The London Review of Books has spiked an article for praising Tony Blair. Is this evidence of a new cold war on the left?by John Lloyd / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
It is a small but possibly rather significant moment in the history of the British left. The leading centre-left political scientist, David Marquand, has been spiked by the London Review of Books, the literary journal of leftish academia, for praising Tony Blair. Marquand was commissioned last year to review The Rivals-the account, by the broadcaster James Naughtie, of the rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The piece was rejected by LRB editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, in January. It appears on p22 of this issue of Prospect.
Marquand has been in rather a sulk about New Labour since 1997 and some of the early part of the review revisits his criticisms of domestic policy. He then changes gear. Leaving both the book and domestic policy behind, he praises Blair for his construction of a “liberal patriotism capable of turning, perhaps even of burying, the mean-minded xenophobia … the ugliest of Mrs. Thatcher’s legacies.” Overall, he writes, Blair’s handling of the post-11th September crisis has been “impeccable.”
Mary-Kay Wilmers’s main reason for rejecting the piece for the LRB was that she could not “square it with my conscience to praise so wholeheartedly Blair’s conduct since 11th September.” This marks a break with the practice that those invited to review a book are allowed to express their own views. The principle of opposition to the US, and to Blair’s role in the war, is too important to allow the usual niceties.
The other journal of the left to take a similar view is the New Statesman: of its regular contributors, I am the only one to support the US action. In a talk with Mary-Kay, she said she found the NS “predictable in its hostile attitude to the government,” and insisted this was not her position-“not everything Blair does is contemptible.” Yet she says she had commissioned Marquand because she expected him to be against New Labour. She refused it, she said, because “it was just a statement about Blair, it was not argued through. We have lengthy pieces in the LRB to allow people to make an argument. I don’t think that anyone’s actions could be impeccable.”
Surprisingly, she added, “it is difficult to get people to write against Blair.” I said it seemed to me that most of the British intelligentsia felt honour-bound to be anti-New Labour. She replied, “you try to get them to write at our length… I don’t like to see a British prime minister poodling behind an American president-especially one who’s not so very bright, like Bush.”
The LRB attracted criticism for some of its hostile comments about America after 11th September-including the notorious comment from Mary Beard that America deserved what it got. Mary-Kay said she felt that there was a McCarthyite sentiment running in the US: she instanced attacks on “dissident” intellectuals. In its 25th January issue, she pointed out, the LRB carried an advertisement from about 40 US scholars, including Barbara Foley of Rutgers, Edward Said of Columbia and Howard Zinn of Boston, protesting against suspensions and threats of suspensions.
None of that, however, has happened in Britain, or in the rest of Europe. What has emerged instead is an almost cold war-like fissure within the left. This began to open up over the intervention in Kosovo and in attitudes to globalisation. The latest expression of the division is between those who see the US/west’s actions as a broadly justified response to the 11th September and/or a desirable attempt to alleviate tyranny, and those who see the action as an unacceptable exercise in US imperialism.
The rejectionist left combines much of the old neo-Marxist intelligentsia -which has hung on, mainly in the universities-with the younger, idealistic voices of the anti-globalisation left. It has significant influence in the Guardian, the NS and the LRB. It regards America as a country (in John Pilger’s words, in a New Statesman column) “whose powers, in all its forms-military strategic and economic-is the greatest source of terrorism on earth.” It considers New Labour as a servile failure.
In many cases this goes beyond the rather other-worldly oppositional mentality which used to characterise publications like the LRB. There is a new bunker mentality, a harder edge. And David Marquand’s article was struck down by it.