Back by Popular Demand: Newman, Baddiel and The Whig Interpretation of History.

This will seem incredible, but at least one commentator on Harry’s Please appears to want to read a blog post on this subject rather than on the other alternative I was considering, namely something on the fascist and homo-erotic subtexts to Wilbur Smith novels.  Doing this instead has the advantage of regurgitating some my reading for an upcoming conference presentation and getting me out of having to read any Wilbur Smith novels again.

First of all, what is the Whig Interpretation of History?  The term was first used by Herbert Butterfield his 1933 book, ‘The Whig Interpretation of History’.  Essentially, Butterfield cautioned that historians too frequently failed to examine the past under it’s own terms, and instead imported their own present concerns into their explanations of the past.  In his own words, it involved ‘… the tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’  What Butterfield was referring to was the habit of enormously influential 19th century English historians such as Macaulay or Trevelyan to assume when discussing earlier British history that progress towards 20th century standards of liberalism was desirable and even inevitable.  They wrote as if events and people in the past could be evaluated and judged according to how ‘progressive’ or ‘obstructive’ they were to the application of Whig principles.  These were at the core of the political objectives of the parliamentary ‘Whig’ faction in British politics after the English Civil War, and opposed by the ‘Tory’ faction associated with defending royal power (both ostensibly named by their respective opponents after gangs of Scots and Irish bandits).

Whig principles began in establishing parliamentary supremacy over the arbitary power of the royal prerogative in the constitutional development of Britain from the Glorious Revolution onwards.  They were defended as traditional British political ‘liberties’ throughout the Hannoverian period, and were then extended through the process of parliamentary reform and social improvement from the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832 to the present.

In academic terms, this process can be called ‘teleological determinism’ – selectively determining the importance of historical events by reference to a known conclusion.  I can’t resist observing in passing that that one reviewer for a history journal objected my use of the term on the grounds that they didn’t know what it meant.  See below for a more detailed exploration of that particular dynamic, but related problems in terms of historical inquiry can also be more easily understood in concepts such as ‘anachronism’ or just simple hindsight.  Butterfield’s point was that this led to a process of selection, rationalisation and simplification to form a narrative which hindered a more accurate and complete understanding of the past

My argument against this draws heavily from opaque memories of an undergraduate paper I wrote on this subject more than twenty-five years ago, but I gambling that this should still be sufficient to bluff my way past any social scientists reading this.

Firstly, Butterfield’s remedy for the problem of Whiggism doesn’t work.  This was an immersion in a more detailed investigation of the past, which would thus suspend the reflex to simplify.  To my mind this meant an avoidance of the simplification and generalisation necessary in explanation.  Otherwise anybody expected to discuss the development of Viking kingship in 800-1000 AD would need to master every relevant detail.  Without any yardstick for establishing such relevance being set out by Butterfield, we’d all be too busy researching the construction of clinker-built longships and the interchange of ecclesiastical personel between Denmark and the Danelaw to deliver any responsible summary on a subject as complex and esoteric as Viking kingship.  No simplification means no evaluation, and therefore no useful explanation as a result.

Secondly, everybody can be a Whig.  Butterfield acknowledges the problem is a broader philosophical one, yet appears to ignore the fact such a philosophy of history is almost innate to humankind in our need for historical explanation.  It was therefore practiced by policy-makers at the time as much as by subsequent historians.  In other words, the actions of Whig politicians in the Restoration and Hannoverian periods were influenced by their own adoption of the Whig interpretation of history at the time.  To appropriate a flawed Marxist concept for a minute as an illustration, the invocation of ‘false consciousness’ does little to explain anything when that consciousness and not Marxist theory influences human behaviour.  The heroic efforts of time-travelling Marxist historians using whiteboards and dry-markers to explain to members of the Whig junto why they were really an intermediate stage of temporary bourgeois supremacy between the feudal and communist eras would have been be greeted with justifiable incredulous derision.

That a historian might decide that Whiggish teleological determinism is unacceptable becomes an ahistoric or anachronistic judgement itself when such Whigs saw themselves as operating in the light of progress towards a particular Whiggish conclusion.  The irony is that the labels of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ swiftly became increasingly malleable during the 18th century on these grounds.  Bolingbroke, an early 18th century Tory who made the journey to full-on Jacobite before re-ratting back to moderate Tory, understood this when he tried to construct a moderate Toryism which could undercut the Whig supremacy of Walpole in the House of Commons by accepting key Whig achievements in the 1688 constitutional settlement.  This was even more pronounced in the fact that ostensible Arch-Tories such as Lord North and even George III could be rationally understood to be operating within, rather than challenging, the original Whig settlement of parliamentary supremacy over the monarchy.  Although that concept could prove understandably difficult for some Whigs – from Burke to Jefferson – to understand at the time.

In their case the Whig context they operated within might be a lot more restrictive than the social and political circumstances a liberal 20th-century historian would find themselves inhabiting, but it was real enough.  Such understandings were extended into the 20th century, as Churchill’s decision-making during the Second World War was clearly influenced, or at least informed, by his own Whiggish historical understanding.

