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Turning-point politics: from salvaging the past to protecting the future

Tom Nairn
16 January 2002

Many commentators have observed the striking change of temper in the USA after 11 September. A forceful re-animation of a sense of community (most evident in Rudy Giuliani’s New York) and of American nationalism has taken place, as if people on 12 September found themselves abruptly shocked out of the complacent economic utilitarianism of the nineties.

Now, this awakened sensibility has been blessed with success on the ground, like a providential confirmation of September’s most urgent prayers and longings. Which in turn has generated a newly assertive confidence in America’s ‘mission’ of leadership and regulation – the Pax Americana.

Leaders of the turning point, from the New York Mayor, to British Premier Blair, to members of the Bush administration, are all said to have turned to John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940 for a stiffening injection of heroic virtue. The book, in its description of Churchill’s finest hour, provides a timely narrative of the point when, under his leadership, the United Kingdom and its Empire decided to fight Hitler.

It was a close-run thing, but heroic the 1940 turning point certainly was, on the scale both of the man and the terrible time, with British and French armies in headlong retreat before Hitler. Like none before it, Lukacs’s great narrative pursues the astonishing hourly detail of Churchill’s triumph, and of those over whom he prevailed.

Great moral victories are by nature indiscriminate: alongside the virtues or standards they redeem, other things are liable to be bundled in. And in the not-so-long run, it may be these which predominate. Unworthy inheritors may then deploy the banners of victory for purposes undreamt of at the great moment itself.

This is what we should be looking out for today.

The Churchill imprisonment

When Churchill emerged as Prime Minister on the sweltering evening of 28 May, his influential opponents, Lord Halifax and Rab Butler, thought their more reasonable counsels might prevail. Hitler was probing for a truce via the good offices of Benito Mussolini (whose government had not yet joined the war). This would have lifted Britain and its empire from the threat of invasion, and left Germany a free hand in the East against Bolshevism, which all British governments wanted in any case to see defeated. So what was wrong with it?

Churchill knew instinctively what was wrong. Behind the compromise, he had the imagination to sense the trap. Against such a dynamic world-enemy, one concession would lead inevitably to another, and soon – always for the most prudent reasons and the soundest economic arguments – what he saw as Britain’s greatness would vanish forever into a sinking spiral of appeasement and humiliation.

No recovery would ever be possible from such betrayal. As his contemporary Charles de Gaulle also understood, honourable defeat was far preferable, because it did not preclude eventual redemption.

Churchillian nationalism was of course dreadfully incorrect: a toxic romanticism of warrior-race superiority and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ delusions, complete with supine dependencies and civilising mission. Yet who could regret that it prevailed in those fateful days in 1940? With all its faults, it remained far preferable to Hitler’s newer and deadlier style of Aryan conquest. However, Churchill saved not only the country’s freedom and independence, but also its Crown, the House of Lords, the Empire, and the stale hierarchies of a caste society long overdue for revolution.

In other words, the political world was at that time so backward that even the British and French Empires could stand for progress and democracy. The consequence of their necessary survival, however, was the preservation of their past. A traumatic decade followed 1945, culminating in the joint Franco-British invasion of Egypt in a vain attempt to retake the Suez Canal. De Gaulle then returned to power in Paris. Though he too preserved the centre, he also initiated an alliance with Germany which has become the cornerstone of a genuine renewal, celebrated at the New Year with the triumphant launch of the Euro.

But in Britain, Churchill’s legacy has proved inescapable. Its fate should stand as a warning for all who uncritically celebrate turning points such as the 11th. Today’s lessons should not be exclusively of valour and redemption. Might not history, in the spreading ‘war against Terrorism’ which has followed the events of 11 September, be functioning just as ambiguously now?

Britain leads, America follows?

The worst feature of the 1940 inheritance was the way it rendered the profound anachronism of the United Kingdom State proof against all farther reform. What could possibly be wrong with a system which had stood alone and saved mankind? In 1939, Victorian Britain had appeared questionable and under threat. Many perceived it as ripe for radical reform, or even revolution. But beyond the hinge of 1940, serious constitutional change was to vanish from the British agenda for half a century: as if Churchill’s potent brew of moral and military triumph froze it in its ancient tracks.

Just when this became obvious to the more progressive elements of the British political class, and a new and thoroughly pro-European party – the Social Democrats – seemed about to displace the Labour Party, Argentina invaded the Falkland Isles. Margaret Thatcher resurrected the Churchillian inheritance to popular acclaim. In Iron Britannia, his study of that war, Anthony Barnett diagnosed the impact of ‘Churchillism’: the unshakeable conviction of British exceptionality and greatness, founded upon the Crown-State traditions bequeathed from 1688, sanctified by innumerable successes against the odds and (crucially) by the unsullied heroism of 1940. He analysed that turning point nearly twenty years ago. But still Thatcher’s re-working lives on in Tony Blair’s breathless striving for a world role.

