A Propagandist Rides to War

As we approach the centenary of a war that butchered hundreds of thousands in the name of God, King and Country, the Education Secretary insists that it was entirely “just”:

In an article for the Daily Mail, Mr Gove says he has little time for the view of the Department for Culture and the Foreign Office that the commemorations should not lay fault at Germany’s door.

The Education Secretary says the conflict was a ‘just war’ to combat aggression by a German elite bent on domination.

‘The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war,’ he says. ‘The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’

Mr Gove writes: ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship, but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’

The Education Secretary says it is time to listen to historians such as Margaret Macmillan who has ‘demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order’.

Let the propaganda die, Michael. But don’t take it from me; the Thatcherite Niall Ferguson has explained very well why the First World War was a mesh of blunders and lies.

Firstly, not only did Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary – refuse to commit Britain to neutrality in the event that Germany respected Belgium’s sovereignty, which would have side-lined the 1839 treaty with which his government declared war, but in the weeks before the war the Committee for Imperial Defence even considered invading Belgium if the German generals chose to attack through France. There was no casus belli in “defending the Western liberal order”.

Britain’s Liberal government, though, was another matter. With a slender majority in the Commons, there was a serious threat that the government would have to call a general election if Britain reneged on its pledge to Belgian neutrality; it would have led to the resignation of Grey at the very least. It was judged to be more more convenient to fight, instead of the Tories, the greatest war that humanity had ever waged, and to do so people who couldn’t even vote.

For all the propaganda, indeed, there was little need for liberal ideas in the early months of the war. Posters of soldiers standing in English meadows had no bearing on the thousands of the dispossessed urban class moving en masse to enroll in the effort; declaration of war led to financial collapse and the rocketing of unemployment, to which – and never let it be said that war has no ironies – the only salvation was found in uniform in Europe’s trenches. It was grab a gun (if there were enough) or go hungry.

The war was sustained not only in poverty, but in vengeance killing. A bloodied terror came to haunt No Man’s Land as men saw their friends butchered in front of their eyes. Desertion remarkably rare, blood feuds drove soldiers to fight with ferocity they had never known before; often to be gunned down in exactly the same way. This is not something, I imagine, that we should be rushing to defend. Were it valid, there’s not a single war in history that wouldn’t be justified by the horror of soldiers dying in vain – by the fatuous and arrogant verdict that the death of one man justifies those of many more.

The Great War was a waste. Millions died for no reason that could ever have pretensions to be justification. A stupid decision, made at a late hour in Whitehall, impoverished men and made them the oxen driving a war to its exhaustion; and they deluded themselves, as all people are capable of doing, into the belief that letting the blood of every remaining Hun might vindicate the sacrifices their friends made to causes that were never theirs. Forget liberal freedoms; to call the defence of Belgium simply “tragic” is dishonest and disgraceful.

For all the failures of the British government’s propaganda drives – which made compulsory enlistment so necessary – it’s a belated irony that the Education Secretary should fall for them so easily. Some advice for him: if he is serious about returning children to literature and history, he should probably start with Wilfred Owen.


Killing me softly, with his hymn

The reactionary trend in Anglicanism showcases an unbelievable ignorance, even by the standards of our fellow primates; its number will not be pleased at the latest pronouncement that the Church is to apologise, at last, to Charles Darwin:

The Church of England will concede in a statement that it was over-defensive and over-emotional in dismissing Darwin’s ideas. It will call “anti-evolutionary fervour” an “indictment” on the Church”.

The bold move is certain to dismay sections of the Church that believe in creationism and regard Darwin’s views as directly opposed to traditional Christian teaching.

The apology, which has been written by the Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, the Church’s director of mission and public affairs, says that Christians, in their response to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, repeated the mistakes they made in doubting Galileo’s astronomy in the 17th century.

“The statement will read: Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practise the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends.”

Opposition to evolutionary theories is still “a litmus test of faithfulness” for some Christian movements, the Church will admit. It will say that such attitudes owe much to a fear of perceived threats to Christianity.

But wait.

