Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Shock and (Auberon) Waugh




It's exactly ten years ago this month since the sad death of the great anti-war journalist and writer Auberon Waugh, an 'Old Right' hero of the 'Old Left'.

Here's my tribute to Waugh from the anti-war (but not anti-Waugh) magazine The American Conservative.



Thank you for your letter. Would it give you comfort if I suggest you call yourself the Official Auberon Waugh Appreciation Society rather than the Unofficial Auberon Waugh Appreciation Society? I know of no rivals.
Of course I am trying to get Blair indicted for war crimes. It will take a bit of time and I fear I have rather squabbled with the Crown Prosecution Service over the years, but we must always hope for the best.
Yours sincerely,
Auberon Waugh, Combe Florey, Somerset.



A copy of the fax that my friend Stuart Carr and I received from the late Auberon Waugh on June 6, 1999 is among my most treasured possessions. As two antiwar paleo-leftists living in Budapest, we had been appalled at Britain’s leading role in the bombing of neighboring Yugoslavia. Reading the British papers at that time was depressing—they were full of NATO propaganda about alleged Serbian atrocities; how Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, was the new Hitler; and why the war on one of Europe’s most Anglophile nations was such a good thing. But one voice stood out against the legion of bloodthirsty laptop bombadiers. It belonged not to a leftist but to a man described as the most reactionary conservative of his age.



Auberon Waugh hated war. He loathed the pomposity of Western politicians who thought they had a divine right to go around the world intervening in the affairs of sovereign states. Lots of people are calling for the arrest of Tony Blair for war crimes in 2010, but very few were doing so in 1999, when Waugh was. “The charge against Tony Blair is not so much that he took a very stupid decision … or even that his high moral pose may have been a front for ordinary self-importance and power mania,” Waugh wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. “The reason that he must be arrested and brought to trial for war crimes is that we cannot allow this sort of thing to happen again. We cannot accept that the U.S., supported by any group of countries, may bomb any nation whose domestic policies it finds objectionable. Such a system would only work if the President of the United States were God, which he obviously isn’t and never has been.”


Sadly, Waugh did not succeed in his attempt to have the “twerpish” Blair arrested. Just 18 months after he penned his article, Bron was dead at the age of 61. No one else took up the task of trying to hold Blair to account, with the result that four years later the British Prime Minister did it all again—as Waugh had predicted—this time in Iraq, with even more bloody consequences than in Yugoslavia.


You can read the whole of the article here.


10 comments:

Robin Carmody said...

The best writer I ever fundamentally disagreed with. It is interesting indeed to think of how he became an ally of convenience for the old Left because that would have been utterly unimaginable in the 70s; if you've ever read his anthologised Private Eye & Spectator columns from that era, it's fascinating how genuinely convinced he is that capitalism was dead in Britain, and that a drift towards permanent socialist control was irreversible. A week before the planned 1978 election was delayed, he commented in the Spectator that British capitalism was "in ruins", but a mere six weeks later he observed that, partially due to Callaghan's poor sense of timing, Britain's public services were instead in for a long, slow death - yet another sign of what a crucial time that was.

I do think it is necessary to say, though, that Iran is not a particularly happy or healthy society for those who do not conform to its norms. You can believe that without believing it should be bombed tomorrow. Bron seemed to see non-western societies as a model because they resembled how he wished the West could still be, in a world without pop culture; I sympathise with that sometimes, but it's not really practical politics.

Pat Davers said...

Indeed. It's funny, but the "Old Right" and the "Old Left" were sworn enemies during the 70's, (with the former even contemplating some sort of military coup against the latter, if they ever got too big for their boots). However, at the end of a 30 years period, during which the "right" has come to stand for economic liberalism and the "left" for social liberalism, resulting in an increasingly fractured and atomised culture, there seems to be some sort of movement attempt establish some kind of common ground, based around a more cohesive conception of society. I sincerely wish them luck with this, although I fear that that the issues that so divided them in the past may be too great to be overcome.

Robin Carmody said...

Indeed, the legacy of the Cold War is still overwhelmingly divisive. Without it, a paper like the Daily Mail might well feel able to support socialism, which would be the only means of reducing the cultural tendencies it claims (hypocritically, because it supports the barely-regulated market) to deplore.

The thing about Bron Waugh's criticism of Bush I's Gulf War and Clinton's bombing of the rump Yugoslavia is that it was not really a serious political analysis of imperialism, it was simply a reflexive reaction against "vulgar, burger-munching jumped-up colonials". If Britain had still had the power to do such things under its own steam, he would probably have approved of them, seeing how he defended the 1956 Suez adventure. Of course it would have been good to see Bush II criticised from the right, especially in a paper as neocon as the Telegraph in 2002/3, but don't confuse Waugh's post-imperial melancholia with serious politics. Also, there is still a profound difference between Waugh's philosophy and mine; for all the sporadic common ground, I believe that the state has a role in both culture and economy, he didn't. His (and also Peregrine Worsthorne's, and to some extent Peter Hitchens's) mythical *pre-capitalist* utopia is no more progressive than neo-Thatcherism.

