A heavily damaged street in the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor on 26 August 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Syria: There are too many bodies buried on Britain’s moral high ground

This isn't about Syria. This is, for better or worse, about us - on the left and on the right.

Let’s be perfectly clear on one point: this was never about Syria. After David Cameron’s government suffered its most humiliating defeat to date, with rebel MPs from every part of the political consensus uniting to prevent Britain charging into another interventionist war in the Middle East, here's what the Chancellor had to say: "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that...I hope this doesn't become the moment where we turn our back on the world's problems."

Not “this will mean more bloodshed.” Not “the use of chemical nerve agents as a weapon of war is utterly unacceptable.” No, what concerns George Osborne and the government he represents is what this means for Britain. How will ‘our’ refusal to join the United States in a proposed military assault on Syria with or without UN backing will look to the rest of the world. Are we still going to feel big and important? Will our exports be affected?

Somewhere in the suburbs of Syria, the bodies of the latest victims of Sarin nerve gas are only lately cooled, stiff beyond rigor mortis from inhaling a poison that causes every muscle in the body to clench up in death, suffocating the soul in its own flesh. And George Osborne is thinking about Britain’s trading prospects.

This was never about Syria. This was about us.

Much to the chagrin of the cabinet, the British public has remained doggedly against any prospect of war in Syria - over two thirds are opposed to military intervention - and for once, every scrapping faction of the commentariat has taken up that consensus. Peter Hitchens agrees with Polly Toynbee. Norman Tebbit is briefly on the same side as Caroline Lucas. Osborne and Cameron find themselves part of a dwindling neocon consensus, just them, their whipped ministerial colleagues and Assad’s former chum Tony Blair, popping up in the papers like the Ghost of Christmas Past to explain why bombing Damascus is absolutely the right thing to do.

If Cameron was following the advice of Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Russian minister who wrote in 1905 that what was needed to stem the tide of social unrest was “a short, victorious war”, he could not have been more wrong. We’ve seen where that goes. The American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been short, and they have not been victorious. The United States still has the military muscle and auto-delusory capacity to believe itself a capable world policeman. Britain is no longer labouring under that delusion. We have spent the past five years being told that the nation is too broke to afford basic welfare provision, let alone another drawn-out campaign to protect US interests in the Gulf. Very few of us want a war; very few of us believe that a war will help the Syrian people. It turns out that the British public doesn’t always have the collective recall of a damselfly in a gale. Something about a decade of war tends to jog the memory.

The situation in Syria is bloody and frightening. In two and a half years tens of thousands of lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country, and the war between Assad’s supporters and the disjointed forces of the Free Syrian army will not be over quickly, with or without Anglo-American intervention. The impulse, the imprecation, is that “we have to do something,” and somehow that something almost always involves cluster bombs and not, for example, sending in shedloads of aid and medical supplies, or opening our borders to refugees. That’s the sort of something that doesn’t make a satisfying thwack when we unzip it on the table of the cabinet war rooms.

For the hawkish minority, the main line of reasoning - masterfully dissected by Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb today- has been that the Assad regime ‘must be punished,’ and that the British ought to be the ones doing the punishing, six of the best, trousers down. The old cliches are lifted out and polished for the mantlepiece of modern military hypocrisy: we’re a plucky little island, punching above our weight on the world stage, standing up to bullies. We sort out “the world's problems.” “Our country,” wrote Conservative MP Robert Halfon in a plea for intervention, “has over many centuries, stood tall against tyranny. Britain gave the world modern democracy and the rule of law.

Well, no, it hasn’t, and no, it didn’t. Britain did, over many centuries, impose its own version of the rule of law on hundreds of millions of individuals in the Global South, many of whom were massacred or functionally enslaved. Nor, over the decades that followed the disintegration of the British Empire - two little words that have faltered on the tongues of every Tory statesman in a fortnight of anxious warmongering - have the British been consistent in our opposition to ‘tyranny.’ We did not intervene during the Rwandan genocide. Margaret Thatcher took tea with Pinochet. The list of dictators with whom Britain has maintained cordial relations is long, and it is damning to anyone with the gall to argue that the people of Great Britain were ever cartographers of the moral high ground.

This isn't about Syria. This is, for better or worse, about us - on the left and on the right. The generation that grew up watching the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has done a lot of “soul-searching” in ten years. We have walked across the moral high-ground that our leaders mapped out for us. We have discovered that it is a graveyard. The bodies buried on the Anglo-American moral high ground are beyond number, and the flowers that grow there are dank and reek of corruption. But not this time. Not again. Not in our name.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser