David Boyle

Lions led by donkeys

Liberator, September 2006.

"These are times on which those who love freedom should use all imaginable caution to love it wisely,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Morning Post in the final month of the eighteenth century.  “Good men should now close ranks.”


He was arguing that the brutal authoritarianism of Pitt’s administration – including the suspension of Habeas Corpus – and the violent revolutionary agenda of his Jacobin opponents were somehow buttressing each other.  It was time, he said, for a new body of liberal opinion to make this symbiotic relationship clear.


He did not mean there was a moral equivalence between the bloody revolutionaries in France and the desperate and unimaginative British government, who so feared the hidden supporters of revolutionary France in their own cities.  But he did mean that they were locked together in a relationship that was helping to shape each other.


You might wonder how much we are in a similar situation now, as the terror threat ratchets up around the world, and how much liberals in all sections of society can band together to articulate this.


Nor is this just a neat historical parallel.  There is a deeper, even a metaphysical sense, in which this dangerous relationship is becoming apparent.


I first ran across the works of the French philosopher Jacques Ellul at university.  He’s dead now – since 1994 – but his theory that, when you fight, you get like your opponent, is suddenly startlingly relevant. 


You can see what he means: we were horrified by the Zeppelin raids on London in the First World War, shocked at the Nazi attack on Guernica in 1936.  But within a decade we were doing worse to German cities, in the mistaken belief that we were damaging morale. 


When, during the Iraq invasion, I heard on the news that the Americans had flattened a neighbourhood in Baghdad – including all its inhabitants – because they believed Saddam Hussein was eating in a restaurant in the vicinity, I thought of Ellul.  The recent destruction of Lebanon, and the ferocious the assault on Falluja, reminded me again.


Apparently, if you live near a terrorist these days, you are fair game.  We are learning to fight the War on Terror with terror, and the implications are absolutely disastrous – because that is precisely what the terrorists need us to do.


Again, the bombing of the London underground and the napalm bombing of Falluja are not morally equivalent, but it is a difference in degree – the achievement of an end by a devastating means – not in kind.


Never in the history of human conflict, Churchill might have said, did one side fall so much for the tactics of so few opponents.


Blair’s Arc of Extremism speech seems to recognise some of this.  Too late, he sees that fighting a war with terror is a recipe for driving moderate opinion into the arms of the extremists, and that is a recipe for ultimate defeat.


Liberals have treated the whole concept of a War on Terror with some suspicion, and rightly so.  But now that Bush and Blair have framed the reality in that way, we should consider for a moment the consequences of losing – and it is now all too easy to see how it could be lost and what the consequences would be.


All the enemies of liberalism need to do is so terrify our governments that they suppress the freedoms that they are supposed to be defending. 


Worse, they only need one act of nuclear or biological horror to blow away three centuries of tolerance and reform and civilisation.  I don’t claim this is inevitable; I do say that it matters that we have governments capable of ‘winning’ the war.  And that our government is not, and must be bundled out of office to make way for one that is.


For some reason, the UK opposition has not been able to articulate this case – that Blair is losing the war – partly through fear of the language of defeatism, partly through a sense of inadequacy: they have yet to find a political language that can articulate this message in a way the tabloid newspapers can understand.


Partly, perhaps, because they regard the whole concept of the War on Terror with suspicion.  We sometimes describe Iraq as if it was a procedural error, just a failure of democratic will, rather than what it really is: a massive opportunity for al-Qaeda and a looming defeat in the War on Terror. 


So we fall too often into the trap of campaigning without content.  We become mere purveyors of newspaper headlines, rather than doing what oppositions need to do: acting in such a way that key stories stay in the newspapers day after day.


In that way, we allowed the scandal of the bomb flights – colluding in the supply of weaponry that was raining down on Beirut – to slip out of the news, though it encapsulated everything we argued about the appeasement of illegality and violence by Labour.


Two centuries ago, Coleridge bemoaned the fact that it was left to wild revolutionaries like Hunt to speak for those sections of British society who were livid with Pitt and his cronies.


Now, we have to ask, apart from us and a few tentative Labour backbenchers, why is it left to violent rabble-rousers like George Galloway to express the fury that so many people feel with Blair and his foreign policy idiocies?


I say apart from us, but even Liberal Democrats do so not nearly broadly, not nearly consistently, and not nearly angrily enough.  The issue is the threat of defeat for the forces of liberalism in the world by those who are opposed to everything about it, because of the incompetence of those who do not understand it.  That’s enough to get Gladstone out of bed in the mornings.


There has been an impassioned discussion on American political websites about the identity of the worst US president in history, now we are living through the final years of the presidency of one of the prime candidates.


It made me wonder: who is the worst ever Prime Minister – Lord North, Neville Chamberlain?  Is it a title you earn by general hopelessness or by one massive miscalculation?


Blair may not be in quite the same category as Bush – he is famously able to string sentences together – but you have to wonder whether any prime minister before has presided over such unprecedented damage to our national security.


In previous eras, politicians responsible for military disasters did the decent thing and left the stage.  Churchill resigned over the Dardanelles debacle.  Chamberlain was forced out over the Norwegian campaign.


They left because the repercussions of defeat were momentous.  And because, unless the system could see the mistakes clearly, and tell the truth about them, it was impossible to rescue the situation.


