Reparations for Anti-Slavery! Captain Joseph Denman, RN v. the Identity Politics Activists.

David Cameron’s recent visit to Jamaica was notable for the furore this roused in certain predictable quarters over the demand that Britain should pay reparations for slavery.  The catalyst was the apparently shocking discovery that a distant relative of Cameron’s owned slaves, and was therefore paid compensation by the British government under the terms of the 1833 Abolition Act.

I can understand the distaste people experience when considering that slave owners were granted £20 million in compensation by the British government of the time, just as I can understand the glee which rewarded the searching of the relevant records by reparations activists when they discovered that a distant (if somewhat excessively-distant) relative of a Tory PM could be found there.  I wonder if they searched as avidly for the names of any of Cameron’s distant relatives in the lists of the abolitionists and abolitionist societies that abounded in 19th century Britain?

Never mind Cameron, however.  The key objective here was clearly to convert that flagship of British Whig historical pride, the British state role in ending slavery, into an object of shame demanding financial reparation in the present; financial reparation which, if you read the Guardian in the new era of British politics characterised by Corbynite wealth redistribution, should naturally be directed into the coffers and/or prestige of activist organisations with the necessary identity-politics credentials, such as the ‘Afrikan Heritage Community for National Self-Determination’.

If taking on the British self-image over the issue of slavery reparations can be seen as an attempt to attack the colossal self-regard of liberals protecting their ideological shibboleths, the reparations activists need to realise that this works in both directions.  The discovery might shock them, but they are actually perpetrators of precisely a kind of selective and hypcritical denial of natural justice that they assume Cameron represents on behalf of the British state.  In other words, if you want to take on a flagship of whig historical tradition, be aware that it can fire a broadside back at you in response.  So prepare to be boarded, identity politics activists.

The core of the reparations argument revolves around the sense of reciprocity central to natural justice.  Clearly, any reasonable appreciation of these events cannot avoid a damning moral judgement of the murderous brutality and savage exploitation involved in the Atlantic slave trade.  The problem is the fixation on the British state as the agency to blame and the party required to pay compensation in restitution.  Clearly, the British state did, in moral terms, take relevant steps to get their own house in order in terms of ending the legality of slavery in Britain and then British territory.

But that is not enough to get them off the hook for reparations in the eyes of many activists who consider that the tax income from the prior existance of a slave-based economy (and particularly the massively lucrative sugar trade of the 18th century, which was dependent on slave labour) damns the British government.

Luckily for the Whigs that abolition within British territory wasn’t the end of the issue.  Let me introduce you to those unexpected reactionary heroes of Whig international policy, Lords Castlereagh and Palmerston, both of whom made extending the abolition of the slave trade a primary aim of British foreign policy – Castlereagh by including it in the treaties involved in the Congress of Vienna which terminated the Napoleonic War (after banning the trade in British territory in 1807), and Palmerston by relentlessly pressuring foreign states to accept treaties banning the trade and (far more importantly) by enforcing them using British naval power to board, search, capture and condemn slave ships.  Indeed, in a bizarre forerunner to late 20th-century ideas of humanitarian intervention moving ahead of international law, Palmerston was to approve of naval raids on slave barracks on the west African coastline when the government law officers (and his pusilanimous successor, Lord Aberdeen) considered them illegal.

And let us not forget the instrument of that policy, the Royal Navy, which experienced significant losses to fever and disease enforcing British-led international anti-slaving operations in West Africa, East Africa, the Carribean and South America in the seventy or so years between 1810 and 1880 when anti-slavery operations were at their height.

Let us not also forget the financial costs involved.  The anti-slavery commiment has been estimated at totalling 15% of available British warships and 10% of British naval manpower in the 1840s [Bary Gough, Pax Britannica (2014):186).  In the naval estimate debates in the House of Commons in 1848, one MP critical of the cost of anti-slavery operations estimated that they were currently costing around £600,000 per annumn, and had cost £21 million over the past thirty years [Hansard, 22 February, 1848].  Now there’s a certainly pleasing symmetry to that when we consider that compensating British slave owners cost £20 million in 1833.  And in the fact that both sums were paid by the British taxpayer.  And to whom do we send the bill for reparations for that expense in the name of natural justice?  The descendants of those Africans who avoided becoming slaves largely because the British state played an instrumental, even critical, part in ending the slave trade?

