Friday 30 August 2013

On Empire

Writing online earlier this week about proposed British military intervention in Syria, the journalist and political commentator Stephen Glover says:

Why do we feel we must behave as a world power? Whenever a crisis blows up — Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria — politicians of whichever party act as though it is our national destiny to intervene. 

Much of the media, particularly the BBC, colludes in the fiction that what this country does during these crises is decisive. Britain is mentioned in the same breath as the U.S. Maps are produced signifying British fire-power on which there are almost as many Union Flags as Stars & Stripes.

Why do some Britons feel this way? It's a legacy of Empire, of course, and an assumption that we are still playing 'The Great Game'. Until very recently we were all of us in Britain educated to believe in our nation's centrality in world affairs. We were at the hub of any narrative, our centrality to world events was a given, despite all the post-Suez evidence to the contrary.

Stamp of authority

Politicians of Cameron's generation are among the last to be raised with this unquestioning belief in Britain as a visible and legitimate arbiter in the affairs of other states. He no doubt sees this as part of the 'orderly management of decline' predicted by Macmillan, although one might add that 'orderly' shouldn't involve firing Trident missiles.

The BBC is, as Glover suggests, complicit in this myth of British centrality, and of course has a stake in it, endorsing the Foreign Secretary William Hague in his airy ex cathedra statements about Syria and the need to intervene in what is, to be sure, a horrible humanitarian crisis.  Are we also invited to suppose that the other Foreign Secretaries of Europe have remained sulkily mute on the subject?

What's happening in Syria is ghastly beyond belief, and there's a likelihood that a bloody civil war will spill across the border into Israel and then - who knows? Something, to coin a phrase, must be done, but what Orwell called 'the atmosphere of war' is now being generated in parliament and in the media, not a move towards peaceful resolution. Michael Howard has just said, in a live parliamentary debate: "We are in danger of letting the United States and France to act as a conscience of the world"as if that amounted to a call to arms. What nonsense. Let France punch above its weight for once. Let America have one more outing as a global legislator, as we enter the Asian century.  Let Britain, a declining power, have the courage not to weigh in and add to the barbarity. 

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