We Who Are About To Die


Wednesday April 14 1999

The Guardian

Two and a half years ago, I wrote the first of these columns for

this paper, an attack on the pessimistic idea that the best we could hope for was Tony

Blair. As a result, the following morning I was contacted by Robin Cook, who asked me to

write jokes for his conference speech. I declined the offer, but admit I was flattered. As

I thanked him for asking, my instincts were to shout ‘Sodding Ada, are you really Robin

Cook? Hang on, I’ll get the neighbours, they’ll never believe this.’ His war colleague

George Robertson has not been such a fan, complaining about those columns which have

opposed bombing assorted foreigners. He prefers coverage such as last week’s photos of him

waving from a bomber, like a three-year-old in one of those planes in the corners of

supermarkets, where he looked as if he was yelling ‘Look at me, mum. Put some more money

in so I can blow up a car factory.’ So it may be him who will be most pleased that this

paper has decided this is to be the last of these columns. I suppose the press is so

packed full of anti-Nato Marxist columns with jokes, that there just isn’t room for all of

us. Which is a shame, because there are an enormous number of people who yearn for a

greater radicalism than anything offered by New Labour. Every test of opinion, from polls

on taxing the rich and privatisation, to ballots inside the Labour Party, shows this.

Blair remains apparently popular, not out of endorsement of his policies, but from a

reluctant feeling of ‘I suppose so, because what else is there?’ Who do you know who

genuinely likes him? No one. He must be the most unpopular most popular person there’s

ever been. So he feeds off pessimism. But to all those who used to demand a radically

different society to the free-market butchery we live in, but now accept, however

reluctantly, the Blair agenda, I would ask you to ask yourself when you felt most

inspired. It may have been during the CND protests, or fighting apartheid, during the

miners’ strike or campaigning against the poll tax. Not many will say ‘I’ll never forget

the exhilarating moment when I decided we couldn’t scrap nuclear missiles or support

asylum-seekers, because it might cost us votes in Stevenage.’ Which is why the greatest

privilege of writing this column has been that it’s put me in touch with some of the most

resilient, tenacious battlers, imbued with an inspiring optimism; characters such as the

Liverpool dockers, the deported but reprieved Onibiyo family, the Jubilee Line

electricians who had the audacity not only to strike but to win, refugee groups, Kurdish

centres, and countless people who have kindly sent me letters and information, which I

suppose I’ll now have time to reply to. ‘People only care about themselves,’ say the

pessimists, as an excuse for giving up. But if people are naturally selfish, why do so

many people give blood? Pessimists must think ‘Ah, trying to get a free biscuit off the

state.’ Why do people knock on your door to say you’ve left your headlights on? Are they

thinking ‘Well I don’t want his battery to run flat, ‘cos I’m going to nick it in half an

hour.’ Similarly, most people prefer a fighter against injustice to someone who

compromises with it. That’s why one of the most popular films of all time is Spartacus,

and not one in which the Romans say ‘Who is this Spartacus?’ And the slaves all reply ‘The

one over there, mate. He’s nothing to do with us, we’re all New Spartacus.’ Abandoning the

hope that mass action can bring about a fairer society is not just to find another way of

achieving the same end; it involves treading on the very people you became a socialist or

campaigner in order to support.

Dribble by dribble the compromises happen, each one justifiable by

itself, until a man who must have joined the Labour Party to create a more equal society,

and even two and a half years ago had contempt for the pessimism of New Labour, justifies

and orchestrates the slaughter of civilians. I tell you what Robin, you can use that if

you like. So maybe my best move is to write one of those lifestyle columns the press seem

so keen on, and see if I can slip in the radicalism without them noticing. For example ‘I

rarely have a starter in our local restaurant, but my girlfriend always does. This leaves

me with a difficult choice. Do I order a starter I don’t want, or sit there feeling

superfluous and somewhat embarrassed, as she nibbles on mozzarella salad? If we all stand

together, there’s nothing the bastards can do, not even that rancid warmongering weasel

Blair. So I pass the time by perusing the bathroom fittings section of the latest Habitat

catalogue’ Bye-bye.

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