Ever since the Enlightenment exposed the Church’s intellectual poverty, English Christians have drifted from the mainstream, and piety has slunk indoors and tumbled down the generations in a total daze. Many then and today have doubtless been tormented by their uncertainties which Bishops and Archbishops spent decades simply ignoring. People believed, but they had no idea what; and their prayers went unanswered and no vicar could say why (in 1904 The Telegraph ran a poll, entitled “Do we believe?”, eliciting this very ambivalence). Scientific progress, and the Church’s oscillating leaps between hysterical expulsion and embrace of it, was a powerful element of this.

And now, at last, a minor magnate has proffered an apology – to a single dead man. One who, it seems, was more than strong enough to stand up to the religious bullying thrust upon him. Nothing to see here, folks!

But it does, at the very least, shed perspective on why the Church has never apologised for the banner it raised over the millions murdered in the name of God, King, country and empire nearly a century ago. The ivory tower must be very lovely indeed.


The Battle in Front of One’s Nose

I do hate how guttersnipes mistake self-righteous cynicism for irony – but I suppose everything looks palatable from the sewers. In today’s Observer, Henry Porter argues that gun-flared violence in the United States is so rampant that it must forfeit its national sovereignty to the international community – if, of course, it is justified in Syria. He informs us:

After the celebrated Liebeck v McDonald’s case in 1994, involving a woman who suffered third-degree burns to her thighs, Starbucks complies with the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s recommendation that drinks should be served at a maximum temperature of 82C.

Although it was brave of Howard Schultz, the company’s chief executive, to go even this far in a country where people are better armed and only slightly less nervy than rebel fighters in Syria, we should note that dealing with the risks of scalding and secondary smoke came well before addressing the problem of people who go armed to buy a latte. There can be no weirder order of priorities on this planet.

That’s America, we say, as news of the latest massacre breaks – last week it was the slaughter of 12 people by Aaron Alexis at Washington DC’s navy yard – and move on. But what if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for America and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis – a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention? As citizens of the world, perhaps we should demand an end to the unimaginable suffering of victims and their families – the maiming and killing of children – just as America does in every new civil conflict around the globe.

A few trivial points of interest:

  • On the figures: the current annual death toll from firearms is indeed 32,000, but just under 20,000 are suicides with a further number whose cause is either undetermined or unintentional. That makes for 11,000 firearm-caused homicides or about a fiftieth of the rate in Syria.
  • The murders share no ideology in the US; in Syria, they are designed to prop up a crime family.
  • The US has the resources to end its violence. Its federal government spends around $69 billion on domestic security to prevent and punish these crimes; the Syrian regime commits them on a scale as great as its resources will allow.
  • Consequently that crime family gasses children; the US, for all its previous faults, is condemned by the likes of Porter for slowly seeking to extend justice to Assad’s regime.

But Porter’s comparison is a bit of sick narcissism, uninterested in the most blatant of facts. Deaths only matter if in attacking them he can cater to the tale of British cultural sophistication and its sense of moral superiority, betraying as he does so its most celebrated pretense: an understanding of irony. Orwell knows it just a tad better: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

Gun control laws are severely needed in the US. Since the Second Amendment does not – and cannot – specify the type of weapons that civilians can own, and that short of missiles there would be no way that they could seriously fight back to a potential US government or a force capable of overthrowing it, there’s logic to controls that would reduce the homicide rate without threatening the principle to self-defence. And it could work – following the tepid rules introduced in 1996, it declined by a third.

If there is cause for “intervention”, a term which Porter dryly mocks, this is it: force of argument, reason and persuasion. Unlike Syria, the US has a democratic process, however flawed – which means that, ultimately, these are decisions for the American people and its political representatives. If Porter does not see the moral and intellectual importance of such a distinction, his career is a waste.

One does not need to agree with intervention in Syria to see that the days of Cowboys and Indians are rather long gone.


Conviction

In 1960, Nye Bevan managed to bring Labour in line with the grassroots Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament, a mass public movement rising out of the seeds of pacifism planted by the Cold War. Leader Hugh Gaitskell had no time for such fantasies:

I don’t like his economic vision for amending Clause IV – the commitment to the public ownership of industry – and the commitment he sought in 1959 to limit tax rises. He attempted to undermine socialism decades before it was electorally necessary to do so.

But unlike many modern politicians he realised that a leader must persuade, not follow.


