The end of history

The twin anniversaries of 1968 and 2003 remind us that the story of the left is littered with utopia

It is a quirk of political history that the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the Iraq War and the 40th anniversary of the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demonstrations occurred within days of each other this March. I don't know which is the more depressing to observe: the baby boomers who took us to war in Iraq wriggling to justify their actions, or their contemporaries, preening themselves as they reminisce about the student revolutions of 1968.

Either way, the two anniversaries are fatefully interwoven in a way that obscures a genuine understanding of either event. There is little doubt that the organisers of the Stop the War movement see themselves as the heirs of those who demonstrated against US intervention in south-east Asia four decades ago. It is no coincidence that Andrew Burgin, a prominent member of the British anti-war movement, is now devoting himself to organising the "1968 and All That" celebrations to mark this year's anniversary. Nor should it really surprise anyone that a National Union of Students president during the late Sixties, Jack Straw, ended up as the foreign secretary who took us to war. For the militant left, his track record of treachery is a long one. When Essex University students dared to shout down a group of visiting MPs in April 1968, Straw issued a statement of pure charmlessness saying that their actions were "intolerable and inexcusable - I utterly condemn this". He may have drawn the attention of MI5, but Straw was never a radical. His fogeyish attitude to his fellow students' rebellion was entirely characteristic.

As these two anniversaries continue to generate considerable airtime and newsprint (we have the anniversaries of the May 1968 "events" and the end of the Iraq War to come, remember), it is somehow fitting that Straw is there to represent the government view. The Justice Secretary's woeful responses to John Humphrys's questions about the war on the Today programme recently demonstrated how utterly stripped of principle Labour's approach to the war has become. Which was worse: Straw's refusal to answer the question about whether the war had made Iraq a better place, or his retreat into the excuse that no one could have reasonably predicted that there would be no weapons of mass destruction? And yet, on the other side of the baby-boomer divide, there is a similar refusal to answer a straight question. What do those who wish to follow in the footsteps of the soixante-huitards say to those who ask whether their preferred option was for Saddam Hussein to remain in power? Of course the honest answer, at least in the short term, is "yes". But fortunately for those of us who were sceptical about intervention, with Saddam removed we no longer have to face the implications of that answer. Some would say that a contained Saddam would have been better than al-Qaeda unleashed on Iraq. Well, perhaps, but it is hard to know how anyone could judge the relative scale of such horrors.

New Labour has always had a problem with history. The failure of its main players to grasp the importance of understanding the past has always been yoked to their desperation to establish a legacy for the future. This is as true of Gordon Brown as it is of Tony Blair. All opposition, internal and external, was to be consigned to "the dustbin of history", and yet an ignorance of the history of the Middle East and Afghan istan, and its power over the present, has been the undoing of this government. In turn, the consequences of these two failing foreign adventures have detracted from its claims to a historic legacy in Northern Ireland and the Balkans.

Writing in 1992, the year Labour slumped to its fourth successive election defeat, the cultural critic Greil Marcus bemoaned the growing fashion for the phrase "the dustbin of history". In a brilliant essay in the liberal American journal Common Knowledge, entitled "The Dustbin of History in a World Made Fresh", Marcus quoted Henri Weber, a student at the Sorbonne in 1968. "It was fantastic," said Weber. "Everything we did immediately belonged to history." Marcus observed: "No - everything you did was immediately written out of history. Now your words sound childish." Marcus's essay still bears rereading in the context of present discussions of 1968 now that it is itself a 16-year-old historical document. "It is an embarrassment, listening to these stories and these cries, these utopian cheers and laments because the utopian is measured always by its failure . . ."

Marcus was writing these words not as a right-wing critic of the 1968 movement, but as a baby boomer whose own politics were forged by the student revolutions. Yet his observations, even in 1992, were stripped of the sentimentality so often associated with accounts of this period.

The left in Britain has long been seduced by the romance of 1968. Whereas leaders of the movement in France such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Bernard Kouchner entered mainstream politics, the equivalent figures in Britain preferred to enter the media, leaving this territory to the likes of Jack Straw. How different would it have been if Tariq Ali had followed his destiny and become a politician?

A bitter maxim

Instead, the "leader" of the Grosvenor Square demonstrations is reduced to writing about his personal disappointment and the betrayal of the cause on every five-year anniversary. His conclusions in the Guardian this month were particularly bleak: "Some, who once dreamed of a better future, have simply given up. Others espouse a bitter maxim: unless you relearn you won't earn . . . Renegades occupy posts in every west European government defending exploitation, wars, state terror and neocolonial occupations; others now retired from the academy specialise in producing reactionary dross on the blogosphere, displaying the same zeal with which they once excoriated factional rivals on the far left."

Ali can't even bring himself to mention the name of Bernard Kouchner, who led the strike committee of the faculty of medicine at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1968, but now sits in the right-wing government of François Fillon as foreign minister.

The twin anniversaries of 1968 and 2003 remind us that the history of the left is littered with utopian failures. New Labour was the photographic negative of 1968: socialism stripped of any revolutionary content. But still people invested it with their hopes, and its failure brings its own disappointments. The failure of its only vestige of utopian politics, the concept of "humanitarian intervention", will have far greater consequences than the collapse of the student revolutions.

In this month of anniversaries it is only proper that we should receive a visit from the great nemesis of the French left, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose election as president delivered the final blow to the spirit of '68. Speaking during the campaign he said: "In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all." Gordon Brown's summit with Sarkozy will include discussions on giving France one of the top jobs at Nato in return for sending 1,200 troops to Afghanistan, a deal to build a Franco-British aircraft carrier and plans to bring in French expertise to build a new generation of British nuclear power stations.

What a way to mark an anniversary.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.


Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”



He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.