Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

29 July 2007

What Is Britain Doing In Afghanistan?

Most people in Britain probably don’t have a very clear idea about what British forces are doing in Afghanistan – apart from the obvious: fighting fierce battles with the Taliban on a daily basis and incurring casualties. Probably, not many people really care that much about Afghanistan, either. They do care about the safety of our troops and might vaguely buy into the proposition that the work they are doing out there is of vital importance to national security. But the war in Afghanistan is not very high up in their list of political priorities – not even in the top ten for the great majority, I suspect.

With a sigh, we say to ourselves that at least the government must know what they’re doing and we have to trust them. I, too, would like to believe that the government has a plan. But if they do, they haven’t made it their business to communicate it in plain English.

OK, so we all know we’re fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda (the two seem to have merged into one in media discourse); and that we mustn’t allow them to get back into power in Afghanistan or continue to build a power base across the border in Pakistan and so risk destabilising that country. But do we really think we can defeat the Taliban militarily? Let’s remember: these are essentially the same guys who saw off the might of the Red Army. They’re hardened, skilled fighters; well equipped; about as highly motivated as they come; they know the impenetrable terrain like a taxi driver knows the Knowledge; and they have a dense network of logistical and manpower support composed of a ragtag alliance of local warlords, drug producers (whom they doubtless protect and derive revenue from) and Islamic hardliners, whether of local origin or coming to them from all over the world via Pakistan.

I don’t think our under-equipped and under-manned forces, however brave and well trained they are, will be able to bust that sort of operation. The Americans certainly won’t. Besides which, looking at it from a historical angle (would that our leaders did so more often!), no one to my knowledge has a) ever actually won a guerilla war, which is what this has become, or b) ever successfully invaded and imposed their will on Afghanistan – not in thousands of years of empires that have come and gone, including the British one.

So one word that could be used to describe what the British are doing in Afghanistan is folly: we’re fighting a war we can’t win and which, moreover, the government probably realises we can’t win. One military or political authority on these matters – I can’t remember who it was now – hit the headlines a few days ago with the claim that we may need to remain in Afghanistan for 40 years or so to achieve our objectives. In my book, that’s code for saying we can’t win. Otherwise, what on earth is such a proposition based on? Why 40 years? Why not make a plan for two years, or a plan a, b and c, plus a worst-case scenario, so at least we know roughly when we can expect to get out, whether ‘victorious’ or not?

The obvious inference is there is no such plan; that no one has the vaguest idea when we’ll be able to extricate ourselves from the stalemate we appear to have got ourselves into. There’s just the ill-defined hope that eventually, over time, the Islamist cause will burn out and be revealed as a failed ideological project, in just the same way that Soviet Communism eventually had to admit that it was non-viable and imploded. That’s where the 40-years idea comes from: on the analogy with the 40 years it took us to ‘win’ the Cold War.

This reminds me of our dear old friend Sir Alan West, the UK Security Minister (see blog of 10 July), who estimated earlier this month that the fight against terrorism in this country could take 15 years. What was that based on? A wet finger held up in the wind? A calculation that we could use the skills gained in the struggle against Northern Irish terrorism, plus our greater ability to isolate Islamic terrorist groups (in part through the willingness of other British people, Muslims or not, to ‘snitch’ on them), to ensure that we could, say, halve the time it took for us to defeat the IRA? And does all this rest on a plan of some kind?

Did Tony Blair have a plan when he sent our troops into Afghanistan? Perhaps a hidden one he was keeping close to his chest? On the face of it, Afghanistan could be written off as one of the prime examples of Tony Blair’s tragic hubris and folly: the man who thought he could do no wrong and who chose to use force to bring about justice and freedom, and found instead that it brought about the opposite of what he intended. Perhaps even the tragedy of a basically good man trapped in a situation of violence which he thinks he can control and direct by going along with it to a limited extent – but then finds he can’t stop the runaway train.

Whatever the hidden wellsprings of the Afghan tragedy within Tony Blair’s ‘heart and mind’ (idealism, Christian hope, megalomania, hubris), the decision to send British forces on this mission and the thinking about their continuing – perhaps indefinite – presence there could certainly be said to exemplify the folly of Britology. The concept of the British mission in Afghanistan involves the idea that Britain is a ‘great power’: a world power, indeed, that has the capability and, by that token, almost the duty and calling to stand up and be counted, and to take a lead in the fight against those who would destroy ‘our values’, ‘our civilisation’ and ‘our way of life’. This notion was expressed by Tony Blair on numerous occasions when he was PM. It was recently re-stated by Jack Straw, Blair’s erstwhile ally and now in charge of formulating GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] constitutional reforms. In a BBC Radio Four interview, defending the integrity of the United Kingdom against those who wish to see more independence for its constituent countries, Jack Straw again argued that we should not forget that the UK is a great power at the international level, which should not be compromised by breaking it up.

Well, clearly, we do have a duty (every nation has a duty) to defend all that is good, true, civilised, sacred and human, wherever we are in a position to do so. But is Britain really a ‘great power’ that should or can do this in Afghanistan – even supposing that that’s what we’re really doing there? In fact, we’re not even a significant regional power. The reason why Afghanistan is strategically important is that it’s sandwiched between three of the real superpowers of the 21st century, all of which have an interest in what happens there: Russia, China and India. In addition, it neighbours Iran, which appears to have – or has been represented as having – ambitions of its own to be a regional (nuclear) superpower.

One way of looking at it is that we’re doing Russia’s and India’s job for them: both countries are engaged in struggles with Islamic insurgents within their own borders (in Chechenia and Kashmir); both therefore have a clear interest in the suppression of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; but neither country can really intervene directly – Russia because it has already experienced its own ‘Vietnam’ in Afghanistan, and India because of its troubled relations with Pakistan. And everyone wants to keep China out of the frame. China pursues a clearly self-interested, non-ethical foreign policy; and it would not have been beyond the bounds of possibility that it would have tried to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with whatever regime was in power in Afghanistan if there was an economic interest in doing so. It must have been part of the mix of strategic thinking (at least, I like to think there are strategists in the US State Department that think along these lines) to get into Afghanistan before the Chinese got a toehold there, in terms of economic-development and social projects, and supporting personnel.

But what advantage do we Britons get out of our presence and sacrifices in Afghanistan? Isn’t it about time we pursued a somewhat more self-interested foreign policy, or at least did not put ourselves – and our soldiers – out on a limb for our ‘international partners’, some of whom don’t appear to be that appreciative? It’s far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan has brought any significant benefits for us in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamically inspired terrorism, both in the region and at home. Arguably, the opposite: we’ve pushed Al-Qaeda into the mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they seem to be able to operate with impunity; and our intervention has provided grist to the mill for the terrorist recruiters, who point to it as yet another sign that we’re engaged in a persecutory ‘crusade’ against Islam.

