No criticism is bad criticism (and none is worse)…

Not long ago, I wrote a piece on how pacifists and non-interventionists might respond to the recent decision on foreign intervention.

Although, on balance, I don’t regret writing it, I am deeply dissatisfied with some aspects of my article. The feedback from a large number of people has been very helpful not only in helping me clarify my own views to myself, but also to think very carefully about matters of presentation and framing.

If I am reading them correctly, some commenters felt that my stance was not robust enough. My problematic reference to ‘maintain(ing) unity’ and worse still, to the purported risks of ‘irresponsible criticism’ (sic) could easily be read as conformist, condescending, authoritarian, or any combination of these things. Certainly, there were some poor choices of words.

I will acknowledge that as I only recently joined the Liberal Democrats, it is possible that I have a distorted view of the boundaries of criticism. Certainly, I would not wish to indulge in tone policing. I am as outraged at anyone else at the recent decision to go along with David Cameron and the self-styled ‘International Community’s’ self-serving crusade in the Middle East; the latest in a long line of cynical interventions.

I must confess I find it very hard to understand how people such as Tim Farron, who seem to be of generally good character, can support a policy; a policy foreordained to be yet another in the long line of ‘honest forerunners’ of ‘honest mistakes’ in UK foreign policy. (Perhaps I shall take the liberty of leaving to the reader’s discretion who gets to make honest mistakes, and who can only, by definition, make mass atrocities…)

But it is not enough to say that I feel uncomfortable with that aspect of my article. Perhaps the bigger question is: what am I going to do about it? How will I take a stance which is not merely whimsically contrarian, but is hard as nails; harder than the hobnailed leather and steel toe-caps of what the morally indifferent so callously name our ‘boots on the ground?’

Well, tomorrow I am going to speak in rather hard-headed (even hard-hearted!) terms about a central contradiction going on in the Liberal Democrats at the moment: the incompatible melange of pro-asylum seeker and pro-interventionist rhetoric and ideology.

* Jonathan Ferguson is a PhD student. His socio-economic views are progressive/left liberal, with strongly libertarian leanings on non-interventionism, privacy and freedom of speech.

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  • Eddie Sammon 2nd May '16 - 11:25am

    It’s entirely possible to be pro helping refugees and have an interventionist foreign policy. Non-intervention has hardly been great for Syria’s population being bombed and tortured by Assad.

    ISIS too have been conducting genocide against Yazidis and when they were assaulting Kobani imagine how horrific it would have been if our air force didn’t help out.

    I remember seeing a video on I think Sky News when Isis first started attacking Iraq. Two Shia Muslim lorry drivers were pulled up and were being asked what faith they are. They tried to lie and say SunnI, but when they couldn’t answer questions about the religion correctly the Isis fighters decided to execute them. It certainly sent a message to me early on that Isis are not an acceptable organisation and it was nothing to do with western interests or a Christian crusade.

  • If you wish to avoid “poor choices of words”, you could make a start by avoiding use of the word “crusade” – a highly inaccurate and unhelpful word in this context which, for good reasons, crops up repeatedly in IS propaganda.

    “the incompatible melange of pro-asylum seeker and pro-interventionist rhetoric and ideology”

    Well I’m not a Lib Dem but I agree with Eddie. If one feels compassion for Syrian refugees, one should surely feel even more compassion for the vast majority of Syrians who are still stuck in the country. The refugees – excluding the ones who die in the attempt – are the lucky ones. And if we want to help the people still stuck there, we have to “intervene” in some way, though not necessarilly (or exclusively) militarily.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd May '16 - 12:32pm

    Sorry, just some fact correction (and more information) to my first post:

    It was three Alawite lorry drivers who were executed – often referred to as a Shia sect, but they seem to disagree and say they are non-aligned.

    Interestingly though it seems one of ISIS’s leaders were responsible, rather than a group of rogues.

    Also, it was mainly the American airforce who helped the Kurds in Kobani. However the point remains about the benefits of intervention. In a crisis you don’t need warm words but proper support.

  • @Eddie
    IS regard both Alawites and Shia as “apostates” and see this as reason enough to kill them.

  • Jonathan Ferguson 2nd May '16 - 3:25pm

    Thanks for the feedback so far. All feedback is useful regardless of the degree of agreement or disagreement, but I will comment in more detail a little later.

  • Jonathan A few thoughts …

    The old Liberal Party up to 1918 did indeed have a pacifist wing. Some absolutist – and some more pragmatic. Many like the Rowntrees, Cadburys and Peases were Quakers. John Bright’s Quaker opposition to the Crimean War, and the Gladstone slogan of Peace, retrenchment and reform went well ,back to J.S. Mill and earlier. When Campbell-Bannerman was leader there was a clear split between those who supported the Boer War (Asquith, Grey and Haldane) and others who didn’t (Lloyd George the most prominent…. followed by a self-interested somersault in the First War introducing draconian measures against conscientious objectors).

