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A verbal straw in the wind – reflections on the globalisation of politics

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was shown on TV yesterday afternoon saying something particularly interesting, to my ear. I don’t mean to suggest by this that Straw is normally dull, but this particular thing really got my attention. He used the phrase “Prime Minister Blair”. I’ve never heard a British Cabinet Minister refer to the Prime Minister of Britain in this particular way.

Straw presumably assumes that if he just said “Mr Blair” or “The Prime Minister”, which would be the usual way for a British Home Secretary to talk about a British Prime Minister, a significant slice of his audience might be confused as to exactly who he was talking about. Only by him identifying and placing together in the one phrase both the name and the office can he be confident of avoiding any such muddles among those he is seeking to communicate with. Either that, or he’s been talking so much with Americans in the last few days that their verbal habits are rubbing off on him.

Either way, what I think this shows is how very global politics is becoming. Yes it’s partly that Mr Straw is just now up to his neck in a particular global crisis, but as all we political pundits have been telling each other for as long as any of us can remember, more and more political issues now have a global angle to them, to the point where it makes more sense to speak of them as having local variations.

This is happening because of the continually plummeting cost of international communication. A system of global wires and waves that was once the privileged preserve of millionaires and statesmen, such as Jack Straw, is now available for us all to use at will.

Hence, for example, this weekend’s world wide anti-war demonstrations mentioned just before the report of Mr Straw’s odd little soundbite. Anti-capitalism and (savour the irony of this) anti-globalisation demos have been global ever since e-mail got into its stride. During the decade before that, international electronic communication was cheap enough for capitalist salarymen to make hourly use of to do their work, but was not quite within the range of most civilians. Which, I suggest, goes a long way to explaining both the dominant tone of the 1980s, and why this tone then changed to something very different. What’s happened now is that the average voter in an average rich country (such as mine) is now globally connected. He has a round-the-clock internet connection, and round the clock global news channels. He is, increasingly, a member of an international audience rather than a merely national one. Hence the media-savvy Brit who says “Prime Minister Blair”. Straw knows, probably without even thinking about it, that his audience has now changed.

You wouldn’t think it would be necessary to explain all this on a blog. If blog readers aren’t tuned into all this stuff, then who is? Yet blogs in the ideological vicinity of Samizdata have, in recent weeks and months, been all abuzz with the notion that “the United States” or “the Anglosphere” on the one hand, have been “moving apart” from “Europe” and in particular “France” on the other hand – the inverted commas being because the point I’m making is that these collectivities make less and less sense as descriptions of what is really being said and done and by whom.

I don’t think that “moving apart” is at all what is happening. I think that the world is – as usual and ever since Samuel Morse worked out how to send messages on electric wire in, I think, 1842 or thenabouts – moving closer together. But, as the experience of the twentieth century proved with particular ferocity, communication isn’t the same thing as brotherly love. On the contrary, communication enabled insults to be exchanged and armies mustered with unprecedented speed and intensity. E-mail is used not to enable us all to agree, but to enable disagreeing teams to assemble and battle it out, on the internet, in the TV studios, and in the streets.

And what is becoming clear is that the opinion of “France” is widely held by many people in America (the geographical entity, so no need for inverted commas there), and that actually, quite a lot of people in Europe support what “America” is about to do in Iraq.

Last night I watched the re-run of Skinner and Baddiel, which is an improvised TV comedy chat-show. S&B specialise in joshing around with members of the audience, and last night they got a big German guy embroiled in their talking. In among jokes about how fat the guy was, and how he presumably liked sausages and how the Jewish Baddiel wanted to know how old he was and thus what he did during the war (he was born in the seventies by the look of him), they talked about the fact that “Germany” opposes the forthcoming war. They asked the German guy: do you oppose the war? It turned out that he supported it.

Such variations of opinion within nations and similarities of opinion across nations have always been there of course. The difference now is that modern communications technology has reached the stage where these differences are now starting seriously to matter in regular politics. It’s reached the point now that the two of the contending teams re the war are not “America” and “Europe”; they are the pro-war international coalition of individuals and the anti-war international coalition of individuals.

The idea that “Europe” is one big slab of Eurostatist opinion is utterly false. Several of us Samizdatistas attended a talk given by Tim Evans last Friday, and one of the many interesting things he talked about was how amazingly strong and intelligent and numerous is the libertarian movement in Europe, in many ways far stronger than here in Britain.

European libertarians are by no means necessarily pro-Bush. On the whole, in the manner of the Cato Institute, they seem to be fiercely anti-Bush. But according to all the talk about what “Europe” thinks about such things as welfare policy and tax policy, these people shouldn’t even exist.