Building on the preceding point, the acceptance of a Whig understanding of history could even be seen to extend into the historical understanding of contemporary Tories.  Notable examples would be the great flagships of Whig history such as the passage of the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholic Emancipation, and the Great Reform Act of 1832.  In all three instances (the first two extending suffrage and civil office-holding to dissenters and catholics, the last to reform representation in the House of Commons by eliminating corrupt pocket constituencies used for patronage and parliamentary influence by major landowners) the measures involved demanded some acceptance of their necessity by the Tory establishment.  Indeed, in the first two cases the measures were actually passed by a reactionary Tory government.  This acceptance varied from the principled moderation of people like Huskisson to the despairing tactical retreat in the face of radical demands for reform of Peel and even Wellington, but the key point is that even the Tories, in the form of their comprehension of the need to manage an otherwise unstoppable tide of mass popular resentment, didn’t just understand the Whig constitutional settlement of 1688 to be an end in itself (as Lord North or George III did), they also perceived a Whiggish progression at work in events which they needed to get on the right side of.  Even when they passionately disagreeed with it, they saw the necessity of acting in a context defined by the Whig Interpretation of History.

Finally, there is the Spinal Tap dimension to the defence of the Whig Interpretation of History:  ‘What’s Wrong with Being Sexy?’  Or, in this case, ‘What’s wrong with being a Whig?’  Frankly, Whiggism has has a much higher value on a Benthamite utilitarian scale than most other political ideologies, and it is a matter of material benefit to all that we don’t live in a Jacobite divine-right monarchy or that Whig principles in general have become the dominant if unarticulated force in British social and political life.  This is evaluation itself, like Whiggism, can be called subjective, but it remains objectively true according to any reasonable external utilitarian measure.  Progress towards liberal ideals may not be inevitable given the reaction of human agencies against it, but there are reasonable, rational and understandable reasons why the majority of people accept and support it – not just as a current state, but as an ideal to work towards which provides criteria to judge the success of policies in the present.  Whiggism in constitutional history and political culture in general did finally succeed, and it is not in itself ahistorical to seek to explain how it did so, provided a rigorous historical methodology is adopted to do so.  Even the freedom to critique Whiggism is, in the end, a necessary product of the triumph of Whig history.

Butterfield’s book was influential, but was ultimately eclipsed by more rounded yet tedious works by G.R. Elton and E. H. Carr even before the social scientists were let out of their cages and the plagues of Marxists and Post-Modernists were unleashed on the philosophy of historical inquiry in the sixties and seventies.  But Butterfield’s work ultimately fulfilled a more important purpose than simply challenging the existing philosophical basis of contemporary historiography in the thirties.  I refer, of course, to the essential dimension of internecine, ego-driven and puerile conflict conducted by academic historians against one another.  In this case, Butterfield’s principal contemporary target was Louis Namier’s British parliamentary history, and Butterfield’s book can be seen as a waspish and lightweight polemic aimed at Namier and his thesis; or in Butterfield’s words, historians who ape the ‘top hat and and pontifical manner’ of nineteenth-century gentlemen.  To gain an idea of the intellectual gravitas involved in such exchanges, I refer the reader to the rigorous academic discourses contained in Newman and Baddiel’s classic ‘History Today’ sketches.

Baddiel:        I was reading an interesting piece the other day…

Newman:     No you weren’t. You can’t read, and you can’t afford a book.

Baddiel:     Well, actually it was a piece by yourself. A rather fine piece in the Historical Inquirer. I was very impressed by it.

Newman:     Oh? Were you? Thank you.

Baddiel:     I was particularly moved by the section on page 35 about the advancement of Scottish Radicalism. I’d like to read from it if I may.

Newman:     I’d be honoured.

Baddiel:     {makes nonsensical noises like Donald Duck etc} Your best work I fear.

The Limits of Nationalist Bigotry

Growing up in rural north-east Scotland in the 1970s taught me a lot about nationalist bigotry.  The first thing it taught me is that it didn’t matter where I came from, or what I considered my national identity to be.  Although I considered myself to be British, this was not permitted as a response to questions about my national identity in the playground.  Instead, the English accent originally inherited from my parents and the fact that they were English made me English.  Whether I considered myself to be English or not.  As it happens, my family all considered themselves British, but this was not a permitted response to the interrogation.  It quickly became apparent that you could only be English, or Scottish.  And if they didn’t consider you to be Scottish according to the normal ‘blood and soil’ tests of national identity (where you were born, where your parents were born), you were a foreigner.  And if they regarded you as ‘English’, according to the same standards (as I was, despite being born in Asia), you immediately inherited the mantle of the ancient enemy in a competitive nationalist folklore defined by conflict between the virtuous Scots who were always fighting the perfidious English – Bannockburn in 1314, Culloden in 1746, etc, etc, ad nauseam.

