Lessons from the wrong side of history
That deadly phrase about suffering ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ was originally devised to rescue working class history from the disdain of educated historians. But it cuts both ways. We all deploy it when we mock the ancient Greeks for thinking thunder signalled divine displeasure and Victorians so keen to suppress sexual feeling that they covered piano legs. In due course it will put you and me in our time and place, as it has already done E.P. Thompson, the Marxist writer who first coined it.
So Theresa May’s election musings on the need for Britain to help crush violent Islamism will not be spared the condescension of posterity. Nor will Jeremy Corbyn’s counter-argument that British interventions abroad have brought much terrorism upon ourselves. It is a view endorsed in varying degrees by spy chiefs, by polymath Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, and more belligerently by Boris (Where is he?) Johnson, though not lately. That shameless hindsight merchant, Posterity, will not forget to pat them on the head too.
Of course we can trace the violent actions of suicide bombers like Salman Abedi to things which western states, Britain often to the fore, have ‘done to’ Islamic countries in recent years, in some cases, over centuries, crimes and predictable mistakes included. Jihadi foot soldiers, some of them petty criminals, wannabe football stars or rappers, have been fed new focus for disaffected anger at the mosque or in the University of Wormwood Scrubs. They issue self-justifying defences of mass murder on kafir social media which usually demonstrate an ignorance of their own religion, their history and ours. Not that counter jihadis, who murder people randomly on American trains or in bars are any better. Posterity will quickly forget their pathetic bids for martyrdom or fame.
Any society bent on self-preservation has to take all sensible precautions but also to live with it until the current madness passes – as it always does. But the temptation for politicians to seek to make short-term capital from such dreadful incidents as the Manchester massacre is usually unwise and often counter-productive, as daft as Donald Trump claiming undeserved credit for Barack Obama’s economic legacy – rising employment levels – apparently unaware that it will guarantee him the blame when they inevitably dip.
After sterling crashed out of the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM) in 1992 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown got away with blaming John Major for his decision to join it in 1990, though they had supported the move at the time. David Cameron and George Osborne supported the Blair/Brown tax and regulatory regime until after the bankers crash of 2007-8. But they got away with blaming Labour in 2010, with the active help of Ed Miliband (and the left) who were foolishly eager to distance themselves from the New Labour brand. No wonder hardly any bankers went to jail, they were victims too – of wicked regulators who let them break the law. It was the cops fault, not the burglars!
But glib politics usually catches up with them all in the end. Conservative promises to cut Labour levels of net immigration – now that was a regulatory failure by government – to the ‘tens of thousands’ (who was it in charge of the policy?) contributed to the fateful Brexit verdict on June 23. Yet May’s manifesto has just repeated it. In her most reductionist argument in this campaign – ‘do you want me or Jeremy Corbyn to do it?’ – she now includes the fight against terrorist threats at home and abroad as well as the coming fight against Michel Barnier’s Brexit team. They meet formally just nine days after the votes are cast. Scary stuff. Little wonder old lags are confident they know the voters answer, whatever ‘closing gap’ scenarios the opinion polls throw up.
In the circumstances was the Labour leader right to make last week’s speech on his plans to ensure the fight to protect the British people from terrorism is more effective than the past 20 years has been? Yes and no. It wasn’t a bad speech, it was strong and categorical in condemning savage and unjustified violence and made undeniable points that we have not always been good at protecting our own freedoms, at supporting police budgets or intervening wisely abroad. Corbyn did not mention him, but who can recall without flinching Tony Blair’s spurious promise that by invading Afghanistan and eradicating the local poppy harvest (their only global cash crop) British troops would help keep hard drugs off our streets? Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Oh dear. A Corbyn-led government would do better, he says.
But was Corbyn the right man to highlight what he called ‘the connection between wars our government has fought or supported in other countries and terrorism here at home’? No, because it invites closer inspection of his own fallible record of non-intervention by western states, his barely-concealed desire to find some cash by cancelling Trident. Yes, he was right to oppose – I remember it well – the Thatcher government’s cynical arms sales to Iraq to support its war of aggression against Iran (they never paid us anyway), but wrong on so many other occasions. The Falklands War against another invading dictator, Jeremy? Bizarre though it may have been – the Argentine writer Borges likened it to ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’ – but the Task Force sailed under UN Article 5. It was opposed by, among others, the leftwing Spartacist League, by the Guardian’s late lamented Peter Jenkins (no relation) as well as by Simon, by Tony Benn and Tam Dalyell, but not Michael Foot. Thatcher’s pal, Ronnie Reagan, tried to sell her out. In diplomacy, states have interests more than they have real friends.
