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16 April 1999

New Britain's moral crusade

'The war against the Serbs is about projecting a self-image of the ethical New Britain bestriding the world. It is a crusade'

Mick Hume, LM editor

John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, can denounce 'Mr Milloffosoffeffic', but he cannot pronounce him. Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, seems to think that Kosovo is being ravaged by President Milosevic's 'Siberian forces'. Mr Cook has also assured us that he 'knows' that the Serbs executed 20 Albanian teachers in front of their pupils in Goden. What he does not appear to know is that Goden is a village with just 200 inhabitants - yet, it seems, with a teacher/pupil ratio beyond even the fantasies of the NUT conference fringe.

The Balkans may no longer seem so faraway, but these are still countries of which our government knows little and cares less. So what did Tony Blair mean when he told parliament that the war is being fought 'for a moral purpose as much as a strategic interest'? What moral purpose moved Mr Blair to become the first Labour prime minister to lead Britain into a major international war, involving democratic socialist air strikes on passenger trains, TV transmitters and homes?

The war's moral purpose clearly has little to do with the welfare of the region's peoples. Kosovo's Albanians are a hapless army of televisual victims whose suffering provides a convenient pretext for war. NATO contemptuously bombed their towns and cities. Then, when the air strikes precipitated a predictable humanitarian crisis, the 'shocked' West rushed in news crews to capture the refugees' tears - 'say "rape camp" for the cameras'.

The true position that the Kosovo Albanians hold in Britain's official affections is best revealed by the magical transformation these people undergo when the lucky few step off the ferry at Dover. Under the terms of New Labour's asylum laws, it's goodbye refugees from hell, hello dirty scrounging gypsies.

The 'moral purpose' of Mr Blair's war is not to be found in the Balkans, but at home. As ever, foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. The war against the Serbs is primarily about giving Mr Blair's government an aura of moral authority and a sense of mission. It is about projecting a self-image of the ethical New Britain bestriding the world. It is a crusade.

Like their medieval predecessors, new Labour's crusaders seem almost entirely ignorant of who they are off to fight and why. It is a case of 'insert appropriate enemy here', be it President Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. All that matters is to find a suitably ugly infidel against whom to prove their own righteousness. Since the government finds it difficult to forge a moral consensus in Britain on everything from genetic engineering to road-building, it eagerly seizes opportunities to lay down the law about what is Right and Wrong on the world stage.

This is what Mr Blair meant when he announced that the war against the Serbs is 'no longer just a military conflict. It is a battle between Good and Evil; between civilisation and barbarity'. Implicit in this statement is that, as a counterpoint to the Evil Mr Milosevic, Mr Blair is a force for Good in Britain and around the world. New Labour has appointed itself saviour of civilisation, on a noble mission to re-educate the barbarians.

The self-image of New Britain which Mr Blair's crusade seeks to endorse is captured by touching pictures of British Army officers bottle-feeding Albanian babies and brushing the hair of young refugee girls separated from their parents. This is a nanny state with a difference, claiming the right to act in loco parentis for all those it deems deserving. Armed with a brick of moral superiority in her handbag, Clare Short, the international development minister, can bully Macedonian border officials about not acting like civilised Europeans. And behind her, an army of radical activists, actors, journalists and others in search of a cause with which to make themselves feel better, have signed on for new Labour's religious war.

As a new crusade, Mr Blair's war need not be restrained by the rules of realpolitik. All that matters is that Something Must Be Done, and let's worry about the consequences later. The out-of-control character of this adventure raises serious questions about where it all might end.

No doubt Mr Blair and his followers sincerely believe their war is a just moral cause. After all, the righteous (or in this case the self-righteous) can do no wrong. But those who think that anything goes so long as the Kosovo Albanians are saved might remember what happened to previous victims picked by Western liberals to justify 'humanitarian' interventions. They were dropped when the moral roadshow moved on. Anybody seen an Iraqi marsh Arab lately?

This article was originally published in The Times (London) on 15 April 1999.

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