Saturday, 14 July 2012


Dick Pountain/15 March 2007/09:39/Political Quarterly

TITLE: The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order.
AUTHOR: David Runciman
PUBLISHER: Princeton University Press
PUBLISHED: Jan 2006, hard cover, pp 216, £18.95

"Moralising, ruthless, self-serving, pious, visionary, partisan and thoroughly self-aware". Which British Prime Minister is David Runciman talking about? Both Tony Blair and Gladstone actually. In this excellent little book Runciman explores the notion of Blair as ethical politician, at least as concerned with his own rectitude as with the fate of party or country. Moreover he stresses that this is no personal quirk of Blair's but the product of a structural feature of modern politics. There are politicians cast from this same mould wherever you look, from George W Bush to Silvio Berlusconi. Runciman's argument takes off from a famous lecture Max Weber delivered in 1919 in Munich as the German state was collapsing all around him, concerning the role of conscience in politics. Weber set out a distinction between the irresponsible and responsible politician: the former operates solely on personal conviction, believing that only good can come from good and evil from evil; the latter knows that good intentions often produce bad effects but is prepared to take responsibility and suffer in silence when plans go wrong. Runciman, who clearly respects Blair's extraordinary political skills, does not merely lump him into either of these categories, but more subtly claims that he exemplifies both traits at once, and that this is no coincidence but the result of a deep duality within modern politics.

For Runciman the central problem of modern politics has always been how to hold the state together against the centrifugal forces of rising individualism. In earlier times the personality of the Prince provided the glue, but modern politics must be always split between the personal and the impersonal, the charisma of strong leaders and the dull, techno/administrative chores of actually running a complex state machine. Successful democratic politicians need to strike a delicate balance between these modes, neither tipping over into demagoguery nor allowing the voters become totally disengaged from bureaucratic policies. The ten chapters of this book (seven of which are expanded versions of articles originally published in the London Review of Books) trace the winding of this split through areas that include the Iraq War, the War on Terrorism and the role of risk in politics, while later chapters bring to bear the ideas of other thinkers from Hobbes and the Abbe Sieyes to Philip Bobbit and Robert Cooper on this state question.

One of his themes is the importance of risk analysis to contemporary politics. He demonstrates that, faced with the post-9/11 terrorist threat, such analysis is vital and needs to be objective but - as we saw so clearly in the run-up to Iraq - politicians never dare place its raw results before the public without a bit of cosmetic surgery as to do so might make them look either heartlessly calculating or, worse still, not in control of events. Runciman portrays Blair as a supreme master at operating within the confines of this double standard: normally risk averse, but when in serious difficulty preferring to stake everything on a single throw (an unusual, effective, but dangerous combination of character traits).

One of the manifestations of this personal/impersonal split is conflict between executive and legislature in time of crisis: between the initiative of politicians (personal) and rules laid down by judges (impersonal). Runciman's argument in the chapter 'Who Knows Best?' is both original and illuminating, devoting serious attention to James Surowiecki's 'Wisdom of Crowds' hypothesis and toying with the unorthodox 'terrorism futures market' proposed by DARPA, before returning to sober reflections about the details of the balance between executive discretion, public opinion and judicial review. Runciman concludes that our politicians don't cope well with the threat posed by modern terrorism because it forces them to deal with events with low frequencies but severe consequences. This inclines them to do too much, too often - surrounding Heathrow with tanks, confiscating babies' bottles - in order to escape blame when occasionally the bomber does get through. Another, more cynical, inclination is to exploit the atmosphere of public fear to sneak through things you couldn't get away with under normal conditions, like invading Iraq.

Runciman has a deft touch when weighing contemporary events like 9/11 and the Iraq War against earlier crises such as Disraeli's Abyssinian adventure, Suez and the rise of Nazism, never falling for the easy parallels favoured by more polemical critics. His chapter comparing present-day Iraq to the Weimar Republic identifies as many differences as similarities, a most significant one being that under Weimar reactionary nationalists and revolutionary internationalists fought each other, whereas in Iraq they've come together to fight the occupation.

Having dealt with history and fear, Runciman awards hypocrisy a final chapter to itself. The Coalition of the Willing employs shamelessly double standards when evaluating lives and regimes: in his words "The democracies of the West are to be protected against terrorism at all costs; yet no amount of terrorist activity in a country like Iraq can be set against the value of democracy there". This double standard lends an air of unreality to the war on terror that he describes in terms which veer close to Debord's concept of spectacle. The war on terror is to be prosecuted without conventional limits, for an indefinite time and can never be won because there will always be terrorists lurking. And yet at the same time is held out the vision of a world without terrorism, where universal freedom reigns.

An altogether refreshing analysis. Free from the rhetoric and ad hominem attacks most war critics indulge in, deeply serious about politics, clear-headed and cool- (but not cold) blooded, Runciman seeks to preserve politics itself from forces that threaten its ruin. Respecting the difficulties faced by contemporary politicians, he pulls off the tricky feat of chastising them without further undermining politics.

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