Wednesday, 12 February 2014

The Coriolanus Effect

The Guardian's handy cut-out-and-keep guide to a century of armed conflict involving British forces is being presented as a hopeful sign of that much-delayed "peace in our time" we were once promised, though this is surely the very definition of a triumph of hope over experience. While the planned cuts to the military will certainly restrain their enthusiasm for biffing foreigners, the giddy excitement of drones and teched-up special forces suggests that a full return to barracks may be some way off. The top brass are describing this as a "strategic pause" (the strategy being to identify another reliable enemy who can justify the disproportionate expense). I'm surprised no one has wheeled out "we live to fight another day" yet.

The pause is widely interpreted as the result of British society becoming disillusioned with unwinnable "wars of choice" and increasingly "casualty-averse", with the vote against intervention in Syria being deemed to have caught the popular mood (in reality, the planned budget cuts predated the vote). In other words, it's our fault for being irresolute glory-hunters who have now lost our collective bottle. A variation on this, which is propounded on both the left and right, is that disengagement is the inevitable result of Britain becoming more multi-cultural. In other words, trashing the Middle East doesn't play well with Muslims (mind you, I don't recall politicians or the military moderating policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s in order to appease the large number of Irish immigrants in Britain). This can be thought of as the Coriolanus effect: a tendency to denigrate the "beastly plebeians" as unworthy of their noble soldiers.

The underlying premise, that overseas military ventures are dependent on popular support, is nonsense. Indeed, one achievement of the Guardian article was to highlight how many conflicts were barely noticed in Britain at the time (an irony of the Syria vote is the elite fear that future decisions on intervention must actually be discussed). Outside of the two world wars, wilful ignorance was the standing order. This traditionally led the military elite to have a low opinion of the "many-headed multitude" - a feeling that was largely mutual and provided fertile ground for the "lions led by donkeys" trope that so irritates Michael Gove - which reinforced their contempt for democracy and their class pride. A clue to the roots of this estrangement was contained in the Guardian's observation that "The timeline of constant combat may stretch even further back, given Britain's imperial engagements, all the way to the creation of the British army in 1707".

The British Army and Navy actually dates back beyond the Union with Scotland (see what they did there?) to the Civil War, and specifically the creation of the Parliamentary New Model Army in 1645. Initially radical (the highwater mark being the Putney Debates), the Army was purged of Levellers and other agitators by Cromwell and the gentry, after which it was sent to Ireland in 1649. This combination of political repression and support for colonial expansion would become characteristic of the British military over the centuries. The navy, as a state institution rather than the ad hoc combination of crown ships and privateers under the Tudors, also dates from the Commonwealth, and specifically the desire to control the growing Atlantic trade routes and access to the new colonies in America, which led to the First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-4.

From Cromwell onwards, the chief strategic purpose of the military has been to advance and defend Britain's commercial interests. The pattern of intervention over the last 100 years reflects this. In the 20s and 30s, the focus was on quelling nationalist movements in order to preserve oil and trade interests in the Middle East and Asia. After a brief period re-establishing colonial control in the late 40s (including aiding the French and Dutch in the Far East), the 50s and 60s became an era of managed withdrawal in the face of the inevitable (and American pressure), with compliant pro-Western regimes being "facilitated" by British arms (or autocrats propped up in more remote corners where the international media were absent, such as the Arabian Gulf). The Falklands Conflict can be seen both as the last knockings of this post-imperial mode and a harbinger of the modern strand of liberal interventionism and "policing" in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this light, the current lack of military adventure reflects less the waning support of the people back home and more the advances of neoliberal democracy (e.g. Argentina) and the economic power of developing nations (e.g. China) abroad. While the French are still keen on sending Legionnaires into parts of West Africa as a form of political Viagra, it is surely only a matter of time before Nigeria warns them off their backyard. Britain has recognised that the interests of its economic elite are now better served by jaw-jaw than war-war, largely because those interests are no longer identified with the UK so much as the virtual territory of the tax-averse rich, where Belgravia is closer to Dubai than Basildon, and Scotland is just an arts festival and some grouse moors. Similarly, Obama's winding-down of US military involvement abroad is a a sign not of circumspection or a loss of nerve but of relative success. When every country is open to global corporations and finance capital is unfettered, there is less need for gunboats and surgical strikes.

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