It occurred to me that I’ve been wasting my time grumbling on this blog (here and here) about journalists and politicians who describe the current age in Britain as “peacetime” when we are at war in Afghanistan. Not because I think it’s a non-issue, but because my mutterings here won’t make any difference.
So I sent an email (a polite one) to Chris Elliott, The Guardian’s Reader’s Editor. He agreed with me and wrote about it in his Open Door column on Monday. (The readers’ editor on … ‘peacetime’, and a new way of defining the current era)
Why do politicians and journalists in Britain like the word “peacetime” so much? For politicians, it’s mostly a rhetorical device. For journalists it’s often to save precious space - it’s shorter than “since the Second World War”. Strangely, Americans don’t use it very much in this context, perhaps because so many of their leaders and pundits like to say that they are at war to defend themselves against an existential threat. One of George W Bush’s favourite phrases was “I’m a wartime president”. His administration used the “War on Terror”, including the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, to justify a massive expansion of military spending and an assault on civil liberties.
Britain has gone along with all of this, being a willing partner in violence against other countries, complicit in torture and increasing the power of the state over its citizens. But our politicians, and now many of our journalists, are able to compartmentalize this violence. The conflict is ‘over there’, while we go about our normal business ‘over here’. We have more important things to worry about: jobs are at risk, salaries and benefits are being frozen or cut, social spending is being axed. We worry about whether we can pay our mortgages, rent and bills.
The problem with this compartmentalization is that these two things are related. We have a massive budget deficit and we have squandered vast amounts of wealth on completely unnecessary wars. If we had not wasted so much of our money on increasing our ability to inflict violence against others, we would have been able to spend it on useful things - like hospitals, schools and pension funds. The economic crisis may have been caused by greedy bankers and their friends in government, but it was exacerbated by our propensity for war. The government tells us it has to “reduce Britain’s record peacetime budget deficit” with the “biggest cuts in peacetime”. But we are not at peace, and haven’t been for most of the last decade.
A significant majority of Britons are opposed to our military involvement in Afghanistan. The same is true of Americans and the citizens of almost all the other NATO countries who have sent troops there. The problem is we don’t seem to care enough to do anything about it. We just let our politicians ignore our opinions and carry on as normal.
At the general election in May, we were presented with virtually no choice at all. Unlike Scotland and Wales, all three of the main political parties in England supported the conflict in Afghanistan. In my constituency the only two parties that reflected British opinion on this issue were the far-right BNP and the left-leaning Green Party. I voted for the latter. Neither of these parties stood any chance of winning more than one seat in parliament (fortunately, the BNP failed to achieve even that).
So now our politicians get on with doing whatever they want, ignoring us or manipulating us with PR slogans, while we do nothing to stop them. This is not democracy.
We will never have democracy in Britain, America or anywhere else unless we take action. And that brings me back to my complaint about the word “peacetime”. This may seem like pedantry but, like an alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge his addiction, unless we call a thing by its proper name we will never do anything about it.