Israel is more than a country; it is an archetype. The Jewish state is the supreme embodiment of the national principle: of the desire of every people to have their own state. ~Daniel Hannan, The Daily Telegraph
Do people who say these sorts of things expect to be taken seriously? The nation-state has had many an “archetype” like this, many of them having rather unpleasant and destructive histories in service to an ideal principle of nationality. Now I don’t begrudge these peoples their desires to have political independence; unlike most people, I do not run in terror from those who think that a community constituted of people mostly like themselves is the sane, normal and natural sort of community to have. By and large, these sorts of people are right, and cosmopolitans, multiculturalists and the Church of Kumbayah are dead wrong when it comes to understanding what makes for functioning societies. But I object strenuously to taking a real country with real people, which are far more important than any “national principle,” and making them seem less important than the abstraction that they are supposed to be embodying or representing. “America is more than a country; it is a universal nation” is the sort of statement that makes me feel queasy, and the same goes when it is applied to other nations. That Mr. Hannan dresses up his love of abstraction with support for British Euroskepticism (where does this come from?) and somehow makes this into an argument about Europe and basic assumptions about national and cultural identity is more annoying.
That he would make the (in my view) appalling connection between “Zionist Conservatives” and the Roundheads and Whigs of Britain’s liberal tradition only serves to strengthen my feelings of contempt for this article, which has the outrageous title, “When we question Israel, we question democracy itself”. Now, as readers will have gathered, I have no great love for democracy (the site is called Eunomia, after all), but this is a dirty rhetorical trick that can’t go unchallenged.
What, you might ask, on God’s green earth do Roundheads have to do with Zionism (except perhaps for the Puritans’ rather unfortunate habit of identifying their dreadful regimes with the City on the Hill)? Well, Mr. Hannan will tell you:
They [the Roundheads] believe in democracy, however messy its outcomes. They distrust elites and their opinions, and want power devolved to the lowest practicable level.
Yes, messy outcomes like massacre, regicide and oppression–“stuff happens,” does it not? What that last part has to do with the concentrated power of a nation-state or a heavily socialised society such as one finds in Israel, no one can tell. Of course, Roundheads also believed in treason, rebellion and regicide leading to republican despotism and government by the military. They believed in religious oppression and social leveling. The Whigs for their part were wealthy oligarchs who abused their positions to shape policy to suit private interests; they were traitors to their country on at least one prominent occasion; their understanding of human nature and society was risible. If I were a Zionist, I would be deeply offended by the comparison, especially since this is supposed to be an argument in favour of Israel. If I were a present-day democrat, I would be appalled that my values are being compared with those of Cromwell. Parliamentary rule and revolutionary enthusiasms did lead to Cromwell’s dictatorship, which bears some characteristics of democratic depotism for that reason, but it was first and foremost a military dictatorship ruled by force and fear.
What about the other side? Those Euro-loving Arabists? Well, Mr. Hannan has a story about them, too:
The Euro-enthusiast/Arabists are Cavaliers. They think that democracy sometimes needs to be tempered by good sense, order and seemliness, and worry lest the wisdom of generations be overturned by a transient popular majority.
Now, mind you, this is showing up in the Telegraph, flagship paper of Toryism. The modern Conservatives have relatively little to do with the Tories of old (alas), but British Toryism was foursquare in the tradition of the Cavaliers and the Royalists who came after them. The name itself derives from a slur directed at Catholic Royalists in Ulster, toraigh (Gael., highwayman). In short Mr. Hannan says that all good Conservatives today are the heirs of Lloyd George insofar as they support Israel and “democracy,” and anyone who dissents must be a “Cavalier”–as if this were some sort of insult for people who really understood what the old Tory tradition involved! But I am confident it is intended as an insult–what greater ideological crime is there today than to be skeptical of democracy, much less a loyal defender of absolutist kings?