Such ideas are clearly ridiculous, but British policy – and the expense involved to the British taxpayer – are nonetheless historical fact, and should alert anyone to the selectivity involved in activists seeking slavery reparations at the expense of the British taxpayer today.  After all, one component of the costs of British anti-slaving operations were the complex web of subsidies (i.e. bribes) paid to local African leaders and chiefs by the British to authorise anti-slaving operations in their territory, such as the $4,000 paid to Pepple, King of Bonny by Captain Craigie of HMS Bonetta in 1839 [Gough: 175].  Is anybody considering suing their descendants to recover those costs to the British taxpayer at all?  Never mind the claims of descendants of Anglo-Saxons recorded as slaves in The Domesday Book [Norman Foreign Colonialist Exploiter (1086 AD)].

Another funny thing about demands for legal reparations are how devices assumed to operate in service of a particular set of ethics can fall foul of the strict amorality of any legal system, such as when Captain Denman, RN, was sued by a Spanish citizen, Senor Buron, for damages in 1847.  Denman had led a naval landing party at the Gallinas river estuary in West Africa in November 1840 which liberated 880 slaves being held for shipment on slaving ships.  In the process of this Denman had been inconsiderate enough to inflict £180,000 in damages to Senor Buron’s property by liberating his slaves and destroying his slave prisons and the trading goods he used to purchase slaves [W.E.F. Ward, The Royal Navy and the Slavers (1969): 186].  I can only suppose that the charge of ‘war criminal’, which would be added to this today, was regarded as implicit at the time.  The British taxpayer eventually met Denman’s court costs in his successful legal defence; meanwhile calls for reparations against the Spanish government for Senor Buron’s activies, which were typical of the continuing trade in slaves to Cuban sugar plantations, appear silent at this point.  As do demands on the Portugese, Brazilian, and various Arab and East African states involved in the the contemporary slave trade and subject to consequent British naval action.

In a small but personal fashion this points up the hypocrisy of such demands for reparations against Denman’s descendants and the descendants of the people who paid his salary, the prize money he was awarded for releasing slaves and his court costs against opportunist slavers seeking reparations in the name of justice.  What amplifies that all the more is that issues of slavery and coercive people smuggling have not disappeared from the modern world.  Demanding reparations from the British state for something the British ended by state action almost two centuries ago while ignoring their reciprocal efforts to end slavery internationally is a selective abuse of history to serve political ends in the present.  The selectively of focus, and the agency held to blame, tells us everything about the agenda, motivation and hypocrisy of the reparations activists.  Indeed, it seems on those counts, as well as on the issue of entertaining colossal sanctimonous self-regard, the modern reparations activists can impressively claim to out-do 19th century British Whigs.

If the moral issue of slavery really did excise such activists, they wouldn’t be engaging in identity politics in search of sympathetic coverage in the Guardian and an easy payout.  Instead they would be actively engaged risking their own money and personal safety combatting modern slavery and people-trafficking. Much like Captain Denman did.

Infamy! Infamy! They’ve All Got it in For Me!

Et tu, Brute?  Kenneth Williams expresses shocked surprise at Tom Watson’s expression of loyalty appearing in his front.

I was deeply moved by Tom Watson’s demand [quoted in The Guardian, 21 Sep 2015] that critics of the new Labour leader respect his mandate and, in his own words ‘show a little bit of respect and tolerance of him’.  Who could fail to be impressed by such a sincere appeal to loyalty, or the political wisdom involved in curtailing such destructive and self-interested internal power squabbles?

Here’s Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, recalling Watson’s selfless loyalty towards the Labour leadership in 2007 and his respectful and tolerant approach to what Watson might describe as the ‘creative process for having political outcomes that serve voters’.  Which, let us recall, led directly to those triumphant Labour election results in 2010 and 2015.