Primarily, of course, the Afghan escapade is a US-led project. But from recent media coverage in Britain, you could be forgiven for not being aware of this. It’s always the British role, British ‘contacts’ with the Taliban and British casualties we hear about, hardly ever those of the US. It’s as if the Afghan War is being positioned as a / the British war, just as the Iraq War and consequent insurgency has been positioned as predominantly a US affair that the British have just gone along with and supported. Is this because, yet again, we’re providing ‘cover’ for the Americans in Afghanistan: concealing the extent of their continuing presence there and, more particularly, in the border territory with Pakistan? The Americans were reported this week to have been pushing to be allowed to take a more leading (and overt) role in the military efforts to attack Islamist strongholds on the Pakistani side of the border. So while us brave Brits have been taking the hit in Helmand (three more soldiers killed in the last three days), have we just been distracting attention from all that the Americans have been busily getting on with?

And there’s another reason why it’s been useful for the media to try to depict Afghanistan as ‘our war’ – apart from the fact that they couldn’t get away with this in relation to Iraq. This is that it allows emotional support for our forces’ presence in Afghanistan to be built up by playing on the whole British thing referred to above: our young lads, with all the skill and bravery of the British Army, nobly defending our way of life from its enemies – taking the fight to the terrorists, indeed – and in some cases, sacrificing their lives in the cause.

Caught a bit of the latest episode of the ITV series Guarding the Queen last week. This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Coldstream Guards, who are the regiment responsible for guarding the royal residences. Last week’s programme saw them getting ready and departing for a tour of duty in Afghanistan: young soldiers talking about their excitement at setting off for the “adventure” [sic] of serving in one of the most dangerous war zones on the planet; regiment commander speaking of the inevitable fatalities but asserting that we’re not just fighting our enemies at home, but the nation is also being defended thousands of miles away in places like Afghanistan; embarking soldiers being exhorted by their commanding officer to give no quarter to the enemy when they’re out there and to “give them hell” [verbatim].

OK, so this is fighting talk intended to help his men be psyched up and ready for the tough fighting that awaits them. However, on national TV, this is not the kind of language to reassure Muslims that we’re not anti-Islam, e.g. that we don’t in fact want to cast all Muslims into hell. Some people in the Muslim world think we mean such statements literally. Equally, it seems rather tasteless for the programme to have played along with the idea that the war in Afghanistan was some sort of exciting Boys’ Own adventure awaiting our brave young men. War is not an adventure; it’s horrific. No doubt those lads will experience the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush of armed combat, which is a life they’ve chosen, after all. But they’ll also encounter something of the hell their commander was urging them to give their enemies.

In fairness to the programme, the next instalment promises to show the reality of the regiment’s tour in Afghanistan; and from the excerpts they showed, there’ll be some men returning home in a box. But one can’t help thinking that this is basically war propaganda and part of an unspoken army recruitment drive. This is because if the powers that be are imagining that we could be staying in Afghanistan (and Iraq?) indefinitely, we’re going to need a steady supply of new recruits to replace those lost in the fighting, and to build up the overall personnel levels to overcome the serious over-stretching of human and material resources that the Army Chief of Staff was talking about last week.

All the same, that commander’s fighting talk about wiping out the enemy – which reminded me of the Royal Irish Regiment commander Tim Collins’ similar blood-thirsty call to arms ahead of the Iraq War – did make me wonder whether the Taliban are a fitting object for such homicidal zeal, albeit in a supposedly noble cause. Do we the British really have such a quarrel with the Taliban that we should seek to utterly exterminate them, or at least rhetorically posture that that’s what we’re about? Obviously, we don’t like them; and there’s much not to like. Equally, if they’re attacking us to the death, we have a right to kill them in self-defence. But do we really want to destroy them completely?

If we do want to exterminate the Taliban, two questions follow: 1) is it morally right to seek this objective, and 2) do we actually plan to achieve it, as opposed to merely wanting to do so? If that’s really what we’re at, maybe the logic would indeed require some US-style – but more effectively implemented – scorched-earth policy, employing massive resources and fire power to really have a good go at them once and for all, with all the consequent risk of loss of innocent lives and wanton destruction. Because with the current level of resourcing, it is indeed hard to envisage an end to the cycle that’s started to set in: our boys get the Taliban on the run; but then they haven’t got the resources to chase them into their strongholds and finish them off; so not surprisingly, a short while later, the Taliban have regrouped and are said to be ‘resurgent’. (I don’t in fact advocate this scorched-earth policy; but the current tactics don’t appear to be getting anywhere – so the logic would be either to do enough to give oneself a chance of winning (futile in Afghanistan, in my view, for the reasons indicated earlier) or get out.)

But, so the argument goes, the main enemy we’re after is Al-Qaeda not the Taliban – except that the two have become almost synonymous in Afghanistan, as was observed above. But was that always the primary objective? If so, it appears not to have been well served by US and British intervention in Afghanistan. But was the main goal not regime change, in any case; and the hunt for those responsible for 9/11 provided a perfect pretext, just as the removal of WMD provided such a flawed pretext for going into Iraq?

I say this based on a view about the Americans’ guiding strategic vision, if indeed they have one. What they seem to have been trying to prevent is a sort of nightmare Domino Effect (funny how these Cold War throw-backs keep surfacing), whereby one state after another stretching from Pakistan right through to Saudi Arabia would fall to (Al-Qaeda-backed) Islamists. And two of these countries potentially would have nuclear arsenals: Pakistan, which already does, and Iran. If Al-Qaeda got their hands on these weapons, there’d be no telling what kind of damage they might do. So the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were mainly intended to establish buffer states – Western-style democracies – between Iran and Pakistan, on one side, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Iran would thereby be isolated and, who knows, she could be made to bow to US pressure over her nuclear programme and democratic reforms; and Al-Qaeda would be robbed of its power base in the region.

Except, of course, pretty much the opposite has happened. Afghanistan and Iraq have been destabilised, and American intervention has created an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to increase their influence in those countries: joining their efforts with those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and working alongside Sunni insurgents in Iraq to have a go at the Americans and their allies, and make a serious bid for power, which would have been inconceivable under Saddam.

