That old zeitgeist made new again

Friday 20 September 2013

18 May 1935

In an earlier post I looked at some recent opinion polls that suggested opposition amongst the British public to military intervention in Syria was grounded less in Leftist anti-imperialism and more in nationalistic isolationism tinged with xenophobia.

A Telegraph article by Tom Mludzinski of Ipsos MORI presents more details on changing public views regarding military action. He contrasts the lack of support for Syria action with levels of support for earlier interventions, from the 1991 Gulf War to Libya in 2011.

An interesting aspect is the apparent decline in influence of a UN mandate. Only 6% support action in Syria without UN backing, and even if it were to get UN backing only 34% say they would approve. Intervention in Libya, backed by a UN Security Council resolution, had 63% support.

One factor in influencing public opinion may be which way the balance of fear tips. 40% are concerned that doing nothing is worse than taking action, and 48% think that by not taking action we might be encouraging other countries to use chemical weapons, but nearly eight in ten believe that intervening in Syria will encourage attacks on Britain and the West.

How many base their opinion on the likely impact of any intervention on Syrians? Not too many:
Perhaps most telling is the way the British public view the role of our armed forces, with very few wanting Britain to be the “world’s policeman” or the “guardian of liberty”. Ten years after the beginning of the War in Iraq, three in ten (31pc) Britons now say British armed forces should intervene abroad when other people’s rights and freedom are threatened. Most are more isolationist with 44pc saying we should only intervene when British interests are directly threatened and a further 21pc believe British armed forces should only be used to defend British territory.
Read the rest at The Telegraph.

8 May 1937

Recent columns by David Aaronovich and Nick Cohen have similarly taken the view that the public view on intervention is strongly related to a popular isolationism and xenophobia manifest on other topics. Here’s David Aaronovitch writing in The Times on the August 29th House of Commons debate about Syria:
There was the usual heavy nodding during routine invocations of “exit strategies” and “mission creeps”. Let them fight it out between themselves. The Tory Right and pro-Assad George Galloway commended Mr Miliband for his blow for democracy. From outside Parliament Nigel Farage did the same.

And perhaps here we do come to it. We are living through a bad-tempered and isolationist moment in British politics. When Mr Galloway and Mr Farage agree it is because something sounds good to both of them. It was well put by Lord Ashcroft this week. “People,” he wrote, “see the pace of change continuing and even accelerating, and they know Britain in 20 years will look different from the Britain of today, let alone that of 20 years ago. Some welcome that, many are ambivalent and others are scared.”

Many want to stop the world. No entanglements. Fewer immigrants. Stop this, don’t build that. Get out of Europe. Above all a section of the electorate wants to stop things from happening.

And Ed Miliband intuited that the British people, overall, probably didn’t want something to take place over Syria, and decided that instead of arguing with them, he’d join them. Just as he has done over immigration. He’d become the spokesman for nothing. He wouldn’t outline his own alternative strategy — he’d just defeat Mr Cameron’s.
Read the rest here (£).

4 September 1937

And here’s Nick Cohen in The Observer:
What the majority of the public believe cannot be translated into any kind of leftwing sentiment. They think, I guess, that Arabs and Muslims are all the same. They all want to kill each other. They are all barbarians. "Why should we try to save them? They will only turn on us if we do."

If leftists still imagine that the anti-war sentiment is a blessing, they should notice its links to anti-immigrant sentiment. Just as the worse Assad behaves towards Syrians the less willing the public is to confront him, so the worse the government behaves towards immigrants the more the public likes it. After the coalition sent vans on to the streets telling illegal immigrants to get out, people like me protested that this was the type of stunt you saw in tinpot dictatorships. The pollsters at YouGov found that the voters liked the look of a tinpot country and support for ministers increased.

What applies to foreign wars and foreigners in Britain also applies to foreign aid. Middle-class liberals comfort themselves with the illusion that if only they could expose the "lies" of the tabloid press, the masses would embrace enlightened ideas.

Last year, the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House put that notion to the test. Its researchers found that the voters overestimated the size of the aid budget by almost tenfold. Chatham House put them right. It told them the truth. No difference did it make. The voters still thought Britain spent too much on aid.

I am not going to start screaming about racism. The attitudes of the broad mass of working- and middle-class people are nationalist or communitarian, rather than xenophobic. They believe that British jobs, the British welfare state, the protections of the British law and the benefits of British taxes should be confined to members of the club, who have either been born in Britain or proved that they have accepted British society.
Read the rest here.

14 August 1937

A lesson here is that while concern for the fate of Syrians might make the most compelling moral argument for action, a greater part of the public is likely to be responsive to arguments about their own interests, particularly arguments that emphasise the dangers to the West and to Westerners of allowing Syria to further deteriorate.

The Syrian FSA rebels are now not just fighting Assad and his Hezbollah and Iranian allies, they are also increasingly fighting Al Qaeda. (more). As Nato tries to wrap up a war against Al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is digging in on Nato’s southern border. And all the while Nato’s leading member, the US, seems to try to ignore the problem.

We may, to paraphrase the Colonel in the topmost cartoon, refuse to take part in another war unless arrangements are made to hold it in Nato territory. We may one day find this war is able to accommodate our requirements.

24 July 1937

The David Low cartoons in this post were first published in the Evening Standard in the 1930s. Read more about them in this post. Most can be found in The Complete Colonel Blimp, edited by Mark Bryant, and are copyright © Low estate/Solo Syndication. The British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent has a comprehensive collection of Low’s cartoons available online.