Simon Carr: It's all far too serious for mere politics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

No triumphalism, no point scoring, no cheap cracks, no jokes, no barbs, no party politics at all – remind me what we're doing here again?

Charles Clarke, said by some to be the man of the moment, issued his riding instructions for the Labour party conference. In view of the terrible events in New York; now's not the time or place; it's all too serious for mere politics. But not, obviously, for presentation.

The Sunday papers had a generous scattering of stories of terror centres across Europe, bunkers filled with smallpox and anthrax, cells of fanatics waiting for the word. And yet, the world goes blithely about its business. It is amazing that, in days like these, normality is possible. It is either down to the the absent-minded heroism of ordinary people, or to a massive and collective failure of the imagination.

But, to less important matters. In the mandarin dialect of New Labour, the character signifying Third World War also signifies Momentous Opportunity. The Prime Minister has found an eye-catching initiative with which he can be personally associated, and he brings to the new campaign against world terror all the expertise and certainty he showed in the foot-and-mouth crisis (now called the foot-and-mouth situation).

The opportunities are twofold. The first is a general opportunity enjoyed by all political parties. The twin towers serve as a peg on which to hang any sort of sectarian shirt. It has allowed Sinn Fein to condemn atrocities. It's allowed republicans to condemn Sinn Fein. It's allowed Israel and the Palestinians to show the world how little they've been understood. It's allowed the Taliban to condemn America for genocide, racism, and stubbornness.

It's the way of the world. Charles Kennedy told the Liberal Democrat conference last week that the US had been blown out of its lonely unilateralism. And wasn't that a good thing, showing Eurosceptics that we should be getting more deeply involved in Europe, just as the Liberal Democrats were suggesting.

Tessa Jowell opened the conference with a little pain-feeling. "Huge historical events," she said, "work themselves out in individual lives and deaths. And in this case the sheer number of deaths. The dreadful uncertainty lasting so long for so many families. The mobile phones ringing unanswered." She went on, but never explained how huge historical events were worked out in unanswered mobile phones.

There: that's precisely the sort of remark that Charles Clarke was warning us against.

Which brings us to the second opportunity the Government is seizing here this week. To use the disaster to demand unity from the membership. To rule out dissent as inappropriate, or emotionally incorrect. To rule out motions debating national missile defence because they are "not contemporary".

Let us close on Ms Jowell's choice of poetry – T S Eliot's verse that starts: "Now we come to discover that the moments of agony are likewise permanent." I'm sure there's comfort tobe found in these darkening days, but wonder whether the Culture Secretary has quite found the lines that best express it.