Saturday, July 19, 2003

In praise of Liberty

Well, since I didn't post anything last night I'm somewhat aware that I am quite late on commenting on Tony Blair's Speech to Congress. Like most of Tony Blair's behaviour post 9/11 it has put me in a bit of a bind.

I am, by inclination, a monarchist, a traditionalist, and right-wing. Tony Blair domestically is all for change and his heritage is socialism. I have a great dislike for many of his domestic policies. But in his foriegn and military policy he has been surprisingly and pleasantly competent, particularly since 9/11. When I watched and listened to his speech on CNN I felt proud that this man was representing me on the international stage. I felt proud that my nation was being represented by a man who was willing to stick to his beliefs, willing to make himself a target for ire and criticism by his own supporters because he feels that something is right.

This sense of what is right flowed through the speech, right in the first serious sentence (after the obligatory jokes). "Members of Congress, I feel a most urgent sense of mission about today's world." It was later elaborated into a primary theme - the human desire for liberty. I wonder, not entirely idly or in jest, how George Washington would have reacted to knowing that, over 200 years after he fought against the UK for the liberty of his nation that the Prime Minister of that same UK would be praising Congres and America. What would Abraham Lincoln think of being quoted by such a person in such a place? Indeed, what would Winston Churchill think, half-American as he was and in more ways than one the man who casts the longest shadow on Anglo-American relations? I somehow think that they would all be pleased, and more than that. Churchill of course saw Britain and America's unity as essential for maintaining the liberty of the entire world. One is tempted to ask how much, precisely, has changed. As for Washington, I somehow feel that if he had known that the UK and USA would one day be at the fore-front of the fight for liberty he would have smiled. After all, the decision to break with Britain did not come easily to him. And Lincoln, I somehow feel that he would appreciate the appropriatness of the event.

This was a panegyric for liberty in so many ways, that value that is so mixed up with America. Indeed, I would say the two are inseparable. Trying to understand America and Americans is hard enough at the best of times, but if one does not appreciate the central importance of liberty to the US then it is as if one speaks a different language. To that extent the speech was also a panegyric of America. Concentrating on America and liberty as it did, and evidently gratifying as it was for many Americans to hear, I cannot help but feel that the true audience for this speech was in Europe.

Although Tony Blair did have some criticisms for the US by far his harshest criticism was for Jacques Chirac:

"There is no more dangerous theory in international politics today than that we need to balance the power of America with other competitor powers, different poles around which nations gather. Such a theory may have made sense in 19th century Europe. It was perforce the position in the Cold War. Today, it is an anachronism, to be discarded like traditional theories of security. And it is dangerous, because it is not rivalry, but partnership we need, a common will and a shared purpose in the face of a common threat. "

This is of course a very public condemnation of the 'bipolar' worldview touted by Chirac. And then: "To be a serious partner, Europe must take on and defeat the anti- Americanism that sometimes passes for its political discourse."

If his colleagues in the EU or his critics at home hoped that political difficulties of recent weeks would force Tony Blair to soften his stance they have been mistaken. Of course, from my personal point of view Tony Blair's newfound principles work against my own most of the time - but on reflection I think I am happy that the PM is actually a man of principle than the spineless politician he was. I am in no doubt that, in a few decades time, Tony Blair will be hailed as one of the most important men of the early 21st century.

Some speeches are defining. Reagan's "Star Wars" speech, or Bush's "Axis of Evil" - or even Robin Cooks "Tikka Massala" speech, though that one has a more UK domestic theme. This speech I think also defines something. Just as Ronald Reagan revitalised the West's sense of belief in itself in the 1980s vis a vis communism I think this speech will be seen as the beginning of the West regaining its self-confidence in its own ideals after 9/11. For as Tony Blair has rightly pointed out this is a war of ideals. And this is a war that we cannot afford to loose.

Churchill never thought of defeat. His opinion could be encaspsulated by the phrase "to speak of defeat is to invite it to the table". Even in the height of criticism of the intelligence for the war, let us celebrate it, for there could be no other more visible demonstration of our liberty.

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