Phrase of the Day: Armchair Isolationism

In his plea to look serious, Obama has would-a-been Presidents rallying to his cause. First, McCain appears on Fox News to put down its obligatory anti-Muslim bigotry currently masquerading as counter-jihadism:

(With thanks to Harry’s Place.)

Second, John Kerry has been speaking – some words so blunt one has to question whether Obama approved them – against what he feared to be the lingering political undercurrent of “armchair isolationism”:

“This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter,” Mr Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”

Mr Kerry made an impassioned case for punitive strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons after President Barack Obama put off military action to first ask Congress for approval.

What Kerry calls “armchair isolationism” is quite important: it requires no effort on the part of the person sitting in the armchair, making it much more effective than the “armchair general” metaphor that reactionaries like to jump on.

It goes rather well with what Daniel Finkelstein has called in his blog the tendency of an “omission bias” where we instinctively presume that doing nothing is better than doing something, if the outcomes are uncertain:

Basketball referees are taught that there are four types of calls — correct calls, incorrect calls, correct non-calls and incorrect non-calls. It is better to make a correct call than an incorrect one, obviously. And if you fail to call an infringement when you should, you will be criticised.

But every referee knows that it is far better to make such an omission than to make a call in the dying moments of a game and be wrong. So what happens? In sport after sport, the referees blow their whistles far more in the earlier parts of the game than in the closing stages, thus penalising those infringed against. Omission bias.

Yesterday morning the Conservative MP Adam Holloway, opposed to taking action in Syria, provided as his chief argument that the outcome of intervention was impossible to predict. And he is quite right. In fact, he pierced to the heart of almost every foreign policy dilemma. The outcome of action is always hard to predict.

Kerry has had a morally dubious edge in his history, of course, having once boasted for shooting a member of the Viet Cong from the riverbank. As if that were not rather distasteful in itself, this would feature in the same presidency campaign he ran based on a platform of opposition to the Iraq war. I have seen people oppose both wars; I have seen others support the overthrow of Saddam but remain horrified at the prospect of napalm in the jungle. Kerry’s revisionism was more the twisting of rotten carcass than a breath of fresh air, his trade-off between principle and populism outperforming even Ed Miliband.

All the same – swiftly navigating away from that tangent – it’s encouraging to see that both the left and right of American politics seem willing to confront Assad. It seems that McCain will have advised the President on more than he did to the Senate, whom he recommended vote for action principally to maintain American credibility. Elsewhere, he has been more willing to emphases the need for a Syrian policy against Assad as necessarily being concomitant with an active one to support the more moderate rebels facing off terrorist groups.

In a way, it’s a long overdue slap down to the old Kissinger-esque assumption that a foreign policy of humanitarianism cannot also be one of realpolitik pragmatism. McCain, and to a lesser extent Kerry, have recognised that a war against sectarian jihadists satisfies both outlooks.


Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party

In 1939, in order to be excused from joining the war, Mussolini sent Hitler such a ludicrously long list of materials he needed that the Fuhrer simply waved them away. The hope was to jump in a few months later, win the war, and then claim the credit from the good old Berliner fascist.

I thought about that as I watched the horror on Ed Miliband’s face as he realised that he had, in fact, defeated the government on the matter of launching strikes against Assad; that rather than appearing to be the strong leader who had forced concession after concession from a war-monger, whom he could then criticise for his efforts while satisfying the undercurrent in his party longing for an intervention, he had forced Britain to abandon the principle of aiding the Syrians through military measures. He wanted to have his cake, eat it, and then serve up the excrement to the unsuspecting British public.

I have, as a consequence, left the Labour Party.

The Looming Legacy

“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty,” Clement Attlee told the Labour Party conference at Southport, in 1934. “We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country. We say we want to see put on the statute book something which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”

True to his word, Attlee visited the volunteer British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, in 1937, who conjured the “Major Attlee Company” in his honour. But the most inspiring moment was perhaps in 1939 when the Republican government in Spain was close to collapse, Barcelona nearly overrun; the British public, resting in that awkward winter between Chamberlain’s announcement of “Peace For Our Time” and Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia and Moravia, had less stomach for war than in two decades; and there was expected to be a general election in a years’ time. And in spite of all that weighing in on his political capital, Attlee stood at a podium in Whitechapel to unveil Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to raise funds for the Republican war effort. The goal was to persuade working-class Londoners, for whom the entry fee was only a pair of shoes, of the urgency facing their Spanish comrades.

b4570989b7313010_clement-atlee-speaks-before-picassos-guernica-at-the-whitechapel-gallery[1]

Clement Attlee unveiling Picasso’s “Guernica” at Whitechapel, 1939.

