Where have all the good leaders gone?

Britain”s leadership deficit and the state of utter stagnation.

Despite being such a great influence on cultures the world over, Britain is, in some ways, a strange society to live in. It does have certain clear advantages over South Africa, notwithstanding the weather of course, but in terms of its stability, its fascinating vibrant history, its centrality and primacy on the world stage, the availability of just about everything; all owing to it being something of a global hub between Europe, America and its former colonies, there is much to praise.

That being said, most of the optimism about Britain relates to its past and it is difficult to find individual citizens who are genuinely optimistic about its future. The stagnation of its political culture has run parallel to an increased pessimism about its society and even a sense of resignation about the whole process.

What is curious about Britain, and perhaps apparent only to those who live here for any length of time, is that its national demeanour and political culture has come to resemble the aforementioned weather: grey, unchanging, moist and stagnant.  Of course, some sense of melancholy is perhaps inevitable after the loss of its empire followed by half a century of stable shrinking as a world power; one gets the sense from talking to a fairly broad cross-section of society that the greatest things have passed, the heroism of the Trafalgar, the Battle of Britain and D-day replaced by the dystopian squalor of reality television and celebrity gossip; the Britain of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. A sense of guilt runs parallel to this, those who are not lamenting the loss of Britain’s past, are apologetic that it happened at all, the middle ground is hard to find. This social malaise has been a gradual process amplified in recent years by economic decline as has the loss of animus in the political system.

Despite their mutual acrimony, the three main political parties share some common ground in their inability to offer any kind of vibrant vision for Britain’s renewal. The Labour party have lost what was previously their main USP: their perceived moral high-ground. Tony Blair, a shrewd and skilled politician and a far cry from Labour’s previous naive idealists, took a leaf out of both the respective left-wing hard-line unionist and right-wing Thatcherite books in his fairly autocratic style of personality politics. There are aspects of Blair that I admire but, having run Britain like a mafia organisation for a decade and embroiled it in an unpopular and damaging foreign conflict it is hard for Labour to claim to be the voice of the common man any longer. They now tread a deft line between uncharismatic incompetence, thinly veiled corporatism and champagne socialist hypocrisy,  elegantly distilled in their gormless leader Ed Milliband; a man whose election as leader over his more charismatic brother was predicated on his endorsement by Britain’s racketeering unions and whose main political tactic is the repetition of the hypocritical mantra of “same old Tories!”

The Liberal Democrats, for a time, seemed to offer a middle way. Prior to the last election their popularity climbed, their leader was young and fresh-faced with a strong academic background and they were untarnished by the historical baggage of the other two. Indeed their own history as a breakaway party gave them increased credibility of a sort. However, the ominous signs were there in the run-up to the election for those who knew what to look for. The Lib Dems didn’t so much offer a fresh new vision so much as one that slalomed between the views of the other two. During the prime ministerial debate Nick Clegg commented that the more David Cameron and Gordon Brown bickered, the more alike they sounded, however, this did not bode well for him either as he was attempting to secure the apparently centrist gap between the two. The party has now been abandoned by swathes of former supporters on the left and right, their personality assimilated into the murk of coalition politics. To the right they are pliant and ineffectual, useful only insofar as they were able to make a Tory government more palatable to liberal voters in the form of the coalition. To the left, they are sell-outs to the right, pure and simple.

The Conservative party too, seem to have lost their identity. In their scramble for the centrist position they are led by an ungainly bunch of what Thatcher would have called ‘wets’, with the Tory old guard playing their part from the shadows. For many libertarian or conservative citizens, Britain’s last fifty years has been a repetitive cycle of Labour coming into power on the basis of popular but idealistic and impractical policies, leaving the Tories with the task of having to clean up their mess by implementing unpopular but necessary readjustments. After years of money-squandering from Labour and a turgid public sector bursting at the seams, fiscal Conservatism seemed like an attractive prospect for many disillusioned Brits but since they have come to power, they have stumbled from one humiliating catastrophe to the next. Even staunch Conservative voters who have never deviated from their core party even during Labour’s glory years of the late 90s, are now cradling their foreheads in embarrassment; the administration is doing itself no favours.

Enduring both crippling economic woes and an almost pubescent political identity crisis is certainly taking its toll on Britain’s morale and collective will. The weakness of both leadership and the opposition is serving to prolong the recession and, by extension, the loss of optimism; they are without a doubt, mutually reinforcing problems. Is this a new phase of terminal and permanent decline? The political scene is desolate but Britain is a an island nation with cold grey winters, battered by countless wars and invasions over the years, and thus imbued with a unique ability to limp on. What is needed for some sense of renewal in this country is more than cabinet reshuffles and bitter opposition. British political parties need to stop trying to have it both ways in the battle for the centre ground and to regain their sense of identity. Reinvention is inevitable and the party faithful of all three entities are nearing the end of their tether. It is essential that neither they nor the electorate recede into nihilism and resignation. But who knows how long this slump will continue?

Whereas  America thrives on patriotism and optimism, Britain gets by on irony and lugubrious self-deprecation. So until we find a way out of this economic and existential ditch, we will at least have the capacity to enjoy complaining about it

Salman Rushdie: To Hell and Back Again as “Joseph Anton”

salman rushdie

“What we must do, all of us, is insist that this society is one of open discourse.”

