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Thursday, 24th April 2014

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Western medicine

It is quite possible for cans of petrol, compressed gas and hundreds of nails to exist quietly side by side, even in the presence of imflammable fumes. In the absence of an effectively operated detonator, it is quite possible that there will be no explosion.

So we discovered to our relief on the 29th and 30th of June, after the contents of the vehicles driven by would-be terrorists into Central London and Glasgow airport failed to blow up.

Similar principles can apply to processes which are more slow-acting, and also to those which are considered to be useful. Without the grit of sand, an oyster does not produce a pearl.

For Britain's new Prime Minister, the events in London and Glasgow provided an opportunity which was not lost on Daily Telegraph writer Janet Daley:

This is Gordon Brown's moment. The terror attacks (and his response to them) have established the tone of his premiership as surely as the death of the Princess of Wales (and Tony Blair's reaction to it) did for his predecessor's. No temperament could be better suited to the times than Mr Brown's: all that famously dour ponderousness has looked, during the past three days, absolutely appropriate. All those supposed character flaws - his failure to emote, his absence of informality, his distant, slightly authoritarian air - are suddenly hugely reassuring.

In a time of national threat we don't want cuddly; we want serious and stern. Charm might be nice when politics is becalmed and day-to-day living is secure, but gravitas is a whole lot better when there are unknown numbers of people in your midst ready to commit random mass murder...

In his first appearance before the cameras after the attempted bombing, Mr Brown made a terse and perfectly judged statement. For all its brevity, it conveyed the essential message of calm resolution and national unity: "I know that the British people will stand together, united, resolute and strong."

Daley assessed Brown's solid character positively against that of the egotistical Blair and the foppish Cameron. And she noted with admiration that our new PM had used the occasion both to declare firmness in Britain's policy towards the Middle East, and to rebut the notion that the UK's involvement in the USA's invasions of other countries have contributed to Britain's territory becoming a target for terrorist operations:

He made it clear that he (or "we", as he put it) must not be seen to yield or be intimidated in our foreign policy commitments, and reiterated correctly that the current wave of terrorism began in 1993, long before the Western attacks on Afghanistan or Iraq.

"We" must resist, and not merely with bombs and bullets abroad and ID cards and detention without trial at home, but with propaganda. Citing the Western world's struggle against communism in the 20th Century, Gordon Brown stressed the importance of:

"...the cultural effort, almost similar to what happened during the Cold War in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when we had to mount a propaganda effort to explain to people that our values represented the best of commitments to individual dignity, to liberty and to human life being taken seriously."

On Wednesday 4th July, the entire front page of Britain's highest-circulation newspaper, The Sun (proprietor, US citizen Rupert Murdoch) was a Union flag. Superimposed was the instruction: "FLY IT IN THE FACE OF TERROR". In smaller type, the tabloid credited the author of the edict:

PREMIER Gordon Brown yesterday said the Union flag should be flown proudly from every public building in Britain. The move would be a symbol of defiance to terrorists, like those who attacked Glasgow Airport last Saturday.


Sharing the values

Brown and his allies have for many months been campaigning to define and promote Britishness, and exhorting us to "embrace the Union flag".  Our nationality is no longer defined merely by territory and ethnicity, but has been modernised as a set of 'shared values'; these are, as Brown has declared:

"Our belief in tolerance and liberty which shines through British history. Our commitment to fairness, fair play and civic duty."

The project to re-invent nationalism as a matter of adhesion to a set of 'values', symbolised by the flag, is based unashamedly on an imported model- that of the United States of America. It claims to make Britain more inclusive: all of us, whatever our class, colour and religion, and whatever our country of origin or that of our parents and grandparents, may fly the flag and share the values; an offer which can be refused at the risk of being un-British. This project is being rolled out while the disparities of income and wealth in the UK - which Mr Brown's party previously declared should be shared by all - become much greater. Now, the super-rich and the private-equity corporations are not even required to share their riches with the government: paying tax is a civic duty reserved for the ordinary-rich and downwards.

