Commentary by Christopher Silver
Of all the sights that the House of Commons has witnessed, last night’s debate on Trident ought to be remembered as amongst the most notorious.
Labour’s crisis — culminating in open civil war within the chamber – makes one obvious conclusion inevitable.
The Labour Party as we know it is ending, and this process will probably mark the end of the United Kingdom too.
A fragile vessel these days, as Britain without the Labour Party is not Britain. The party was the driver of the centralised, modernised state, the builder of solidarities in all the great dirty cities and the warrior on the side the dispossessed and exploited.
Yet in the Britain that I was born into, the party had already ceased to know its mission. Modernised by decree, the party that my generation came to know was a strange venture — a school trip to the Millennium Dome was an early indicator. Britain had become an incoherent place of corporate sponsorship glorying in a totally incoherent vision of its future.
Curiosity turned to despair three years later with the awful knowledge that this regime, which couldn’t even fill a tent in North Greenwich, was out for blood. Our local anti-war march in Shetland didn’t rival the epic sights of millions on the march in London, but it was, in its own way, something to behold.
Blair’s war radicalised a generation. Countless events, including Scotland’s 2014 referendum, would spin from it.
The world had never seen such a spontaneous mass movement and it was both the largest and the first truly global protest in history.
While these events did nothing to halt the inexorable slide towards a war that we knew was already in motion, it was a moment in which all concerned understood that beyond this point of departure, politics would never be the same again.
We are now in a similar moment of historical flux, with perhaps an even greater sense of foreboding about what comes next.
In 2003 the then mighty Parliamentary Labour Party positioned itself, predominantly, on the wrong side of what the New York Times winningly but mistakenly described as the world’s “second superpower” — those millions who took to the streets.
The ethical failures locked into the case for war were self-evident, but politically it was also the start of New Labour’s long decline.
At first the distant and awkward provinces rebelled, then the old industrial heartlands, before finally, thanks to an ageing Stop the War stalwart in a crumpled pastel shirt, the palace gates were flung open.
Corbyn’s leadership is an inevitable consequence of Blairism. His following of radicalised millennials speaks volumes about the deeply divided country that project left behind. Labour cannot accommodate these people, in much the same way that the PSOE in Spain cannot accommodate PODEMOS.
PROTEST v. POWER
The challenge to social democracy everywhere is palpable. In Britain this has manifested itself within a single party, as the age-old tension between the politics of protest and the politics of power within Labour reaches a climax.
Only the left, perhaps, could allow these two polarities to co-exist for a century. That they did for so long is a remarkable historical oddity and the product of a unreformed electoral system that demands mass party loyalty from a complex society.
As a result the contemporary Parliamentary Labour Party’s emphasis on Westminster democracy masks a campaign to expel the anti-austerity movement that is now grouped around Corbyn. This movement was well aware that its only shot at getting into parliament was via the old Labour left.
In response, the rest of the PLP must seek a return to a low-risk, low-participation form of politics. The rules of the game must never be violated again — it demands Prime Ministerial government and First Past the Post ad infinitum.
The impending decimation of Labour and its now likely split is premised on the abiding home truth of Westminster politics — that the victor is the candidate who can reach as far beyond their own base as possible.
This is why Theresa May lost no time in taking to the steps of Downing Street to talk about social justice and fairness. You can win at British politics by stealing your opponent’s clothes.
In this light, Corbyn’s own sartorial struggles are strangely telling. He cannot play the game. He is detested by both government and opposition because he refuses to wear power, to triangulate. His presence at the heart of British politics is a kind of wounded cry.
Like the advisor on Labour’s struggling campaign in David Hare’s The Absence of War (closely based on Neil Kinnock’s final failed bid for power) it says: “We’re not bloody Tories and so it’s a game at which we can’t win!”
SEEDS OF CRISIS
Contrary to what the PLP would have you believe, the seeds of this crisis are of their own planting. They may seek to portray the current leadership crisis as a distinct episode triggered by the Brexit fallout.
The truth is more mundane. The PLP fear, with some justification, that the presence of Corbyn at the dispatch box will tempt the Tories into an early election. Indeed, Corbyn’s improvised and ungainly leadership has allowed the Conservatives to act with a far freer hand than they might otherwise have done.
The Tories have therefore felt more hegemonic than at any time since the mid-eighties — operating in the full knowledge that Her Majesty’s Opposition was irrevocably split on the day that Corbyn’s followers marched him to victory to the chorus of The Red Flag.
To think that Brexit heralded a crisis in the Labour Party is to mix up cause and effect. Brexit was made possible and brought into being by the crumbling of Labour as a coherent political force.
The two great miscalculations that will come to define British politics in the early twenty-first century — Iraq and Brexit — are therefore inextricably linked. They are part of this story of decline.
So in one sense Blair’s party is simply mirroring the national mood. Across the political spectrum the Britain that this great crusader for a legacy left behind is everywhere divided.
The instinctive reaction of the commentariat in the face of these more radicalised times is to diagnose a form of “post-truth politics”. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon recently claimed: “The war on truth is being fought every bit as heroically on the Left as it is on the Right.”
The blame is largely attributed to social media and its labyrinthine networks of echo chambers. We now receive much of our information on public affairs through channels that are themselves fragmented and partial.
We struggle to contextualise and see a bigger picture because it has become far easier to only engage with views and information that suits our own pre-conceived narratives.
But to claim that mass disillusionment is a product of social media is to miss the point. For millennials — those acutely self-aware kids who grew up knowing that nothing was sacred — disillusionment is a perfectly legitimate and perhaps even a necessary response. If elites are anti-social, don’t expect the rest of us to act any differently.
This is because the post-truth habit did not start from below. You won’t, despite what the pundits might claim, find its genesis in the online chat rooms of the late nineties.
On the other hand, items like Blair’s ‘September Dossier’ offer a more concrete source for mass disbelief in mainstream politics. This self-evidently slim case for war was summed up in the widely-touted claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction capable of targeting Britain within 45 minutes.
Perhaps the extremes of sentiment (if not ideology) that we now face became inevitable after this moment of hubris.
“Forty five minutes” lacerated our sense of what political reality was: what do terms like truth or justice mean when the greatest public office in the land is revealed to be so shallow on this gravest of issues, war?
If the current post-Brexit crisis is part of a wider struggle for political legitimacy amongst mass membership parties everywhere, the realpolitik and cynicism of the new world order must take its share of the blame.
As a post-truth politician Blair was at home around the conference table with Chirac, Putin and Berlusconi. All were logical precursors, in their own ways, of Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
Bad emperors leave follies behind. That much a polity can accept. But there was also a destructive edge to all this change-making. Blair’s new dawn, if only he could have seen through the euphoria, was in fact a sunset.
His coveted legacy? The end of Labour and with it the last residue of a Britain worth believing in.
Do you agree with Chris? Or has Labour some means of survival available? Add your comments below.
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