Corbyn opposed Iraq in 2003, of course, but also NATO’s invasion of Kosovo (1999) to curb Serbian aggression against Muslims, as John Major’s even-handed non-intervention between warring factions in Bosnia (1992-95) had not. Kosovo had Robin Cook’s support though it was NATO’s war, not the UN’s, the absence of whose authorisation would prompt the former foreign secretary’s resignation in 2003. Would Cook have found a way to support it if he, not Jack Straw, had still been foreign secretary? We will never know, but foreign policy is full of speculation and error for posterity to condescend over. Nor is honourable intention a sufficient excuse. In seeking to appease Hitler rather than ‘provocatively’ to rearm, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were implementing the popular will of the war-weary British people – we can imagine Corbyn as an active Popular Front supporter of the Peace Pledge Union – as it was at the time. They all just happened to be wrong.
In any case, getting into too much detail often risks missing the bigger picture when confronting Islamist jihadis and much else. It is self-serving vanity, equal to that of imperialists who claim a ‘civilising’ mission for their greed, to suggest that the grievous ills of the Middle East are the fault of European intervention, conquest and exploitation since the mid-19th century. Yes, dreadful things were done, alongside some good things. But Sunni and Shia minority Muslims have periodically been engaged in fratricidal conflict since the moment the Prophet Mohammed died in 632, at times making schisms in the Christian realm looks quite sporting.
So Donald Trump’s casual bestowal of the leadership of the Muslim world on the benighted Saudi autocracy highlights another White House’s profound ignorance of the past – and of the ancient but lingering imperial pride of Egypt, Turkey and Shia Iran. British foreign secretary and PM, Anthony Eden, wouldn’t have made that mistake – steeped in scholarship, he spoke Arabic and Persian. There again, foolish fellow, that didn’t stop him helping to overthrow the elected leader of Iran (1953) and re-invade Egypt at Suez three years later. British ascendancy in the region was brief by historic standards – the blink of an eye compared with the Ottoman occupation of South East Europe – but it left its mark. Not that young jihadi bombers know any more than Trump about that. They all vaguely know what a ‘crusader’ was – a Frankish jihadi – but happily forget that in 1453 the Ottoman Turks turned Christendom’s greatest church – St Sophia in Constantinople – into a mosque, nowadays a museum.
By contrast the Kaiser’s Germany – unlike Britain – had no Middle East empire, though he coveted one and mapped out a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway link. German militarism caused millions of mostly European deaths between 1914 and 1945, since when the German state, immunised against fanaticism, has been near pacifist, encountering its first post-1945 armed enemies in Afghanistan only in 2002. Berlin refused to join the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, though it has more recently trained Kurdish fighters and made vestigial military contributions to containing IS in Syria. In the First World War Germany was an ally of the Muslim Ottoman empire. In the Second World War Hitler had plenty of Muslim admirers (‘my enemy’s enemy…’) and – but for the Battle of el Alamein – nearly got to Cairo. Since the 1950s it has admitted millions of Turkish migrants. None of which has prevented terrorist attacks on Germany, some triggered by the heinous German crime of generously admitting a million refugees from the Syrian civil war.
We could go through Europe’s imperial national legacies in similar fashion to reinforce the point that Islamic terrorism in European cities is strong on culturally displaced and disaffected youth drawn to violent expression, weaker on historic causation. France and Spain occupied much of Morocco, but the Madrid train bombers (2004) were Moroccan hashish dealers high on al Qaida’s internet incitement over Spanish troops in Iraq, not on their own colonial injuries. Besides the first Islamic armies crossed into Gibraltar (Tariq’s Tower) in 711 – in the name of the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus – and were not finally driven out of Spain until 1492. In their push to the west Arab armies had been expelled from France in 732 at the Battle of Tours, just a day’s drive from Islington. In the east the last Ottoman push came as late at 1683 when Polish armies relieved the second siege of Vienna.
The French fought brutally to sustain the conceit that Algeria was part of metropolitan France and were bombed at home in return. They did not join the 2003 invasion of Iraq, though they did engage in the UN-sanctioned war in Afghanistan and in Anglo-French support for the anti-Gaddafi rebels in Libya as well as the ineffectual and spasmodic western interventions in Syria (where it was briefly the colonial power). That it has suffered more than any other European state from Islamic terrorism reflects its domestic policies – on immigration, integration and an excluding youth labour market – more than its supposedly ‘neo-colonial’ interventions. That is more of a reality in French Africa but Africans do not bomb Nice or Paris, any more than Indians – with much to complain about the British Raj – bomb Brent. Ex-Pakistani village boys do, but that tells us more about their restricted culture than the Raj or nuances of Theresa May’s emerging foreign policy.