The nightmare vision that the Americans seem to have been motivated to prevent, if I’m right, illustrates the conceptual bankruptcy that informs Western thinking about the ‘Islamist’ threat and / or the War on Terror. Even if all of the five countries I mentioned had been allowed to remain, or to move further in the direction of becoming, fundamentalist Islamic states, they would all have had quite a different character and understanding of Islam; and it’s by no means certain they would all have been natural allies of Al-Qaeda. The Iranians are (Shi’ite) fundamentalists, but they don’t share Al-Qaeda’s Sunni-based jihadism nor Saudi-style fundamentalism. And the extent to which the different strands of radical Islamic belief are not natural bed-fellows is demonstrated by the civil war in Iraq, setting Shi’ites against Sunnis. It might have been far smarter for the Americans to have cultivated improved relations with both Iran and Iraq (a former ally), for instance by getting some real momentum behind peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. After all, it’s not unprecedented for the West to maintain expedient friendships with Islamic regimes we find objectionable from a political and religious point of view; cf. Saudi Arabia itself and the less than perfectly democratic, two-faced regime of President Musharraf in Pakistan. That way, Afghanistan would really have been isolated, and co-ordinated international efforts could have been mounted to restrict the flow of money, personnel and logistical support to the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

Instead, the American thinking bears all the hallmarks of that of the Cold War, as I’ve been remarking. They seem to treat ‘Islamism’ as a single, unified ideology and organised threat in the same way as Soviet communism. In response to this, they believe (or believed, at least, before the Iraqi fiasco) that Western doctrines of freedom, democracy and secular governance could carry the day throughout the region, just as they had done throughout former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But this is totally disastrous when applied to the Muslim Middle East on top of the long, humiliating history of Western support for Israel. It can only heap fuel on the fire of suspicion that the US does want to replace Islam with its own values as the basis for political power in the region, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog – is a plausible description of what the US and the West would really like to happen in the Middle East. This then makes Al-Qaeda seem more credible as a defender of the integrity of Islam in its heartlands, and as the main organisation that is really willing and able to take on the US and its allies, particularly Britain.

If the Americans did start to take over direct responsibility for anti-insurgent operations in Pakistan, one can’t help fearing that this would push that country into the same chaos as Iraq, thereby increasing the threat that Al-Qaeda could gain real influence over the ‘Islamists’ in that country and, who knows, eventually get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury. In this respect, Britain is exercising a much-needed moderating role in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and, reading between the lines, this must have been high on the agenda in last week’s visit of David Miliband – the new British Foreign Secretary and golden boy of British politics – to both countries. This coming week, GB is off to meet the President and to reaffirm the Special Relationship. Up to now, GB has been, as usual, shrewdly reticent about what his plans are for the continuing British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if I’ve read the runes of cultural and media discourse on the subject correctly (Salman Rushdie knighthood as a tactic to consolidate liberal support for the war effort; general effort to enhance emotional endorsement and sympathy for the struggle in Afghanistan), we’re not about to see a substantial change of tack.

But then perhaps it might ultimately be not such a bad thing that we don’t have a policy reversal, at least for the present. Maybe, indeed, the potentially moderating influence we can exercise on the US is the most important reason for us to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least, we can try to stop the Americans f***ing up in Pakistan as they did in Iraq!

And maybe this was the reason for us being part of the show from day one. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the real reason for Tony Blair providing such apparently uncritical support for US action in Afghanistan and Iraq was that he was concerned to prevent the Americans from being totally isolated internationally: without any support from any of their traditional and more newfound allies for their policies, and thereby more vulnerable than ever to the terror threat. One can certainly see how Tony Blair would have thought that the world would be a much more dangerous place if the Americans went ahead with their strategy on their own, without the support of even their closest historical ally; or even if they retreated, partly out of pique, into the kind of 1930s-style isolationism that helped to precipitate the Second World War. Maybe, by staying on the inside, Mr Blair thought this was the only way to prevent an even greater catastrophe from happening, and to avert the disaster of a USA that felt it had no friends in the world and therefore had no alternative but to take all necessary measures on its own.

If this is true – even if just part of the complex and troubling set of motivations for Mr Blair leading British forces into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq – then maybe our ex-PM is more of a Saint Tony than any of us realised at the time. And maybe now his mission to bring peace in Palestine is his way to expiate all the errors committed in those two countries and to concentrate on what he knew all along was the only way that reconciliation could be brought to the Middle East and terrorism could be defeated.

And perhaps this is the most important – and perhaps the only – reason why Britain should be doing what it is in Afghanistan.

15 July 2007

British Ethnicity

Dicey subject, this! The reason I bring it up, apart from enjoying a bit of controversy (!), is that I was filling in a medical form earlier this evening, which asked you to state which ethnic group you belonged to. The options were as follows:

White British

White & Black African

Asian or Asian British Pakistani

Black or Black British African

White Irish

White & Asian

Asian or Asian British Bangladeshi

Other Black background

Other white background

Other mixed background

Other Asian background

Chinese

White & Black Caribbean

Asian or Asian British Indian

Black or Black British Caribbean

Any other ethnic group

I entered, ‘Other white background’, even though someone of my background would be expected to declare ‘white British’. My reason for doing this wasn’t an English-nationalist protest about being made to refer to myself as British rather than English, although it does seem – or could be construed as – discriminatory that someone of an Irish background is allowed to specify Irishness as part of their ethnicity while someone of an English background is not allowed to declare their Englishness.

The problem, rather, is the fact of using the word ‘British’ to denote ethnicity at all. Firstly, if there is such a thing as a ‘white-British’ ethnic group as distinct from a ‘white-Irish’ group – which is disputable, to say the least – then my own ethnicity could not really be encompassed by either but would have to be described as ‘white British & white Irish’, on the analogy of the mixed-race groups such as ‘white & black African’. This is because I had an Irish grandmother on my father’s side, and my father has joint-British and -Irish nationality, which makes me ‘mixed-race’, or ‘of mixed background’ in the terms of the form.

Secondly, ‘British’ is being used inconsistently as a signifier of ethnicity on the form. In relation to the use of the term ‘white British’ – ignoring the politically-correct addition of ‘white Irish’ for the moment – it is reasonable to suppose that it implies that there is such a thing as a distinct, white ethnic group that you might call ‘indigenous or native Britons’. This implication is further supported by the use of the option ‘other white background’, which is clearly not intended to be used in the contrary way that I did but must refer to the general category of ‘white-European’ (as opposed to ‘white British’), encompassing anything from Scandinavians to Mediterraneans and Turks. When crossing the box for that category, I wondered in fact whether I would be assumed to be originally or ancestrally from France or Eastern Europe, for instance, even if I was a British national.

And this is the point: shouldn’t the British option have read, ‘white or white British European’ if it was going to be consistent with categories such as ‘black or black British Caribbean’ and ‘Asian or Asian British Pakistani’? The first term (‘black’) in the string ‘black British Caribbean’ is the real signifier of ethnicity (as is ‘white’ and ‘Asian’); the third term (‘Caribbean’ or ‘Pakistani’) denotes the region or country from where that ethnicity originates, as related to the individual concerned.

