This is as true of politics as it is of individuals. For most of this century, the British have been blessed, if that is the word, with clearly identifiable enemies: the Boche, the Nazis, the evil empire in the East as Ronald Reagan characterised the USSR and its satellites. The Russians were never quite such unequivocal hate figures as those provided by pre- 1945 Germany but the Cold War did at least provide plenty of material for films and books, not to mention our sense of national identity.
Since the collapse of the old Eastern bloc, things have not been so simple. Former "enemies" such as Poland and the Czech Republic are now serious contenders to join the EU and even Nato, the alliance that used to be ranged against them. The impact of this realignment on popular culture, and in particular the spy genre, has afforded much innocent amusement to readers who have watched to see what spy writers would make of a world in which the old order of battle, MI-whatever versus the KGB, no longer makes sense.
One result has been the runaway success of a new literary form, the pseudonymous account of undercover military exploits typified by the books of Andy McNab. But the conflicts that provide their setting are faraway, small- scale, and do not pose a direct threat to Britain. For the moment at least we do not have to worry about invasion, missile attacks or the imposition of a foreign ideology. But are we happy with this fortunate state of affairs?
Apparently not. Hardly a day goes by without someone, somewhere, identifying a new threat to our health and well-being. If we can't have the Russians, beef on the bone will do; we are warned daily about the dangers of recreational drugs, green-top milk, unpasteurised cheese, even though the actual risks are infinitesimal. This is a bizarre consequence of peace, a marker of our inability to adjust to a world in which we no longer have obvious scapegoats on which to project our anxieties.
Tony Blair's government lacks any sense of proportion in these matters, behaving like people who are obsessed with germs, endlessly washing their hands to avoid contamination. What a relief it is, then, that Saddam Hussein has obliged our leaders with an opportunity to indulge their malign fantasies on a wider stage. Botulism! Anthrax! World domination! The man will stop at nothing, from launching a nuclear attack on Tunbridge Wells to his fiendish plan to impose a cannibal diet on the world on alternate Thursdays.
All right, I made the last bit up. But the rest of it, you must admit, is frighteningly plausible. Forget that Iraq is a semi-industrialised nation with a defeated army and an infrastructure wrecked by bombing and sanctions. As the British and American governments keep pointing out, this does not mean that its status, as a threat to world peace, has been in any degree undermined. We need our enemies and the Iraqis will do nicely for the moment, thank you.
ON WEDNESDAY evening, at a vigil in Whitehall to oppose the Government's threat to bomb Iraq, I witnessed another kind of over-reaction. The gathering was peaceful, with several hundred people listening intently to speeches from MPs, academics and Iraqi opponents of President Hussein. Some of the demonstrators carried candles which flickered in the dusk, the atmosphere of dignified protest recalling demonstrations during the 1980s against the presence of American cruise missiles at Greenham Common.
Up the road, on the steps of the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, another protest was taking place organised by Women in Black, a group associated with the Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp. I wondered, for a moment, whether someone would set up an urban peace camp at the gates of Downing Street to remind members of the Cabinet that their bellicose stand on Iraq is not universally applauded.
After an hour of speeches in Whitehall, six of the speakers began to negotiate with the officer in charge of the substantial police presence, explaining they wanted to deliver a letter to 10 Downing Street. Terms were agreed and the group, which included three MPs and the playwright Harold Pinter, prepared to cross the road. To my amazement, 10 police officers rushed to surround them, shepherding them towards the gates as though they had been told to escort a group of dangerous prisoners.
Passionately though Tony Benn and George Galloway oppose war with Iraq, they are not terrorists. The fact that Mr Benn, a former Labour minister, now has to visit Downing Street under police escort speaks volumes about Mr Blair's administration and its attitude to dissent. It occurred to me, as I watched this spectacle, that it is less than a year since I voted the present government into office. Unlike some of my friends, I didn't have huge expectations of New Labour at the time. But I certainly didn't imagine I would have to take to the streets in an attempt to persuade it not to bomb people.
THE NEXT day the Government unveiled the prototypes of the human figures it intends to place in the Millennium Dome. An apparently naked woman, 320 feet long and 170 feet high, will gaze down benignly on a crawling infant. This artwork resembles those special offers that fall out of magazines - "this unique ornament can be yours for only pounds 199, payable in 10 easy instalments, certificate of authenticity included" - but what is it supposed to represent?
Not the Madonna, as some people have hazarded, nor even the feminisation of culture in the 1990s. The good news is that the Government has belatedly recognised the value of a marginalised social group and is trying to make amends. Who cares about benefit cuts when you can be an icon? Welcome to the 21st century and its presiding deity, Single Mother and Child.Reuse content