What does link various threads of this narrative is a culture of victimhood, long nurtured in the Muslim world since its greatest western embodiment, the mighty Ottoman Empire ceased to be the terror of Christendom in the 17th century and became the original sick man of Europe. We could call it a crisis of modernisation, one which neglected once-prized science, Enlightenment learning and the rule of commercial law. Whether or not Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type (1439), the internet of its day, was actually banned when it reached the Ottoman capital – via Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain by the Inquisition in 1494 – is a disputed point.
But the printing press was certainly marginalised by the caliphate and literate society for the best part of 300 years, a potent symbol of avoidable decay. That is not David Cameron or Tony Blair’s fault either, and more than George Bush destroyed Baghdad. Mongol cavalry armies from central Asia did that in 1258, ending Islam’s Golden Age. They had already sacked Kiev and conquered Beijing; in due course they would mete out similar treatment in Delhi after being Islamised in the process. Western Europe escaped through a dynastic quirk.
Such is history, an ongoing collision of forces mostly beyond the control of politicians who claim to be able to fix the weather but can’t. History’s temporary winners can rarely resist the ancient Greek vice of hubris, over-mighty pride that leads to an inevitable fall. History’s defeated – its losers in Trump-speak – are tempted to the opposing tendency, the cult of victimhood whereby things are always being done to us by other people. This is where Corbyn, a relatively small historical figure in the large sweep of things, has made a larger mistake than opposing every military intervention by the West, but been more accommodating to interventions from the East and to assorted leftwing tyrants or bomb-throwers.
If May still clings to the illusion, regularly fostered by the nostalgic rightwing press, that Britain’s meagre armed forces can make significant military interventions in 2017 and beyond, our failure on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan – the Americans certainly spotted it – should have cured her. The Falklands War was a final imperial flourish, just like the Venetian Republic’s last assault on the Barbary Pirates (we call them Libyans now) just before its exhausted collapse in 1796. It hardly matters if the handful of our jet fighters we can afford to fly help bomb Syrian government positions – or not. On that, Corbyn’s no vote in 2015 was right, though Ed Miliband’s in 2013 was not. The thumbs down from British MPs gave the ever-cautious Barack Obama the excuse he needed not to enforce his declared red line against chemical warfare in Syria’s civil war. The rest is Russian history.
But Corbyn’s larger error is a career aligned with victim culture, the underdog as he doubtless prefers to see it. It is an attractive instinct, one which wants Leicester City to humble the Premier League’s oligarch clubs and tiny North Vietnam to see off French, American and later Chinese invaders. But most people do not feel like victims most of the time, they feel they retain the capacity for action, the ability to DO SOMETHING about their circumstances in a constructive way – as distinct from blowing themselves and 22 innocents to pieces in the foyer of the Manchester Arena. They are concerned for society’s poor and unfortunate – the disabled and the elderly sick, the jobless young – but not to the exclusion of wider concerns that include their own.
Above all they want political leaders who will address with conviction and practical plans those issues which are within their capacity to tackle at a difficult juncture. We may all have to endure the assaults of deluded adolescents in the name of jihad – just as we do lesser misconduct in the name of alcohol and drug abuse. But we should have leaders who can do something about the way the economy works, the road network, schools, the NHS and the police. Rightly or wrongly what were mostly policy shortcomings at home – including immigration policy – got mixed up with the European Union. It took the blame and resulted in last year’s Brexit vote.
As in November’s election of President Trump or the mid-20th century’s lurch into extremism we could call it a crisis of globalisation, the revolt of the ‘have nots’ against their exclusion from a fair share of wealth and innovation now being created on an unprecedented scale. Who can best guide us through this minefield remains the election’s urgent question, not who will hire more police officers or keep the RAF’s missile stockpile safely locked up.
With so much going on this may not be the best time to abandon the remnants of Britain’s global role, Trident and all, though it is a legitimate question to ask. But nor is it a time to play cheap politics with terrorism. In wrongly blaming Basque separatists for the 2004 Madrid bombings in the hope of election advantage four days before polling day the then-Spanish government ensured its own defeat. Caution all round please.