It’s the authority crisis, stupid
And it's doing more damage than WMD.
The biggest factor in politics today is not the row over intelligence dossiers and BBC reports. It is not weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or unrest in Iraq, or the euro, or the economy, or foundation hospitals, fox-hunting or any of the other issues now causing the UK government such problems.
These things are all being overshadowed and shaped by the deep crisis of authority at the top of British and Western society. It is this crisis of authority that is undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of every government policy, and of every other established party or powerful institution.
The row between New Labour and its friends at the BBC is not just about
the words used in an official dossier or a radio news report on Iraq’s alleged WMD. But then the war itself was not really about Saddam’s weapons, oil, liberation or anything to do with Iraq, either.
Both the war and the subsequent fallout have deeper roots at home, in the Western elite’s crisis of authority. In recent decades the rulers of the USA, Britain and other Western states have lost their sense of purpose and certainty in the world, something of which they have become more aware since the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed them of a common cause. For both US President George W Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair, the war in Iraq was the latest attempt to provide a new sense of mission by projecting the West’s internal problems on to the international stage.
As we argued on spiked before the war, however, rolling over a shattered state like Saddam’s Iraq was never going to galvanise the demoralised West. Indeed the same pressures pushing Bush and Blair into the war were likely to cause serious problems during and after it. So it has proved, as the fallout from the conflict is exacerbating rather than resolving the problems facing the elite.
Thus the UK row about Iraqi WMD has escalated in an out-of-control fashion that is damaging to all concerned. The British state has effectively been tearing itself apart before the public’s eyes, the establishment unravelling on national TV, as sections of the government, the BBC and the intelligence services compete to see who can shout ‘Liars!’ the loudest, all leaking and briefing and spinning against one another in a way that betrays an unprecedented lack of coherence and shared values at the top of society. Even Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, now seems to be trying to distance himself from his government’s own foreign policy.
Of course Blair’s government tried every trick it knew to present a convincing case for its unconvincing war. That is hardly unprecedented behaviour in British government circles. What is different this time is the pathetic weakness of the case that the authorities presented, with their ripped-off student theses and silly scares, and the open hostility it has prompted within the political class. Such internal turmoil might have resulted in the past from a damaging military defeat, but has never followed such a walkover victory.
The government’s credibility is now seen to be on an accelerating downward slope. But the crisis of authority is not only afflicting Blair, Alastair Campbell and the New Labour project. All parties and institutions are affected by a climate of cynicism and mistrust in which society is disinclined to believe whatever it is told by authorities and experts.
Take the BBC. It has been widely observed that more people believe the corporation than the government over the WMD dossiers row. But that arguably has less to do with the BBC’s proud record of objective reporting than with the role that it plays today, as a voicebox for the public’s cynicism about politics.
The BBC is believed because people assume that politicians are all liars. That may seem fair enough on the WMD issue. But it means that a BBC news programme like Today, always on the lookout for the next cover-up, can also act as an amplifier for ill-founded cynicism and conspiracy theories on issues like the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) triple vaccination or GM food.
When an astonished Alastair Campbell asks whether people can seriously believe the word of a single anonymous intelligence source against that of the entire government and intelligence chiefs, the answer is ‘yes’. Indeed in today’s through-the-looking-glass political culture, it is precisely the source’s status as an lone, anonymous whisperer in the dark that makes him seem credible. The maverick whistleblower is a hero of these cynical times, always likely to be believed above officials and accredited experts.
It was also telling that, after Campbell’s feisty appearance before the committee of MPs investigating the WMD affair, some observers admitted that he must have been sure of his ground to have been so assertive. Not because he was trustworthy, you understand, but because if he was lying then the truth would quickly be leaked out. So even when the government is partly believed, it is only on the basis of the culture of mistrust.
Such a crisis of authority within New Labour and the wider political elite might seem a good thing for those of us who favour far-reaching change. But in fact the consequences are far more likely to be destructive of anything worthwhile. Public cynicism is not the same thing as political criticism. Conspiracy mongering is far removed from putting forward a positive alternative.
It is not just the legitimacy of the government that is on the line here, but the legitimacy of any sort of politics. If society believes in nothing and nobody, then nothing is possible. If the assumption is that everything we are told is a lie, it calls into question the very notion of a truth that is worth fighting for.
This uncritical cynicism can only intensify feelings of apathy and powerlessness rather than political opposition. Among other things it means that Blair can carry on so long as he has the will to do so, regardless of how tattered his credibility becomes.
It might be easy to see and expose the bogus character of the Bush-Blair war in Iraq. But it is at least as important to challenge the dangerous assumptions of their opponents. Otherwise the fallout from the crisis of authority could end up doing far more real damage to the cause of human progress than any dirty little war or diplomatic row over invisible WMD.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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