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7. Party Member

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 millenarianism 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. Like other epoch-making geniuses such as Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein, he 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. In Western countries, people of all levels of income prefer the freedoms which market economics and parliamentary democracies bring, as long as there is a social element in the state’s actions to offset capitalism’s native cruelty. I say they ‘prefer’; that doesn’t mean to say that they believe they’re living in dreamland. There are profound, sometimes heartbreaking imperfections and inequalities in the organisation of all democracies. But people would still rather live under these conditions than under the authoritarian tyranny practised for 70 years in the USSR and, after the Second World War, in its satellite countries in Eastern Europe.

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 the USSR, 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. Perhaps I was destined to be a permanent member of an honourable and ignored minority group. 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 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.

The Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 have immense achievements to their 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 inevitably rose during the recession after the financial crisis of 2008); 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 the achievements despite simultaneous deep disappointments. The first concerns Labour’s response, once in government, to the Conservatives’ previous sales of large swathes of our public services to the private sector. There are some basic human needs which should always be met by the state: water, electricity, gas; and in our country I would add the national rail network to this short list. It is a scandal that these essentials are now run for the benefit of shareholders and top managers of private companies, requiring complex and expensive systems of surveillance and regulation by government agencies to remind them of their responsibility to the public good. Prisons — places of human misery and symbols of society’s failure — should never be run for someone else’s profit; but many of them are. Labour meekly accepted the Conservative privatisations as faits accomplis.

A second disappointment also concerns the transfer of assets from the public sphere: council housing. Thatcher’s and Major’s governments sold off millions of council houses and flats. It wasn’t the sale of council property in itself which was wrong. I am the joint owner of two private properties. I can’t without hypocrisy deny other people the right to buy property if they wish to, and I can understand that they might wish to buy the property in which they are already living. It was the refusal of Thatcher’s and Major’s governments to allow councils to spend the money from those sales on building new council houses and flats, or buying existing property of equivalent quality, which was the crime: a purely ideological campaign against the idea of a public role for housing. And the inducements to people to buy, in terms of the large discounts on the market price of their rented property, meant that, even if councils had been allowed to spend the income from sales on new property, they wouldn’t have been able to afford like for like. Labour, alas, did not reverse the Tories’ policy; only ameliorated it a little.

The third disappointment will take much longer to discuss. It concerns Tony Blair’s tragically wrong decision on Iraq. My opposition to the invasion of Iraq was 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, 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.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq, I still believed that the only organisation in the world with the moral authority to intervene in a country to stop atrocities being committed there is the United Nations, and in particular its Security Council. In 2023, alas, the Security Council is a broken instrument, because Russia and China represent authoritarian regimes in increasingly open conflict with the values of the West.

There had been occasions before 2003 when it was to the world’s shame that it did not invade a country in order to prevent or at least curtail mass murder being committed there; the most notorious example being Rwanda in 1994. There had been occasions when an international intervention was inadequate in strength and unclear in purpose, as in Bosnia in the early 1990s. And there had been occasions when an invasion did, on balance, reduce 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. An example is Kosovo in 1999, when the Serbian president Milosevic — encouraged by the pusillanimity of the outside world’s challenge to his barbarities in Croatia and Bosnia — was in the process of committing genocide against the province’s Albanian majority. He was prevented by international action from completing his work, although the deep fault lines in the structure of the Security Council were already evident then.

There was no specific UN authorisation of the intervention in Kosovo, which was a NATO operation. Russia and China would never have supported invasion. 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.

Kosovo was spared. It unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. As of 4 September 2020, 101 out of 193 United Nations member states, and the overwhelming majority of EU and NATO member states, have recognised that independence. Milosevic was captured and tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He died in 2006 while still on trial.

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 Center 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. The Taliban government in Afghanistan had nurtured and protected Al-Qaida on its territory. It had supported the network’s most powerful members, including its leader Usama bin-Laden. The Americans invaded and unseated the Taliban. 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.)

