“‘Fighting’ was one of the most honourable words in the vocabulary, ‘the real, highest, honestest business of every son of man’, as Thomas Hughes put it… Of course, the fight had to be for a good cause. But one of the effects of imperialism had been to imbue very large numbers of people with a religious belief in Britain as the great force for good in the world… That England could be in the wrong was almost inconceivable.”
Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981)
One of the key arguments in the debate on Scottish independence is that a splintering UK would lose the ability to throw its weight around in the world. Is that an argument against independence, or one of many strong moral arguments in favour, one of the instances where Scotland’s gain is also a gain for others, here and abroad?
When David Cameron writes, as he did in the Sunday Telegraph last week, about Britain’s ‘military prowess’, he hopes the lack of connection with other issues won’t show through. He heads the government of a country that is supposedly bankrupt (though, as we’ve noted, in no hurry to pay down its debts). Local services are being more than decimated, while food banks proliferate. Never mind ‘charity begins at home’. What about ‘competence begins at home’?
The incompetence of the London regime explains why our energy security has been outsourced. It’s why the next nuclear power station in Wessex will be built by two rogue states if ever there were, the French and the Chinese. The French, whose position on minorities is 200 years out-of-date. So much so that if France applied to join the EU today it would risk a refusal on human rights grounds. And the Chinese? China is an economic giant and emerging superpower but arguably has the worst human rights record of all. Just 25 years ago in June, troops of the People’s ‘Liberation’ Army mowed down students demanding reforms before the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing. Justice is still awaited. France and China share an image of themselves as modern, enlightened states that in fact carries forward the contemptuous centralism of absolute monarchy at its worst.
In 1969, following the crushing of the Prague Spring, two young Czech students burned themselves to death in Wenceslas Square. Their example has been widely repeated, notably by autonomists in India and by victims of the European sovereign-debt crisis. But nowhere do the figures equal those in Tibet, where 35 cases were reported in 2011/12.
Do we hear about these deaths? No, we do not. Gaza, yes, Lhasa, no. Whole editions of Newsnight are devoted to every little flare-up in the Middle East. China might as well be another planet. That can’t just be because there are fewer Tibetan Buddhists at the BBC than Jews, Arabs and Maoists. Acute oppression makes news headlines; chronic oppression does not. Those who have rockets to lob at their neighbours are, from a relative perspective, the lucky ones. The unlucky are those whose oppression is so total, whose fear of reprisals is so great, that their voices are never heard.
The United Nations should be standing up for the oppressed everywhere, without favouritism. It faces huge difficulties in doing so. It is composed of the winners, the states that exist and not the unrepresented peoples who are still in the queue. The least that British diplomacy can do is nudge it in the right direction. Can British diplomacy do that? Or is the shadow of empire cast too long? Are we too busy doing our own thing, exercising our military prowess? Bombing other countries, then sanctimoniously patching-up the injured and welcoming (or not) the refugees whose homelands our actions have disrupted.
Most of the time, over 95% of the world is at peace. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man, acting collectively, to treat violence and the causes of violence, problems no more inevitable than smallpox or polio. Unilateral action may be swift but it’s rarely decisive and it effectively absolves the rest of the world of its responsibility for collective security. We need to confront the fear that if we aren’t acting as the world’s deputy sheriff, someone else will fill the vacuum. The UN’s job is to prevent the vacuum emerging. The sad fact is that our own efforts seem to have created far more vacuums than we’ve filled.
Look around the world for hotspots and you’ll see the Union Jack disappearing over the horizon, its mischief-making done. Kashmir. Palestine. Iraq. The Libya operation cost around £1 billion and only succeeded in replacing a crazy but competent dictator with a bunch of bandits. While spreading conflict across the central Saharan states in its wake. Leaving well alone was always a sensible alternative. Now, when last week’s evil enemies are proposed as this week’s necessary allies, it makes even more sense.
The best intentions can go awry. The 1916 Sykes-Picot accord is now viewed as a shameless example of European colonialists carving up territory that was none of their business. Yet Mark Sykes, the British half of the deal, was a Yorkshire squire who fell in love with the Middle East. He had his doubts about imperialism, thinking that “the White Man’s burden is a bag of gold”. He hated cities and their inhabitants (he was, after all, MP for central Hull) and greatly admired the nomadic life of the desert. It was his deepest wish to protect the area’s ancient civilisation from corruption, “the smearing of the east” with the “slime of the west”. He hoped Sykes-Picot would provide the focus for emergent Arab nationalism. Which in a much less predictable sense it now has.
In a globalised economy, actions have unexpected consequences. The idea that Islamist fundamentalism was deliberately promoted by the British Empire in order to weaken Ottoman rule – and strengthen London’s influence in its place – is about as believable as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Brits backed fighters, not theologians. But successful fundamentalism never lacks funding. Oil is oil and if the Islamic State is financed by the oil wealth it now controls and by donations from others whose wealth also comes from oil, then we may indirectly be funding terrorism every time we top up the tank.
Muscular humanitarianism has been the subject of debate ever since Disraeli and Gladstone locked horns over the Eastern Question of their day. But whatever its achievements, crusader-style chivalry starts to look insincere once we consider how cramped its priorities are by realpolitik. In the 21st century, 19th century multi-national empires like the UK are not the best means of doing good and they only get in the way of other institutions better placed to deliver. At the 2005 G8 Summit in Scotland, Tony Blair told the world’s press that “we are trying to do good”. Might it not be far, far better for states like ours to stop trying to do good and simply begood?