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What David Cameron can learn from Abraham Lincoln

Wearing the Union blue.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is one of the noblest statements ever delivered, and forcing the abolition bill through a reluctant Congress, as Steven Spielberg’s masterful Oscarnominated film attests, was a monumental achievement. But Lincoln’s principal contribution to American history was to save the Union, as those from the Southern states are quick to tell you. In the former Confederacy, the civil war is still called “the War Between the States”.

Lincoln confided his thoughts about secession and slavery in a letter of 1862. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that,” he wrote. “What I do about slavery, and the coloured race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

His proclamation did not, in fact, free the slaves in the North, nor was he in a position to free slaves in the Confederate South, but, under his powers as commander-in-chief in wartime, he issued an executive order that freed all slaves in the Southern states as soon as they were occupied by the Union army.

It may at first seem a little far-fetched, but there are poignant similarities between the conundrum that Lincoln encountered 150 years ago and the dilemma David Cameron faces today. They are both confronted with threats to the very existence of the nations they govern. While Lincoln was obliged to respond to a fait accompli, a group of slave states that had decided before his election to wrest themselves from the Union, by force of arms if necessary, Cameron finds himself under siege on all sides. But while Lincoln was presented with the simple option of whether to take up arms to defend the Union or watch as his country split in two, Cam eron has no such easy choice.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party has finally achieved what it has been dreaming of for 80 years. It has a mandate to demand from Westminster a referendum on whether, after three centuries united with England and Wales, Scotland should become a free nation again. The Union came about as a result of the Union of the Crowns, when the Scottish king James VI, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, acceded to the throne of England following the death of the childless Elizabeth I in 1603. It took a full century before the English and Scottish parliaments combined in the Acts of Union of 1707. Lincoln was obliged to defend a union barely 90 years old; Cameron must protect a union that has lasted more than 300 years.

In Ireland, Cameron presides over the latest skirmish in a bloody struggle that has lasted much longer. The colonisation of Ireland was messy and brutal from the start, and the independence wrested from Britain in 1922 left the northern, overwhelmingly Protestant and unionist part of the island in British hands. A border had to be drawn somewhere, leaving many who would prefer to live in the republic stranded in a British province. The continuing troubles offer a challenge to Cameron to find a permanent peace. No less than in Scotland, British sovereignty and British lives are severely at risk.

Then there is the European Union. Those with a sense of history will remember that joining Europe was always predominantly a Conservative project. It was Harold Macmillan, with Edward Heath at his side, who first flirted with the continentals in 1961 and had his overture rudely rebuffed by Charles de Gaulle’s “Non!”. Heath the eternal bachelor then made it his life’s mission to make a marriage with the Europeans and the lasting legacy of his otherwise awkward, chilly and ultimately tragic premiership was British entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. As Cameron must be all too aware, the principled Heath condemned the referendum that Harold Wilson called on European membership two years later as a shabby gimmick, designed to appease internal Labour divisions over the Common Market.

Since the moment when Heath’s successor Margaret Thatcher – who had campaigned in favour of remaining in Europe in 1975 – began arguing, as prime minister after 1979, against closer European union, the Conservatives have been profoundly and openly divided on the matter. The rupture over Europe, even more than Thatcher’s unpopular poll tax, led to her defenestration by cabinet colleagues in 1990. John Major’s leadership of the Tories was blighted by the question of Europe; and the election of three Eurosceptic leaders in a row – William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – did not settle the matter.

Cameron’s inheritance is a party facing both ways on Europe, and his inability to reconcile the opposing forces has given rise to a challenge for the affections of his patriotic electoral base from the anti-European Ukip. Although Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, along with every other Ukip candidate, failed to win a Commons seat in 2010 (Farage was beaten by a candidate dressed as a dolphin), his party stole enough votes from the Conservatives to deprive Cameron of a parliamentary majority.

When he dreamed of leading his party, Cameron could never have imagined that Britain’s existence would be subject to a three-pronged attack. But he finds himself in the same position as today’s Republican leadership in America, under assault from angry rank and file who feel they are being ignored and betrayed by their leaders. The Republicans, once the proud “party of Lincoln”, have evolved into a testy vehicle for insurgent mavericks and malcontents.

To add insult to indignity, the “Grand Old Party”, which once bravely saved the Union, is the home of a new secessionist movement. Having failed to devolve substantial powers from the federal government to the states, many are demanding independence. At present, eight states, all from the defeated Confederacy, have petitioned the White House to be allowed to secede: Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama and South Carolina. The muddled, ahistorical thinking behind the treacherous talk is evident in the argument proffered by the libertarian Ron Paul: “It’s very American to talk about secession. That’s how we came into being.”

On a personal level, there are as few similarities between Cameron and Lincoln as between Jacob and Esau. Lincoln was brought up in a sparsely furnished log cabin and, much to his ignorant father’s despair, taught himself to read and write, eventually emerging as a jobbing country lawyer in Illinois. Cameron, as we know, was the son of high privilege. Everyone who met Lincoln commented on his rough looks and his even rougher clothes. Cameron’s smooth, unlined face betrays an easy, affluent, well-fed life.

