The UK’s future-perfect

The UK’s future-perfect

The largely left-wing U.K. anti-war movement has acquired a powerful right-wing ally: The maverick leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and darling of the British media, Nigel Farage.

Farage vigorously opposes the decision of Britain’s coalition government to instigate fresh military action in Iraq in order to counter the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL) and the alleged "clear and present danger" it poses to the U.K. He portrays the action as rash and likely to render the U.K. less safe. He also alleges that Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron deliberately placed Britain on a heightened terror alert in the hope of eclipsing UKIP’s autumn conference.

What really frightens Cameron, Farage suggests, is UKIP. And it is true that many Conservatives, including two MPs, have already defected to UKIP, believing that that the Conservative Party cannot be trusted to tackle immigration and grant an early referendum on British membership of the European Union.

Thanks to Farage, the chances that Cameron’s party could win outright the next U.K. general election, in May 2015, appear increasingly slim. By contrast, the UKIP leader is shaping up as a key power broker in a country beset by crisis over Europe, internal pressures for devolution in the wake of the Scottish referendum, and security fears about British Muslims enrolling as ISIL militants.

Expected to become a Westminster MP next year (at present he is a member of the European Parliament), Farage was not able to participate in the parliamentary vote on Sept. 25 that endorsed limited U.K. military intervention in Iraq. It must be said that the intervention is indeed limited, a symbolic gesture to advertise Britain’s membership of the U.S.-led ‘coalition of the willing’. It could hardly be anything else since, thanks to drastic retrenchment on defense, British airpower has shrunk since the Iraq war of 2003.

Confusingly, the action is being presented as limited, even as U.K Defense Secretary Michael Fallon forecasts a military campaign lasting years. Certainly, Britain is at risk of falling prey to collective Western "mission creep." In parliament, the respected Conservative MP, Rory Stewart, made a cogent case that airstrikes could be effectual in stemming the advance of ISIL. Outside parliament, though, not a few deplore the lack of a thought-out U.K. strategy and suspect that token military action has been mandated in a desperate, panic-stricken effort to allay public horror at the beheadings of Western hostages. Above all, critics of intervention point to the not exactly encouraging upshot of the British involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya. Three years ago, David Cameron boasted that U.K. air support of anti-Gaddafi rebels was paving the way for a new, democratic Libya. Now, with Libya in turmoil, he is silent on the subject.

MPs congratulated themselves on the measured character of the debate on renewed intervention in Iraq. Yet not only was the debate light on strategic thinking, it also yielded precious little in the way of constructive proposals – the sort of imaginative statesmanship advocated last week by the retired British ambassador, Oliver Miles. In an article for the Guardian, Miles argued that the U.K. would do well to press for recognition of Palestine, something, he believes, that would enhance its standing in the Middle East, along with its ability to influence events. The sorry truth is that its actual record calls into question whether the British political establishment is capable of accomplishing anything much in the region beyond lining up behind the United States in the application of brute force.

Many are bound to feel, especially in view of its possible domestic repercussions for a country with a large Muslim population, that UK policy in the Middle East needs to be refashioned, purged of its anachronistic imperial pretentions. With his hard-right stance, Nigel Farage is an unlikely, and perhaps not altogether welcome, bedfellow of the Muslims and leftists who dominate the UK anti-war lobby. All the same, this voluble "little Englander" could yet prove the most persuasive champion of the case that it is high time the U.K. controlled its compulsion to intervene in foreign lands and faced up to its modest capacities.

This abridged article was originally published in Khaleej Times online.