A Little Englander and proud

Ignore the jibes of the pro-intervention crew: it's the Little Englanders and ‘isolationists’ who are the true internationalists.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

One of the favourite tactics used by the pro-intervention brigade, currently trying to get stuck into Syria, is to name-call anti-interventionist opponents ‘Little Englanders’, a label often accompanied by ‘isolationists’, usually alongside some mumbled reference to Hitler and the Nazis. The implication is that if we let bad things happen in faraway countries, they will eventually come to visit us. Ultimately, we will be damned by history as appeasers and cowards.

There’s an internet convention that any mention of the Nazis nullifies a debate, and I think it should apply to society at large. It’s a false analogy here anyway. Britain is only endangered when mainland Europe is controlled by one power, or someone is threatening us with atom bombs. That’s why Britain fought off Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler and Stalinism. But that’s by the by. More interestingly: what’s wrong exactly with being a ‘Little Englander’?

The term ‘Little Englander’ was coined in the late-nineteenth century, an imperialist slur directed at members of the Liberal Party who were opposed to the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The trendy liberals of the day, such as Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, believed that the state should put the interests of Britain (for which ‘England’ still served as a synonym) above those of Empire, as Little Englanders believed it wrong to send out troops to Africa to kill Dutch farmers.

Imperialism, the urge to control others, is prominent throughout human history. But humans can resist urges. Indeed, had our ancestors had the foresight actually to be ‘Little Englanders’, Africa and the Middle East might not be in such a bad state today. It was European imperialism that created the mess in the Third World, and no amount of present-day, feel-good imperialism can rectify that.

The Dutch and the British made a peace of sorts after the Second Boer War, but the Afrikaners didn’t make peace with the indigenous African populations for decades. South Africa was the product of imperialism, just as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, Syria and Kosovo were – and all of them are unstable for it. They are all lands once plundered and ruled by Europeans and Turks, who withdrew or were pushed out, leaving behind them artificial borders containing mutually antagonistic ethnic, tribal and religious groups. No wonder South Africans attach so much importance to keeping Nelson Mandela alive: look what happened to Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980.

While Islamism is indeed born of a juvenile envy of the success of Western culture and the failure of Arab civilisation, Ottoman and British imperialism laid down the foundations for it (both Syria and Iraq are young, post-colonial states), while American neo-imperialism has aggravated it. Consider America’s capricious foreign policy – supporting the Shah of Iran and today the Saudi ruling class – or the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, both of which connived to aggravate extreme Islamists.

If you believe moral imperialism is legitimate on humanitarian grounds, you will probably cite the 1999 bombing of the former Yugoslavia and the prevention of the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanians. Yet the action merely postponed the inevitable. Kosovo remains a time-bomb, as does Bosnia, Macedonia, and, let’s not forget this, Northern Ireland. The only concrete achievements of bombing Kosovo were to hasten the departure of Serbs from the area, and to earn Britain the eternal loathing of the Serbian people. The fact that NATO attacked a Christian nation to defend Muslims is a fact happily ignored by the jihadists.

There’s no such thing as a moral war, despite the protestations of the evangelising of the neoconservatives and the grandstanding of the liberal left. The only just war is one of self-defence. Syria doesn’t threaten us. Assad is no Hitler. Vladimir Putin is no nineteenth-century tsar, jealously eyeing up the British Raj. What makes al-Qaeda – and its Syrian and Somali franchises – the real enemy is that its members are also cultural imperialists. They, too, seek to control, to impose their way of life on others.

The interventionists seem more concerned with their public image and ‘how people/history will judge me’. Ten years ago, it was the self-importance of the anti-war camp – ‘Not In My Name’ – that stood out. Now it is the self-righteous indignation from those who spew bile on those of us who understand that war will always be with us. ‘Let’s bomb Syria’ is the humanitarian imperialist’s equivalent of posting a selfie on the internet.

‘Something must be done’, they bellow: the cry of an idiot. Would you trust a heart surgeon who said ‘something must be done?’ It’s terrible to see pictures of dead children, but what if our actions were to send more babies to their graves? No, ‘first do no harm’, as the Hippocratic Oath goes.

To be a ‘Little Englander’: how gauche, how ‘white van man’! We Daily Mail readers, old socialists and Marxists, and crabby Tories; Ukippers who have grown suspicious of the EU, neo-imperialism and big business; old lefties who always were. We Little Englanders – Tories and Trots and even some Scots – are the true internationalists, because we respect other nations. We look beyond the EU and the UN, to the world around us, not within ourselves.

We care not for destructive, feel-good imperialism and its repellent egotism. We are not isolationist. Isolationism is drawing your curtains. We want to get to know our neighbours, not tell them how to arrange their houses. We live in a nice house. Why not come in and take a look around?

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. He is the author of several books including Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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