Sunday, 12 April 2015

The sword and the scimitar, the Tory and the Labour leader

You probably know the doubtless apocryphal story of the encounter of Richard I, the “Lionhearted”, and Saladin (OK, OK, Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb), the great Kurdish general of Islamic forces against the Crusaders.

The subtle Saladin, the roughhewn Richard
The legend has it that Richard chose to demonstrate the might of his arms by drawing a great, two-handed sword, and using to cut through an iron rod laid between two rocks.

Saladin drew his scimitar and used it to slice a silk handkerchief in two.

Sharpness and subtlety are so much more admirable than mere brute force.

Last week, we had a marvellous illustration of the point. Michael Fallon, the man we are unfortunate to have in the position of defence secretary in Britain, launched a scathing attack on Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, and who still has every chance of becoming Prime Minister in a few weeks time.

Miliband’s chances are likely to depend heavily on the support of the Scottish National Party, which looks set to win a huge number of seats that Labour has held so long in Scotland that they seemed to be permanently assigned to the party. And the SNP has made it clear that it would never back any move to renew the British nuclear deterrent, based on submarine-borne Trident missiles.

Fallon claimed that Miliband would be prepared to drop this allegedly vital part of the defence of the nation, leaving it vulnerable and in danger, in order to win SNP support and get into Downing Street.

“Ed Miliband stabbed his own brother in the back to become Labour leader,” Fallon claimed. “Now he is willing to stab the United Kingdom in the back to become prime minister.”

The allegation that Miliband betrayed his brother dates from the time they both stood for the Labour leadership back in 2010. It’s hard to see why Ed stabbed David in the back by running, any more than David stabbed Ed. After all, they both ran. It’s true that David had up to that time had a more illustrious career, having been Foreign Secretary, but surely that didn’t rule Ed out from standing too. In any case, it’s hard not to feel that Fallon was expressing allegiance to a much deeper principle beloved of Conservatives: inheritance. The Labour leadership was David’s because he’s the elder brother. In a party as backward-looking as Fallon’s, it may be difficult to abandon the principle of primogeniture.

But in any case the accusation about the price Miliband will pay for the premiership is nonsense. The SNP and Labour have categorically ruled out any kind of coalition between them. There would therefore be no coalition agreement specifying that the government could only take office it it abandoned Trident. Instead, there would only be an agreement that the SNP would support Labour on a motion by motion basis, so that it could form a government and could lock the Conservatives out.

Labour has a weak point about nuclear weapons. Even the great firebrand and father of the NHS, Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, spoke against a Labour Party Conference motion backing unilateral nuclear disarmament:

I knew this morning that I was going to make a speech that would offend, and even hurt, many of my friends. I know that you are deeply convinced that the action you suggest is the most effective way of influencing international affairs. I am deeply convinced that you are wrong. It is therefore not a question of who is in favour of the hydrogen bomb, but a question of what is the most effective way of getting the damn thing destroyed. It is the most difficult of all problems facing mankind. But if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications — and do not run away from it — you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber. ... And you call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.

There can be no doubt that a Labour government, even with SNP support, would move to renew Trident (to my great regret, let me say). And when that happens the SNP will vote against. But will the Conservatives also vote against? That would be hard to believe. With Tory support, a Labour government would easily carry the proposal.

So Fallon’s attack was utterly misguided. It was based on brutality and ignorance, not on wit or wisdom. And what was Miliband’s response?

“Michael Fallon's a decent man, but today he's demeaned himself and he's demeaned his office.”

Tory blunderbuss against Labour rapier
Brilliant. First he calls Fallon decent, refusing to mirror his personal attack. And by doing so, he positions himself as his superior, a parent disappointed in his child’s behaviour but not prepared to write him off for it. Secondly, he gently suggests that he has harmed himself, rather than Miliband, and the office he holds, the implication being that he’s not fit for it.

Brief, gentle, calm. Saladin’s sharpness against Richard’s brute strength. It’s improved the public perception of Miliband in the polls.

Let’s hope he can keep it up enough to see himself into Downing Street. And Fallon’s lot out.


Anonymous said...



David Beeson said...

Quite so. I agree with you - I hope it was a weapon, not a genuine assessment.

Anonymous said...



David Beeson said...

Thanks, San. I'm glad you liked it. I certainly enjoyed applying it.