7. Politics

I remember my first political emotion. I was five; the year was 1956, and I knew that the Russians were bad and that I felt sorry for the poor, good Hungarians. I must have listened to my parents’ conversation or heard something on the radio. (The Suez crisis made no impression on me.) Despite the fact that this first feeling was, unwittingly, anti-Communist, my political instincts, well before I was able to articulate any kind of political opinion, were of the left. I was a supporter of whichever party would promote equality, challenge injustice and oppression, help the poor and the weak. When I was fourteen, I read most of George Orwell’s books, including The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalunya. They, and the example of Orwell’s life, were an inspiration. They said enough to me to confirm an attitude to the purpose of politics which will never leave me. I became, and have been ever since, a democratic socialist: a socialist because, without political attitudes and structures which build and strengthen people’s responsibilities to each other and care of each other, and which strive to reduce unjust inequalities of all kinds, ‘society’ is not worthy of the name; a democratic socialist because some disastrous things have happened in the name of socialism when its ideals have been co-opted and perverted by authoritarian regimes. The twentieth century saw mass murder take place in the name of socialism; mass murder was not, alas, the preserve of regimes based on fascist ideology or simply on military might.

When I went to university, and when I was teaching in London schools, I met plenty of people who had taken far-left positions and joined revolutionary organisations, Trotskyist, Stalinist or Maoist. Some of them possessed formidable powers of argument. They could discuss the ills of the capitalist system and catalogue the evils of American imperialism eloquently. Nor could the Trotskyists be accused of turning a blind eye to oppression within the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Their analysis was ferocious and forensic, whether of Stalinism (they called it state capitalism) or of Western capitalism.

The reason I was never tempted to join a far-left organisation was that the far-left people I met, however intelligent and well-informed their critical thinking, lived within a single, central self-delusion about the future. They actually thought that there was going to be a violent revolution across the Western world some time soon, and that they were going to play a leading part in it. This belief was so clearly at variance with reality that I began to avoid wasting my time in conversations with them. Then I realised that the hope and expectation of a revolution which they expressed was a secular equivalent of the millennarianism which I had encountered first in the Plymouth Brethren meeting hall in Drayton, Portsmouth in the mid-1950s. The Second Coming; the Revolution. Both expected at an uncertain date in the not-too-distant future. Thereafter, the establishment of a perfect and happy society, whether in heaven or on earth. Of course (as a revolutionary critic reading this would quickly point out) there have actually been violent revolutions in the recent history of the world, whereas the Second Coming remains within the realms of mystical speculation. There is no objective reason (objective — a favourite Marxist word which I remember often being used in arguments to prevent contradiction, rather as children in playground games at my primary school in the 1950s used to say fainites) why there should not be another revolution, anywhere, any time, if circumstances are favourable. But my revolutionary friends could not see that circumstances in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s were emphatically not favourable to revolution. It was obvious to me that, in Britain, only some form of gradualist progressive politics, grounded in imperfect reality and operating within the structures of parliamentary democracy, could bring about a more just society and improve the lot of people who had less — less money, less security, poorer education, worse housing, worse health care. I decided that the only organisation with any chance of forming a government to do these things was the Labour Party.

In passing, and having just been scornful of some people who called themselves Marxists, I should acknowledge the genius of Marx, who — like other epoch-making geniuses such as Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein — brought about a way of understanding the world and humans’ place in it which simply hadn’t been possible before. The recognition of the centrality of economic relations in human history; the idea of surplus value in the exploitation of labour; the profound practical but also philosophical wisdom of dialectical materialism: these are great bold beams of light.

But to acknowledge the genius of Marx is not to condone all the things that have been done with his ideas. The tragedy of Marxism is that, as a revolutionary doctrine, it began by being the informing ideology behind the emancipation of millions of people from serfdom, and ended up being the theoretical excuse for gigantic systems of oppression which had themselves to be overthrown. And Marx was wrong in predicting that capitalism contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Capitalism has been immensely flexible in adapting its form so that, in most of the world, people of all levels of income prefer the freedoms which market economies and parliamentary democracies bring, as long as there is a social element to the organisation of nations to offset capitalism’s native cruelty. What would Marx have said had he seen capitalist West Germany ‘saving’ communist East Germany? Or had he known that in East Germany millions of people were spying on their neighbours for the state, in the name of socialism and freedom? Or had he seen that, immediately after the collapse of communism in Russia, the most disastrous excesses of capitalism would create billionaires in a tiny number of years, as if 70 years of the idea of the people owning the resources of a nation had been a fantasy or a dream? Or had he seen the only significant nation still calling itself communist, China, advancing rapidly, pulling millions of people out of poverty, because its economic system is in fact capitalist?