Gregor said...

Excellent article. I suppose I'd take the rather gloomy view that old left and right can only really bond over the utter stupidity of neo-cons. Still, whilst the neo-cons are still very influential here, maybe for now that will be enough.

John said...

Great article. I especially liked the part about Waugh's encounter with '80s yuppies. The same is still true today. I personally think yuppies must be the most boring people alive, even if they happen to be nice enough otherwise. But then again, the whole culture is becoming increasingly boring. This is what happens when you live under the tyranny of materialism.

Pat Davers said...

You hear it often, (indeed, you can read it right here) that over the economy Ed Milliband would be considered to the "right" of Ted Heath, who was very much the post-war dirigiste. What you hear somewhat less, is that James Callaghan, with his Baptist upbringing, was probably more conservative on social issues than David Cameron, certainly far more so than Nick Clegg. With all major parties right now crowding around a fairly tight liberal consensus, their more traditional followers a left feeling rather bereft.

Will their shared advocacy of non-interventionism, capital punishment and nationalized railways be enough to unite the likes of Neil Clark and Peter Hitchens?

Who knows.....

jock mctrousers said...

Thanks for that, Neil. That really revised my opinion of Waugh. I subscribed to the Literary Review, which he edited, for a while (till I switched to the LRB), and liked it and his foosty tweediness, but I'd only encountered the more reactionary side of his political opinions, and thought he was basically an arsehole. I may well get hold of his collected writings, and give him another chance.

I noticed Oliver Kamm on the comments thread at American Conservative. He follows you everywhere. He really loves you, you know. LOL (as they say these days).

Robin Carmody said...

I doubt whether I'll have a convincing answer here (I didn't before), but I often wonder *how* Neil would restructure society as he wishes. A case in point is the Net Book Agreement, which collapsed in the mid-90s before online retailing took off, and which he would presumably wish to restore, symptomatic as it was of the old regulated economy. But even if the political and economic changes had not happened, it would almost certainly have been rendered unworkable by *technological* change - i.e. the growth of the internet and the near-certainty that Amazon et al would have based themselves abroad to bypass UK legislation, rendering the Agreement an irrelevant farce which would have had to be abandoned most embarrassingly.

It should be noted here that Neil describes societies in which internet use is heavily monitored and restricted by the state, with "unhealthy", "foreign" sites often censored, as "happier and healthier" than Western societies. Can I put two and two together and suggest that, in Neil's ideal society, internet use would indeed be fairly tightly controlled so as to maintain the planned economy? It is a reasonable assumption; I myself would oppose internet censorship with my life, whatever the justification was.

The thing with Bron Waugh is that, entertaining and skilled though he was as a writer, there's really no difference between his position ("keep those foreigners out with their hamburgers and rock'n'roll and smoking bans") and the Richard Littlejohn position ("keep those foreigners out with their comparative social democracy and metrication and garlic"). Obviously, Waugh stood out in his last years at the Telegraph because the paper was by then dominated by the latter position, and the former had been marginalised, but it's still the same thing - insularity and xenophobia. Just because it's directed against the originators of the invasion of Iraq doesn't make it any better. Also, I'm against *Anglo-Saxon* imperialism, not simply the American kind (a crucial difference), and Waugh clearly wasn't seeing how he defended the Suez adventure, which was as stupid and ill-planned as the invasion of Iraq 47 years later.

Robin Carmody said...

I doubt whether I'll have a convincing answer here (I didn't before), but I often wonder *how* Neil would restructure society as he wishes. A case in point is the Net Book Agreement, which collapsed in the mid-90s before online retailing took off, and which he would presumably wish to restore, symptomatic as it was of the old regulated economy. But even if the political and economic changes had not happened, it would almost certainly have been rendered unworkable by *technological* change - i.e. the growth of the internet and the near-certainty that Amazon et al would have based themselves abroad to bypass UK legislation, rendering the Agreement an irrelevant farce which would have had to be abandoned most embarrassingly.

It should be noted here that Neil describes societies in which internet use is heavily monitored and restricted by the state, with "unhealthy", "foreign" sites often censored, as "happier and healthier" than Western societies. Can I put two and two together and suggest that, in Neil's ideal society, internet use would indeed be fairly tightly controlled so as to maintain the planned economy?

The thing with Waugh is that, entertaining and skilled though he was, there's really no difference between his position ("keep those foreigners out with their hamburgers and rock'n'roll and smoking bans") and the Littlejohn position ("keep those foreigners out with their comparative social democracy and metrication and garlic"). Obviously, Waugh stood out in his last years at the Telegraph because the paper was by then dominated by the latter position, and the former had been marginalised, but it's still the same thing - insularity and xenophobia. Just because it's directed against the originators of the invasion of Iraq doesn't make it any better. Also, I'm against *Anglo-Saxon* imperialism, not simply the American kind (a crucial difference), and Waugh clearly wasn't seeing how he defended the Suez adventure, which was as stupid and ill-planned as the invasion of Iraq 47 years later.

Neil Clark said...

Thanks for the comments & kind words.
Will get back to reply to some of the points raised shortly.