If the Kosovo crisis didn't exist, Blair would have to invent it
When Tony Blair suggested that the April nail-bombs which killed three people in London were somehow 'our Kosovo', he gave the game away as to what his disastrous Balkan adventure has really been all about - not rescuing ethnic Albanian refugees, but seeking to save the soul of New Britain itself.
What connection did Blair see between Kosovo and the London bombs? Presumably the prime minister was not conceding that, like the nail-bomber, NATO was engaged in a bloody-minded bombing campaign, with no obvious purpose other than to inflict the maximum harm. And even somebody with Blair's propensity for putting his feelings before the facts would be hard pushed to argue that a major European war and three crude bombs in bags were tragedies of comparable weight.
No; for Blair, what the two tragedies had in common was that each furnished him with the opportunity to climb on his charger and lead 'all the good people of Britain' in a campaign against 'the evil people'.
Those phrases are not taken from a child's fairytale, but from a key speech which Blair made to a meeting of Sikhs in Birmingham on 2 May. There, the prime minister outlined 'our ambition to create a modern civic society for today's world, to renew the bonds of community that bind us together'. Both Kosovo and the nail-bombings posed a challenge to such a society; and, in response to both, Blair declared, the New Labour government was 'fighting for the same values' - 'British values' such as tolerance, opposition to injustice, and respect for diversity.
These may not sound much like traditional British values. But for Blair, that's the point. Nobody is much interested in rallying behind Queen, Country and Church these days. In his bid 'to renew the bonds of community that hold us together', Blair is groping around for some basic values that can serve as a sort of social cement on the eve of a new century. Uniting 'all the good people of Britain' against 'the evil people' is about as basic as you can get.
This is where Blair's crusade against Slobodan Milosevic came in. As we analysed in last month's LM, the NATO intervention was not really about events in Kosovo or the Balkans at all. That local conflict was simply to provide a focus for a military and propaganda campaign designed to consolidate a sense of community in Britain and the West.
From the start, Blair set up the war against Yugoslavia as 'no longer just a military conflict. It is a battle between Good and Evil; between civilisation and barbarity'. The message for his audience at home was clear enough. 'Slobba' had been designated a Hitler figure, and all good people were urged to come together to turn him out of 'the international community'. (Fighting NATO must be 'like fighting God', said the modest supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark.)
Understood in this way, it becomes easier to make sense of some of the more perplexing features of the conflict. For instance, why did President Bill Clinton, and even more so Blair, choose to adopt a hardline position at the Rambouillet talks that was certain to lead to war with Milosevic? And why did they then ignore military advice and launch an air war that was bound to create chaos in Kosovo, with little or no chance of ultimate success? Possibly because, as a crusade intended to whip up a consensus in the West, the important thing became not achieving any practical war aims, but simply prosecuting a religious war.
Kosovo seemed to serve as the best available focus for Blair's campaign to create a sense of moral community. It is in this sense that, if the Kosovo crisis hadn't existed, Blair would have had to invent it. Or to find an alternative. And this is where the nail-bombs blew into the picture.
Although the war in Kosovo has provided a nice hook on which Blair could hang his white hat, many of the 'good people of Britain' have felt too disengaged from these faraway issues. How much better it would be to discover a surrogate Kosovo nearer home, around which the government could construct a more powerful community of concerned citizens.
When it began, on Saturday 17 April, the campaign of nail-bombs in Britain's capital city fitted the bill perfectly - especially when the bombings in Brixton and Brick Lane and Soho were blamed on despised far-right groupings like Combat 18 and the White Wolves. These irrelevant little factions were quickly elevated into a major force against which civilised society must unite. The 'Nazis' (because real barbarians are always aliens to the British way of life) had to be drowned in a tidal wave of communal decency.
Blair was not the only one to adopt the nail-bombings as 'our Kosovo', in an appeal to build a new nation of diverse communities with shared values. Trevor Phillips, the black TV presenter and possible New Labour candidate for London mayor, wrote that the racist 'scum who bomb our communities' were 'importing the values of Serbian ethnic purists to a country where such ideas are alien'. One Asian activist described the nail-bombs as 'ethnic cleansing on a small scale'. And from the gay community, Boy George captured the new spirit of wartime unity against 'these evil fascists', arguing that 'this latest spate of bombings proves there is no longer an "us and them". There is only us'.