‘I called Tom Watson, and he eventually called back and we had a rather frosty conversation. I asked him if he was planing to resign since he had signed a letter calling on the Prime Minister to go. He said no and asked if I was telling him to resign.  I asked him how the letter was compatible with his remaining a minister, and he had no answer…. Gordon [Brown] said he could get Tom Watson to recant, but only if Tony met all his conditions.  Tony refused and said he was going to sack Watson.  Gordon contacted Watson immediately after the meeting and persuaded him to resign before we could sack him, at the same time sending the most damaging resignation letter he could concoct.  That launched a rolling programme of suicide bombers as junior members of the government began resigning one after another’. [‘The New Machiavelli.  How to Wield Power in the Modern World’, Jonathan Powell (London: Vintage Books, 2011), 301-02.]

Much as I admire Powell’s use of Machiavelli, surely the historical parallel to use here would be Talleyrand, that fearless French Revolutionary and loyal servant of Napoleonic and Bourbon restoration regimes:

‘Treason is a matter of dates.’

Doctor Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Trumping Self-Indulgence.

On the Labour leadership election hustings – Corbyn on the road to the new socialist utopia while Kendall considers taking poison.

It’s been a while, but given the views I’ve posted here, the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest surely merits some further abuse masquerading as informed comment.  And so here I enthusiastically if belatedly jump on the bandwagon.

There are two diameterically-opposed ways of viewing Corbyn’s victory.  Firstly, there’s the perspective that Corbyn’s win represents a vindication for ideas of inclusive social justice and rejection of bland and morally-bankrupt Blairism.  Secondly, there’s the view that Corbyn’s victory is a victory for the cranks and fanatics desribed by Denis Healey, and confirms that the Labour party remains unable to come to terms with Blairism and the central tenet of Blairism – winning elections by capturing the centre-ground.  No prizes for guessing what my views are.

It is worth observing that Corbyn’s victory might just represent the sea-change in politics that many of his supporters have convinced themselves has taken place in post-austerity British politics.  It’s certainly true that Corbyn’s victory was an overwhelming success, giving him a popular mandate absent from previous Labour leadership elections, and it’s also possible that Corbyn could build a broader coalition shadow cabinet than his previously narrow far-left position might indicate.  It may also be true that his election reflects a broader rejection of the dominant post-Thatcherite consensus in British politics represented by Blair; all those inspired by the enthusiasm and ‘inclusive engagement’ apparent in the pro-independence campaign in last year’s Scottish referendum just might be correct when they assume that the old certainties have changed, and their hour is at hand.

Unfortunately for them, we have two contemporary examples which demonstrate the ephemoral nature of such ideas and which.  First up we have Tim Farron, new leader of the Liberal Democrats.  Elected from a left-wing base in side the party which explicitly rejected the Lib Dem involvement in the 2010-15 coalition government which lead to catastrophic electoral results, Farron used his first party conference as leader to immediately occupy the centre-ground vacated by Corbyn and the Labour party.  Secondly, we don’t have to look far for examples of the kind of internal self-indulgence political parties like to engage in when they are more serious about settling internecine internal power struggles than they are about winning power in elections.

Allow me to introduce the American Corbyn – Donald Trump.

Mr Trump demonstrates his kung-fu prowess while a cat sleeps on his head.

It’s true that Trump and Corbyn seem completely opposed on all matters of policy, and even the most basic first political principles.  Trump is a caricature of an ignorant, reactionary right-wing businessman, while Corbyn is a caricature of a Thatcher-era looney leftie psuedo-Trotskyite ideologue.  But consider for a minute that the platform both were engaged upon was that of winning power in an internal party election.  In those terms, the Corbyn and Trump campaigns both have some strong similarities.  Both have relentlessly exploited an ideological agenda rooted deeply in their respective party consciousness; both represent a rejection of ‘business as normal’ (most ironically in Trump’s case, I admit); both have demonstrated substantive appeal inside their parties.  But both are still recognised as unlikely winners of national elections.  What works internally may be irrelevant or counter-productive externally, as the Bennite experience in the Labour party should have indicated.

This offers us an interesting view of the two political parties and the conflict that exists between their ideas of what is necessary to win internal elections by representing the core values of their party on the one hand, and to win external elections with their national electorates on the other.  If the qualities necessary for the first naturally translated into the second, there would be no problem.  Recognising that they don’t is the first problem at hand for both Republican and Labour parties.

