in my view

The liberals to the right of the Sun


"THE SUN finds it bizarre," said one of its editorials, "that it is the liberal TV pundits and liberal newspapers that are demanding ground troops... Maybe they should re-read the World War One poets like Wilfred Owen." And there on page 8, to educate the liberals was the Wilfred Owen poem. How must it feel for a liberal, to discover that the Sun is boasting that it is more left wing than you? Maybe you'd convince yourself that at any moment you would wake up, and splutter that you'd just had the most terrifying dream.

But this is the reality of the Balkans war. The Guardian (and I promise this isn't personal) repeats NATO press briefings as if they were tablets of stone. Francis Wheen hurls ferocious abuse at those on the left who oppose the war. Tribune, edited by Mark Seddon, a consistent opponent of New Labour, backs NATO. Columnist Joan Smith backs the war. Worst of all Nick Cohen, whose splendidly authoritative diatribes against New Labour in the Observer brighten up Sunday mornings, says, "If it fails, this government and its allies will have lacked the nerve both to fight for victory and accept the human consequences of defeat."

There's a frightening logic to the argument of those on the left who back the war. The combination of distrust of Blair and Clinton, combined with support for "doing something", leads them to argue that because NATO doesn't really care about Albanian refugees, the bombing so far is half hearted. If NATO cared, the argument follows, they'd pursue the Serbs properly and send in the army.

Suddenly you get a sense, in a small way, of how Lenin must have felt at the outbreak of war in 1914. Apparently when he was told that the leader of the German socialist movement, Karl Kautsky, supported the war, he was convinced it was a wind up. Similarly, my reaction upon discovering that Nick Cohen supported the bombing was to think, "He's been kidnapped and he's writing while held at gunpoint."

But there is another explanation. If you believe that the most powerful state in the world was set up to protect profits and defend the wealthy minority, your attitude to military action by that state will be to instinctively distrust its motives. But those who believe the problem with the state is that it is staffed by corrupt and unpalatable individuals, in other words that it can be reformed, are left pleading for that state to behave in a benevolent, kindly fashion. They become susceptible to the propaganda about "a humanitarian war".

The world of left wing journalism, like the population as a whole, has divided three ways on the war. Some are determined sabre rattlers. Others, like Tariq Ali and Seumas Milne, are committed opponents. But the biggest group is in the middle and includes those like Nick Cohen who back it but appear to wish they didn't when they see who they're lined up with. This time round the enemy of the anti-war movement is not patriotism but confusion. A meeting of 100 people on Monday night, called by the London Review of Books and addressed by Tariq Ali, was typical. Although many backed the war, few of them felt confident enough to defend their position, confining themselves to twitching uneasily and shaking their heads. The anti-war argument can be won with patient argument. But that doesn't mean that with certain people it isn't tempting to try slinging a jug of cold water in their face and shouting, "FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER!"