manifesto n (pl manifestos, manifestoes) a public written declaration of the intentions, opinions or motives of a leader, party, or body or of a sovereign.
The Chambers Dictionary
[Norm knows I wrote parts of the following essay a while back and didn’t post them, but it has turned into a kind of companion piece to his most recent manifesto argument yesterday. You should read that as well because it’s good.]
Since my post linking to the launch page I haven’t written at length here about the Euston Manifesto (EM); I’ve mostly just quoted its critics and let them fisk themselves. Having spent the journey home from the Euston Group’s Paul Berman meeting on Sunday in the excellent company of the documentary maker filming it, I thought I should write something about how the EM started. Even though my travelling companion hadn’t been to any of the Euston meetings, it turned out that he had had a clearer idea of the impact it was going to have before it was released into the wild than I had.
In the comments of one of my posts yesterday, a compulsive objector, Daniel Davies, accidentally said something illuminating. He claimed to have used the word “pooterish” in his criticism of the document. The comic character who gave rise to this word believed his trivial existence to be of unrecognized but great significance. This running gag from Diary Of A Nobody is neatly inverted by the running gag here at PooterGeek these past few weeks: that the manifesto’s reception and perceived significance have been surreally out of proportion with my original intentions and with my sorry excuse for a life. I now find myself giving my shopping basket to someone behind the perfumes counter in Boots so I can take an international call from a journalist out in the street where the reception’s better, tilting my head sideways to keep the rain off my mobile; or turning down an invitation to an early-morning interview on BBC Radio 5Live because I’ve been up late the night before.
[This is what led me to make the mistake of taking Daniel’s most recent comment seriously: I credited him with too much sense to respond to my mentioning how unfunny he is by coming here to tell the same joke about me that I tell about myself every week, and tell it badly. But his pratfall is understandable given that he has “only the vaguest concept” of who I am.]
The manifesto phenomenon, as someone on Radio 4 called it, is more ridiculous than a PooterGeek parody. At the same time as failing to muster a single decent [no pun intended] joke at the manifesto’s expense, its opponents turn themselves into the single best joke about the manifesto. As tens of Lefties accuse us of setting up a field of straw men, tens of other Lefties put on their Worzel Gummidge heads and respond to the manifesto itself with precisely the crazed views their comrades declare to be figments of our imagination or confined to a tiny minority, crazed views that I have quoted verbatim here in post after post since the launch: that we (the allegedly “pro-war Left”) are a bunch of dirty Joos/Nazis, that 9/11 was a CIA plot, that the US is the biggest terrorist entity on the planet. At the same time as obscure opponents on the Web like Davies and Benjamin Mackie tell people how trivial and old hat the manifesto is, prominent opponents in the broadsheet newspapers flap their arms Kermit-the-Frog-style over its True Meaning. Are we imperialists in denial? Are we 60s casualties looking for a new set of ideals?
Even as bores make the same jokes about how we met in a pub, other pros and antis around the planet suspect that the EM is the product of a vast new think tank with swish offices; tinfoil-hat wearers warn that our air-conditioning and Aeron chairs were paid for by US neocons or the CIA. (Unfettered by requirements of reason and evidence, it’s even more ironic that conspiracy theorists lack the imagination to invent new Dark Forces to blame instead of recycling the same old suspects.) Every day when I do a Google search more people pop up to explain to us what we really meant, who’s really behind us, and what our real plans are.
Writing in The Guardian, Martin Kettle told me that:
“[T]here are two things that you need to know as know as the debate on this latest leftwing prescription begins to move into the mainstream press. the first is that the authors’ main purpose is to rescue the left from an obsession with the Iraq invasion and American imperialism and to shake it out of apologising for violent Islamists. The second is that the document is a cry of pain.”
As one of the authors in question, even I don’t presume to know the minds of my fellows, except that, naturally, we are as one on every letter of the manifesto’s text. I can, however, outline how the document came into being.