For Labour, it must be said that the inevitable defeat of Liz Kendall, the only openly Blairite candidate in their leadership election, with 5% of the vote indicates how far the party really are from understanding what the legacy of Blairism really was.  The reality is that Blair was deposed in 2007, and the succeeding Brown and Miliband regimes have been viscerally anti-Blairite, led as they were by the tribal chieftain of anti-Blairism and one of his chief henchmen.  The recent leadership election simply confirmed that enduring legacy.  Even ignoring the comically-low share of the vote for Kendall, the only openly Blairite in the competition, the profiles and behaviour of the other candidates  reveal it – Burnham was an ex-Blairite now reconstructed pro-Corbynite, a reed bending according to the prevailing wind of political favour; Cooper was always a Brownite and married to Ed Balls, the chief thug of the Brownite mafia which spent most of the period New Labour were in government sabotaging and intimidating in the service of the thwarted personal ambition of their leader; and the venerable Corbyn offered the party a leadership figure untained by involvement in the New Labour experiment who could return them to the old socialist principles of yore.

Such as losing another general election.  There may well be the possibility that an anti-Blairite Labour party can capture a growing tide of public support tired of the post-Thatcherite consensus typified by New Labour.  Unfortunately, as of yet, there is no evidence of that while the experience of the result of general elections since 1983 should indicate that it might just be possible that Blairism might have something to offer if the party ever does want to win power in the UK again.

And for any Americans reading this, don’t worry too much about Trump.  His capacity for alienating voters should comfortably outstrip his appeal to the Republican base when the chips are down.  There have been a horde of pioneers on his particular trail, my favourite being the Wallace – Le May ticket in ’68.  Now, there’s a Presidential-Vice Presidential team to conjure with – a leading southern segregationist and a fire-breathing nuclear Cold Warrior straight out of ‘Dr Strangelove’.

Perhaps sadly, the US electorate disagreed.

Slim Pickens takes us to the logical conclusion of Trump/Corbyn leadership campaigns.  Yee-hah!

The Ten Percenters – Just War and the Iraq Body Count; or Moral Posturing on Top of a Pile of Dead Civilians.

The Iraq Body Count (IBC) website provides a valuable service itemising the civilian deaths resulting from the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  I agree with much, if not all, of the rationale given by the authors of the site – at least over moral necessity of quantifying civilian casualties.  Where I disagree is over the question of agency.  The IBC posits that all civilian casualties and particularly civilian deaths flow from the Anglo-American initiative to invade Iraq in 2003, and are therefore are attributable to British and American agency.  This is an influential restatement of the orthodox understanding of the issue which attributes all evil in Iraq to Anglo-American agency in isolation.  As the IBC put it ‘The continuing high level of violent death in Iraq since 2003 is a result of the US/UK-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. None of the deaths we record would have happened were it not for the invasion.’

One problem with this is bias – the manner in which it maximises civilian casualties to selectively damn one agency while remaining silent about others.  As an example, the IBC’s approach means that it can happily include Basra homicide statistics during the British occupation and administration and charge them to British agency.  Even if Basra, like any other city, would have had at least some level of crime and homicide going on before the British turned up and after they left.

The problem with this is the denial of agency involved and how this misleads and obscures an important aspect of the moral standard used to evaluate and determine the legitimacy of war – just war theory.  There are two elements to this, normally referred to by the Latin phrases jus ad bellum and jus ad bello, namely the justice of the cause of the war, and secondly the justice of the means by which the war was waged.  The IBC approach and the orthodox understanding it represents delivers a verdict on the first count, a verdict that the war was unjust, and therefore all deaths resulting from that conflict are the responsibility of the agents that launched it. Although I disagree with that conclusion, I have some respect for it or at least as far as it can be applied to an evaluation of the legitimacy of the cause of the war.  As it happens, I believe that particular war started in 1990 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq can be justified as a resulting from manifest and repeated breaches of the ceasefire which concluded the 1990-91 conflict.  The question of just cause can often recede into a childish argument over ‘who started it’ – was it Hitler by invading Poland or Chamberlain declaring war in response?  But this is not to say that the legitimacy of the Iraq conflict, never mind the wisdom of it, cannot be usefully or responsibly questioned.  Unlike most opponents of the war I believe it is possible for responsible and informed commentators to differ over the question.

