The sound of one hand wringing

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Has Voice of the North gone a bit quiet in the past week? Maybe. When an atrocity as dreadful happens as that in Paris last Friday, it’s hard to think how one can write a wry sideways look at anything without appearing flippant. On the other hand, those terrorists want to silence free speech – or, still worse, free and liberal thought. A young Frenchwoman in her early twenties (I guess) was interviewed by the BBC on Saturday. She was hurt, grieving, yet defiant: “We are young, we are free,” she said. “We must stand up and keep our voice.” How right she was.

How have politicians – no, not any old politicians but leaders of countries – reacted? In general, by showing great solidarity with France (the UK hasn’t looked bad at this: Tuesday’s football match at Wembley was particularly well handled), and avoiding knee-jerk reactions. Russia’s President Putin has sounded somewhat more bellicose, though some might regard that as progress from Russia’s previously intransigent support for the fatally flawed President Assad of Syria: the world suspected that he wasn’t actually attacking ISIS when other countries were.

I’m relieved not to see any gung-ho reactions, at least. Perhaps we’re a wiser world than in the days after 9/11 (another shocking example of wholesale terrorist destruction and murder) when Bush and Blair between them seemed to set themselves up as the world’s policemen. Some commentators still claim that the fundamentalist whirlwind we are currently reaping stems from the fact that we sowed that storm by invading first Afghanistan and then Iraq. Actually, that isn’t the case – though as it happens I don’t believe we were right to invade either country.

At times I think it’s helpful to hear a cautious voice from a party leader. If a president or prime minister appears to be too quick to fire from the hip, an opposition voice of caution can be valuable in pointing out, for example, that armed intervention rarely brings about a swift or clean end to anything – though a messy end to thousands if not millions of lives.

Under other circumstances, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn might have sounded like the voice of restraint and proper consideration. In the event, he sounded clueless, vague and off the pace. I don’t think it’s helpful for the PM or anyone else to talk about a “shoot to kill” policy: there’s no need for any such pronouncement, because armed police and soldiers have clear rules of engagement anyway.

But Corbyn’s prevarication on this topic made him look wobbly and indecisive. Labour spokesmen have been trying to retrieve the situation after his dismal performance, but they only dig the hole deeper. I enjoyed an account on Twitter of veteran journalist Andrew Neil interviewing Labour MP John Mann. The exchange went like this:

Neil: “Do you have confidence in Jeremy Corbyn?”
Mann: “I have total confidence in Hilary Benn.”
Neil: “So you have confidence in Hilary Benn but not in Jeremy Corbyn?”
Mann: “Jeremy has confidence in Hilary too.”
Neil: “But you haven’t said you have confidence in Jeremy Corbyn.”

Mann: “I have huge confidence in Jeremy allowing Hilary to lead on Syria.”

Thus her Majesty’s opposition is flip-flopping about, showing all the spine and efficacy of a beached jellyfish. I wouldn’t mind so much, except that a good democracy (in which I believe passionately) needs a credible and coherent opposition. Our democracy is impoverished by the lack of one.

Meanwhile, Corbyn may never shake off his response to Friday’s events. On Tuesday Guardian columnist Rafael Behr bewailed what he termed another “sign of Labour’s hastening march into irrelevance”, tearing into Corbyn’s “mangled history without a conclusion, half an argument.”

Memorably he concluded with a description (not an original one, yet powerful) of Corbyn’s performance, one that may haunt him for a long time, comparing it to “the sound of one hand wringing”.

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