The Queen and country debate: a summary

Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of the famous 1933 “King and country” debate.

Let’s remind ourselves of the wording of this motion – “This house would not fight for Queen and country”. This means that if you argue for not fighting you are for the proposition, and if the reverse you are in opposition. I just thought I’d clarify that, because it seems counter intuitive. Whoever posted the videos on YouTube certainly found it so: the captions consistently used the words proposition and opposition the wrong way round.

This debate was not about the 1933 one. Had it been so, one of the speakers in opposition might have noted that pacifism was a Fashionable Piety at that time. Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, J.B.Priestley, A.A.Milne, and many others of the intelligentsia claimed noisily that if Britain had no aspiration to military strength it would present no threat and would therefore not be attacked. Bertrand Russell in Which Way to Peace argued this at length. Beverley Nichols, in Cry Havoc, likewise.

And this sort of attitude was not merely passive: Bernard Shaw, visiting the USA that same year, actually went out of his way to sing Hitler’s praises and claim that the Fuehrer was doing wonderful things for Germany.

They were all shown by events to be profoundly wrong. Fashionable pieties are usually wrong: like other forms of fashion, what seems self-evident today is manifestly absurd tomorrow. Perhaps I shall address this phenomenon in greater depth in a future posting. For now I’ll just say that you should always be suspicious of any opinion held by a consensus of ‘clever’ people. Seek empirical evidence: you will probably do so in vain. These pieties owe their short life to a diet of no more than peer approval.

The situation today is slightly different. People have been made cynical by the Iraq war. All six of the speakers at this debate were against it. The huge popular disquiet in Britain before the Iraq invasion was barely mollified by Blair’s assurances that the world was in danger from Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction. It says a great deal about the low esteem in which politicians are currently held that there was no great surprise when it was revealed that those WMDs were fictional. An illegal war, waged upon a lie!

There’s an old Music Hall joke that goes like this –
I say, I say: today I saved a pretty girl from being molested.
How did you do that?
I controlled myself.

I think of that gag whenever I hear political leaders boasting about how they have presided over peace. I can’t think of a single war that was not started by the ruling classes. People don’t start wars: people play football between the trenches on Christmas Day.

I’m not calling for the abolition of politicians, though sometimes with most of the current bunch the idea has appeal. A friend of mine in a pulpit yesterday told us that we should not fear chaos (I probably should not have brought him up: he wouldn’t ever stoop to mentioning me in his sermon); but someone has to run things. Nevertheless politicians should be kept on a tight rein of accountability. They have of late been striving with alarming success to loosen those reins. We should increase our vigilance and resist. We obviously understand that their work puts them in possession of a wider picture than we are permitted to see, but still they are our servants not our masters. Back to this debate.

What made it so good was the robust articulacy of the arguments. Ben Griffin was particularly robust, even intemperate; but having walked the walk he was entitled to talk the talk. The empathy he expressed for civilians caught in crossfire surely struck a chord with his opponent Rory Stewart who in his relatively young life has gone so far out of his way to meet and learn about those civilians – literally by walking the walk. He seemed to scorn the Iraq war by virtually ignoring it and pointedly holding up Bosnia as an example of justifiable conflict. What an outstandingly accomplished speaker Stewart is! Nikolai Tolstoy changed the thrust completely when he examined the argument in its historic and constitutional context. Gareth Porter, being American, expressed alarm at American militarism; and I chose to interpret that as American politicians’ militarism. Malcolm Rifkind concluded the debate with some laughs punctuating some pithy and well-argued points.

The only other debates that this blog has covered in this depth were the God debate and the China debate. This one, in the choice and balance of speakers and the consequent quality of both speaking and argument, was best. Tribute must be paid to those who put it all together. As the Union’s librarian and as the one who opened the debate, I’d like to think that Ben Sullivan had a hand in its organisation. I was not very polite about his contribution, and with good reason – his speaking was inept and his arguments puerile, so I’d like to think he warrants a bouquet that might slightly modify my brickbats.

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