Anyone who calls himself a Conservative and isn’t worried about tempering democracy with “good sense, order and seemliness” and who doesn’t worry that it will overturn the wisdom of generations in a fit of popular enthusiasm doesn’t know what conservatism is. He doesn’t really have much business calling himself conservative at all, much less lecturing other people about what they as conservatives should or shouldn’t believe.
But there’s more. Get a load of this contrast:
The Roundhead is philo-Semitic: it was Cromwell himself who brought Jews back to England. When he looks at the Middle East, his sympathy – in the literal sense of fellow-feeling – is with Israel, a state that, even while fighting for its survival, has retained a boisterous parliamentary system, a free press and independent courts.
The Cavalier, by contrast, regrets the displacement of a traditional, hierarchical society by a brash and consumerist one. His sympathy is with the simple Bedouin in his flowing robes. He admires Glubb Pasha and T. E. Lawrence, and believes that Britain has obligations to its old friends – Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf monarchies.
So Mr. Hannan apparently believes that Britain has no obligations to old friends and seems to align being philo-Semitic with an enthusiasm for brash consumerism (which, if uttered by one of the Arabists, would be taken as positive proof of the man’s anti-Semitism). Is any of this supposed to make the Arabists feel that they have gone awry? As far as I’m concerned any conservative worthy of the name regrets the onset of brash consumerism and the departure of traditional, hierarchical society. That does not make him an automatic friend of Bedouin sheikhs, nor does it make him into a member of the T.E. Lawrence fan club. There is hierarchical society, and then there’s hierarchical society. What any of it has necessarily to do with a man’s view of Israel’s campaign in Lebanon or his view of Israel in general is entirely obscure.
But it doesn’t stop there (how could it?):
The Roundhead is pro-American. He loves the story of a nation founded in a popular revolt against a remote regime. He inclines, in particular, toward the Republicans: heirs, both lineally and ideologically, to the American Whigs. He revels in the pluralism of US democracy, where everyone from the sheriff to the garbage man is elected. The Cavalier, on the other hand, thinks that so much democracy opens the door to populism and crassness. He thinks that American foreign policy, especially in its current form, is crowd-pleasing and lacking in subtlety.
But American foreign policy is lacking in subtlety. Whether it is “crowd-pleasing” any longer is debatable (ask the 60% who oppose the Iraq war whether they are pleased or not). Democracy does open the door to populism and crassness–look around you! Now it might be that democracy has virtues, or it might be that it is the best system of government available (I deny both claims), but to deny that is encourages the mediocre and debases the culture is to deny what the last century and a half of history in the West has shown us. The Roundheads, Whigs and Red Republicans are linked together indeed, but why on earth would a sane Tory want to have anything to do with any of them? Mr. Hannan then tells of one of the contemporary “Cavaliers”, a Mr. Soames, MP:
Like all good Cavaliers, he values outcomes over process, and frets that Britain’s interests are being jeopardised by a dogmatic foreign policy.
But isn’t it the democratist and neocon complaint that their opponents are obsessed with process and uninterested in concrete results? Now the “Cavaliers” are preoccupied with outcomes and not process, and this is supposed to be a mark against them? How? How is valuing competence and success over idealistic procedures of voting and popular government the wrong way to go? But before he concludes he offers a horrifying vision of the future:
Time would seem to be on Mr Gove’s side. Most younger Tories are pro-Israel, pro-Washington, anti-Brussels. A majority of the new intake has endorsed the manifesto of Roundhead Conservatism, Direct Democracy, first serialised in this newspaper, which proposes the massive decentralisation and democratisation of the British state, and whose very language is Cromwellian: the authors call for a “New Model Party”, whose politicians should adopt a “Self-Denying Ordinance” towards the exercise of state power.
I cannot comprehend why anyone would boast of his intellectual and spiritual affinity to one of Europe’s first dictators. If they are truly committed to decentralism, surely the language of Harrington or Bolingbroke or some other member of the Country tradition would be far more suitable. I can entertain friendly thoughts about authoritarianism now and again under certain conditions, but full-on fanatical despotism backed by no legitimacy except brute force? That is the language and symbolism that Tories have chosen to take into the future?
