Sunday 15 November 2015

Aux armes, citoyens!

Over the last two days there has been much singing of the Marseillaise.

It is a unique national anthem because, long before Friday's tragic events in Paris, it belonged to much more than its native country. It was composed as newly revolutionary France was menaced on all sides by the Armies of reaction and lost its original, rather literal, title, War song for the Army of the Rhine, in favour of its now much more famous appellation, when it was sung in the streets of Paris by volunteers (volunteers!) arriving there from the port of Marseille in 1792 to defend the revolution.

It was banned outright on the Bourbon restoration but whenever 19th century insurrection was in the air, initially in France, but later much widely across Europe, it became a rallying song of the forces of progress. It was even played at the Finland Station when Lenin arrived home there to herald the October Revolution.

But it also became something more. A musical shorthand for the aims of the (first) French Revolution; of liberty, egality and fraternity.

Its most famous cinematic rendition is in of course in the 1942 film, Casablanca. When Victor Laszlo instructs the band it be played to drown out the carousing Germans, it is both insignificant and very significant that Laszlo isn't himself French and it is not just the patrons of Rick's CafĂ© but cinemagoers the world over who find themselves metaphorically rising to their feet. Roy Hattersley once wrote of being strangely moved to tears by a National Anthem that is not one's own. Except that it is our own. It belongs to all of us. All of us who embrace the values of the enlightenment.

But the Marseillaise is something more as well. It is a war song.

It's final lines are these:

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

For sometimes it is not just necessary to sing about your values. Sometimes you have to be prepared to fight for them.

And this I suspect may prove to be a matter of great significance for the internal politics of the Labour Party.

On the 12th of September 2001, in the NATO Council resolved that "if it is determined that the [Twin Towers] attack against the United States was directed from abroad, it shall be regarded as an action covered by Article 5 of the Washington [NATO] Treaty".

It was ultimately so determined and as a result NATO as a whole took action against Afghanistan.

That action might have been led by the United States but it was the treaty obligation of all NATO member states to assist the "member state" so attacked. As the United Kingdom did.

But there was another, very much minority, view at the time. That there was no reason or at least purpose to an attack on Afghanistan. That, in any event, to some degree or another, the United States had brought this assault on itself.

This body of opinion coalesced around the Stop the War coalition. It was that war,  not the later Iraq War which brought it to much greater prominence, that is referred to in the organisation's title.

And there was at least a logical conclusion to the organisation's position. A conclusion that the UK should abrogate its NATO treaty obligations and, by implication at least, leave its framework of collective security altogether.

Now, at the time, this organisation had as one of its immediate leading lights, indeed later as its Chairperson, one Jeremy Corbyn MP. Within nine days of September the 11th he had declared himself opposed to any retaliatory military action whatsoever. And he remained thereafter consistent. As recently as September 3rd 2015, asked at the final Labour leadership debate if he could see any circumstance in which he would support the deployment of British troops abroad he replied that, while he was sure there were some, he couldn't think of any for the moment.

Well, that might have been a hypothetical question but this is not.

One of our oldest allies has been attacked. The home of the enlightenment, with, although this should be no more than incidental, one of the few socialist governments in Europe.. Attacked by people whose motivation appears to have been in part disgust at liberated women and whose specific targets at the Bataclan Theatre appeared to be particularly the disabled patrons in attendance. Attacked without warning and in the minds of almost all people of liberal opinion, without reason. In any sense of the word reason.

It appears Article 5 of the NATO treaty is again to be invoked and that, further to that, France is likely to take direct retaliatory military action against the places from which this outrage was planned. Action which we are treaty bound to assist.

So, Jeremy, is this finally a circumstance in which you will support the deployment of British troops abroad?

I suspect on the answer to that question will depend either the future of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. Or, alternatively, the future of the Labour Party itself.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Blue Remembered Hills

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

A.E. Houseman (from) A Shropshire Lad

I started off intending to write about the debacle last weekend's Labour Party Scottish Conference.

Except I really did begin to think what was the point.

There remain two questions about next year's Scottish Parliament Election. The first is whether the SNP will secure a second overall majority. That's more of an issue than some realise. I might come back to that on a future occasion.

But the second is increasingly the question of the day. Will Labour even be second?

And that begs the wider question. Can Labour ever win again, in the UK or in Scotland?

And while the events of the three days past, last weekend, lead to the conclusion that both of these latter questions have an increasingly worrying probable answer, that in turn suggests that it is perhaps time to take wider stock.

For maybe it is over.

Not just for 2016 and not just for Scotland.

Maybe the whole idea of a "Labour" Party has had its day.

I joined the Labour Party between the February and October General Elections.

Then,  elections were both more common and less common. More common because there was a burgh election (in rotation) every year but less common in that, notwithstanding the exceptional year in which  I joined, "big" elections came along only occasionally.

And big elections, in Paisley at least, were always won by the Labour Party.

For Paisley read Falkirk. Or Dunfermline. Or Kilmarnock. Or Barnsley. Or Tredegar. Or Bethnal Green.

Labour places.

The "campaign" at these big elections was not really a campaign. It was more a general reminder to everybody that there was an election on. So they'd better get out and vote. Vote Labour didn't even really require to be expressly stated.

