Orgy in reverse

David Cameron, the next United Kingdom Prime Minister, will have a task on his hands to repair the country following the disruptive and damaging effects of a Labour administration whose attitude towards economic stability appears as haphazard as the attitude of drunk youths outside a backstreet bar on a Friday night. If history truly is cyclical rather than linear, Cameron’s post-election strategy will be almost identical to that of Margaret Thatcher in 1979: taking a country bankrupted by a Labour Government and doing as much as possible to improve things.

The circles of history are concentric; while Prime Minster Cameron starts his new career path, the Labour opposition will be following their early 80s comrades by electing a new leader….and potentially splitting up. If the post-ideological age we now live in truly has blurred the distinctions between “left” and “right”, “Labour” and “Conservative” voters, “working” and “middle” classes, what chance a revival of Labour’s 1980s leadership woes and “Gang of Four” declaration?

Political anoraks have often supposed and chin-stroked that the United Kingdom is overdue a massive shake-up of her political parties. Not since 1988 has there been the launch of a new mainstream party – the Liberal Democrats – and following this only a number of fringe groups have appeared on the extremes of each political wing. RESPECT on the left, the England First Party on the right, neither with any lasting credibility. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party, and Solidarity, had fleeting appearances in the Scottish Parliament. Both are now in serious decline.

One often repeated “what if” is the re-emergence of a Social Democratic Party (the name remains in British politics, if only in a tiny fashion, in the guise of a number of borough councillors in Bridlington). Take some Blairite Labour MPs, mix with disgruntled Tories and LibDems, and hey-ho, there’s the new face of 21st century British politics. Conservatives on one side, a SDP-type on the other, with far smaller “rump” socialist Labour, and “traditional” Liberal parties on the edge.

History suggested how this may have worked following the formation of the (initially loose) SDP/Liberal alliance in the 1983 and 1987 elections. Tantalisingly close to beating Labour at one point, the experiment ultimately failed. By 1988, the Alliance had grown into full merger, hence the LibDems, but notably the Tony Blair inspired modernisation of Labour introduced far more social-democratic policies than socialist.

The identity of the next Labour leader has been the subject of much “parlour games” too. Alan Johnson remains the most often repeated “clear favourite”. Whoever is chosen – a newly de-Baroned Peter Mandleson? – would do well not to repeat history entirely. Labour nearly died once following a Conservative victory, to come close to death again in a very different political age could be ultimately fatal. They begin their Conference nearly 20 points behind the Conservatives in the opinion polls, with Gordon Brown only celebrated abroad not at home, without any Cabinet member making the running in the media. The signs for a Labour recovery are very faint, it’s the parents looking at their very old family dog knowing there’s no time left but unsure how to break the sad news to the children. It’s the writing of the obituary while the subject is recovering from a nasty cough.

David Cameron, Prime Minister, is one certainty. What will follow for Labour is anybody’s guess. A bad Conference is the last thing they need right now. A little bit of history repeating would be their worst nightmare.

11 September, 2001

“Someone’s declared war on America. Turn on the news, any news, any channel, it’s everywhere. Car bombs, planes flying into buildings, do it, it’s crazy.”

We all have these memories and recollections. “Where were you when…” We time travellers, visitors from the future watching endless repeats of the initial attacks, the aftermath; foreknowledge being a terrible thing.

How does timetravel seem now, with all of history expanded out around us with its gore and death and apparent seamless planning? Would we tell office workers in New York to stay well clear of the World Trade Centres completely? How many parents of soldiers killed in Afghanistan could be warned in time?

Timetravel seems a concept flawed enough without adding the realities of moral choices. How many dead Iraqis could have been saved for the want of the world turning in a different way on 10th September, eight years ago?

Of course, all the memories we have of that day are tainted by our very particular circumstances. The woman at my then place of work joking, “I hope my pilot has better eyesight than the one who has just crashed into the World Trade Centre”, had no idea what catastrophe would follow. Nobody did. Not entirely sure the other woman I worked with had any idea of reality at all when she declared with absolute sincerity that one effective way to beat Al-Qaeda would be to purposely mispronounce Osama Bid Laden’s name. I remember her saying it as clear as any memory could be, standing by the window, arms folded like a stereotype of the Northern Housewife. “Yeah, so I’m going to say Uzama,” sure and smug.

(Also, of course, from office colleagues and my dad the following weekend, “There’s a group of Asians [sic] celebrating outside Preston Sorting Office, they’ve all been sent home”)

The consequences of the attacks still crash upon the shore today. History recalls the (false) claims of WMDs in Iraq, the (false) claims of Cyprus being in the firing line of weapons “with only 45 minutes warning”. The hanging of Saddam, smuggled onto YouTube via mobile phone, a very modern, Western, way to die.

We have our DNA on databases, our movements watched by CCTV, our own versions of PATRIOT Acts banning the reading of certain library books. Freedom tainted by necessity, in this “strange new world”. I wish freedom tasted better. I wish faith in our leaders was stronger.

(“This is how it starts, Armageddon,” said my mum, at the time, watching the attacks on BBC News, endless loops, like a gruesome highlights package. ITN News, I recall, set the attacks to music. Enya. Got a slap around the wrists by the ITC or OFCOM.)

My mother had a point, I guess. No, not entirely. But how the “war on terror” will end nobody has decided. Withdrawal from Iraq leaves behind an altered version of the country but not one with flawless democracy or absolute peace. Any original aims seem somehow lost, distorted, if not entirely forgotten.

Afghanistan is a slow motion slaughter of innocents, its original aim (insofar as Bush had one) removed from the collective memories of man completely. History has been here before, Afghanistan does not suffer invasions lightly. The Presidential election is as tasteless a show as it is blunt an instrument.

(“The world will never be the same again,” said the man on the radio, during the attack. With no internet at all or television, the office in which I worked at the time had to listen to the unfolding event on the radio. The overall effect of which was very unsettling, as though the commentary was nothing more than a play, the voiceover an over-wrought script. When I first heard the claims of “world changing events”, I suppressed a giggle.)

Recent programmes on British television re-ran the news coverage and camcorder footage. Some scenes were too graphic to watch, which I found a sobering personal reaction. Suddenly the stunned faces, the voiceless gasps, the dust-covered streets empty of people but full of stories, filled my mind with the absolute reality of what remains an unbelievable day.

But today, what to think? Congratulate the “war on terror”? Feel sorry but stoic? How would timetravel work, knowing what we all do now, about the failure to stop terrorism from killing innocent people. “How would a timetraveller help” is not the question to ask; maybe “when” or “who” would be more accurate.

Today, eight years on from the attacks, history continues to be written. Lessons have not been learned at all.