However, ‘British’ for the Black Caribbean or the Asian Pakistani is merely an optional extra designating national identity rather than ethnicity. It is being assumed that someone ticking such a box might say, ‘yes, I’m black and of Caribbean descent but I’m really British, too’ – but you can decide to waive the British bit and it won’t affect your ethnicity. The white person of British descent, on the other hand, has no choice but to accept ‘British’ as the designator both of their nationality and ethnicity: I’m not an ethnically white person of European heritage who chooses to call myself British (and am in fact a British national) but I’m ethnically British as well.

Does it matter that some UK citizens can effectively choose to have three ethnic-national identities while others are only allowed one? The Asian person in the above example is able to define themselves as (ethnically) Asian / (nationally) British / of Pakistani (family) background. The white-British person, on the other hand, is considered to be only British in all three respects.

This does matter, for a number of reasons. First, it’s rather disingenuous. You could view forms like this as having little to do with ethnicity. In reality, they’re a coded way to gather cultural information about the patient, such as religious affiliation (if they’re an ‘Asian British Bangladeshi’ or an ‘Asian British Pakistani’, for instance); and also to elicit census-type information enabling statisticians to track things like the distribution of immigrant-origin communities, their health problems and their use of public services.

Second, it’s not what you’d call conducive to cultural and national integration if ‘Britishness’ for some races (and it’s explicitly framed in ethnic terms by such forms) is a kind of optional extra that you can choose to take on, if you wish, while holding on to an ‘ethnic’ identity (a more profound identification) that actually ties you not just to a different race but to a different nation (e.g. Pakistan, India or China on this form).

Third, it is in fact rather discriminatory if ‘British’ is an optional extra for people of non-British family origin but not optional for people of British descent. Such people might, for example, wish to adopt a different designator of national identity to ‘British’ while retaining ‘British’, ‘white’, ‘European’ or something else entirely as the descriptor of their ethnicity. So, for instance, why can’t someone describe themself as ‘white English British’, if it’s legitimate for others now to call themselves ‘white Irish’ or ‘Asian Pakistani’ while at the same time being British nationals? ‘White English’ would not necessarily need to be a reinvention of the intrinsic linkage that my NHS form appeared to be making between the ‘white race’ and Britishness; but the ‘English’ could stand for the idea of the individual’s family’s country of origin (their ‘background’), which they could choose either to associate with or uncouple from Britishness in a national sense.

Official forms like this do not allow any separation between British statehood and English, Scottish or Welsh nationality and identity defined in a more personal, familial and cultural way; but they will allow a separation of that sort for ‘other races’. In this, for all its politically-correct contortions, my NHS form is quite racist: it implies that to be a truly British person, you can only be ‘white-British’. Any other use of the British tag by people of other ethnic origins is a sort of value-added extra and as it were a metaphorical national Britishness, which can never be on a par with ‘authentic’ British ethnicity that is automatic and not an option for the persons concerned.

In this, we have an illustration of the fallaciousness of Britology, which attempts to establish a core, timeless Britishness. In this instance, it’s identified with race. But there is no such thing as a British race that all who trace their family origins in Britain are obliged to adhere to. Britishness is a label we can reject and, by doing so, usher in a more open, diverse nation in which ethnically ‘British’, ethnically black and ethnically Asian people are all equally entitled and welcome to be called English.

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11 July 2007

Salman Rushdie Affair: Al-Qaeda’s Vain Threats, Britain’s Lame Excuse

Neither Al-Qaeda nor the British government come out of the Salman Rushdie controversy with their reputation enhanced. The threats issued towards Britain yesterday by Osama Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are not only morally unacceptable but betray weakness: you make threats like this when you’re not necessarily in a position to carry them out. Of course, we have to take these threats in deadly earnest. But they’re a rather delayed response to the award of the knighthood to Rushdie, probably largely for logistical reasons. And this does at least indicate that Al-Qaeda is struggling to maintain leadership of the hardline anti-Western Islamic cause. I hesitate to call it the ‘jihadist’ cause (and certainly not the conceptually unhelpful ‘islamist’) because al-Zawahiri refers to a “very precise response”. This suggests a one-off, symbolically targeted attack or series of attacks, not all-out jihad. Al-Qaeda might wish to carry out full-scale jihad but would appear not to be in the position to do so, after all.

Al-Zawahiri’s response was also a highly predictable one: an inevitable consequence of the knighthood award, as I’ve argued in previous blog entries on the Salman Rushdie topic. Rushdie’s much-reviled novel The Satanic Verses is indeed insulting to many Muslims, not just the hardliners; and the British government would have known that awarding an honour to its author would provoke manifestations of more or less orchestrated outrage on the part of Iran, Pakistan, Al-Qaeda and elsewhere. So the decision to go ahead with it was a deliberate choice to fly in the face of such protests and to make Rushdie a symbol of the ‘British way of life’ and its associated ‘values’ that are supposedly under threat from terrorism. As I stated in my article ‘Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?‘, this was a calculated move designed to stir up Islamophobic sentiment in Britain, and to strengthen support for tougher anti-terror measures and the continuing presence of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iran.

In this context, the government’s statement rebuffing al-Zawahiri’s threats is remarkably feeble. The Foreign Office maintained that the knighthood had been awarded in ‘reflection of his contribution to literature’. When the award was initially announced, very few people in literary circles thought it was merited on those grounds; although, of course, now many luminaries are running around in Mr Rushdie’s defence, including the novelist-cum-presenter Melvyn Bragg, I noticed last night (was he standing outside 10 Downing Street? . . .).

Downing Street itself stated last night that “The government has already made clear that Rushdie’s honour was not intended as an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad”. Yeah, right! This sort of excuse puts me in mind of a husband and wife row in which the husband knew that something he’s just done would provoke emotional upset on the part of his wife but did it anyway, because he didn’t think that such a response was reasonable! And so the apology goes, ‘Sorry for hurting you, dear’, rather than apologising for the action itself.

But the government must have known the honour would offend many, many Muslims, including many so-called ‘moderates’. And if they genuinely didn’t realise this, what hope have we got that they will ever be able to address the root causes of Islamically inspired terrorism?

10 July 2007

Sir Alan West: Un-British Defence Of the British Way Of Life

On Sunday (8 July), Sir Alan West – Britain’s new security minister – went on record as saying that people in Britain needed to start behaving in an ‘un-British’ way and ‘snitch’ on people they suspect of involvement in terrorist activity: passing on information to the authorities about such people, who might be members of their own community or family, and who might expect not to be betrayed in this way.

No reasonable person could object to the proposition that there is an overriding moral duty to talk to the police about anyone whom one genuinely suspects of involvement in terrorism, no matter who they are. But does this constitute ‘snitching’? Could it not be seen as an act of loyalty to the people one reports on in this way, if they are part of one’s close circle of friends and family, in that one would be saving them from getting involved in criminality, and potentially from suicide?

