Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Classic Book Review – When Shrimps Learn to Whistle by Denis Healey (1991)

In a new century faced with a new set of daunting international political and economic problems, politicians of all colours are frequently told to look back at history to gain an idea of how to prevent ourselves from repeating the same cycle of events again. An excellent book extolling this learning from history virtue is Denis Healey’s almost forgotten work, When Shrimps Learn to Whistle. Prior to the contemporary works of former Conservative MP, Chris Patten, Healey, a former Labour Defence Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, held the mantle as the most authoritative Westminster voice on foreign affairs, effortlessly gracing many prominent themes with grace, wit, intelligence and common sense. Wisely printing this book as a historical reference for the challenges of the 1990s, it is necessary to look at it for the 21st century.

This book is a collection of essays written over a 44 year period from 1947 till 1991 covering, Communism and Social Democracy, Nuclear Weapons, Gorbachev’s Russia, The Gulf War, European Unity and the then new age neo-liberal economics pursued by the United States and Great Britain. He works out a great understanding in foreign affairs, getting down to the nuts and bolts of a problem effortlessly – detailed while not overbearing.

The chapters on the neo-liberal economic revolution (written before and after Black Monday of 1987) and the 1991 Gulf War waged by then-President George H.W. Bush against Saddam Hussein seem eerily prescient in the light of the 21st Century War on Terror as well as the contemporary credit crunch. In the midst of the 1987 crisis, Healey aptly describes the crash as the combination of ruthless globalisation, innovation and deregulation “operated by a mafia of gilded young lemmings… interested only in numbers and never relate the numbers to the economic realities which lie buried at the bottom of the heap of numbers”. In the wake of the merciless recklessness of bankers and financiers of more recent years, one can notice a distinct parallel with today’s crisis. Likewise his commentary on George Bush Snr’s “unwise” Gulf War which threatened to “produce a worldwide holy war against Anglo-Saxons” unfortunately came true with George Bush Jnr’s escapade in Iraq in 2003.

The other chapters, noticeably on NATO, non-nuclear weapons and international diplomacy show that there can be a world without war and rhetorical aggression, replaced by humane understanding and pragmatism instead of ruthless, uncompromising dogma and ideology.

After the advent of 9/11, we as a world society find ourselves trapped in another West vs East battle of political values – replacing Communism with Islamic fundamentalism. Do we dare continue to engage in violent rhetoric and botched invasions (Afghanistan and Iraq) as well as a useless stalemate? Or do we contemplate the pragmatic diplomatic options Healey witnessed and helped to create after the darkness of World War Two? Read this book to help make up your mind.

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