The Taliban government was one of wicked and backward brutality towards its own people. It ruled by methods of mediaeval cruelty. 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 as to 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 as a result of the removal of the Taliban from the government of Afghanistan in 2001? The honest truth is that I don’t know. Hundreds of British and thousands of American soldiers were killed and maimed while our armies were there, and atrocities continued in the country, committed by one theocratic Islamist terror group or another, also killing and maiming Afghans in numbers which dwarf Western losses. And after the West’s humiliating withdrawal from the country in August 2021, the Taliban are back in power, and continue to act barbarically.

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 were 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 on 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 to endorse the 2003 invasion, even in the most general terms, in the days before it took place. And this wasn’t the usual story of Russia and China vetoing action; France passionately and eloquently argued against it. If the UN had authorised action, for example on the absolutely legitimate ground that Saddam had used chemical weapons — explicitly forbidden by international treaties since the 1920s — against his own people, 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. But when the UN declined to do this, and came nowhere near endorsing an invasion on the spurious grounds that the US attested, and when Blair saw that Bush was determined to go to war in defiance of the UN, he should have said, ‘Sorry George, I’m not with you on this one,’ whatever his thoughts about the UN’s internal politics.

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 didn’t intervene in Myanmar or Zimbabwe, for example, despite the atrocities committed by governments there. 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? 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 successful intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000, restoring legitimate government there after nine years of bloody civil war, 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 oilmen. All I can say, as one who unreservedly condemned 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 at that point.

Anyhow, we went, we did unseat Saddam, and 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. And 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 hated the fact that the hegemony they enjoyed under Saddam, despite the fact that Sunnis make up only 20% of Iraq’s population, existed 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 Iraq and its people became available for conversion and recruitment to the task of exporting terrorism elsewhere. America and Britain achieved by the invasion of Iraq the fulfilment of a nightmare which was a false fear before it. The emergence of Islamic State as a rival to al-Qaida, its declaration in 2014 of an Islamist caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria, and all the bloodshed caused by the huge and still incomplete effort to defeat it, are direct results of the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, and on a much smaller scale, on 7 July 2005 London paid a price for Bush’s and Blair’s actions, 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 all Western armies were to withdraw from Muslim-majority countries; 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 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, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President of Iran he expected the end of the world imminently, at which time Mohammed ibn Hasan, the Hidden Twelfth Imam, would return in the company of Jesus and establish an endless era of harmony and light. Ahmadinejad 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, especially when combined with political power and weapons of destruction, has always been and continues to be a scourge of humanity. Rational enlightenment has not yet made great progress on our planet.

My fourth disappointment with Labour in government was much more parochial, to do with personalities, and can be stated briefly. I felt immense sadness that Blair and Brown wasted so much energy and squandered so much goodwill in their contest for supremacy. They allowed an impression, from 2001 onwards, of constant civil strife within the government and party, which distracted attention from Labour’s substantial actual achievements. When press reports first emerged of conflict between the two, and between their factions of supporters, I simply didn’t believe them. Mischief-making by the Tory press, I thought. But it was true: this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Labour was being squandered because Brown thought that Blair had betrayed his promise to stand down in his favour at some point after the 2001 election. His frustrated ambition and lack of any collegiate sense brought about the birth of ‘Brownite’ and ‘Blairite’ tendencies, briefing against each other. Roughly speaking, the Brownites were a bit more left-wing than the Blairites. But it was a disaster, with a weak Tory opposition and with so much to do, that there were tendencies at all.

In the event, Brown did take over from Blair as Labour leader and Prime Minister in June 2007. After a honeymoon period during the summer and early autumn of 2007, he suffered a series of political injuries. Some were self-inflicted, like the folly of appearing to contemplate holding a snap election in the autumn of that year, only to call it off when David Cameron, the new Tory leader, said, ‘Bring it on,’ which made Brown look weak and indecisive. The injury done to him by the financial crisis, which I’m coming to in a second, was unjust and beyond his control. But it also seemed, despite his 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, compounded by the lax financial supervision which had been exercised by governments and regulators since the Reagan/Thatcher years, almost caused a complete collapse of the world’s financial system. This near-catastrophe had come about because in the 1970s and 1980s some economists, in a challenge to the economic orthodoxy which had prevailed as a result of lessons learned after the 1929 crash (demand management by governments; watchful regulation of markets), had persuaded the leaders of Western governments (who, in Thatcher’s and Reagan’s cases, were only too willing to be persuaded) 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. The 2007/2008 financial crisis brought about a wider economic recession in the world. The recession in the UK, though even 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 gave speeches in the City of London praising the bankers’ entrepreneurial spirit, and wishing that it could be replicated elsewhere in British industry. He would argue now, 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 wife 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 at the National Westminster Bank, which was owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland group, which was one of the most irresponsible of the UK banks; it had to be nationalised in a hurry.