It may seem like this memoir has been a long-time coming, as Rushdie’s life story garners as much public interest as his vibrant and fantastical novels; but, given the harrowing nature of his experiences, it is not surprising that it took over two decades before he could commit the events to print. In February 1989, in response to claims that Rushdie’s novel constituted blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, the theocratic leader of the Iranian dictatorship at the time, the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, offered a bounty in his own name for murder of Mr Rushdie – a man who was neither a practising Muslim, nor an Iranian. It has been noted by many since then that this extraordinary offence to morality, free speech and the rule of law represented a foreshadowing of what we could expect from religious fundamentalism in years to come.

It was a watershed moment, an opportunity to set a precedent for how such barbarism could expect to be confronted in the future. But the reaction was less than satisfactory. While Rushdie himself has always been vocal in his praising of the agents assigned to protect his home; the diligence of the British authorities in assuring his safety; and the support of his friends and family, the response from religious figures the world over confirms the importance of protecting free expression from bogus claims of blasphemy. The Pope, Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other nodding heads of various religious institutions, closed ranks and condemned the novel and its author. Elements of the intellectual and political community were also not without blame and many dithered as to whether he deserved their support and whether they could afford to offer it. In other words, offending a verminous religious dictator with the resources to fund and facilitate your assassination is a very efficient way of discovering who your friends are.

The years immediately following this debacle only grew darker for Rushdie; family, friends and colleagues (and even their families) were threatened and attacked, his Italian translator stabbed, his Japanese translator murdered. Desperate to appease his tormenters in order to put an end to such attacks, he published an article declaring that he had embraced Islam and apologising for his previous blasphemy, but this fell on deaf ears. Here again, was a foreshadowing of things to come; Rushdie discovered that the nature of fanaticism is that it cannot be reasoned with and does not seek dialogue. A similarly dark lesson was learned too late by Theo van Gogh who was murdered in the street for the film he made in partnership with Ayaan Hirsi Ali about the plight of Muslim women in Holland; as he lay in the street having been shot off his bike, he tried to reason with his killer before his throat was cut (Ms Hirsi Ali has since had to live a life of constant surveillance and protection comparable to that of Rushdie’s).

During his years on the run, possibly due to the publicity surrounding the initial circumstances, his life was erroneously characterised by some as a kind of glamorous Bond-esque existence; the international man of mystery always accompanied by black-suited anonymous agents. For his part he has always been puzzled by this association, “To me it felt like prison”.  This is illustrated most harrowingly in his description of the panic he felt when a minor miscommunication about the whereabouts of his son led him to believe that he had been taken, the horror of such a thing is probably more vividly understood by those who have children, for my part, I can only imagine.

Ever since he became a hunted man, he has become a kind of go-to talking head when matters of free speech and offence, particularly in a religious context, are brought to the public square. And the multiple interviews and re-posting of his old articles over the past week have almost served to obscure his more comprehensive commentary on the matter: the book itself.

The interest in his story should not be surprising; Rushdie himself concluded that the tumult surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses was bigger than either him or his work. I believe most people instinctively recognise the relevance of such cases to their own lives and to democracy. Others, sadly, recoil in fear. A number of rather flaccid platitudes (still in use today in relation either to Mr Rushdie’s case or to other examples of so-called ‘blasphemy’) were employed by those who failed to recognise the relevance of this struggle and wished to distance themselves from him. One Rushdie himself finds rather amusing is “he knew what he was doing”. In Rushdie’s words “it would be really strange, I thought, to spend five years writing a novel and not know what I was doing; what would that be, that act?” The absurdity of such a statement aside, the other implication is that he was trying to cause offence and expecting a response – which was simply not the case. Despite being a secularist, Rushdie’s writing is, for the most part, an overwhelmingly colourful homage to the diverse religious and cultural traditions of India and not an attempt to denigrate them. In fact, the ‘offensive’ chapter was an abstract dream sequence based on a religious myth that in no way sought to attack Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. However, even if he had sought to offend, as the creators of the recent controversial ‘film’ appear to have, it says nothing to justify the actions of those who react to it through a campaign of violence and intimidation, nor does the fact that the film is devoid of artistic merit. Indeed, another tactic adopted by those who sought to abandon Rushdie was to dodge the blasphemy question entirely by attacking the book on purely literary grounds, thereby spinelessly absolving them of the responsibility to stand up for freedom of expression. The literary or artistic worth of the material makes little difference to those who seek an excuse to commit acts of violence or surrender to them. To paraphrase Rushdie, when asked about the events of the last week, defending free speech sometimes involves defending people you don’t like and free speech includes the right to behave badly.

In Rushdie’s own words, “Censorship changes the subject and introduces a more tedious subject; it creates a more boring world.” Censorship does not respect the difference between trash and art. If we remove the right of the less pleasant elements of society to make trash, we give up great art as well. In a world where the right to ugly speech is not defended alongside the right to beautiful speech, we would possibly have already lost Salman Rushdie and his writing. Salman Rushdie’s journey should remind us all of the importance of defending what we have in free societies. Indeed, such cases as his are not merely a matter of private trauma but affect us all. This was eerily illustrated by Christopher Hitchens, who, in the conclusion of the chapter in his own memoir, detailing his friendship with Rushdie and his defence of him after the issuing of the fatwa, employs the phrase mutate nomine de te fabula naratatur, “change only the name and the story is about you.”