I joined the Labour Party soon after Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 General Election. I came to hate, with every fibre of my being, the Conservative government that mutilated and divided our country between 1979 and 1997. The intensity of that feeling has never left me. Meanwhile, I watched Labour inflict the wounds on itself — the struggle over Militant, the emergence of the SDP — which gave the Conservatives such commanding majorities in three successive elections. When Labour lost a fourth election in 1992, I was close to political despair, even though this defeat was much narrower than the first three had been. Perhaps there never again would be a government in Britain whose values and ambitions would even approximate to my own, to those of hundreds of people known to me, to millions of others unknown to me, a group henceforth and for ever destined to be an honourable and ignored minority. Perhaps the acquisitiveness of each individual, contributing in his or her little way to the great clashes of unbridled market forces, was what would constitute society from now on. Society would be nothing more than that: the accretion and interaction of the acquisitive desires of many individuals, as Margaret Thatcher had more or less said.

Once the pain of the 1992 defeat had worn off, the years between 1992 and 1997 brought with them a mounting sense of excitement and anticipation, as the Labour Party made itself more and more electable, and the Conservative government, its already small majority diminishing with every by-election, got itself into deeper and deeper difficulties. I identified myself unequivocally with the modernisers and the pragmatists in the Labour Party, simply because I was tired of losing. I did not want to spend much more of my life being associated with the nice guys who come second. An imperfect Labour government would be better than a perfect Labour opposition. Neil Kinnock’s stand against Militant had been the first sign that Labour actually desired to govern Britain again; desired to govern Britain as it is, with its naturally conservative electorate and its overwhelmingly right-wing press, rather than as some Labour activists hopelessly wished that it would become. John Smith, had he lived, would I think have been a great Labour Prime Minister, of a more traditional kind than Tony Blair was. But it was the realism of the reforms which Blair ushered in, and particularly the abandonment of Clause 4, which made it increasingly likely, when the next opportunity came, that there would be a shift to Labour amongst those crucial, uncommitted, middle-ground voters who actually decide elections in Britain.

I’m going to include here some entries from my diary, made around the time of the 1997 election. The writing makes me wince now; I am certainly a sadder and possibly a wiser man. I’m putting the entries in to remind myself of the intensity of my feelings when Labour won. I’m not going to air-brush those feelings away to protect myself from embarrassment. The diary entries weren’t the outpourings of an innocent; as I wrote in the first entry, I was already 45 years old. I was just overjoyed that some good things were about to be done in my name and with my support.

30 April 1997 Spread Eagle, Camden Town

Tomorrow we vote. I’m sure that Blair will be Prime Minister on Friday, and so is just about everyone else. It’s hard to believe that the socially wickedest and economically most incompetent government of my lifetime is about to end. I’m 45 and, by most definitions, middle-aged. When Thatcher won in 1979 I was 27. The most vigorous though not necessarily the most influential years of my life have been spent under a government I have hated, first and foremost because it has made Britain a more divided country. We have a new poor whose desperation and sense of isolation from mainstream society are unprecedented since the invention of the welfare state. Despite Thatcher’s, Major’s and their chancellors’ extravagant claims of economic renaissance, the average annual growth in GDP since 1979 is lower than in any other 18-year-period since 1945. That lowly average conceals the terrifying depths of two recessions, sandwiching the unsustainable heights of a credit-led boom. The acuteness of the economic incompetence is only apparent, however, when we remember that during this period we have had North Sea oil, and we have had privatisation: two enormous and unrepeatable financial bonuses — the second of them in most cases ideologically repugnant to me — which would have enabled any halfway competent administration to invest in the future of Britain’s wealth-creating effort without encountering the familiar devils of inflation, mass unemployment and balance of payments difficulties on too large a scale. Kenneth Clarke, easily the most able chancellor Thatcher or Major has had, has made a good fist of the situation he inherited since our summary ejection from the exchange rate mechanism on 16 September 1992, but only by increasing taxes by the largest amount seen in peacetime this century, and by doubling the national debt. And he can say on a television programme last Sunday that, really, there’s no such thing as deep poverty in this country any more. I watched him say that after having put in four hours of canvassing on the Maiden Lane estate during the afternoon. The Maiden Lane estate is a 15-minute walk from our flat, because you have to traverse three sides of a square on the road to get there. As the crow flies it’s a quarter of a mile, and easily visible from our kitchen window. Most of the people who live there exist in squalor and despair. It is a different planet, a planet not without tenderness, dignity, virtue and humour, but one which also speaks neglect, violence, ugliness, anger, the sense of a shambles, a shame, a waste, a dreadful fucking awful cock-up and shit-bag why have we come to this oh God why have we come to this? When I canvass for the Labour Party I try to explain to the people why they have come to this. And in my heart I am in a rage that they have come to this when there was no need.

