The Russian Empire – otherwise known as the Soviet Union – was broken on the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Many commentators, including Russian ones, have pointed to the eerie parallels between Britain’s and America’s engagement in military conflict against the Taliban, and the defeat of the mighty Red Army at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahedeen. If we were to take heed of the lessons of history – not just the living memory of the Soviet Union’s traumatic humiliation, but the thousands of years of successful Afghan resistance to imperial invaders – then we would immediately reverse the build-up of Western troops in that country and accelerate our exit strategy, if we have one. Indeed, we would never have got ourselves embroiled in a conflict we cannot win.
But the question I wish to pose here is this: Gordon Brown has today spoken of his determination that Britain and its allies will indeed ‘win’ in Afghanistan, however victory is defined (which is part of the problem). However, he also conceded the possibility that Britain might lose: “We will succeed or fail together and we will succeed”. But will Britain stay together if we lose?
Clearly, while there are parallels, Britain’s situation is not exactly the same as the Soviet Union’s during the 1980s. However, I would argue that, like the USSR, Britain’s actions in Afghanistan betray an imperial mindset. Indeed, Britain itself is still an empire in certain fundamental respects: not in the, as it were, empirical (i.e. real-world) sense of possessing vast colonies, but in its view of itself – its identity, its status in the world and its systems of governance.
These all come down to Britain’s concept of ‘authority’ – political and moral authority combined: Britain’s ‘right to rule’ linked to the fact that it sees itself as inherently ‘in the right’. This then translates to our military interventions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which the British establishment would like to see not as examples of more or less arbitrary interference in other countries’ affairs for the sake of Britain’s strategic interests, but as illustrations of how our might is indeed right: military power allied to a moral mission, and applied to promote British-style governance and implant British values in some benighted corner of a foreign field.
As far as the governance of Britain itself is concerned, I would argue that this is also still conducted in the manner of an empire, albeit one whose boundaries are mainly those of the islands of Great Britain, and with limited concessions to democracy. I’ll probably return to this topic in more detail on another occasion. But my main proposition here is that one of the main reasons why the Westminster political class has become so disconnected from the people – indeed, the peoples – of Britain is that they still view the business of governance in the light of the imperial mindset. In particular, the insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament, and on the entitlement of Parliament and the executive to make all the important decisions that affect our lives without being fundamentally answerable to the people, and without having to take popular opinion into account, exemplifies the concept of British authority described above: those that possess British might see themselves as imbued with British right – the right to rule over us in imperial fashion linked to the fact that this rule in itself is seen as in the right and righteous.
So in Britain, we have an elected empire: a form of absolute rule, albeit moderated by a limited amount of democracy, whose sovereignty derives from a moral absolute: that of the Sovereign herself, who is the inheritor and embodiment of the medieval divine right of kings. Except, in our constitutional monarchy, it is our elected so-called representatives that re-assign that divine right to themselves in the form of the sovereignty of Parliament.
But to return to my point of departure, what could happen to the British establishment’s sense of its divine right to rule, both at home and abroad, if things go disastrously wrong in Afghanistan, as they did for the Soviet Union? By this, I mean not just hundreds of British dead, as now, but thousands, even tens of thousands. How far are we prepared to continue with this folly to prove to ourselves that we were in the right all along? And at what point do we realise that perhaps we didn’t get it right, indeed may not be in the right, and that history may not conclude that God was on our side this time?
Who knows what ramifications a truly disastrous defeat in Afghanistan would have for our already shattered faith in the authority that our elected rulers exercise in our name? It did for the Soviet Union; would it do the same for Britain?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for such a catastrophe to occur in my wish for the United Kingdom as presently constituted to unravel. I’d rather we pulled out now while we still have a chance. But the omens are not good.
Gordon Brown says our brave British soldiers are fighting for our national security in Afghanistan. They may also be fighting for the survival of Britain in a sense that Brown does not intend.