Memories of 2003

    It's only twelve years ago. Twelve years, and it feels like everyone -- the bulk of MPs, at least -- has forgotten about the dodgy dossier; about shock & awe; about Abu Ghraib and everything that followed.

    Because here we are again: our elected representatives are banging spears on shields and baying with the desire to follow a weak, shoddy prime minister to war.

    Classic political distraction, of course: things are bad at home (to say nothing of in the government’s party), so let’s have a war to distract the populace; the electorate; the “patient millions/Who put them into power,” as Billy Bragg put it.

    So far, so unsurprising. But it’s Labour MPs who really bother me. I thought perhaps we had turned a corner with the election of Jeremy Corbyn. That maybe we would return to being a proper opposition, by actually opposing Tory excesses. And by doing so, show the nation that here is a true alternative to the politics of the last couple of decades; to right-wing versus slightly-less-right-wing. Show the potential for a more peace-loving Britain.

    But here they all are, the party grandees, howling for bombs alongside the Tories. I shouldn’t be surprised, of course: it was a Labour government that took us into Iraq twelve years ago. In my defence – and theirs, to some extent – we were deceived , then – them by that dossier, us by them. Millions marched against it,1 but many thought that there must be something to all this talk of us being 45-minutes away from an attack. That the government must know something.

    Back then my son was nearly six. When we told him – in an age-appropriate way, as they say – that it looked like there was going to be a war – his first response was, “Will I have to go away?” Those tales of World War II evacuated kids burn deep for a Londoner.

    We reassured him that no, the war would be far away, and wouldn’t affect us directly. Two years later we were proved wrong, when the war came to his hometown. 2

    And just two weeks ago the current war came to Paris. Does anyone doubt, if our leaders go ahead and escalate this war, that we’ll see it come back to British streets? Maybe London again. Maybe Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow.

    More blood on British streets. Blood, which – along with that of the innocents who die in Syria under RAF bombs – will be at least partly on the hands of the MPs who go through the division lobbies with the government tomorrow.

    1. I was sadly absent from that through having small kids and a visiting aged parent. I was there in spirit. ↩︎

    2. Looking back I find that I predicted it. I was far from alone, of course. ↩︎

    Diplomacy 101, and Cash for Stories

    Sometimes I write these things and don’t post them immediately, and then they seem wildly out of date. But it’s still worth putting them out there. Blogging doesn’t have to be completely reactive. Sometimes it should take the longer-term, contemplative view. So I offer this.

    It seems obvious to me that, if your navy personnel are captured by the forces of a foreign power, in peacetime, and accused of being in the foreign power’s waters, then what you should do is as follows:
    You say, “Oops, sorry. Didn’t mean to have them off station; didn’t think they were, actually, but if they were, we’re sorry.” Even, and let me make this quite clear, if you know perfectly well that they weren’t in the other power’s territory.

    That, it seems to me, would be the diplomatic thing to do

    So why did they not do that? My best guess is that they – the British government – were worried about losing face.

    ‘Losing face.’ It’s a strange thing for the government of what is still a fairly major world power to be worrying about, isn’t it? After all, it’s not as if making such a guarded admission and apology would actually have done Britain any harm, would it?

    And it might have got the captured service people home a few days earlier – and without being humiliated on TV – you never know. Perhaps, even, the Iranian government would have apologised in their turn, and admitted that they might have made a mistake.

    That last seems almost likely, given that they did appear to concede quite graciously in the end. But what do I know? I’m neither diplomat nor politician, and there might be some way in which doing what I suggested right from the start would have been political suicide. And obviously things will have been going on in the background of which we know nothing. But still…

    And then they get home and tell their stories. I seem to be the only person in the country who thinks like this, but I see no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to profit from doing so. Somebody is going to profit from the stories being told, so why shouldn’t it be the ones to whom they happened?

    Sure, if it’s against the rules of the service, then that’s the deal they signed up for. But since the Ministry of Defence authorised it, then at the very least, I don’t see how you can blame the sailors.

    I speak as someone who likes to write; so if I imagine myself into a situation like that, I know I would want to write my story once I had escaped. And if I could go on to sell it for professional publication, then you’re damn right I would want to do so. Why not?

    The reported reactions of some of the families of service personnel who have died in Iraq is, to my mind, a red herring. There’s no direct comparison. As far as I know, there’s nothing to stop those families from writing, telling, or selling their own stories, or those of their lost ones. If they choose not to, that’s fine. But the two situations are quite different.

    Death-Penalty Blues

    This Week, BBC1's late-night political discussion programme, had a piece last night from Colonel Tim Collins, who used to be "Britain's most senior soldier in Iraq". He was saying that Saddam Hussein should hang as soon as possible, and that we should have the death penalty in Britain.

    I won’t reiterate the many general arguments against the death penalty here, but consider these. Collins tried to justify the execution of Saddam by citing the brutality of Saddam’s regime. The thing is, you don’t demonstrate the wrongness of a brutal regime by exercising the most brutal form of punishment. You don’t win that way: at best you draw, and who wants to draw with a dictator? You win by showing that you’re better than that; by behaving in a civilised way.

    He went on to say that it’s “incoherent” that Britain should have nuclear weapons, but not have the option to execute terrorists. I see absolutely no logical connection between the two, and neither did Michael Portillo. Nor could Collins make the connection in a way that made any sense.

    Using the death penalty isn’t a sign of strength: it’s a sign of weakness. The truly strong can both show mercy, and behave in a way that separates them from the caveman.