Last week the Bagehot column The Economist gave a balanced profile of Ken Livingstone. Bagehot commented:
Unusually for a city mayor, Mr Livingstone conducts his own foreign policy. This weekend he will host a conference entitled “A World Civilisation or a Clash of Civilisations”. It will ponder such issues as “counter-terrorism and torture”, “democratic solutions for the Middle East” (Mr Livingstone looks forward to seeing the Saudi royal family “swinging from lamp posts”) and whether there is such a thing as “progressive colonialism”.
To say Livingstone's approach to municipal administration is unusual is to understate it. Using public office for the promotion of his own foreign policy views would be an improper use of public revenues in any event, but Livingstone's particular interventions are a liability to political debate and community relations in London. I wrote a short piece for The Times about this a fortnight ago, referring to Livingstone's conference “A World Civilisation or a Clash of Civilisations”. The conference took place this weekend. The principal event was a debate in the morning between Livingstone and the American neoconservative Daniel Pipes. The seconders were respectively Salma Yaqoob of the Respect "Coalition" and Douglas Murray of the Social Affairs Unit. There is an account of that debate here, which from my recollection gives an accurate recitation of the arguments of each participant.
The first session I spoke in was entitled "Enlightenment values and modern society". The other speakers were Simon Fletcher, who is Livingstone's chief of staff and, I believe, a member of the Socialist Alliance; Linda Bellos, the former leader of Lambeth Council and a lesbian activist; and Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain. This roughly is what I said.
By Enlightenment values we must first say which Enlightenment we refer to. I use the concept to include the rule of law, religious liberty and free expression. This is a rough approximation. The rule of law greatly antedates the Enlightenment, and has indeed at various times - as in the ancien regime - been opposed to it. Moreover, the version of Enlightenment values deriving from the French Revolution - contemptuous of tradition and of religion - is different from that of the Glorious Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence. The tradition of Locke and Montesquieu was aware of the destructive potential of untrammelled reason (a prophetic analysis of which may be found also in Edmund Burke's Vindication of Natural Society of 1757).
To my mind the decisive document of the Enlightenment is neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Déclaration des Droits de l'homme et du citoyen, but Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which established that there be no religious test for public office. Religious adherence, or the absence of it, was a matter of personal conscience belonging to the private sphere. The corollary is that children of the Enlightenment are politically indifferent to those who are religiously observant, yet resistant to those who claim to know the will of God and wish to hasten it by legislation or by force.
I make no confident predictions of the resilience of Enlightenment values, largely because the Enlightenment itself is so recent and contingent a development. Its spread in the 17th and 18th centuries was to a large extent bound up with the fortunes of Protestantism. The Enlightenment's advocates in England, Scotland and America were rightly perceived to be the opponents of Papist superstition, but they were also (and much less widely recognised as) deriders of the notion of the inerrancy of Scripture. Unfortunately the attractions of religion and nationalism commonly press against the notions of a common humanity, and religious and political liberty.
Among the forces threatening Enlightenment values in modern society, some are more salient than others. The Roman Catholic Church, even since the Second Vatican Council, remains obdurate on issues of reproductive freedom and the rights of homosexuals - on which I am at one with the campaigner Linda Bellos. Yet the Vatican is not the monolithic influence often feared by secularists. The widespread lay response to Pope Paul VI's 1968 encylical Humanae Vitae, forbidding contraception including the pill, has been simply to ignore it - and quite right too. I am more concerned at the threat to Enlightenment values posed by one particular religious source - a theocratic one, proclaiming holy war against Jews, Christians and Western civilisation - and certain secular ones.
The theocratic one needs no further explanation, as we know its destructive power and ought to anticipate its destructive potential. Among the secular currents are those that proclaim loyalty to group identities as more important than common citizenship under law. This is the premise of the apparently benign notion that groups have the right to protection from aspects of the modern world that they find offensive, and a call on the compassion of others to that end. That is a terrible principle, and lethal to liberty. The retreat it implies is evident still more in a curious political convergence between the isolationist Right with elements of the multiculturalist Left. On this point I remarked on the embrace - literal in some cases - of parts of the Left with Islamist militancy, Hezbollah and other reactionary causes. I also recommended to the audience - and do now to my readers - Nick Cohen's new book, What's Left?, which discusses this conundrum at length. (You can read extracts from the book in yesterday's Observer.) Against such tendencies, I urged a countervailing militancy. I also commented on the singular fact that the Mayor of London had put on a conference, with an explicit reference to a celebrated book by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, while plainly not understanding the book's thesis. Huntington is an opponent of Western universalism, which he believes is a threat to peace.
It would be fair to say that the other panellists were sceptical of my comments. Linda Bellos shouted that we should engage with other people instead of condemning, while Inayat Bunglawala declared - in answer to a question from the floor - that there had been "no need for" the Tehran Holocaust denial conference even with the provocation of the Danish cartoons affair. I said, a little more forcefully than I'd intended, that this comment alone disqualified Mr Bunglawala from being taken seriously in matters of community relations. The objection to Holocaust denial is not that it is "offensive" - a quality about which a free society should be indifferent - but that it is false, and may be consistently advanced only by fraud.
The second session I addressed was the one entitled "Democratic solutions for the Middle East". In my comments I gave a brief account of the progress - and generally decline - of liberalising tendencies through the region over the past two decades or so. I dispute the notion of Arab exceptionalism. There are quite as many autocratic developments in the states of the former Soviet Union, and in Asia, while movements in Arab politics in the 20th century often ran in close parallel with those in other regions. Pan-Arabism was allied to the Non-Aligned movement, and Baathism was closely modelled on European fascism. But I am not hopeful of either widespread political reform in the region - invoking a phrase of Fouad Ajami, I said there was possibly an autumn of the autocrats but no sign of a Prague spring - or the short-term prospects for a negotiated two-state territorial settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The tenor of the discussion from the platform and particularly from the floor turned out, however, to be scarcely at all about the Middle East but rather about a particular country within the region, whose identity you will guess immediately and discussion about which took a predictable form. (I should add that one of my fellow panellists, Karma Nabulsi, a former PLO representative, is a weighty political and academic figure, whose arguments were cogent and demanded a careful hearing.) One other speaker at the conference told me that, having arranged child care for the day, he was in effect paying to be abused. I know what the comrade meant.