Parties on a war footing – but what are they fighting for?

New Year, old sabre-rattling. Gordon Brown and David Cameron are parading their leadership credentials, with a view to capturing an entire nation – the UK, that is.

David Cameron made a speech (transcript here) in Oxfordshire today saying that the country needs a change of direction and a new leadership:

“We can’t go on in these difficult times with a weak prime minister and a divided government.”

[See the BBC website for a video clip]

You can almost hear the Tory munitions factory roar as they forge this, strengthen that and defeat the other.

And here’s Gordon Brown on New Year’s Eve:

“The Detroit plot thankfully failed. But it has been a wake-up call for the ongoing battles we must wage not just for security against terror but for the hearts and minds of a generation.”

It’s a common political (and journalistic, and marketing) technique to play to people’s fears, but what next in the Prime Ministerial arms race – Brown and Cameron appearing on the decks of rival aircraft carriers, squeezed into military uniform à la George Bush?

Neither leader, for all their fighting talk, seems to have heard of liberty.

Contrast with Nick Clegg’s non-scaremongering approach, in an article for the Times more than two years ago: “Defeating terror the British way”:

“As the national debate on terrorism matures, our aim should remain steadfast and simple: to protect both our lives and our liberties, and to refuse to accept that one requires the sacrifice of the other.”

And what of this dispiriting headline on ConservativeHome today? –

70% of Tory members back ethnic screening of air travellers.

Making arbitrary judgements about a person based on identifiers such as race or place is a bit like reading a book’s index and saying you’ve appreciated the sweeping narrative and nuanced characters. Rather than nailing the plot, the Tories have lost it.

Both Cameron and Brown are using the political rhetoric of uniting against a common enemy – but who? Johnny Foreigner? Party politics? Privacy? Whatever the threat, just all come and join Labour/the Tories. Fall in, little people. You need a strong leader, who will save you from yourselves.

Trouble is, I don’t want to be a hostage in their big tent:

Going commando doesn’t work – Ian Roberts pointed out (as only Ian Roberts can);

Airport patdowns don’t work;

ID cards (another wartime throwback) don’t work;

Body scanning doesn’t work;

Owning people’s bodies doesn’t work;

Owning people’s thoughts doesn’t work.

Wars, terrorist attacks and other man (or woman) -made disasters don’t just happen because of a single slip-up or security breach but because of a multiple systems failure in culture and communications.

Stephen Glenn has blogged:

“Ok surely by having a war cabinet you are admitting dividing lines with someone else. Do they really exist? Surely if you are taking one approach domestically and another internationally you are all messed up. If you are trying to ignore some dividing lines yet not seeking to understand others, either across Europe, with fundamentalist Muslims, or whomever, what is it you are trying to achieve?

How about a national peace cabinet? To look for solutions. Or is that too far out there for the Tories?”

Darrell Goodliffe exposes the “lunacy” of ethnic screening.

And Liberal Revolution wonders whether Cameron’s speech could well be the opening salvo in the General election air war proper.

The Conservatives don’t want to change the system that has served them so well. The “Spirit of Unity” passage in Cameron’s speech is a bait and switch:

“I will invite leaders of the main opposition parties to attend the war cabinet”, he says.

“When a nation is at war, it needs to pull together,” he says.

From Cameron’s speech one can only conclude: who can be the enemy but – anyone who’s against change. “Change” as a battle cry is a seductive one. After all, only unreasonable people could possibly be against change itself , why that would be, well, conservatism.

But Cameron’s hardly going to declare a war on that, is he?

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