You can tell things have changed on the global stage when Lord Ashdown, the granddaddy of modern British politics, uses Twitter to profess his latest thoughts: “We are a hugely diminished country this am. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.”
Ashdown’s tweet is something of a weird contradiction: the man has embraced the modern form of communication but not embraced the modern role of Britain in international relations, namely, we just aren’t that big and important anymore.
Moreover, his idea that we are a “diminished” country is something which will be reiterated by hoards of pro-interventionists in the coming days, and yet all of them will proffer no description for why any of us should care. George Osborne followed Ashdown by stating that the House of Commons vote against action in Syria would prompt “national soul-searching” about Britain’s role on the world stage.
The question is: why should we care? Why does our inability to enter a foreign country, be it with troops on the ground or bombers in the sky, affect our day-to-day lives? Should we all now have a national conversation about our diminished soul? Are millions of office workers hovering around office water coolers this Friday and not discussing their weekend plans but rather asking themselves, what does it mean to be British?
Just as Polly Toynbee argued in today’s Guardian, this imperialistic undertone to those angry at yesterday’s vote is anachronistic. She called it “a long-delayed acceptance that Britain is less powerful and poorer than it was, weary of wars and no longer proud to punch above its weight. No more pretending, no more posturing.”
The individuals who bemoan our falling status ignore that our great status came with greed, bloodshed and racism. We may have ruled a third of the world’s population at one stage, but they really didn’t like having us in charge. An intervention in Syria isn’t going to renew our world status, for we all know China, India, Brazil and others are growing and will soon become the biggest economies, and with it, the greatest militarily.
The pro-interventionists still seem to feel patriotism comes from conflict; the individuals who think Gibraltar and the Falklands – lands they never visit, with people who hardly pay any taxes – are the last bastions of British might. If this Syrian episode diminishes our standing, will we lose these last vestiges of British imperialism? Who cares? We won’t have to spend so much money on defence for two islands that don’t pay for it.
Just as the Iraq war didn’t make us a renewed force on the international stage, a missile strike in Syria won’t show our military strength or rejuvenate our moral standing. This has to be accepted, but it doesn’t need to be met with shame, tears or tantrums. We can all go on with our day-to-day activities; we can even perhaps focus on our own economy, our welfare state, even the NHS. Things carry on when we’re not a superpower. We can rejoice in not punching above our weight, or, as rebel Tory MP Crispin Blunt said, we can “relieve ourselves of some of those imperial pretensions.”
This does not mean that the events in Syria are not despicable, nor that intervention may be necessary at some point from the US or from other bodies. But the argument that we are diminished as a nation is absurd. If anything, we in Britain today feel prouder of a Parliament that seeks to be cautious in these matters, rather than gung-ho. Yesterday Parliament won, not Palmerston.
Britannia was mighty when she ruled the waves. But wars aren’t fought on the seas anymore, and I’m okay with that.