Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour

David Miliband’s playing his cards very shrewdly, isn’t he?

Based on his past behaviour, and my accumulated sense that he’s a bit of a coward, I’d have guessed up to last week that he’d probably follow a “wait until the premiership falls into my lap” kind of strategy, and that that would probably fail, so full credit to him for trying something different. It certainly makes the prospect of a Milburn / Clarke / Byers comeback a bit more remote, and that can only be a good thing. And, my goodness, he couldn’t have scripted the last 48 hours or so any better than they’ve turned out for him.

As I’ve more or less indicated before, although various mostly-Labour-supporting bloggers like to harrumph around these times about how people inside and outside the party should shut up, stop doing “Kremlinology”, focus on the issues, etc., these periods when parties are in meltdown over leadership crises are just about my favourite chunks of political time, and I’m going to enjoy this one to the full.

One other observation to those who deplore the current situation. One of the reasons quite so much happens in smoke-filled rooms, unattributable briefings, behind-the-scenes shenanigans these days is that the Party rules make it quite so difficult to mount a formal leadership challenge to an incumbent Prime Minister. When the leadership is obviously hopeless, therefore, backstairs channels are often the only ones available. I’ve just been re-reading Machiavelli’s Discourses, and one of the points he makes very early on is that you want your political institutions to be such that formal public challenges to authority are very easy, precisely in order to discourage what he calls calunnia, “calumnies”, or doing everything in semi-private unattributable ways through insinuation and rumour. Both parties (sorry Lib Dems, you still don’t count) have tightened up their rules over the last fifteen years or so, in order to make challenges to the leadership harder, but the not-especially-unpredictable result of all of this is that we’re likely to get more rather than fewer episodes like Duncan Smith (2003), Blair (2006-7) and Brown (2008) over time than we would otherwise, and it’s at these moments that party democracy gets sidelined in favour of the demi-semi-public machinations of political elites.

Retrolecture: The Satanic Verses

There was a good piece by the excellent Samuel “On Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: A Philosophical Companion” Fleischacker in Norm’s Writer’s Choice series last week, not least because most of it is actually about the book Rushdie wrote, which is sometimes hard to recover through the increasingly thick fog of what became “The Rushdie Affair”. He liked it as much as I did, when I read it in the second half of 1989, though with a much richer appreciation of what we might call Rushdie’s engagement with theodicy than I’d have been capable of sustaining back then, years before I started reading Augustine.

It’s nice to be reminded, too, of Martin Scorsese’s film of The Last Temptation of Christ. Fleischacker thinks it had “a far deeper religious sensibility” than that of its critics who charged it with heresy. That might be true, but I just remember it as tortured, laughable nonsense. (“Heaven’s a party, and everyone’s invited!”, says Scorsese’s Christ at one point, or something similar, and I don’t recall it ever getting more profound.) His Gangs of New York was also very, very bad, but there seems to be something about the badness of the religious film that gives it a certain kind of grandeur, of which the badness of the secular film falls short.

Gordon Brown, Ha Ha Ha

The Don is quite funny over here, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Brown’s premiership is politically dead in the water, and we’re just waiting to see how the endgame plays out.

Up to now, people have been comparing him with the hapless John Major (which is what made this intervention quite so funny), but the real tragedy / comedy [delete according to taste] of his predicament is that the relevant analogy is increasingly becoming that of Iain Duncan Smith in October 2003, and that’s a terrible, terrible fate for anyone to suffer.

(Still, given that Brown himself can bring this all to an end at any moment, and to virtually everybody’s relief, perhaps our sympathies should be somewhat limited.)

De Otio

In case you were wondering, as I was, why the Latin newsfeed on the sidebar hasn’t been updated for a while, “Nuntii Latini ob ferias aestivas ad tres menses intermittuntur, quam ob rem proxima emissio non ante quam Nonis Septembribus (5.9.) fiet.” [Over here.]

“As Woman B observed, and most Germans would agree, it is inappropriate and offensive to equate everything German with the Nazi era.”

I quite enjoyed reading the Max Mosley judgment. Favourite snippet:

Mr Thurlbeck [the NotW reporter] also relied upon the fact that the Claimant [Mr Mosley] was “shaved”. Concentration camp inmates were also shaved. Yet, as Mr Price [Mr Mosley’s QC] pointed out, they had their heads shaved. The Claimant, for reasons best known to himself, enjoyed having his bottom shaved – apparently for its own sake rather than because of any supposed Nazi connotation. He explained to me that while this service was being performed he was (no doubt unwisely) “shaking with laughter”. I naturally could not check from the DVD, as it was not his face that was on display.

Catching Up

Just back from a week up an Alp, happily disconnected from the outside world. (Lots of mountain goats, but no marmots, alas.) Did I miss anything? I learned from French motorway service stations on the way home that England lost a Test Match and the Labour Party lost a by-election, both in rather embarrassing fashion. Anything else?

Counterfactual

John Lanchester, in the LRB:

There is one fascinating counterfactual to emerge from Prezza. It concerns the incident when he punched an egg-throwing protester in Wales during the 2001 general election. He includes a photo of the punch, a solid left jab right on the man’s chin. There was a furore, which Prescott survived because the public (not the papers, not at first) were largely on his side. But Prescott was an amateur boxer in his youth, and on page 118-19 there is a photo of him landing what looks like a knockout punch on an opponent. He is right-handed, and the knockout punch was a right. Here is the counter-factual: if 16-stone Prescott had hit the egg-thrower with his right, he would have knocked him out, and quite likely have broken his jaw. If either of those things had happened – if the man had ended up in hospital – Prescott would have had to resign. Whoever Blair appointed as his new deputy prime minister would have had much less pull with the party, because no one had as much pull with the party as Prescott. So when the crucial vote on the Iraq war came, Blair wouldn’t have had a deputy able to bring the party onside in the way that Prescott did. Instead of 139 Labour MPs voting against the war, a majority of them would have voted against, Blair would (as he said in private) have had to resign, and we wouldn’t have gone to war. And all because, for once, a New Labour figure didn’t lean to the right.