If the left “virtue signals”, the US-led airstrikes on Syria were “gesture bombing”

Downing Street’s legal advice said it was to “alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering”. How it achieved this was not explained. 

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The American, British and French attack on Syria was designed, we are told, to hit chemical weapons factories and storage depots. Because we don’t want to provoke Vladimir Putin, the attacks avoided hitting Russian bases or soldiers and, because we don’t want the kind of power vacuum in Syria that we created in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Bashar al-Assad was not targeted personally. Even the extent to which the Western missiles damaged the president’s chemical warfare capabilities is moot, since the Syrian government had ample time to move its stockpiles.

So what was the point of the bombing? The legal advice published by Downing Street said it was to “alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering”. How bombing alleviates suffering was not explained. Nor did anybody explain why, when Assad has already killed 500,000 of his fellow Syrians with conventional weapons and there appears to be no objection to his killing another 500,000 in similar fashion, the suffering caused by fewer than 100 deaths in his chemical attack on Douma was considered particularly in need of alleviation.

When the left does useless stuff, such as demonstrating or sending letters to newspapers, it’s called “virtue signalling”. Perhaps this attack on Syria should be called “gesture bombing”.

Soviet scandals

British government sources warn that Russia could retaliate against cabinet ministers with “kompromat”. The term was originally KGB slang for information that could be used for blackmail. Though it could involve, for example, drugs or money, the most prized “kompromat” was sexual in nature. The victims were often internal enemies but also included Westerners such as the British civil servant John Vassall who, in 1954 while working in our Moscow embassy, was lured by the KGB to a gay party where photographs were taken.

Vassall was persuaded to spy for the Soviets until his arrest and subsequent imprisonment in 1962. I know it’s very wrong, but it is hard not to lick one’s lips at the prospect of more Tory scandals. If the Russians have “kompromat” on the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, we all win, including May.

Never assume

In 2000, Tony Blair proposed that police should be able, on apprehending anti-social youths, to march them “to a cashpoint” and make them “pay an on-the-spot fine of, for example, £100”. In 2012, when tanker drivers threatened to strike, Francis Maude, a Tory minister, advised motorists to store “a bit of extra fuel in a jerry can in the garage”. It evidently did not occur to Blair that many thuggish youths do not have bank accounts, nor to Maude that two in three motorists do not have garages.

Academics call this “cultural disconnect” – the inability to comprehend that other people do not live in the way that you take for granted. In 2013’s The Blunders of Our Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe argued that this was responsible for many fiascos, such as the poll tax and the introduction of tax credits.

The treatment of “the Windrush generation” (after the Empire Windrush, the boat that brought the first black migrants from the Caribbean in 1948), for which Home Secretary Amber Rudd has apologised, is another such fiasco. Nobody intended (at least one hopes not) that men and women in late middle age who came here as children and then worked and paid taxes for many years should be treated as illegal immigrants, denied health services, benefits and employment and possibly deported. But Rudd, her cabinet colleagues and her officials assume everybody has a passport, a bank account, national insurance and tax records, and other documentary evidence of long residence readily to hand. They also assume that everybody, in the event of difficulty, has instant access to a lawyer.

One is reminded of Nicholas Ridley, the Tory minister and viscount’s son who, told that an elderly couple could find it hard to pay poll tax, said “they could always sell a picture”. He was not apparently joking.

Driven off-road

As it stands, Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal of free bus travel for under-25s is just another retail offer. There should be a trade-off: a minimum age of 25 for a driving licence. Drivers under 25 are involved in 18 per cent of all reported road accidents and in one-fifth of fatalities, but account for only 5 per cent of miles driven. If they were forced out of their cars, roads would be safer and less congested. There would also be some chance of Corbyn’s free buses being used, and of bus companies increasing their services, particularly late at night. Given the costs of motoring, under-25s and their parents may greet the move with relief.

End of the food chain

In Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, our local Loch Fyne fish restaurant has closed. Whether this is a blip or another example of chain restaurants running into trouble – Prezzo, Jamie’s Italian, Byron and Strada are all closing branches – I cannot say. But I wonder if chain restaurants are nearing obsolescence.

They offered a reliable standard in the days when British restaurant food varied from the mediocre to the completely inedible. In an unfamiliar city, I would go to a chain because I knew what I would get. Now TripAdvisor, a highly reliable guide in my experience, will pick out the best restaurants in an instant. Younger people, I am told, consult Instagram, where users post pictures of restaurant dishes they particularly like.

What is the point of a chain, with its expensively developed brand image, when a few computer clicks may tell you that the little Italian down the road has far better food? The internet has many downsides and often favours big business. But I suspect that, in the restaurant trade, it will ultimately favour the small, independent operator. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge