A single stupid remark by a political leader can suddenly illuminate deep and destructive ignorance about important issues. This has happened to me twice recently, the first time during the confrontation between Britain and the EU about the status of Northern Ireland and the Irish border after Brexit. I saw prominent Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith explaining that the Irish government was hanging tough on negotiations because “the presidential election is coming up”. This caused hilarity in Ireland because there is no presidential election in the offing there. The rest of his analysis of what was happening in Ireland, delivered in a self-confident and patronising tone, was equally ill-informed.
Duncan Smith’s remarks were significant because they showed that the Brexiteers knew as much about Ireland as they did about Samoa. It never figured in their referendum campaign in 2016 and they have not thought much about it since. For all their supposed devotion to British history, they have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the Irish question has been a central preoccupation of modern British governments from 1880 to 1922 and again from 1968 to 2007. Already there were signs that this issue – the cause of the bloodiest and longest guerrilla war in Western Europe since the Second World War – beginning to re-emerge when Theresa May did a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to give her a majority after the general election. She casually abandoned the British government’s neutrality between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, which was essential to its role as a mediator between the two sides.
There is a flippancy about the way in which the Brexiteers saw through branches, both Irish and European, on which Britain is sitting. A striking feature of Duncan Smith’s ill-informed words was not just his ignorance of the facts, but the tell-you-a-thing-or-two-old-boy tone in which they were uttered. A conservative historian, Sir Lewis Namier, once wrote that “strictly logical conclusions based on insufficient data are a deadly danger, especially when pride is taken in the performance.” This is very much the stance of the proponents of Brexit who dispose of uncomfortable facts as if they were so many English archers shooting down French knights at Agincourt.
The dispute with Ireland and the EU appeared to disappear when agreement was reached on moving on from the present phase of Brexit in December. But this only happened because Britain has issued post-dated political cheques to the EU, Irish government and nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland that cannot all be honoured. If Britain does not want a hard border, then it will have to stay within the single market and customs union and vice versa. Presumably, the Brexiteers acclaimed a series of climb-downs because they do not intend to stick to the agreement and want to get to Brexit day on 29 March 2019 without their project going visibly on the rocks. Britain will then be free of the shackles of the EU and able to ignore past promises as it makes its way in the wider world.
But the advocates of Brexit have made extraordinarily little effort to find out what this wider world is like. On the contrary, their view of it is constructed out of gobbets of propaganda and wishful thinking, which make it impossible to have any realistic view of Britain’s real strengths and weaknesses. There is nothing wrong with any nation seeking self-determination or greater control of its future, but the leaders of such a movement owe it to their followers to get their calculations right.
Since I write mostly about the Middle East I am very conspicuous of how British failures there since 2003 have been rooted in a refusal to view the political landscape objectively. This lack of knowledge was crystallized for me recently by a remark by the new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson which does not, at first, look as if it has much to do with Britain’s international status.
He said in an interview that British terrorists should be hunted down and killed on the grounds that “a dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain”. But who does he think decides who is a terrorist in Syria and Iraq? Does he imagine that there is some fair-minded judicial process before “terrorist” suspects are jailed, tortured, shot in the head or tossed off the top of the nearest tall building? His words could be dismissed as a crude bit of bombast by a politician demonstrating that he is tough on terrorists. But what he is really doing is giving license to the lynching of anybody with a British passport or with even the most remote British connections in the vast war zone that stretches from the western frontier of Iran to the Mediterranean and from Turkey to Yemen. There are far more innocent but vulnerable Britons in this area than there are British Isis fighters. Declaring open season on them is cruel and irresponsible.
Possibly Williamson imagines that “terrorists” will be identified and hunted down by British forces in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, but the picture he paints of Britain’s role in these conflicts is exaggerated to the point of fantasy. Such pretensions are the province not just of the Conservative right, but of British politicians and pundits in general. Remember the great debate in Parliament in 2015 about British military intervention in Syria in which Hilary Benn won Tory cheers by comparing British intervention to 1940 and other iconic periods in British history?
This was nonsense: nine months later it emerged that the RAF had carried out just 65 air strikes on the ground in Syria because we had no allies on the ground though David Cameron had claimed that there were as many as 70,000 moderate fighters on our side. This was admitted by General Mark Carleton-Smith, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff who said that in Syria the UK was “marginally engaged, from the air only, across a much less homogenous battlefield, where the identification of the multifaceted parties, agencies and militias is much more difficult to determine.” In other words we can’t tell friend from foe, yet in this chaotic battlefield Gavin Williamson believes that British Isis fighters can be identified and eliminated.
Britain is a minor player in Syria and the major player in Northern Ireland, but makes similar mistakes in both places. This is why the off-the-cuff remarks of senior politicians like Williamson and Iain Duncan Smith are significant. In both cases there is the same unblushing ignorance of the facts. This is compounded by an exaggerated idea of Britain’s real power and influence.
This does not mean that Britain is becoming a failed state. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” as Adam Smith famously pointed out. But nations do fail all the same if they consistently misjudge their place in the world around them.
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