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Ammunition to the cynics


Scepticism over recent global political events reflects a lack of trust in British judgment, intensified when things go wrong on the domestic scene.

Protests before `HMS Ark Royal' leaves Scotland for West Asia.

BY the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the doubters in the United Kingdom had been convinced by the facts of the situation. Hitler's invasion, and defeat, of Britain's European neighbours made it crystal clear that the threat was real, and dire. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor later, brought the Americans similarly to face the reality of attack. Once those realities were accepted, unity in pursuit of the overall purpose of defeating Hitler and his allies outweighed other considerations. Food rationing, shortages, bombed cities, damaged railways, such things were accepted as the inevitable concomitants of war. I was a child, but old enough to be acutely conscious of all that.

The apparently increasing likelihood of an American attack on Iraq, with British support, is a totally different situation from that which obtained in 1939. In Britain certainly — and, it is clear, to an increasing extent in the United States — doubts about the justification for an attack have been growing. Here, public debate has become intense. The major satirical television programme on Sunday (Bremner, Bird and Fortune, named after the three performers) which I watched just before writing this Cambridge Letter was devoted wholly to the topic. It was devastatingly critical of Tony Blair and George Bush. Underlying it, and underlying a great deal of public comment, was deep scepticism about the evidence which might justify an attack on Iraq, and deep concern about the death and destruction which an attack would cause.

Such scepticism and concern reflect a lack of trust in the government's judgment, and, more specifically, in Tony Blair's judgment. That lack of trust is intensified when things go wrong on the domestic political scene.

There is nothing approaching the stoic acceptance that characterised the popular reaction during the second World War, because people do not see the things that are going wrong as the inevitable consequences of Britain's wholesale commitment to a popular cause. To the contrary, many people are not committed to the cause, and see what is going wrong as yet further proof of the Government's inefficiency, and its detachment from reality.

Consider a few examples. During the past few days snow has fallen in the eastern parts of the United Kingdom. It is not an uncommon phenomenon in the winter, but it brought parts of the country to an uncomfortable standstill. Conditions on the M 11, one of the major motorways, which runs from London to Cambridge, were chaotic. Motorists spent up to 15 hours unable to move, and with virtually no help from the emergency services. The Highways Authority, the responsible body, did not get the roads treated with grit, in spite of the fact that the snow was accurately forecast.

This week, a warning has been issued that the school examination system, which ran into a major and embarrassing crisis last year, may face similar troubles this year.

This week, too, Tony Blair has made it clear that in his view reform of the House of Lords, which has been bubbling away on the constitutional back burner for several years, should take the form of an appointed rather than an elected body. He is not carrying all his cabinet colleagues with him, and his opinion, which marks a significant move away from what appeared to be a genuine commitment to making the second chamber a more democratic body to creating one whose democratic credentials are hard to discern, gives more ammunition to the cynics.

A ministerial decision this week to ban a planned anti-war rally in Hyde Park in mid-February on the unconvincing argument that the ground will be too wet was widely criticised.

It was quickly followed by an explanation that if a better site could not be found, of course the march would be allowed to go ahead.

All this has been happening against a background of economic anxiety, as share prices have been steadily falling.

It would be unfair, of course, to blame the Government for everything that goes wrong. It is not, for example, responsible for the weather. It is, however, responsible for ensuring that the public services work, and when they work badly, as many currently do, the patience of the electorate runs out. A combination of poor performance on the domestic political scene, pursuit of a foreign policy which many feel to be misjudged, and an approach to democracy that many see as gravely flawed is a situation of high risk for the government. When things work out well in the end, high risks may seem to be justified. When they do not, that is another story.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K..

E-mail him at

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