[I have put this article in the Jane Austen category so that those familiar with Jane Austen’s writings may like to think about the relationship between a people’s trust in their government government according to Confucius, and a person’s standing in the community—their character—according to Austen, and how integrity is critical to both (and my apologies if this sounds like something that belongs in a college essay paper).]
Tzu-kung asked about government. The Master said, ‘Give them enough food, give them enough arms, and the common people will have trust in you.’ Tzu-kung said, ‘If one had to give up one of these three, which should one give up first?’ ‘Give up arms.’ Tzu-kung said, ‘If one had to give up one of the remaining two, which should one give up first?’ ‘Give up food. Death has always been with us since the beginning of time, but when there is no trust, the common people will have nothing to stand on.’
— Lun Yu (Analects of Confucius) VII.7
Following on from my screed against Jacqui Smith I see that George Monbiot has written an eviscerating column in the Guardian asking why any liberal would rally in defense of the New Labour government—This government has been the most rightwing since the second world war (or Nothing Left to Fight For on Monbiot’s website). In many ways he is right. After the war a social-democratic consensus emerged that started to break up in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher, but she was always restrained by the fact that nobody trusted her with (for example) the health service. Blair and Brown are truly Thatcher’s children (John Gray saw this clearly) and just couldn’t see beyond the market to any coherent idea of society—for them it didn’t need to be said but was self-evidently true, that there was no such things as society. Rowan Williams’s stunning 2002 Dimbleby Lecture perfectly understood the problem—what a wonderful gift to the government in return for his appointment, and how it was squandered.
The government’s woes have been compounded by the Crewe by-election and the release of the Guardian-ICM poll confirming what other polls have been saying, that Labour have lost seven points in the last month. Polly Toynbee, reporting from Crewe, laments that The dam’s burst. Now voters just want to wallop Labour:
A witlessly patronising anti-toff campaign will not be to blame so much as the desperate emptiness of Labour’s message. It’s not where you’re from but who you’re for that matters, and that’s the question Labour has ducked and dodged for years. Nothing [Labour prospective parliamentary candidate] Tamsin Dunwoody’s team did could have made a shred of difference – though accusing the Tories of being soft on immigration stank. Labour needs to learn from this campaign that for long-term survival, there’s a lot to be said for going down gracefully, with convictions flying, not scratching at the inevitable with your finger nails. Visits from 100 ministers and every Labour MP will not save the day, and nor will Gordon Brown’s mystifying refusal to visit even once, while Cameron drops in almost every day.
Part of Labour’s problems comes from their extending of the political cycle as well as the economic cycle—people seem to have largely forgotten what mid-term blues feel like, so we are probably seeing a typical over-reaction. Which is not to say that the government isn’t in deep trouble, for it surely is.
Today we saw an example of just the kind of timidity and spinelessness is coming define the current Prime Minister. One of the things I had been explaining to any one who would listen, up until today, was Gordon Brown’s courageous decision to meet the Dalai Lama, just as his predecessor John major had done. The press announcement said:
The Prime Minister announced today that he will meet the Dalai Lama when he visits London in May.
Addressing MPs during Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Brown said he had spoken to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and had made it “absolutely clear that there had to be an end to violence in Tibet”.
The Prime Minister said:
“The premier told me that, subject to two things that the Dalai Lama has already said – that he does not support the total independence of Tibet and that he renounces violence – that he would be prepared to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama.”
The intention is quite clear. However, Gordon Brown has since thought better of it and on the eve of the visit has decided to meet the Dalai Lama at Lambeth Palace (the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury) so that he can claim that he is meeting the Dalai Lama the spiritual leader not the leader of the Tibetan people. There could hardly be any better way that Gordon Brown could reinforce the narrative that he is a spineless, timid opportunist, either in his initial announcement riding the wave of indignation at the brutal treatment of the Tibetan protests, nor his subsequent backtracking in the face of Chinese pressure.
From the very start New Labour has gained the reputation for astute news management and cynical opportunism, but I doubt if anything symbolises the total vacuity at the centre of the government as much as the way they behaved over the Iraq war. When coalitions break up and are reformed, some kind of base is needed around which to build the new coalition. Unfortunately so much of the Labour base has become so disgusted with this government that they see no point in perpetuating something that has destroyed so much of what the party has stood for, that has almost destroyed the party. As George Monbiot says they are a cabinet of war criminals, and in better days they (and especially their ex-prime minister) would have been concerned about their destiny with the end of a rope. Note that this is not a fate I recommend at all—I only mean that they should be concerned about meeting the same justice that the Nuremburg tribunals meeted out for the supreme war crime—starting an expansionary war. In some ways their worst crime has been the way they have refused to face up to any of the consequences of what they have done, so normalising the crime and imperiling us all with a widening of the war with Iran. And this is still very much on the cards. A genuine horror at what they had precipitated followed by a reconciliation process—something that would have been politically easy to manage with the main opposition entirely behind the war—could have started a healing process, leaving the matter of their actions a private matter. This was a process that we all needed for we were all collectively complicit in this monstrous crime.
As Confucius said, governance is the operation of trust. Once you lose that it is almost impossible to recover it. Without it effective governance is impossible.