In the world of politics, statesmanship and ‘the way things are’ two developments struck me yesterday as highlighting some of the eternal complexities that those operating power, or aspiring to do so, face in the modern world.
Firstly, on the final day of its autumn conference, the British Labour party inadvertently tripped up and exposed some of the fault lines that exist between ‘established’ politics and the supposedly new, fresh-faced, groundswell of the avowed ‘new way of doing things’ that Jeremy Corbyn represents (or thinks he does).
The fact is that, flushed with success and buoyed by his tidal wave of new support, Mr Corbyn somehow managed to score goals at both ends of the pitch.
Let’s ignore for the moment the inevitable foul-ups and complications that would have accompanied anybody new coming to political power, especially when his base constituency is seemingly at odds with the old order.
Unused to compromise and the smoked-filled rooms where establishment horse-trading thrashes out policies and positions which his party can then place before the electorate as a coherent strategy, Mr Corbyn – after thirty years’ worth of not having his pronouncements forensically picked over and being able to shoot his mouth off on the hoof with impunity because he was (in real-politick terms) of no consequence – is having to learn fast. As I understand it, chaos initially reigned at Labour HQ because he had no organised back-up to keep the media fed with its normal access and tit-bits of news but now a team of sorts has been assembled to address the problem.
However, even that cannot keep up with Mr Corbyn’s informal and engaging style (which was patently a major contributor to his leadership victory).
Yesterday morning, pressed by a reporter about his views on the nuclear deterrent, he was honest and said that, as Premier, he would never press the nuclear button. There was nothing particularly remarkable in this when you consider that he’s been a unilateralist disarmer on principle all his public life. But, in political terms, it was metaphorical dynamite – it only took the Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle to be collared a few minutes’ later and asked a comment on the statement for the kind of conflict that the media loves – dog eats dog – to erupt. She pointed out that Mr Corbyn’s utterance was unfortunate because (1) it was contrary to current Labour policy, and (2) effectively it blew out of the water the agreed party line that the renewal of Trident and defence policy generally would be the subject of an open and free debate which would only produce result in the summer of next year. Plainly, if its Prime Minister would never press the button, de facto a nation doesn’t have a nuclear deterrent anyway.
That was the Labour leader’s own goal yesterday.
His goal for his own team came in the form of the first Labour Party Political Broadcast since his election, broadcast on BBC1 at 6.55pm last night, which I caught by complete accident.
Interspersed with stock-footage shots of young people going about their business at home and at work, Mr Corbyn spoke in an informal interview style about his general beliefs in fairness and equality. Probably by design there was not one scintilla of policy detail involved, it was all mushy platitudes, but – to my mind, possibly cleverly though possibly not, you never can tell with Mr Corbyn – the killer moment came right at the end. As I type I cannot report his exact words but that doesn’t matter. What mattered was the ‘connection’ and the way it was done. In his laid-back style, his eyes suddenly twinkled at the camera and he said something to the effect “Anyway, it’s going to be a long and possibly difficult road, but why don’t you out there come along with me for the ride and we’ll see where we get to …”
A minor masterstroke, I’d say. The thrust was “I’m different, I believe in fairness for all, I’m going to be brutally honest – yes, I’m going to be fighting against all the establishment odds – but give me a chance …”
I reckon that message could well resonate with the sizeable proportion of the British electorate that is clearly fed up with old-school British politics and the political elite.
The second development to which I referred at the outset of this piece came with the Syrian crisis. It’s one that Mr Corbyn and his advisers may need to address urgently.
Boiled to its essence, this week the world’s leaders meeting at the UN have been discussing this running Middle East sore of several years’ standing (and possibly many more to come).
There’s already an informal ‘coalition of the West’ seeking to bomb the hell out of ISIS (or is it ISIL?) from the air but without deploying ‘boots on the ground’ (a strategy which, uniformly all military brass hats agree, won’t work in practice) – this against a background where they’d all also like to get rid of the tyrannical beast that is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile Russia, through its embodiment in the form of President Putin, has a distinctly different viewpoint – and one sometimes feels that Russia/Putin adopts it as a matter of principle, i.e. whatever the USA and the West seeks to promote at any particular time, Russia/Putin takes the exact opposite line.
Mr Putin operates decisively precisely because he doesn’t have to worry about democracy – well, not in a real sense. The Russian population is unused to it and habitually allows its politburo of leaders to simply ‘get on with it’, whatever ‘it’ is. Which Mr Putin does.
He brushes away all Western concerns about his belligerent attitude to foreign policy and geo-politics with the attitude “Come off it. The West (i.e. America and its allies) has deliberately and covertly interfered in the internal affairs of other countries all around the world since the year dot in order to advance their own causes. Why, therefore, do any of you consider that you have any right to get agitated when I do it?”
One can see his point.
There’s no refuge in trying to peddle the line “But we’re doing it for the good of the world” and/or even “We have God on our side” – because Putin would challenge the West’s right to claim either (“So, let’s get this straight – it’s okay if you do it, but not if I do?”).
And so, as of yesterday, we now have Russia bombing ISIL targets, citing the fact that it’s all in accordance with international law because their ally President Assad has invited them into his country for the purpose.
This stance troubles the West because – yonks ago now, when the West had convinced itself that the alleged ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings were a short-cut route to getting rid of various loony tyrants and thereby perhaps establishing both peace in our time and liberal democracies throughout the Middle East – Assad was one of those identified as a prime loony anti-West tyrant and therefore a key target for the chop.
Let’s get this straight – I’m no apologist for Mr Putin. Quite how in logic (or in his own strange mind) he can square his forceful attack upon the West at the UN for acting contrary to international law with his recent adventures in the Crimea and the Ukraine, I’m sure nobody knows. Not even him.
However, going back to our blessed new Labour leader for a moment.
I’d love to know how he would act to defend Europe, still less Britain (if indeed at all) if Russia ever decided to expand its ‘influence’ into say the Baltic states … e.g. even Finland … Norway … Sweden … Denmark … and, er, why not Scotland(?) … via air space invasions by its air force and/or even ‘boots on the ground’.
Still, I suppose under this new style of politics that Mr Corbyn is bringing us, if someone asks him the question, he could no doubt work out the answer on the back of a cigarette packet and announce it from the sanctity of his local coffee shop perhaps by tomorrow (Friday) or, worst case, by the weekend …