3 May 1997 Spread Eagle, Camden Town

We voted, and the most astonishing, wonderful thing happened. Labour has won a huge overall majority of 179. It holds 419 of the 659 seats in the new House of Commons. The Conservatives lost more than half their MPs. They are now down to 164. The Liberals have more than doubled their total, to 46. The scale of the change is awesome, potentially epoch-making. There is the possibility that, for a generation to come, Britain could be governed by a progressive party (or coalition of parties, if the Liberals were invited into government at a future election where Labour won a smaller majority) which will realise the proper purpose of politics: to give organised reality to the best instincts of the human heart and the human reason. Not often in life have I been as excited or joyful as I was on Thursday night at about 10.30pm. I had been knocking up for Frank Dobson until 9. I went home and had some dinner. At 10 o’clock I turned on the BBC election programme to hear their exit poll announce a Labour landslide. I gazed at the words on the screen. Knowing that no results would be announced for a couple of hours, I came to the Spread Eagle and stood outside in the soft warm night, the night of May Day, and felt an exquisite combination of triumph and revenge. This is our moment, I kept thinking. This is it. Now Labour must govern well. Then I went back home and watched the television until 10 to 6 on Friday morning. It was a procession, a picaresque long play of wonderment. Labour and the Liberals just marched into Tory territory and kicked them out. There is not a Tory MP in Scotland, nor in Wales. There are only a handful of Tories in the English cities. The Tory party is now an English rural party, but not even wholly that. They’ve been driven out of the south-west of England, mainly by the Liberals. They’ve been driven out of small-town-and-some-countryside constituencies in the Midlands and south-east of England, mainly by Labour. Shrewsbury is Labour. Shrewsbury! Thatcher’s Essex went Labour. Worcester went Labour.

I predicted an overall majority of 110 on 10 March. I turn out to have been over-cautious, but I was closer than anyone else I’ve spoken to, and two or three newspaper articles I’ve read say that Blair and his circle thought the majority would be between 30 and 40. So I feel smug about my judgement.

It’s the long May Day weekend. The world has tilted in a good direction. I’m happy to be alive.

4 May 1997 Spread Eagle, Camden Town

It’s Sunday evening of the May Day weekend, and the exhilaration hasn’t worn off yet. I keep thinking about Thursday’s victory again, and the pleasure comes flooding back. The despatch of seven Tory cabinet ministers, and especially Portillo. The arrival of over 100 women in the Commons, a critical mass which must change the culture of the place forever. The sense that renewal is possible, whatever negotiation, compromise and manoeuvre have been necessary to gain the power to achieve that renewal.

It is now July 2010, and the UK is governed by a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition with a majority of about 80.

Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair as Labour leader and Prime Minister in June 2007. After a honeymoon period during the summer and early autumn of 2007, Brown suffered a series of political injuries, some self-inflicted, some inflicted by forces beyond his control, which made Labour deeply unpopular in its last years in power, although there was not at the same time the overwhelming hunger for a change of government that there had been in 1997. It also seemed, despite Brown’s towering intellect and evident passion for social justice, that he did not take pleasure in the job he had craved for so long. Macmillan’s advice to Wilson: ‘Enjoy the office.’ Brown seemed tortured by it, and his authority waned as a result.

In the autumn of 2007 came the first signs that the world was going to experience a financial crisis on a scale unknown since 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. The climax of the crisis occurred in October 2008. Essentially, the greed and stupidity of the leaders of some banks and other financial institutions, and the lax financial supervision which had been exercised by governments and regulators since the Reagan/Thatcher years, during which time it was decided that markets know best, and that we would all benefit from a trickle-down effect if very rich people and organisations were simply allowed to go on getting richer, almost caused a complete collapse of the world’s financial system. This financial crisis brought about a wider economic recession in the world, from which we are now emerging. The recession in the UK, though deeper than the two recessions of the Conservative years, was quite different as to cause. The Tory recessions were caused by wrong government policies; the recession at the end of the Labour years was at heart caused by the irresponsible actions of financial institutions, particularly in the US.

One can criticise Brown for not seeing the crisis coming during the decade in which he was in charge of the UK’s finances. He was happy to inherit from the Conservatives their light-touch supervision philosophy, although he made significant changes in the system of supervision. He would argue, I expect, that with a free-market, right-wing government in power in the US for eight years from January 2001, he would have been laughed out of court if he had proposed tighter regulation, and that if he had decided to impose stricter supervision and control in the UK unilaterally, great waves of money would have left the UK for laxer regimes. Whatever the truth about that, Brown as Prime Minister and Alastair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer played a leading — I think the leading — role in saving the world’s financial system in October 2008. They persuaded other leaders to pump huge sums into the almost broken banks, partly or completely nationalising them if necessary. That had to be done over a matter of days. If it hadn’t happened, millions of ordinary people, with a few tens of thousands of pounds (or the equivalent in other currencies) in bank accounts, often the legitimate reward for a lifetime of work, would have lost most of their money. This would certainly have been the case with my partner Helen. In August 2008 she turned 60. She received just over £100,000 in two lump sums from pension schemes she had been paying into over the previous 38 years. Two months later, she might have lost most of that, because the money was in accounts with the National Westminster Bank, which is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland group, which was one of the most irresponsible of the UK banks.