To repeat the point, what has now changed is not that there are suddenly European libertarians. There always have been. The difference is that the technology now exists to attach them to the worldwide libertarian movement. Whereas previously they were politically impotent, now these people will both add strength to and gain strength from this worldwide movement, just like those anti-war demonstrators. Or to put it another way, a personal way, and as I did when I first started writing here, I used to be a British libertarian. Now, because of blogging, I’m just a libertarian. I haven’t stopped being British, but I’m now part of a globally dispersed rather than nationally concentrated community.

At the level of big-time electoral politics, the cooperation that goes on between British Labourites and US Democrats, and between British Conservatives and US Republicans, is coming more and more out into the open. (Think Clinton at the Labour Party Conference.) There’s no doubt that the thing that the average British Labourite most hates about Blair cooperating with “America” is not that it’s America. It’s the particular Americans he’s cooperating with. If Gore was squaring up to Iraq in an identical manner to what Bush is doing, the Labourites would have had no problems, any more than when they backed Clinton contentedly over Bosnia, because Clinton was Clinton. Their guy, in other words. (Note my use here of the American word “Labourites”, in the manner of “Prime Minister Blair” – maybe I should make it “Laborites”.)

Let us not forget the context of this latest crisis involving “Prime Minister Blair” and the rest of them. It was triggered by an event that proved that the United States Government could not afford to ignore the details of what happens abroad. From being the undisputed master of the USA, the US government switched back to being the very much disputed but approximate master of large stretches of the entire world. The very reason that the UN is now in such turmoil is that the US government is now taking the way that the entire world is governed totally seriously, and thus finds the UN’s defects seriously annoying.

In 1990 “the USA” thought it could go home and stay home, and for ten years it relaxed in blissful national isolation, or what passes for it these days, in this “highly interdependent world”, etc. etc. But a small decade later, “the USA” is back embroiled in the world and its arguments, and I don’t see that ever really changing, do you?

14 comments to A verbal straw in the wind – reflections on the globalisation of politics

  • Interesting observation.

    It might also mean [since we sometimes emphasise things we’re less sure of] Mr Blair is on the way out.

  • Hep Cat


    I do see the U.S. reverting back to its isolationist tendencies after this foray. You are correct, however, to state that we will never be able to totally disengage for the rest of the world. But as I see it the planet and its peoples are no way near ready for, or capable of, even a limited world government. It is impossible with so many tryannies and religious divisions. That is why the left hates God. In Christianity God instills in us a sense of individual responsibility. This is not tenable in socialism. And therein lies the real conundrum or “the crux of the biscuit”, in the words of Frank Zappa. The left cannot invision a unified world without socialism, and the right including libertarians, cannot abide socialism or benign slavery. Alas, stalemate.

    The conspiracy of the free has taken hold here in the states and somewhat in other parts of the world. But you can really see it in the states with a resurgence of conservatism and libertarianism. It is so obvious that the left in this country has become very bitter and very vocal. Back when the left was in power you never heard this animosity. Their hubris cannot withstand the new art of the “fisk”, their arguments are no longer taken for truth by the masses. There are now challenges to their pontifications and it befuddles them, this has never happened to them before. And it is making a previously inattentive and ambivilant populous scrutinize what the leftist press and politicians are saying, and have been saying, and no longer take it for granted as the truth. Hooray for the net and talk radio.

    One last point. There is also a philosophical chasm between most Europeans and most Americans. Europeans tend to be pessimists whereas, Americans tend to be optimists. Pessimism promotes the status quo, hence, better to deal with the evil you know than one you don’t. Optimism promotes change, hence, better to live in a world free from the constraints of evil. This is what seems to be keeping a great deal of old Europe chained to the past. Europeans are fond of saying, “You Americans don’t understand the consequences war, we’ver been warring off and on for 2000 years, and we understand the horrors of war better than you.” Americans see this for what it is, abject fear. Europeans fear moving one way or another because it may rock the boat, so they stay in the same place. And guess what happens? The United States leapfrogs 2000 years of European culture and civilization to become the most powerful nation , ecomonically and militarily, the world has ever seen with an absolute aversion to empire.

    America is almost always on the cutting edge of new ideas and new technologies. Why? Because we see the future as an exciting and rewarding time for mankind. We cannot sit still. To do so would enslave us and make us, well, European.

  • Douglas R. Chandler

    Yes the US will stay involved in the world especially if Bush gets a second term. It probably won’t do it through the UN though. With this communication revolution who needs a bunch of somebodys’ brother-in-law twits sitting around in New York. The easier coordination and communication will make a net of bi-lateral agreements the norm.

  • I noticed the same difference in my own blogging. I refer to President Bush byt that term or as the President. The only exception to this is when I refer to “the Bush administration.”

    When referring to the Prime Ministers of the UK or Canada, however, I found the phrase Prime Minister Chretien clunky in comparison. This has made it difficult for me to indicate a comparable respect for the office regardless of particular differences over issues of policy. It is possible the globalized English you describe will render the concatination of “Prime Minister” and “surname” less awkward to the ear.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Yes, I agree Douglas. I think we need to distinguish here between two distinct notions. One: a single political system, and two: a single unified government. The first is taking shape in front of our eyes. The second is many decades away minimum, and to reverse the phrase usually used, I *can* wait, and the longer I have to wait the happier I’ll be.

