Now for an informal route to peace?

Given the parlous state of the European Union and the abject failure of UN even to formulate an agreed plan for Syria – let alone carry it out – it is natural to give up on any internationalist hopes such as many once had. The best we can aim at in dealing with the world’s growing stack of trouble spots from the Middle East to the Falklands to the south China sea is practical diplomacy, and even that looks hard to get off the ground. The twenty-first century world displays a strange mix of global economics, charity, travel, and cultural interchange with retreat into local and parochial concerns as international cooperation and its institutions struggle to keep even a ramshackle show on the road. Yet that mix has a vague consistency in its chaotic anarchism. Not only that: it also shows up where past efforts at peacemaking went disastrously wrong and still do so.

More than two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant’s prescription for perpetual peace already pointed up certain assumptions which have proved sadly in error. Kant recognised there was no chance of a world state or government, but he still set his project on the basis of a formal institution or ‘pacific federation’ probably more far reaching than the United Nations or League of Nations ever were. Moreover, Kant insisted that individual states should have a ‘republican’ constitution where the consent of citizens would be required to go to war. Of course, Kant assumed these two stipulations would fit together, but more recent history tells us that may not be so. It should already have been apparent from events after the First World War that reliance on formal institutions without drawing in consistent popular support is a sure path to failure. The very fact that some of UN’s best work carries on behind the scenes, cooperating with local administrations or charities, emphasises the point.

Since the 1990s, and especially the Iraq war, the ‘democratic peace theory’ has quietly walked away in disgrace. Even if megalomaniac dictators are fortunately rare, we cannot expect ordinary people in any country to support international institutions over and above their own homelands. The way the Olympic ideal of bringing countries together works in practice should make that clear. For this simple reason, any international peacekeeping, or still more peacemaking, effort must involve talking to ordinary people and taking their concerns on board. The European project, from its earliest inception in the 1950s, never did this. The natural result we now see is a set of institutions confronted with a long running crisis whilst unable to call upon reliable popular support in any member states – even Germany with its central position and the stark warning of its own history.

If internationalism and peacemaking could only be about formal institutions, I would dismiss it as a hopeless cause. Yet, despite popular loyalty and historical traditions, any idea of individual nation states being able to cope with any of the global challenges we face in the this century, from financial instability to migration to climate change to religious conflict, seems downright absurd. There has to be, and there will be, international cooperation on an informal basis driven along by other global players such as corporations and NGOs as well as the sheer demands of survival. But there is no reason to suppose that such informal internationalism will be democratic or democratically accountable. Only if ordinary people get involved and find peacemakers talking to them is there any chance of that.

Back to the Agora

If Professor Douzinas of Birkbeck College (once the home of Roger Scruton) is to be believed, an ancient dream might just be jerking back to life. Most obviously in the birthplace of classical republicanism where the Greek protest movement of December 2008 gave a 21st century twist to ancient practice by issuing randomly selected tickets to all those wishing to speak and confining each speaker to two minutes or so on an equal basis. But Douzinas finds echoes of the same spirit in other recent protest uprisings from the Arab Spring to France in 2005, to the Occupy movement, or even the English riots of August 2011. In addition to the specific demands and grievances sought by commentators, which of course vary widely between the particular cases, Douzinas cites a sense of freedom among groups of people previously invisible to conventional social and political representation. He says they were temporarily constructing a new political reality, a new public space open to them.

Speaking at Brighton University, Douzinas expressed the hope that such movements could create a new world. Only time will tell, but his hope of a new world seems more like a resurrection of something which had seemed dead and gone in the world of the affluent consumer: romantic republicanism. The features in most of these movements which confuse ordinary commentators, such as absence of leaders or even a clear programme of demands, appear in his eyes as positive aspects of a new (or is it very old?) openness. Traditionalists who worry about the social problems of the welfare state and consumerism usually rely on religion for any spiritual life. But Douzinas draws our attention to another ancient dream of spiritual life, with explicit reference to the Agora of classical Greece. This should serve notice to anyone who imagines that dislike of the modern world necessarily has to be conservative in the usual social or moral sense. But we should also remember that romantic/classical republicanism also produced its heroes, and in family honour the family itself is the republic.


Me – the reluctant republican

I don’t need convincing that the era of glamorous republicanism, looking back to the glory days of Athens and Rome, is long gone. Also talk of the ‘hereditary principle’ in relation to a purely constitutional monarchy makes a pretty thin case. But in the case of 21st century Britain, there is a real problem which monarchy may not be able to solve. It is well illustrated by Prince Charles, who takes up some worthy causes, but then runs into problems – or ridicule – because he is simply not trained to make a case against opposition which may have a strong case of its own.

The Queen herself is given the task to ‘advise and warn’ the Government under the traditional constitution, but no one is authorised to return the compliment in a regular way. Tony Blair had, effectively, to instruct the Queen to return to London for Princess Diana’s funeral. Currently, no one is on hand to warn her that to talk of religion as the foundation of our society can give people the absurd idea that if, for whatever reason, they do not believe the religion, they need not take morals or civilised conduct seriously. For what it is worth, I believe we have already suffered with that notion in the past 50 years or so. Yet in a time when we know that, for instance, children suffer grievously with family breakdown there is no need to invoke religion. (Ann Widdicombe could convey the message of her novel Father Figure as an atheist.)

I cannot say whether the monarchy can deal with this problem, but I am not optimistic. However boring, a President or whatever could be more easily prepared for difficulties of this kind, whilst still fulfilling the necessary functions of a Head of State.

Would anyone say no to growth and patriotism?

Not for the first time in my experience, the Labour Party is struggling to find its way forward. But I would nominate the suggestion from Gregg McClymont and Ben Jackson that the party focus its message on growth and patriotism for first silliness prize. If Labour were a fledgling PR company trying to launch its reputation by saying something everyone from the North Korean Communist Party to the American Enterprise Institute to Hamas would agree with, then that might make some sense. But for a political party looking for something different from what even the Green Party with its green investment ideas would accept (whilst not going back to the world before the Second World War), talking about growth and patriotism is patently ridiculous. No wonder the Left are struggling!

Can we play safe?

Stephen O’Kane 16 December 2011

Although it may still be hard for people on the political left – and especially trade union activists – to swallow, we are becoming familiar with the point that in hard economic times Joe Public will usually play safe and vote for right-wing governments. In a ‘crisis of capitalism’ we want governments we think we can trust with our money as Tim Montgomerie would say. The history of the 1930s largely seems to support this, despite the partial exception of Roosevelt’s New Deal (hardly left-wing or meant to be) and the more marked exception of Sweden’s Social Democrats. But the history yields a different warning. Playing safe in these contexts often includes closing in on nationalist assertion or protection at all costs and trying to exclude foreign influences. Tensions on immigration mount. If history is any guide here, there is increased danger of wars, and they often do facilitate left-wing (including Marxist) revolutions. The warning to conservatives and liberals is to reconcile playing safe with keeping the peace, not least in international affairs. Otherwise the ‘crisis of capitalism’ may mean some sort of hard left revolution after all, only deferred to a later and still more catastrophic stage.