Argus title : Spinning of history is a disgrace
Understanding our history is important to us all. It is how we make sense of things. This is as true for individuals as it is for groups of people. It is certainly true of nations.
Winston Churchill understood this. As an historian he was able to properly assess the threat posed by Hitler. His writing wasn’t objective – no history really can be – but he attempted, from his class and historical perspective, to give ordinary British people an understanding of how their past impacts upon their present lives.
The same is true of Tony Benn, one of the greatest chroniclers of modern political times. As Benn travels the country puffing on his pipe and speaking to packed audiences about the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the suffragettes, he is not just indulging in whimsy.
He is linking our present struggles for justice to those of the past. He reminds us that leaders have often betrayed and misled the people. And that one of the ways they have done this has been by manipulation of history and language.
I was reminded of this as I watched the 60 year commemoration since the end of the 2nd World War – celebrated not in May, when the war in Europe ended, but in July. To the distress of many veterans, the British state played an apparently half-hearted role in the European celebrations in May.
The celebrations of 2 weeks ago were magnificent. However, there was an obviously disproportionate focus upon the US contribution to victory and less upon the huge sacrifices of our West and East European allies – and those of the Commonwealth. As a former colonial I noticed this with some distress.
It seemed that the commemoration had been hijacked as a propaganda tool, the purpose of which – in the context of the ‘war on terror’ – was to talk up the so called ‘special relationship’ between the USA and Britain.
It’s a fine irony that, having become a de facto colony of the USA, Britain appeared embarrassed to acknowledge that, as the former great imperial power, it had had independent alliances and colonies of its own.
Of recent weeks, since the London Bombing, the Prime Minister’s language has invoked the spirit of the war years, by condemning what he calls “appeasement” of terrorists.
By inference, he associates his critics with arch appeaser Neville Chamberlain – and himself with Churchill. In so doing, he shows himself to have a better grasp of propaganda than of historical process.
Recent leaked reports have revealed that British security services were not prepared for the London bombs – but the government’s well-oiled propaganda machine certainly was. As police and paramedics, fire-fighters and transport staff, working in unspeakable horror, fought to save lives, Downing Street and the BBC ‘spun’ the news as never before.
News programmes stressed gestures of solidarity by the USA, while appearing to play down expressions of support from European nations. The opinion of American commentators was repeatedly sought by the media. One of the first major analyses of the situation was by a former speechwriter of George Bush. The post-Kelly BBC was like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Blair, however, was not. He is a man who handles death well. Following the sudden collapse of former Labour Party leader John Smith he was one of the first to speak affectingly to the media – and within days had ousted Gordon Brown as prime contender for Labour leadership. It was he of course who ‘captured the public mood’ about Diana’s death when he called her “the People’s Princess”.
Within days of the bombing the media started to carry stories about how well Blair was handling the crisis and how, once again, he was ‘capturing the public mood’. Commentators claimed that his leadership had been immeasurably strengthened.
If anyone had the temerity to mention British foreign policy, they were swiftly slapped down and accused of disloyalty and poor taste. The government told us to ‘pull together’. And, in the first throes of grief, confusion and fear, we did just that.
Government ministers ridiculed any thought that the invasion of Iraq might have put us at greater risk than before. They repeated the mantra that the bombers were motivated, not by joint US and British foreign policy, but solely by an “evil ideology” which predated the Iraq invasion.
They scoffed at the idea that British refusal to confront human rights abuses by the USA might have made Britain a particular target. They ridiculed any notion that the invasion of Iraq and the killing of 1000s of Iraqi civilians might have created a fertile breeding ground for terrorists in that country.
Blairites, already buoyed up by the Olympic decision, began to speak of Blair completing the third term and even going for a fourth. The ‘stop Gordon Brown’ brigade was cock a hoop. Their boy was back on top.
But then the wheels began to come off. As British people reeled in horror at more than 50 deaths in London, they began to take more seriously the bloody carnage in Iraq. In two weeks, 5 times that number were bombed to bits in Iraq. As suicide bomb after suicide bomb ripped apart the frail bodies of Iraqis, people felt it more than they had.
Parents threw children to their deaths out of windows to escape post-explosion fires. It recalled images of people jumping to their deaths from the conflagration in the Twin Towers. It was news which even this government couldn’t spin.
Then came the reports. On Monday the International Security Programme at Chatham House reported that the UK is at particular risk because it is the closest ally of the US. It asserted that a key problem for the UK in preventing terrorism in Britain is the government’s position as what it calls “pillion passenger” to the United States’ war on terror. Formulating counter-terrorism policy in this way has, it said, left the “ally in the driving seat” to do the steering.
There is, it says, “no doubt” that the invasion of Iraq has imposed particular difficulties for the UK and for the wider coalition against terrorism. The situation in Iraq has “given a boost to the Al-Qaeda network’s propaganda, recruitment and fundraising”, whilst providing an ideal targeting and training area for Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
A day later, a leaked report from the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which includes the police, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, cited Iraq as a “motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK”.
A further blow came with the publication of a Guardian poll which revealed that 33% of people felt Blair had “a lot” of responsibility for the bombing while a further 31% felt he had “a little”. Even this government could not suggest they were all “appeasers”.
The government’s apparent belief that all news can be managed and inconvenient memories erased, is far from the truth. Even people who did not oppose the Iraq War remember the early arguments made by those who did:
• weapons inspectors should be given enough time to discover whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (he didn’t)
• invasion would create greater violence in Iraq (it did)
• Al Qaeda had no significant links to Iraq, but that invasion would act as a recruiting sergeant (Iraq is now a hotbed of terrorist activity)
• tying ourselves to George Bush’s coat-strings would associate Britain with US human rights abuses and put British people in the firing line (Chatham House endorses this)
Sixty years after the 2nd World War, there is a danger that we as a people may – as a result of craven leadership, fear or ignorance – appease violent regimes willing to sacrifice human rights on the altar of national security or economic advancement.
However, I believe the British people, unlike some of our leaders, have the courage and integrity to stand up to the United States government – just as firmly as we will to terrorists peddling a barbarous form of Islam.
One thing is certain. There will be no real peace in these islands until we begin, once again, to live and act as an independent nation.