When I was a 14-year old boy – in 1980 – I got history lessons from one of those fanatical, left-wing history teachers of which there were so many in The Netherlands at the end of the Seventies: long hair on a partially bald head, aluminium Harry Potter-glasses, a wildly growing beard and – when I remember it correctly – a harmonious, deep voice. In other words: a very impressive teacher for a 14 year old at the brink of his puberty.
During his lessons, this history teacher told us – his pupils – about the person who could and would become the next president of the United States: Ronald Reagan. In the case of Ronald Reagan, his reputation scurried far ahead of the man himself.
Reagan – a former screen actor in B-ish movies and former governor – was in the eyes of many Europeans a typical American, gung ho politician: a rather blunt and outspoken character, with wild political ideas and seemingly more money and façade than useful political experience. In other words: a loose cannon kind of person, who generally acted in the political arena like an accident waiting to happen.
He was about to follow up the gentle and unassuming Democrat ‘peanut farmer’ Jimmy Carter, who left his four year presidency with the enduring Iran hostage crisis on his hand and who was judged by the general public as a hopelessly weak president.
Ronald Reagan himself initially did about everything to help his gung ho, loose cannon reputation: he accidentally/deliberately left his microphone open and subsequently spoke softly about attacking the ‘evil empire’ (the Soviet Union) with nuclear missiles. And he did much, much more to upset his geriatric adversaries in the Kremlin.
One should remember that this took place in a time when the Cold War was a day to day reality, instead of a vague reminiscence from a dark past. With the likes of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Andrei Chernenko – battle-hardened, old fossiles of poor health with seemingly nothing to lose – on the communist throne at the Soviet Kremlin, a total nuclear war seemed suddenly a very realistical opportunity.
After having listened to my history teacher about this ‘mad dog’ going to the White House, I almost could not sleep all night for a number of nights in a row; scared to death as I already was about the chance for an imminent nuclear war in those days. My young life would definitely be ended by this president, who would push the ‘red button’ without a shadow of a doubt.
Well, fortunately we all know how this story ended: after a few years in which Reagan firmly established his ‘tough guy’ reputation, in close cooperation with the British ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher, and after having a guest starring role in perhaps the ‘best music video ever made’, Ronald Reagan suddenly found a way to end the Cold War with the new, younger and more dynamic Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
This formerly ‘loose cannon’ president eventually became famous for both his supply side economics and his ending of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And also a little bit for his infamous Iran - Contra Affair: one is a loose cannon or not.
One of the most important lessons that I learned from this long-term episode in my life, is that looks and habits can deceive for people. And that even the seemingly most dangerous politician can develop a soft spot when in office, turning him from a dangerous hawk in a gentle dove, with a hawkish repution. Ronald Reagan was such a politician and I still owe him for that.
Two days ago, I had to think about this episode from 35 years earlier, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected to become the new leader of the Labour Party, in nothing less than a landslide victory, with 59% of the votes…
|The final results of the election for the new Labour Leader|
Chart courtesy of the Labour Party
Click to enlarge
When I read – through Twitter – the majority of the articles in the British mainstream media and the reactions of the right-wing politicians and opinion makers in Great Britain, as well as The Netherlands and other countries, it sounded like the ‘Antichrist hath risen from the underworld to the surface of the earth’.
|Some of the reactions shown in the British |
mainstream media and on Twitter
Pictures courtesy of their respective publishers
Click to enlarge
In various articles and soundbites, almost exclusively containing hyperboles and insults at his address, Jeremy Corbyn was verbally slaughtered as “The End of the Labour Party”, “The next Tory election victory lying on a silver platter”, “a rabiate communist and Hamas lover” and much, much more of the same kind.
When asked, one of my trusted tweeps responded that Jeremy Corbyn indeed had a rather questionable choice of friends to say the least, when it came to the Middle East; he meant Corbyn’s preference for a.o. Hamas and other ‘controversial’ parties overthere.
This person, the distinguished correspondent for Russia (formerly) and Germany, Wierd Duk (@wierdduk), and one of the smartest and most well-balanced journalists I know, also regretted that older, social-democrat grassroots so often tend to look for leaders that remind them of their ‘glory days’ in the Seventies, instead of looking for more modern kinds of leadership.
|Tweets in Dutch of foreign correspondent Wierd Duk|
Picture courtesy of Twitter
Click to enlarge
However, Wierd also made a good point: “This is what you get when you collaborate with the Blairs for such a long time”.
