When I was still at primary school in the 1950s, my parents bought me an atlas, probably already slightly out of date, which showed the vast extent of the British Empire – so many faraway lands with unpronounceable names that I had never heard of except via my stamp album, all coloured red. Although I wasn’t even British at that time, I felt proud. But the process of decolonisation was already under way, and through the 1960s and 1970s one country after another left the Empire and joined the Commonwealth.
I particularly remember the independence of Nigeria, in 1960, because there was an advertisement in the newspapers inviting people to submit a national anthem for the new nation. As a budding 13-year-old poet, naturally I banged in an entry. OK, I didn’t know that much about this new country, but I knew how to make things rhyme. And was my youthful arrogance really more reprehensible than that of the former colonial power, which awarded the prize to Lilian Jean Williams, a British expatriate working in the Federal Ministry of Employment and Welfare in Lagos?
It included the lines, “Though tribe and tongue may differ, In brotherhood we stand”, a coy reference to the colonial habit of cobbling together nations from different peoples, which erupted only seven years later in a long and terrible civil war.
In the scrabble for colonies, France acquired control of Syria and Lebanon when the Ottoman Empire was carved up after the First World War, at the same time as Britain was given Palestine and Iraq. In 1946, Syria finally won independence from France, and a succession of coups d’etat followed, until finally in 1970 power was seized by Hafez al-Assad, whose secular and socialist-leaning Ba’athist party ruled with Soviet support, and faced down opposition from the fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, among others. Syria came under the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold war while still retaining some remnants of the French colonial legacy. When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 he was succeeded by his second son, Bashar al-Assad, in an unopposed election.
The terrible bloodbath we are witnessing in Syria now, as well as the stand off between neighbouring Israelis and Palestinians, could be seen as the unravelling of those cobbled-together countries, unfinished business from the process of decolonisation and Cold War rivalry, or just another horrible civil war. France’s former colonial involvement is maybe why Hollande is flapping around threatening airstrikes he can’t deliver – he feels he has to do something (though France under Sarkozy was also keen to get involved in Libya). Putin, too, has a historic alliance to defend, and besides, he’s a guy who likes to show off his muscle.
But why should Britain get involved? Syria was one part of the map that was never coloured red. The only case is on humanitarian grounds. Yes, we’ve all seen those terrible images of gassed children, they are repugnant and our gut reaction is to want to retaliate. These images have not been shown in Russia. Meanwhile, Russian television viewers have been treated to video footage of a Free Syrian Army commander eating the flesh of a vanquished soldier. In other words, neither side is very nice, the hostilities between the warring factions are ancient and complex, but why do we think adding rocketry to this flaming pyre will make things any better? Britain is at its best when holding fire and holding the balance.
Those who hanker for the red-map days must face up to the fact that the world has changed – and in many ways for the better. Even Nigeria has got itself a new national anthem now. By going it alone, or into an exclusive alliance with just France and US, we would be isolating ourselves from the much wider family of nations. The Pope, Ban Ki-moon, Angela Merkel not to mention Russia and China and many individual US senators have spoken against immediate military intervention. Yes, even Madonna. And the American public seems distinctly cool about the idea.
Refraining from sending missiles is not “retreating into isolationism” as William Hague put it, or “sleepwalking into isolationism” in Paddy Ashdown’s words. It is facing up to the new reality of a global politics where influence is exerted more powerfully through trade and diplomacy than through weaponry; where democracy is shown by example, not imposed through the barrel of a tank. And British democracy has shown itself to be robust and confident in representing the will of majority of the people.
If we really want to help the people of Syria, we have an excellent tradition of diplomacy; we can start to open a dialogue with the recently-elected moderate Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani, another historical ally of Syria who has expressed abhorrence at the use of nerve gas – something the Iranians know a thing or two about.
Instead of trading “my xxx is bigger than your xxx” type of insults with Putin – wouldn’t it be more helpful to look for diplomatic common ground? David Cameron, in his reply to Putin’s “little island” jibe, listed a few of Britain’s glories:
* “We helped to clear the European continent of fascism”. Well yes, but the Russians did a bit of that too, didn’t they?
* “We helped to abolish slavery”. True. We also helped to create it.
* “We invented most of the things worth inventing”. Oh, come on, don’t exaggerate. “Including every sport” .... Hold on, I’ll get on to football in a minute.
* "We are responsible for art literature and music". Yes of course. The Russians had no writers, artists or composers of note, did they? It was an embarrassing clash of two ill-informed egos.
If we are keen to make a practical difference in the world, we should give more to support our world class NGOs and charities who are already helping on the ground. We could do more for the refugees. We could even take in a few. Whoops! – bombing foreigners is so much less complicated than bringing them here to our country.
Last Monday, the British Parliament showed that it was confident and mature enough to say No to our American ally and stand away from a precipitate call for military intervention in Syria. Tonight, a cheerful crowd at the Royal Albert Hall will wave flags and sing “Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves!”, as it has done for more than 100 years at the Last Night of the Proms.
Are the two incompatible? No, they are both aspects of the same serious-minded yet fun-loving character, which makes Britain truly great. Look, I’m sorry Paddy Ashdown felt ashamed at the vote in the British parliament, but frankly (and I am British now) I felt proud.
OK, we’ve dealt with the genocide. Now let’s get on to the really important feature of Britain’s declining influence in the world: football. It seems that the Premier League clubs have been buying in so many foreign players, that our home-grown talent does not get a look-in, as a result of which we will soon be unable to field a team capable of winning the World Cup. Now this is a grave matter. Surely a few well-placed cruise missiles would not go amiss?
Marina Lewycka’s novels include ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ and ‘Two Caravans’Reuse content