The use of the word ‘snitching’ – admittedly employed deliberately by the minister to maximise the newsworthiness of his statement – is unfortunate in a number of ways. First, it plays into the general atmosphere of suspicion verging on paranoia towards Muslim communities, in that it feeds on an idea that these communities are full of actual or potential terrorist cells that are all busy hatching plots, which require ‘grasses’ on the inside to give them away. Clearly, one would expect the police and the security services to make use of informers in the fight against terrorism, as against any other form of crime. But the image implies that the minister is calling for something more extensive and extreme: that ordinary people in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, perhaps really everyone in mainstream society, should transform themselves into the eyes and ears of the security services. This puts me in mind of the Stasi in Communist former-East Germany, where reportedly one-quarter of the entire population were official informers. Under such circumstances, you would really have to be cautious about what you said or wrote in public about subjects such as terrorism and Islam in case someone took against you and reported you as a terrorist sympathiser.

Secondly, the minister’s remarks exemplify an important aspect of the government’s approach to the problem of extremism / proto-terrorism in Muslim communities: it attempts to drive a wedge between so-called moderates and so-called radicals in the effort to bully and enlist the moderates into becoming agents in the fight against extremism. But this approach is built on a false dichotomy between the two groups, which itself rests on a misunderstanding of the root (‘radical’) cause of terrorism. This in turn is a form of terror, which ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Muslims share to some extent: the fear – which also verges in extremis on paranoia – that the West is embarked on a campaign to destroy Islam. By dividing Muslim communities – the Islamic ummah or fellowship – internally by encouraging the more ‘pro-Western’ elements to turn against the more ‘anti-Western’ groups, would an approach such as that advocated by Sir Alan West not actually increase the resentment and paranoia felt by the ‘radicals’, while reducing the influence the ‘moderates’ could exercise over them, as the trust between them would have broken down?

And there’s another irony in the whole scenario set up by Sir Alan’s use of the ‘snitch’ word – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! The minister is inviting members of the Muslim community, who are precisely the kind of people we’re supposed to want to integrate with British society (i.e. who are to some extent un-British) to start behaving in an even more un-British way (which is also framed as being ‘un-Islamic’) in defence of the British way of life! In this way, the best defenders of Britishness are the un-British Muslims who betray their even more un-British Muslim brothers. As if to say that we all have to be more like the Muslims and the terrorists to defeat them: more intolerant and repressive, more furtive and treacherous – more un-British indeed.

Sir Alan West’s whole premise is that the British way of life is under severe threat from ‘radical Islamist’ terrorists who want to change it. (I won’t now get into a discussion of what might be meant by that phrase; suffice it to say that the whole terminology that is used to describe who the terrorists are and what they believe in is a total mess and needs a hefty dose of (British) rational clarity injected into it!) Yet in the same breath, the minister says – and these are his actual words, if not arranged verbatim in the exact sequence he used – that we’ll all need to change our way of life in order to deal with the threat. But if we do that, doesn’t that mean that the terrorists have won: that they’ve actually succeeded in changing our way of life; turning us into a less open, tolerant society; and putting us into a permanent state of fear, which is in essence the whole purpose of terrorist activity – to provoke fear and to prompt the society it is attacking into acting violently and repressively out of fear, so stoking up the conflict and resentments which fuel the terrorist effort, and allowing the terrorists to make a credible claim that they are really waging a war?

Because this is basically what Sir Alan West’s language implies: that he wants Britain to go onto a permanent war footing and to believe that, and start acting as if, it is facing as severe a threat to its way of life as it did in the Second World War or at the height of the Cold War. The rhetoric of the War On Terror may have disappeared; but the underlying thinking is the same.

But does terrorism really pose the same level of threat to the British and Western way of life as did Nazism or Soviet Communism? While not wanting to underplay the seriousness of the specific terrorist plots that the police and security services are working so hard to foil, and have indeed succeeded in doing so on a number of occasions, how many people really believe that we have already entered into an all-out war with Islamism upon which the whole future of our way of life depends? Look around you; do you see a nation at war? What you see is a nation that is still intent on living the life that Sir Alan wants us all to renounce in favour of a sort of total war against the terror that lurks round the next corner – the enemy within our communities.

Who’s to say that the nightmare vision of a Britain laid waste by a series of utterly devastating terrorist attacks could never happen? I personally was sceptical about the warnings of imminent terrorist outrages ahead of the 7/7 bombings two years ago; and it seems from today’s news that I was wrong to suggest in my last blog entry that the 21/7 bombers might have deliberately bungled their attacks. But even if this nightmare came to pass, would that mean the ‘Islamists’ had succeeded in destroying the British spirit and British values, if by that is meant our love of freedom and respect for justice? Change our way of life, yes; such a scenario would inevitably bring about an impairment of our standard of living, new constraints to the way we lead our lives, and a great deal of life-changing suffering and pain. But would they change us, our commitment to democracy and our culture? Is it at all remotely conceivable – in the real world – that the ‘Islamists’ could impose Shariah law and Islamic faith on this nation; and, even if this one-in-a-zillion eventuality arose, would they succeed in altering our hearts and converting us into true believers?

Because there is a true war going on, and it is – as the political establishment so fondly likes to call it – a battle for hearts and minds. But the Islamists are never going to win that battle over us; nor are we going to win against them if we think we can overcome their commitment to the ideal of a world united under Islamic law through the sheer, British power of moderation and liberal reasonableness.

This war is indeed playing itself out in our hearts and minds, which are in danger of succumbing to a bunker mentality: nice, safe, moderate Britons and moderate Muslims on one side; and the vision of a radical-Islamic hell on earth on the other. But this is just a nightmare scenario, not the reality – not yet, and most likely not ever.

We have time – still – to prevent the nightmare from becoming a reality. But to do so, we must stop demonising the terrorist and start engaging with him as a human being. It’s when society dehumanises the enemies it fears that it itself becomes most like them: intolerant, hate-filled, un-British – united with the terrorist in the very fear that their world and culture is in peril.

8 July 2007

Are Suicide Bombings an Attack On ‘Our Values’?

At the time of the 7/7 bomb attacks, whose grim two-year anniversary was marked yesterday, it was said that these atrocities constituted an attack against ‘our values’ to which we had to show defiance. Similarly, during the recent wave of largely bungled bombings, the last of which – on Glasgow Airport – had a distinctly suicidal component, the terrorism that they exemplified was also characterised as an assault on our values.

Leaving aside for now the issue of what exactly ‘our values’ might be, are suicide bombings primarily intended to destroy them? Or, if that is indeed one of the avowed intentions of the suicide bomber, should we in a sense dignify that intention by building it up as a serious assault on our whole value system and way of life?

