Monday 16 November 2015

Liberalism and war

People don’t seem to listen much to Noel Coward these days, but he remains a great favourite of mine and I happened to be listening over the weekend to his wartime song ‘Could you please oblige us with a bren gun’.

I’m not sure when the song was written, but it refers to the Home Guard and their woeful, not to say farcical, lack of equipment.

I suddenly heard the song from the modern point of view, and the obsession with the corporate need to be ‘on-message’, and how often it has the opposite effect.

It struck me that there might be a clue here about how a Liberal society fights a war – with humour, openness, truth. But even so, I don’t suppose there is another nation on earth which would dare allow a song, at that moment, about how badly prepared we were for invasion.

I’ve been asking myself these questions after hearing President Hollande describing the Paris attacks as an “act of war”.

We know that Liberalism is a political creed that thrives in peacetime, but can struggle in war. The First World War disposed of Parliamentary Liberalism almost permanently, dividing it ideologically. It was hard for Edwardian Liberals to contemplate conscription. Nor could Liberals embrace the implications of the Western Front.

But is it really true that Liberalism can only tell us about peaceful societies? Has it got nothing to say now, for example, beyond a hopeful plea to ‘hold together’?

If it means the sort of vacuous relativism of postmodernism, that sometimes passes for Liberalism, then it probably doesn’t. It certainly can’t summon up the ruthlessness that societies need to demonstrate if they are going to defend – I hate to use the meaningless word ‘values’ – what they believe,

But Noel Coward’s song was a clue for me about what makes this Liberal defence possible. Tolerance of human frailty has to be protected, so does humour - not humour for the sake of humour – but the kind of humour that allows us to survive as a nation.

But the other, fiercer Liberalism is represented by the great Liberal philosopher Karl Popper. Liberal societies, as he defines them, are those which make it possible to challenge from below, to question elites, to ask difficult questions. They can learn from mistakes faster, and in the end that makes them effective.

You only have to only to read Anthony Beever’s book Stalingrad to see what happens when two dictators slug it out with millions of men at their personal whim, fighting inefficiently and brutally and inhumanely in the snow.

Put like that, the Second World War was won because one side was Liberal enough to learn from their mistakes. The same I believe will in the end determine victory over IS.

But there is one other lesson from Liberalism implied by Popper. I that if (heaven forfend) one of the Paris terrorists happens to be sheltering in the cellar of my office, then I know – or I think I know – that the government will not sacrifice my life to kill him.

I also know that, if I lived in some parts of Pakistan, those rules are somehow considered not to apply to me. They won’t be happy to sacrifice my life, but they may still do it.

Because it is a long way away? Because human life counts less there? Because they prefer not to think about how counterproductive this sacrifice might be?

But then, we live in a Liberal society where we learn faster because people are allowed to ask difficult questions. That is, paradoxically why we will win, so I'm asking this one. Because, the other Liberal lesson for effective war is that it matters very much - and for practical reasons - how you fight it.

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