In some respects this wasn’t an exceptional experience.  I grew up in a rural area being transformed by immigration related to the North Sea oil boom, and some of this resentment was fuelled by economic frictions.  These were triggered by an influx of relatively affulent external population into a conservative rural environment, and as a result points of contention such as increased house prices or a sense of displacement from tradtional norms would have been present regardless of nationalism.  What made this exceptional from my admittedly subjective experience, was the level of venom and vitriol involved and the pervasive nature of the problem.  The nationalist bigotry I (and other members of my family) experienced amounted to good-natured ribbing, grumbling comment, insult, outright verbal abuse and on more than one occasion, physical assault.  Being targeted as a result of nationalist labelling which I had no control over was distressing enough.  But what really determined my visceral hatred of it was the manner in which it was tolerated and accepted by otherwise decent people.

The most obvious example of this was being told that somehow it either wasn’t happening, or if it did we were exaggerating it, or even if we weren’t  exaggerating we must have somehow deserved it as a consequence of our own behaviour.  It took a while for me to realise the sense of denial involved in this ‘blaming the victim’ dynamic – as a small child exposed to this you really do question whether you are experiencing anything remarkable, wrong or undeserved when even the family doctor and otherwise friendly neighbours believe it’s nothing to complain about.  Later I understood that it’s a fairly classic experience for anybody undergoing such prejudice even if my experience wasn’t on the same scale as other people’s experience of  racial or sexual abuse.  The critical point was that I soon realised that this denial, practised by otherwise responsible and decent people, was a cultural and not an individual phenomenon.

The extent to which this relied upon history, or a justification constructed upon a certain historical interpretation, was one of the main motivators for me to become interested in history, an interest that (much later) culminated in me becoming a historian.  That interest allowed me to go to unversity, while my experience led me to try and go to the university furthest away from where I grew up as humanly possible within the UK.  Another relative took this a stage further and emigrated after making it clear that he would never live in Scotland again – a view he holds to this day.  Although I had plenty of good experiences as a child, and valued both the countryside and the friends I made in the North East, my first-hand experience of nationalist bigotry there was a formative one which was only confirmed by my (limited) personal experience of Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineties.  I could see in those places the logical outcome of the attitudes I had experienced, and I didn’t (and don’t) want that for Scotland.  That might sound excessive, but I’m old enough to remember Alex Salmond speaking at SNP conferences using language about ‘British occupation’ lifted straight from the Sinn Fein speechwriter’s textbook.

Friends and colleagues involved in the ‘Yes’ campaign assure me that that sort of negative nationalism is long in the past.  I believe they don’t share it, but they never seem to consider that my British national identity does not depend upon rejection of any other national identity – even if it has identified the Irish, French and Germans as the ‘other’ it defined itself against in the past – whereas theirs does.  The grounds for that are almost always a distorted reading of history which ignores the historical context of the time.  Bannockburn certainly ensured that Scotland avoided the absorbsion into medieval England experienced by Wales, but either way the country was run by, and for, an Anglo-Norman aristocratic elite.  Culloden certainly involved the massacres of Clansmen by British soldiers celebrated by nationalist belief, but all it decided was whether an Italian Catholic dilettante or a German Protestant curmudgeon sat on the throne.  Reading modern concepts of nationality, and nationalist competition, into history is an abuse of the past to service the politics of the present; an abuse which, more quickly than people might suspect, often ends up in legitimising violence.  When I heard Bosnian Serb farmers explaining why their Bosniac Muslim neighbours were deceitful supremacists who had historically repressed the Serb majority, despite the fact that those neighbours had always been friendly and helpful to them as individuals, I could hear the voices of my childhood explaining why being called ‘English pig’ was nothing to take offence over, or why Scottish independence was the only way to end historical repression by the English like me.  Or the voices of Irish farmers, explaining why the local criminal godfathers ordering locals at gunpoint to drive diggers loaded with explosives into vehicle checkpoints to blow themselves and British soldiers to pieces was a regrettable but inevitable outcome of eight hundred years of oppression by the British like me.

But if the past holds no veto over the present in my view, the referendum campaign in the present demands something more from independence than the indulgence of nationalist mythology.  An independent Scotland requires more than a warm and fuzzy glow of self-righteous nationalist vindictation to succeed, and this is the area where, in my opinion, Scottish nationalism fails as a practical proposition.  I don’t have any particular interest in the economic arguments as it happens.  The golden goose of North Sea oil and the Barnett formula have long been used as sticks by both sides in this debate but national identity is, ultimately, an irrational construct.  Frankly, I do most nationalists the justice of assuming that they would be prepared to pay higher taxes to achieve their goal no matter what revenue and independent Scotland receives from oil, and in return I believe my British national identity has significantly more going for it than simply bribing a sullen and resentful Scots minority to stay on board by means of a south-north flow of capital within the UK.  But it does puzzle me that an ideology and political campaign built upon secession from Britain has to cling to such British totems as the pound sterling and the Queen.  In the case of the pound, the ‘Yes’ campaign appear outraged by the fact that independence works in both directions, and in that event the Rest of the UK will be able to say ‘No’ to currency union.  Still waiting to hear about Plan B on that one, I think.  And, if they do say ‘Yes’ to currency union, you can’t claim any meaningful level of independence from the hated Westminster when if your financial policy is determined by the Bank of England.

