30 July 2007

Cynicism and modernization

From the moment we all became aware of the Tory jaunt to Rwanda, some of us have been engaged in furious altercations about it. Inevitably, whenever I raised such questions as what can one actually build in two weeks and do these people have any building skills, I was told that I was a cynic, as if that were the worst kind of accusation in politics.

As it happens, I do have my fair share of cynicism, much of it to do with politicians and their shenanigans. It does not seem to me to be particularly sensible to go around pretending to be like the mushy Madeleine Bassett created by the incomparable P. G. Wodehouse, who was given to pronouncements on the subject of stars being God’s daisy chain and babies being born every time a fairy blew its wee nose. She was, needless to say, an idealist, who would not even understand cynicism, let alone experience it, and a considerable pain in the neck to all those around her, especially Bertie Wooster.

The main character in the recent excellent German film “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”), Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, played by the superb Ulrich Mühe, whose death, alas, was announced a couple of days ago, is an idealist in Felix Dzerzhinsky’s mould. He sees himself and the secret police as the “sword and shield of the revolution”. Idealism is not necessarily an unequivocal good in politics or anything else.

However, I would never, never be cynical enough to try to further my career or get publicity for myself (same thing as far as MPs are concerned) by exploiting the needs of a poor country, which is, moreover, still recovering from the traumatic experience of just over a decade ago. For that is what this cynical exercise in attempted media manipulation is.

As it happens, I exempt Iain Dale and the small 18 Doughty Street team (I am sure he will be very happy to hear that). Apart from the odd bit of gushing here and there, he did what he was supposed to do and what he does for a living – report. His accounts of organizations within Rwanda, set up by Rwandans to deal with the genocidal massacre – finding out the truth, helping survivors and their families, prosecuting the guilty – are extremely useful. We need to know these things and the people there need to feel that the world outside is, at least, interested.

But what about the others, the Cameroon groupies, the Tory MPs who do not seem to know how to handle planks of wood, the Tory wannabes, who are busy blogging in the manner of not very bright gap-year students? What exactly are they hoping to achieve?

When the subject came up during a programme on 18 Doughty Street, the journalist next to me suggested that they could have collected all the money that they were going to spend on their flights and given them to the people there to build whatever they want. That sounds promising except for the fact that we know what happens to money that is just simply handed over to African countries.

Here is a better suggestion: why not use all the money, including whatever does not need to be spent on tropical outfits and new cameras to hire a building firm? You know the guys who can actually construct those schools and hospitals and whatever else is required. This firm would take its own materials if needs be and tools, and, again if needs be, employ local workers (who could do with the money, let’s face it) and train them as necessary.

I can hear it now. That is such a cynical suggestion. What do you think the purpose is - to make sure that the Rwandans are helped along in their desire to reconstruct their country, construct some new buildings and retain their local economy? Certainly not. It is all about warm and fuzzy feelings in the hearts of Tory politicians and wannabe politicians, not to mention former actresses, now contributing editors on the Spectator. And stars are God’s daisy chains.

The Boy-King himself did not pretend to do any work, as far as I can make out, remembering perhaps the gusts of laughter that went up in Britain when he appeared in his clean gloves, clutching a paintbrush. He met lots of people and made encouraging noises. Then he invited President Kagame of Rwanda to address the Conservative Party Conference.

There were immediate cheers from the faithful but, sadly, critical noises were heard equally quickly. President Kagame stands in danger of being indicted for complicity in that unfortunate event, when a plane carrying both the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down in 1994, that triggered off the subsequent Rwandan genocide.

President Kagame and his supporters point to the fact that these accusations come from French sources, which are not particularly reliable when it comes to the Rwandan events of a decade ago. Nevertheless, there is enough doubt surrounding this personage, under whose rule Rwandan forces have become heavily involved in the appalling and never-ending war in DR Congo with all its massacres.

The Boy-King seems not to have heard of any of these matters although, supposedly, one of the reasons for his wondrous trip to Rwanda was to commemorate the ending of the genocide ten years ago. It would appear that none of his advisers have realized that President Kagame is a dubious figure both politically and morally.

The truth is that being ever so chummy with doubtful African politicians, trying not to know about their activity, is sooooo last century. Actually, it is behaviour that belongs to the sixties and early seventies when left-wing African dictators were feted in Britain by both parties, regardless of what was happening in their countries, and all criticisms were ignored or not even published.

What on earth is the lad doing reviving those days? Sadly, one must point out that all he ever does is revive old-fashioned ideas. One hears a great deal of his modernizing zeal and his firm intention to modernize the Conservative Party. He was repeating this mantra again last week at the 1922 Committee meeting, which, unfortunately, did not point out any home truths to the arrogant little twit.

He will not give up on the task of modernizing the Conservative Party and regaining the centre ground whence all elections are won. Except for the ones like many past Conservative victories that are won from positions of ideological rectitude but let that pass.

This idiotic mantra is being repeated on the latest Cameroonian platform, a website named Platfrom 10 that is possibly indulging in a nod and a wink to the Harry Potter readers. Then again, it may be reminding readers of the Glenn Miller number “Chattanooga Choo-choo”.

