The title of this essay came as something of a surprise. One moment I was trying to wrap my brain around a justification for bombing Syria. The next I was wondering in which pocket I should hide my ISIS membership card and novelty DayGlo Jihad badge.
I had never considered myself a terrorist sympathiser until the Prime Minister put it in those terms. In my defence, I was, like so many people, simply unconvinced by the case for bombing Syria. If I’d had an initial criticism about the Prime Minister’s plan, it was that bombing was simply not going far enough. Only troops on the ground can sort of the current mess and until bombing can work in the context of a wider strategy, it seemed a fairly pointless gesture. As the days have passed, my worries have increased, not least by reading comments posted here on this site. I’ve become increasingly uncertain about who we are really fighting and on whose behalf any victory would be won. The only persuasive argument I’ve heard is the one that demands that we stand by our friends and it’s for the people of Paris that I could be persuaded…
And then Dave goes and calls me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ and I feel like I’m back at square one.
That is now another issue clouding an already overcast debate. I might be the only person who feels this way but I cannot adequately convey how chilling I find Cameron’s choice of words. He uses ‘terrorist sympathisers’ to mean somebody who simply disagrees with him. That is not something one usually associates with democratic debate but with third-world despots describing dissenters who we might otherwise describe as freedom fighters.
‘Terrorist’ is a extremely unsettling word. Politicians are well cautioned to use it sparingly, to use it accurately, or not to use it at all. Nelson Mandela was once labelled a terrorist and modern France was in a sense born in an act of terror, known as ‘The Terror’, that gave ‘terrorism’ its meaning. The suffrage movement was in its time considered terrorism. Yet, most unsettling of all, it was Hitler in 1933 who declared his own ‘war on terrorism’, using the Enabling Act (Ermächtigungsgesetz) to enact laws without the involvement of the German parliament. In the modern era, you routinely see Russia, China and other nations describe their internal battles in terms of the fight against terrorism. In that context, Cameron’s choice of words is worrying.
Cameron is, of course, not above such methods of persuasion. Perhaps it’s only my perceptions of the man but I have often wondered if there’s a bite of menace about his character. He seems to dislike being challenged and enjoys rather too well his victories. From the rather cruel remakes he made when first faced with a reduced number of Lib Dems across the Commons to the regular snide barbs he launches whenever pressed on a difficult subject, petty spite has become one of the defining characteristics of Cameron’s premiership. This is also a Prime Minister who routinely avoids hard questions. He has carried forward the New Labour weasel-habit of visiting schools to make policy announcements. Most damning of all, he refuses to be interviewed by Andrew Neil, the UK’s most prominent and effective political interrogator.
As readers of The What & The Why might recall, I previously thought his grandstanding outside Downing Street was foolish, uncalled for, and provocative. It happened on the morning of the day that Paris was attacked. I’m not suggesting any causality but I would argue is that there’s a tone of rabid enthusiasm in Cameron’s nature that sits uncomfortably with crisis management. As with The Big Society, standing side-by-side with Libya, green power and so many other pet projects: Cameron is a politician who strides magisterially to the stage, sets wheels in motion, and then seems to lose interest after a couple of months. In the case of Syria, our engagement will need to last much longer than that.
And so now, on the day that the House of Commons debates whether we should again go to war in the Middle East, Cameron confuses the issue by using vituperative words. The very fact he cannot apologise for the comment sets a mark against the man that I cannot help but feel is relevant. Surely any argument that needs to be won through either insults or fear is an argument that has not been won through practical reason.