What this means to me is that the ‘Yes’ campaign are arguing not for independence, but psuedo-independence; ‘The flag over the town hall will change, but everything will stay pretty much the same.  Except for being better, obviously’.  This is an argument which strangely lacks the confidence relentlessly projected by the ‘Yes’ campaigners.  Maybe they dimly perceive the limits to which a political ideology ultimately based on nationalist bigotry can take a country.

In the meantime, and as a result of my formative childhood experiences, I will not only take great pleasure in voting ‘No’ in September, I will also continue to enjoy being both British and Scottish to annoy Scottish, English and Irish nationalist bigots.

Back from the Dead with Blair

Just like Tony Blair, I’m back from a lengthy absence due to external commitments just as further controversy explodes – this time over the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq.  Well, actually, the controversy isn’t really about that and is, as usual, about debating the merits of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Actually, it isn’t really a debate about that either, as the ‘illegality’, immorality and catastrophic consequences of the 2003 invasion are now firmly fixed in popular belief.  So instead of a debate about what should be done to deal with events in 2014, we are faced with yet another round of public demands for a show trial followed by tearful admission of guilt for crimes against the people by a contrite Blair.  It’s just so annoying for some that he seems to be unwilling to follow the script.

The problem with all this is is evident in the media expectations associated with the Chilcott inquiry.  Either it will exculpate Blair, in which case it will be a ‘whitewash’, or it will reveal the ‘truth’ which of course has already been determined by the commentariat to be that Blair is a war criminal responsible for kowtowing to the most unpopular reactionary simpleton of a US President in history, and committing Britain to the greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez on the basis of self-evident lies.

This of course is precisely the course followed by commentary on the previous five (or is it six?) inquiries into the decision to invade.  The fact that this represents an assumptive judgement and excludes any evidence-based examination of that judgement goes without question.  But then we all prefer to have our prejudices confirmed rather than challenged.

Encouragingly, Blair’s essay on the current Iraq crisis and his appearance on the Andrew Marr show at the weekend show no sign of capitulation to the dogma of what John Rentoul accurately refers to as ‘Blair-rage’, but there is little sign of the media letting their favourite bone go.  Here’s how Blair saw the same issue within the context of the media pressing for ministerial resignations in his first term:

When they have decided to go for someone, they start with the story.  That story may or may not be true, but it is then embellished.  If resistance is met, they just up the pressure until the frenzy is the journalists’ equivalent of the screaming abdabs.  If resistance continues, they basically say: right, we will continue running this story until the person resigns.

Or, in this case, confesses their guilt and throws themself on the mercy of the braying mob.  Although this would certainly satisfy a real public desire for vengeance against the villain of the received wisdom, it also means we’re denied any sensible examination of the policy options as the Pavlovian exploitation of the Iraq dogma crowds out objective debate.  See the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ at any time between 2003 and now for examples.  This might have been understandable ten years ago, but it is painfully self-indulgent now and leads to a policy void when dealing with current events that demand a response now.

That void might have been addressable but for Cameron’s failure to properly study the Blair handbook on political manipulation; understanding only the facile attractiveness of soundbite politics and the doomed need to de-nastify the Tories at a time of increasing Euroscepticism amongst his core constituency, he missed the necessity of preparing the ground for taking unpopular and hard decisions, such as that over the use of force in national interest.  Hence his Libyan intervention policy, opting for low-risk air strikes for a low return in local political influence to assist the construction of a functioning Libyan state; or even more pertinently his failed approach to Parliament to approve intervention in Syria.

And that’s the key issue for us now.  The ISIS invasion of Iraq is a product of Syrian non-intervention, a non-intervention which ignored the successful results of Anglo-American intervention on behalf of the Kurds in 1991 in favour of an erroneous received wisdom about 2003.  ISIS have certainly been able to capitalise on Sunni alienation from an Iraqi government dominated by Shia sectarianism in a post-Saddam Iraq.  But that sectarianism is a failure of democratically elected Iraqi politicians pandering to Shia majoritarianism, and not a failure of western agency since the US withdrawal in 2011.  Meanwhile, as Blair points out, Assad continues to give us an objective lesson in what happens after the Arab spring meets a B’aathist dictator whom the west flinches from deposing.

On that subject, has abybody seen the Syrian Body Count website to quantify the cost of our policy there?  Or doesn’t that meet the criteria required for us to feel good about our non-interventionism in the same manner as the Iraq Body Count website relentlessly and justifiably quantified the cost of intervention in Iraq?

