From Singapore to Basra: British militarism as farce
If the fall of Singapore in 1942 exposed holes in the British Empire, today's 'fleeing' from Basra reveals a confused and complacent British elite.
The humiliating withdrawal of British troops from Basra has all the hallmarks of a badly executed farce.
Surely no one is fooled by Britain’s attempt to brand this retreat as a ‘handover’ of power? The idea that this is a job ‘well done’ is called into question by the fact that the handover ceremony could not even take place in Basra. Instead, the signatories to this ill-conceived public relations exercise were forced to retreat to the relative safety of Basra airbase, miles outside of the city.
The people of Basra are in little mood to celebrate their liberation. According to a BBC News survey, more than 85 per cent of them believe that their quality of life has deteriorated since British troops arrived in 2003. And more than half of the people of Basra believe that the presence of British troops has intensified the level of militia violence. Their sober outlook was echoed by UK foreign secretary David Miliband, who admitted that Britain was not handing a ‘land of milk and honey’ to the Iraqis.
Of course, like any major international player, Britain has its share of diplomatic and military failures. But what is striking about the retreat from Basra is Britain’s unwillingness to face up to the magnitude of this setback. In many ways, the road to Basra can be traced back to Singapore. It was the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 that forced the British elite towards the realisation that the days of the Empire were numbered.
Back in those dark hours of the Second World War, military defeat and the loss of prestige really meant something. The fall of Singapore cruelly exposed the pretensions of the British establishment’s self-image as a glorious world ruler. Military defeat at the hands of the Japanese was bad enough – but what was even worse, from Britain’s imperial perspective, was the reaction of its colonial subjects. Rather than coming to the aid of the Mother Country, many Singaporeans seemed to take delight in Britain’s humiliation. The collapse of Singapore, followed by the fall of Malaya and Burma, showed that Britain was regarded by many as an aloof, alien and even parasitic power.
Unlike today’s complacent response to the withdrawal from Basra, British officialdom and the media felt an intense sense of embarrassment over Singapore. The Economist reported a ‘breakdown of morale’ in the Colonial Service and called on the Colonial Office to review its policies. Even more ominously, a leader in The Times, Britain’s newspaper of record, questioned the legitimacy of British rule in Malaya and denounced the colonial government there as ‘having no roots in the life of the people of the country’.
These attacks hit the establishment where it hurt. Noel Sabine, who was in charge of public relations in the Colonial Office, conceded that the response of officials and editors to the humiliation in Singapore and elsewhere ‘called into question the whole spirit and basis of our Colonial policy’ (1). Whitehall officials and others who played a role in managing the Empire could not quite bring themselves to understand how and why British colonialism had fallen into such disrepute, but they grasped the gravity of the situation. In contrast, the most remarkable thing about the response to Basra today is that officialdom seems to regard it as unremarkable.
The retreat from Basra does not have the same historical significance as the collapse of British power in Singapore. Britain no longer has an Empire to lose. These days, in geopolitical terms, Britain is looked upon as a medium-rate power. Yet though Britain’s geopolitical interest in Iraq is relatively minimal, its setback in Basra may have important international and domestic repercussions.
It is worth noting that, despite the scale of the defeat in Singapore, the British elite found it easier to manage the public presentation of military and diplomatic setbacks back then than it does today. In 1942, the absence of a mass electronic media or the internet saved Britain from having publicly to confront its agonising setbacks. In such circumstances, news management and public relations initiatives could be utilised to limit the damage, and ensure that the mood of moral disorientation was confined to a relatively small stratum of society. The management of news coverage of humiliating episodes is far harder to pull off in today’s media environment.
No sooner had the ‘handing-over ceremony’ in Basra been completed before an alternative version of events was being transmitted through the world media. A video released by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is widely regarded to be Osama bin Laden’s deputy, boastfully dismisses Whitehall’s version of events. Al-Zawahiri’s statement mocks ‘the decision of the British to flee’ and questions the story promoted by the Coalition of the Willing’s publicists.
Al-Zawahiri’s video seeks to undermine his opponents’ version of reality; he denounces their ‘desperate attempts to deceive and mislead’. He insists that the Mujahideen are winning and claims that ‘the decision of the British to flee is sufficient proof’ of his Truth. The purpose of his video is not simply to discredit Britain, but also to claim the moral high ground. The clash of two different ‘stories’ about what happened at Basra airbase is symptomatic of a battle of ideas that is being fought out in front of a global audience.
If the fall of Singapore called into question Britain’s status as an imperial power, then the retreat from Basra forces Whitehall to confront more basic questions about its global role. Back in the Forties, events in Asia did not have direct domestic implications. These were ‘foreign’ episodes that appeared to leave everyday life at home untouched. Today, it is not possible to isolate the domestic from the global. Al-Zawahiri’s words are as much addressed to a British-based audience as they are to a Middle Eastern one. His war of words is directed at people living in Bradford and Luton as much as at people residing in Basra. The complacent response of the British elite to the undistinguished transfer of ‘power’ in Basra suggests that there is a lack of urgency about the question of how to regain the initiative in today’s global propaganda war.
Frank Furedi discussed the wider phenomenon of outsourcing authority. Brendan O’Neill called the Basra withdrawal a media stunt to end a PR war and said America’s and Britain’s phantom occupation of Iraq was a ‘gesture invasion’. He explained why death by friendly fire became a big issue in Iraq, and told the truth about British casualties. Or read more at spiked issue War on Iraq.
(1) Cited in Frank Furedi, Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism, IB Tauris, 1994.