By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he had grasped perhaps a little too confidently Hitler’s commitment to an old man to a World Peace Conference under the chairing of Roosevelt. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.

In his will, Lansbury gently requested that his ashes be scattered at sea because “although I love England very dearly … I am a convinced internationalist.” Neither his idealism nor Attlee’s pragmatism compromised their humanitarian impulses, which had simply been schooled in different ways. Neither undermined the basic instinct that transcended the trivialities of national barriers, languages and economies. Though both saw that the better world could be much better realised as a webbed community, only Attlee understood what the Tory benches meant when they shouted, “Tell that to Hitler!”

The Wretching Legacy

Nostalgia isn’t any good for anyone. The historian betrays his discipline if it livens him up too much; I am not attempting to draw a bland parallel between the Republican government and the rebel forces fighting Assad. The civil wars in Spain and Syria both began as struggles for pluralism, morphing into proxy wars from foreign powers with the liberal democracies sitting idly by – but we will never know how the Spanish war may have evolved if Attlee had won parliament over to his cause of ending the “farce of non-intervention”, as he called it. Would the Republicans have won? Or is it possible that, had Britain and France sent troops to aid the Republicans, the Germans would have doubled their efforts and in so doing brought war to the allies and defeated them?

We can never know, of course, and these sorts of questions don’t tend to be especially fruitful. But counter-factuals aren’t wildly different to the speculations filling the columns of every wannabe “expert” on Syria right this second; we must not presume that simply because one believes bombing Assad will help the secularists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels and the millions of displaced civilians that he is right to do so, or that those who oppose the methods he proposes are isolationists or hysterical “anti-imperialists”.

I’m a bit of a puritan, you see – motive is everything. A right action performed for the wrong reason is morally frivolous; equally, I’ll forgive a mistake made by an honest man.

So after Cameron agreed to publish the legal case for war, and then the Joint Intelligence Committee’s evidence for Assad’s responsibility, and then to work through the UN as far as the Security Council would allow, and then for a second vote after the UN reported its findings, why still did Ed Miliband vote against the government?

Did he fear that strikes against Assad’s weren’t worth the civilians they might kill, or that we should find a more humane route of assisting the democrat rebels with the long-term prospect of bringing down another Baathist dictator? Was it the imminenscy of a jihadist bloodbath if he falls? Did Miliband, instead, call for open borders for Syrian refugees and billions of pounds of international aid to be sent to those who remained?

All of these positions would have been honourable, and though I might have disagreed with them would at least have been comforted by the prospect of a principled leader.

With this in mind, allow us to consult the reasons he emailed to party members:

  1. We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;
  2. There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;
  3. The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;
  4. There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;
  5. Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

The only man of importance still uncritically recycling Assad’s narrative, Vladimir Putin, holds a veto on the Security Council; I will not believe that a man who taught at Harvard cannot see the moral farce of a man selling tanks to its only non-Soviet ally, to kill children, advising on the principles of judicial legitimacy. As he well knows, no serious politician could bring this program into the Commons. Miliband has whipped his party into the stables of Moscow, by accident, and is now telling his passengers to enjoy the sights.

Not a single Labour MP voted with the government on Thursday. Not one. Their amendment failed; and so when the government’s motion was proposed to the house, it became a choice between the principle to support military intervention and to rule it out entirely. Ed Miliband grabbed his opportunity, and he reaped his rewards.

Unapologetic – and unhumbled – by his party’s victory over Cameron, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander appeared on the BBC to say:

If [Cameron] was now to return to the Commons, and say, “Well, actually, the President of the United States has decided to go to the Congress, I’ve changed my mind about what Parliament was saying and about what the British people were saying,” I think that would weigh very heavily on the ability for him to convince the public or parliament that his judgement was sound. [Emphasis mine.]

If the decision were a principled one, Alexander would not be invoking public opinion into the vindication of his leader’s decision; and it’s beginning to make sense that the Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis, would happen to be the architect of Miliband’s project for old-school Tory paternalism, “One Nation”.

