Gee, it’s not like we were warned

Reviewing two new books on the UK involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Robert Fox draws some conclusions as why these campaigns became the mess they were:

The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were planned to be short and sharp. In the end they were neither. British troops became an occupation force, fighting a difficult guerrilla war while attempting reconstruction and nation building, tasks which none expected and for which none was trained. The human terrain was tricky, impacted, tribal and clan communities where the most profitable line of business was criminality.


In both Iraq and Afghanistan the UK forces tried to do too much with too little – and the conspiracy of events and politics in Whitehall, Westminster, and at the Joint HQ at Northwood kept it that way. Given the resources available in the British defence machine, running the two campaigns at the same time should never have been attempted. Yet the Chief of the Defence Staff of the day, General Sir Michael Walker, assured the prime minister that his forces were well up to the twin tasks.

I hate to say I told you so, but: we told you so. All those unrealistic antiwar protestors, accused of defeatism and appeasement and everything else up to treason, who didn’t see the clear task the UK had in Afghanistan and Iraq? We were right. Nothing good has come of British involvement there (or any other country’s for that matter) and it has only led to a decade and a half of worsening conditions in the Middle East as a whole.

Be honest: isn’t there anybody who’d not like to trade the Middle East as it is now for how it was on September 12, 2001?

Don’t explain as incompetence what can be explained as disinterest

Philip Oltermann in the Grauniad talks about the failure of British diplomacy in Berlin:

The Netherlands, rather than Germany, should be the country for Britain to emulate in this respect. In Holland, as in the UK, eastern Europeans are usually not recruited directly by local employers, but often via rogue employment agencies who provide little security and support for workers when their contracts terminate. Since 2009, Dutch and Polish authorities have been cooperating closely to try to licence such agencies in order to stop Poles from getting stranded in unemployment.

In Berlin, I heard countless British diplomats moan about their government’s tendency to put all its eggs in one basket in order to win the big prize, while other countries were more willing to accept that EU diplomacy is a constant give and take. In fact, all Britain needs to do is to remind itself of a simple traditional British virtue: teamwork.

I’d say the UK’s problem of engagement with Europe is twofold. First, there’s still the inflated sense of self importance getting in the way. Unlike even France and Germany, Britain has never really had to had to deal with other countries as equal in Europe and so sucks at it. Second, and more importantly, there are the domestic political realities getting in the way of proper diplomacy. Even under Labour it was often politically inconvenient to genuinely engage with Europe, let alone under a coalition government at least half of which doesn’t believe in Europe.

Poll Tax Riots

Ros Sare talks about the circumstances behind the famous photo of her arguing with a poll tax protestor:

A few years later, this image was used in a media textbook to illustrate how a picture can lie. I look like the typical conservative middle-England Tory voter (which I’m not), objecting to the protest. The truth is, I felt bloody angry that day.

The introduction fo the Poll Tax and the subsequent, largely police instigated riots against it was what finally brought down Margaret Thatcher. It also came at the end of a decade of increasingly violent state repression of protest in Britain: Miner Strike, Hillsborough, the cruise missile protests, etc. For some background on what became the Battle of Trafalgar, the following documentary is a good start:

‘write it on a piece of paper and stick it through a letterbox’

A fascinating elections wonk article by mark Pack on the history of the LibDem approach to campaigning:

Central to this inheritance for the Liberal Democrats was the role of leaflets. If one image can sum up the approach to campaigning taken by the Liberal Democrats across twenty-five years, it would be a piece of paper on a doormat emblazoned with a bar chart and a headline screaming that ‘Only the local Liberal Democrat can beat Party X round here’

Then Liberal Party MP David Penhaligon coined the phrase that many activists have since quoted, ‘If you believe in something, write it on a piece of paper and stick it through a letterbox’. However, it was Chris Rennard, first as the Liberal Democrats’ Director of Campaigns and Elections, and then subsequently as Chief Executive, who turned it into an effective seat-winning tactic at general elections for the party.

What struck me about this is the similarities to the approach the Dutch Socialist Party used to have to elections. The SP started out as a typically sixties Maoist studenty party, then got a foot on the ground in some of the industrial cities of Brabant, especially Oss. There the people running the party took the same sort of pragmatic approach to campaigning, by focusing on local issues year round, not just during elections. It also had the same sort of centrally led election organisation that could throw money and manpower at areas where the party stood a chance of being elected.

Of course, with the Dutch system of proportional representation this was less necessary for parliamentary elections, but the SP always worked bottom up. First get the party established in a new town or district, then get it actively involved in local politics and hopefulyl elected to the council before focusing on national politics.

Mind, it took several decades for the party to grow big and established enough to get its first members of parliament, but since then it has steadily grown from fringe party to serious governmental candidate even if its fortunes have waned during more recent elections.

As with the LibDems, the biggest challenge for the SP has been to keep its ideological vision rather than becoming just an issues party. Said ideology has become much more mainstream over the decades but the core of it still is a proper socialist-democratic vision. What helps is that the party has always been keen for its local branches to be active on national and international issues too.