The UK’s Parliament just voted to attack Daesh targets in Syria, which will involve bombing densely populated cities, and with no expressed plan for how this will enable decent people to retake control. The Kurdish forces arent anywhere near, the UK says it wont collaborate with the Syrian government, and the rebel groups are disparate and many allied officially or informally with Daesh. Maybe the secret plan is to secretly collaborate with Russia and the Syrian government, as that would be too awkward for the Government to admit given that they wanted to bomb the government army just a couple of years ago. So it’s a bit of a mess.
Instead of the recent focus on airstrikes, Britain would have been best to make a concerted effort to show solidarity with the victims of terrorism in France and elsewhere by:
a) allying with other states on cutting funds and arms to Daesh
b) delivering better coordination of intelligence and policing across the EU
c) making amends for helping cause the rise of Daesh by accepting hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees asap
So what happened?
Could it be that tabloid-regulated politicians, lacking context on commercial drivers of militarism, with a racist lesser-level of concern for the lives of Middle Eastern civilians, voted to be treated nicer on telly?
Well, we can only understand the politicians in the UK through understanding the role of mass media in the UK. The media has constantly sought to keep a focus on superficial and reactionary debate, relegating thoughtful analysis to a few columnists who have niche followings.
Some politicians feel these types of critiques of their thought processes to be churlish and and not respectful of the depth of their thinking. Yet it is not cynical, it is scientific. There is masses of research from social pyschology, linguistics and critical sociology that shows how dominant discourses are shaped through mass media and act on us at a subtle level so that we think we are coming up with our own ideas and feel good about ourselves. We create explanations and narratives to personally cope and progress within dominant narratives in our society. That is why education must always involve attempts at creating critical consciousness, so that more of us become aware of the way dominant duscourses, combined with interest in one’s self esteem, shape our perceptions of issues.
So of course some politicians have an emotionally difficult time convincing themselves of ethical reasons for being able to look good on telly and tabloid. An apparently quite decent chap, Tim Farron looked particularly sweaty, as if different bits of his soul had been squabbling all night. Yet it does appear many politicians have voted suitably in line their own career strategies. For Conservative MPs that’s easy, just stay within the herd of the Tory mainstream. In the case of Labour, some career trajectories require it to return to a wishy washy party of right wing foreign and economic policy with some slightly lefty social initiatives to get the party activists engaged and Guardian readers onside. Why respond to how the majority of one’s constituents and party members are against something when you can switch the focus onto a few abusive people? I wonder if Stella and Chukka’s future autobiographies could copy paste Blair’s autobiography description of the anti-war electorate as a “demonic rabble”. A greater critical consciousness amongst MPs might help them to realise what thought processes they are going through. Sadly most I meet want to talk about “narrative” as if what is right and true is what can be explained quickly to a journalist. Yet the question of narrative should come second, once you have worked out your views.
Some MPs have claimed that they were swayed by last minute oratory (as if they were neutral on fighting fascism before 930pm on December 2nd 2015). It’s not a claim that stacks up if you look at their pre-debate focus on how to make any bombing as caring as possible and suggests once again that MPs play loose with the truth if they spot a handy narrative like “Hilary moved me” (not Clinton folks, we have our own ‘warmongering’ Hilary too :-)). It was quite depressing to see skills of oratory and rhetoric used in a mendacious way in Parliament today. Everything that Hilary Benn said could have led to a conclusion to do something helpful rather than counterproductive bombing without a credible plan. That MPs who voted for the Iraq invasion of 2003 and still havent apologised profusely and slopped off to the back benches, were able to step forward to influence views on Syria shows once again how remiss the mass media has been in holding rulers to account.
What is worse, they still get to pretend to know and respect international law! The UN Charter forbids military action against or within other member states unless invited by that member state, in this case by the Syrian government, or unless an explict resolution is passed mentioning chapter 7 of the Charter. The resolution 2249 says “take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter” .. Yes, the UN Charter! None of the Security Council members mentioned military action in their comments on the resolution. I learned about this stuff as I was working at the UN in 2002 and 2003, when these matters were high on the agenda. So, as the Syrian government didnt request it, MPs voted for an illegal bombing. We know from the past 14 years that the Foreign Office plays fast and loose with international law… but MPs shoudnt’ be so gullible, unless they want to be.
What is heartening is that despite propagandist mass media, the majority of Brits were against this action for the reason that to sacrifice civilians without having a coherent plan for how to achieve stability in Syria is an unethical judgement to make and likely counterproductive in our efforts against terrorism at home and abroad. Fortunately the lives of British service men and women arent likely to be endangered if good coordination is achieved with the other counties involved, but there is still a risk.
The other glimmer is that hundreds of MP voted against the suck-a-bomb-and-see plan, including the leader of the opposition. They are not cowed by the tabloids. Now the push from them and the public needs to be towards A, B, and C above, and to prepare against the racist hysteria and anti-democratic agenda that will be promoted when the next Daesh murders occur in the UK. We might also press for any strikes to be focused on oil exports, rather than in the cities.
A broader challenge is how to transform British media, as for all the talk of “strong leadership” from MPs and the media in the UK, we just witnessed how many of our politicians arent able to lead themselves, let alone others. So I remain convinced that those of us who mobilise critical social theory in our research, education and training, in all walks of life from politicians to business managers to the police, have important work to do.