In our Western-centric way, we tend to forget that suicide bombings have become one of the tactics of choice in other conflicts: that between Israel and the Palestinians, and the de facto civil war between Muslims in Iraq, for instance. In these cases, the suicide bombing is not obviously intended as an attack on the values of the West per se, although it indirectly expresses opposition to Western policy and actions in the Middle East. Similarly, you could see the suicide assaults on targets in Western countries as intended, on one level, to make a political statement and achieve political objectives, albeit that this dimension does involve an element of opposition to Western values and ideology.

In this respect, the 9/11 and 7/7 incidents were extremely eloquent: in the former instance, an awe-inspiring assault on some of the most potent symbols of Western power and, in particular, the US superpower in the shape of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The fact that such a horrific action gave rise to so much jubilant celebration in many Muslim countries should not lead us to rush into condemnation of Islamic barbarism and blood-thirstiness but should – and perhaps was intended to – give us pause for thought about what the West collectively had done to give rise to such hatred and despair. Not that this exonerates the actions of terrorists. But it certainly made people sit up and start to pay attention to the problem, and in that respect, it was a powerful and successful act of communication.

Similarly, the 7/7 outrages could not have been timed for greater effect. The government, Tony Blair, the media and the official representatives of the city of London were all basking in the self-satisfied glow of Live8, the Gleneagles summit (and its promise to tackle global poverty) and the award of the 2012 Olympics to London the day before. The horror of 7/7 and its aftermath threw all of that into question, as if to say ‘enough with all your fine words; but this is the horror you’ve inflicted in Iraq and Palestine, and what are you going to do about it?’. This at least was one of the messages that seemed to come out of those attacks in the context in which they arose, even if the underlying thinking was twisted. The knee-jerk, indignant reaction to the bombings that they were an assault on ‘our values’ merely served to make us deaf to that message once again.

So what of the recent, mercifully ‘unsuccessful’, attacks? A new Scottish prime minister had just come into office without, as yet, any indication of a change in the policy on Britiish involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so an Iraqi doctor, working over here as part of our liberal, global, tolerant market society, attempts to carry out two massive bombings in London and one in Glasgow, Scotland – the first terror attack in that land. The political intention appears clear: to whip up public demands and personal pressure on GB [Gordon Brown] for a British withdrawal from those two countries. This is more the message from these failed attacks than that they are an assault on our values per se, although the ideological motivation is undeniably also present.

And by the way, isn’t it rather uncanny that London seems to have experienced more than its ‘fair share’ of bungled bombings: the supposedly attempted bombings of 21/7 and now these latest episodes? The 21/7 would-be bombers have claimed that they didn’t actually intend for their bombs to work, that they were just trying to wreak terror without the carnage – achieving the desired communication impact of terrorism minus the bloodshed; martyrdom for the cause without the ultimate martyrdom of death. Is it possible that the latest attacks were also not fully followed through for the same purpose: to provide a warning of what could happen if British policy didn’t change, rather than actually provoking a further wave of support for the British military presence in those countries, which might well have happened had the bombs gone off? Perhaps we should take it as a warning even if it wasn’t actually intended as such.

Ultimately, I’m speculating about the intentions of the suicide bombers, failed or successful. But we need to pay more attention to the message that these incidents are conveying if we really want to do everything to avoid a repetition, and one which this time could have massively deadly effects. The terrorists are wrong in their assumption that their actions can sway the policy decisions of Western governments, i.e. that policies will be amended in direct response to the threat that terrorism poses. However, they are correct in thinking that their attacks have a huge impact on our hearts and minds. The extremely cleverly conceived and executed attacks of 9/11; the brilliantly timed and co-ordinated bombings of 7/7; and the possibly calculated botched attacks of 21/7 and last week speak powerfully to our emotions and our imaginations. And this is perhaps the only language the terrorist feels is left to the people in whose name he misguidedly carries out his atrocities.

It shouldn’t have to take shared suffering and a common experience of suicide bombings to that of the Palestinian and Iraqi people for us to show compassion towards them and listen to their despair. We may not believe that we are directly responsible for the suffering in those lands; but we do have a duty and the opportunity to do something about it.

If only for own protection.

6 July 2007

Control Orders: A Better Alternative

The trouble with Control Orders – the UK security measure whereby terror suspects against whom a conventional legal case cannot easily be built can effectively be placed under indefinite house arrest – is that in practice they embody a presumption of guilt. This is in contrast to the long-established British legal convention that a suspect is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Yesterday, the government launched an appeal to the House of Lords against a legal ruling previously obtained by six Iraqi Control-Order detainees that their detention violated their rights to liberty and a fair trial.

As in all such cases, it is important to try to strike a balance between the legal and human rights of suspects, and the right of the public to be protected against potential murderers. But the de facto presumption of guilt is clear: if the police who press for a particular suspect to be controlled did not think that the evidence they had gathered strongly suggested the person in question was a terrorist, then there would be no point in the measures – other than the exercise of political coercion to try to intimidate radical groups and individuals into behaving in a more moderate manner. But while a sense of injustice persists about the way in which suspects’ guilt is accepted by the judges who ratify Control Orders, so the suspicion that these measures are just such a coercive political measure will linger, to the detriment of the so-called battle to win hearts and minds.

There is an alternative that would bring more fairness back into the legal process surrounding suspects of this sort. If indeed there is a presumption of guilt, why not formalise this and say that it is then down to the suspect to demonstrate his or her innocence through a fair, open judicial proceeding? The suspect would have the right to know on what basis their guilt was being presumed and could appoint a legal team to build a case in their defence. The issue could then be decided in an adversarial manner just like any other case (albeit that, for security purposes, this might not involve a jury). The difference from the assumption of innocence would be that if, on the balance of evidence, it was not conclusive whether the individual either was or was not a terrorist, the Control Order or other restrictive measure would remain in place – subject to fairly regular (e.g. six-monthly or annual) review. If the verdict was guilty, however, this would enable the suspect to be imprisoned, thus doing away with the anomalous legal no-man’s land of the current system. And obviously, a not-guilty verdict would allow the individuals affected to regain their rightful liberty.

Clearly, there are potential pitfalls behind this idea, and legal safeguards protecting both the rights of the individual and the prerogatives of the state would need to be put in place. The main issue would be whether society would be able to accept a derogation from the presumption of innocence and would be able to overcome concerns that this would lead to further erosion of this basic right. But under the present set up, the presumption of innocence is in fact not working either to protect the rights of suspects or the state’s duty of protection. It’s because the formal process of law demands that the accused be presumed innocent until proven guilty that the case against them can’t be taken to court and the suspects are left in a legal limbo. And because a democratic state can’t arbitrarily impose imprisonment without trial, it has had to come up with the Control Order compromise; but this is not secure, as recent evasions have demonstrated – so society is not being protected.

