According to the Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society, Britain has lost its status as a “shaper” of events and will now take its place among “third rate nations”. Oh, the shame of it. As awful as it is to lose the dignity and esteem that our nation has acquired from its struggles in Basra and the Helmand Province, we are also forced to join the sad, degrading ranks of miserable little countries like Sweden, Japan, Norway and Switzerland.
Sarcasm aside, it would not disappoint me if the extraordinary vote against the Prime Minister’s plans does represent the death of imperial Britain. Our wars not merely been shameful in their initiation but, in many cases, embarrassing in their execution. Not only does being an imperial power tend to entail destructiveness and exploitation – we aren’t any good at it. Joining these “third rate nations”, who are often more prosperous and peaceful than we are, does not sound unattractive.
I have written before of “national purposelessness”: a humble idea that may be what this country needs. It does not imply that we should not pursue specific aims, in our own interests, with others towards mutually worthwhile ends or, indeed, to improve the world. Rather, it “stands against the idea that we need overarching transformative aims to define ourselves by”, and prioritises “containing effects of various purposeful things that have been done”. It need not be a principle for all time, but for a time when Britain faces dysfunction in its state, unhappiness among its people and yet a peculiarly vivid sense of ambition among its elites. It is a time to breathe; to take stock and to appreciate the change that has been taking place around us.
This does not merely apply to things done outside our borders. Some people write as if we are an endlessly adaptable island of boundless inclusivity. James Bloodworth holds that if we do not intervene in Syria we should invite a million refugees to live here. Britain could “easily absorb” them, he says. There are many adjectives one could apply to the introduction of a million people – of very different cultures, between themselves and compared to our own – to our strange, densely populated state with its high unemployment, housing shortages, crowded schools, internal conflict and anger regarding migration levels but “easy” is not one. Inviting the world may solve individual woes but I believe it will ultimately cause problems here without solving them elsewhere. A peaceful and productive Britain can be of more use to the world, in terms of ideas, resources and human capital, than a conflicted and chaotic one.
Bloodworth also writes, lamenting our failure to intervene, that Syrians “will continue to die until the day Bashar al Assad no longer remains in power”. I see. If Assad falls, then, will Sunnis not seek revenge against Alawites? Will Alawites not struggle to retain what has been theirs? Will the different rebel factions not compete for power? Will the Salafists not kill sinners, heretics and Christians? I have not even mentioned the Kurds or Hezbollah. We find it painfully difficult to understand the world, and anything we do to it should proceed from that knowledge.