If Thatcher’s defiance, like Churchill’s, lent new life to a preposterously outdated society and constitution, will America’s 2002 hubris do the same, both in the United States and among its more servile followers? Its revivified post-September nationalism seems certain to inject new vitality into the miseries of US statehood, so shamefully exposed to the whole world only nine months before the attacks on New York and Washington.

The corrupt farce of George W. Bush’s elevation to power was a mockery not just of democracy but of representative government itself. Since the Second World War the United Kingdom has also suffered only from ‘elective dictatorship’. Now the United States has outclassed it, with a non-elected régime rejoicing in world-leadership as well as economic dominance. In the globalised world of the Internet, an eighteenth century handloom-polity had shown that it was Still the Greatest.

Even before Afghanistan, the US Founding Fathers looked pretty safe from impious reform. Today, if the 1940 precedent is taken seriously, George W. Bush’s bathchair can be expected to last a long time. Regrettably, the leader of the Free world is also an ancien régime (with the antediluvian British one in tow). This old world is still capable of cashing in on a crisis generated by the new. The latter is based upon the information revolution, advancing democracy and multi-culturalism — the vectors of globalisation. Does this mean that globalisation is doomed to political backwardness — to half a century of Blairism, ‘Bushism’, or worse?

No, because there is (fortunately) an American Left, which has been eclipsed but not extinguished by the 2000 disgrace and current events. And in the wider world, the democratic sea-change is proceeding, and is far more important than economic globalisation. It is simultaneously fostering a new and very different framework, within which Bush-style Atlantic parochialism will come to be more realistically perceived. Last week the Economist noted how it is now changing even Africa, where Robert Mugabe’s last stand for tyranny is as anachronistic as the 11 September attacks.

‘Globalisation’: after marketolatry, politics

I suspect that the Cold War should be held primarily responsible for the democratic deficit which perpetuates our current Western ‘leaderships’. Its persisting rigidities are still hindering globalisation, and have generated a near-universal cynicism about politicians and parties. In the 1940s, Westminster’s imperial élitism was better than the Fascist alternative. Afterwards, the ‘Iron Curtain’ (another example of Churchill’s purple prose) clanked down, and for forty years, even the most dilapidated Western political institutions appeared – and of course really were – preferable to the newer form of totalitarianism. Set against Stalinism, Maoism, and their look-alikes around the globe, democratic reform came to seem quite unimportant. By the 1980s, the resultant glacial climate had come to be taken for granted.

Consequently, the ‘West’ at state-level has been dominated by three régimes dating successively from 1688, 1776 and 1789: English Whig oligarchy, American early post-colonialism and Jacobin centralism. The democratisation of the globe has to liberate itself from these Atlantic-zone crocks: reliquaries equipped with nuclear arms, living off long-expired pedigrees derived from misremembered revolutions, evoked in ever lusher commemorative rituals and nostalgia-cultures.

Perhaps inevitably, the converse of such political sclerosis within the post-1950 frigidarium was the all-importance of economics. Threatened in 1939 (as we saw) and then qualified by the social-democratic reforms of the post-war decade, the dismal science was to recover its ascendancy completely in the 1970s. Liberty contracted into a quasi-identification with capitalism, rather than with expanding democracy. In May 1940 there were few representative governments in the world; by 2002, most United Nations states are aspirant-democracies, quasi-democracies or (at least) pretend-democracies. Yet listening to the sermons of the market-fetishists, one would hardly know this revolution had occurred — and is still going on.

This may also account for the overwhelming economism of first-phase ‘globalisation’. The collapse of totalitarianism plunged its former inmates straight into the gelid limbo of neo-liberalism. Not surprisingly, ethnic-fired nationalism sometimes felt like the sole remedy to a Chicago School firmament unshakeably persuaded that, in the de-regulation of homo economicus and the triumph of their true faith, marketolatry. History was ending around it.

It is still happening in the form of al-Qaida’s assault on America, carried out in the name of theocratic obscurantism. But this latest assault unintentionally administered a severe shock to this entire post-Cold War structure: to the routine philistinism, political backwardness and time-locked complacency of the post-Communist world.

Globalisation has been launched under ragged banners from a bygone age. The incongruity is simply more visible after 11 September. That day’s outrages have put an end to neo-liberalism — not so much the dreary economic creed itself, as the grander fabric of conservative narcissism now woven around transnational capitalism. Many relic-bearers of the West thought that Free Trade and Civil Society had somehow transcended politics. Ironically, they have merely followed the fall of Communism with their own Marxism-in-reverse – the mystical exaltation of the economic in another form.

Now the necessity of politics has returned for all to see. In the first instance it is not surprising that this has been seized upon by the old regimes, especially the USA and the UK. However necessary as an immediate response, their reaction to 11 September, and their definitions of democracy, can no longer pretend to be an example to the world. 11 September did not change the whole climate, nor the time, nor the wood itself; but it has drawn more attention to the political paths now diverging within it — one over-familiar and rehearsing the past, the other more like Robert Frost’s in The Road Not Taken (1916). That was ‘the less travelled road’ with the better imaginative claim — the route of the future which globalisation is now calling for, where way is already leading on to democratic way, into a more tolerable common fate.

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