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How Britain's Increasing Diversity Is Affecting Foreign Policy Thinking



In his recent trip to Afghanistan, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband firmly stated that he would support British military intervention in future conflicts if it was "in the national interest". However, judging by recent statements made by senior figures in Britain's military, security and police establishments to two national newspapers, it will be in Britain's national interest not to engage in wars. At its core, their message is simple and straightforward but of profound importance: the changing nature of the British population is affecting its foreign policy options.

This was made clear in The Guardian on January 23rd by senior figures at the Ministry of Defence (MOD) who recognise a resistance to British troops being deployed in countries from which some UK citizens or their families once came - that is, from an increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse nation. Naturally, the focus of their thinking is on military actions in Muslim majority countries. As a consequence - and remarkably, given Britain's long history of wars - the MOD officials rule out a repeat of an Afghanistan-or-Iraq-style invasion. Though the ultimate decision to go to war is the prime minister's - possibly following a vote in parliament - the sentiments, and advice therein, are unambiguous.

The vote against military intervention by the House of Commons on 30th August last year to punish President Assad of Syria for his alleged use of chemical weapons against rebel forces is the first pointer to this new thinking. It is attributed not only to the changed demographics but also to the deep-seated opposition to wars from all sections of the population: a large majority was against war on Syria notwithstanding the fact that Prime Minister David Cameron gave a firm undertaking that the attack would not involve boots on the ground.

Relatedly, in an interview with The Sunday Times published on 16th February, senior security officials say that about 250 British-based jihadis who went to train and fight in Syria have returned home. The head of London's Metropolitan police force, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe expressed fears about the threat posed by these returnees: "There are a few hundred people going out there. They may be injured or killed, but our biggest worry is when they return they are radicalised, they may be militarised, they may have a network of people that train them to use weapons". In fact, these young men were already radicalised back home - which is why they decided to go Syria to wage jihad, a country that few will have any material connection with.

The responsibility for this lies with failure of government policy on both the foreign and domestic fronts. In regard to the former, the follies of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have indubitably radicalised significant numbers of Muslims as was predicted by many. In regard to the latter, both the present and previous governments have stressed the importance of faith identities, and of Britain being a 'multi-faith' society. To this end, national and local governments have granted separate rights, resources, institutions, and exemptions to the law to different faith communities. It is worth noting that census figures show that the Muslim population of Britain rose to almost 5 per cent in 2011. One ought not to be surprised if some of these citizens believe that their primary allegiance is indeed to those of their faith around the world to the point of waging jihad in support of them, as is presently happening in Syria.

The subtext behind this thinking can be explained by 'blowback', a term coined by former University of California professor Chalmers Johnson, where any future war 'comes home'. In other words, the British authorities are worried that future military interventions, above all in Muslim-majority countries, risk triggering jihad on home soil. The suicide bombings in London on July 7th 2005 provided a marker for this; and hundreds of hardened, trained, jihadis from Syria is certainly concentrating the minds of British politicians and helps explain why even the most hawkish of them are in no mood to join in any military assault on Iran.

Scotland's First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond has understood this well by his repeated assurance that an independent Scotland will not partake in illegal wars. This has gone down well not only in Scotland but in the rest of the UK also; especially since none of the leaders of the three main UK parties have followed suit with similar assurances.

In the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War 1, the media has been awash with remembering and analysing that 'Great War' and indubitably, the slaughter of millions shown in graphic footage, is also acting to keep war-making postures at bay. There is now a real sense that the Defence budget should be for this stated purpose, given added poignancy by substantial cuts to it. Indeed, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the closure of the War Office whose explicit purpose it was to wage wars on other countries as part of the imperial imperative.

Some leading commentators such as Simon Jenkins of The Guardian are even arguing that given that Britain has no enemies to speak of, now is the time to focus solely on defending the home soil as indeed is done by many countries in Europe. Switzerland is frequently cited as an example to follow. For a country that a century ago possessed the largest empire in history, this change in thinking is truly astonishing. Yet, this could help forge all the disparate peoples of the country together into a 'post-imperial identity' and achieve that great 'big society' goal of the political establishment and indeed of society at large, that of social cohesion under a common citizenship.

Published in Huffington Post on 7th April 2014