Brown got no credit from the British electorate for his actions in the autumn of 2008. A result of those actions was that government debt climbed rapidly to levels not seen for many decades. It had to. The alternative would have been immeasurably worse. The Conservatives, with huge but unsurprising hypocrisy, made effective attacks on Brown and Labour for economic profligacy. Had they been in power in the decade until 2008, they would have been even more laissez-faire with the banks than Labour was. But electorates have short memories, and most people don’t understand economics. During the election campaign in April and May 2010, it was easy for the Conservatives to present themselves as the party which would bring financial order and discipline out of chaos and licence. Labour had had 13 years in power — easily the longest period in government in its history. The ‘time for a change’ factor was against them, and in any case no UK election is ever fairly fought, because of the preponderance of newspapers shrieking at voters to vote Conservative, and doing everything they can to discredit Labour.

Having a coalition government in power in the UK is a new experience for everyone younger than about 75. My feelings towards the government are not fully formed. I welcome the influence of the Liberal Democrats on its policies, and I readily admit that it has some policies I wish Labour had implemented or whose implementation Labour should have completed, and that the coalition has abandoned some policies which Labour should never have had in the first place, and of which it should be ashamed. There will be fixed-term parliaments; the reform of the House of Lords will be completed; there will be a referendum on the voting system. ID cards and the national identity database will be abandoned. DNA samples taken from accused people subsequently found innocent by the courts will be destroyed. There will be no third runway at Heathrow Airport. However bad, from my point of view, some of the Conservative-driven policies enacted by the new government turn out to be, I don’t think we are about to enter another dark age, as we did in 1979.

I am still a member of the Labour Party. The Labour government 1997-2010 has some immense achievements to its credit. A few examples: extra money for the poorest people, via tax credits and the minimum wage; the huge new sums poured into education and health care; the ending of the catastrophe of mass unemployment which we had under the Conservatives (although unemployment has inevitably risen with the financially-induced recession from which we are just emerging); the far lower inflation and interest rates than we had under the Conservatives; devolution for Scotland and Wales; the immense effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland; the various pieces of human rights legislation, notably those affecting gay people; the (incomplete) reform of the House of Lords. Or take an international achievement, far more important from the global perspective of reducing human misery on our planet. At the G8 conference which was interrupted by the London bombs in July 2005, Blair and Brown were finalising with the other leaders a proposal, which Britain had been principally responsible for bringing to the point of agreement, for reducing or cancelling the debt of the world’s poorest countries on an unprecedented scale. These deeds are not insignificant.

I acknowledge these achievements despite my simultaneous deep disappointments about Labour 1997-2010, of which the two most grievous are the handing over of large swathes of our public services to the private sector, a distraction which obscures the enormous extra resources which have been put into those services; and Tony Blair’s tragically wrong decision on Iraq. Amongst other wrong policies, I’ll only mention Labour’s pig-headed commitment to ID cards and a national identity database, which would have given the state unprecedented intrusive access to the private lives of millions of innocent citizens, and would have done nothing to restrain terrorists.

During the period of Labour government, when I talked with friends over drinks or in restaurants, enjoying our prosperous free lives, I was amazed at how little some of those friends seemed to sympathise with the extraordinary difficulty of governing. They were simply contemptuous of Labour and its leaders. They could have done the job better. I thought: organising a darts match is difficult. Governing Britain as it is, and taking it in a progressive direction, must be fiendishly difficult. These friends had shared my feelings as the Conservative years rolled on and the damage accumulated. They had short memories.

Despite being sadder than I was in 1997, I am not disillusioned with Labour 1997-2010, because I was never ‘illusioned’ about practical politics in the first place. To achieve actual change for the betterment of the majority of the people in our country would have been an arduous, prosaic, piecemeal task even if Labour’s leaders had been perfectly virtuous people. They were not. I feel immense sadness that Blair and Brown wasted so much energy and squandered so much goodwill in their contest for supremacy, allowing the impression of constant civil strife within the government and party to distract attention from Labour’s substantial actual achievements.

My other reason for sticking with Labour is that membership of a party is not the same as being a courtier of that party’s leader, despite the fact that a party leader’s personality has become so much more important in UK politics in recent years. Tony Blair may, for all I know, have been completely personally corrupted by his experience of power. To take a trivial but symbolic example, I found it incomprehensible that a Labour Prime Minister should have accepted the hospitality of Silvio Berlusconi for his family summer holiday in 2004. Berlusconi is one of the most disreputable and corrupt of western European politicians, a man whose beliefs, statements and actions place him on the extreme fringe of the democratic spectrum. In August 2004, when I thought of the Blairs and the Berlusconis on their sun lounges together, my heart sank. In March 2006, I had to swallow the news that wealthy donors or lenders to the Labour Party could effectively buy peerages, just as used to happen in the bad old Tory days. I decided to leave the party; I would henceforth be a political sceptic. But then I remembered government ministers and MPs (including Frank Dobson, my own MP) whom I did (and do) admire, who had done and were doing good work, honourably, making difficult decisions in less than ideal circumstances, trying to hold on to the reason why they joined in the first place, and I recalled that it’s the Labour Party I joined, not the Blair or the Brown Party. That’s the position I still hold, whoever wins the current contest to replace Brown as leader.

