Britain’s in no state for war

If the UK government can be panicked by a letter from Prince Charles, how is it going to sort out the world?

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Let us leave aside for a moment the debate about whether or not Iraq is preparing to threaten Britain and the West. A glance at recent goings-on inside the UK machinery of government suggests that Tony Blair’s regime is in no fit state to fight a war with anybody.

Every issue, however big or small, from A-level exam results to a few letters from Prince Charles, now seems to throw further light on the crisis of authority engulfing the institutions of the British state.

Take the A-level fiasco. What began as a query over the examination results of some school students quickly descended into a state of open warfare between different pillars of the educational establishment, as government ministers and curriculum chiefs all sought to scapegoat each other for the debacle.

As Jennie Bristow has already analysed on spiked, this crisis is political rather than educational (see Examining the scandal). Its roots lie in the attempt by an isolated political elite (led first by a Tory government and then by New Labour) to manipulate the education system in order to ‘connect’ with public sentiment. The subsequent A-levels fiasco contains elements that are common to other recent political cock-ups, over issues ranging from health to transport and farming.

We have seen, for example, the characteristic attempt to use bureaucratic target-setting as a substitute for the absent qualities of political leadership – creating an endless cycle of league tables, audits and inquiries that only perpetuates the problems and drags the system further into disrepute.

And once things start to fall apart, witness the common sight of civil servants, politicians and everybody else scratching each other’s eyes out in the media spotlight rather than resolving problems behind the traditionally closed doors of the establishment. Every such spat provides further evidence that state agencies no longer share the sense of political loyalty and cohesion that might have held them together in the past.

The ridiculous row over the Prince of Wales writing letters of complaint to government ministers is also revealing of the crisis of institutional authority. The way that the heir to the throne is thrashing around, trying to reinvent himself as a lobbyist for every group from the Countryside Alliance to Friends of the Earth, says something about the British monarchy’s identity crisis in the twenty-first century. Far more telling, however, has been the panicky reaction that a few postcards from the prince prompted among New Labour government ministers.

It has become clear that Prince Charles sends government ministers missives (some, apparently, with the underlining in red or green ink favoured by many a crank letter-writer) complaining about red tape, political correctness, litigiousness, the proposed ban on foxhunting, care homes, Tibet, etc, etc. To which the sensible response is surely, as Simon Jenkins puts it in The Times (London), ‘So what?’. Why should the elected government care what a hereditary leftover of the Middle Ages has to say about any issue of the day?

New Labour’s inability to shrug off the princely whinger, the speed with which it can be thrown into a constitutional tizzy by a couple of Charles’ notes, has less to do with the power of the prince’s pen than with the insecure state of the government. Despite its huge parliamentary majority, and the apparent death wish of the opposition parties, New Labour still lacks the political will or institutional authority fully to re-forge the state in its image.

Sensing its own lack of grip on the public imagination (a problem brought home once more by the widespread indifference to Blair’s propaganda campaign against Saddam’s Iraq), the government worries that even a prattish figure like Charles could out-populist it as ‘the people’s prince’.

The same crisis of authority is evident in relation to every institution of the British system of government. Look at the irrelevant, empty shell masquerading as the Tory Party during the conference season, the once-mighty political wing of the British ruling class reduced to a rump whose only purpose is to serve as the butt of Jeffrey Archer jokes.

The police force is in a constant state of turmoil. And even the British military, long boasted of as ‘the finest fighting machine in the world’, is wracked by political and logistical problems. Prince Charles is quite right to point out that the demands of human rights legislation and compensation culture have made it impossible for the armed forces to plan and train for war in the usual way. On top of that, the lack of recruits and the long-running saga of the army rifle that won’t fire (not to mention the tanks that don’t work properly in desert sand) symbolise the practical difficulties that will face any attempt to launch a full-scale military campaign today. Twenty years after the Falklands War, the British state would seem incapable of getting away with a similar adventure today.

None of this should suggest that Blair won’t win the argument on Iraq, or that he cannot support an American attack on Iraq. (Although the extent to which American state institutions suffer similar problems is a question worth returning to in future.) The international arena holds a natural attraction for New Labour, as one where it can try to appear more resolute and authoritative than the home front.

And despite all the noise currently being made against a war with Iraq, the opposition is hardly irresistible, resting as it does more on differences over tactics than principles (see Blair’s dodgy dossier, by Brendan O’Neill). The very fact that such an eccentric aristocrat as Prince Charles can suddenly be elevated into a champion of just causes speaks volumes as to the pathetic state of political opposition in Blair’s Britain.

Yet if New Labour does work up the nerve to take Britain into a war, it will not easily escape the state’s domestic authority problems simply by exporting them to foreign fields. We have already noted how the Bush/Blair campaign against Iraq appears to be modelled on the British government’s foot-and-mouth fiasco – ‘kill every beast, just in case they’ve got something nasty’ (see A panic attack over Iraq, by Mick Hume).

Now BBC political editor Andrew Marr has insightfully observed that the government’s A-levels crisis could do for the education system what the foot-and-mouth crisis did for farming. It seems that New Labour cannot do anything now without putting its foot-and-mouth in it.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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