I don’t have any problem acknowledging that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or more correctly, post-invasion policy) inflamed ethnic and sectarian conflict within Iraq to near-catastrophic levels; I do wish the peddlers of the received wisdom could reciprocate by acknowledging the similar consequences of non-intervention in Iraq under Saddam and now in Syria.  Finally accepting that there is no ‘smoking gun’ to prove their favourite thesis of Blairite mendacity would also be helpful when confronting events unfolding seven years after Blair’s departure from No.10 Downing street.  Endless re-runs of the hysteria surrounding the failure of the Hutton inquiry and every inquiry since to confirm their prejudices just doesn’t cut it.

Humanitarian Intervention, National Interest and the Realist Argument in Favour of Intervention in Syria.

Much of the debate surrounding the western approach to supporting the Syrian rebels has centred around the apparent conflict between intervention for humanitarian purposes and serving national interest.  A key illustration of this has been the presence of fundamentalist islamist terrorism in the Syrian rebels.  The argument usually given being that the presence of takfiri or salafist islamists fighting on the rebel side presents clear dangers to western interests if they succeed in gaining western-supplied arms, and particularly if they were to succeed.  To me, this seems to involve a series of mistaken premises taken from a selective view of prior historical experience which can be reduced to two key issues.  Firstly, an unarticulated but nonetheless perceptible linkage with the ‘blowback’ thesis in Afghanistan concerning the supply of arms, and secondly, a post-Iraq fear that western military intervention will only serve to risk western lives, resources and reputation to develop a quagmire where western forces cannot achieve western objectives such as the creation of a unitary, secular and democratic Syria and which instead will only secure an islamist state.

Taking the first point first, the problem with the ‘blowback’ thesis is that it is largely untrue.  While the CIA supplied various factions in the Afghan mujahadeen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89, the CIA did not supply al-Queda as popular belief sometimes holds.  The reality is that Pakistani agency, firstly in the form of General Zia’s military government in the seventies and then the ISI in the eighties played a far more significant role in developing and supporting islamist terrorism first in Kashmir and then subsequently by backing the Taliban in Afghanistan (with disastrous results for Pakistan, it has to be said).  In any case, the key period for Afghanistan’s development into a safe haven for al Queda took place after 1989, when the Taliban fought and won a civil war against other elements in the mujahadeen to take control of the Afghan state after the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime.  That took place in a decade where the west washed its hands of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.  That outcome in turn emphasises how western inaction can produce a result clearly inimical to western interests.  It would be true to say that there is no guarantee that any form of western intervention in Afghanistan in the 1990s would have produced a better result, but the point here is that inaction driven by understandable caution and a reasonable unwillingness to take the risks associated with intervention can have a detrimental outcome for western security interests.

The second point can be broken down into two parts; the apparent conflict between humanitarian intervention and national interest, and the practical problems of successfully backing local forces involved in a civil war to achieve a pro-western outcome.  Taking the larger point first, this conflict between the ethical imperatives for intervention and the ‘realist’ concern with national interest is contingent upon the determination of national interest.  As Blair pointed out in his 1999 Chicago speech which is often taken as the definition of a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, humanitarian intervention serves a broad definition of national interest.  In Blair’s case, and despite the contemporary hyperbole and hysteria, the outcome of British interventions in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have served British national interest in terms of replacing regimes hostile to Britain or British interests with regimes which are more amenable to British interest.  A government which respects democracy and human rights (no matter how imperfectly) is a better prospect for achieving British objectives (both strategic and economic) than one which does not.

Furthermore, as the division of the world during the Cold War indicates, governments which believe western and British interests to be hostile to themselves will often seek powerful external allies for their own security, thus making a hostile local regime a regional or even international threat.  They may also attempt to challenge western interests by low-intensity or asymmetric military confrontation.  The examples of the North Korean dependence upon China springs to mind, as does the alliance between the B’aathist regime in Syria and Russia on the first count, while the history of Syrian support for anti-western terrorism provides significant evidence on the second.  And before the ‘realists’ go into a frenzy over the apparently endless commitment to regime change this indicates, the Chicago doctrine takes account of external reality; as Blair has repeatedly observed, neither he nor anybody else argued for intervention in places like Zimbabwe because it was clearly politically and therefore militarily impractical.

Ultimately replacing these regimes with less hostile ones is an outcome of clear relevance to western security and economic interests.  At a basic level the ethical and the strategic arguments are in fact interdependent rather than necessarily conflicting.  This is something statesmen have perceived ever since Chamberlain made the security guarantee to Poland in 1939.  The outcome of that can (and often is) derided by realists, or people pretending to adopt a realist argument to camouflage their distinct political objections, when they bemoan the loss of British imperial power and the Stalinist domination of eastern Europe which followed the Second World War.  In fact curbing Nazi expansionist aggression, defending British independence against a genocidal fascist regime and then removing that Nazi regime by force were all clearly in vital British interest and – in contrast to Cold War fantasies of ‘rolling back’ the iron curtain in distinction to the collective defence of western Europe – were achievable by British agency in concert with allies.

