Could this be the "ethical" foreign policy promised by Robin Cook the week after the exhilarating electoral triumph of last May? How long ago that seems now and how false. One ethic for Saddam and a very different one for the butcher Suharto in Jakarta, with the blood of many on his hands and still occupying East Timor and still being supplied with "ethical" weapons by Britain and the US.
What appears to have surprised the pundits is an opinion poll finding which revealed that support for bombing Iraq was strongest among the 18- 25 year olds. It is never wise to manufacture news through opinion polls or focus groups and construct a new theory based on the findings. Diverse social and cultural currents are at work and one can be sure that few of the 18-25 year olds interviewed for the poll would have been willing to be conscripted and dropped into the war zone.Its all different when you have to press a button in the sky - just like playing a video-game.
What is indisputable, however, is that the last two decades have seen a depoliticisation on the campuses. Traditional left and liberal politics, which included opposition to unjust wars as a central tenet, is now confined to the serried ranks of the far-left groups. The brazen opportunism of contemporary culture is reflected in society as a whole and it has affected, if temporarily, the capacity to think critically.
This is especially pronounced in the MTV generation, but it is also the result of a conscious decision by the majority of newspapers and television stations to trivialise domestic politics and drastically reduce the space and screen-time given to the rest of the world. Leave aside the other continents, the knowledge of European politics in this country is pitiful. All the statistics tell the same story. It requires a natural catastrophe, a war, an assassination or a Royal visit to get some coverage of the rest of the world. In these conditions it is hardly surprising that students and youth, in general, are indifferent to the fate of nations beyond their reach.
There are other, more fundamental reasons. After all, the French, Germans and Italians, old and young, remain vigilant in the face of attempts to "modernise" their welfare states. What makes this country different? Contrary to numerous mythologies, the Thatcher period was an age of insecurity that bred fear. The recessions coupled with casino capitalism generated a compulsive aggressiveness in the struggle for existence. It was each person for themselves. Economic deregulation was accompanied by a triumphant ideological offensive that consigned the state to the dustbin.
Political democracy stands in tension with an economy that spawns inequality. Democracy is the terrain in which the many select those who will rule over them; capitalism is the system in which a few determine the division of the spoils. The institutional separation of the realm of politics from the realm of economics was once considered useful to stabilise the system. No longer. Economics is politics. If you can play the market you can rule the world. Businessmen are greatly in demand to run everything. In that sense, as Nigel Lawson noted presciently in 1995, New Labour is the true heir of Margaret Thatcher.
Once the state had become a synonym for Satan and all his works, many of those growing up in the Eighties and Nineties were forced to rely on themselves. Young people empathised a great deal with each other. Taught to regard state intervention as evil, they were attracted to those who promoted charities in order to aid good causes: Bob Geldof, the late Diana Spencer, the late Mother Teresa and Richard Branson (who gave a very good impression of being a charity).
Dissent in Britain thus became atomised. It reflected a hostility to all traditional politics and was confined to single-issues related to the environment and animal rights. Most of these deserved to be supported, yet one couldn't help feeling something was missing. I doubt whether most of those who were upset by the cramped living conditions in which calves were shipped to slaughter-houses in France ever spared a thought for the number of children who died in Iraq from malnutrition and lack of medicine as a direct result of the inhuman sanctions policy imposed by Washington.
On another level, real comfort was sought by large numbers of young people in clubs that transformed the urban landscape of contemporary Britain. Club-culture remains unashamedly escapist. The hedonist motto, "Don't Worry, Be Happy", is undoubtedly very popular. Ignorance is Ecstasy. This indifference to the world of politics can lead to a subjectivity where criticism plays no role.
A deep need to exercise power as an end in itself makes for a very superficial grasp of politics. Tony Blair's message to the effect that Saddam was an evil monster sitting on a lot of evil weapons and could destroy the world was a classic example of a dumbed-down politician speaking to a population he knew was largely ignorant of the history of the conflict and unconcerned by the fact that the US and Britain were isolated in the Arab World. What is frightening is the speed with which people began to repeat all this as a mantra, often adding for good measure that Saddam is the same or even worse than Hitler.
A country mobilised for war by demagogy of this sort can, in a more disillusioned mood, become vulnerable to other and more consistent demagogues. Dissent that refuses to be a spectator, but insists on wedging itself into the forbidden zones of modern politics is vital as a physic for any functioning democracy.
`1968 - Marching In the Streets', by Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins, will be published by Bloomsbury in May.Reuse content