Having a vision in politics is one thing. I have a vision, which I wrote down in one sentence in the diary on 3 May 1997: that politics should bring organised realisation to the best instincts of the human heart and the human reason. It is on the basis of the unromantic work done to bring that organised realisation that one should judge a government, bearing in mind what one imagines the available alternative would have done instead, and on that basis I am still willing to be a member of the Labour Party as it faces at least five years in opposition.

I feel the need to say something about the invasion of Iraq, and to make myself state what I think about the use of military force in today's world. Seven years after the invasion, a committee of inquiry is ponderously weighing the rights and wrongs of the UK’s actions, and trying to establish whether lessons can be learned for the future. My opposition to the invasion of Iraq is not based on a principled opposition to war in all circumstances. I am not a pacifist. Nor had I any illusions about the scale of Saddam’s barbarity towards his own people. Nor do I believe that it is always wrong to invade a foreign country, using the argument that a country’s internal affairs are a matter for it and it alone. On the contrary, I think that there are times when it is essential to invade a country, even if it seems to offer no threat to its neighbours, when there is overwhelming evidence that tyranny is at work there. We should no longer be willing quietly to forget atrocity in a nation-state, any more than we should overlook atrocity within a family. There have been occasions in recent years when it is to the world’s shame that it did not invade a country in order to prevent mass murder being continued there; the most notorious example being Rwanda in 1994. There have been occasions when an international invasion was inadequate in strength and unclear in purpose, as in Bosnia in the early 1990s. And there have been occasions when invasions have, on balance, reduced the scale of death, mutilation, destruction and oppression in an invaded country, despite the heart-breaking cases of innocents in that country being killed by mistake by the invaders who were supposedly trying to help them. The invasions have also caused tyrants in those countries to realise that they were not free to act unchallenged within their own borders, and may have given potential or actual tyrants in other countries pause before acting or continuing to act themselves. Examples are Kosovo and East Timor in 1999.

In Kosovo, Milosevic — encouraged by the pusillanimity of the outside world’s challenge to the barbarities he had committed and sponsored in Croatia and Bosnia — was going about the business of committing genocide against the province’s Albanian majority. He was prevented from doing so. East Timor is a country which deserved to and did regain the independence which had been taken from it by Indonesia.

For me, the single factor which causes me to support or oppose the fateful decision to attack a country, and pay the price in terms of innocent blood spilled — evil committed in the process of trying to achieve greater good — is: what was the attitude of the United Nations towards the action? The United Nations, whatever deep imperfections and anachronisms are contained in its structures and decision-making procedures, is the only organisation in the world which can give moral legitimacy to the decision to invade a country or bomb its territory in order to put down tyrants and right wrongs. If in the century which has just begun we are to move towards the acceptance of the principle that war is only justified by a multilateral agreement that, all other methods having failed, tyranny must be put down by force, then it is the United Nations or no-one which can grant that justification.

Having made this pronouncement, it is unfortunately not a simple matter to apply it to one of the two examples I’ve just given, where, for me, attack was justified. There was no specific UN authorisation of the intervention in Kosovo, which was a NATO operation. Russia and China would never have supported invasion at the UN. But there were numerous Security Council resolutions in 1998 and 1999 condemning Milosevic’s barbarism, for example Resolution 1199 (23 September 1998): ‘Gravely concerned at the recent intense fighting in Kosovo and in particular the excessive and indiscriminate use of force by Serbian security forces and the Yugoslav Army which have resulted in numerous civilian casualties and, according to the estimate of the Secretary-General, the displacement of over 230,000 people from their homes…’ The operation had the support, through the UN, of the majority of the world’s democracies.

East Timor voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a UN referendum. After the vote, militias opposed to independence, organised, encouraged, aided or connived at by the Indonesian military, committed atrocities against the civilian population. An explicitly authorised UN-led invasion took place, which allowed the peacefully and democratically expressed wish of the people of East Timor to be secured. It was one of the UN’s rare successes. (But in May and June 2006, we saw how easily destructible is peace in that country; and maybe the UN will have to go back there to restore it.)

Comparable or greater loss of life than that seen in America on 11 September 2001 occurs regularly in other, poorer parts of the world, although admittedly not often on one day. Nonetheless, the audacious and murderous attacks of that day were exceptional in their impact and significance, because they were made on the world’s richest, most economically powerful and militarily mightiest country, and they came as a complete surprise. The images of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York smoking and blazing, then tumbling to the ground; of the poor desperate people throwing themselves from windows to almost certain death, rather than accept an absolutely certain death by fire; these will stay in the minds of the billions who saw them all their lives.

When it became clear that the attacks were the latest and most spectacular achievements of Al-Qaida, an informal but disciplined world-wide network of Islamist extremists who imagine that it will be possible to impose on the whole world a form of government based on their perversion of Islamic teaching, the American government felt no inhibition in going to the heart of the problem as it saw it. It invaded Afghanistan and unseated the Taliban government there. Britain and some other countries helped. (The Taliban, of course, were the successors of the very mujahadeen whom the Americans had encouraged and funded as opposition to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.) There has since been an only partially successful attempt to establish some kind of democratic government in the country, which has involved the immensely difficult task of getting the various factional and tribal leaders to sit down together to plan the future.

