Boris Johnson’s War Party

BY TOM LANSDELL

Given the turbulence surrounding Trump’s election win, it would be easy to have missed out on the significance of recent developments in Anglo-Russian relations. Yet the announcement at the start of this month that Britain would deploy long-range missiles as well as tanks, armoured vehicles and 800 troops to the Estonia-Russia border ought to be seen as the most hostile relations have become since the end of the Cold War.

Public complacency on the issue may in part stem from the government’s decision not to enforce a no-fly zone on Russia in Syria last month. Far from the break in escalation that this decision would superficially seem to represent, Boris Johnson’s initial support for the idea coupled with the aggressive rhetoric that he espoused in parliament following his announcement suggests that it was only widespread public opposition that prevented the implementation of a no-fly zone. While often portrayed in the media as a “soft” option, the reality is that it is a measure that would involve shooting down aircraft in violation of the no-fly zone, bombing Russian air defences and the inevitable associated collateral damage. As such, we should not underplay the aggression that the proposal represents.

Although defeated, Johnson’s barely cloaked aggressive intentions should still worry us. His unrealised objectives do not mark a change in policy, but merely the beginning of a campaign of persuasion and the development of a war party. For the war party to gain traction, the government will need to firstly construct Russia as a threat, and secondly smear anti-war movements as being unpatriotic – the beginning of which we have already seen. Hermann Goering best described the strategy. He said:

“Why of course the people don’t want war… But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along… All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” ¹

When addressing parliament, Johnson did his best to kill these two birds with one stone. Rather than justify his position, Johnson unconventionally took his opportunity in parliament to criticise the Stop the War Coalition and other anti-war groups, stating in parliament that he “would certainly like to see demonstrations outside the Russian embassy” and asked: “Where is the Stop the War Coalition at the moment? Where are they?”. If such outrage had been directed against a debating opponent, these comments may be more understandable; but his time in parliament was meant to be about explaining his plan of action, so it seems strange to ratchet up the rhetoric at a time where the rhetorical extension of an olive branch would have been much more consistent with the measures he had just pledged to undertake.

The campaign of enemy construction has extended well beyond front-bench politics. In the first interview given by an incumbent MI5 chief in its 107-year history, Andrew Parker called Russia out as a “growing threat”. As a public servant without a representative role, Parker’s comments cannot be taken to be only a private musing, but comments he sees as necessary to the workings of his organisation.

Both Parker and Johnson’s responses give a worrying insight into the mind-set of those at the helm of Britain’s foreign and security policies, at least from the perspective of international peace. If our recent history is anything to go by, we should be wary of government efforts to build a war party and not be afraid of being branded unpatriotic for merely taking a critical approach towards our own government’s foreign policy. If there is anything positive to come out of Trump’s election, it is that it may force our government to rethink its approach to Russia. However, for now the government continues to use its power to manipulate public opinion in favour of military intervention. Will it be long before we see the emergence of another “dodgy dossier”?

References

  1. Gilbert, G.M. (1995). Nuremberg Diary, DaCapo Press, 1st edition

 

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