My problem lies with the question of agency and how this has obscured moral judgment of the second component of just war theory, legitimacy of means; a moral judgement which in my view is as necessary as the first.  After all, to use a common analogy, the normal criticisms of the Allied bombings of Dresden or Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War revolve around the civilian casualties inflicted in what would normally be accepted to be a just cause.  The legitimacy of the Allied cause does not, for most people, excuse or permit what they consider to be illegitimate means to achieve victory.  The perception of legitimacy of means is, for most of us, intimately associated with the civilian casualties inflicted.

This is where independently-researched databases like Malcom Sutton’s on deaths caused by political violence in Northern Ireland or the IBC’s work on Iraq are particularly valuable.  They can cut through the propaganda and received wisdom to expose the reality; who is actually being killed and by whom.  These are, ethically, just as important as the question of a legitimate causus belli.  After all, the justice of a cause might be arguable, but dead civilians are the incontravertable and factual reality of war even if the interpretation of those facts can be subject to honest disagreement.  As the IBC themselves state, the data can be used to indicate trends and thereby implicitly fuel evaluative judgement.

So let’s take a look at this issue of agency as it applies in Iraq, who was killing whom, and what this might specifically indicate in regard to the relative significance of British military agency when it came to civilian deaths.  Fortunately for me, there’s a convenient entry point for this debate over the issue of the civilian casualties caused by British troops (and coalition forces under British command) in the areas of Iraq they administered after the 2003 invasion, which can then be compared to IBC figures for overall civilian casualties in the same area over a shorter timescale to provide a maximal representation of British responsibility for civilian deaths.

The initiative for this came with the IBC’s angry response to the statement in an interview by General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the Defence Staff and professional head of the British armed services for some of the relevant period, that the number of civilians killed by British forces could not be established.  The IBC response (‘IBC’s Response to General Sir Mike Jackson’) observed that IBC data indicated that from 20 March 2003 until their withdrawal on 22 May 2011, British troops were involved in up to 227 civilian deaths with possibly a further 95 deaths also attributable to them (or 322 taking the maximal figures provided by the IBC in both cases; 193 being the similar minimum from the range provided).  I have no problem with this, even though it does include deaths in traffic accidents which I don’t think should be attributable to British operations – people used to die every year in traffic accidents involving British troops and British military vehicles in Germany for example.  This is a little more relevant than it sounds to Iraq because after 1955 British forces in Germany were present at the request of a democratically-elected German government.  By 2005 every Sadrist and every al Queda member had something that the forebears of their colleagues in the 1920 Revolution Brigades did not have when they actually rebelled against British imperialism in 1920; a democratic vote to chose their own national government.

The legitimacy of the Coalition military presence in Iraq after 2005 is one distinction between the 2003 invasion phase that the popular understanding tends to ignore, but it’s not the main point in this argument.  My problem is the lack of comparative analysis. To illustrate this, let’s compare the figures for civilians killed by the British with the figures the IBC itself provides for overall civilian casualties in the four provinces of Iraq under British control between May 2003 and December 2007.

During the period of British security provision from May 2003 to December 2007, 3,334 violent civilian deaths, and 2,099 civilian wounded, were detailed in the IBC database. (‘The unexamined Iraqi dimension of UK involvement in Iraq’).  The chronological periods are not contiguous, but for the purposes of a broad and conservative comparison, they indicate that the British were killing a maximum of 322 out of a minimum 3,334 civilian deaths in their areas of responsibility (with a longer period involved for ‘British responsibility deaths’ which taken alongside the maximal figures for the deaths they inflicted deliberately skews the figures as firmly against the British as possible from the relevant IBC summaries).  In other words, more than 90% of the civilians killed in southern Iraq in the post-invasion violence were killed by somebody other than the British.

When will the IBC dedicate 90% of their editorial criticism to these agencies and their actions?  Who did these war crimes?  What was their mandate to do so?  Were they or their actions legitimate?

Remember, the 2003 invasion or jus ad bellum alone doesn’t cut it – unless you are willing to accept Dresden or Hiroshima as justified by precisely the same standard in response.  On these questions, at least, the IBC and the mainstream understanding of the Iraq conflict that it represents, remain silent. Meanwhile it merits attention, even if that will never come from the IBC or human rights activists of their stripe, that the British forces subject to their selective criticism were at least attempting to deal with the authors of over 90% of the civilian deaths during the period of their involvement in post-invasion Iraq.

