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Byline by M.J.Akbar: On Your Marx
‘We have to have a war. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield."
The quotation is from Marx, but not the Marx you think.
Airline reading has its merits. The books I picked up for my latest long-haul flight were a biography of the world’s most famous orator, Cicero; a biography of the world’s second-most famous conqueror Tamerlane (more correctly, Taimur); and a biography of the world’s most famous comedian, Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx. The first two books were inestimable. The third was irresistible. Guess which I began first?
Groucho Marx is not yet forgotten. He can be found in the back shelves of the modern generation’s favourite intellectual haunt, the DVD library. Julius, using the screen-stage name of Groucho (picked up from a cartoon-spoof on Sherlock Holmes called Sherlocko, the Monk), along with three brothers Chico, Harpo and Gummo, lifted popular comedy from vaudeville and placed it among the classics without losing the ravenous insanity of slapstick. The knockabout was not physical. It was intelligent gymnastics that never made the mistake of becoming intellectual.
No victim was out of range. In a sense, if you had not been insulted by this Marxist gang you hadn’t arrived. Their theatre and movies, Animal Crackers, At the Circus, Cocoanuts (sic), Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, Copacabana, I’ll Say She Is — in which Groucho is Napoleon without sacrificing his handlebrush moustache or round spectacles — could not be scripted for no one could reinvent their natural, instinctive madcap insight. Their movies are an inexhaustible riot. No one was safe, least of all high society or the pretentious.
Groucho got away with murder, or at least character assassination, because he was never afraid to assassinate himself. In a famous exchange his brother Chico once said, "I’d like-a to say goom-bye to your wife." Groucho replied, "Who wouldn’t?" He once rejected an offer to join a Hollywood club with this charming reply: "I don’t want to join any organisation that would have me as a member." When an anti-Semitic swimming club would not take in his daughter, he wrote to them: "She’s only half-Jewish. How about it if she only goes up to the waist?"
He had a devil in his eye and an angel in his brain. His insults are legendary. "I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception." A woman on his talk show claimed proudly that she had ten children because she loved her husband. Replied Groucho, "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."
Groucho Marx should have been around to cover the British general election of 2005, for I haven’t seen a better analysis of why Tony Blair went to war in Iraq in the company of his best mate George Bush: "We have to have a war. I’ve already paid a month’s rent on the battlefield."
The moment Blair and Bush sent their troops to the frontlines along the borders of Iraq, long before the United Nation’s wars on the invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq were over, they simply had to have a war. The rent was costing them too much, in both money and credibility. Every ploy after that was only an excuse (which got thinner as the days passed) to justify what they had already decided had to be done.
Blair called a general election this year rather than in 2006 because the opinion polls were consistent in their view that Labour’s victory was certain. With less than a week left for voting, the polls still do so, although they are less strident about their future-mongering. There are so many hums and haws (if the vote is below 59% Labour is in trouble, if there is a minor negative swing against the government in a hundred marginals, watch out Tony Blair etc etc) that one wonders why anyone bothers about psephological stretch exercises based on samples of 2,000-odd voters.
The second reason that Blair went to the polls early was surely because he was convinced that time, and Bush’s re-election, had put the Iraq war on the electoral back burner: there might be steady heat but it was too low-level to burn up votes. And yet, like the ghost in Macbeth, the Iraq war refuses to leave the Labour banquet. Come to think of it, Blair has become an excellent instance of hubris.
The one thing that a majority of British voters are agreed upon, irrespective of their party affiliations, is that Blair lied to the country in order to drag Britain into this war. This is the one charge that evokes response even when it comes from the dour Conservative leader Michael Howard.
All politics, it used to be said, is local. That remains true. Television, curiously, had made all local politics international. We sit in India and watch a bus rolling through London’s East End proclaiming to Bangladeshi-origin Muslims that the moment has come to avenge a war they did not support. Cameras bring alive a debate in which the three leaders, Blair, Howard and Charles Kennedy of the Liberal-Democrats spar over Iraq. In which Blair is accused by a citizen of going to war to please his best-mate Bush, and Howard asks people to raise their hands if they think Blair is telling the truth on Iraq and very few hands rise.
It was noted, famously, of Howard that he had something of the night about him. The eyes of Tony Blair during that debate and through this election campaign suggest that he has something of the graveyard about him.
Blair could still be Prime Minister of Britain on May 6 but desolation will never entirely disappear from those eyes. Blair seems to have lost even if Labour wins, for victory will come because of Labour’s record on the economy and not on Blair’s record on the war. Power has already passed from Blair to his chancellor of exchequer and heir-presumptive Gordon Brown. Brown’s eyes have acquired the quiet sparkle of confidence as a much-cherished dream comes within striking distance.
A pro-Labour newspaper, the Guardian, probably settled the succession issue in Labour last week with its revelation that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, had clearly advised Blair that the UN Security Council was the final arbiter, and not the British government, on whether Saddam Hussein was complying with UN resolutions or not. This in turn would determine the legality of the war that Blair was determined to wage. Blair got away with an ingenious fudge: the attorney general would deem it satisfactory if Blair could be sure of Saddam’s guilt.
Anger over Iraq has returned to the core of this campaign. The Conservatives are not beneficiaries of this anger because of their familiar problem: they speak with a forked tongue. They believe the war was good but Blair was bad, which is why no one believes them. The Liberal-Democrats are the only party which has been consistent in its opposition to the war and now wants British troops withdrawn. But the Lib-Dems are stuck in that strange swamp called unelectability. Madhu Limaye, the socialist ideologue now, sadly, not with us, used to tell me that a political party needs to cross the 23% support line in order to emerge from this swamp and then stride ahead towards the crucial 30s in public support. The Lib-Dems are still stuck on the wrong side of 23%.
While the politics of war demands its wages, no one is paying a heavier price for this war than the Iraqi people. There have been a few welcome steps in Baghdad, but the carnage continues on the streets. The simple fact of relentless death makes nonsense of good intentions.
Where else to end but at the beginning? On May 6, 1972, the 81-year-old Groucho made his final faltering and moving appearance in New York, at the Carnegie Hall. With havoc of Vietnam preying on his conscience and consciousness he recalled an old Irving Berlin song in which the devil sings thus to his son:
You stay down here where you belong
The folks above you, they don’t know right from wrong.
To please their kings they’ve all gone out to war,
But not a one of them knows what they’re fighting for.
Way up above they say that I’m a devil and I’m bad;
But the kings up there are bigger devils than your dad;
They’re breaking the hearts of mothers,
Making butchers out of brothers;
You’ll find more hell up there than there is down below!