The wider centre-left needs to decide what should remain of the New Labour legacy. Sounding out delegates, former ministers, MPs and advisers today brought a range of responses so diverse that it suggests the party has not yet made up its mind about what worked in the New Labour experiment and what was a dreadful failure.
That said, there is close to a consensus on the debacle of foreign policy. Voices of left and right agree that Blair's doctrine of "liberal interventionism" is one part of the inheritance that should be dumped in the nearest skip. Even those who liked the idea in theory concede that its practice proved disastrous.
If he's right that there's something close to a consensus on this, it would be good to have it summed up in a handy way. May I suggest the following: when genocides are in progress, the killers should just be allowed to get on with it. This humane conclusion will surely hold its own against the generations of writers on international law who have held that in certain extreme circumstances intervention on humanitarian grounds is justified. But I guess that's just the idea 'in theory' that the consensus folk profess to like. In practice, better to dump it.
Some of the reaction to Roman Polanski's detention in Switzerland makes reference to the fact of his being a Holocaustsurvivor. There's one way in which this might be thought relevant to the issue but isn't. No one could seriously uphold a principle according to which laws against serious assault should not apply, or should apply more leniently, to the survivors of traumatic historical events.
There is, however, a different connection that can be drawn between this aspect of Polanksi's past and the current controversy about his arrest, and so far as I know it's one that hasn't been widely noted if it's been noted at all. As a genocide, the Holocaust was a colossal, a continent-wide, crime against humanity, as well as being composed of countless localized crimes against humanity. There is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. (See this Convention.) That is because of their gravity. For the same reason, in most national jurisdictions the provision for statutory limitation does not normally cover grave crimes against the person. Reference to Polanski's being a Holocaust survivor should therefore remind us that, whatever other arguments there may be against extraditing him, the fact that his offence was committed long ago isn't one of them - unless raping a child is thought not to be a serious offence.
Postscript: A normblog reader points out that in my post about this yesterday, I was wrong to imply that Woody Allen had been married to Mia Farrow. I make the necessary correction therefore. The moral point of that post stands nonetheless.
Whatever else it was, 1989 and what it further presaged should have been a liberation for the Western left - a liberation from the incubus of a model of socialism that, even when qualified as "actually existing" and therefore far from any ideal conception, had discredited the whole idea of socialism in the eyes of many. It may be said that against this potential gain had to be set the loss of a visible alternative to capitalism in a large part of the globe, keeping alive the idea, at least, that alternatives to capitalism were possible. Yet the nature of the alternative on offer and display in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China was itself so rebarbative that whatever the putative theoretical loss in this respect might be, a new opportunity now presented itself for unshackling the programs and visions of the left, and the public reputation of the socialist idea, from an image of societies at once undemocratic, authoritarian, closed, and corrupt.
Twenty years on, it is impossible not to be struck by how that release and the opportunity it held out have been wasted by a substantial section of the left. For many it has turned into an unmooring also from what were valuable strands in the left tradition. So far from progressing intellectually and politically, they have deteriorated, fallen back. A broad post-Stalinist new left - schooled in criticism of the structures and practices and crimes of actually-existing socialism - has also been cut loose since 1989 from the best elements within the Marxist tradition, a tradition that had formerly kept it in touch with universalist assumptions concerning justice, democracy, and human freedom...
These are the opening paragraphs of a short piece I've written for a symposium on 1989 two decades on. The piece continues here. The rest of the symposium, with contributions from Shlomo Avineri, Paul Berman, Anna Seleny and others, can be accessed here.
I had a rude shock this morning. I went over to a blog I look at regularly, and what should I find but the blogger's wife posting about what a marvellous guy he is. He loves his readers and will always put them first; she knows him and can assure everyone of it. Next thing, it's the blogger's mother. She also knows him and is telling us how gentle and caring he is, and that he's her little boobaleh and she really loves him. Well, I'm not going to embarrass this blogger by telling you who he is, but I raised an eyebrow and choked back what could have been a sob - or maybe not a sob.