The Sadrist paramilitary Mahdi Army in Basra; mass-murdering war criminals strangely absent from IBC and anti-war analysis.

Shock Film Emerges of British Public Figure Making Nazi Salute

Yes, it’s that time of year again.  Time to mention the war.  The British press have uncovered film of a child doing a Nazi salute, feeding the popular British obsession with World War Two so central to their national identity.  By virtue of the fact that the child involved was Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, the press gets the additional bonus of flogging their ‘royal family were secret Nazi sympathisers’ dead horse whilst simultaneously exhuming the coffin of the ‘royal family were German’ popular trope.  It’s hard to work out which is more offensive in all this, the ahistorical deceit involved, or the lazy servicing of hackneyed popular stereotypes.

At one level it’s a good deflective tactic.  Nobody in their right mind could believe that Elizabeth was a Nazi sympathiser, but it provides a convenient platform for exploiting the well-known appeasement sympathies of her uncle, Edward VIII, yet one more time as if it was news.  What won’t be covered, naturally, is the pro-appeasement stance of 95% of the British media in the late nineteen thirties, or the fact that 95% of schoolchildren of my era did exactly the same thing in playground games.  We also enthusiatically played Cowboys and Indians in what I’m sure would now be descibed by any number of social scientist academics struggling to obscure their unsubmittable REF status as “unacceptable patriarchal, Eurocentric supremacist imperialist colonialist reinforcement of historical crimes”.

At one level, it was encouraging to see the playground games point being made by Michael White in the Grauniad, but more entertaining from my perspective was the manner in which the same edition of that paper could unconsciously illustrate my point about the appeasement consensus in nineteen-thirties Britain.  Nobody wanted another war, the orthodox hypocrisy asserts, but surely the nature of the Nazis was sufficiently well-known that we can get away with castigating the royal family for this salute business?

It’s easy to spot the pitfalls with appeasement with hindsight.  So what possible analogy could we use to identify a similar group of violent fascists in the current world and compare our parallel response to them?  Fortunately for us, a group called Islamic State (IS) have been advancing an appreciation of fascist aggression in Iraq and Syria for some time.  Granted, they might lack the specific modern nationalist focus in exchange for a religious ideology, but they certainly hit most of the indicator tick-boxes as undemocratic anti-semites inspired by an irrational mystical cause to unleash violent terror and mass-murder in service of their proto-medieval sense of nationalist supremacy.  So, when faced with this security threat paralleling that of fascism in the thirties, and when we struggle with the consequences of the Iraq war in a hyperbolic parallel with the impact of the losses in World War One, how do we respond?

We have to look no further than Simon Tisdall, writing right next to Michael White in the Grauniad, warning that Cameron is commiting us to an open-ended war in the Middle East against IS.  Here we can hear the genuine voice of appeasement, and it springs from the same orthodox certainties about the unacceptability of casualties, and the same self-delusion about the nature of the threat involved.  Reading this stuff it becomes easier to understand how people in the nineteen thirties were so reluctant to confront the necessity of using lethal force to combat fascism.

And just to get back to inescapable centrality of eighteenth-century Whiggism, the royal family may have married Germans, but they haven’t really been German since George III proudly declared that he revelled in the name of Briton.  All this might be a total non-story, but a least it can distract us for another week or two and help the British print media’s phone-hacking scandals receed into comfortable oblivion.

Panem et Circenses; or Len McCluskey as Marcus Licinius Crassus

Len McCluskey fantasises about adopting Crassus’  approach for the fate of the Blairites in the post-Miliband Labour party.

The old staple of ‘bread and circuses’ used by ancient Roman politicians to appease the their electorate is back with a vengeance when it comes to the current crop of post-election leadership competitions.  Much like the Roman arena, the braying mob (such as myself) have the opportunity to see the dramatic beginning and ending of political careers amongst the competitive combat of the gladiatorial arena.  In that respect we’ve currently got an embarassment of riches in the UK, with the Lib Dems, UKIP, and Labour all engaging in the predictable yet satisfying outbursts of blood-letting as candidates jockey for position after the failed leaders of the 2015 general election fell on their swords.

