tall, and totally non-embarrassing figure. His domestic legacy is enormous: New Labour and the possibly irreversible monopoly of centre-ground tinkering over ideological politics.

But a decade is over-tiring. What’s more, the five years since those planes flew into the World Trade Center have been especially exhausting. If anything, given our ever-decreasing attention span cycles, it is to his credit (and the pre-Cameron Conservatives’ debit) that he’s held on so long.

On 12 September 2001, an age ago, we were all Americans – hard as that is to imagine now. It must have seemed impossible for any President to fritter away that heap of international sympathy and goodwill. It must have seemed impossible for the West’s left and right not to be fused in one united front. They were for a while, but that wave of unity, which just about carried over Afganistan (even the Left could see the logic in wiping out Osama’s protectors), took no time in breaking on the rock of Iraq.

Iraq knackered us. Cracked us down the middle. Blair got stretched thin between the UN and the US, attempting to appease the Euro appeasers while buddying up to Dubya. We got tired of Blair being Shoulder to Shoulder with Bush but the Voice of Reason in Europe. Blair got very, very tired of debating every step of the issue with BBC interviewers and studio audiences consisting, almost exclusively it seemed, of Guardian-reading politics undergraduates – an irritating circus made unavoidable by the trumpeting of democracy as a chief justification for the invasion (‘I think you’re wrong, but remember that if you were Iraqi you would not be allowed to disagree with your Government’). This was the Dawning of the Age of Weariness.

Then came the Confederacy of Dunces and the million marching in London, led by Red Ken, Gorgeous George, the Nobel-winning (!) Harold Pinter, Michael Moore and the usual semi-literate, wholly-hubristic pop musicians.

So varied and illogical and self-contradictory were the complaints, so moronic the oil conspiracies and the Saddam-apologising and the BusHitler rhetoric, the irrelevant stacked endlessly on top of the nonsensical like Pelion on Ossa, that the great Leftist coalition could only appal the rational.

But here was a big problem: how can you agree with some of the scattergun complaints (that the Allies were courting disaster by failing to create any kind of clear plan for post-war Iraq, or that Bush’s crass cowboy utterances could only alienate natural allies), without appearing to be on the same side as the Dunces? Iraq split us into two, sometimes unnaturally, meaning that old British lefties ended up on the right (Hitchens; McEwan; Amis) and old British righties on the left (Matthew Parris; Simon Hughes of the Times, who defected to the Guardian). The brick wall was hit, and afterwards it was just two grimacing faces grinding against its opposite sides, with no hopes of comfortably sitting astride it.

Abu Graib, Guantanamo, faked photos of British squaddies ‘abusing’ prisoners, Madrid, London July 7, ‘quagmires’, airport security, Prophet cartoons – they’ve all worn us to the bone.

Above all, Blair has become too synonymous with Bush, and the world is weary of them both. Surely even the patriotic, anti-Dunce American right will heave a secret sigh of relief when Bush is replaced and skirmishes can begin anew, just as even the staunchest New Labour supporters will when the Blair finally goes. The hatred of half the world has become so crushingly focused on the person of George W Bush. Remove the focus and you shift the battle lines. It will be a soft, superficial, temporary relief, like finding the cool part of the pillow in a bed-ridden fever. But a relief nonetheless. Fighting the same battles over and over every day since 2001 has set us firmly in the Age of Weariness.

The British political system means that we elect a benign dictatorship every ten years or so. We let them have a glorious honeymoon period of reform for a few years, then we gradually reduce their power over a few elections. Finally, we punish them for their longevity by utterly routing them at the ballot box and putting a new benign dictatorship in place.

Few parties have been so defined by their leader as New Labour has been by Blair. But we are tired of Blair, and of arguing about Blair. We've said everything we wanted to say, and quite a bit that we didn't. Now we want new battles, new battle-lines, new angles, new dinner-table topics and a new honeymoon to wake us up. Cameron will only have himself to blame if he blows it now.

13 comments:

monix said...

An excellent commentary on the current mood.

A fixed term for our president - oops, prime minister! -might revitalise English politics. Blair should have gone while he still had popular support and people could still remember how awful life was before he came to office.

Brit said...

Thanks.

I wouldn't advocate a fixed term - you'd have to introduce fixed general elections at the same time, and once you start writing these things down it's Pandora's Box.

The current system works just fine.

After all, life wasn't really any different pre-Blair, other than that Labour was unelectable. People just got tired of Major, and very tired of the Tories, who were in an even worse media mess than Labour are.

martpol said...

Great post - I think you've summed up Blair very well. (So well that I'll forego pulling apart your continued labelling of all Iraq war opponents as dunces.)

It's an exciting time in British politics for the first time since about 2000, when the New Labour golden age of minimum wages, devolution and democratic reform was drawing to a close. I'm even warming to David Cameron who, politically squishy as he might be, has the novelty factor of being a Conservative saying sensible things without mentioning tax cuts and asylum seekers.

Although I have little time for Blair on several fronts, there's no denying that he has been a charismatic and statesmanlike leader. These qualities will be thrown into sharp relief if Labour chooses as its next leader Gordon Brown, who is almost entirely charmless and (reportedly) even more internally dictatorial than Blair.

Brit said...

Pull it apart? You mean this?...

So varied and illogical and self-contradictory were the complaints, so moronic the oil conspiracies and the Saddam-apologising and the BusHitler rhetoric, the irrelevant stacked endlessly on top of the nonsensical like Pelion on Ossa, that the great Leftist coalition could only appal the rational.

By God, I'm inordinately pleased with that, as pleased as Jack Aubrey when he hits on a witticism, and when you pull something like that out of the ether, no single man can rend it asunder.

