Monday, 2 September 2013

Punch drunk?

Like many of you, I've been following the political class's anguish over the defeated Syria vote with some amazement. Here's David Cameron accusing Miliband of 'letting America down', as though the UK's solemn duty is to do whatever the United States wants, rather than taking a particular view on specific events. There's Michael Gove calling his own party members a disgrace. And here's Michael Gove calling a Labour MP a 'National Socialist', a.k.a. a Nazi.

But one phrase keeps coming back, particularly in the broadsheet commentary. Over and over again, they ask whether Britain is no longer 'punching above its weight'. They're at it in Al-Jazeera, the Financial Times and all over the press and TV.

It's post-imperial angst. To these people, moral and political authority is acquired by being on the trigger end of the barrel of a gun. Those countries horrified by Syria's use of chemical weapons are, of course, all nuclear-armed and some of them have used chemical weapons in war (the UK in Russia, the Americans in Vietnam). They are morally and politically bankrupt.

To me, the repeated use of the phrase 'punching above its weight' is indicative of their failure. Their preferred metaphor is a violent one. They forget that large swathes of the world - and as an Irish citizen I include my sainted ancestors - have been repeatedly and bloodily punched by the UK in its quest to demonstrate its continued global relevance.

So here's a novel idea. How about not punching anyone for a while? Retire the metaphor and try to think of new ways to relate to your global neighbours? Other countries have managed it. The Germans, obviously. Belgium had a particularly vile Empire and seems to have moved on without too much post-imperial angst. The Danes, Dutch and Swedes withdrew from their overseas conquests and cope quite well without needing to sally forth and punch anyone.

The British can do the same. Instead of behaving like a belligerent drunk outside a pub at closing time, offering to take on anyone who stared at his bird, how about attempting a little diplomacy (and get rid of the nuclear weapons, the last resort of the bully)? Last night I watched an old episode of Dr Who, in which Harriet Jones, newly installed as the Prime Minister, said this:

Sadly Harriet then nuked a retreating alien spacecraft (shades of the Belgrano) and the Doctor brought her down: even Harriet was infected by the desire for Britain to 'punch above its weight'. It's time for our real-life politicians to accept that the UK is a small country which has better things to do than reach for the red button – and the tired old clichés – every time American calls or an adviser recommends a spot of voter-friendly foreigner-biffing.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Hear hear.

It amazed me how similar this whole debacle was to the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Fortunately this time common sense prevailed, but one distinct difference struck me: last time we had a right-wing president and an ostensibly left-wing PM, while this time we have the exact opposite... and yet the MO is identical. So regardless of the political party in power, the same agenda is being followed. How strange.

Anyway, it's about time we stopped playing the willing accomplice to America's own imperial ambitions. A bit more cynicism is a good thing.