While UKIP provide the stage for the continuing soap opera that is the resurrection/defenestration of Nigel Farage’s leadership career, the Lib Dems have settled for a lacklustre evaluative analysis of relative mediocrities.  In a rare instance of UKIP-Lib Dem empathy, both parties lack alternative candidates with any obvious gravity, and both suffer from the relative boost these post-defeat leadership contests provide to the swivel-eyed loons amongst the party membership.  Labour, by contrast, have decided to provide their swivel-eyed loons with not one but two platforms for the inevitable post-defeat internecine warfare.  Both of which offer the now-traditional choice between Blairite reform or retreat into the comfort zone of the loons where the ideological purity of the party can be untroubled by inconvenient electoral success.

First up is the UK leadership contest, where Ed Miliband’s departure has predictably failed to provoke the soul-searching inquiries necessary to change electoral strategy.  The party’s continuing rejection of Blairism – or more specifically, an updated attempt to discover a policy platform which might actually make them electable – is reflected in the overall lack of Blairite candidates and the obligatory rejection of Blairism.  This was particularly notable with the current front-runner Andy Burnham, hastily distancing himself from his prior career as a government minister tainted by Blairism.  The shortage of Blairite contenders was brought into sharp relief by the comic value of Chuka Umunna’s brief campaign, which was so dynamic that (to resurrect an old Ciceronian joke about a place-holding Roman consul) the prospective leader almost didn’t get any sleep during his candidature.

In the interests of maintaining my criticism of Ed Miliband in every possible context, I can’t leave Umunna’s candidature without commenting on the opening sentence of his withdrawal statement.

‘Shortly before the election campaign, I made the decision, in the event that Labour was defeated and a new leader was to be elected, to stand for the leadership of the party….’

Clearly Ed’s defeat was completely unanticipated.

Meanwhile, without being too critical of Umunna, it is clear that his candidature was, in the final analysis, not serious; at least to the extent of his willingness to endure the predictable level of press scrutiny which would follow.  So much for the great hope of the Blairites.  To pick up on one of Umunna’s points in the video originally declaring his candidacy, this is why the reconstruction of the Labour party will take more than five years, possibly more than ten.  Another defeat is necessary before the party will be willing to learn the lesson, and accept the necessity of ‘Blairism’.

The necessity for learning the New Labour/Blairite lesson all over again is handily demonstrated in the Labour leadership north of the border, where Jim Murphy resigned despite winning a vote of confidence on the party’s executive 17-14.  I have some time for Murphy, largely on the obvious grounds of his performance for the ‘No’ campaign in the Scottish referendum last year.  In contrast to the craven incompetence displayed by many of his Labour colleagues, Murphy at least demonstrated clear moral courage by his personal campaigning, and in my view did much to expose the underlying reality of anti-democratic intimidation amongst many in the ‘Yes’ campaign.  However, Murphy is a prisoner of the party context, which means that he lacks the power base necessary to effectively lead the party, as the narrow vote on the executive in his favour indicates.  Ultimately, this is why Scottish Labour need a different leader, but that need is driven by internal political dynamics of appeasing the loons desperate to recapture the ‘progressive’ constituency lost to the SNP rather than a realistic search for a programme with broader and more genuine national appeal.

Just in case a further confirmation of the determining nature of that internal conflict was required, Murphy provided it himself when he claimed he would produce a report advocating reform of the voting structure inside Scottish Labour away from the current situation where trade unions, parliamentarians and party members constitute a third of the electorate respectively.  The rationale for this has been the conflict between Murphy and union leadership in the person of the Unite leader, Len McCluskey.  As Murphy puts it;

‘Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr McCluskey’s support. I kind of see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics.’

The problem becomes evident when McCluskey’s attitudes are explored.  A hard-left one-time supporter of Liverpool’s Militant Tendency in their glory days, McCluskey weighed in with vocal support for local Unite official Stevie Deans when Deans was accused of stacking local Labour party membership to ensure the selection of his favoured candidate for the Falkirk by election in 2012.  The scandal emerged in 2013 when local people complained that they had been recruited into the party without their permission, triggering a suspension of the candidate selection procedure and a police investigation.  Both investigations blew over, with the police notably concluding that no criminal activity had taken place, although this was alleged to be a result of evidence being withdrawn by witnesses.

