Obama should rue the day he appointed Clinton

The revival of the Clinton psychodrama is blocking Obama's attempt to transcend the old divisions

Hillary Clinton's humourless response to a Congolese student who asked what her husband thought of China's economic relations with the Congo should remind President Obama of the hazards of having the Clinton family drama back at the centre of US politics.

The student, who in fact asked for Obama's thoughts on the subject and had his question mangled by a hapless translator, was dealt a stinging reply by Clinton.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she asked incredulously. "My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. You ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion; I'm not going to channel my husband."

The incident confirms that self-deprecation remains an art foreign to Clinton and that her status as secretary of state has done little to assuage her resentment at not landing the top job.

In today's Independent, Helen Wilkinson (while failing to note the erroneous translation) apparently defends Clinton on the basis that she is a female politician and that some of her critics are misogynists. She refers her readers to the almost "pathological" attacks on Clinton during the presidential campaign.

Well, in fact there was something rather vulgar and sinister about the sexist attacks on Clinton.

The Fox News correspondent Tucker Carlson, for instance, crudely remarked that Clinton: "feels castrating, overbearing and scary . . . When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." While right-wing goons, whose idea of a fun day out is to chant "iron my shirt" at female politicians, were painfully conspicuous throughout the campaign.

But what will not do is to rewrite history, as Wilkinson does, and portray Clinton as a political innocent who has always steered clear of smear tactics.

It was Clinton who during the scurrilous campaign to 'out' Obama as a 'secret Muslim' pandered to such paranoia by declaring that Obama was not a Muslim "as far as I know ". And it was the Clinton camp that appealed to the US electorate's basest instincts by circulating images of Obama dressed in traditional Somali garb across the media.

Moreover, Clinton's mendacious claim to have come "under sniper fire" at the Tuzla Air Force Base during her trip to Bosnia (a subsequent video revealed her peaceful arrival) should have disqualified her from holding any political office.

Obama's decision to welcome Clinton into his administration after her disgraceful campaign may have appeared magnanimous to some but to me it seemed almost masochistic.

As Maureen Dowd has cogently argued in the New York Times, the presence of Clinton in Obama's team has stymied his attempt to transcend the old political divisions.

"The postpartisan, postracial, post-Clinton-dysfunction world that Barack Obama was supposed to usher in when he hit town on his white charger, with turtle doves tweeting, has vanished."

At a time when the Obama administration desparately needs to mount a rearguard action against the conservative assaults on its health-care policy it can ill afford the revival of the Clinton psychodrama.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser