Was the Euston Manifesto written, as some wags now say, in a pub? Well, no. Would you want beer spilt over your manifesto? Would you want it smelling of smoke? The document was mooted — yes, mooted — in one pub and discussed in another. But it was written where things get written these days, on computers. And this, in a sense, is also where it came from. It came out of the blogosphere and into the world.
The manifesto, which has its public launch today, states a commitment to certain general principles and identifies patterns of left-liberal argument that its supporters think fall short of those principles. So, we commend the democratic norms and institutions that typify the liberal democracies, despite their shortcomings, and criticize those on the left who make excuses for undemocratic movements and regimes. We affirm the importance of universal human rights values, rejecting the cultural relativist arguments and double standards by which these values get watered down or inconsistently applied. We express our opposition to terrorism and to indulgently ‘understanding’ (where this means condoning) it because it is thought to be motivated by legitimate grievances. We state an attachment to a broad ideal of equality in all spheres, from gender relations to economic justice. The full text can be read at the manifesto website.
The document stepped out of the virtual world into the real one and, my, didn’t people say hello. How do we feel about this, we ‘Eustonians’? Encouraged, no more. But also no less. Since it was published in April, it has generated an enormous volume of comment, from supportive, through critical, to jolly unfriendly. The abstract generality of its principles is one point of complaint. But we are unembarrassed by this. We make no claim to have formulated a programme for government; we hope merely to remind people on the liberal-left of the values they ought to be defending. A related point is the suggestion that this wish to remind is needless, since the manifesto’s criticisms don’t apply beyond a tiny section of the far left. We are just as relaxed on this second point as on the first. For the suggestion isn’t true, as has been amply documented on the blogs.
A third reaction is that of people who see the manifesto as pro-war — referring to the Iraq war. The short answer here is: no, it isn’t. This is stated as clearly as can be in the document itself, and it is a plain fact that a number of the original signatories opposed that war.
But a longer answer is worth spelling out for what it reveals about the ‘geography’ of the left in relation to the Iraq war, and how this is simplified by some of the war’s opponents. Their story is of a three-way division within left-liberal opinion: comprising (1) those who supported the war, the ‘left hawks’ or ‘muscular liberals’; (2) on the other side, but merely marginal - people in and around the Socialist Workers Party and Respect - a small body of anti-war opinion actually wanting America to come to grief in Iraq, supporting or making apology for the Iraqi so-called resistance and its murderous methods; (3) in between these, the largest sector of anti-war opinion, opposing the war for a combination of reasons, prominent amongst these the judgement that it was likely to turn out badly.
This mapping of the terrain underlies the mystification over how people who opposed the war could support the Euston Manifesto, and also the upset over criticisms directed at the left, when according to that map they apply to no more than a small band of souls on the far, and hard, left.
The real geography, however, has been different. Within the large ‘middle’ sector of left-liberal opinion opposed to the war there has been, from the start, a differentiating subdivision — between those who opposed the war without being in denial about the considerations on the other side of the argument, and those who precisely have been in denial about them. This latter group extends well beyond the far left.
The signs of denial are abundant in the recent public life of the Western democracies: in the banners and slogans for that Saturday on 15 February 2003, from which one would never have known that Saddam’s Iraq was a foul tyranny; in the numbers of those on the left unwilling to allow, many indeed unable to comprehend, why others of us supported a regime-change war; in a constant stream of comment in liberal daily newspapers and weeklies of the left; in the excommunications issued and more recent calls for apology or recantation; and, most seriously of all, in the perceptible lack of interest in initiatives of solidarity with the forces in Iraq battling for a democratic transformation of their country, part of a wider lack of enthusiasm for the success of this enterprise given its origins in a war led by George W Bush.
That is the actual geography, with four regions, not three. A significant segment of the international left lost touch with some of its most important values.
Conceived in a small blogospheric space because of a hunch that there were people out there in the world who found this state of affairs troubling, the Euston Manifesto stepped out. And the hunch has been confirmed.