Public meetings were even then regarded as a waste of time: a magnet only for Trots, or Nats, or cranks, more or less the same thing to our mind, but factory gate meetings were a different thing. At Babcocks, and Rolls Royce and at whatever the great Linwood car factory was being called that year. The "stewards" would be asked to suggest a date and as thousands of men (an intentional use of gender here) rushed either in to their work or out to their tea, or to the pub, or to wherever, leaflets would be pushed into their hands, stickers pressed to their clothing and in a brief stump speech listened to, at least, by the stewards themselves, the working men were reminded that a week on Thursday was polling day. "Don't forget to vote! And don't forget to get your wives to vote as well!"

And on polling day you stood outside polling stations to thank people for their support. Alright, some of them hadn't voted for you, but you thanked them as well. It reassured you that you were living in a democracy and that your victory was genuinely merited.

At close of poll, those then not going to the count, retired to a safe zone. In Paisley, at that first election, to the Labour Club on the Renfrew Road; in future years to the AEU Halls in Incle Street. Elsewhere in the country to a Miners' Welfare or a factory social club or a Co-op Hall. To await the result. Delivered on a portable television with a dubiously functioning inside aerial. Not your own result, for that would be inevitably a Labour hold, but the result from around the Country in the places where the election was actually decided. Then not just in the commuter belt around London or in the sprawling West Midlands but in Glasgow Cathcart, or Edinburgh Central, or Aberdeen South.

But win or lose the big election you woke up the next morning knowing that there would always be a Labour Party. For there would always be places like Paisley and Dunfermline and Kilmarnock and Barnsley and Tredegar and Bethnal Green. That was as certain as that there would always be factory gates, and Miners' Welfares, and Co-op Halls. And indeed that there would always be portable televisions and the AEU.

It is all gone, or going.

Only the Labour Party remains.

Except maybe it has also gone. Like the pensioners struggling with ever decreasing bar takings in a "works" social club, attached no more to a "work" itself long departed, perhaps we are deluding ourselves that, one day, the good times will return. That the factory will reopen, that young people will work there again, and that on a Saturday night no-one will have anything better to do than turn up for a few pints while being entertained by Lena Martell or the Alexander Brothers.

I watched the Party Conference from afar. Kez made a good speech. Although you can't help feeling that to have someone who, at a stage in their career, should be getting marked down as "one to watch for the future", instead being sacrificed to a future likely to end at five past ten on the first Thursday in May next year, is merely indicative of how desperate things have become.

But beyond that the whole event was just so ridiculously anachronistic. If you had brought back smoking in the hall and black and white telly you might well have been watching archive footage from the nineteen sixties. Except that, at least, in the nineteen sixties the generals on screen spoke for an industrial army offstage. Now they speak only for a phantom army and, more importantly, speak in a language long since fallen into misuse among the general population.

Party conferences get on the telly. So sensible Parties, Parties interested in power, see them as an opportunity to persuade people who might vote for them to actually vote for them. That calculation, Kez's speech aside, played no part in the Labour Party's deliberations in Perth.

It wasn't just the ludicrous Trident debate. Where, as I observed on twitter, we chose (chose!) to debate something over which we had no control so that we could adopt an unpopular policy while demonstrating how divided we were. It was even more the tone of both the TTIP debate that preceded it and the TU Bill debate that followed.

These might be worthy matters but, frankly, they are of no interest at all to more than 95% of the population. And the remaining 5% either vote Labour already or are irredeemably lost to the ultra left or the flag eaters.

There is no point in protesting that "They ought to be of wider interest!" They are not. And, equally frankly, worthy speeches, delivered with whatever amount of indignation, to a hungover Labour Party Conference are unlikely to persuade anybody otherwise.

I have watched all the conferences now. I am no Nat and no Tory. But each of these Parties reached out to speak to, albeit different, nations. Labour didn't even content itself with speaking to itself. It spoke to itself of forty years ago. Prior to the compromises that gave it any chance of being elected in a modern age. Indeed, in active denial of them.

There is no going back. Co-op Halls and Miners Welfares are not going to re-open, any more than are the pits or these huge industrial factories. The AEU is not going to re-form, designating time served men as always slightly superior to their brethern.

And, overall, that is a good thing. For it means no more industrial deafness, or pneumoconiosis, or contact dermatitis or, possibly worst of all, mesothelioma.

It is a good thing that working conditions today are much better. That housing conditions are as well. That the consumer now outranks the producer. But increasingly the Labour Party behaves as if it regrets its own achievements. That we would like to turn the clock back to a golden age of clearer hardship but also clearer class struggle.

That is not how it should be. The great socialist philosopher R.H. Tawney famously observed that, for the left, if there is a golden age it lies not in the past but in the future.

We seem to have completely lost sight of that. Bizarrely, the Party most in tune with the modern age is now the Tories, who have adopted a different maxim, this time from Lampedusa.: "Things will have to change if we want them to stay the same", while the most conservative Party is now, even more bizarrely, Labour. Fearful of change, fearful of modernisation. Positively wishing it could turn the clock back.

Maybe it is just all over.

Except that only the Labour Party itself fails to realise that it has gone.