Sunday, 27 Dec. 2009INDEX


Some people are shocked about the fact that Barrack Obama is proving to be just another American president, perhaps a little better than his predecessors, but not much. The sight of him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in the same week as he was sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan will probably go down as one of the greatest ironies of the 21st century and may be remembered long after everything else about his presidency is forgotten.

But it was always going to be thus. His great slogan: Yes We Can, is after all just a re-working of that traditional American virtue Can Doism. Anyone who re-brands a national characteristic as a political slogan is deeply suspect. As Samuel Johnson said: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."

In Britain we had modernism as political slogan. Modernism appeals to the young and the foolish. They like the idea of change because they see themselves in the vanguard. Change is what youth is all about.

But modernism means something as a school of art. In politics it means nothing. Two millennia ago people like Plato and Socrates were debating many of the most current political ideas. Ever since, political philosophy has been one of the most frequently studied and analysed branches of learning. It is extremely unlikely that much new is going to be discovered in Britain over the next generation or so.

For example, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were part of a war against terror, which as others have pointed out is a non sequitur since you can not fight terror. Terror is the fear occasioned by fighting or the threat of fighting.

In practical terms the war against terror has meant people have had to give up long cherished freedoms, like the right to a jury trial and habeas corpus. There is nothing modern about cowing or subduing a population by threatening them with a big foreign bogeyman. Shakespeare laid out the strategy in Henry V: "To busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels."

One of the ideas of salesmanship is to pitch your offer in a way in which it is made difficult to say no. If someone says should we burden the Foreign Office with enormous costs by getting in a lot of business consultants who will impose a huge number of arbitrary targets (like the number of speeches to be given in a year by an ambassador) rather than let them concentrate on providing first rate information and offering impeccable advice, then it's possible some people may feel this is a bad idea. But pitch the same offer as modernising the Foreign Office by introducing business methods, and who could disagree?

The concept of modernising is all about sweeping away objections; of denying the opportunity for honest debate and unbiased decision making. The idea is that you have thought through the whole thing and know which way history is going.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Julius Ceasar

Sometimes it is genuinely obvious which way the historical wind is blowing, but usually it is not. As Harold Macmillan complained the problem with politics is "events, dear boy". No-one knows what will happen tomorrow.

If no one knows what is going to happen, then no-one knows what is modern and what isn't. Nothing illustrates this better than the Government's ridiculous multi billion expenditure on computer systems that were supposed to be inevitable but proved to be White Elephants. When announced we had no choice but to go down that road. It was modern. When cancelled it appeared that there were other options after all.

If someone tells you There Is No Alternative or you have to do this because it's Modern, it's time to politely make your excuses and get as far away as you can. Having a poverty of imagination, the belief that there is only one possible route, one possible future, is not clever. It's rather dangerous.

Sunday, 27 Dec. 2009INDEX