Peter Burnet said...

Very good post, Brit, and also wonderfully evocative craftmanship. Inspired by you I accosted a group of leftist colleagues going on about BushBlairHitler last night and started yelling: "Pelion on Ossa! Pelion on Ossa!" at them. They all crumbled like dried out sand castles.

Churchill, Thatcher, Reagan, deGaulle and several minor others whose speciality was rallying the nation in the name of principle got the old summary heave-ho. True leaders who call for resolve seem to have limited shelf lives. But I suppose the more interesting question is why are we all so weary about the WOT. It isn't like we've made all kinds of sacrifices and nobody thinks we're actually losing. Tough bunch, aren't we?

BTW, assuming you have finished with goats for the time being, how about a thread on Amis' essay?

Hey Skipper said...

martpol:

(So well that I'll forego pulling apart your continued labelling of all Iraq war opponents as dunces.)

So long as the Iraqi war opponents are incapable of providing anything like a reasoned alternative to the cul-de-sac of the pre-war sanctions regime, taking into account the various factors at play, then they are dunces.


Brit:

I echo monix, martpol and Peter. On this five year anniversary, there have been some truly excellent articles on 9/11 and its aftermath.

Yours is one of them.

Brit said...

Peter:

Well done. With my alternating screamed catchphrases of "Pelion on Ossa!" and "No goats!", it's small wonder I'm so popular down at the Daycare Centre.

As to why we are so tired of the WOT already, I can think of several contributory reasons:

1) Our shortened attention spans
2) The fact that it has been so bitterly divisive in our own countries
3) The 'nagging' quality of the underlying threat of random, meaningless violence
4) The strain of holding delicate positions: eg. constantly reminding oneself it is Islamicism, not Islam, we are fighting, but at the same time being frustrated at the silence of the moderates, interspersed with leftist/Islamic views that the West 'had it coming' in some way.
5) Above all, the blanket media coverage.

I'm sure there are more.

The Amis piece is so vast and all-encompassing, it's hard to know where to begin, but I'll try something. He also wrote another excellent piece on 9/11 in the Times a few months ago, which I will dig up.

Peter Burnet said...

Brit:

All true, but let me throw out an idea or three. Don't those reasons sit on top of a little existential dilemma that describes and terrifies most of us, left or right? We cannot fill in the blank in the following sentence: "I believe_____is worth fighting and dying for.", but the other guys can spend all day filling it in. Now, that's a heavy.

The Amis article was mind-blowing, but his masterly depiction of the evil behind it all and his artful fisking of naive tranzis did not end with any resounding call to arms. On the contrary, it ended quite gloomily with no call at all. I could easily imagine everyone saying: "You're so right, Martin. My shout." and then staring silently into their glasses for the rest of the evening in a fit of severe depression.

The essay was aimed at the left and so I will ignore the obligatory, fatuous insults of religion (at least until we take power), but I was intrigued by all the emphasis on sexual dysfunction and the plight of women. He was very, very persuasive on that score, but does he think it is party time for men over there? And note he does not confront the uncomfortable truth that, despite widespread calls for major reforms by Muslim women from Tangiers to Jakarta, they aren't for the most part disowning Islam or calling for intervention by us to save them. Aren't damsels in distress supposed to swoon and be grateful?

It all smacks of the plight of the decent left. As they have convinced themselves that they are living under insupportable oppressions stemming from their own societies and traditions, the only way to rouse them is to play the even greater "oppressed minority" card and to define it for them without wasting too much time actually talking to the minority. Amis was all about how awful Islamicism is with nothing good at all to say about us. I don't think guys like he can inspire us to keep the home fires burning for very long. At least, not for as long as the editors of This England.

Oroborous said...

We cannot fill in the blank in the following sentence: "I believe_____is worth fighting and dying for..."

That doesn't describe anyone that I know, personally, although I'm aware that "better Red than dead" people exist - somewhere...
Apparently in Northern California, Upper Left Washington, and New England...

Brit said...

"I believe_____is worth fighting and dying for."

The obvious answer is “to preserve our way of life.”

The Islamicist might be able to reel off more uniform, boilerplate details in answer, but they would be a string of insane, meaningless details. Worse, his refrain actually is: “I believe ________ is worth randomly killing civilians for.”

Worse, it really boils down to the desire for an adolscent fantasy of sexual gratification in heaven.

One aspect of our way of life is that we don’t think like that. “We love death like you love life” is plain incomprehensible. We don’t even know where to start trying to understand something like that.

That’s worth preserving.

Other aspects worth preserving, among millions, are the freedoms to love whoever you like, believe in whatever superstitious nonsense you like so long as you don’t commit acts of violence in its name, to vote out war heroes if you wish, to ignore everything except your family and your garden if you prefer and to do so unmolested and unthreatened by lunatics, and to write bitterly critical, divisive articles about whatever subject you choose.

Peter Burnet said...

Other aspects worth preserving...etc.

Wow Brit, are you thinking of a new career as an army recruiter? Add a little "Pelion on Ossa!" to all that and the Islamicists haven't a chance.

the freedoms to love whoever you like...

But it is heartening to know that the spirit of martyrdom isn't completely absent from our side. (Via Davidssecretblog)

Brit said...

Yes, I think Brad's scam is brilliant. Equivalent to:

'I refuse to pay for the meal I've just eaten until everyone in this world can also comfortably afford foie gras and caviar blinis, steak diane, three bottles of Verve Cliquot champange and a decent cognac to finish!"

Peter Burnet said...

'I refuse to pay for the meal I've just eaten...

I nominate that as metaphor of the year.