The inclusiveness of our new model of citizenship is of a particular kind. If the assertion that tolerance, fairness etc are specifically British 'values' has any meaning, it is only through the implication that other significant nations have been somewhat lacking in these characteristics. Which nations would these be? Our prejudices and our media can no doubt supply the answers.

Odd lines

The notion that it is concepts such as 'fair play' and 'commitment to human life being taken seriously' which shine through Britain's history deserves some scrutiny. So too the notion that terrorism and 'extremism' have roots which are separate from 'our' history and 'our' values.

Some unusually perceptive comments with a bearing on these matters have been made by Mr Jack Straw. Straw, who was Britain's Foreign Minister from 2001 to 2006, and is Minister of Justice in Gordon Brown's new cabinet, gave an interview in November 2002 which was reported as follows by the BBC:

The UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has blamed Britain's imperial past for many of the modern political problems, including the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Kashmir dispute.

"A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now - I have to deal with now - are a consequence of our colonial past," he said...

"The Balfour declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis - again, an interesting history for us, but not an honourable one," he said.

Mr Straw acknowledged "some quite serious mistakes" in India and Pakistan, jewels of the British empire before their 1947 independence, as well as Britain's "less than glorious role" in Afghanistan.

Mr Straw blamed many territorial disputes on the illogical borders created by colonial powers.

He mentioned Iraq, the region which was governed by Britain under the mandate of the League of Nations after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

"The odd lines for Iraq's borders were drawn by Brits," he said.

The West's response to Iraq's attempt to re-draw the illogical border which separates it from the oil rich mini-state of Kuwait, was the 1991 Gulf War, twelve years of sanctions and air raids, and, four months after Straw gave this interview, the US-British invasion. Dr Bilal Abdullah, charged with conspiracy to cause explosions following the attempted attacks in London and Scotland, is an Iraqi who reportedly became 'radicalised' during the current war in his country. Another of those arrested, Dr Mohammed Jamil Abdelqader Asha, is said to be a native Palestinian who carries a Jordanian passport.

The Balfour legacy

Jack Straw's reference to the Balfour Declaration has particular relevance. Israel is the pivotal state in the Middle East, the country which is accorded a special role in US policy and in respect of which all political forces in the region must define themselves. Israel, the key Western-backed state, is specifically based on an ethnic-religious identity; inevitably, opposition to Israel and the West expresses itself in ethnic and religious forms.

There is controversy among historians on the nature of the British Government's motives in drawing up the Balfour Declaration, through which Britain in 1917 commited itself to "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people".  The British Prime Minister at the time, Lloyd George, emphasised later in his memoirs the "propagandist reasons" for making the declaration at that point in the progress of the First World War; claiming that it pre-empted a possible alliance between Germany and the Zionist movement, and assisted the Entente (the British-French alliance) in attracting sympathy from Jews in Russia and financial support from Jews in the USA.

Explosive document: the Balfour Declaration


The potential local benefits of the zionist project for the British colonial occupier in the Middle East may also have influenced the decision. As Lenni Brenner notes:

British policy towards Palestine at this stage [the 1920s and 1930s] was elegantly expressed in the memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs, the first military governor of Jerusalem, [who said that] the Zionist “enterprise was one that blessed him that gave as well as him that took”, by forming for England “‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”.

Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet, was fiercely opposed to the proposal that Britain should promise to enable the fruition of the zionist cause. In a memo to the government in August 1917, he wrote prophetically:

"...I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test."

Montagu added:

"It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mahommendan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history."

He warned that the formation of a specifically Jewish state in Palestine would make it more difficult for Jews outside Palestine to be seen as full citizens of their countries:

"Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine. Why does [the zionist representative] Lord Rothschild attach so much importance to the difference between British and foreign Jews? All Jews will be foreign Jews, inhabitants of the great country of Palestine."

Insightful though he was, Montagu was arguing from the perspective of an upper-class Jewish European, and as a leading politician in the world's most poweful imperialist country. His critique addressed only briefly the impact of "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" on the Arab Palestinians.

In the full knowledge of his arguments and without any consultation with the majority population of Palestine, the British Cabinet issued the Balfour Declaration.

Ninety years after Edwin Montagu wrote his memo, all Palestinians are foreigners.