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. In fact, according to the Office for National Statistics, government debt as a percentage of GDP fell from about 52% in 1997 to about 43% in 2007, just before the crisis, despite all the money spent on education and health. Had the Conservatives 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.

Although Labour was unpopular in its last years in power, there was no overwhelming hunger for a change of government, as there had been in 1997. Labour lost the general election in May 2010, but the Conservatives under David Cameron didn’t win it; they needed to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in order to govern. The first coalition government since the Second World War had an overall majority in the House of Commons of 77.

The coalition government did a few good things. It legislated for five-year parliaments whose term could only be interrupted if the government lost a vote of confidence, or if at least two thirds of the Commons voted for an early election. (Twice, in 2017 and 2019, more than two thirds of the Commons did exactly that, and the legislation has been repealed by the Conservative government in power since 2019, so we’re back where we were, with the sitting government able to schedule a forthcoming election, within a five-year period, when it thinks it has the best chance of winning or of limiting its losses.) The coalition legalised gay marriage. For the first time, it brought the UK’s level of contribution to international development up to 0.7% of GDP, the target set by the United Nations, something which Labour should have achieved in its years in power, and didn’t. (In 2022, the government dropped the commitment, temporarily it said, claiming wrongly that it couldn’t afford the expense after its huge borrowing during the Covid-19 pandemic.) Meanwhile, the coalition did untold damage on two major fronts.

Ignoring everything that history taught us in the last century about how governments in democracies should enable their countries to recover from economic slumps, the coalition went for austerity. Essentially, this meant making the poor and the moderately well off pay the price for the crimes of the rich. Benefits to poorer working-age people have been slashed. Public services have been cut or closed completely. Local councils have barely enough money to fulfil their statutory obligations. Schools and the health service struggle. Prisons are squalid and dangerous. Instead of doing what Keynes recommended nearly 100 years ago, what Roosevelt did in the USA in the 1930s and what Obama did there in 2009, our government stopped investing, promising instead to balance the books as soon as possible, eliminate the annual budget deficit, move into surplus and eventually reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio. That was an admirable ambition in theory (forgetting for a moment about its social consequences), except that the theory doesn’t work in the case of governments and states in the way that it works for families and individuals. What works is targeted investment by the state, using money borrowed at rock-bottom interest rates, to get growth going again and to stimulate employment so that more people and businesses are paying taxes. The economic policy of the coalition government, as directed by the Chancellor George Osborne, was the opposite. In 2023 the UK economy is still paying the price for that folly, and those least well equipped to pay are being required to pay the most.

The other major front on which the coalition inflicted deep and perhaps permanent damage to our country was in our relationship with Europe. David Cameron, in the hope of finally resolving a decades-long split within his own party about our membership of the European Union, went into the 2015 general election, which he won with a small overall majority, promising a referendum on our continued membership. The country didn’t need a referendum. The admitted shortcomings of the EU — to be set against its historic achievement of bringing to an end a century of wars across the continent, of establishing parliamentary democracy as the accepted mode of government there, and of creating a barriers-free economic space of 500 million people — were capable of being addressed multilaterally, with the UK a powerful voice at the negotiating table. In particular, the economic benefits of membership are undeniable. Cameron thought he could finish the argument within his own party once and for all. He gambled and lost in the referendum in June 2016, and resigned.

