Lessons from the Iraq war

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Brita

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Britain.

By any stretch of imagination it has been an intense twelve months; the Arab Spring may-well feature as the defining moment of the decade to come, the 'Occupy' movement perseveres and we have seen large scale public sector strikes for the first time in a generation. Yet when we seek to uncover the birth of this current discontentment we need to look further. I believe it started nine years ago - and the Iraq war has in fact shaped the political attitude of my generation. So as Obama marked the end to the failed Iraq war, with at least a million dead, we need to start connecting the dots.

Marching in 2003 against the war, and coming to organise demonstrations in Manchester was certainly a significant moment towards my serving today as Vice-President Higher Education for NUS.

But whilst it was certainly a politicizing moment for many, it is also the case that for a generation constantly asked to participate in mainstream democracy, the system failed us - it simply didn't listen. And today as I travel across the country speaking with young people, the same anecdotes are presented on campus - "things are already decided and you can't do anything about it, so why bother?", "nobody listens in Parliament!" Surprisingly, the war, despite disappearing from public discourse, is rarely far from this conversation. Iraq presented a politicizing moment for some whilst also encouraging feelings of apathy in many others.

We have come to speak of a 'lost generation'. This is often, correctly, expressed as an economic and a social phenomenon - but it is also a real risk politically. My generation have engaged through the political structures - we marched in record numbers against Iraq, students were turned away from polling stations in student-heavy constituencies as they turned out to vote in 2010, and last year 50,000 of us marched against the trebling of tuition fees and tuition fees in the largest student demonstration in a generation. With little tangible to show for this - the war went on, the Liberal Democrats broke their pledge to students and tuition fees were trebled - the political class taught a generation that no matter how strong your argument or how many you are, your political participation is pointless.

As we look ahead, though governments have changed and enquiries have played out in the public eye, lessons do not seem to have been learnt. Barbaric intervention - against the will of a nation - not only killed a million but crippled generation's quality of life (including as we are seeing through the results of nuclear waste). Yet frighteningly, our own government officials have noted that should the US plan to strike at Iran, it would "seek, and receive, UK military help". David Miliband has already warned against "sleepwalking into a war with Iran" - the student movement must be ready to challenge what would be a further monumental miscalculation.

The end of the Iraq war comes at a time when apathy is turning into discontent for students in Britain. We rose strongly against the government's changes reform of higher education funding. The temperature of our global political climate is rising and priorities are changing - Occupy is a very real and new social movement, the Arab spring provides us confidence, and students have featured at the heart of both. Whilst others are powerfully claiming their role in democracy abroad, it is a time like no other for us to think about how to utilize our politicization that is gathering apace - and bring it into the mainstream.

Our student leadership has rightly spearheaded the fight against cuts to higher education, student quality and championed widening participation - and we will continue to do so as a priority. I was reminded that the National Union of Students was formed in 1922 - on the back of World War I, set up to fight for world peace. Ninety years on from then, and nine years on from the Iraq war, we must too reconnect with those striving for justice. In the same way that I shared the hurt of my colleagues at University who cried as members of their families were killed in Iraq, today we must take from the students in Egypt and Tunisia who organised beyond differences; indeed we must move beyond slogans and be pragmatic.

At a Conference I attended on Tuesday on the government's heavily-criticised and anti-dissent Prevent strategy in Leicester, Jesse Jackson rebuked that "radical rejection leads to radical reactions". The lost generation is finding itself again - it found me, not in Tahrir Square, but in Manchester. Let now the radical reaction of students in Britain transform apathy into activism, as the global movement to recapture our democracy comes home.

Usman Ali is the Vice President (Higher Education) of the National Union of Students

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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