One bit of boyish geekiness i suspect i won’t ever lose is a long history of studying matters military. It means i know irritatingly conversation-stopping details about key battles and campaigns…the strategies that worked…and the follies that didn’t. Context. Background. Insight.
It also leaves me, along with most who have ever studied War, with a healthy disrespect for using force and confrontation as a means to solve issues. Mostly, they don’t. They may provide temporary palliative: but longer-term, they are just ways of storing up problems for the future; of putting off the necessary in favour of the spectacular and the feelgood.
War: what is it good for?
That’s one reason why i so dislike it when governments, which ought to know far better, adopt military rhetoric when faced with difficult issues. How goes the War on Drugs? Have we won it yet? Probably not.
Or the War on Terror?
And is anyone still convinced that War in Iraq produced an unashamedly useful result – as opposed to stoking the fires of resentment for the future?
In the end, when it comes to Wars, you need to be pretty sure that you need to fight, that you have no alternative, or that you are able to come down on your enemy with such overwhelming force that a root and branch destruction of all opposition is possible not just now but next year, and the years after that as well.
Mr Cameron goes to War
But, following last week’s riots, pretty much all the language emanating from Downing St, even if it doesn’t employ the W-word, suggests that our PM, at least, sees riots and rioting as tantamount to the action of hostile forces. It therefore makes no sense to talk to the perpetrators. No sense to distinguish between what look increasingly like very different causes in London, Nottingham and Manchester. No sense, in fact, in anything other than driving for complete and total victory.
Not only has Cameron identified an enemy: by his actions and rhetoric, he is busy creating enemies.
I noted this unpleasant turn of mind this week in the tone of debates about “what should be done”. Weird stuff. I’m scarcely a bleeding heart liberal. If anything, i’m something of a stickler for Law and Order but, because of my respect for that, i get all hot and bothered when i see authorities mis-using the Law for political motives.
I’m interested in what may work to prevent a repetition: and classically, that probably involves analysis, information and…heavens!…sitting down and talking to those who don’t quite share government certainty on these matters.
If you play with fire – you’re liable to get burnt
Because otherwise, what i think we are seeing is not a slow sweeping victory for the forces of Right, so much as a vastly increased polarisation, with Cameron’s non-friends developing a much-increased taste for retaliation.
It goes something like this. The initial kickstart to lawlessness was police shooting an individual (Mark Duggan) in circs that require investigation and which might well represent yet another own goal by the police. Strike one for the Liberals.
The subsequent rioting was not justified, and the scale and viciousness of it wound up Middle England something rotten. The forces of reaction struck back, so much so that by mid-week almost nothing was off the agenda.
And now it is the turn of Liberalism again. After suffering a temporary moment of heart-stopping angst, they aren’t buying the reaction. Instead of creating a big tent and bringing in to it all those who might have a useful voice in future debates, Cameron et al, by their rhetoric, by reaching for extreme sentencing, by twisting the law for temporary political ends, have lost the chance to have a truce in which everyone would be on side.
The authorities go too far
As examples of the ludicrous harshness, i’d cite the way in which courts have now jailed individuals for offences such as stealing £3.50 worth of water: or the pompous pontificating way in which various police forces are now seeking to dominate the websphere.
Northumbria, for one, scouring Facebook and arresting individuals for incitement.
And what about Wandsworth? Threatening eviction of a family not for involvement in the riots, but because one of their members has been charged with same.
Result: the Liberal tendency, temporarily stunned by events early in the week, is now finding multiple flags to rally round. Cameron had a chance to create a broad consensual common front – and he blew it.
Worse, if he and his ilk insist on piffle about zero tolerance for law-breaking, he is on very shaky ground indeed. There can scarcely be a progressive poster who is now unaware of his own youthful involvement in the law-breaking and riotous Bullingdon club.
I suspect the documentary makers are circling as i type – and i’d certainly be more than interested in any tales people would like to send me, privately or otherwise, about that period of his history.
There is real and growing anger at the apparent double standards. The differences in treatment between what looks increasingly like lying newspaper management and thieving Members of Parliament on t’one hand…and “rioting scum” on the other.
No. Cameron has a chance to sit, talk, jaw-jaw instead of war-war. He had the chance to build a grand coalition against social unrest.
And i fear he’s blown it, already.