The most important outcome from this was the catalyst it provided for Ed Miliband’s brief challenge to McCluskey’s behaviour and the intense but temporary attention it focused on Miliband’s proposals for reforming financial contributions of political parties.  While the latter was aborted largely because of conservative opposition to limiting the contributions of individuals for obvious reasons of Tory self-interest, the fact that it arose at all was because of the evident conflict of interests in the Labour party.   That conflict arose between traditional picture of apparently corrupt McCluskeyite/Deanite union machine politics and a belated attempt by Miliband to recapture some measure of Blairite distance from such behaviour.  Of course, the reality was that Blair’s attempt to distance Labour from such traditional behaviour drove the party into the Ecclestone/Levy scandals over contributions as an alternative to such problematic union funding.

The original problem endures, however, with a particular Scottish resonance for Labour’s search for a new strategy after another electoral failure.  McCluskey’s intervention to threaten disaffiliation of Unite political funding from Labour came in the same breath as an implict warning that Unite in Scotland might find a more congenial relationship by funding the SNP.  I think we can safely accept his subsequent furious backpeddling as confirmation that his original intervention was a fairly crude attempt to warn off any return to Blairite heresy by playing on SNP electoral success at Labour expense.

The failure to resolve the union funding issue by Ed Miliband, despite his reform of leadership elections, and by Labour generally means that it remains an ulcer to be expolited by union leaders like McCluskey, somebody with prior form for threatening to rethink his union contributions to the party if it elects a new leader insufficiently left-wing for his tastes.  That sort of retro seventies union strong-arming takes us right back to the pre-Thatcher era, at the direct expense of Labour’s credibility with the broad mass of the British electorate.   But we already know their perceptions are an irrelevance to the dominant constituencies in Labour, so McCluskey’s gambit will probably be successful in setting the tacit boundaries of the Labour leadership contest.

In the larger sense this means the dynamics of the Labour leadership contest are less about the gladiatorial success or failures of the leadership candidates fighting and falling in the arena to the amusement of the electorate, and more about the powerful political figures funding the games.  In the late Roman Republic of Cicero and Caesar, the obvious candidate for this role would be Marcus Licinius Crassus and his employment of his massive personal wealth to buy elections and influence for client politicians fighting their way up the greasy pole of Roman electoral politics.

Crassus eventually met an ignominious end outside the arena of Roman internal politics in a disastrous military expedition against the Parthian empire, a risk McCluskey will always be able to evade while union and Labour politics remain insulated from such inconvenient collisions with external reality.  As Ed Miliband has found out, however, such immunity does not extend to those products of the system who have to submit themselves to the verdict of external reality in the form of public elections.  So for the encouragement of the next Labour leader:  Forward to Oblivion!

Re-Branding Ed, part 2 – The Guru Breaks Up

My usual two reasons for returning to this story – one, it’s amusing; and two, it’s predictable to the point of inevitability.

Having endorsed Labour’s campaign after a one-to-one session when he found himself unable to sustain the intellectual challenge in a one-to-one against Ed Miliband, who proved uncharacteristically impervious to Russell’s use of of buzzwords… I mean ‘Russell’s incisive grasp of political theory’, the inevitable soon followed.

Apparently Brand buckled into supporting Ed as a consequence of pressure from Ed’s Gestapo-like Labour activists who had the bad taste to relentlessly point out the consequences of a Tory victory to the sort of social welfare programmes that Brand likes to posture in favour of.  Uncool, man.

Brand’s mistake was to allow himself to be pinned down by a discourse based on reality; any psychic, con-man or guru on the make could have warned him to steer clear of such dangers and maintain his status by taking refugee in his normal anodyne ‘revolutionary’ generalities.  Exposure to reality, even at the hands of Ed Miliband, would only expose them as the hollow posturing they were.  Incapable of refuting Ed, his options were limited and embracing Labour allowed him to put off the evil moment where he would have to admit he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Given his backtracking after Ed’s defeat I can only suppose that Brand was then overcome with buyer’s remorse and the inevitable outrage of his intellectually-slack ‘revolutionary’ fellow-travellers at such a craven betrayal of their treasured posturing in favour of actually useful political engagement.

Ed’s mistake was to sit down with Russell Brand and think that he could possibly gain any credibility.

Still, the episode perhaps represents a trival yet accurate characterisation of Ed’s leadership – in the end, it couldn’t even convince Russell Brand.