All our fashionable cynics should gaze across the pond

'I much prefer teenagers whose ambition is to change the world to those who just want to own chunks of it'
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One gets, perhaps, too used to political disappointments. Possibly the biggest of my late teens was the way in which the bold, liberating communists of Cambodia (having driven out the murderous lackeys of the Americans), instead of ushering in the promised harmony and equality, proceeded to murder between one and two million of their compatriots. The Cambodians, many of whose skulls still lie in great piles to commemorate the times, must have been pretty disappointed too.

One gets, perhaps, too used to political disappointments. Possibly the biggest of my late teens was the way in which the bold, liberating communists of Cambodia (having driven out the murderous lackeys of the Americans), instead of ushering in the promised harmony and equality, proceeded to murder between one and two million of their compatriots. The Cambodians, many of whose skulls still lie in great piles to commemorate the times, must have been pretty disappointed too.

Since then I have been prepared to make do with less. I know that my vote will be cast to choose between imperfection and worse. Between those points - not in some abstract place - lies my world. I am fed up when Keith Vaz behaves as though he were a Labour MP of the mid-1950s; fed up when Jack Straw (a man I like) refuses to call himself the asylum-seeker's friend; fed up when Millbank apparatchiks try to fiddle Livingstone out of the mayoral race. But the fact that there has been a redistribution of wealth from the wealthier to the poorest, as a result of Gordon Brown's myriad budget changes, tempers my irritation. That's just one example, I could give many more.

For those who, say, want to replace global capitalism with an entirely new system (details of said system not yet quite available on application from the Socialist Alliance) this is poor stuff. Why should activists burn themselves out in the service of Tweedledee? What attraction can realpolitik have for young people, with their idealism and their impatience to make big rather than incremental changes? Having been a firebrand myself (albeit a rather damp one) I have some residual affection for this point of view. I much prefer teenagers whose ambition is to improve the world to those who simply want to own large chunks of it.

What is harder to stomach, however, is the whining of the fashionably cynical who, without a cause of their own, nevertheless pretend to an idealism that they do not possess in order to justify their cynicism. To them, principally, belongs the pernicious doctrine of "no difference". According to them, there is "no difference" between Blair and Hague, between Labour and Conservative (and Liberal Democrat, if they ever got that far). They need not lend their own lustre to any party, their own commitment to any politician, or even their understanding to any complex issue because, after all, there is "no difference".

This morning they may care to gaze across the pond. During last autumn's American presidential election campaign the "no difference" brigade were out in force. Whether you voted for the Bush or for the Gore dynasty, you would get something so essentially the same that you might as well not bother. Or, if you couldn't be bothered not to bother you could vote for the Green candidate, Ralph Nader. Which well over two million did, enough to have swung the election several times over.

During the election Bush, under fire for his record in promoting ecological insouciance, made a pledge that his administration would act to restrict the emissions of four polluting substances, one of them being carbon dioxide, the main cause - it is widely believed - of global warming. His opponent, Al Gore, was of course partly famous for having written a whole book about the environment. And within weeks of her confirmation, Bush's new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, was doing the rounds of the studios and international conferences talking up Dubya's determination to dump on greenhouse gases.

However, when she arrived back from Rome last week, full of news for the President from the anti-pollution front, she discovered that he had news for her. He had, he told her, been mistaken in naming carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and he wasn't after all going to try and restrict its emission. Sorry and all, and what toothpaste had she taken with her on her trip? Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, clarified to the press that carbon dioxide "should not have been included" in Bush's manifesto, because it is not classified as a pollutant in the 30-year-old Clean Air Act.

Those Europeans currently being disinfected on their way into the United States because of foot-and-mouth disease, might like to reflect on the irony of all this: the US has decided to continue poisoning the world in a way that can certainly not be contained by a footbath full of Domestos. When they've done ironising they can move on to wondering what the real reason is for this change. One explanation is that House and Senate Republicans were making this retreat the condition for their support for Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut plan. And this in turn may have been due to lobbying from the powerful US energy industry, of which Bush was once a part.

It is tempting and Hollywoodish to see, as Ralph Nader does, the great corporations as being behind all the ills of society. And the destructive power of unregulated private capital is a real problem. But at the root of this flip-flop is not campaign money, but ideology. Bush has never really believed in the threat of global warming. As a spokesman said during the campaign, "He [Bush] does not support the Kyoto Protocol. He believes it is unfair to the United States. He does want to do more to research the causes of global climate change, but he wants decisions to be based on science, not on fads or junk science."

Bush doesn't want to regulate the lives of citizens or limit the potential for growth of industry, seeing the decisions of both as being almost inevitably benign. The right wing aren't, as a rule, into telling people what they don't want to hear about themselves. It's the nanny centre-left that does that. Bush would not, as Gore did, fly to Kyoto to ensure the signing of the protocol for the limiting of greenhouse gas emissions. When, back in the campaign however, Ralph Nader was taxed with this difference, he reacted contemptuously. "Kyoto!" he snorted, "It was watered down so badly, structured to alienate the Third World, then Gore went back home and there was no push to make the case". The Senate refused to ratify the treaty.

Well they certainly won't now, will they, Ralph? Now there is no official momentum whatsoever in the largest economy in the world to take action against what scientists agree is the greatest threat to that world. When Madame Defarge, or whatever her name was, spiked jolly Jack Prescott's agreement in The Hague in the dog days of the Clinton presidency, she didn't ensure a better agreement - she ensured no agreement.

So when the oil companies start drilling in the Alaskan National Park, and when the stored wealth of the American budget surplus is expended on the rich (and just as a recession is forecast, too), and when US CO2 emissions start to rise above forecasts, then come back and tell me that there really was "no difference". But as we head (or stumble through disinfectant) towards an election here, it may be worth keeping the American experience in mind. If you do, you may even find it possible to get all passionate again.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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