    To repeat one of my points – I think that the very reason why the UN is in such turmoil now is precisely that the real system of global politics that is now taking serious shape, heavily influenced by the US governing elite of course, is so very different from the shape of this system that is already claimed to exist by the and in the form of the UN. In the days when the UN was either pretty mucyh impotent (during the Cold War) or pretty much unimportant (during the decade after it), this mismatch didn’t matter much. It was a side show. But now, the UN is getting way way above itself, and that is causing serious problems. It is being thought of by many millions as The Show.

    Hep Cat, of course you are right that many Europeans and many Americans conform to the stereotypes you allude to. The balances of the cultures are, I’m sure, much as you describe them. But on both sides of the Atlantic there are huge numbers of exceptions to these stereotypes, and these exceptions can now unite globallly with people who are ideologically more congenial to them than their fellow countrymen. US peaceniks can now easily unite with Euro-peaceniks. And I write for this blog and join a heavily Americanised political (broadly defined) community, because I too, although European, like to be at the cutting edge of ideas, good ones anyway. And I don’t have to leave London to do this.

    By the way, I don’t hate God either, but that’s because, like a great many libertarians (but not all of course), I don’t think God exists. In general, I don’t think you can link enthusiasm for individual liberty with enthusiasm for God in the strong way that you do. And Europe is also full of vast numbers of exceptions to such a schema, in the form of people who do believe very much in God, but not at all in what you or I would call “lberty”.

    Examples? Start with the Pope and the recently enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury.

  • Byron

    Just wait till the pols start referring to him again as “Mr. Blair”, even to the global audience. Then we’ll really know politics have gone global.

  • Sandy P.

    Until the world can give me a logical, thoughtful, rational argument why I should give up my rights as spelled out by my Constitution, no dice. I’m not giving them up to get along.

  • Brian,

    I think this is the most important observation to come out of the current crisis. If we hear “Mr Secretatry Straw” at any point, serious questions need to be asked.

    Because the globalization of politics obviously has its downside for English liberty. We Anglsopherists do not want harmonization in this European sense. We used to have a Minister for National Heritage. Now we have a Minister of Culture (shudder).

    Let’s hope the FCO has enough balls to assert its independance…

  • Jeremy

    Okay, maybe it’s not completely accurate to say that all of Europe hates the US or is against the war, but polls show that the vast majority of Western Europeans feel that way.

    Anyway, while I agree about the Europeans not liking personal responsibility because of socialism, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with God.

    For instance, Jean Paul Sarte was an atheist, yet he was an existentialist. He spent much of his life trying to reconcile his existentialism (which stressed that man was “condemned” to be free) with socialism/Marxism, because for some reason he really found the latter appealing (presumably it’s a European thing), but he never really could. Because Socialism pretty much takes the individual out of the equation. And any sort of responsibility for your actions.

  • dave fordwych

    The irony you point out concerning globalisation reminds me of the time a few years back when police, expecting a small localised demonstration against a new motorway near Glasgow,were almost overwhelmed by hundreds of protestors from all over the UK.How had they got there? They had all driven up the M6 overnight.

  • Hep Cat


    For Americans it has everything to do with God. Why? Because the Declaration of Independence states that man has inalienable rights granted to him by God. If it is not God who grants us these rights then it is government, albeit a government of men. The difference is the state cannot take away rights granted to you by God, it can, however take away rights granted to you by man. The founders understood this and took our rights out of the hands of men and placed them in the realm of the unconquerable.

    I should have clarified what I meant. The left doesn’t hate God per se. What they hate is the idea of a supreme being. Because as long as people believe in a God the state cannot be the most powerful force in their lives. The socialists and communists understood this, and set about destroying the competition and and in doing so enslaved nations and murdered millions.

    As far as the new Archbishop of Canterbury is concerned, he is a socialist, post-Christian bureaucrat who took a job he came to hate but loved the benefits. He quite simply is living a lie.

  • Tedd McHenry

    This villagization of the globe means that, for example, libertarians in Canada (where I live) can easily communicate with libertarians nearly anywhere in the world. Likewise for people of any particular outlook. I wonder if this is tending to convince people that the particular outlook they subscribe to is growing in popularity, even if it’s not?

  • Hep Cat

    I was wondering, are there major libertarian political parties in Europe or Canada? Here in the states over the past 10 to 15 years libertarians have made great strides. Here in suburban Atlanta we now have Libertarian Party candidates on the ballots consistently.

  • Tedd McHenry

    Hep Cat:

    There is a Libertarian Party of Canada, but they aren’t recognized by Elections Canada because they have less than 100 members.