The Scapegoat Policy

Royal Marine. UK, 2011.

Britain used to be great, but an enemy within has sunk us. From Syria to Afghanistan, its growing list of foreign policy failures are the result of women, ethnic minorities, godlessness and gory films. Apparently. Scapegoating is the order of the day.

Writing in The Telegraph, in typical Tory fashion, Peter Oborne apportioned blame to Tony Blair’s New Labour, which, he says, “…degraded the Foreign Offices traditional…policy-making functions.” Gender equality and ethnic diversity diminished “independence of thought.” There was no longer room for the kind of chaps to be “found in John le Carré novels.”

Richard Kemp, the UK media’s Colonel Blimpish ex-military go-to, and a consistent defender of Israeli tactics in Gaza, went even further than Oborne. He wrote that the murder of a wounded Afghan by a Royal Marine was the result of violent movies and “…a less moral culture – condoned by successive governments pursuing an agenda of secularism and multi-cultural moral relativism – which now determines how a soldier acts under extreme pressure.” Kemp laments that soldiers today “rarely see the inside of a church.”

The charges are clear. Great Britain has been hamstrung by the encroachment of a decadent, secular multiculturalism. Both at the macro level of policy and the micro level of individual conduct, British blunders, and excesses abroad are being caused by the infiltration into our body politic of women, people of colour and violent films.

It’s a familiar argument, and one that is easily refuted. Still, it has to made. Diversity, for example, is to not blame for the poor imperial harvest. It is old fashioned hubris that is in fact the culprit. British foreign policy was turning up failures long before Quentin Tarantino was born, and Chicken Tikka Masala became a favorite dish of white Britons.

In the first instance, Oborne’s frame of reference is flawed. John le Carré characters of the type he refers to are not to be celebrated. Not even le Carré lauds them. The spy novelist, himself a former intelligence agent, spent some of his formative years around such men and has a long record in letters of repeatedly and brilliantly lampooning them.

Le Carré’s politics are at times indistinct and contrarian, but he has intelligently and publicly challenged everything from the “catastrophic” Iraq War to the mendaciousness of Big Pharma. His opinions are well-known. Was Oborne deliberately mistaking the facts, or just ignorant? It’s hard to tell. Still, given this, it’s hard not to imagine him reading Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and imagining it to be pro-war.

Moreover, there were no women or black people making or guiding British foreign policy aims during, for example, the Afghan war of 1839-42, and yet that conflict saw an army routed and destroyed. In fact there were no women even voting at that time, or during the Indian Mutiny, or during the Crimean and Boer Wars, let alone absent-mindedly playing with the mechanics of power.

Sowing fear. London, 2006
Sowing fear. London, 2006.

And before we get caught up in overselling the dangers of secularism, let us not forget that Britain’s imperial mission, with all its numerous, well-catalogued shortcomings, was not only ordained by God, but cheered on by the Church of England. I could go on. It’s all too easy to refute the arguments being used by today’s conservatives.

Historical counter-arguments aside, we must also consider that the current government’s own statistics on diversity in government, which serve to highlight just how few women and ethnic minorities there are in positions of real political authority. It hardly seems fair to blame people who simply do not exist. Yet we do.

So could it be, as Kemp says, that our declining moral culture is to blame? Certainly racy literature could be purchased during Queen Victoria’s reign. Bawdiness was not exactly unknown in the music halls of London. But there were no immoral films to sway the mid-19th century redcoat or the civil servant from his civilizing mission, simply because each of the aforementioned catastrophes predates the moving picture’s ability to portray graphic military violence accurately for a mass audience.

Of equal importance is that virtually all of the central figures in Britain’s foreign policy failures over the last twelve years – across all parties – were white men. In fact, the most prominent woman involved proved prophetically sensible, not in her endorsement of foreign policy, but in her criticism of it, and of the dangers it would invite. Dame Stella Rimmington, then of MI6, was one of the most prominent public figures to say that the West’s War on Terror would increase terrorism. And so it did.

But all of this is not to say that comments like those made by Oborne and Kemp do not serve an ideological purpose. They add weight to the argument that modern conservatives are the biggest utopians of us all – men pining for a lost age of stoic Britishness, which seems only to have occurred in their heads.

For the sake of discernment and clear thinking, we must strip out the weak excuses and see what remains. If women, ethnic minorities and films which the Tory finds distasteful are not to blame, what remains is a series of arguments which suggest that failure is built into the very core of an imperial system in which Britain today plays a secondary role.

Multiculturalism and neoliberal strains of feminism are fully in the service of the imperialism which brought them into being, and can hardly be argued to act as a drag on our global ambitions. Even Hollywood has come to play a role in buttressing the drive to expand our search for global markets. There are all kinds of explanations for imperial failures, but we will have to look elsewhere.

If we are serious about improving our record in the world, we need to start looking facts in the eye rather than scraping the barrel for dubious excuses.


Photographs courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence and Gideon. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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