There has now been a “colossal military disaster”, as Winston Churchill put the French defeat in 1940. Kabul airport is our Dunkirk. What would Churchill have done if the admiral in charge of the Dunkirk evacuation had sunned himself on a holiday beach, refusing to make phone calls to save the soldiers? The question answers itself. What has Boris Johnson done? Condoned Dominic Raab’s dereliction of duty.
Johnson’s most enduring self-delusion is that he takes after Churchill. This was always a bad joke. Johnson’s visits to war zones have been rare. There is only one that springs to mind: a one-day visit to a British base in Afghanistan, seemingly because he was frightened of attending a vote in parliament about an extra runway at Heathrow. Johnson has had a chance to fulfil one of his fantasies and have his “finest hour”. But his usual bedfellows of incompetence, delay, inefficiency, lack of focus and selfishness have thwarted him. Johnson’s bad joke has become a lethal joke.
The world still hasn’t grasped the enormity of the American scuttle from Afghanistan. That sad country is now part of the past. It is in the future of the West that the global delusion lingers. Even the New Statesman, while rightly condemning Britain’s global delusions, believes Britain can still lead “by example” (Leader, 27 August). By example to whom? The cold-hearted realists in Beijing? The former KGB agent who bosses Russia? The president who thinks that the US is the most powerful state in the world? Power is determined by the willingness to use it. The US doesn’t have that willingness.
Since 1940 British foreign policy has been to draw ever closer to the White House. We have been its staunchest ally, always willing to provide a regiment to prove the US was not alone. And what does that great power do? Make a bolt for the door when the going gets tough, leaving thousands to die on a field of broken promises.
In combing over the entrails of the latest Anglo-American Afghan adventure, certain politicians and commentators display a sad ignorance of the lessons of history. If you wish to mount a punitive mission – for that assuredly is how these missions to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc, began – first make sure the target is guilty beyond doubt; second, make sure he isn’t potentially useful to you; and last, go with overwhelming force, administer the punishment and leave. General Napier’s mission to chastise the errant emperor of Abyssinia in 1867 did just that, incredibly with only two British fatalities. Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War is a more recent case in point.
George HW Bush understood this reality with the first Gulf War. Britain and the US went in, did the job, and left. But George W Bush didn’t, nor did Tony Blair, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, whose hubristic folly brought about the ruin of formerly stable nations throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Finally, in comes Joe Biden to complete the process of destroying the international respect in which the Western alliance was formerly held.
It is said we get the leaders we deserve. But having won the Cold War 30 years ago, the British and American people don’t deserve the mess that their leaders’ foolish meddling has made of the subsequent peace.
Sir Andrew Cook
I enjoyed Bruno Maçães’s column (Kabul Notebook, 20 August). But suggesting that all Afghan men use “knives to cut open their own backs” during Muharram is inaccurate. Sunni and Shia Muslims observe Muharram differently. It is only for Shia Muslims, a minority in Afghanistan, that Muharram is a time of mourning. Practices include back-cutting and chest-beating. Because Shia Muslims are a minority, and the Taliban is Sunni, only time will tell what the Taliban takeover means for Shia practices.
I could not agree more with Peter Ricketts’s insightful column (“The curse of British exceptionalism”, 27 August). I am waiting for Boris Johnson to say that Britain took a world-leading role in the botched withdrawal from Kabul, but of course with the caveat that the military did its utmost to assist terrified Afghan men, women and children.
Ricketts is correct that neither Johnson nor Dominic Raab has any intuitive feel for the military world and would not be able or even willing to comprehend the sense of failure emanating from Afghanistan. Britain does indeed need to step up to the plate, even with the vacuum now left by the Biden administration.
Judith A Daniels
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk
[see also: Magazine: The Retreat]
What about Wales?
I find it odd that neither of your items on Raymond Williams (The Critics, 27 August) mentioned his book of essays Who Speaks for Wales?, nor that while wanting to create a socialist alternative to the Fabian distortions of labourism and the Stalinist perversion of communism, Williams eventually found a political home in Plaid Cymru. Both articles seem to have done a good job in airbrushing Williams’s Welsh background.
John G Owen
Two fascinating articles on Raymond Williams in the latest NS, but no mention of his ambitious and thought-provoking novel People of the Black Mountains, which aims to tell the history of human habitation of this tiny but beautiful part of the world over 30,000 years. It’s been out of print now for many years, but is well overdue for a revival.
Leave Corbyn out
Philip Collins routinely seeks any excuse to indulge in Corbyn-bashing, but I must confess to being completely baffled by his latest column (The Public Square, 27 August). He writes: “For every Tugendhat there will be an Eric Joyce, a former soldier and Labour MP for Falkirk whose demise began the chain of events that brought Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party.” I may be naive, but I thought Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party on the basis of an internal election. How that relates to Joyce’s much-troubled political career escapes me, but I’m sure Collins can explain what he states with such unchallengeable confidence.
It is not necessarily nimbyism that leads to protest about building new homes (Louise Perry, Out of the Ordinary, 27 August). It is about defending our homes against disastrous consequences. Oxfordshire is a popular, beautiful county, now becoming overrun not by the poor who need homes but by those with money for second homes. Building on flood plains, with no infrastructure to cope, has resulted in serious flooding. I have lost one quarter of my home, a studio, and the ability to insure against further floods. Many in Witney are in the same position. Yet the building goes on.
Louise Perry concludes that there needn’t be any contradiction between a desire to preserve urban and rural beauty, and a desire to provide new and desperately needed new housing.
There needn’t be, but there is a huge problem here. The pandemic has highlighted the need for green spaces and the importance of wildlife to our well-being. The climate crisis further emphasises how crucial it is that we conserve these. Yet councils seem unable to protect what little wildlife and green space we have, and developers determined to build on any green space regardless of the objections of local people and the consequences for wildlife.
The Natural History Society of Northumbria, which has a reserve on the edge of Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne, is having to raise objections to a Persimmon proposal to build opposite the reserve. Wildlife campaigners fear that England’s last urban population of red squirrels, at another reserve called Havannah, also near Newcastle, has died out due to new housing developments.
There are lots of post-industrial sites in Newcastle and North Tyneside that could be built on but that is not where developers choose to build. We talk about protecting the planet and a legacy for our children, but we can’t protect a small population of red squirrels!
Newcastle upon Tyne
A divided union
I read with interest Danny Kruger’s review of Postliberal Politics, about the politics of belonging, by Adrian Pabst (The Critics, 27 August). But he makes a curious remark that Boris Johnson is better placed than Keir Starmer to achieve the politics of belonging. This is a laughable remark. Johnson has embraced the politics of division. This country is more divided now than it has been in decades. A pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament and a border in the Irish Sea are just two of many examples.
British blind spot
Phil Whitaker refers to the need to block the sun from windows during the day to reduce the impact of “extreme heat events” (Health Matters, 27 August). The most effective way to prevent heat entering via a window is to have the shading on the outside rather than trying to deal with it by blinds or curtains once it’s entered the room. Most of continental Europe uses external metal roller blinds with adjustable perforations operated from inside the room for this reason. Unfortunately, this is a bit too continental for us Brits and would breach urban design principles around “active frontages”, so is unlikely to get planning approval on any buildings for the foreseeable future.
Out of the ashes
Jonathan Liew (Left Field, 27 August) needs to get out more. England’s cricket team is “hopelessly unprepared, mentally exhausted… and in grave danger of losing consecutive home series”?Perhaps you can invite him to review England’s performance at Headingley.
Worth, West Sussex
[see also: How the Hundred has changed cricket]
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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future