At the first Euston Group meeting, when we weren’t so close to Euston and we weren’t a “Group”, individuals talked to us all, then individuals talked to each other, then we asked ourselves, “What next?” I suggested that we write what I referred to then as “a minimal manifesto”, a document declaring our essential shared values. I was an invitee, not a ringleader, but from what I knew of the diverse collection of Lefties in the room, I was worried that this would comprise three-points, the first one being: “That George Galloway, eh? What a…”
For the benefit of the people present at that meeting who witnessed my confident pronouncements, here are some of the things I was wrong about. I thought that if we wrote any more than two sides of A4 no one would read it. I thought that a simple statement of our core beliefs would make little more than a nice rallying point for a disparate collection of rational, Left-leaning blogs and the preface for a book collecting some essays. I thought that about a hundred bloggers would sign it and that a few thousand more might skim the text. I was clueless.
Perhaps only one person in the room that day, the chair of the meeting, Jane Ashworth, had an inkling of how big it would get. If you had told me that within a couple of months the Wall Street freakin’ Journal would print an editorial about the manifesto I’d have laughed. I’m still laughing. Having grown up in the town I find it particularly amusing that the entry in Wikipedia for the Euston Manifesto is several times longer than the entry for the founding document of the Conservative Party: the Tamworth Manifesto. Apparently, former Tory minister Michael Portillo introduced the journalist John Lloyd on TV yesterday as “a signatory of the Euston Manifesto”. I shall henceforth adopt this same designation on my headed notepaper!
We haven’t hidden the fact that Norman Geras wrote most of the text, along with Alan Johnson, Shalom Lappin, and me. Those of you familiar with our contrasting prose styles might believe that there was some tension between Norm and me about the definition of the word “minimal” in the phrase “minimal manifesto”. I couldn’t possibly comment. But everyone in the twenty-plus Euston Manifesto Group helped to thrash out the text. Jane bashed heads together. Hak Mao created the graphics. Andrew Regan proposed the name. Richard Rogers designed our Pacific island headquarters, embedding in its structure witty allusions to the Pentagon, the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and the Death Star.
Being democrats, we conducted a lot of votes—about what we would call ourselves and what would go in the document and about other things. One thing we didn’t have a vote about was why we were writing the manifesto. We shared the hope that people would read it and that they would talk about it. We aren’t all bloggers or academics, but we all wanted to do what those sorts do: publish something and then talk about it.
In one sense Martin Kettle was right. Eustonians argued about everything from the definition of the word “liberal” to the font to use in the Webpage banner, but we didn’t argue about whether or not we should have supported military intervention in Iraq, not because we agreed on that question—quite the opposite is true—but because it wasn’t why we were writing the manifesto.
I only became fully acquainted with Alan and Shalom’s positions on the other side of the knife from Norm and me after the document was pretty much finished. In this light, what is so striking about so much of the response to the EM is how so many people have started from an assumption that it is “pro-war” (when its principal authors were exactly divided) and immediately attacked it for the things they think it says but doesn’t. The truth isn’t just that we were not and are not simply “pro-war”; the truth is that the war is not even the manifesto’s focus. This suits me. Personally, I argued here and elsewhere in favour of military intervention in Iraq (or, as I would have it, the escalation of our existing and long-term military intervention in that country on the grounds of ongoing breaches of a UN-brokered peace agreement), but I also argued that war in Iraq was a distraction from a still graver struggle.
At the risk of biting the hand that fed the manifesto, I have to say that it’s a strange world we live in when, for example, the most recent editors of The New Statesman are less faithful to traditional socialist values than City banker and Times columnist Oliver Kamm. But it’s been a strange world for a long time. I’d seen this kind of disconnect long before the Iraq war debate started.
When I was at school, an official in my local Labour Party told his daughter he’d disown her if she “took a darkie up the aisle”. (If you’re reading, mate, it’s okay: she and I never explored that sexual practice.) I knew then that there were those on the Left who allowed prejudice to trump principle. And when I went up to college and saw totalitarian iconography decorating the rooms of professed progressives I realised further that any so-called socialist, from the working to the upper classes, could identify with evil if it was fashionable enough. They would do so even as they denied such a thing existed in the world. They still do. I doubt the Euston Manifesto or anything else will ever change that. Then again, I doubted anyone would read the damned thing in the first place.