Seyran Ates, a lawyer and writer living in Berlin, argues that human rights must have priority over religious practices. Her post, which is not long, merits being read in full. The argument she makes is really about the relation between human rights and demands or pressures inconsistent with these but imposed by religious or cultural communities. It should go without saying that in secular, democratic societies human rights must have priority where there is such a conflict. For communities only have legitimacy there as being voluntary, adhered to by their members as a matter of choice and without any implication that a participant's most fundamental entitlements can be overriden without their free consent. Communities are communities of individuals and may not properly arrogate to themselves disposal over the legitimate moral claims of those individuals.
It must be worthy of note that amongst those petitioning in protest against Roman Polanski's detention is Woody Allen. A man who, from within his marriage, embarked on a relationship with his wife's adopted daughter speaks up for a man charged with having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old. That's solidarity for you.
This isn't the first thing I've read about second-hand bookshops being under threat and one of the reasons for it being charity shops like Oxfam. If it's so, then it's so, and there's not much to be done about it. Charity and charity shops are good in their own right, and the second-hand book trade has to make its way as best it can against legitimate forms of competition. Still, some of us will regret the passing, or even just decline, of the second-hand bookshop if it continues. And there's a philistine element in this column by Sathnam Sanghera, who brushes aside that regret.
Much of what he says is fair enough, and if he, personally, has no time for browsing around such places, that's also fair enough. To each their own. But he might have the breadth of imagination to understand why a collection of books sold on by others has an appeal for many of us, Amazon and Abe Books notwithstanding. It's also not so clever to say that 'the second-hand books "industry" is no such thing: it makes nothing...' Making things isn't the only kind of thing people value enough to be willing to pay for it; doing things also sometimes fits the bill. Finally, the argument that as a society we're too addicted to preservation for its own sake is neither here nor there. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. Those who'd like to see second-hand bookshops surviving have reasons for this other than that second-hand bookshops have a history.
Funny that I should happen upon this just now - it's a piece about the US road trip and wanting to be out West. Around a fortnight from now that will be me and two old friends of mine, starting out from Phoenix and finishing in San Francisco. Why, there's even a suitable accompanying picture: this is one of the places we're going.
Matthew Engel is the least fiscally-aware columnist on The Financial Times. For the FT, he writes occasional political sketches, covers major sporting events and produces a fortnightly column of reportage in the Saturday magazine called Dispatch. He wrote for The Guardian from 1979 to 2004 and was editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack from 1993 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2007. Matthew's latest book, Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain has been widely praised, but not enough. Since his son Laurie died, aged 13, in 2005, he and his wife Hilary have been running the Laurie Engel Fund in conjunction with the Teenage Cancer Trust and have raised £875,000 to build a new unit for cancer patients at Birmingham Children's Hospital. It is due to open early in 2010. The Engels live in Herefordshire with their daughter Vika. Here Matthew writes about the Times guide to The House of Commons 1945.
Matthew Engel on the Times guide to The House of Commons 1945
I write as the Labour Party prepares to assemble for its 2009 conference in Brighton contemplating electoral damnation and perhaps even eternal annihilation, seemingly with the sense of relief that overcomes the terminally ill if they have enough faith.
This is curious, since history is likely to conclude that the Labour Government of 1997-2010 didn't actually believe in anything.
Still, anyone with any kind of attachment to progressive politics must feel a certain sense of sadness at the impending doom of yet another alleged attempt at left-of-centre governance. It seems a moment to turn to a favourite of mine that recalls a very different moment.
On my shelves it stands between my set of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack (146 editions and counting) and Wisden's Rugby Football Almanack (I have the complete set - just three editions in the 1920s). It is The House of Commons 1945, published by The Times.
