NO SUBSTANCE, NO SUCCESS
Article first published in The New York Times on 12 March 2007.
The accepted wisdom in British political circles is that Tony Blair won three elections by giving the British voters charisma and energy unfettered by dull or controversial policies. The Tories have now taken the lesson to heart. They are fighting back with feel-good, idea-light campaigns of their own, and it seems to be working. They are now significantly ahead in the polls.
This is not just electoral strategy. Many of them believe that we live in a post-ideological age, that there are no great questions anymore and that there can be no new solutions for domestic poverty or problems with immigration, energy or the economy.
But why do people stand as politicians if they have no policies? Many politicians claim privately that they are simply concealing their policies until they are elected. It is more likely that when the winds of office change in their favor, they will find their faces frozen into an expression of affable inaction. The role of a modern politician is apparently to be likable, to tinker with existing institutions and to manage occasional crises.
Churchill has been replaced by Bertie Wooster.
In Iraq, hundreds of thousands have died over the last few years and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent by the U.S.-led coalition. The international system is fractured; the Islamic world is angry.
Yet both major British political parties still refuse to admit the problem and instead tweak the current mission: Withdraw some troops from Iraq, put a few more in Afghanistan.
A million people took to London’s streets to stop the invasion.
Thirty million now think we should withdraw from Iraq. Whatever the correct policy, there should be a fierce practical and ideological political debate. But it is not happening in Parliament.
Even though Britain is in a crisis, its other major policy issues seem to be approached with the same complacency. In many parts of the country, Asian Muslim and white communities live separate lives; people shun each other at school and in the streets and defend themselves in gangs.
This very wealthy country has pockets of shameful poverty. I have encountered a level of random hostility, aggression and bitterness in Scottish public housing that I have never seen in an Afghan village.
British “civilization” is as tainted by this inequity as Rome by the Colosseum.
The Labour Party continues to invest in child poverty, but three weeks ago a UN agency ranked Britain 18th out of 18 rich countries in a study of children’s well-being. (The United States was 17th.) Islamist terror is answered with unprecedented levels of money and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and comparatively little investment in intelligence and security, community relations and politics at home.
In Kabul I work with a local government councilor called Aziz, who was a champion wrestler. For 40 years, he has dealt with war, pogroms and government. He is assessed by members of his community on whether he is generous to the poor, courageous even in the face of death, a powerful representative of their interests and able to keep his promises. He and they believe that leadership is an exercise in moral virtue and courage, that politics should be a noble profession and politicians virtuous. A British voter might think that is naïve. But I believe Aziz is right.
It is patronizing to assume that voters can’t handle demanding, imaginative and risky policies. More Britons voted for the contestants on the TV programs “Big Brother” and “Pop Idol” last year than in the national elections. But the way to persuade people to vote is to make politics less, not more, like “Big Brother.”
We are as reluctant to acknowledge the popularity of the Taliban as we are to acknowledge poverty in Glasgow. We are as reluctant to believe in the Iraqis’ ability to build a nation without us as we are to believe that our citizens will make sacrifices to prevent global warming. Courage, honesty about problems and faith in the population is as necessary domestically as it is abroad. Our failure in these areas explains our hubristic confidence internationally and our cynicism and lack of ambition at home.