The cautionary tale of post Blair Britain.
100 years ago, a mere nanosecond in the human story, the Westminster parliament was the political centre of the biggest extension of global political power since the Roman Empire. In 1908 the British Empire spanned the planet it was the first truly global exercise of power.
In 2008 British troops are huddled in Basra airbase as the descendants of the fighters to that took on General Haldane’s troops fight it out for control of the Iraqi city. The soldiers of the Queen look on impotently as a Shia on Shia civil war unfolds.
This is packaged for public consumption as “Providing Over watch”. What is interesting is that this ignominious episode has passed almost without comment in the UK, even among the left.
In the North West Frontier the latest episode of the Great Game is being played out. In Helmand Province the great grandsons of the tribesmen who defeated the British Army of Kipling’s day are killing Gordon Brown’s men and women with consummate ease.
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains – And the women come out, to cut up what remains. Then roll to yer rifle, and blow out yer brains And go to yer God like a soldier!” Wrote Rudyard Kipling the Bard of the British Empire.
Now the suicidal bravery is largely displayed by the Afghans detonating themselves as they close with the Infidel. As a young boy in Scotland in the 1960s I read my comics-like all other young lads. It was pre-gameboy and X-box. We played soccer, we scrapped at playtime and we read the Hotspur and the Victor. One character that remains in my memory was an ace British spy “The Wolf of Kabul”. With his sturdy, if not too bright, native sidekick armed with a copper bound cricket bat this James Bond of the Hindu Kush always came through against the villainous rebels.
In Basra the British troops await in the departure lounge of credibility. A US general said in 2007 that the British in Basra had “ been effectively defeated”. Their defeat in Afghanistan is not in doubt. The insurgency, which they are, the targets of have an almost inexhaustible manpower pool in neighbouring Pakistan.
Unlike the Iraq invasion the UN mandated NATO operation in Afghanistan is completely legal within international law. Despite this the contribution of the major NATO powers in Europe (France & Germany) has been lacklustre to say the least.
Kevin Myers in the Irish independent broke the story that the Bundeswehr troops are not allowed, not allowed, to be out on patrol after the hours of darkness. The French, like the Germans remain in the relatively quiet North while the British, the Americans and the Canadians do the heavy lifting in the South.
If Afghanistan becomes a failed state-again-it could well prove the tipping point in Pakistan. A Talibanesque regime in Pakistan with a nuclear arsenal is something that is too horrible to contemplate, but contemplate it we must. India would almost certainly feel compelled to act. That is set of events could be set in train because of the resources currently diverted to Iraq.
We were told that the Baghdad regime was a clear and present danger and a regional WMD threat. The blood and treasure spent on that illegal catastrophic war could well have stabilised Afghanistan. Certainly veterans of the war against the Taliban feel that they were forgotten solders in a largely ignored conflict .
Blair said ,in the weeks after 911 “ Let us re-order this world.” He pitched to his Labour party that the war against the Taliban could also be the war against third world poverty.
Blair will, undoubtedly, be remembered as the Anthony Eden of the early 21st century. His was a foreign adventure that changed the nature of Britain on the home front. Eden’s Suez debacle was, of course, a military success. His error was to act without United Nations AND United States approval. The UK was no longer a world player capable of independent action, even if the action involved smiting a few pesky Arabs. Britain was now, Post Suez, at best a very junior partner in the US imperium.
Blair’s charge to Basrah fully accepted that role, indeed reaffirmed Britain’s filial piety to the US empiure on capital hill. What is different now is that Britain can no longer afford the treasure to augment the blood needed for colonising the Islamic world.
Britain in fighting an insurgency against the Taliban that it might very well lose. At time of writing the Parachute Regiment is suffering an almost daily attrition rate of its men. The Paras are, in terms of line regiments, the very best that the British can throw into any conflict. To say that the Taliban are giving a good account of themselves against the Paras is beyond understatement.
