Monday, March 21, 2011

This is no Falklands

I'm just recording an intuition, as I don't have time to work this thought out properly. If Cameron was looking for a Falklands effect - that is, a caesarist moment in which, by donning the khaki and giving Our Boys an imperial adventure, he could articulate the native sensibilities of a not yet fully decolonised public, talking over the heads of the establishment - he hasn't got it. I detect no enthusiasm for this war. Support in the dominant ideological institutions, parliament and the popular press, is broad but depthless. The usual gyrations from the right-wing tabloids lack conviction. Perhaps it's because they're not actually getting a ground invasion. I haven't seen any polls, but I expect this lack of enthusiasm probably reflected in public opinion.

If Cameron was looking for a Kosovo effect - which I would categorise as another kind of caesarist moment in that it consolidated the intelligentsia and political establishment behind Blair - he doesn't have that either. I remember the hysterical build-up to war over Kosovo, and there is nothing like the moral fervour and shrill liberal baiting that was prevalent then. They can wheel out the old satrap Paddy Ashdown to wheeze out some faded Gladstonian rhetoric, but it doesn't have the same ring to it. This isn't "overthrowing a tyrant", after all. The British military elites have made it clear that they're not up for that. Neither are other components of the fragile alliance against Qadhafi. This is about achieving a stalemate, with the likely result of a de facto partition of the country. That somehow isn't inspiring the bunting-laden festivities that are supposed to follow from British wars. It also points up a tension within the ruling ideology - humanitarian imperialism in this context sits uneasily alongside Islamophobia, especially when the latter is a far more predominant public sentiment. Those who could once be relied on to ventriloquise the intolerant martial bigotry of the popular press are no longer available for such ventures, especially if the supposed beneficiaries are, well, Muslims.

This loss of "imperial ardour", as Michael Ignatieff once called it, is devastating for those who seek khaki solutions to domestic woes. This Saturday will see a massive trade union-led demonstration against the austerity agenda in Britain. The TUC is calling it very conservatively, saying they expect 100,000 to attend. All signs are that it will be much bigger. The elements of Britain's shattered political make-up are still unsettled, still not reconfigured and re-polarised effectively; the opportunity is there either for a reactionary realignment based on Muslim and immigrant bashing, or for a leftist realignment based on the defence of welfare, public services, and trade unionism.