Thoughts on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan

Some things are what they used to be, hard as that might be for some to believe, but wars aren’t among them.

Once we had big wars which lasted a flick of the eyelid but left legacies that could never be cancelled out or overturned.  Leaving aside all the other lingering “late colonial” wars which spanned the twenty years after The Really Big One – the ones that Peel and the Pythons and even Peter Gabriel were trained for little else but to fight, even though they were already ghost wars, where every shot fired was merely in thin air, battles fought in cartoon motion after you’d fallen off the edge of a cliff – we had two definitive such wars in the second half of the last century, one in the first period the Cold War really was hot, the other in the second.  The one we lost, in 1956, destroyed a set of illusions.  The one we won, in 1982, created a whole set of new ones.  The former was at least in a global geopolitical flashpoint.  The latter was in such an insignificant dot on the map that the very thought of its having any great impact at all would have been laughingly mocked had anyone imagined it (it is the most extreme example, at least in Britain, of real, still-echoing history as Alien Space Bats, the term used in alternative history circles for something far too ludicrous to be believable).

Of the two key momentary wars – the first lasting a fraction of the time The King and I would spend as the number one album, the second lasting less time than Sulk (released in its midst, and arguably doomed long-term by its impact) would stay on the album chart – the first destroyed the idea that Britain could be culturally self-sufficient (and thus finished off New Elizabethanism, which was opposed in about equal measures to the socialist modernism of the Festival of Britain and capitalist mass culture), scuppered the chances of a close relationship between Britain and France (which would have been no more a break from history than the relationship between France and Germany which developed instead), led directly to the foundation of what is now the European Union and defined the terms of our uneasy, uncertain relationship with that institution, and created a void which only pop could hope to fill.  The second plugged into a desire which had been rising and gaining in strength throughout the previous decade to overpower the strength of the organised working class (but which had until then been rather melancholy and licking its wounds, not seriously expecting to get its big moment), defined the victory of populist pro-ruling-class nationalism aimed at the working class over pro-pop socialism (yes, yes, I know all the paradoxes), or of Murdoch over the likes of Hugh Cudlipp and the Bernsteins, or of one idea of “the people” over another, represented the tipping point for the forces fighting to erode the social gains of 1945, and destroyed what might otherwise have been a permanent place for British pop music in the cultural Eurosphere.  Both still surround us in ways which are so ingrained that it is easy to forget their origins.

Wars haven’t really been like that since the Soviet Union collapsed.  They are now much more likely to drag on for years, with no perceivable end or beginning, in a way that the Cold War climate made much harder.  But as even Max Hastings has acknowledged, it was this very sense of unending war – without a particular reason or cause or objective that can easily be sensed, let alone as a socially unifying force – which ended the twenty-year public enthusiasm for intervention, for Being Great Again, which was unleashed by the unbelievably, and undeservedly, lucky fluke events of 1982.  For much of the period I grew up in, public excitement at war seemed as unkillable as the power (by that time far greater than mere politicians) of Max Clifford.  But the two great wars of the 2000s changed the rules, even among significant parts of The Sun‘s readership.  Most of the people whose instinctive feelings provided a wave for Ed Miliband to ride in the late summer of 2013 – how much easier would it be for him to ride such waves, powered by a public which theoretically supports many of his policies but cannot easily relate to their “human” (in the Anglospherist, intellectuals-aren’t-real-people sense of that term) face, had politics not largely been reduced to personality and image – would have been virulently gung-ho about Syria had Iraq and Afghanistan not happened.  Few are “progressive Leftists” in any real way, and many live in commuter-belt swing seats – which is precisely why their support is as important for Miliband as it was for Thatcher and indeed Blair before his wars – and most like the idea of wars that can be over in a season, or less than the chart run of “Blurred Lines” or “Happy”, as long as they can win them and feel safer and more secure afterwards (just as they did when the Falklands removed many of the threats to their buying their own council houses).  But they know from recent experience that those circumstances were freakish ones which political reinforcement and reassurance tricked them into seeing as representative, and they don’t want the recent wars – far more representative of the long history of human conflict than either 1956 or 1982 could ever be – to be replicated.

For anyone of the generation and class of Cameron, Osborne and the rest, the Falklands War will have a mythic importance – their earliest meaningful memories will be of a constant sense of being under siege (developed over a long period but suddenly accelerating in their childhood), that the working class were out to get them, that their old security and stability could never be recovered.  For all that in the short term it strengthened the self-made working-class model of Conservative politician, that redirection of working-class loyalties towards the ruling class and its conquests will have convinced them that they might be able to rule after all, certainly made them feel confident and at ease with themselves in a way they had never known previously and might well have thought they would never grow up to know.  These are very obvious and direct reasons why the Cameron government wanted and needed its own Falklands, and why some of its members may actually have been deluded enough to think a Syrian intervention could be it.  But if that was its ambition in the late summer of 2013, it might as easily have climbed a tree expecting to walk into the works of Enid Blyton.  Its ambition was laughably unworkable, and – more importantly still – the public knew, and that is why the public, including much of its most natural support, was not with it.

The relationship of Nigel Farage and UKIP to the events of 1982 seems more and more double-edged: without the Falklands War and its legacy, it might not have had such a strong sabre-rattling nationalism and resentment at Meddling Statist Foreigners to pick up on among the public, but it is also very much a product of an increased anti-war sentiment well beyond the bounds of any sort of Left, a return to the Western naval-gazing and acceptance of a lesser, limited role which characterised the 1970s and which the Falklands, in the British context, did so much to blow out of the water.  When Farage praises Putin for his political skill which left the West utterly impotent over Syria in those first days of September, he is speaking for a significant number of former hawks and Cold Warriors, people for whom Russia is the closest thing left to the West they once thought they were fighting for.  He is speaking to, for and of an undercurrent of his moment, at least in England, in a way Cameron cannot do – a desire to have an essentially culturally conservative nationalist party untainted by decades of abuses of power, only without any hints of socialism and genuine folk culture such as Salmond invokes, because the Problem of England, along with (horrendously problematically) many of the progressive impulses and desires in modern England which UKIP despise but which might also help them as they tie up economic Leftism with something more culturally and generationally specific, renders that impossible.  He is, in his own repulsive way, filling a void – and it is the void caused in large part by public disillusionment with wars that never end, that cannot have the definitive outcome of the war which created the mood which enabled them to happen in the first place.

So this is how we leave Afghanistan, thirteen years on, never less coherent and never more nihilistic as a direct result of it (and Iraq even more so).  In England, the main legacy of these wars has inevitably been to strengthen the extra-parliamentary, anti-political Right and weaken any sense of belonging to the mainstream of that movement.  Alex Salmond and the SNP are the other side of this coin, of course, and I’ll get to them here soon.  Hopefully.