He lost because lots of poorer people, particularly in the formerly industrial areas of the north and midlands of England, many of them victims of his own government’s austerity policies, and understanding little about the true forces which affect jobs and prosperity across the world, were glad to have the opportunity to blame somebody for the decline of mining, steel manufacture, ship-building, chemicals, potteries: industries on which they and their families for generations had depended. The EU was the ideal scapegoat. He lost because the Tory press, owned by men with no true patriotic commitment to the UK at all (an Australian who became an American, brothers living in a tax haven on the Isle of Sark, a multi-millionaire who manages to be non-domiciled in the UK for tax purposes despite owning big chunks of its land, an individual whose wealth has partly been gained through the sale of pornographic magazines) screamed at these people that they were being fleeced by ‘unelected bureaucrats’ in Brussels. He lost because those newspapers raised these people’s fears about our land being swamped by immigrants. He lost because the United Kingdom Independence Party, under its plausible leader Nigel Farage, successfully appealed to older, poorer, less well-educated white people who felt abandoned by the other parties and the modern world. He lost because his own cabinet was divided on the question. Some cabinet ministers who wished to leave the EU were and are committed, ideological anti-Europeans, dreamily imagining our future greatness as an independent maritime trading nation once again. One minister, Boris Johnson, discovered an enthusiasm for leaving as a result of a calculation that he would be more likely at some point to become Prime Minister if the vote went as it eventually did. By 52% to 48% we voted to leave. Essentially, the job was done by convincing those who will suffer most from the decision that leaving was in their interest.

And now we’ve left. As a result, the country is slowly but surely becoming poorer than it would have been if we had stayed in. All manner of unnecessary obstacles to free trade in goods and services between the UK and the EU have been and will be put in place. The hard-won peace in Northern Ireland, though still holding, has been put at risk because, recognising the danger of re-establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the parties negotiating the UK’s exit agreed that Northern Ireland should remain in the EU’s customs union and single market: the only part of the UK still to have that privilege. This means that some kinds of check are necessary on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which has enraged Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which encouraged its supporters to vote leave in 2016, against the wishes of the business community and (as the vote there proved) the majority of voters in the province.

When Cameron resigned, Theresa May, who had served as Home Secretary since 2010, became Prime Minister. She promised repeatedly that there would be no early general election; she had been chosen to lead the government and the country until 2020. Then she broke her promise, calling a general election for June 2017, because she thought she could crush Labour at that point. It was a fatal miscalculation. Labour did unexpectedly well, the Conservatives’ manifesto was profoundly unattractive, and they lost their overall majority. They governed until December 2019 only with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Meanwhile, between 2010, when Gordon Brown stood down as leader, and 2020, when Keir Starmer became leader, Labour managed twice to choose the wrong person to lead the party. In autumn 2010 it chose Ed Miliband rather than his brother David. Ed is an honourable and able person, and had been a good cabinet minister under Brown. But I knew then that the UK electorate would instinctively decide that he didn’t have the qualities that a Labour leader needs if he or she is to have a realistic hope of being Prime Minister despite the natural conservatism of much of the electorate and the assaults of the press: I mean a kind of gravitas, plus the ability to communicate a sense of being relaxed in the highest office in the land, which Blair — with all his faults and mistakes — had and Brown didn’t, and which David Miliband would have had. And so it proved.

When Ed resigned the leadership in 2015, the party elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It was an astonishing decision and a deep self-inflicted wound: to elect someone who had hundreds of times defied his own party whip, both in government and opposition, and who had only made it onto the ballot paper because some MPs sentimentally thought that there should be a candidate there representing the left wing of the party. The irony was that Ed, who had only won in 2010 because the unions backed him heavily, thinking that he would be more supportive of them than his brother would be, then changed the party’s system for leadership elections to give ordinary members much more voting power, and the unions, MPs and MEPs (while these lasted) much less. I voted for Andy Burnham in 2015; he came a distant second to Corbyn. Burnham very sensibly then decided that he didn’t fancy years and years more sitting in opposition in Westminster, and soon was elected mayor of Greater Manchester, where he has since done excellent work for the people, bringing about exactly the practical changes for good that Labour politicians are supposed to be in power to achieve. Had Burnham become leader in 2015, Labour, I have no doubt, would now be in government.

