I have a friend who was an historian before he became a health service manager, and he wrote a paper (which has never been put online, as far as I can see) which argued that the NHS had been trapped in its moment of birth. By that he meant that it never escaped the contradictions that had to be resolved to create it. We can see the same thing in the current Labour Party split over Syria.
The point is a wider one: the same can be said of the BBC, for example, and that moment (opens pdf) in the British General Strike in 1926 when Lord Reith said in a memo to his Governors,
“[T]he Government could have commandeered the BBC, but definite action of this kind was actually not necessary since a clause in our Licence made it obligatory on us to broadcast official announcements at any time. They could therefore use us to a considerable extent without definitely commandeering.”
At the time of the General Strike, it was still the British Broadcasting Company; it didn’t become the Corporation until the beginning of 1927.
And watching the position of many of the Labour Party on Syria, it seems that the same is true of the Labour Party as well.
Strands of militarism
The Labour party was founded just before the First World War, and the conflict split the party. The party’s leader, Ramsey McDonald, was opposed to the war and stepped down. Arthur Henderson, who replaced him, accepted a position in Asquith’s War Cabinet. Other Labour MPs joined the War Cabinet later on. A visit to the People’s Museum in Manchester makes it clear that Labour did well out of its participation in the wartime government, which made it a credible political party just a few years after the first MPs were elected in 1906.
That strand of militarism has never left the party. Most strikingly, it was seen in Michael Foot’s Commons speech in the Falklands debate, analysed in close detail by Anthony Barnett in his book Iron Britannia, and in the vote in 2003 to invade Iraq, when Labour Cabinet ministers made it clear that they would resign if the vote went against them. One distinguished exception to this history is Harold Wilson, who managed not to commit troops to the Vietnam War despite heavy American pressure.
As a social democrat, it wearies me that the party remains so trapped by Britain’s imperial past, but the party’s history should make it unsurprising that some members of the Shadow Cabinet are so keen to be seen to attack Syria. And it’s also perhaps not surprising that there’s a strong undercurrent about the potential backlash from such a vote from Party members, since the party has split repeatedly in the face of war votes.
Made of bombs
As for attacking Syria, the sharpest critique is from Sebastian Budgen at Verso’s blog. His ten point note on the West’s anti-ISIS strategy starts like this:
1) Combat the bombing and random murder of civilians with the bombing and random murder of civilians;
2) Combat the attacks on civil liberties and freedoms with attacks on civil liberties and freedoms.
The funniest is by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times. Here’s an extract from his 43-point article, “Cameron’s cunning plan for bombing Isis in Syria”:
3. You know all those bombs already being dropped on Isis? Well, now there will be a few more.
4. But not that many more.
5. And many of those that will be dropped on Isis in Syria would have been dropped on Isis in Iraq instead.
6. What do you think we are — made of bombs?
If you want commentary rather than satire, then the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk is a good place to start:
Yet Dave knows – and we all know, don’t we? – that Isis will most assuredly try to commit an atrocity in Britain to revenge Dave’s latest schoolboy adventure. Then – à la Blair after 7/7 – Dave will insist that Isis are killing us because they hate our “values”. Then will come the inevitable video of a suicide killer saying he killed our innocents because Dave sent his miniature air force to bomb Isis.
Update: And this column by the Conservative MP David Davis is also worth reading. While the academic Paul Rogers has been monitoring the “war on terror” for almost a decade and a half with increasing levels of pessimism.