The Taliban government was one of wicked and backward brutality towards its own people. It ruled by methods of mediaeval cruelty in the name of a betrayal of Islamic doctrines. It also harboured and supported the most powerful members of the Al-Qaida network, including its leader Usama bin-Laden. On 12 September, the brief UN Security Council Resolution 1368, condemning the 11 September attacks, expressed the Security Council’s ‘readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001’. On 14 November, in Resolution 1378, specifically on Afghanistan, the Taliban were condemned for ‘allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for the export of terrorism by the Al-Qaida network and other terrorist groups’. Though neither of these resolutions, nor any others passed in the autumn of 2001, explicitly authorised military invasion, their tone towards the Taliban and Al-Qaida meant that there was broad international support at government level for the American-led invasion, except from countries whose governments are permanently convinced that every American act and thought emanates from Satan. The Americans were, I expect, glad of this support, though they were going to invade anyway.

In the UK and other Western democracies, there was significant opposition to the invasion, from honourable citizens who will never suffer summary arrest, torture and execution at the hands of their own governments, scorn them as they do; from women and their menfolk who would be simply outraged at the suggestion that the state should have any say whatsoever in a woman’s decision about what clothes she should normally wear, or that their daughters might be denied the same educational opportunities as their sons. These people protested about an action to overthrow a government which executed women for setting up girls’ schools.

Because the Taliban government was so evidently tyrannical and cruel towards its own people, I supported the invasion at the time, with a heavy heart, despite America’s bully-in-the-playground manner in foreign policy during the George W. Bush years, despite its contempt for the United Nations, whose authority it made use of to justify its actions when convenient and ignored when not. But then the Americans began to slaughter innocents in Afghanistan, casually and with the most grudging and non-committal of apologies, for example when two of their pilots mistook for hostile fire (so they said) celebratory firing into the air by members of a wedding party at a remote village, and bombed and rocketed the place, killing 48 people. (The Americans did something very similar in Iraq later.) How can a person of any sensibility continue to support an invader who does that? When the dreadful cold calculations are made, have fewer people around the world been killed or maimed, and are fewer people likely to be killed or maimed, now that the Taliban have been unseated than was the case when they were in government? The honest truth is that I don’t know. And, of course, the Taliban are still an immensely powerful force in the country, and continue to act barbarically. Hundreds of British soldiers have died at their hands.

Usama bin-Laden is a Saudi. The great majority of the men who committed the atrocities on 11 September were Saudis. Saudi Arabia is America’s best ally in the Middle East. The Bush family has close and mutually profitable oil connections with leading Saudis. It appears that, on the night of 11 September, when no flying at all was officially allowed in American airspace, one plane was nonetheless permitted to take off and leave America. It carried leading Saudi citizens, including relatives (I think distant) of Usama bin-Laden. Hmm. Of such are conspiracy theories made, and it’s easy enough to find on the internet polemics claiming that the American government organised the 11 September attacks itself, to justify its already taken decision to invade Afghanistan, Iraq, and who knows where else.

After Afghanistan, Iraq. Here everything went disastrously wrong, and Tony Blair took a fateful wrong decision to support George W. Bush in this invasion too.

Saddam Hussein in power was a monster, in the same league of brutality as the Taliban, Milosevic, the Hutu extremists in Rwanda, and not far behind Pol Pot. His departure from power and his subsequent death are in themselves to be welcomed. But all the premises on which we went to war in Iraq were wrong. Saddam was not harbouring Al-Qaida. He had had nothing to do with the 11 September attacks, nor with previous attacks by fundamentalist Islamist terrorists against American interests. (Al-Qaida regarded him as an apostate, for all the dealings he had happily done with the West in his early years in power; dealings which America, France, the UK and other Western powers had enthusiastically initiated. Amongst the American politicians and business people who had gone to Iraq to sell Saddam arms were men who were now, in Bush junior’s administration, leading the invasion of Iraq. Again, sow the wind…) Saddam no longer had the weapons of mass destruction which, so the American and British publics were told, he was ready and able to unleash. Hans Blix, the official in charge of inspecting Saddam’s weapons, reported this to the UN just before the invasion. His information was ignored. The sanctions the UN had imposed on Iraq after the war to reverse Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait were having their effect. Crucially, the UN Security Council came nowhere near passing a resolution, around the time of the 2003 invasion, which endorsed it, even in the most general terms. If it had done, I would have supported an invasion; morally, Saddam was in that league of evil which justified his toppling, without need of false excuses to do with weapons of mass destruction or the harbouring of Islamist terrorists. When the UN came nowhere near endorsing an invasion, and when Blair saw that Bush was determined to go to war in despite of the UN, he should have said, ‘Sorry George, I’m not with you on this one,’ whatever his thoughts about the internal politics of the UN.

