Minding Our Own Business

“Peace is a coin which has two sides – one is the avoidance of the use of force and the other is the creation of conditions of justice. In the long run you cannot expect one without the other.”
John Foster Dulles, 1956

Dulles was not a man whose actions lived up to his words. Nor can anything better be said of the world’s rulers today. Five years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains in turmoil and for those countries involved in its conquest it is the spectre that will haunt a generation. Not simply because there is no peace but ultimately because there is no justice. So long as Bush, Blair and Brown are free to strut upon the world stage, fêted as statesmen, anger will continue to fester and resolution will remain elusive.

Our Party’s policy is clear. It is for judges to decide the legality of war, not politicians or their pocket lawyers. The context for such a ruling must be the indictment of those who orchestrated the invasion, those who, in the formula of the Nuremberg Tribunal, formed part of the common plan or conspiracy to wage aggressive war.

That means, in the United Kingdom context, both Blair and Brown, along with their respective cabinets and the majority of Labour backbenchers. It remains an enigma that the Labour Party continues to exist at all. How can people of goodwill continue to devote their political lives to so vile and valueless an organisation?

But the Conservatives are no less liable to stand trial for war crimes. All but 16 of their MPs present voted for war, an even worse record than Labour’s. (The rebels included three from Wessex.) Apparently they did it because they believed the Prime Minister. The job of Her Majesty’s Opposition is always to do precisely the opposite of that. By failing to do their job they too have forfeited all moral authority. One needn’t think the LibDems are off the hook either. It’s true that they voted against, so no charges stick there, but they gave the war their total support once declared, arguably the least principled position imaginable. Our chaps deserve support, the reasoning goes, because they’re only obeying orders. Now, where did we last hear that excuse?

It is an odd situation in which we find ourselves. In 2003 the majority of the House of Commons became composed of alleged war criminals; an election later, many of them are still there. But that is what happens when the electorate fails to punish politicians for their bad deeds and leaves the meting-out of a harsher and less discriminate justice to the murderous rage of suicide bombers.

We are not the government of Wessex and so, at this juncture, can only take the longer-term view. We cannot magically undo the present mess. We cannot rescue the electorate from the consequences of its folly. What we can do is suggest how the longer-term view should shape a future worth struggling for.

One of the recurrent themes of the past five years has been the extent to which British troops have been sent into combat inadequately equipped. Of course, any sympathy for the troops must be tempered by the fact that no-one forced them to join in the first place; from now on, a boycott of Labour’s armed forces by all principled men and women would do a power of good. Nevertheless, there is undoubtedly a gap between what the armed forces are capable of doing and what they are currently expected to do. It should surprise no-one that the military would close the gap by spending more on defence. A better way would be to spend less. The smaller the armed forces, the weaker the temptation for politicians to play games with soldiers’ lives, to stake their own legacy upon foolish foreign adventures of no conceivable relevance to the defence of the realm. To lecture others on the evils of WMDs, while continuing to stockpile our own, is the depth of hollowness and hypocrisy. If we would be heard, let us rid our own country of them first.

We say this in full knowledge of the importance of defence and allied industries to the economic well-being of Wessex. Preparation for war has dominated our region for centuries. Defence procurement provides Bristol with one of its largest sources of office employment. Hampshire is ‘home’ to both the Royal Navy, at Portsmouth, and the Army, at Aldershot. Further north, air bases at Greenham Common and Upper Heyford became by-words for Cold War fear. Huge areas of Wiltshire and Dorset remain today fenced off as military establishments and training grounds. The villages of Imber in Wiltshire and Tyneham in Dorset, requisitioned ‘temporarily’ for the Second World War, have never been returned to their former inhabitants.

Defence underpins much of the region’s economy, directly or through purchases in the aerospace and electronics sectors. So reduced defence spending must be matched by increased spending on the creation of alternative employment in sustainable industries for those displaced. MoD land is an asset in more than the financial sense. While armoured vehicles have done damage to the archaeology of Wessex it is also true that the exclusion of modern development and agricultural practices has done much for the landscape and wildlife in areas like Tyneham. The future use of redundant defence sites poses huge issues for the planning system. Sites need to be made over to local communities who will cherish them as their environment, not developed, as so often happens, to accommodate the on-going irresponsibility of London overspill.

The world’s nations with the highest quality of life have achieved their enviable position by eschewing the craze for glory. Opponents of the British Empire used to be called ‘Little Englanders’. If we are now judged ‘Little Wessexers’, so much the better. There are so many things to be done around our home, things that centralist governments have put off indefinitely, pleading poverty. So many public service improvements that are needed. So much new infrastructure to prepare Wessex for the post-oil world. Yet sadly, much of the wealth that could fund our future is currently being wasted.

The United Kingdom spends nearly £30 billion every year on defence, £1 billion of it specifically on Iraq. It is also the fifth largest arms exporter in the world and subsidies of arms exports cost taxpayers around £900 million a year. Wessex has a share in this too. Wessex Regionalists condemn the arms trade, whose consequences for global security cannot be limited to the countries to which arms are sold. What hope for peace is there when the ten largest arms exporting countries include all five permanent members of the Security Council?

Another £7.5 billion annually is spent on our behalf on overseas aid. That includes £825 million for India over the next three years. The UK provides one-third of all world aid to that country, one rich enough to have developed its own nuclear bomb in 1974 (grotesquely named ‘Smiling Buddha’). To question these priorities of our government is not to criticise the goal of lifting poorer countries than our own out of grinding poverty. But as well as demanding some responsibility on their own part it is worth remembering that many of these countries were better off when they did not ‘benefit’ from being part of the global money economy, burdened with debts they can never repay. If we would help them now there are better ways than recycling our money through them on its way back to us. Supporting their right to decide their own futures and not suffer the one imposed by the ideologues of the World Trade Organisation might be a good place to start. To buy local, not global, is another. Fair trade is better than free trade. But why trade at all, if we can make it ourselves? If we must give money to other countries, let it be through voluntary contributions, ethically organised, not through the tax and spend policies of governments with murkier agendas of their own.

We have always said that folk on the spot know best what money should be spent on. So let’s be putting that principle into effect, in Wessex, and throughout the world. By all means let us co-operate, more so than today, in the promotion of world peace and justice. But let us also be clear what is primarily our business and what is emphatically not.

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