Yet by the time people read Boy George's stirring words in the Sunday Express of 2 May, a bombshell of a different kind had dropped. On Saturday 1 May, a day after the Soho explosion, the police had arrested a 22-year old man from Hampshire and charged him with the bombings and murders. Furthermore, the police announced that he had no connection at all with any racist, fascist or far-right groupings. Suddenly it seemed that Blair's 'good people of Britain' could no longer be encouraged to imagine a conspiracy of 'the evil people'. Alongside the expressions of relief that the police appeared to have got their man, the media reporting revealed a palpable air of disappointment that 'the Kosovo connection' in British society had evaporated overnight.
Blair, however, seemed reluctant to let go. His response to the end of the nail-bombing campaign was simply to ignore it. His major speech to the Birmingham Sikhs, declaring war on 'the evil people' spreading terror in both Britain and the Balkans, was actually delivered the day after everybody knew that there was no far-right conspiracy to bomb London. As in Kosovo, Blair was not about to let events on the ground get in the way of pursuing his crusade.
'When one section of our community is under attack', Blair told the Birmingham Sikhs, 'we defend them in the name of all the community. When bombs attack the black and Asian community in Britain, they attack the whole of Britain. When the gay community is attacked and innocent people are murdered, all the good people of Britain, whatever their race, their lifestyle, their class, unite in revulsion and determination to bring the evil people to justice'.
In so doing, the prime minister made clear, the community would do more than bring killers to justice: 'We are defending what it means to be British', against 'the true outcasts today...the racists, the bombers, the violent criminals who hate that vision of Britain and try to destroy it. But they shall not win. The great decent majority of British people will not let them'. He concluded by linking the fight against 'injustice and intoler- ance' in Britain to the war against 'ethnic cleansing and racial genocide' in Kosovo, as part of a battle 'in defence of our values'.
The next day, Monday 3 May, Blair went back to the war in the Balkans to find a new focus for the defence of 'British values'. His emotional, high-fiving trip to the refugee camps, accompanied by a weeping Cherie in loveheart jewellery, provided the perfect pictures to accompany his Birmingham soundtrack. On the way home to Britain he stopped off in Romania to tell the parliament there that Milosevic was, as the Mirror reported it, 'a "pariah" who had severed his nation from civilised Europe' (5 May). So the Serb leader regained the undisputed top slot, as the man against whom 'all the good people of Britain' could 'unite in revulsion'.
However the war ends, the way in which Clinton and Blair have exploited the Kosovo crisis to serve their own self-righteous cause has already brought disaster down upon all the peoples of the Balkans. But all this does not promise too bright a future for us here in Britain, either.
What kind of a community is it that can only be called into existence when it is time to 'unite in revulsion' against a nail-bomber? If, as Blair says, these people are 'defending what it means to be British', then being British clearly does not mean very much. Asking us to be angry at a murdering madman who nail-bombs shops and pubs is not exactly setting a high standard for national morality.
And what of the values of 'tolerance' and 'freedom' which Blair's crusaders claim to uphold at home and abroad? They only apply to those who abide by the rules and conventions of his moral community. So the prime minister has promised to undermine freedom of speech in Britain again, by tightening the law against incitement to racial hatred, in a further step towards policing what are deemed to be people's evil thoughts as well as actions. And as he set out in his recent, highly pretentious 'Doctrine of the international community', Blair envisages more Balkan-style military interventions around the world against those who fail his test of virtues and values.
At the end of his speech in Birmingham, Blair thanked his hosts and others in Britain for supporting his war against the Serbs - a war for 'British values, the values of the Sikh community'. What were those Sikh values which he equated with modern Britishness? 'Compassion, humility, piety, justice.' Among other things, 'humility' means having a low opinion of oneself. And 'piety' means faithfulness to the duty naturally owed to your superiors. We have been warned.
Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999