There is a frequent claim, made by those on the left who condemn American-led military invasions (as, selectively, I do) that the West only invades countries when it fears a threat to its oil supplies. This is the reason, say these critics, why we didn’t intervene in Rwanda in 1994; why we’ve never intervened in Burma; why we won’t intervene in Zimbabwe. There’s no oil in these places, the critics say (I’m not sure whether that’s true or not, place by place); those with the power to invade don’t really care about the fate of the suffering people of those countries; when we do invade, it’s for the oil, and we find humanitarian excuses for our selfish actions. Today’s humanitarian excuses, they say, are the modern equivalent of the religious excuses given for the imperial conquests of the past.

It’s an attractively simple case, but generally it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Did we invade Afghanistan for its oil? I don’t think so. The fiercest critic of that invasion could not claim so. Did we intervene in Kosovo for its oil, rather than to protect the Muslim majority of its population from annihilation by Milosevic? We did not. Was Blair’s intervention in Sierra Leone a ploy to get our hands on the oil under its land or sea? Of course not.

Iraq is a more complex case. It has enormous quantities of oil. I cannot demonstrate that the desire to control Iraq’s oil was not the secret motivation behind the invasion, though the announced casus belli was other. Bush and many of his closest advisers were oil men. All I can say, as one who unreservedly condemns that invasion, is that if those people thought in 2003 that the cost of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a price worth paying in order to control its oil, even they — if they are capable of rational thought — must have changed their minds since. John McCain, the Republican nominee for the 2008 American presidential election, said that it would be worth staying in Iraq for 100 years. He was obviously not capable of rational thought.

Anyhow, we went, we did unseat Saddam, and scores of thousands — probably hundreds of thousands — of people have died and been maimed since. That is far more than would have died and been maimed if we had continued with the approach we were adopting before the invasion. I am happy to acknowledge that slow, painful progress towards peace under a stable government in Iraq is being made, and that Western armies are leaving. But consider the country’s experience since the war supposedly ended. People have been slaughtered by terrorists, sometimes daily and often in large numbers. Some of the terrorists have been pro-Saddam thugs, Sunnis by religion, who have hated it that the hegemony they enjoyed under Saddam, despite the fact that Sunnis make up only 20% of Iraq’s population, exists no longer. As well as deaths caused by explosions, there has been a steady stream of sectarian executions, Shia on Sunni and Sunni on Shia. But the most bitter of ironies is that, whereas Islamist terrorists of the perverted theocratic kind were not active in Iraq before the invasion (because, as I’ve said, those people regarded Saddam as a traitor to their ‘pure’ vision of Islam, and preferred to operate from elsewhere), they have certainly been active there since 2003, entering the country in large numbers, especially from America’s best friend Saudi Arabia, because now Iraq has become available for conversion and to be recruited as a launch-pad for the export of terrorism elsewhere. America and Britain achieved by the invasion the fulfilment of a nightmare which was a false fear before it.

Meanwhile, and on a much smaller scale, London paid a price for Bush’s and Blair’s actions on 7 July 2005, when four young men, all British citizens, three of Pakistani and one of Jamaican origin, came from Leeds, each with a bomb in a rucksack. Three got into Underground trains; one mounted a bus. Each blew himself up, killing and maiming innocent passengers around him. The death toll was 56, including the bombers; about 700 people were injured, many of them for life. A fortnight later, four more young men tried to do the same thing, but this time the bombs didn’t explode.

There’s no doubt that the invasion of Iraq has made Britain more vulnerable to attack by Islamist terrorists, just as Spain’s support for the invasion must have encouraged the terrorists who killed nearly 200 people on suburban trains around Madrid in March 2004. But that’s not the whole story. If there were a just settlement in Israel and Palestine, with the establishment of a Palestinian state — a goal itself imperfect, but still remote; if all Western armies were to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan (as indeed they now are from Iraq); if every one of the excuses for ‘holy war’ which its promoters cite were removed: we are still living in a period when the delusion of world supremacy resides in the minds of a very few, but very dangerous, leaders of thought within the Islamic clerisy. It’s one of those quirks of history that thinking as backward as the idea that the whole world should be governed according to the tenets of a minority misinterpretation of one of the world’s great, peace-loving faiths coincides with the invention of means of instant global communication such as the internet, so that backwardness is no longer confined to a particular back yard of the world. The consequences of such backwardness are realised, tragically and gruesomely, in everyone’s front yard. Without pausing for breath, I need also to say that it terrified me that George W. Bush believed that God had told him to invade Iraq, and that Tony Blair said that he would happily answer to his maker for his decision to follow George. Flipping straight back from Christianity to Islam, I read that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran expects the end of the world soon, when Mohammed ibn Hasan, the Hidden Twelfth Imam, will return in the company of Jesus and establish an endless era of harmony and light. The president has repeatedly called for the destruction of the state of Israel. Meanwhile, Zionism has its fair share of fundamentalists, willing to justify, on religious grounds, the grotesque and illegal acts which Israel has committed against the Palestinians in recent decades, and which have provoked such dreadful, unforgivable revenges.