    Indeed the Great War which destroyed and split the Liberal Party. Many of the radical Liberals (Bertrand Russell, Charles Trevelyan, Norman Angell, E.D. Morell and Arthur Ponsonby etc., moved to Labour post 1918 – (serving in the Labour Government). Swartz’s book on the Union of Democrat Control and Russell’s autobiography are good sources. Not all were pacifists – some pragmatically opposed the war and sought a negotiated peace. There are also lessons to be learned on Tory coalitions on Asquith’s fall and how LL.G. was destroyed because of the resentments built up by his ruthless behaviour and deceits.

    In WW2 the party supported the War – Jo Grimond served – and worked on refugee re-settlement afterwards, but in 1956 he opposed the invasion of Suez. Jeremy (‘Bomber’) Thorpe wanted to bomb Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.

    For me individual conscience has to come before party loyalty. I’m deeply disappointed with the fudge on Trident and the Syrian vote.

    I’m not an absolutist and would – like my Dad – have served in WW2. BUT I WOULD NEVER NEVER ENTER MILITARY ACTION LIGHTLY. – I saw a great uncle shell shocked from 1916 until his death in 1972 – I saw PTS in my Dad , a Typhoon pilot in Normandy in 1944 – and the effects on a family of someone killed in Afghanistan.

    It’s easy to start a war – difficult to stop it. In wars (and coalitions) always have an exit strategy.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd May '16 - 5:37pm

    Very interesting article and in response , good points .

    I find myself not keen on an all or nothing approach on anything .It is why I consider my views in the centre of our party, and the radical centre and mainstream centre left of the general political spectrum, according to each scenario or policy .I am the same in attitude to intervention.I believe the 1st world war a catastrophy unnecessary , the second , justified entirely .Iraq , a massive mistake , the recent Syrian involvement , in my opinion the correct stance.

    I like the so very similar , yet often different in actual policy , ethical and heartfelt expressions of Eddie Sammon, and David Raw, above.On many issues I agree with Eddie, and feel he should join our party , on some , I agree with David , but respect his compassion , regardless.

    I think , Jonathan , you or anyone of the view that is , in the best traditions , oriented towards peace , at your most moderate , or even pacifism at your more radical level of feeling , must accept this is a political party , however much a third or fourth party in order of power , and not a protest movement first and last .If you do not realise that may put you at odds with many on these issues , you might get very frustrated and not feel at home .I am from a Catholic background , though holistic in my spiritual as well as political outlook, and have great understanding towards your principled stance .But I want us to know we are for war when we have the sort of outrages Eddie alludes to above , and David , correctly says must be of last resort !

  • Stevan Rose 2nd May '16 - 5:59pm

    Pacifism is fine if you live in a society of non-pacifists who will protect you and your family however much you harangue them. Or when the entire world is composed of pacifists. ISIS wouldn’t care that someone is a pacifist, they would be executed regardless. I would suggest that many pacifists, perhaps not all but the vast majority, are only pacifists from a safe distance. If the lives of their spouses and children, and their own, were at imminent risk in the absence of armed defence, those noble principles would likely be sacrificed.

    Aggression is a fact of life and if you are not prepared to defend yourself you will be eliminated. The dilemma is when and where defence should begin. Each and every case is different and often highly complex. I could make an argument that WW1 was avoidable, a politician’s war fought by proxy. WW2 on the other hand was a direct and imminent threat to British lives and earlier and stronger intervention may have reduced loss of life. Libya did not strike me as posing an imminent threat to the UK or our allies. ISIS, on the other hand, I believe is a direct threat to my family right now, and to contain and destroy them where they are is essential. That means foreign intervention. They have shown they cannot be negotiated with so this is simply not an option. I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of a parallel where negotiated settlement to a conflict was absolutely impossible and can’t come up with one.

    When it comes to the Middle East it strikes me that the borders of many states were arbitrarily set by imperial powers (Inc. Ottoman), splitting and combining nations in a manner bound at some point to result in explosive conflict. Many of the problems in that region stem from imperial intervention generations ago. You could argue that an obsession with retaining those borders constitutes ongoing intervention and there is a duty to assist in facilitating a correction peacefully.

  • An “incompatible melange of pro-asylum seeker and pro-interventionist rhetoric and ideology”. These need not necessarily be incompatible. I can remember that one of Tim Farron’s original red lines was that “no fly zones” would have to be created in Syria – which would offer a degree of refuge within the country. [No fly-zones were established in the aftermath of the West’s first Gulf War and assisted the formation of the Kurdish proto state in northern Iraq.] Such an intervention could be argued to be both pro-asylum seeker and pro-interventionist. Sadly the red lines were abandoned in a rush to bomb come what may.

  • @ Stevan Rose “Aggression is a fact of life and if you are not prepared to defend yourself you will be eliminated.”

    Sorry, that is not necessarily so – it is it is nothing more than the law of the jungle. I don’t think Ghandi would have believed it – or Martin Luther King…. or even to an extent Nelson Mandela. Certainly the black sash women in South Africa didn’t.

    You would be well advised to read about the conscientious objectors in WW1 – in particular the Richmond Castle 16.

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