The limited admission of a formal presumption of guilt that I am advocating would recognise the realities of fighting terrorism, which are that absolute guilt is sometimes impossible to prove beyond all reasonable doubt and that therefore guilt is having to be presumed in certain cases. And, at the same time, this would allow suspects to be given a fair hearing and chance to exonerate themselves if indeed they are without blame. And this would also defuse the charge made in some quarters that Control Orders are politically motivated and are placing the legal system at the service of an oppressive, anti-Islamic state.

4 July 2007

The West Lothian Question Is Not the Only One Needing Answers

A cautious welcome to GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] proposals for constitutional reform yesterday. We’ll have to see how things turn out in terms of the consultation and legislative process. Personally not happy that Jack Straw is the man charged with co-ordinating the thing – he of the opportunistic Islamophobia at the back end of last year and one of the prime Britologists.

Of course, GB flatly refused to deal with the ‘West Lothian question’: why Scottish and Welsh MPs should continue to be allowed to vote on matters relating only to England, while English MPs can’t vote on exclusively Scottish and Welsh issues of the same kind, as these are now handled by the devolved institutions of those countries. Any new constitutional settlement that does not seek to resolve this anomaly will not last long without modifications.

The Tory solution would simply be to limit the right to vote on English matters to MPs from English constituencies. Both the Tories and Labour are worried that going any further – creating an English parliament with similar powers to the parliament and assembly of Scotland and Wales respectively – could imperil the survival of the Union. In previous blog entries, I’ve suggested that these concerns are connected with – but not necessarily exclusively determined by – two factors, which may or not be combined in any particular instance: 1) a peculiarly Scottish vicarious relationship with England via British identity and institutions, whereby Scottish politicians (including, arguably, the leaders of all three major UK parties) wish to maintain a disproportionate influence and power over English affairs, which a discontinuation of the prevailing UK-wide structures would disable; 2) a back-door republican agenda: wishing to create a British Republic, united around things like a Bill of Rights and a written constitution, which would effectively sever the age-old ties between the state, and the English monarch and church.

The jury’s out on the second of these concerns, although the proposal to remove from the PM the right to appoint Church of England bishops could be interpreted as potentially the thin end of the wedge towards disestablishment, even though it makes sense from an ecclesiastical point of view. Equally, a Bill of Rights and written constitution are very much on the agenda: for those who care about such things, time to ensure that any written constitution that does emerge preserves the monarchy and explicitly emphasises the historical and continuing importance of Christianity as the primary religious belief system of Britain – while obviously protecting the right of everyone to practice any law-abiding religion they like, or none.

On the first of the above two concerns about the Union – the Scottish wish for disproportionate influence over English affairs – GB’s resistance to even addressing the West Lothian question would appear to confirm the syndrome. In the case of the Labour Party, and indeed the Tories, this is linked to another form of disproportionality: the fact that the current constitutional arrangements, together with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, enable them to exercise majority rule over the whole of the UK on a minority of the popular vote. An English parliament elected using FPTP – based on votes cast at the last general election – would have been Conservative, as the Tories basically won the election in England. But on the basis of any reasonably proportionate voting system, no party would have held an absolute majority, either in England only or across the UK.

Hence, Labour’s UK-wide power is propped up by both the West Lothian anomaly (Scottish and Welsh MPs giving them their majority) and the current voting system; while any hopes the Tories have of regaining the government of the UK are also dependent on FPTP. Now, any English parliament would have to use PR, both for fairness and consistency with the arrangements in Scotland and Wales, and because this would be the only means to prevent the kind of disproportionate governments we’ve had in the UK for at least 30 years or more. As Labour would stand to be the losers from FPTP in England-only elections, I’m sure they’d find their way to accepting PR if an English parliament did come about! So when Labour and the Tories talk about an English parliament endangering the Union, one of the things that is implicit in that is their concern never again to be the single party of government over the whole Union. May that day indeed come soon!

Needless to say, the issue of proportionate representation was not tackled by GB, although he has apparently said that a paper on the voting system will be published at a later stage. But we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? When will this paper appear? Shouldn’t the voting system be factored into the general conversation GB says politicians should be having with the public about the constitution? The currently grossly disproportionate system is surely the single largest factor behind people’s disaffection from politics, as the majority feel their vote won’t make a difference; something which is confirmed by the attitude of the parties, which think it’s only really worthwhile targeting the swing seats. Giving the vote to 16-year-olds won’t change that.

But there are some more profound questions that this whole business of reappraising the relationship of England with the rest of the UK as part of a new constitutional settlement raises, which I’ll just list for now:

  1. Just as supporters of a British republic attach their cause to the coat tails of a written constitution, is it not also the case that support for an English parliament can, but does not always, serve as the vehicle for those who genuinely want a fully independent English state? It’s time for everyone both to be explicit about what their ultimate aspirations are from constitutional reform – and they’ll have to be so in order to press for what they want – and to be on the alert towards the way hidden agendas could be advanced by the decisions that are made. OK, putting my cards on the table: I’m in favour of an English parliament with at least comparable powers to those of Scotland and Wales. In addition, my heart would like to see a separate English state; but my head tells me that might not be either practical or in the best interests of England at the present time.
  2. Would the creation of an English parliament not inevitably accelerate the momentum towards independence for both Scotland and England? This is not just because English people might be so delighted with their newfound freedom and proportional system of government that they might want to go the whole hog. But also, self-rule for England could break the vicarious relationship that many Scots feel towards England, which I referred to above. This relationship, while being about exercising political influence over a historically more powerful neighbour, also does involve a genuine sense of shared identity and – dare I say it? – affection. If England decides to define its identity and destiny on its own, effectively divorcing itself from the union with Scotland, could this not be the final factor that tips the majority in Scotland into supporting independence?
  3. Are there not long-term, global factors that suggest that independence for the constituent countries of the UK is almost inevitable? You could argue that the growing trend for people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to wish to govern themselves and define their national identities in separation from British institutions and identity are influenced by global factors. As business and the economy become ever more globalised, it becomes less and less important for countries to group together into larger states in order to create the scale of economic activity and political influence needed to prosper. In Europe, of course, the EU has also brought about economic and institutional change that makes it much more possible for smaller countries to not only be viable but also perform very strongly in economic terms – cf. Ireland. (One concern about a break up of the UK would clearly be that it might expose England to greater control by and dependency towards the EU; which is something that supporters for full English independence need to think carefully about.) There are many examples of larger European states that have broken up into their constituent nations and are now doing very nicely, thank you very much: the USSR, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia. Can we in Britain resist these macro-economic trends, especially if they speak to the growing aspirations of the different nations of Britain for more independence? And should we resist them, if our prospects are potentially improved by the ability to pursue our own priorities that independence could bring?
  4. Wales might choose to remain united with England if Scotland went its own way. One observation that’s not often made is that even if the Scots did opt for independence, the Welsh might not. Support for Welsh independence is limited largely to majority Welsh-speaking areas, and it’s unlikely to grow much stronger in the short-to-medium term. As discussions understandably centre on the future of the union between England and Scotland, we shouldn’t ignore the much older union with Wales, which arguably goes back much further than its historical start date of 1536: the now England and Wales were united in the Roman province of Britannia, while Scotland (‘Caledonia’) was separate. It might seem fanciful to go back that far in tracing the roots of national identity and institutions. But many of the nations of Europe can similarly trace the roots of their identities, languages and territorial borders to Roman and even pre-Roman times. Indeed, the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which goes back centuries, was in part because the nations there lie on the former fault lines between the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, and between European Christendom and (Ottoman) Islam. While the languages and even ethnic composition of European countries have often changed beyond recognition over the centuries, something of a continuing sense of national identity persists. Perhaps the English and Welsh will define their future together, thereby recapturing something of the ancient traditions that bind them.

