Our part in the Iraq crisis, a forgotten Labour man and grouse-moor people power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

A displaced Iraqi Yazidi family takes refuge under a bridge, 17 August. Photo: Getty
A displaced Iraqi Yazidi family takes refuge under a bridge, 17 August. Photo: Getty

Faced with the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (formerly known as Isis), compassion demands once more that something be done. But no matter how compelling the humanitarian case for military intervention may be, we should pause. Over the past century, every western act in the Middle East – every national boundary drawn, every move to protect our “vital interests”, every subsidy to supposedly friendly regimes or rebel groups, every bomb dropped, every soldier’s boot on the ground, every rocket, tank or gun supplied – has made things worse, culminating in the horrors we now witness.

Minorities that lived peacefully in the region for centuries are being driven from their homes, starved to death and slaughtered, at least partly as a result of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. Even the Blairite David Miliband acknowledges, in his strangulated way, that the invasion “is a significant factor in understanding the current situation”.

Middle Eastern violence has reached such ghastly extremes that, we now think, we can’t make things worse. But we can, always.

The other Snowden files

To Yorkshire, where my wife and I enjoy the hospitality of my old friend and former NS columnist Paul Routledge (now of the Daily Mirror) and his wife. We travel to Ickornshaw Moor, where the memorial cairn to Philip Snowden, Labour’s first (and second) chancellor, towers above the grazing sheep close to Cowling, the wool-weaving village where he was born in 1864. It states that Snowden “lived his whole life in the service of the common people”.

In this lonely and (I should think) rarely visited spot, where the wind chills even on a warm summer’s day, I find this memorial strangely moving. With Ramsay MacDonald, Snowden “betrayed” Labour in 1931 by forming an alliance with the Tories to impose benefit cuts. Though he later resigned from the national government over the introduction of import tariffs, he was widely reviled in Labour circles and is now almost forgotten. But not here in Yorkshire: new signs were recently placed on the road at the foot of Ickornshaw Moor directing visitors to his memorial. He may have made mistakes in the final years of his life but at least he didn’t profit significantly from office, leaving a mere £3,366 on his death in 1937. Now that Labour has suffered other and arguably greater betrayals, it may be time to rehabilitate Snowden.

An age-old grouse

Only in the NS do diarists visit moors to stare at cairns. In other magazines, they go north on or after the “Glorious Twelfth” to shoot birds. In that respect, Ickornshaw Moor is unusual because rights to shoot are held not by rich individuals but in common by local villagers. That is still, just about, the case. In 1892, the villagers managed to see off two landowners who claimed the rights by congregating on the moor en masse on 12 August, the first day of the grouse shooting season. Disputes over ownership and access rights reached the courts on several occasions, most recently in the 1980s.

This small example of “people power” is not well known and the rising that began in 1536 in St James’s Church, Louth, which we visit a few days later, is only slightly more familiar. Known as “the Lincolnshire Rising”, for which the vicar was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, it was against Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Within a few days, 22,000 protesters had occupied Lincoln Cathedral. Though short-lived, the rising inspired the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace. England has many such examples of resistance to overmighty authority. When we seem powerless to resist the biggest attack in more than 80 years on ordinary people’s living standards, we should study and admire them.

Everyone’s a winner

At least we can applaud one brave contemporary struggle. Around 50 workers for Care UK in Doncaster, which runs recently privatised local services for disabled people, have been on strike for a total of over five weeks since February, protesting mainly against wage cuts. I met several of them at Doncaster Racecourse, where their union was sponsoring events such as the “Unison Defending Public Services Conditions Stakes”, which makes a welcome change from the “Queen Elizabeth II Stakes”, and so on.

As she usually does on our rare visits to the races, my wife picked several winners at longish odds just by assessing the horses as they paraded. (It’s all to do with bottoms, she says.) We were too mindful of our Nonconformist ancestors to wager more than small amounts but we made a tidy sum, which I slipped into the Care UK workers’ buckets. It will, I hope, provide modest support to their splendid campaign. 

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