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Don’t expect us to keep cheering on this vague and bizarre adventure

Actually, it’s a good question. How long is a piece of string? I’ve often wondered, and I’ve seen some string in my time. The problem is, they were all of different lengths, these bits of string, some long, some shorter. I suppose the mean length of string I’ve come across would be about nine inches, disregarding whole balls of string, obviously. Having worked this out perhaps I could be co-opted into whatever government department is running the war against Libya, as they do not know how long a piece of string is.

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

Actually, it’s a good question. How long is a piece of string? I’ve often wondered, and I’ve seen some string in my time. The problem is, they were all of different lengths, these bits of string, some long, some shorter. I suppose the mean length of string I’ve come across would be about nine inches, disregarding whole balls of string, obviously. Having worked this out perhaps I could be co-opted into whatever government department is running the war against Libya, as they do not know how long a piece of string is.

Actually, it’s a good question. How long is a piece of string? I’ve often wondered, and I’ve seen some string in my time. The problem is, they were all of different lengths, these bits of string, some long, some shorter. I suppose the mean length of string I’ve come across would be about nine inches, disregarding whole balls of string, obviously. Having worked this out perhaps I could be co-opted into whatever government department is running the war against Libya, as they do not know how long a piece of string is.

Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat MP now surprisingly ennobled with high office as minister for the armed forces, was asked how long we would continue shelling Libyans, and he gave the string thing as an answer — blithely, with an air of exquisite abandon, like it didn’t matter. He quite clearly does not have the remotest clue what exactly we are doing, for how long we intend to do it and what would constitute a victory (for us, I mean). But his blithe spirit is very much of the moment, of its time; it was replicated in the ease with which the war was waved through the House of Commons, with only thirteen votes against and the comfort with which the ‘opposition’ leader trundled out his new bag of breast-beating clichés to support it.


You can hear it on the rolling news channels, the reporters and presenters beside themselves with delight that here is a war which is apparently ‘just’, and therefore each detonation is something in which we can exult. A war not against people, like wars usually are, but against only one man who nonetheless, paradoxically, everyone is agreed the war isn’t really against, because it’s not about regime change. So in other words it’s a war against nobody, just against something bad, something we can all get behind.

Or maybe it is about regime change. Nobody seems very clear. Nobody seems very clear about anything. Ground troops may be used if Gaddafi attacks opposition forces, but ground troops will presumably not be used if opposition forces attack Gaddafi. We are opposed to Gaddafi’s forces murdering their political opponents, even if the people doing the murdering are genuinely loyal supporters of the grizzled old lunatic. But we are not opposed to the opponents of Gaddafi murdering people loyal to the dictator; this we would welcome. We seem to have cheerfully swallowed the notion that Gaddafi’s opponents are secular and liberal Jeffersonian democrats deserving of our support, while the protestors in Bahrain and Yemen are somehow not. And, indeed, while all the indications seem to be that they are not, actually, secular, liberal Jeffersonian democrats. We are either colluding in, or perpetuating, or sustaining — take yer pick — a civil war which may result in the partition of the country, or a partial victory for Gaddafi or, the best possible case, a new government which, I predict, will be about as democratic as any other in the Middle East (barring Israel), and probably even less stable.

This was a war made feasible by the early agreement of the historically staggeringly useless Arab League which has now — predictably enough — sort of switched sides. And a war opposed by the opposition to Gaddafi within Tripoli because it strengthens Gaddafi’s argument that the internal opposition has been whipped up by western imperialists. And this message will resound throughout the hostile Arab world. And don’t think that a plane from Qatar will quell the anger. When will the Qataris, living under an absolute dictatorship, get democracy, do you suppose? And what will we do to help them get it?

Meanwhile, the war porn is cheered on interminably on BBC News 24, a cruise missile soaring upwards here, a shot-down aircraft there, stoic resistance from the brave Libyan opposition, cowardly ground-force attacks from Gaddafi’s henchmen. Tell you the truth, it’s ages since I’ve seen a white-coated Jap bloke peering tentatively into a nuclear reactor, although I assume that business is still going on. I seem to remember the last time missiles were flung at Gaddafi a rather different approach being taken by our national broadcaster: Kate Adie reporting from Tripoli that Gaddafi’s 15-month-old daughter had been killed. with revulsion etched into her face and her words. By comparison with this vague and bizarre adventure, the US attack in 1986 seems pragmatic and measured.

It is one of those times when I feel estranged from the country and not comprehending of what we are doing and why everyone is so gung-ho for it all. Hell, these feelings come along every so often — Princess Diana’s funeral was the first time I felt truly socially excluded, as I suppose one could put it; the relentless coverage, the condolence books, the queues of people down the Mall with their thermos flasks and strangely acquired grief.

But I note too that popular opinion is nowhere near as supportive of the war as that vote in the House of Commons would suggest. And my guess is that most Liberal Democrat voters are as opposed to our actions now as they were when we marched into Iraq, similarly not knowing what the hell we were going to do afterwards. The Liberal Democrats objected then for eminently sensible and rational reasons, not simply out of an intrinsic affection for pacifism. How long is a piece of string, Nick? Long enough, metaphorically, to have your political career swinging from the rafters at the next election.

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