Corbyn — so I’m told by friends who live in his constituency, not all of whom are Labour supporters — is a decent man and a good constituency MP. On a whole range of policies, some of which I’ve touched on in listing my disappointments with Labour 1997-2010, I was with him: renationalise, borrow to invest, address the chronic shortage of affordable housing. When he became leader, the party’s membership grew enormously, to about 600,000 members. The young — especially the climate-aware, metropolitan young — liked him; he clearly offered a completely different vision for the country’s future from that of the Conservatives. It was no longer possible for people casually to say that they couldn’t see any difference between the two main parties. Corbyn’s unilateralist instincts on nuclear weapons briefly led him to the absurd position of suggesting that we should build some new nuclear submarines but not put warheads on them. On Europe, he failed to offer clarity, because he wasn’t keen on the EU anyway; his lukewarm support for the remain campaign in 2016 was another contributory reason for its failure. When Russian agents entered the country and used chemical weapons to poison a man they regarded as a traitor, together with his daughter, Corbyn preposterously suggested that we should ask Russia to tell us its side of the story. His longstanding support for the Palestinian cause in its struggle with Israel meant that he failed to recognise the appalling, shameful fact that anti-Semitism was rife in certain sections of his own party.

The fact that Labour did better than expected in 2017 had nothing to do with Corbyn’s positive qualities. It had everything to do, as I’ve said, with May’s miscalculation and the Tories’ deplorable campaign. Essentially, no electorate likes being lied to, taken for granted, and the UK electorate did not forgive May for promising to govern for a full term and then doing the opposite. The result was that after 2017 she was vulnerable to attacks from her own side, and in 2019 she was brought down by a group of ‘colleagues’.

As a tepid supporter of the remain campaign in 2016, the logical thing for May to have done when the vote went the other way and she became Prime Minister would have been to accept the result and argue to stay in the EU’s customs union and single market, while leaving the remainder of its structures. After all, part of the Brexiteers’ case was that the early ambitions of the EEC — to achieve a peaceful free-trade area — had been overtaken by the dreamy ambition to bring about some kind of European superstate. Most Conservatives had been enthusiastic supporters of membership of the old EEC. But May, in thrall to her right wing after she threw away her working majority, went for full Brexit. Unfortunately for her, her version of full Brexit wasn’t full enough for the Eurosceptic zealots in her party. They gleefully inflicted parliamentary defeat after defeat on her. Labour wasn’t about to help her out (which, for the good of the country, I think they should have done), and she resigned.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. He is the most dishonourable person to have held that office in my lifetime. I hated Thatcher and what she did, but she wasn’t a liar, a braggart and a charlatan. Johnson’s plausible manner, the lovable-rogue persona he initially projected, the fact that he was so unlike most identikit politicians, persuaded many lifelong Labour supporters to give him a try when, with Labour’s consent (that two-thirds majority), he called an election for December 2019. He won an 80-seat majority, essentially because Labour’s offer was a tall pile of promises which the electorate rightly thought undeliverable, because its position on what to do in the light of the EU referendum was confused, and because, in the constituencies of the north and midlands of England, traditional Labour supporters — patriotic and socially conservative — couldn’t stomach the idea of Corbyn as Prime Minister. The huge numbers of people who joined the party when Corbyn became leader turned out not to be those who actually decide the results of general elections.

