Keep your tin hat and gas mask within reach, Mr Major

Political Commentary
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"ONE is sometimes tempted to wonder," a leader in the Manchester Guardian went in the 1930s, "whether the Greeks really want a stable government." That is what most of us wonder today about the Bosnians, irrespective of whether they are of the Croatian, Muslim or Serbian variety. Nor is it only the inhabitants of that troubled medieval kingdom who are in danger. So are Mr John Major and his colleagues.

The Tory Party is not pacifist but it has always been pacific. David Lloyd George was kicked out of the Coalition premiership by the Conservatives in 1922 principally because of his military adventurism on the Greek side against the Turks. "We cannot alone act as the policemen of the world," said Bonar Law. Lloyd George took the Greek part with such fervour not because of any Hellenism deriving from public school classicism or Byronic romanticism - common among English politicians - but because he thought the Greeks were like the Welsh. He regarded the Orthodox Church as an offshoot of the Baptists.

Today the most ferocious exponents of the use of force against the Serbs are either on the left or in the muddled middle. Few of them possess military experience of any kind. An exception is Mr Paddy Ashdown. Mr Michael Foot fought the last war with conspicuous gallantry from the Evening Standard offices in Shoe Lane, London EC4, but has now shifted his headquarters to the Hampstead hills. Mr Tony Blair resigned from the Fettes cadet force as soon as he could to devote his time to community work.

On the pacific side, Mr Tam Dalyell did his national service as a trooper in the Royal Scots Greys. Mr Tony Benn was an RAF pilot, though he did not see active service. Sir Edward Heath attained the rank of major in the war, was mentioned in dispatches, was awarded the MBE for his exertions and subsequently became a Territorial lieutenant-colonel. It is a fair generalisation to say that the more men have seen of war, the less keen they are to embark on the enterprise. The higher one climbs the hierarchy, the greater the reluctance to set out on military adventures. As Lady Bracknell put it in The Importance of Being Earnest: "The general was always a man of peace, except in his domestic life."

Likewise, the Fleet Street Fusiliers are altogether more ferocious than the Welch variety. Here again the divisions - or, rather, the gradations of ferocity - fall more or less on party lines. There is no regiment more anxious to see active service than Whittam Smith's Finest (first raised in 1986, and subsequently reorganised), unless it be Preston's Paratroops. The Independent and the Guardian are joined by the Daily Express, which always supports whatever it is that the Government is doing, or what it thinks the Government is doing, and by the Times, for goodness knows what reason. But the papers of the Tory heartland, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun, are altogether more doubtful.

The true nature of Wednesday's debate was distorted: first, by the bellicose prejudices of the Fleet Street Fusiliers and, second, by the inclination of the rest of the press to put on a display of solidarity with Mr Major following the capture of the hostages. But Mr Major did not say what everyone reported. He clearly envisaged withdrawal: "I expressly do not wish to see the United Nations protection force withdraw until or unless the risks become wholly unacceptable." Moreover, he denied that any extension of the war was involved: "The protection force is in Bosnia as a humanitarian and peacekeeping force. It is not there to impose peace, and it is not equipped or configured to fight a war."

This is all very well. But it raises the question of what would happen if another attempt were made to take hostages. Sir Edward later legitimately asked how the hostages had allowed themselves to be captured in the first place. In former times to lose one's rifle was a serious offence. Mr Ian Waller, later political correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, then doing his national service, once lost an entire railway train. How much more blameworthy to lose not a rifle or even a train but 33 Royal Welch Fusiliers! But answer from the Government came there none.

Perhaps it was to do with the rules of engagement. Sir Nicholas Bonsor, the baronet who represents Old Toryism and knows a good deal about defence, said: "It is not acceptable to require the troops to surrender if no shots are fired at them, which I believe to be the case at the moment. The rule that is preventing them from firing first if necessary to secure their own safety must be reviewed."

The truth which Sir Nicholas is too polite or too loyal to point out yet is that the troops in Bosnia are in an impossible position: not only because they are barred from defending themselves but also because there is a divided command. It is divided both in the sense that it is split and also in the sense that its constituent parts - the United Nations, Nato and the various national governments - disagree with one another about what they ought to be doing and in what way.

This has been so from the beginning, as the first United Nations commander, the Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie, pointed out forcefully and lucidly on Channel 4 News last Thursday. Indeed, so forceful and so lucid was the general that he succeeded in imposing a period of silence on Ms Tanya Sillem - a feat for which he deserves an award of some kind. Lord Owen, having laid down the burdens of international office, now feels free to say much the same, adding that unless there is an accord by the beginning of winter the troops should be pulled out.

Our politicians cannot afford to be so frank. Certainly Mr Douglas Hurd does not think he can afford it. Only Lord Cranborne, the agreeably raffish leader of the Lords, has had the candour to point out that the situation in the Balkans is not as it was in 1914. In the immediately preceding years, the great powers had parcelled out the countries as surrogates for themselves. And yet, it was a great power of the present day, Germany, which brought about the current crisis by recognising Croatia when there was no need. For Croatia is not a sovereign state in international law. Still less is Bosnia. The criteria for statehood are a government in effective control of a defined piece of territory. Bosnia satisfies none of these.

What has been going on in the former Yugoslavia is a civil war. We have intervened in such conflicts before, with greater or lesser degrees of effectiveness, justification and sense: in Yugoslavia itself, where we backed the Communists; in Greece, where we helped defeat the Communists; and in Malaya, where we did the same. Our interventions in these and other wars do not mean we should intervene in Yugoslavia. A sovereign state is not being invaded, as South Korea was in 1950 or Kuwait in 1990. Nor is Bosnia a Crown colony, as the Falklands were in 1982. Sooner or later the pacific nature of the Conservative Party will reassert itself. Then Mr Major really will have to watch his back.