The radical cheek of Tariq Ali

'He is always the red Micawber, living daily in the hope that something might erupt. But I'm not saying he should shut up'

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It was the proximity of the two names that caught my attention, and that made the moment seem significant. Separately, and on its own, each would never have got me thinking, so used have I become to seeing them around. But in my early and mid-teens both name-owners had been big heroes of mine, right up there with Ian Anderson, the piratical-looking flute-player from Jethro Tull. The occasion of their coming together was a diary in the
New Statesman written by Tariq Ali. In paragraph 10 the last line read, "Peter Hain beware. One day you might face a war crimes tribunal."

It was the proximity of the two names that caught my attention, and that made the moment seem significant. Separately, and on its own, each would never have got me thinking, so used have I become to seeing them around. But in my early and mid-teens both name-owners had been big heroes of mine, right up there with Ian Anderson, the piratical-looking flute-player from Jethro Tull. The occasion of their coming together was a diary in the New Statesman written by Tariq Ali. In paragraph 10 the last line read, "Peter Hain beware. One day you might face a war crimes tribunal."

Is that weird? When I was 14 I thought Tariq was just wonderful. He was the most visible leader of the British campaign against the Vietnam war. It was his flowing locks and Uncle Joe moustaches that you instantly spotted beneath the big banner at the front of the demonstration, where he stood, arms linked with those of a young Vanessa Redgrave.

At 15 I followed Hain. A very radical young Liberal, describing himself as a quasi-Marxist, Hain was the less romantic, more pragmatic leader of the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime of South Africa. Under his guidance we stormed the rugby pitch at Twickenham when the all-white Springboks played, and we stopped the projected 1970 cricket tour of South Africa. There wasn't another tour until Nelson Mandela was president.

What happened then? Tariq, now believing in the need for a more systematic approach to revolutionary change than student "happenings" represented, was becoming a Leninist. In 1971, now a leader of the International Marxist Group, Tariq Ali wrote a book on the coming British revolution. He was bullish. "One can say," he could say, "that we shall once again see (workers') Soviets in Europe in the Seventies".

But by the mid-Seventies he had enough of all that. He dumped his guru, the Trotskyist theoretician, Ernest Mandel, and bade farewell to the warring groupuscules. All through the Thatcherite winter - though a constant presence on demos and at the bottom of petitions - Tariq turned his talents to writing: novels, histories, polemics. And to production: films, plays, satires. Today, instead of sitting through congresses and committees, he is to be found at literary conventions, at festivals, at post-play parties. Where he is, above all, a critic.

Of Hain, not least. Who had left the Young Liberals, joined the Labour Party's left wing, and was - in the early Eighties - a neo-Bennite, and then a leading Tribunite. By the time of the advent of Blair, Hain - now a Welsh MP - was seen as being on the far-left of New Labour, a lover of only part of the project, but talented enough for the leadership, nevertheless, to want him on the team. He was one of the first names to be added to the team-sheet in May 97, and is now, of course, a foreign office minister.

It's in that capacity that Hero 1 wrote that Hero 2 might one day face a war crimes trial. With bombs still being dropped on Iraq, and the sanctions still in place, Tariq's New Statesman diary was accusing Hain of presiding over murder. Ordnance, said Tariq (accurately), continued to rain down "on this antique land", and on Iraq's "living poor, denied the basic necessities of life". If Tariq recognised the dilemma for the Government in attempting to deal with Saddam Hussein, ruler of "this antique land" and main organiser of the denial of the "basic necessities of life", he wasn't owning up to it. He could see the consequences, and that was enough.

Over a year ago Tariq was also one of the principal polemicists against the bombing of Serbia. He predicted that the war would result in a humiliating negotiated settlement, a partition of Kossovo and the fall of the German and Italian governments. That he was wrong in each part of his prophecy, however, has done nothing to diminish his massive contempt for the whole enterprise, and in particular for New Labour. Not so long ago he was interviewed in the entertaining left magazine, Red Pepper, and asked about the veterans of 1968. "If something erupted now," he mused, "would they come out? I think quite a lot of them would not. If you look at the Labour Government, several ministers, Kim Howells and Peter Hain for example, played a leading part in the struggles of the Sixties. But now they find that power is more important than what you actually do when you come to power."

Examine that last sentence again. According to Tariq, Hain has been seduced by power itself, in the classic auto-corruption process understood by the left since Fame is the Spur. He no longer wishes to achieve anything, old Hain (Tariq shakes his head sadly), he just wants to hold on to office.

For some, the recent criticisms of the Government's handling of arm sales and its policies on human rights, might seem to bear out this harsh judgement. The Quadripartite Committee - made up of members of the defence, foreign affairs, international development and trade and industry parliamentary select committees - yesterday did indeed criticise government muddle on the issue of spare plane parts sold to Zimbabwe.

But in both instances Hain could point to the muddle being the consequence of progress, not a barrier to it. That there are difficulties reconciling the desire to maintain British jobs with that of not selling so much as a rivet to a dodgy regime, should come as no surprise. Mrs Thatcher, as Alan Clark memorably revealed, had no such dilemmas. Furthermore, in their recent report on British foreign policy, Amnesty International tempered its attack on shortcomings, with a generous recognition of real progress that had been made. Progress made under, among others, the power-corrupted Hain.

Meanwhile, like me, Tariq is completely uncorrupted. Also like me he has never been as much as a local councillor. He has never run anything, or employed anyone. He is not a member of a political party, as I am not. There is no line for either of us to defend, no track record to explain, no messy compromises made, no housing estates full of Mondeo men to be persuaded over to the cause. Tariq instead awaits the formation of a new party of "socialists and anti-capitalists", encompassing Ken Livingstone, the comedian, Jeremy Hardy, the environmentalist, George Monbiot, and the militant trades unionist, Candy Udwin.

And what will that party do when the moment comes? "As to how those on the Left will be able to act, I don't know," admits Tariq, adding, "I do think the only solution for the Left is international organization and building global coalitions." Well, that's his cards firmly off the table. And Tariq circa 1971 said this of the forthcoming revolution: "To those who demand detailed blueprints of the future society we can only say: we are not utopians who spend our time preparing blueprints while history passes us by." Always the red Micawber: living daily in the anticipation that something will erupt.

What am I not saying? I'm not saying he should shut up. Or that some of his strictures won't be right. I'm not saying that he should be ignored. But what I do believe that those of us observers who do not seek to exercise the power to improve things, and who, therefore, are always uncontaminated by events, should be careful when we adopt that easy tone of contempt about those who become MPs, councillors or ministers. True, we also serve who only stand and write. But not that much.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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