Corbyn immediately stood down, and after a long campaign Sir Keir Starmer became leader in April 2020. I am parti pris: Keir is my MP, I told him plainly when he was campaigning to succeed Frank Dobson in Holborn and St Pancras that he would have my vote; I played a small part in his campaign to become leader, because I genuinely thought, and think, that of the available candidates then he was the one most likely to lead Labour to victory in a general election in 2024 (or, just possibly, early 2025). He is an evidently upright, luminously and forensically intelligent man. These qualities placed him in stark contrast to the tub-thumping, make-it-up-as-I go-along, mendacious figure he faced across the dispatch box in the House of Commons. Shortly before Keir became leader, when it seemed likely that he would win, I suggested to him that he might need two goes to overturn Johnson’s 80-seat majority. ‘I know,’ he said. Neil Kinnock was allowed two goes, in 1987 and 1992, and still didn’t succeed. But neither Keir nor I, nor millions of other people of whatever political persuasion, were prepared for the scale of corruption, incompetence and confusion which the Conservatives in power have displayed since that brief conversation. Johnson, the hero-worshipped election winner of December 2019, was forced to resign by his own party in summer 2022 after a string of scandals. Some of these involved attempts to cover up the misdeeds, financial or sexual, of his closest supporters. Some related to his own astonishing disregard for standards of behaviour which most people would expect from a Prime Minister (obscene sums of money were spent on the redecoration of his flat, for example, costs which initially he had hoped someone else — a prominent Tory donor — would meet; he forced through the appointment as chair of the BBC Board of a man who had helped in his attempt to borrow £800,000 to shore up his personal finances). But he was most damaged by clear evidence that he had known about, and participated in, illegal parties in Downing Street at a time when the rest of the country was forbidden such gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Spectacular corruption was swiftly followed by spectacular incompetence. After a summer of hustings in which Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss jousted for the votes of the membership of the Tory party, Truss won. She was Prime Minister for 44 days in September and October 2022: the shortest-serving Prime Minister in the UK’s history. (She kissed hands with the Queen on her appointment; two days later the Queen died. I wonder whether Her Majesty, having begun her reign kissing hands with Sir Winston Churchill, decided, seeing the gulf in competence and grandeur separating the first and the fifteenth Prime Minister with whom she had performed that ceremony, decided that it was time to depart.) Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, then immediately proposed an economic plan for the UK of such suicidal illiteracy (a supercharged version of the trickle-down theory) that the financial markets took fright, the pound sank and mortgage rates soared; she had to sack Kwarteng before she was herself defenestrated a few days later. The Tory grandees, tiring of the tediously democratic and experientially disastrous business of asking the membership to choose their leader, arranged things so as to make it quite unlikely (though not impossible) that there would be another membership vote. As they had hoped, only one candidate, Rishi Sunak, received enough votes from MPs to qualify to go forward to the membership, so he didn’t have to do so, and became Prime Minister immediately. Things calmed down.

But the damage was done. Labour immediately gained a substantial lead in the opinion polls, a lead which has since been maintained, although it is likely to diminish as the general election approaches and the Tory party’s attack dogs in the press go to work. In summer 2023, after a long investigation, Johnson was found by a committee of MPs (containing a Tory majority though with a Labour chair) to have knowing misled Parliament about his knowledge of parties in Downing Street. He immediately resigned as an MP, making a graceless, baseless speech accusing the committee of having been a kangaroo court. (Why are kangaroos not thought to have a sense of natural justice?) His resignation provoked a by-election which, along with two others held on the same day in July, produced one enormous swing to Labour from the Conservatives, one even bigger swing to the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives, and a narrow Conservative hold in Johnson’s former seat in outer London. The Tories hung on there essentially because the Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, will extend the capital’s ultra-low emission zone to all London boroughs from the end of August, to the dismay of numerous owners of older, polluting cars and vans. The Conservatives managed to make this the central issue of their campaign. ‘To govern is to choose,’ as the political cliché goes. Do you disappoint the honourable, just-about-managing, working-class families and small businesspeople who own these vehicles, many of them floating voters who don’t think about politics very much until election time, in order to protect the health and, often, save the lives of thousands of citizens whose lungs are being damaged by nitrous dioxide and particulates from old diesel engines? Sadiq has decided that you do; and I think he is right.

Although the Conservatives managed to avoid a clean sweep of defeats in these three by-elections, there will be more difficult by-elections coming up in autumn 2023, and the expectation now is that Labour will be the largest party after the general election, and will govern alone if awarded an overall working majority, or will seek an alliance with the Liberal Democrats if, though the largest party, they fall short of that.

Since Keir became leader, there have been mutterings within the party that this distinguished lawyer and former Director of Public Prosecutions is too cautious, doesn’t have the charisma, or alternatively the talent for political showmanship, the command of the cheap slogan that cuts through to the general public, to win a general election. For some people, he’s too southern, too male, too middle-class (he can’t help the first two, and in fact his family background is skilled working class). The mutterings have quieted somewhat as the Tories have self-destructed. What Keir undoubtedly has done is get control of his own party. This has meant, for example, accepting without reserve the verdict of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in October 2020 that anti-Semitism had indeed been rife within the party, and being prepared to remove the Labour whip from Jeremy Corbyn, who would not accept the Commission’s findings. I’m not sure that any British political leader has been prepared to do such a thing to a former leader of his or her own party. But as the general election approaches, I’d like Labour to be bolder, to balance its recently acquired reputation as the party of greater economic competence (admittedly a low bar to have cleared, given what the Tories have done) with the announcement of some radical policies which genuinely do address some of the grievous inequalities which hurt the lives and thwart the hopes of so many people. Whatever Labour does and says before the election, governing will be a long slog if it wins, because the damage needlessly inflicted on our country since 2010 is deep.