In a sense, the positioning is appropriate. Unlike the rugby almanack, The Times Guide to the House of Commons (as it is now called) is still going. It is published after every general election, with a few articles describing the campaign and the previous parliament, then the full list of results, and potted biographies of the winners and the constituencies.
There used to be biographies of all the candidates but the sub-editors seemed to get increasingly bored with having to tell readers about Sutch D. (Loony) and Buckethead, Lord (Gremloids).
However, The Times Guide failed to match the cricketing Wisden's most priceless achievement. It was first published in 1880 but didn't appear four times in the early 20th century, and has been continuous only since 1929. The 1886 Wisden failed to appear until 1887, but it did arrive eventually. Collectability depends above all on continuity.
But there must be a few other nutcases around who love these sparse volumes of arcana. I waited a year before a 1945 edition came up on ebay to enable me to complete my post-war set. I can't remember precisely what I paid - the low three figures, I'm sure - but I didn't mess about and didn't begrudge a penny.
It is not as attractive as the ones that followed: photographs of each MP only arrived in 1950. (Apparently, a lot of them were wrongly identified that time but the general impression of elderly white males, nearly all with moustaches, horn-rimmed glasses or both, is correct, I am sure.)
But the clipped prose and bare figures of the 1945 edition are enough to convey the drama and surprise of that most dramatic of elections. There was a three-week gap between polling and declaration because the forces' ballots had to be flown in from across the world (though not quite from all over it: 'It was not found possible to include Australia and New Zealand').
During the hiatus, 'Mr Churchill went to France for a short holiday and then flew direct to Berlin to take part in the Three Power Conference at Potsdam, where he was joined by Mr Eden and Mr Attlee'. The conference had a short break so the UK representatives could fly home (in separate aircraft) for the results.
The Times Guide goes on: 'Mr Churchill left Potsdam at the height of his fame and power and President Truman and Marshal Stalin no doubt expected him to return within a day or two. But Mr Churchill did not go back to Potsdam. At 7 o'clock in the evening of the day after he had left the Conference he was no longer Prime Minister... Mr Churchill's prudent forethought in inviting Mr Attlee to accompany him to the first part of the Conference enabled the new Prime Minister to resume the Potsdam discussions without any discontinuity.' One imagines Stalin was particularly bemused by this strange way of proceeding.
Page 31 has the telling numbers: Labour 394, Conservatives 188. And then come the details. Even the biographies seem to reveal the sense of astonishment. Here is Greenwich, for instance, gained by Labour with a 10,000 majority. 'Commodore A.W.S. Agar VC (Conservative) won distinction in the attack on Kronstadt in the last war. In 1943 he was appointed President of RN College, Greenwich.' His conqueror, Mr J. Reeves, the book notes dismissively, 'has a long association with the Co-operative movement.'
Brigadier E.W.C. Flavell, the Conservative at Hendon North, 'formed and commanded the first Paratroop Brigade, and on D-Day was the first brigadier to drop with his troops'. It didn't save him from defeat against Mrs B. Ayrton Gould, 'journalist'. In swept Mr G.A. Brown at Belper and Mrs B.A. Castle ('an ARP warden in London during the blitz') at Blackburn, without any first names to inform readers that here were George and Barbara.
Labour actually did not make some of the inroads into genteel England that they did in 1997. Nothing in Sussex, for instance – and the map in the back cover would still have looked predominantly blue, had The Times been up to colour printing.
Even the 12 university seats (which enabled graduates to vote twice) were a Labour-free zone. They were then in their last hurrah before abolition and used proportional representation, which presumably only the educated could understand. But the big cities then had far more seats than they have now – and here Labour dominated. They also won Wimbledon, Taunton, Rushcliffe (now Ken Clarke's impregnable fortress), Cambridgeshire, Sudbury and Hitchin.
Any lefties in need of solace should read this book, though I wouldn't loan my copy for all the Labour votes in Llanelli (44,514 on that occasion).
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]