Just Like Kerry Is Smug...
It is impossible to foresee how the execution of Saddam will divide Iraq. What is much more predictable is the way it will divide opinion here and in the United States. On the broadcasting media yesterday, the America-is-always-wrong brigade was in full flood within an hour of the verdict.
The phrase "kangaroo court" was reverberating through the studios – generally mouthed by the very people who had been insisting from the moment of Saddam's capture that he be tried by Iraq itself and not by an international tribunal meting out "victor's justice". (I seem to recall the Today programme devoting hours to the subject of whether the Butcher of Baghdad could possibly get a fair trial under any proceeding organised by the US.)
So perhaps we could just take the next chapter as read. Those who have always supported the removal of Saddam will see this verdict as a vindication: condemnation of his crimes by his own compatriots and an appropriate judicial end to a homicidal tyranny. The various strands of opposition to his removal – anti-war in general, anti-this-war in particular, anti-American, anti-Israel, not to mention the cynical we-can-do-business-with-this-guy mentality of the Europeans – will use it, and its consequences, as more evidence for their case that we should have left Iraq alone.
But while we all worry about whether Iraqi democracy is salvageable, it might be worth asking precisely what is happening to our own idea of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" as it is refracted through this foreign crisis. I was in the US last week when John Kerry's remarks about the intellectual calibre of American military personnel hit the fan. The TV news channels played and re-played his description of the US forces in Iraq as an army of thicko no-hopers. The fact that he uttered it so smugly and unselfconsciously added to the stupendous effect. He had simply forgotten himself and spoken as he would among friends. He had no sense that this was an offensive thing to say: in the circles in which he travels, it is the conventional wisdom.
That insouciance was a gift to the Republicans. What the Kerry gaffe did was to make clear the gap that now exists in American politics between the great mass of American popular opinion – for whom soldiers, especially when they are risking their lives in battle, are heroic figures – and the liberal elite for whom military action is a dirty, downmarket game.
So when exactly did snobbery become the province of the Left? In Britain and in the United States, it used to be axiomatic that the wealthy, privileged de haut en bas voices belonged to those on the Right of centre. They may have been paternalistic and charitable (at least as a social hobby) but they were comfortable with their superiority and unencumbered by any sense that their advantages were unjust.
Now all the condescension – all the snide hauteur about common folk and their vulgar prejudices – comes from the Left-liberal corner. It is the views of the common man – caricatured as the politics of the trailer park in the US, and of white-van man in Britain – that are the object of contempt in right-thinking (which is to say, Left-thinking), socially enlightened circles. This mentality reaches a kind of apotheosis in the attitudes of the BBC, where its assumptions are almost entirely unquestioned.
The American mid-term elections are being fought out within the terms of this culture war. References to the "religious Right" or even to "middle-class voters" are code for mass opinion as opposed to elite, urban (Left-wing) opinion. Some of this may be confusing to British ears: "middle-class" in the US means "middle-income" – that is, people in either skilled blue-collar or clerical white-collar jobs. It does not mean "bourgeois", as it does here. So when George Bush refers to "middle-class tax cuts", he does not mean tax cuts for the better off, but for what he would call "ordinary working Americans".
Until very recently, the term "working-class" was never used in American political discourse: everybody was middle-class except the "poor", who were usually unemployed and regarded as having special problems. So the advent of a wealthy liberal elite that holds middle-class concerns and values in contempt is quite a new phenomenon. Even the old Democrat aristocrats – the Franklin Roosevelts and the John Kennedys – would not have spoken with the undisguised disdain for the Middle-America, Bible-belt constituency that the contemporary liberal establishment uses now.
The change must have come in the 1960s, I suppose, when moral outrage became the common currency of political life, and a general licence was issued to every educated person to detest openly all those who did not subscribe to the unimpeachable world view that was handed down at university.
In effect, what America has now is a social divide that is more like Britain's, in which the "enlightened" class is frankly contemptuous of what it regards as populist politics. I can remember being shocked in the 1980s when I heard people who saw themselves as liberal egalitarians sneering at Margaret Thatcher for being "a grocer's daughter". Quite apart from the absurdity of middle-brow professionals holding forth like Jane Austen aristocrats about those born into "trade", I was struck by the class arrogance of the sentiment itself.
Yes, the US still has a way to go before its Left-wing snobbery reaches anything like the proportions to which we are accustomed. No major political party (or national broadcaster) in the US would treat the population's concerns about, say, immigration with the scorn that they have received in Britain.
The argument behind the argument will go on there as it goes on here: do we want government by the people or only by the right sort of people? The US mid-terms, and the re-positioning of David Cameron's Conservatives, are about this as much as they are about the war or the economy.