During the period of Labour government between 1997 and 2010, 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 eighteen previous Conservative years rolled on and the damage accumulated. They had short memories, I thought.

Despite being sadder in 2010 than I was in 1997, I was not ‘disillusioned’ with Labour, whatever disappointments and frustrations I felt, 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 shall always stick with Labour, because 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. The recently deceased Berlusconi was one of the most disreputable and corrupt of Western European politicians, a man whose beliefs, statements and actions placed 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, or under Lloyd George. I decided, briefly, to leave the party; I would henceforth be a political sceptic. But then I remembered government ministers and MPs (including Frank Dobson, then my own MP) whom I did admire, who had done and were doing good work, 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. And the same applied years later, in 2019, when I knew that Corbyn was leading the party to electoral disaster.

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 give organised reality to the best instincts of the human heart and the human reason. With all its shortcomings, I still think that Labour has in the past and could in the future come closer to enacting that vision than any other force in the UK, and so I am still willing to be a member of the party as, I hope, we approach another period of government.

This has been a small-scale political statement by an insignificant member of a political party in one of the world’s medium-sized democracies. Globally, however, the important politics of the 21st century will not be enacted within conventional left/right alternatives in democracies such as ours. They are already being enacted in the countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and 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. They are already being enacted in the increasingly binary struggle between democratic and authoritarian modes of governance. I used to think — possibly as late as 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union — that democracy was bound in the end to win. I no longer think that. I think there’s a real danger that authoritarian modes of governance, whether theocratic, ideological, kleptocratic or military, will continue to advance. The four years of Donald Trump’s presidency in the USA have shown us that even in the world’s most powerful democracy the very idea of democracy can be threatened from within.

On 24 February 2022, democratic institutions and the rule of international law were challenged as they have never been, at least in Europe, since 1945. Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, following his illegal occupation of Crimea and parts of Ukraine’s eastern provinces in 2014, offers to the West a binary choice. Do we accept that might is right, that dictators can invade other sovereign countries with impunity, as has happened for most of human history, or do we refuse that idea? If enlightenment has any future in humankind, we must refuse it. The West was initially far too slow to arm Ukraine, to give it the weapons it needs to drive the invader from its land, although belatedly we seem to be waking up to the stark fact, which was obvious to me on that dreadful morning, that Ukraine is presently fighting for the continued existence of a democratic way of life in Europe and the world, on behalf of all of us. Once the last Russian soldier has left the whole of Ukraine, that country must rapidly join NATO and the EU: join the enlightened world, with all our faults. If Russia turns to the various tyrannies of the East to sell its raw materials and thus to maintain its economy, so be it, alas, until (faint hope) some form of democratic governance prevails in a country which has almost never known it.

As the struggle between democracy and tyranny develops, the world simultaneously faces three existential challenges, each intimately related to the other two. 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; and control of the world’s population. If in the course of the 21st century we can make significant progress in meeting these challenges, and if we can at least slow the advance of authoritarian modes of governance, the sum total of human happiness on the planet, to put the matter in plain utilitarian terms, will be very much very greater at the end of the century 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. (In this northern hemisphere summer of 2023, the evidence of climate breakdown is already stark: unbearably high temperatures in southern Europe, the southern states of the USA, and parts of China; wildfires devastating large swathes of Canada, their smoke drifting down to New York and even across the Atlantic to veil the evening sky here a few weeks ago; torrential rainfall in South Korea causing flash floods in which people have drowned.) Thousands of species of animals and plants will become extinct, at an accelerating rate. There will be no more wild fish in the sea. 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. (We have recently seen how easily, in our interconnected world, one virus can shatter our complacency, and how it kills the poor in so much greater numbers than it does the rich.) And even more of the world’s people will be living in conditions of mental slavery, denied freedom of thought and action, as is already the case in Russia, China, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Belarus, North Korea, Turkey and numerous other countries.

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, political parties, international 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.