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Brendan Larvor © 2003

 

 
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It ought to be paradoxical that a Labour leader and a right-wing Republican should find common ground so easily. Before the question becomes improper, let‚s remember that Tony's relationship with George does not seem to be anything like as warm as the one he had with Bill. Tony and George are not, as some have suggested, indistinguishable. For one thing, Tony's aides would trust him to say "indistinguishable" in public. On the other hand, there does seem to be more going on between them than the basic co-ordination of policy required by political pragmatism.

Stock remarks at this point include the observation that New Labour is hardly a thorn in the side of big business while George's backers simply are big business Also, Tony and George are both religious. Well, yes, but. New Labour keeps hoping to co-opt big business to carry out the proper functions of the welfare state (public-private partnerships to build and run hospitals and schools, etc.), and is endlessly baffled when things go wrong. Whereas, George's political backers do not even recognise these proper functions as such. As for religion, Tony's faith, insofar as we know about it, seems to be so ecumenical that it is hardly religion at all, more a sort of sanctimonious vapour. He is an evangelical Christian who accompanies his family to Mass and finds inspiration in the Koran. George's religious convictions seem to be rather more literal and definite. I don't think he reads the Koran much.

Their differing characters show in their rhetoric. George has mastered the mechanics of politics in an age of electronic media: once, as he and Tony climbed aboard an aircraft, he reminded Tony to wave to the TV cameras as if they were a cheering crowd of well-wishers. There must be endless pictures of the Leader receiving applause and no pictures of him being heckled so that cheering the Leader comes to seem normal and heckling comes to seem eccentric. Well-drilled in the mechanics as he is, though, he cannot speak with Tony's conviction. He reads his speeches with all the verve of a detective calling for help catching a murderer ("We appeal to members of the public for any information they may have that could lead to the arrest of the evil-doer"). The loftiest parts of his speeches are often immediately followed by a sort of sideways smirk, as if to say "Can you believe they‚re buying this crap?" Tony, on the other hand, effortlessly matches text, tone and body-language. He does not do this by acting in the classical sense -- that would be quickly rumbled. Rather, he skilfully deploys his emotions. Which is not to say that he feigns his feelings, he just deploys them. If he wants to make an angry speech, he reaches into himself, finds a bit of anger, and trims it to the purpose in hand -- similarly for steely resolve, humility, honesty, moral seriousness, etc.. The delivery then carries conviction because his body and voice are moved by a genuine emotion, however carefully dressed for the occasion. He is a method actor, except that he slips into the required emotional register so smoothly that he does not seem to notice himself doing it. This gives his oratory an emotional range and drive that George can never match. On the other hand, there is more honest self-knowledge in George's huckster's smirk than in Tony's sincere belief in his own sincerity.

Under all these differences of personality and policy, there is a fundamental agreement at the level of political theory. Both men reject the liberal conviction that, in politics and the law, processes stand higher than outcomes. For liberals, if the voters elect an idiot, or an adulterer, or Clever Hans the Counting Horse, so be it. The electoral process is sacrosanct, because the alternative is for those already in power to decide who is best fitted to rule and leaves the powerless with a choice between acquiescence and violence. Similarly with the law. Legal process often leaves victims unsatisfied and sometimes allows the guilty to walk free if the prosecution fails to follow correct procedure. Too bad, goes the liberal argument, because departures from due process will, even with the best of intentions, allow prejudice to prevail. In politics and in the courts we agree to abide by the results of the process because to do otherwise is to place ourselves above the law, and if two parties do that (as inevitably they would) their differences can only be settled by violence. That is why liberals argue that terrorism will abate only when terrorists are offered democratic routes to power.

It is well known that George's end of the Republican Party rejects this liberal doctrine. It prefers to choose an outcome and then find a process to bring it about. Did the electoral processes in Chile or Nicaragua give the wrong result? Then we need a different process -- a military coup, say, or an economic blockade. Does the constitution prevent us from selling arms to Iran to fund the Contras in Nicaragua? Ignore it. Does the vote-count in Florida risk giving the wrong result? Then let's count the votes of Supreme Court judges instead. Tony, for his part, cheerfully rigs internal Labour party elections -- recall the selection of candidates for London mayor or leader of the Welsh Assembly? Under the existing rules the Labour Party would not have chosen Tony's preferred candidates, so the rules had to change. His Home Secretary wants to reduce the involvement of juries in determining guilt and judges in passing sentences -- our legal procedures are not giving him the results he wants. Endless parliamentary committees and reports are gerrymandered to produce the outcomes desired by Downing Street. As I write, the Hutton enquiry is in its second week, and it is now evident that the process of assessing reports from spies was bent to meet a result decided in advance.

This rejection of the basic tenet of liberalism, that the results of democratic and legal processes trump any individual‚s conviction, is what connects Tony and George. As ever, George is the more honest -- for him, "liberal" is a swear-word. Tony, I have no doubt, would meet the suggestion that he places himself above the law with an indignant denial. His anger would be perfectly sincere, and perfectly pitched.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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