Blair stays, and exactly why will have to wait for historians, who are likely to pick over the details of who did what in these momentous years.  But it may be down to the corrupting control that any prime minister – and especially this one – holds over the British establishment.


It may be simply his personal ability to charm individuals.  Paddy Ashdown famously warned that Blair’s fatal weakness was his over-reliance on his own charm.


It may be, again, that opposition politicians have failed to find the language to express the enormity of the destruction that is being wrought – the calamitous nature of the mistakes.


Even the UK Independence Party can see the controversial recent Act of Parliament to extradite suspects to the USA is spelled using American English, and was clearly dictated by them, and says not a word.


Blair is an enigma – an extreme combination of brilliance and staggering incompetence – but it may be that the clues to his manifest failure lie in his original conference speeches before and shortly after taking office.


Where, asked commentators like Matthew Parris at the time, are his verbs?  Blair’s speeches were long successions of nouns and adjectives without the normal grammatical mortar that held them together.


Looking back, perhaps the problem was that we were electing a prime minister whose consciousness was so empty of ideology that he had no sense of how to achieve these famous nouns.


He had ideals of a kind, even values – if values can be expressed without any consideration of the means to achieve them – but they were empty.  They were underpinned by no strategy, no sense of what was possible, except perhaps his personal charm and ability to forge relationships.


I remember reading his 1998 pamphlet The Third Way, turning the page after his description of imminent community collapse to find out what he would do, and there was nothing except curfews.  I looked back, afraid I’d turned over two pages at once by mistake.  I hadn’t.


So we have a man whose only strategy is to charm the richest and most powerful people he can find, and can’t sense when he has in turn been co-opted by them.  Who has no sense of history, no understanding of means except insofar as they can achieve ends, but no sense of how the two interact in practice.


We have a government that is empty at its core.  As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, it learns nothing and remembers nothing.


We have, in short, the most utilitarian government in our history, but utilitarianism shorn of its liberal roots.  So obsessed with its ability to mould perception that it has come to muddle it with reality.


The achievements this government will be remembered for were those born of ideology, through the Cook-Maclennan talks that were so controversial at the time, but so important in retrospect.  Its failures look set to overwhelm everything else.


When Churchill became prime minister in 1940 he set out his policy as simply to “wage war by land, sea and air”.  How might we now state a policy capable of defeating terror, freelance and state-sponsored, with similar simplicity?


There is going to be military capability somewhere in the equation.  There is also going to be security – but not simply the half-hearted equations of security staff and profiling software, but a policy that genuinely sets out to increase the safety of British citizens.


A renewed nuclear programme, with its concomitant transport and storage of tons of plutonium, is clearly not compatible.  Decentralised energy is both safer and less vulnerable to attack.


Imagine Britain in 1939 happily going ahead with a programme of nuclear stations, assuming that the Luftwaffe would respect the fact that the nuclear programme came under a different government department.


But the main thrust any victory policy is going to need is what they call ‘hearts and minds’, to win the battle for those moderates in the Middle East who are now looking to Hezbollah and al-Qaeda for their defence. 


This is hardly a revolutionary idea.  The whole basis for defeating terror in Ireland was isolating those committed to violence in their own communities.  It cannot be beyond the wit of a society so sophisticated in its communications to forge a strategy for long-term victory. 


But of course spin or stories are never going to win the war alone, when the glaring contradictions in our prosecution of it are so obvious.  And not just there, but at the heart of the society and values we are defending.


And that’s the challenge.  The War on Terror was announced by two leaders who never understood it, and by announcing it – and waging it – set it in motion in ways they never grasped, facing risks beyond their comprehension.


We will only win it if we can become what we claim to be. If we genuinely let the people of Palestine and Cuba vote for the governments they want.  If we face up to the reality underpinning our society – that most of the business to which we have handed so much power is actively corroding our families, neighbourhoods, health and values.


If we can face up to the pathetic dependence of so many of our people, and the miserable emptiness of our democratic institutions.


And if we can do something about it, and revolutionise our own lives, institutions and spiritual emptiness, just as we are asking the Muslim world to do, then maybe we can win the War on Terror.


Blair can’t do it.  He now dimly seems to understand the hideous mistakes he has made, but we need to be able to look at them clearly and put together an uncorrupted policy for victory.  We can’t do so with him still at the helm.


It would be like asking Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister he most resembles, to preside over Britain’s defence against invasion. 


It is much easier to see what kinds of policy will not win: anything called shock and awe; bombing innocent civilians, even by mistake; virtual war from the air in the wholly mistaken belief that it destroys morale (why does it always destroy their morale and never ours?). 


How do we fight the terrorists when they lurk hidden in communities?  That is the challenge, and it is far easier to assert than to achieve.  What is horribly obvious is the effects of our failure to do that on the Middle East.


But look at the current tactics from the perspective of history, and you see what Blair only hints at.  That he and Bush are like First World War generals: presiding over disastrous, destructive and counter-productive tactics which brought their nations to the brink of defeat. 


Watching our ill-equipped troops in Iraq and Afghanistan now, they seem like modern lions led by donkeys.  We desperately need new tactics or we will lose this war, with appalling results for everything we believe in.



title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers