Oh, I do love being right. Less than a week ago, I accused Charles Clarke of fighting his old student union battles from his vantage point of the Home Office. Then he goes and makes a speech that illustrates my point.
I agree with much of what Rob Knight and Michael White have said about it. In the generality, Clarke is absolutely correct. The media do get carried away with purple prose. But that in and of itself is no great insight, and it is clear that this is merely a ruse of Clarke’s to cloud the issue. What’s more, his invocation of the cold war and apartheid is to miss the much wider issue.
The first important point to make is that while there are occasional lapses into hyperbole, there are plenty of moderate voices out there expressing concern for the New Labour agenda. This article by Jenni Russell a few weeks ago both makes my point and gives you an insight into the wounded martyr complex from which Clarke’s speech spung. The sort of demagoguery that he berates here is the exception not the rule – and the main reason why I can’t personally bear the Independent these days (let alone the New Statesman) – yet all are being tarred with the same brush.
These demagogues are, remarkably enough, not twittering liberals, but hard leftists such as Pilger or George Galloway. Yet again, the “decent” left are attempting to shut down debate by claiming that all their critics speak with one voice. Yet again, we’re back to the age old battles in student unions which are largely irrelevant.
George Galloway may still be fighting the Cold War, but not the rest of us, which leads me to my wider point. That is, the problem is not limited to attacking the government on the civil liberties agenda (where critics have more justification than in other areas), but is part of a wider anti-politics agenda. That is where the poison lies. Where there is hyperbole, it isn’t limited to criticising Charles Clarke, no matter what his ego thinks; it is used to attack every single politician in the land. It has effectively shut down dialogue, reducing it to megaphone discourse.
Clarke can’t have it both ways. To this day, anyone who believes that Israel is anything other than beyond reproach or, worse, that invading Iraq was a mistake, is liable to be compared unfavourably to the worst Nazi appeaser (at least). The problem isn’t limited to any particular class or political ideology; it’s much wider. And it is a vicious circle: tone down language and you will face accusations of going soft; fail to give as good as you get and face the accusation of not having the stomach for it.
At its root is our obsession with dichotomy. Who do we blame? Hegel? Zoroaster? It doesn’t help that in this country at least our whole political system is steeped in duality: two party politics (creaking at the seams) within a two house legislature. I don’t see within Clarke any enthusiasm for moving away from such systemic problems; all he wants is for what he perceives as the “other side” to sort themselves out. He has made a good fist at attacking “Them” but people hoping for a sense of mea culpa will be sorely disappointed. As such, his speech is unlikely to change anything.
UPDATE: A lot of common sense from Martin Kettle.