So much for the conflict between humanitarian intervention and national interest.  Next for the factional argument.  It’s certainly true that islamist terrorists are present amongst the Syrian rebels, but while some involvement for Sunni extremists fighting against a secular Alawite-dominated regime was inevitable on an opportunist level, the extent to which those groupings represent the broader mass of Syrian rebels and the extent to which they will succeed in imposing their ideology on the rest are, in part, contingent upon western intervention.  As the deposition of the Morsi government in Egypt by a military coup with popular support indicates, islamist groupings cannot take majority popular support for granted.

Their success in Syria is contingent upon western inactivity, as similar reluctance to intervene in Bosnia in the nineties has often been cited by islamists as an example of western indifference or hostility towards a Muslim population under threat from a Christian Serbian regime.  Of course that assumption involves the distortion typical of an extremist grouping viewing the world through their particular ideological prism, but the enduring nature of the canard indicates that it clearly retains some traction.  A Syrian parallel will prove even more substantial and more problematic.

Backing the right horse in Syria is going to be difficult, or perhaps impossible given the factionalism and infighting prevalent amongst the rebel groupings.  However, the absence of a guaranteed optimal outcome is insufficient to justify inaction.  Action can be taken to improve the prospects of a less detrimental outcome by taking account of the competitive context of rebel politics and actively shaping them into a more cohesive pro-western position by selective intervention.

The refusal to intervene on the account of rebel factionalism does not mean other agencies will likewise refrain from intervention.  As the participation of Hezbollah and islamist terrorists indicates, those agencies will intervene, and certainly not to seek a pro-western outcome.  Meanwhile western intervention cedes the local initiative and the influence which will flow from that to them.  As any realist should acknowledge, whatever the political and ideological issues originally motivating the Syrian rebels, a refusal to supply arms in western interests means that the polarisation driven by the Hobbesian dynamics of naked military power and survival involved in a civil war will still take place.  Only not to western benefit.  The absence of credible western military support will drive any potential pro-western constituency such as secular democrats into either the arms of islamist terrorists (to help defend them against the Syrian government) or the Syrian government (to defend themselves against islamist terrorists).  The presence of such support will make many individuals and factions find secular democracy suddenly a lot more relevant and even attractive.

If we want a third option in this struggle for power, we have to provide it, no matter what the difficulties.  Otherwise we are faced with the stark reality that any likely outcome will be inimical to western interests.  If the Assad regime wins, it is unlikely to rethink its hostile attitude towards the west, and the pre-rebellion policies of facilitating Hezbollah and other terrorist groupings are likely to be intensified, with significant regional repercussions.  If the Assad regime loses, the eventual victors are unlikely to feel any gratitude towards a west which refused to help them regardless of the moral pleading used to justify that inaction.  In the worst case scenarios, either a pro-islamist government takes power or the country dissolves into anarchy, with seriously detrimental outcomes for regional stability and western security.  Those negative outcomes will not be ameliorated by repeated declarations of the intent behind the policies of non-intervention justified by specious claims to serve western security.  Such assertions will have just been falsified.

There is no guarantee that western intervention in the form of substantive arms supply will secure a peaceful, secular and democratic Syria, but it would at least serve to help prevent worse outcomes.  Western intervention in other forms increases the cost involved, both in real terms and in terms of political capital, but it also increases the prospects for a less dire outcome for western interests.  There may be no domestic appetite for substantial western military intervention, and indeed in terms of large numbers of conventional troops on the ground this would probably be counter-productive by triggering a larger anti-western defensive response inside and outside Syria.  If the western public is suspicious of the costs and outcomes of intervention, this is entirely reasonable, but it remains a suspicion unchallenged by any analysis of the rationale for intervening, and the likely prospects of not doing so.

A more limited intervention is nonetheless both politically possible and practically significant.  It has the potential to help shape the politics of the Syrian rebels in a manner which an outright refusal to engage simply abnegates.  The deployment of western special forces with extensive air support (from NATO bases in Turkey and US naval forces in the Mediterranean) could serve a multitude of functions; simply supplying and monitoring the use of weapons as well as training and directing rebel forces could prove decisive in both strengthening the position of the selected rebel groupings politically and by military success on the ground by countering the Syrian regime’s heavy weapons, air power and armour.

This is where the example of Iraqi Kurdistan provides a useful basic parallel.  To be certain, there are substantive differences between Kurdistan and Syria, notably the ethnic consistency and the prior degree of political autonomy achieved there before 1991.  But the creation of a Kurdish statelet after the 1991 Gulf War, de facto independent of Iraq, was contingent upon western military intervention both in terms of air power deployed to enforce the northern ‘no fly zone’ and an initial western military deployment (by the US and Britain) on the ground to protect Kurdish ‘safe havens’ in 1991.  Furthermore, the reality of Kurdish politics both before and after 1991 was one fraught with incipient and outright civil war between different factions, notably the PUK and KDP.  Both of those parties either were, or contained, significant Marxist-Leninist constituencies and received support from the Soviet Union.  Any Cold War reading of their ideology would have identified them as inimical to western interests.  Yet by the 1990s, the US was dealing with them as allies and providing them with security guarantees against Iraqi attack.  The ultimate outcome of a policy which, at least in 1991, was ostensibly purely humanitarian, and which remained dogged by political, ethnic, tribal, personal and ideological factionalism was to achieve a pro-western enclave in Iraq which was strategically-significant for western military operations in 2003 and which remains, despite the lingering intensity of those tensions, a favourable contrast to much of surrounding states in the region.