I think that Wierd Duk is right here. He points at a phenomenon that is also gaining momentum in The Netherlands and elsewhere. Since the nineties – with the emergence of the modern social-democrats in a.o. Great Britain (Tony Blair), Germany (SPD - Gerhard Schröder) and The Netherlands (PvdA - Wim Kok) – the labour parties all over Europe almost completely shook off their socialist feathers and turned into modern technocrat movements, for whom the socialist legacy was rather a burden than an asset.
The European representatives of ‘Labour 2.0’ became very capable executive officials, who were initially respected by both their grassroots and their conservative adversaries. Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Wim Kok all three presided some of the most successful cabinets in the post-war history of their countries.
Still, in the end something started to itch among their socialist grass-roots…
Wim Kok, as a Prime Minister of The Netherlands, was rather a middle-of-the-road technocrat, than the harnessed labour union man he was before; especially when he accepted a position in the Board of Supervisors of ING bank, after his premiership. While he was a successful PM, a large part of his success was caused by the plummeting interest rates in The Netherlands and abroad, which led to an investment boom and skyrocketing economic growth, almost fully fueled by debt.
Gerhard Schröder, the social-democrat chancellor was the man who improved the German economy by making it more competitive, but actually deteriorated the position of workers with his policy of wage restraint at the beginning of this century. While his stance was defensible at the time, it is a fact that German companies earned loads and loads of money at the expense of their personnel, in those years.
And Tony Blair?! Well, you can say a lot about him, but not that he was a socialist. During the years of his leadership, London expanded its position as one of the main financial centres of the world and the British housing market exploded with skyrocketing prices, fueled by ample amounts of debt.
Yet, Tony Blair never gave the impression that he had done his utmost to help the underprivileged regions in the United Kingdom and the inhabitants of those regions; he was rather a glamour boy than a true social-democrat. Blair was probably a quite good Prime Minister, but he has not been a quite good social-democrat(!) Prime Minister, in my humble opinion.
So eventually, the big, fundamental differences between liberal-conservative and social-democrat cabinets seemed to vanish all over Europe, until it was just a question of ‘a different kind of flavour’. Of course, the conservative leaders remained bragging about ‘spending-happy’ socialists, while their social-democrat adversaries repeated their mantras about ‘the rich getting richer’. Still, to be honest, in the end hardly anybody saw the difference anymore.
And that has been the situation during the crisis: the extreme right- and leftwing populists set the tone of voice for the debate in all aspects, without ever getting serious governmental responsibilities (unless for Syriza in Greece, but hardly anybody can call that an overwhelmingly successful attempt).
The “slightly right and left of the middle technocrats” on the other hand – those politicians wíth the governmental responsibility –turned their governmental policies into a boring, tasteless ‘technocrat policy porridge’ without any clear flavour whatsoever.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom… Not a technocrat, but a real socialist and, because of that, perhaps the conservatives’ worst nightmare. He might be a Marxist with a bad taste for friends in the Middle-East and wild ideas about the British membership of the NATO and the EU, but at least he has a real profile, immediately recognizable for his socialist grassroots.
And the best thing about him for the diehard fans of the old-fashioned Labour Party: the liberal-conservative establishment genuinely hates him and Tony Blair probably hates him too.
And so it happened that a few days ago Labour voters in the UK stated: “We have had it with those darn technocrats! We want Jeremy Corbyn, a leader with a clear vision and a socialist heart. Scr*w Tony Blair’s Labour 2.0, we want back the original Labour!”
That is the current situation…
What the future will bring for Jeremy Corbyn and for the United Kingdom? I don’t know!
Perhaps he will indeed turn out to be the disaster that all conservatives and Labour 2.0 fans predict him to be.
And perhaps he will personally cause that Labour loses the next few elections in the United Kingdom, as he scares away more moderate social-democrat voters.
Or even worse, when elected as Prime Minister, he could cause the United Kingdom making a total fool of themselves at the international stages of NATO, European Union and foreign assemblees...
That could happen…
But still, I have to think back about how that seemingly erratic American president with the brown hair, the deep voice, the Hollywood smile and the peculiar sense of humour did not run the world into the nuclear abyss, but instead ended the Cold War by showing the right attitude at the right time in history.
Perhaps, that Jeremy Corbyn will also not be so bad after all. 59% of the Labour voters seem to have some kind of confidence in that…