Unlike Northern Ireland the vast majority of the civilian population are not ethnically pro-British. Northern Ireland is the size of Yorkshire with a population similar to that of greater Glasgow. Two thirds of the civilian population identified with the UK state and supported the security forces. Yet it took 20,000 regular British soldiers and 10,000 local security forces twenty-five years to grind down the IRA to a point where it gave up, destroyed its weapons and entered the Northern Ireland political establishment. The situation in Afghanistan could hardly be more different.
Meanwhile in Basrah 4,000 British troops sit in quiet defeat awaiting their departure instructions. The remarkable thing about this is that this defeat has passed almost without comment in Britain even from people who vehemently opposed the war in the first place. When a US general in late 2007 said that the British in Basrah “ had been effectively defeated” it hardly made the inside pages of the quality British papers.
The Al Qaeda threat that was alleged to have existed within Saddam’s Iraq and allegedly enjoyed his protection is definitely there now. Their main target from 911 to 77 is the mass transit systems that allow the Western way of life to continue and flourish. The “opening” of Terminal 5 at Heathrow proved that Britain doesn’t need only to worry about Islamic extremists trying to disrupt the mass transit way of life.
The British can do it to themselves as well. Heathrow airport’s latest building, Terminal 5, launched after almost two decades of planning, $8.5 billion dollars in cost, and 100 million hours in manpower. It is a glass and concrete and steel marvel, the largest free standing building in the UK, with over 10 miles in suitcase moving belts, and was supposed to be a cure for the Airport’s famous congestion by way of massive automation. But on its opening day it just did not work right. There were scenes of travel chaos not witnessed since the bomb plot of 2006 was uncovered. There was a time when Britain erected buildings that wowed the world. What would an Empire Exhibition look like now? The opening day of Terminal Five was a timely reminder that Britannia does not rule the airwaves. It can’t even get a baggage carousel to do what it is supposed to do….
Of course, post 7/7 the Islamic threat to the UK remains a very real one. The attack on Glasgow airport, although happily it was botched, reminded the UK that they were virtually defenceless against suicide attackers. It is perhaps fitting that the hero of the hour at Glasgow Airport was a lowly baggage handler. John Smeaton, crucially, used the “B” word when interviewed after his heroics with the burning would be suicide bomber. This is what Gordon Brown wanted, and needed to hear. A Scot talking about Britishness!
Blair re-inforce Britain’s place in the world as the faithful servant of the US. Empire rise and empires fall. Historians will judge that the US Empire in the early 20th century became fatally entangled in the equivalent of the forests of Germania or the muddy field of the Somme. Iraq and Afghanistan, but above all else Iraq is where the United States of America found the extent of its power.
The great grandfathers of the Pashtuns now killing British Paras in their red berets fought and killed British redcoats. Not only cant Britain afford the treasure of this war but now from the land that produced the Empires toughest troops, Scotland, it appears not willing to play the blood price of such a war.
In today’s Daily Record in Scotland an exclusive story that there are 615 soldiers, the equivalent of an infantry battalion, either AWOL or submitting sick notes for such aliments as “depression”. The story implies that these soldiers are not physically wounded. However they have a medical certificate saying that they cannot perform their duties.
The British Empire did not crumble in a catastrophic defeat. Latter day Huns and vandals didn’t sack London. The first truly global empire is merely sinking beneath the waves of history. The UK is now, more than ever, a vassal state of the US. That it should have hitched its wagon to an empire also passing its zenith is probably Blair’s lasting legacy. However differently he wasn’t history to remember him.
The defeated British troops in Basrah or the dying British soldiers in Afghanistan will not prevent another 7/7 in London. Britain over stretched itself in defeating the threat of Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Since Suez Britain has known its place as a junior partner in the US empire. Now Britain can’t even step up to the plate with the big boys anymore. Blair’s real legacy has yet to be fully revealed.
Could he be the last Prime Minister of a Britain that could even pretend to be “Great”?