We draw a simple lesson from all this: religious certainty, combined with power and weapons, has always been and continues to be a scourge of humanity. Rational enlightenment has not yet made great progress on our planet.

I rejoiced at the outcome of the US presidential election in 2008. Barack Obama is that rarity, a great statesman with a coherent view of the world as an interdependent, fragile place, and with an understanding of the dangers of exercising what I earlier called a bully-in-the-playground approach to US foreign policy. He is also a genuine orator in and for the television and internet age; a master of an old political skill which one could be forgiven for thinking extinct now that most politicians can just about read, on a card or autocue in front of them, words written by someone else. Obama’s achievements in his own country on health care, on the environment and on control of the financial sector are already remarkable. He has posted these achievements in the teeth of furious opposition and expensive, wasteful lobbying from vested interests whose expectation that they should have the right always to satisfy their greed is threatened by reforms which tend to the greater good; and of course from the Republican Party.

Obama’s great international challenges are the Middle East, Afghanistan/Pakistan and the environment. Israel continues to act with brutal efficiency and a sense of moral impunity as it pursues its goal of a greater Jewish state, regarding the Palestinians only as obstacles to the fulfilment of its dream. I don’t believe there has been, on the part of any recent Israeli government, a true desire for an honourable and sustainable peace with the Palestinians, whatever official statements government spokespeople make. Meanwhile, America continues to send Israel a huge cheque every month, for it to spend as it wishes. Obama knows this. He also knows that there is no more powerful lobby in Congress than the pro-Israeli lobby. If the Israel/Palestine conflict could be solved, the success would stand as one of the great achievements in international diplomacy and statesmanship in modern history.

Obama has pursued the war in Afghanistan, and attacked those in Pakistan who support and supply the Taliban, with as great determination as Bush did. If during his presidency some kind of humane government, however different from Western democracies, could be said to be reliably in charge in Afghanistan, so that Western armies could leave, that would again be an immense achievement. But such success is nowhere in sight.

In Copenhagen in December 2009, an international conference on the environment, years in the preparation, was thought by most commentators to be an overall failure, despite some modest gains, principally because China would not agree to legally binding limits on its emission of greenhouse gases. China’s intransigence was a reminder that it is a superpower now; it will do as it likes, just at the moment when America, which for most of the 20th century did what it liked, has under Obama recognised that the most important decisions in the world have to be taken multilaterally. America has moved a long way in the few years since George W. Bush stated that he didn’t believe that human actions were contributing to global warming. By an irony, it may move further, faster as a result of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this spring and summer 2010, for which BP, a British oil company, is responsible. I would be surprised and delighted if the Americans elect a president of anything like Obama’s stature during the rest of my lifetime; if he gets a second term in 2012, he has six years from now to help to transform the disappointment of Copenhagen into a sustainable international deal to limit global warming, taking into account the legitimate ambitions of the economically developing countries to enjoy the same standards of living as we do in the West.

Globally, the important politics of the 21st century will not be enacted within conventional left/right alternatives in the advanced democracies of the North. They are already being enacted in the countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia, their huge populations emerging from centuries of poverty, isolation and colonial oppression into an awareness of the relative smallness and interconnectedness of the world as it now is. There are only three real political priorities for the world now. They are all essential, and each is intimately related to the others. They are: reduction of inequalities of all kinds between the countries of the North and the South, and between the rich and the poor within the countries of the South and the North; care for the earth as an environment, as I’ve just written; and control of the world’s population. If in the course of the century just begun we can make significant progress in meeting these priorities, the sum total of human happiness on the planet, to put the matter in plain utilitarian terms, will be very much very greater in a hundred years’ time than it is today. If we fail, the future could be a nightmare, as swarming billions compete for diminishing resources with which to sustain life, in a world where the notion of some kind of beauty and quiet in one’s surroundings will be a remote dream for all but a tiny elite, guarded from the hungry and angry masses by walls and wires and uniformed men with guns. This dreadful prospect will be rendered more dreadful by a dearth of clean air, limpid light and clean water, by regular episodes of weather of extreme destructiveness brought on by our stupid determination to continue to pollute our atmosphere and destroy our forests. Thousands of species of animals and plants will become extinct, at an accelerating rate. There will be no more wild fish in the sea. In the smaller countries there will be no more countryside between towns. The great killer diseases, born of poverty and ignorance and almost eradicated in the 20th century, will be rife again amongst the poor, and will be transmitted across the world more efficiently because of the speed of global travel and the great numbers travelling.

There is a temptation to despair. It’s there in the poem I began to write at Kerfontaine on 1 January 2005, where I describe myself as

…one of those
Whose task it is to populate a world
Which others make.
Which is the stronger force.

Despite the temptation, we have a moral and practical obligation to hope, and to act in support of the governments, multilateral organisations, pressure groups, charities, businesses and individuals trying to tilt the planet and its people in a good direction rather than a disastrous one. We have to protect and encourage points of light in a darkening landscape, remembering that nothing is inevitable; that we hold our fate in our own hands.