Earlier this month I was asked to address an audience about what future there might be for the “decent left”. For those unfamiliar for the term this is the tendency on the left generally associated with backing the Iraq War (though some of the key advocates of this approach did not), opposition to alliances with extreme-right Islamism and the identification of a tendency towards anti-Semitism in some left-liberal discussion of Israel and the Middle East. The Euston Manifesto, published in 2006 expressed some of the thinking of The Decents.
On the key issue of the Iraq War, I was an agnostic. I hoped that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would lead to a new era of democracy, but suspected it would probably lead to fratricide, sectarianism and the break up of the country into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish enclaves. The reality has been more complicated than either scenario.
Incidentally, I now think the invasion was indeed an error: carried out at the wrong time, by the wrong coalition for the wrong reasons. But where I do agree with the “decents” is that those who opposed intervention in 2002/3 were arguing for the murderous Baathist regime to stay in power. This should remain on their conscience just as the murderous consequences of the invasion are on the conscience of those who supported the war.
I am not a signatory of the Euston Manifesto, the defining document of the “decent left”, though I did lobby hard for it to be published in the New Statesman when I was Political Editor as I was convinced it was a significant intellectual intervention.
My position on the Iraq War was that of a classic woolly liberal: hedging my bets, not sticking my neck out, worried about what people would think. To this day I remain uncertain about the rights and wrongs of liberal interventionism, although I would like to consider myself anti-totalitarian.
I should also say that Michael Walzer’s original 2002 Dissent article, "Can There Be A Decent Left" was a vital piece of work. I have a deep respect for the keepers of the “decent” flame: Labour Friends of Iraq, Professor Alan Johnson of Democratiya, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovich, Norman Geras and those at Harry’s Place blog.
There is an important definition at the heart of Michael Walzer’s original article:
“The encounter with Islamic radicalism and with other versions of politicised religion should help us understand that high among out interests are values: secular enlightenment, human rights and democratic government. Left politics starts with the defence of these three.”
Walzer’s words remain a good starting point for the decent left. But I would suggest a few serious problems for the future of the tendency.
1. Neoconitis. Alan Johnson has written: “Neocon-itis is now an obstacle to grown-up political debate on the decent left.” No one on the left likes to be called a neo-con or an Islamophobe. It is all too easy to retreat from the field of battle in the face of such name-calling. We on the left like to think of ourselves as good people and these insults hurt.
2. The Guantanamo Factor. Without being anti-American, it should be quite possible to oppose the human rights abuses of the US government. Indeed, it should be possible to defend the human rights of Islamic radicals whilst abhorring their totalitarian politics. Sometimes the decent left finds this too difficult.
3. New Labour. The decent left is not synonymous with New Labour. Recent events with Libya demonstrate that the UK government is quite prepared to do business with the most repellent of regimes opposed in every way to the principles of secular enlightenment, human rights and democratic government. Governments are not principled nor can we expect them to be so.
So where should the decent left go from here?
1. Build a genuine network of solidarity. This means building networks within the Muslim community, the representatives of secular and progressive political organisations across the South Asian, North African and Middle East immigrant communities, into the wider world. It also means backing those who stand up against the ideology of the Islamic extreme right. I am thinking here of Derek Pasquill, the Foreign Office official who first exposed details of the UK government’s appeasement of Islamist groups.
2. Fight the charges of neoconservatism and Islamophobia. These bald terms of abuse should be challenged at every turn. I am not a believer in using the laws of libel, but it should not be acceptable to call people racist as a matter of course.
3. Recognise the true nature of the opposition. The movements on the Islamic extreme right are strong and well organised. The Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islami operations in Britain are effective and sophisticated. The Jamaat control of East London mosque, London Muslim Centre, the Muslim Council of Britain the Islamic Foundation is solid and well funded.