The Bones of the Saint

Remarks at the launch of Scott Lucas’s book The Betrayal of Dissent

By George Monbiot, at the London Review bookshop, Bury Place, 7th April 2004

It takes quite a lot these days to drag me from my desk in Oxford to the Great Wen. London repels me, I still haven’t planted my tomatoes, and my editors are busting my balls over an article I should have delivered last week. But when a future political classic is being launched, you want to be there. And to make sure you’ve got a first edition.

If any of those of us who have publicly opposed the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan claim that we have not been cowed, we deceive ourselves. Being attacked by the government, by the Telegraph, the Times, the Mail, the Sun, Fox News and CNN is something we can expect and even enjoy. But when the attackers are joined and in some cases even led by those whom we once counted as our political allies – people like Christopher Hitchens, David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen and John Lloyd in Britain and Joe Klein and Todd Gitlin in the US – we can’t help but feel surrounded. The temptation to come out with your hands in the air is sometimes almost overwhelming. If all these people are so certain that you are wrong, sustaining your confidence in your own position, even when your arguments look solid, requires a lot of determination.

And sustaining that confidence becomes even harder when the bones of an icon of the left, George Orwell, are dug up and used to clobber us. Jung said that you cannot take away a man’s god without giving him another, and Orwell, in this secular age, appears to have become our god; his Collected Essays our Bible. When you want to crush someone, you quote Orwell at him, and, like the Bible, Orwell’s work is sufficiently contradictory to be useful to almost anyone.

What Scott has done is to help us regain our confidence. In The Betrayal of Dissent, he has drawn a clear and important distinction between the perfectly legitimate aims of opening up debate, challenging allies and questioning their motives, and the rather less exalted aim of trying to suppress and even silence voices of dissent. Some of his material about Orwell, who is a writer I continue to admire, is truly shocking. I think he has also succeeded in showing that there has been an effort, among some of the peace movement’s contemporary critics, to shut us up. By helping us to understand what we are confronting, he helps us to stand up to it.

But it’s not my intention to summarise the book – I can leave that to Scott. I would just like to say that it’s a rare thing: a book which is intensely researched but also well-constructed and well-written.

What I would like to do, very briefly, is to look at some of the reasons why our former allies might have turned. I believe there are lessons here, which we would all do well to learn.

Part of the problem for those of us who make our living by expressing our opinions is that after a while consistency becomes boring, both to the reader and to the writer. Soon you start wanting to shock people, to shake things up, to draw attention to yourself. This is the columnist’s fate: either you become irrelevant, one of those dusty old bores, utterly predictable and stale, you’ll find in all the newspapers and magazines, or you become incoherent – swinging from one extreme to another, picking on any target, however soft, in an attempt to renew the value of your stock. The columnist I respect most is no longer a columnist. He’s Francis Wheen, and I respect him because he walked away when he had said all he wanted to. I hope one day I’ll find the courage to do the same.

Another hazard is success. Your ideas begin to echo in the corridors of power, and two things then happen to you. The first is that you don’t want to lose your new-found influence by alienating the powerful people who have begun to listen to you. The second is that you begin to identify with them. The people on whose behalf you claim to speak – the common man and woman – become invisible to you.

And this, of course, is not to mention the opportunities apostasy offers. When you say the magic words – I support those who possess power – the world opens up for you. When you say the opposite, it closes down. When my analysis of power was weaker, I used to present a television documentary about once a year, and win a prize about once a year. I haven’t presented a documentary since 1996, or won a prize since 1997. I’m not complaining. This is just how it works.

If you support power, you are rewarded. If you fight it, you are punished – it’s as simple as that. It’s not hard to resist for a few years. But to resist every day of your working life is tough. So we must thank Scott Lucas for renewing our determination to resist.