On a windy Saturday in February, thousands of people congregated at London’s Trafalgar Square, saying no to the deployment of the Trident missile and demanding that Britain withdraw its troops from Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair had already rained on the parade (this being England) by announcing that some 1,600 troops will leave Iraq later this year.
Peace marches have been a common feature in democracies, but what’s unusual about the recent peace marches, in particular the epochal march on 15 February 2003, which writer Ian McEwan immortalized in his novel, Saturday, is the strange alliance between Britain’s extreme left and radical Islam. Forged by their intense dislike of American dominance in global affairs, those who ostensibly consider religion to be the opium of people, oppose the death penalty and torture, and believe in the equality of sexes, sexual preferences and ethnicities, seem to find nothing odd in making common cause with those who are fervent about their faith, who want apostates to be put to death, and who justify discrimination against women, homosexuals and minorities.
The liberals’ abandonment of principles they once considered cornerstones of progressive beliefs has enraged some writers whose logical home was the Left, but who are now embarrassed by the company many in the Left keep. In the latest, hard-hitting salvo, British journalist Nick Cohen wrote a stinging critique, cleverly titled: What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. Cohen’s book has been fiercely defended and opposed, with Atlantists and conservatives embracing him, and former allies excoriating him for “digging himself in a hole,” as John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman puts it.
Cohen is not alone in examining the Left harshly. Several writers, who had much in common with the Leftist marchers, have been appalled by the turn many liberals in Britain have taken. Literary critic Ziauddin Sardar sees a moral imperative in opposing the war in Iraq, and is dismayed by these new doubters, calling them “Brit-Cons”.
The debate in Britain is most advanced, partly because Britain sent a sizeable contingent to Basra, partly because Britain has an uneasy relationship with its Muslim minority (some of whom burnt copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel, Satanic Verses, in 1989), and partly because Britain’s hard left is disillusioned by the Labour Party’s “third way” politics which has, instead of rolling back Thatcher-era privatization, consolidated it further.
This debate began last spring, when historian Norman Geras met a few like-minded liberals at a pub near London’s Euston station, and drafted a 2,917-word document that they called The Euston Manifesto, which upheld their commitment to human rights, civil liberties and democracy, and opposed the excesses of religious fundamentalism.
The manifesto is built on two simple ideas: that America is not evil, and that liberals have an obligation to support democracy against its opponents. The manifesto’s drafters saw Saddam’s overthrow as liberation of the Iraqi people. Liberals should therefore back a democratic order in Iraq and oppose those supporting gangs that claim to be “the so-called Iraqi resistance.” The manifesto criticizes this “disgraceful alliance” between radical Islam and militant Left, and condemns elements of the Left which, the drafters argue, seems to hate all things American so much that it finds common cause with groups that embody exactly the values it claims to oppose.
The choice of Euston is metaphorically rich. The station sits roughly at the crossroads of Britain’s intellectual history of the last century. It was near here that a double-decker bus blew up on 7 July 2005, killing a suicide bomber and many passengers. It is in Fitzrovia, not far from Euston, where the fictional Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon around whom McEwan’s novel, Saturday, revolves, lived.
Perowne knew a bit about Saddam: an Iraqi refugee tortured in Saddam’s jails had been his patient. In a dramatic confrontation with his daughter in the second half of the novel, Perowne has just the kind of debate which breached many relationships among British liberals.
Euston has deeper historical significance: It was at the reading room in the library of the British Museum, close to Euston, that the ideas behind the Communist Manifesto were born: Karl Marx read, thought, and wrote there. Close by is Bloomsbury, the area of London where, through the first half of the 20th century, a group of artists, writers and thinkers met, creating art and influencing British intellectual and political life. (John Maynard Keynes was a member.) The Euston Manifesto, in some ways, completes the circle of the journey the British Left has taken in the last century.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments about his Letter from London are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org