1 July 2007

Putting Out the Smoking Gun: Anti-Smoking and Anti-Terror Measures

Today, a ban on smoking in confined public spaces enters into force in England: in England, specifically, as the other parts of the UK already have similar measures in place. To me, this ban illustrates the British and, I suppose in this instance also especially English, attitude to things that society regards as intolerable: beyond the limits of the much-vaunted British value of tolerance. (See other blog entries on this topic elsewhere.) Instead of confronting and discussing openly the real causes and possible solutions to problems that threaten or appear to threaten our security and well-being, we tend to suppress them from the public domain and confine them to the private realm, with legal measures designed to ensure they remain there.

In the case of the smoking ban, this is exactly the effect it will have. Smoking is effectively now censored as an acceptable public activity, unless you count smoking outside in the street. And you could argue that, in our society, the street is an extension of the private realm; or rather, society is trying to transform external public spaces into controlled, orderly environments in which everyone can go about their private business without interference from others – apart, of course, from the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother: the censorship authority in the shape of the steadily encroaching CCTV. So, as you stand smoking outside your workplace or walking to the shops, you are effectively acting merely in your capacity as a private individual; whereas, as soon as you enter a public building, your actions are regulated by civil law.

But a ban of this nature does not address the reasons why people smoke in the first place; nor does it – directly, at least – offer any real help to smokers in quitting; although it could be said to add a further social incentive for people to give up through increased stigmatisation of their habit. But essentially, the problem is just shifted from the public sphere to individuals’ private lives. In other words, society is effectively absolving itself of its responsibilities towards smokers and their families, and saying effectively, ‘it’s not our problem now; we don’t want to know. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry on with your anti-social behaviour or not’. So smokers go home and could well be more likely, not less, to light up in their houses (having not had their quota of nicotine during the day), with the consequence that the potential damage to their fellow residents’ health and safety is augmented.

One of the reasons why people start smoking is that it is – or used to be – quite a social habit: a chance to share time and a mutually enjoyable activity with other smokers in a relaxed if smoky atmosphere. There is or used to be a whole culture of smoking, with its conventions and rules governing social interaction and friendliness that were unique to the smoking situation. However, along with smoking itself, this aspect of sociability has been suppressed. I’ve been reading Watching the English by Kate Fox: an anthropological study of English behaviour and culture. The author discusses literally hundreds of unofficial but nonetheless binding ‘rules’ which, she says, govern English social interaction, including many rules relating to drinking and pub culture. But nowhere does she discuss ‘smoking rules’, even though smoking has been an integral part of English pub culture for as long as people can remember – until today, that is.

That’s all for the good, some people will say; it’s about time something was done about the problem. But then this is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach that typifies English / British intolerance: suppress something from interfering with my freedoms and rights as a private citizen, and that’s the problem dealt with – except it isn’t, it’s just suppressed and denied. And of course, part of the issue with smoking is the hypocrisy around it from the highest level of government: the state literally earns billions of pounds from smoking through the ever-higher taxes that are imposed on the habit. So the state is effectively attempting to salve its conscience and demonstrate to the non-smoking majority that it is serious about the issue; while at the same time, the fact that the measures taken don’t really deal with the problem suits the state, which is co-responsible for it along with the cigarette manufacturers themselves.

Talking of the highest levels of state, it occurs to me on a somewhat fanciful level that if smoking were permitted in cabinet meetings, this might engender more truly collective, collegial government. When smoking was widely permitted, tolerated and indeed indulged in by the majority, I’m sure that the fact that smoking went on during meetings fostered a more congenial and trusting atmosphere in which people shared more of their opinions and participated more fully in making the decisions – simply because smoking is, or was, such a friendly, sociable activity. It isn’t that long ago that cabinet offices and, indeed, council chambers and boardrooms up and down the land would have had ashtrays almost in front of every seat. When was the last great smoking cabinet? One thinks of Churchill and Harold Wilson: both great smoking PMs; the former with cigars, the latter with pipes. The era of more centralised decision making concentrated around the person of the PM came in with Margaret Thatcher. Was smoking in cabinet also banned at this time?

None of this, one might argue, really matters very much compared with the much greater threat to our public safety that is posed by terrorism – with the two defused bombs in London last Friday and the attack on Glasgow Airport last night in mind. But firstly, you could argue that smoking is a very much greater danger to public safety than terrorism, especially in terms of real loss of life – except, of course, it precisely isn’t a matter of public safety any more, which is precisely the point I’m making: government has washed its smoke-smelling hands of it.

And secondly, the official response to the ‘terror threat’ exemplifies the same approach as that to smoking: the issue is censored and suppressed rather than being dealt with in its root causes. So we have repressive measures such as Control Orders and detention without charge for 28 days (90 days if GB [Gordon Brown] has his way); but there is no compelling evidence that such regulations have any effect in reducing the likelihood of terrorist attacks. That’s what’s so ridiculous about the government being fixated about supposedly eliminating ‘radical Muslim extremists’. ‘Radical’ means ‘at or from the root’. But the root of the problem is what you need to address and grasp with both hands, if the unwanted growth of terrorism is to be stemmed. And the root is not the extreme: at the root, there are real grievances; the extremism is the desperate outgrowth from those grievances, which lashes out at a government, society and culture that doesn’t want to know. An unacceptable and life-destroying form of behaviour, indeed, like smoking.

But just attempting to shut it up will not keep the gun from smoking. After all, a smoking gun is one that has already been fired not one that is about to go off.

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