Peter Hitchens is right–the Tories ought to be dissolved, if this is the sort of hideous political morality their younger members are imbibing. Can you imagine a Frenchman boasting that his party’s members owe their inspiration to Robespierre? Actually, that might not be surprising–Americans wrap themselves in the mantle of Lincoln with a sickening frequency, so what’s one more cult of personality for a brutal despot? Perhaps Cromwell represents what Daniel Pipes called a “democratically-minded strongman.” You know, like Chiang Kai-shek, friend of democracy.
So what was the point of this torturous journey through the highways and byways of Whiggish ideological fervour? It is, as it began, all about Israel (or rather explaining why it isn’t really about Israel, which makes everything Israel has done OK):
The current controversy isn’t only about Israel. It is about whether sovereign states can act unilaterally, whether we trust the UN and other supra-national bodies, whether the West is prepared to use proportionate force in defence of its values and, ultimately, whether democracy is worth having.
This is almost unworthy of a response. But it seems to be typical of today’s Roundheads: if you make reasonable criticisms of Israeli excesses, you are not only subverting the entire Western world (dubious) but are also attacking our very system of government at its roots (a lie). No one on the British (or American) right rejected Israel’s right to defend itself; no one rejected Israel’s right to “act unilaterally”; no one rejected the objective of punishing Hizbullah’s provocations. What many people, including “Cavaliers” on both sides of the ocean, have rejected is the excessive means Israel has used and the punishment it has inflicted on all of Lebanon, which might also have some claim to the same rights under the law of nations that Mr. Hannan so vigorously upholds on behalf of Israel.
And another thing: if Israel were using proportionate force, I would have no strong objections to the campaign itself. Certainly, my criticisms would be much less severe. I might question the wisdom of it and ask whether the long-term consequences would be what Israel’s government wants them to be, but I would hardly have criticised the campaign itself to the extent that I have.
But, to use the categories that Mr. Hannan has chosen to use, Israel’s apologists here and in Britain have typically cheered on the campaign or at least looked on it with indifference with the very same spirit of cruel fanaticism and violence that inspired the Roundheads. The moderate, humane Cavalier gentlemen, by contrast, look at this zeal with the same horror that they felt when the rebels butchered their King or sold their country to a Dutch invader; they view with disdain the paper theories of Neo-Roundheads and Neo-Jacobins and consider them the source of great misery and human suffering, and not without reason. Why the Tories should want to go down the dark path that leads to the feet (and boot) of Cromwell, whom all decent Tories have loathed since time immemorial, is a mystery; why Mr. Hannan thinks this love affair with Cromwell is something to celebrate is baffling.
It would truly be a shame if honest sympathy and goodwiil for Israel, such as that displayed by Mr. Hitchens, were to be yoked inextricably to the revolutionary fanaticism of Pym and Cromwell, the Covenanters and the Whigs. It is just such a fanatical mentality that precipitates these crises and encourages the worst instincts in men. It has nothing to do with an appreciation for democracy, which would be rooted in a respect for all men, and it has no bearing on sympathy for Israel, which may finds its roots in a genuine feeling of belonging to a common history, and everything to do with a bizarre obsession with power, of which Cromwell’s illegitimate, bloody dictatorship is the perfect symbol.
Perhaps there is need to dig up Cromwell’s body again and stage yet another mock execution, as Charles II did after the Restoration, to drive the point home that the man was a traitor and a scoundrel. Those who would create a Cromwellian style in politics or use Cromwellian language are not simply unconservative; they are verging on very dark and troubled ideological territory. If the new Roundheads cannot see the evils of Cromwell, why indeed should the “Cavaliers” take seriously their arguments about the morality of the war in Lebanon or indeed about much else?