Tuesday, 22 March 2011
Libya, war and British politics
But the first two opinion polls on attitudes towards military intervention in Libya tell a different story.
The YouGov and ComRes polls are a little inconsistent. YouGov has more people supporting intervention (45% in favour, 36% against), while ComRes has more people opposing intervention (only 35% in support, with 43% opposing).
Even the YouGov poll indicates widespread opposition - it still has more than a third of those polled saying they think the military action is wrong. That is despite all three major political parties unequivocally backing intervention, only a tiny number of MPs voicing opposition, and the vast bulk of the press joining the chorus of support for air strikes.
There is a huge disconnection between the level of opposition in the country at large and the Commons vote. Parliament is barely even offering a dim echo of popular feeling. It is reminiscent of the democratic deficit associated with the invasion of Iraq, when Parliament failed to reflect the popular mood expressed in polls and demonstrations alike.
Some might have expected a Labour Party chastened by Iraq to oppose intervention, or at least equivocate. But Labour, under Ed Miliband, has expressed full support. There's a significant strand in Labour that wishes to rehabilitate the ideology of 'humanitarian intervention' which was tarnished by Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the most fervent and dedicated supporters of the bombing of Libya are in fact left-of-centre advocates of the doctrine, such as the Fabian wing of the Labour Party.
At the same time this is very much David Cameron's war, which is probably one factor in the relatively high level of opposition revealed by the polls. Cameron's Tory-led government has become unpopular quickly. Less than a year since the general election and it already has approval ratings as bad as -30%. Polls consistently show Labour ahead of the Tories, while junior partners the Lib Dems have all but collapsed.
There has been talk of Cameron, conscious of his government's growing unpopularity and on the eve of a massive anti-cuts demonstration, wanting a 'Falklands effect', i.e. an electoral boost from a popular and briefly executed war similar to how Thatcher's government gained from the Falklands war in the early 1980s.
But this is no Falklands, as the polls indicate. And there is no guarantee it will be over quickly either. If there is no 'quick fix' - if we see escalation, in particular a ground invasion - this could become very damaging for the Tories.
Electoral popularity isn't Cameron's only motivation. He and his government also want to reassert Western influence in a region where it has been undermined by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and by unrest in many other countries. They want to undermine the self determination of Arab people, taking the initiative away from revolutionary movements and instead ensure Western states shape events.
Rather than being a form of support for the Libyan revolution, Western military action threatens to end it - and to damage the prospects for Arab revolution more widely.
They want greater access to resources, especially oil, in Libya. But a number of major Western states - including the UK -also want to restore stature and influence in the Arab region at a time when they are weakened by a combination of loyal allies Mubarak and Ben Ali being overthrown, the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, and declining economic power.
I can, in any case, detect little of the popular jingoism that reportedly accompanied the Falklands war.
But it's also different from the NATO intervention in Serbia in 1999. I recall campaigning against it - at first it was difficult to get much support for our cause, though this grew as the reality of civilian casualties and target bombing that missed its target became apparent. Yet anti-war opinion remained firmly in a minority, if a substantial minority.
The pro-war camp was helped by having a government which was still - just two years into the Blair administration - relatively popular and trusted. The disasters associated with the 'war on terror' were still in the future. There was no drawn-out occupation with a mounting death toll on all sides. In this context 'liberal interventionist' arguments had considerable currency, though as I've acknowleged there was always a significant minority in opposition.
In the Gulf War in 1991 some polls had public support as high as 80%. In the wake of the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan - and the mass protests opposing them - it is very different. People are weary of wars and distrustful of politicians taking us into yet another one. The stock of 'humanitarian intervention' ideology has fallen.
This comes at a time when we face austerity. There's a widespread feeling that we should be spending money on public services not cruise missiles. Popular discontent about cuts is an important part of the backdrop to how UK involvement in Libya is perceived.
It is currently difficult to mobilise large numbers of people on the streets against war in Libya. This is unsurprising at such an early stage - and following almost no build-up to air strikes commencing. But it doesn't, as the polls make clear, reflect patriotic enthusiasm for war or commitment to 'humanitarian intervention' arguments. If military action continues for some time, if there are considerable civilian casualties, if there's a ground invasion - then we can expect to see significant mobilisations on the streets of this country, calling for an end to the war.
We have a duty now to get organised, convey the anti-war arguments as widely as possible, and raise the banner publicly for stopping the bombing of Libya. This is the best way we have - in Britain and the other major Western countries - of building solidarity with people striving for democracy and social change in Libya and across the Arab world. It is also crucial for weakening our own government, which is attacking us at home.