This new effort, we are told, has been put together by Conservative supporters who are not part of the Conservative Party. They just happen to be fascinated by details of what goes on in that Party.

Among their cutely entitled sections there is one called “What’s the big idea?”. This tells us that the creators of Platform 10
… are a group of Conservative supporters, campaigning for the modern, liberal Conservative agenda that will lead to a Tory victory at the next General Election.

We support the changes David Cameron is making - and must continue to make - to the Conservative Party so that it remains firmly in the centre-ground of British opinion. We will hold him to his pledge that under his leadership the Conservatives must look, feel, think and behave like a completely new Party.
All of that is questionable but takes the view that all you have to do is mention modern and modernization and the world starts laughing with you rather than at you. This reminds me of the days, back in my youth, when the theatres of London performed something apart from endless musicals (no, they don’t bring in the money either but that is another story) and I saw a number of plays by the gloomy Norwegian Henrik Ibsen.

One and all, they seemed to consist of people nattering about the importance of new ideas as opposed to old ideas. The worst example of this was “Rosmersholm” where Pastor Johannes Rosmer and the idealistic, forward looking, modern minded Rebecca West spend a good deal of time praising new ideas and lamenting the strength with which people have clung on to the old ones.

Just as with Conservative modernization, those new ideas are never really spelled out and given the sort of ideas that were swirling round Europe and Scandinavia at the end of the nineteenth century, the concept does not fill one with any sort of joy. As it happens those new ideas in “Rosmersholm” seem to have achieved one thing only and that is drive the Pastor’s wife to suicide. Eventually, he and Rebecca West follow the wife into the mill stream to the great satisfaction of that part of the audience that had not lost the will to live.

So what is this modernization that everyone keeps talking about but nobody can define? In the end, it seems to boil down to the question of picking candidates and trying to make the candidates’ list to extend beyond the usual Tory-boy of varying physical and same mental age.

While, in principle, one supports the right of local associations to choose their own candidates, in practice they come up with complete losers a lot of the time. Tony Lit, whose name will undoubtedly will be mentioned in the discussion, did nothing terrible. He did not win but Ealing Southall was not there for the Conservatives to win and it was not his fault that the spin insisted this could be done. I believe, he actually increased the Tory vote.

Bob Neill, on the other hand, picked by the Bromley and Chislehurst Conservative Association to great gusts of triumphant giggles and despite guidance from the top, nearly lost one of the safest Conservative seats to the Lib-Dims. It is now a marginal seat that may or may not stay in Tory hands at the next General Election. So much for the local associations’ acumen.

Apart from the arguments about the list what is there about the Cameroonian vision that is modernizing? Does he really believe that the Conservative Party has had no tradition of social policy until he, the first left-wing toff since Harold Macmillan, came along? Does he not know about Disraeli, the debates around the Corn Laws or the concept of property-owning democracy?

It seems not. Apparently, he believes that the moment he mentions social problems, he becomes a modernizer. The question is, surely, how he intends to deal with those problems and the answer is that all his ideas, far from being modernizing are actually a drift back to notions that were considered to be sort of revolutionary about fifty or sixty years ago.

The one thing the Cameroonies are terrified of is genuinely modern ideas that are trying to break away from the mess of the last half century and more.

Think about it. Aid, which is to be pushed up on the Conservative agenda? A failed policy that anyone with any sense and without any vested interest is trying to discard with even a few Conservatives like Peter Lilley trying to look for alternative policies. Incidentally, when I made these points about aid in the presence of one very nice Cameroonie young lady she argued passionately that aid would be all right if there were an international organization that would control the flow of money and ensure its efficacy. Appointed by the UN, I asked. Guess what? She accused me of cynicism. I believe she went to Rwanda as well.

What else? Education? No choice for the people with the gentleman and lady in Whitehall and the local town hall knowing best. How very old-fashioned, almost quaint, except for the danger in it.

Public sector? To be run by the state - an idea that takes us back to the halcyon days of the beginnings of the welfare state.

High taxation to pay for all this is hardly a modern idea. In fact, let’s face it, Cameron is a latter day Butskellite.

Environmentalism? There are some very interesting modern ideas out there about the need for private property if we are serious about dealing with environmental and conservation issues. They have all passed by the Boy-King and his coterie.

Foreign policy? All that blathering by Hague and Dame Pauline indicates that the Conservative Party leadership has managed to miss out on the most exciting modern idea in international affairs – Anglospherism.

Above all, his and his chums’ clear allegiance to that most outdated idea of all, the old-fashioned, sclerotic European Union shows that all that talk about modernization is piffle. A true modernizer would by now have started looking for ways out of the quagmire and subsequent alternatives.

Would it be possible to have a little less talk about the Boy-King’s modernizing tendencies? Let us call it by its real name – a return to the pre-Thatcherite dark ages of British politics; a complete refusal even to contemplate modern ideas that are needed if we are to drag this country to its rightful position in the world. Cameron, the anti-modernizer, is not the man to do it.