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20 September 1999

Idealism is alive and well

The British protesters who were jailed in Burma show that the great causes live on. They just aren't

By Melanie McDonagh

They don’t make them like that any more. Melita Norwood, the granny spy, that is. For all that most people felt that Stalin’s Best Friend deserved censure for passing on state secrets to a regime that was as odious as Hitler’s, there was a batsqueak of respect for her as well. Especially among the young, for whom the talk about betraying your country was a rather quaint and fascinating exercise in cold-war speak. That burning sense of social justice that led her to become a communist, the altruism that made her spurn financial reward for her risks, the continuing commitment that makes her agitate for solidarity with Cuba . . . you don’t get that kind of disinterested political passion any more, do you?

Well, actually, you do. Not, obviously, in the same form. Stalinism is gone, done for, but the idealism that animated the impenitent Norwood is still with us. The recent anniversary of the Greenham Common protest was the occasion for sorrowful and vindictive retrospectives of that particular kind of political agitation – chiefly female and largely pacifist – which, as Nicholas Soames scornfully remarked, had no effect on the outcome of the cold war. But that was also the week in which we heard about Rachel Goldwyn, a 28-year-old British graduate from a respectable, middle-class family, who is in prison in Rangoon for singing a protest song in public while wearing symbolic shackles, a victim of Burma’s singularly unpleasant military regime. She hadn’t even told her mother and father where she was going when she set off.

Burma is a faraway country of which we know little, but know lots more now, precisely because the human rights condition of a country leaps into prominence once a Brit gets imprisoned there. Which may be what motivated James Mawdsley, who is 26, and was also jailed, at the beginning of the month, for 17 years for handing out anti-government literature in support of the Burmese pro-democracy agitators.

It was also the week in which we all became paid-up pundits on the subject of East Timor, a place even further away than Burma, into which our Australian and New Zealand brethren are poised to commit their young men as peacekeepers/-makers/-enforcers. The invasion of the country by Indonesia happened 25 years ago, yet its situation has never been so desperate or so prominent.

There is no question that Britain will lend logistical support for intervention; indeed the moral indignation at the murder and dispossession so far outstrips Robin Cook’s capacity to give it solid, practical expression.

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What I’m trying to say is that the mood of the day isn’t logical self-interest. The cynical worldliness of someone like Alan Clark is dead with him. Perhaps the best expression of the emotional idealism of the times was the extraordinary public reaction to what happened in Kosovo, the unambiguous feeling that mass murder and mass dispossession are wrong, that something had to be done. The Prime Minister, in insisting that evil could not go unpunished, was going with the grain of public sentiment; the polls backed him all the way.

There’s an interesting want of dogmatism about the new idealism. It’s sentimental, plainly; telly-driven, obviously; and a world away from both party politics and legalism. It strikes me as classless, with a bias towards women and the young.

Perhaps what began it all was the war in Bosnia. Certainly it did in my own case. I visited Bosnia as a journalist from 1992, when the war started, to its close. And the more I went there, the more maddened I became by the disjunction between the rhetoric here and the reality on the ground. We were told by the worldly old men such as Lord Carrington that there was no one side to blame; politicians such as Malcolm Rifkind told us that facts had been created on the ground, and these had to be accepted – he was talking about ethnic cleansing; and all the old bores in clubs talked about ancient ethnic hatreds.

Well, that’s not what I found. For all the corruption that characterised every side in the war, for all that there were good people to be found among all the ethnic groups, I was left in no doubt that there was a real difference between the war aims of the various sides. That of Belgrade and, from 1993, Croatia, could be characterised as ethnic separatism. That of the Sarajevo government was, broadly, a pluralistic state. Moreover, the creation of the Serb republic was achieved by virtue of mass murder, systematic expulsions and army-backed terrorism. I met endless numbers of people who’d been in the detention camps in north-west Bosnia. The idea that we should partition the country to validate the ethnic cleansing seemed, and seems, to me intolerable.

I went back repeatedly, to see how events changed, how refugees became soldiers, what had happened to the people I had met. I became an awful bore about the subject, the Ancient Mariner at any dinner party.

I wasn’t alone in being fixated by the situation. There were any number of journalists who were radicalised by that war, of whom Ed Vulliamy and Martin Bell are probably the best known. But it wasn’t just the professional pundits who were emotionally engaged by the war; one of the most impressive campaigners I met during the war was a gentle maths teacher from Cork, who’d never done anything political and who ended up lobbying politicians in public and leaving her husband to mind the children when she went off to a women’s conference in Tuzla.

It would be nonsensical to suggest that contemporary idealism is wholly or even primarily bound up with foreign wars. The truth is that if anything taps the enthusiasm of the young, it’s environmentalism. Martha Gellhorn, one of the most distinguished women reporters of the century, remarked that this is the real, modern front line when it comes to moral engagement with events.

Obviously there are degrees of commitment – one friend of mine gave up journalism to work for a fraction of the wage for one of the wildlife trusts. But even the way that shoppers have spurned genetically modified groceries has a real element of idealism to it. It’s the concept that there’s more to life than buying cheap; that nature has to be respected, not manipulated. Consumerism may be the lowest level of political engagement, but it does change things.

The campaign against intensive farming, the antipathy to urban sprawl and the zeal for recycling are not politics but they are a kind of activism.

Which doesn’t mean to say that you can’t be in favour of military intervention in Kosovo and East Timor as well. Idealism is alive and well; it’s just not ideological any more.

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