And this when the need for international solidarity has never been so great. The working-class electorate in Britain is – as Marx defined it, at any rate – shrinking, and labour power passing overseas. This is especially true of the Arab world whose economies are based heavily on undercutting European manufacturing, leading to artificially depressed wages and living standards. In times of war, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering that now has pushed northern territories of Syria into the open embrace of clerical fascism. Instead, Labour does nothing.

There’s some hysteria out there that Miliband has allied himself with the isolationism of UKIP – but that is rather to miss the point. One can be a patriot and an internationalist, because it’s possible, as Orwell put it, to wish for the best for those who bring colour into your daily life but to contextualise them as one school of art among many. One cannot, however, be a populist and an internationalist, because the moment you put vote-counting before international solidarity then you cease to truly believe in the equality of nations, and instead leave it dependent on the arbitrary whims and fantasies of mob rule.

An Abdication From Giving A Shit

For once, Miliband has it right that the vote on Thursday is not an invitation for “soul-searching” (hopefully not to excuse himself from the doctor’s invitation to Syria). But what’s a party without its members?

Looking back it’s odd to think that it was Tony Benn’s speech at the Oxford Union last year – a man who has otherwise not said anything sensible for two decades – that confirmed my faith in the Labour Party. When asked why he stayed a member of a party so mutated by its “Thatcherite tendencies” he responded, in a tone of slightly self-righteous victim-hood, that Labour was nothing if not a coalition. The best that one could hope for was that those closest to sharing his views would lead the party forward.

But LabourList revealed the results of a rather telling poll on the day of the vote, one which deep down I knew I was losing as I voted:

And what reasons did the readership provide for this landslide hostility to punitive strikes?

81.8% of LabourList readers said that Labour should only support action backed by the UN (as opposed to Miliband’s position, which involves evidence presented to the UN and debate by the Security Council, but doesn’t imply support from Russia/China is needed for military action). Only 18.2% said that Labour should back action without the UN.

I wish the likes of MPs Tom Harris, Ben Bradshaw and Megg Mun all the best of luck, anamolies though they are: they recognised the importance to support Syrian civilians, whatever form that should take. But I cannot overcome the apathy to greet Putin, Assad, Nasrallah and Khamenei dining on Friday to celebrate Britain’s moral lethargy, Asma even on a diet (because of all the children she’s been eating).

It is regrettable, it is sad, but decisive: the Labour Party, whose worst leader was said to be the Ramsay MacDonald who still had the guts to abandon the Fabians when they refused to condemn the Boer War, has fallen to those Western narcissists who have stolen the name “socialist” and extracted its heart. It is a wicked twist of fate for those of us now reluctantly named “liberal interventionists” that Blair, who abolished Clause IV from Labour’s constitution, would appear to be the last internationalist of Labour leaders; that the stumbling Red Ed should choose party politics over the death of non-English speaking children, for whom he clearly shares no more affinity than the average Joe.

The deeply humanitarian principles of the party have either melted away or slipped into the manifesto: the would-be programme of a “grown up” political party. One has only to ask, I suppose, why it was able to last for so long.

And the gong has been struck; it is the sound of the disenchantment of socialism.


Cherwell: We Can Still Save Syria

I wrote this before Ed Miliband betrayed the Syrian people, so it is a bit out of date/lacking necessary expletives, but here is my article for Cherwell.org:

“Never again,” we like to tell ourselves, again and again. Looking back, we know Thomas Hardy was right to anticipate “all nations striving strong to make red war yet redder”; the so-called “war to end all wars”, beginning in 1914 with Gavrilo Princip’s bullet of the century, would not really end until 1991. Outlived as he was by the old men who sent him to die, Wilfred Owen’s glib submission “dulce et decorum est” should represent more than anything else the grim legacy our generation inherited from the 20th century. Our heroes showcase a grand hatred of war.

Except we see the world beyond through different spectacles. The student voice, which in the 1960s called on Britain to take a moral lead in the world, drops dead with apathy or sinks into “post-colonialist” hysteria whenever faced with foreign conflicts; the Labour Party has been mellowed by a populist sickness that chases after old Tory slogans; and Barack Obama, with his innocuous charm and Nobel Prize to think of, would rather pretend there is no war than bring it to an end.

Read the rest here!