Obviously, there are clear difficulties with adoption of this parallel in Syria, and not least in the whole issue of ethnic and regional separatism.  This would be particularly significant if it involved the Kurdish minority in Syria given the importance of Turkish cooperation with any western intervention in Syria, and the lasting Turkish suspicions of Kurdish separatism within their own national borders.  Nonetheless, Iraqi Kurdistan gives a useful example of how ethnic and political tensions can be managed to allow humanitarian intervention to service ethical and, eventually, realist strategic goals.  It even provides a useful example of how the local salafist terrorist grouping, Ansar al-Islam, can be marginalised by western forces acting with the support of a local pro-western regime.

The outcome in Kurdistan absent western intervention was unlikely to have been this useful to western interests.  There is no prospect of an easily-secured similar beneficial outcome in Syria.  But that outcome still matters to western security interests, and the west should act accordingly.

Inaction will ensure that whatever outcome does eventually arrive, it will be achieved by agencies hostile to those interests with serious regional and international implications.  Ultimately, there always has been a realist argument for humanitarian intervention.  This was explicitly acknowledged in the most influential statement of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, even if it has been repeatedly ignored by many of those making ostensibly ‘realist’ critiques of the doctrine ever since.  This is a problem people making facile reference to realist arguments against humanitarian intervention need to acknowledge.  Otherwise they should have the honesty to admit that their arguments are not, in fact, realist at all and instead serve a rather different political purpose.

The Path of Least Resistance Human Rights Activism

I’m not a particularly regular visitor to what is nauseatingly referred to as ‘the blogosphere’, but one of my irregular haunts is Harry’s Place.  There is some amusement to be found baiting the the more lunatic right-wing maniacs inhabiting comments, but it also hosts a number of posts from commentators from what might be called the more thoughtful pro-interventionist left (for want of a better term; I realise many of their critics will prefer more measured terminology such as ‘bloodstained criminal apologists for the Bu$h-Bliar Axis of Zionist-Crusader imperialist aggression’).  One of ‘these’, in the sense that is questions received leftie wisdom rather than advocating inteventionism per se,  is a recent post by Sackcloth and Ashes.  This raises the issue of selective human rights activism – in this case the attempt by Edward Snowden to claim asylum in Russia, a country noted for brutal repression and murder of political dissidents.

On the face of it, this is clear hypocrisy.  Well, not just on the face of it.  But it indicates a core rationale which remains unspoken but is, in my opinion, at the heart of why human rights activists often display a clear preference for scrutinising and attacking western liberal governments in particular.

I should make it clear that I’m not claiming that human rights activists do nothing but attack western liberal governments, or that the conduct of western liberal governments does not warrant their scrutiny.  What I am discussing is something which I came across as a young man in the military and which I felt demanded some kind of explanation, namely the corrosive cynicism expressed by all ranks in an infantry unit to human rights activists and lawyers infrequently encountered in Northern Ireland.  I asked about this, only to be told by one NCO that such people had no interest in the human rights of soldiers, local policemen or even civilians murdered by local paramilitaries.  However, they had a great and abiding interest in potential human rights violations alleged against the security forces.  The explanation for this, he believed, came down to two fundamental reasons.

Firstly, a settlement made against a government agency promised big money payouts, while expenses could often be covered by government benefits (such as legal aid).  A claim pursued against an illegal paramilitary organisation had no such prospect of cash reward, despite the incongruous fact that most of the high-profile IRA members thereabouts seemed to own quite successful small businesses and farms which received significant amounts of money from local and central government grants (never mind illegal smuggling operations) while some demonstrated their implaccable opposition to the rule of the British state by accepting welfare benefit from that same state.  As a side note, please don’t assume that I am asserting that loyalist paramilitaries were believed to be any better.

Secondly, pursuing the British government for a compensation settlement involved no greater risk than turning up to interview civil servants or the police in office accomodation or, if the worst came to the worst, in court.  Pursuing paramilitaries for similar settlements risked a beating, a kneecapping, a bomb under the car or a bullet in the head.

Therefore, I was told, human rights activists adopted an unspoken but nonetheless obvious cost/benefit analysis when pursuing cases, the outcome of which was that universal human rights were not in fact universal, but heavily discounted if your human rights were violated by an agency which it was just too inconvenient or risky to pursue.

I wasn’t entirely sure about this at the time, but as time has passed I believe this offers a contributory explanation as to why a British soldier or local civilian murdered by terrorists counted for less with human rights activists than a civilian whose human rights were violated by state agencies.