Both men, however, could be described more accurately as Whigs than Conservatives, in their commitment to parliament or Congress over absolute powers held by the monarch or president. Indeed, Lincoln was an old American Whig before he joined the Republicans over the issue of abolition. Allied to their commitment to rewarding individual effort, irrespective of background, is a strong, Protestant sense that their good fortune entails paying something back. Despite his comfortable circumstances, Cameron has argued that “it’s where you are going to, not where you have come from, that matters”. In a decisive break from the philosophy of heroic individualism that inspired Thatcher, he believes “there is such a thing as society”.

As well as soaring ambition, the two men share other similarities. Both are most eloquent when they do not refer to notes. Although stiff and wooden at first, Lincoln’s speeches gathered pace and by the peroration he would be ripping off his necktie, loosening his starched collar and throwing his arms around like a deranged windmill. “His pronunciation is bad, his manners uncouth and his general appearance anything but prepossessing,” is how one eyewitness described his platform presence.

Cameron’s delivery is calm, ordered and deliberate. His speech to the Tory party conference in 2005, delivered without notes, may not have been as powerful and inspirational as the 268 words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863, which would be a tall order for anyone except, perhaps, Winston Churchill. But the performance at Blackpool, in its carefully pitched content tailored to the party faithful and the confidence of its delivery, ensured his election as leader.

Lincoln took into his administration the big beasts of the Republican Party whom he had beaten to the Republican nomination: William H Seward, Salmon P Chase and Edward Bates. And Cameron, too, assembled a team of former rivals. To become Tory leader, he saw off David Davis, Liam Fox and Kenneth Clarke, all of whom he invited into his shadow cabinet. Like Lincoln, Cameron leads his disparate colleagues with the minimum of friction. But there the favourable comparisons between the two leaders start to run out.

Lincoln was always a man of principle rather than pragmatism. He could be rash, failing to hold his tongue in the presence of those he knew disagreed with him, and found it difficult to compromise even when it was in his best interest to do so. Nowhere was this more obvious and powerful than when he spelled out, years before running for the White House, what he felt about race.

He declared that when the Founding Fathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be selfevident: that all men are created equal,” they meant “the whole great family of man” and not merely those with white faces. Lincoln said the founders knew enough about human nature to imagine that, “in the distant future”, people would emerge who would “set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. But he was certain that racism could never have been in the founders’ minds and he would have none of it.

In comparison to this eloquent statement of principle, just one among dozens that Lincoln crisply articulated in his short life, Cam - eron emerges as a dissembler, always alert for a way to delay taking a stand, ever ready with the smudgy phrase and the tactical retreat. Let us give him a pass on Ireland. Few have got it right and it may well be insoluble so long as a vociferous minority in Northern Ireland demands the impossible and the intractable majority insists on being British. In Scotland, however, when the SNP obtained a majority in the Scottish Parliament and claimed a mandate to call a referendum on independence, Cameron readily ignored Lincoln’s example to resist the dissolution of the Union and readily agreed to Alex Salmond’s demands.

In calling an all-or-nothing, in-out referendum on independence next year in Scotland only, David William Donald Cameron, to give him his full, Scots-derived name, failed to question the legality of one half of the nation being able to secede from the other on its own cognisance. Instead, he conceded the principle that if the referendum records a majority of Scots in favour of secession, that is enough to grant a divorce, as if England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Scots living in the rest of Britain, were not entitled to a say in the dissolution of the United Kingdom. “I’m not going to stand here and suggest Scotland couldn’t make a go of being on its own, if that’s what people decide,” Cameron said. “There are plenty of small, independent nation states of a similar size or even smaller. Scotland could make its way in the world alongside countries like those.”

Lincoln would never have yielded on such a fundamental principle. As he put it, “If we do not make common cause to save the good old ship of the Union on this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage.”

When Cameron conceded the principle that one part of the United Kingdom may constitutionally break from the rest, he also declared himself “ready for the fight for our country’s life”. He appears to be in favour of two incompatible principles, the right of Britain to remain a nation and the right of Scotland to secede. He then adopts the principle that gives Scotland the moral right to secede to inform his party’s demand that Britain be allowed to renegotiate a looser union with our European partners. What, then, is Cameron’s guiding principle when dealing with Scotland and the European Union? There is none. Both are craven acts of political expedience. His promise of a referendum on British membership of the EU is largely an attempt to save the Conservatives from being driven from office by Ukip.

Cameron’s answer to the Ukip threat to the renewal of his Downing Street lease is to avoid saying exactly what the relationship between Britain and the EU should be, because plainly he doesn’t know where the line should be drawn. Instead he abrogates the responsibility of a true leader and, in the hope of being re-elected, promises an in-out referendum on EU membership, so long as he is re-elected. As Lincoln asked, “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried?”

Cameron is less a conservative than a trimmer, less a Heath than a Wilson, less a That - cher than a Blair.

When Lincoln confronted the break-up of the United States, he borrowed from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” To avoid the consequences of the Conservatives’ deeply divided house, Cameron is willing to risk the dissolution of the United Kingdom and British withdrawal from the European Union. Both are too high a price to pay for trying to bridge the irrevocable schism in the Tory ranks.

Nicholas Wapshott’s most recent book is “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” (W W Norton, £12.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism