27 August 2004


Nick Cohen’s polemic on the collapse of the left in the New Statesman the week before last (click here) has prompted a big response among bloggers (click here for Norman Geras, here for Oliver Kamm, here for Harry’s Place).

I’m late on this (I’ve been away on holiday) but it’s a hoo-hah that is worth noting even a fortnight on. Cohen’s argument is that something very odd has happened to the left in Britain in the recent past: in its enthusiasm for opposition to the war in Iraq, it has embraced clerical reaction for the first time ever. The Stop the War Coalition was the Socialist Workers Party getting into bed with the Muslim Association of Britain. Ken Livingstone endorsed and met the anti-Semitic Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The left and liberal press have been fawning in their treatment of Islamist bigots. No one on the left – or hardly anyone – has taken any notice of Iraqi democrats’ approval of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Cohen concludes that “there no longer is a left with a coherent message of hope for the human race”.

I almost share his sense of despair. Unlike Cohen, I opposed the war – not because I thought it was wrong to overthrow Saddam Hussein but because I thought the US and its allies hadn’t thought it through and were taking an irresponsible risk – but like him I believe that the left in Britain and elsewhere should now be supporting those in Iraq who are trying to create a tolerant liberal democratic polity, not whining about the process through which the US and Britain went to war. I have been sickened by the way that so many of my fellow opponents of the war have gloried in every setback that the US and the interim Iraqi government have suffered. And I can’t believe the tolerance of idiocy and worse that seems to have become the norm in the liberal and left press. The left in Britain today is in a worse state than at any time in my adult lifetime.

But I’d stop short of writing off the left completely. Waves of cretinism have swept the left in Britain before – enthusiasm for the Soviet Union (most marked in the 1930s but still a factor 50 years later), anti-Europeanism in the 1960s and 1970s, uncritical support for any third world populist would-be tyrant claiming to lead a national liberation struggle from the 1960s onwards, sucking up to the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s – but they have passed, largely because some part of the left kept its head and argued the case against the prevailing delusions consistently and publicly. We need to do the same today.

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