This is not to say that the treatment of victims of Bloody Sunday, for example, was justified or excusable, or that the manner of their killings or the manner in which the state sought to avoid the truth until the Savile inquiry can be justified.  It is merely to observe that every victim deserved the same level of attention from human rights activists; something that anybody in my unit at least believed was disproved by their direct experience.  I have met several so-called ‘human rights activists’ in my time.  All impressed me with their sincerity, but few had made any efforts to challenge human rights abuses anywhere but against the agents of the state in a western liberal democracy.

What this meant in practice was that the vast majority of the murders which characterised the Northern Ireland conflict were almost ignored beside the minority attributable to state agency.  This dangerously distorted the nature of the conflict and did a genuine disservice to victims of human rights abuses who had the misfortune to suffer at the hands of other agencies.  Agencies which just weren’t as convenient for activists to bother themselves about.

A variation on this theme can be extended to agencies like Wikileaks.  Putting to one side for a minute the egocentric Assange extradition issue, it remains a fact that projects like Wikileaks are governed by their access to material.  Leakers and whistleblowers who provide this material tend to be harder to find in repressive and closed societies to start with.

That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be cultivated.  But if they are, it will be by the CIA, while Wikileaks and the like confine themselves to castigating the CIA because it’s just a hell of a lot easier and less dangerous.  This selective treatment means that repressive regimes get what amounts to preferential selective treatment over western liberal democracies when it comes to the abuse of human rights which are supposedly universal.

Ed Miliband and Tony Blair vs nonentities, fanatics, cranks and extremists

I’ve been thinking a little about Blair and Miliband as Labour Party leaders, particularly as self-described ‘Blairite ultra’ John Rentoul has just published a second edition of his biography of Blair with a post-2001 afterward (extract available here).  What strikes me is that Rentoul (who is by no means entirely uncritical of Blair) has to resort to self-parody when dealing with the most successful Labour Prime Minister since Clement Atlee in policy and achievement terms; and since, well.. nobody else in terms of his electoral success.

The subject of Tony Blair really serves to indicate why I originally chose to post anonymously, given that it’s a guaranteed provocation much like the Second Amendment or Right to Life ‘debates’ in the United States, in as much as it doesn’t provoke debate (in the sense of an exchange of views with the potential for establishing common ground for possible mutual agreement) but rather provokes litanies of received truth which can never accept modification or even admit the legitimacy of alternative points of view.

The negative positioning of Blair has largely been established by a popular narrative of ‘lies’ over Iraq, the ‘privatisation of the health service’, the adoption of centrally-controlled targets in the NHS, the introduction of student fees, etc, etc. Much of this I regard as willfully mistaken, and even delusional, but that’s not the point I wanted to deal with here.  Aside from the ‘presidential style of premiership’ which is usually peddled by right-wing commentators, what strikes me about this narrative is how far it has been originated and shaped by left-wing commentators and notably within the Labour party itself.

This only serves as a reminder that the ‘New Labour’ project was never fully accepted by many in the Labour party, even after the humilating electoral defeats of 1987 and 1992 which made New Labour a practical necessity and gave Blair his authority before disillusionment set in.  The lack of understanding and, ultimately, support for New Labour policies within the party lead to the post-Iraq adversarial positioning of Gordon Brown as ‘authentic Labour’ to gain legitimacy for the putsch which eventually toppled Blair, and the positioning of Ed Miliband as less ‘Blairite’, in terms of message and use of ‘old labour’ union support, than his brother David in the post-Brown leadership contest.

But the conflict between moving Labour away from the left and towards the centre in policy terms (a.k.a. ‘making the party electable’) was never a unique feature of the New Labour era, and in many respects goes back to the Gaitskill/Bevan and Healey/Benn struggles of the sixties and seventies.  Those struggles, just like the Blair/anti-Blair tensions decades later, hinged around a Labour party which sought to establish legitimacy internally, from selective group of Labour activists or major union leaders, and one which sought external legitimacy from the larger British electorate.  In those terms, Blair’s unpopularity was due to the endless and cyclical struggle between the evangelists and the wider public; that Blair was prepared to alienate the former rather than the latter indicates his lasting stature as a social democrat politician.

The problem for the Labour party, as Ed Miliband’s recent tension with union leadership over the selection of local candidates indicates, is that this eternal conflict between ideology and realism endures.  Even if he does succeed in internal reform of the selection process, the larger problem will endure, as Denis Healey quoted Sidney Webb from 1930 – ‘…the constituency parties are frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks, and extremists; if the block vote of the Trade Unions were eliminated it would be impracticable to continue to vest the control of policy in Labour Party Conferences’.

Blair’s record of taking them on goes all the way back to Clause 4 debates; Ed’s goes back to… well, nowhere, given that whatever reforms actually go through will be taken as alienating the old Labour machine which secured him the leadership in the first place.  But better a late convert to the ranks of the realists than another Michael Foot-esque kamikaze joyride into electoral oblivion cheered to the echo at the party conference.