Will the Bomber always get through?

In November 1932  the then-British prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a speech to the Houses of Parliament that became known as “Fear of the Future.”  Faced with the growing menace of Hitler and the coming war, Baldwin was musing on one single idea that today has terrible resonance for our own times: “The bomber will always get through.”
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In Baldwin’s day, the bomber was an aircraft piloted by airmen loyal to a sovereign state and operating under the rules of war. In our own time, the bomber is, too often, an explosive vest with  legs, loyal to none but those who brain-washed him into thinking he does Allah’s work. Or, in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev  and his brother Dzhokhar, rucksacks toting  pressure cookers with ball-bearings ready for detonation  at the Boston Marathon.
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Back in an other age, Baldwin told a skeptical and war-averse parliament: “I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves…If the conscience of the young men should ever come to feel, with regard to this one instrument [bombing] that it is evil and should go, the thing will be done; but if they do not feel like that – well, as I say, the future is in their hands.”
Without knowing it (for he was still thinking in terms of conventional war and would have been unable to conceive the idea that the bomber might be “amongst us”), Baldwin had set out the terrifying dilemma that has plagued intelligence agencies  ever since, and has come into ever-sharper focus with the development of pilotless drone technology on one side, and IEDs on the other. Baldwin was thinking of what Hitler perfected as the Blitzkrieg, and which London would experience just eight years later.
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But eighty years later the idea of “defence is in offence” has prospered and become the  guiding spirit of the drone campaign  in Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa. Will the pre-emptive strike using drones — as the Obama administration clearly believes — kill more troublemakers than it creates new militants?
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If, as Baldwin maintained, “the bomber will always get through,” how can drone attacks ever hope to stamp out this evil? Won’t they simply  promote  growth of new terrorists like a Hydra? But if we accept his gloomy prognosis, then what is left for us is surely the title of the almost-forgotten British premier’s speech: “Fear of the Future.”
Because of this fear, we need closed circuit TV cameras to watch our streets. We need intrusive searches to protect us before we get on airplanes. We need monitoring of our emails, our cellphones, our landlines, our internet usage, our bank accounts,  and we need to be profiled every time we stand in line at the  supermarket. But we feel no safer. So what if, despite all these things (and Boston certainly makes it look like Baldwin was right in this regard) “the bomber will always get through”?
What if all the drones, all the Homeland Security initiatives, the intelligence operatives, the scans, the swipes, the oversight, the centralisation of data and power and yet more data, are in the end impotent?
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These days, it’s not a question of penetrating our airspace to “get through.” The Tsarnaevs – just like the British Muslims responsible for the earlier London 7/7 bombings – are right here among us. These disaffected citizens intent on becoming non-citizens, are like the sand at our feet. They’ve never been to West Point or Sandhurst to learn strategy, yet their action is invisible, unending, grinding away so effectively at established power structures.
During World War II (Baldwin was gone by then and Winston Churchill was in charge)  the huge  fixed guns that defended Singapore against attack by any enemy flotilla sailing into  the harbour for the south , proved totally useless. Instead, the Japanese army chose to come by bicycle down from the north along the Malay peninsula, and met a near-defenceless city. We have to ask: are the “fixed guns” of today’s war on terror just as badly-placed?
Perhaps it’s something to do with the rather exotic names of the  two brothers who perpetrated this outrage. But because of their central Asian origins, and because of their   grim achievement in rendering the US agencies powerlessness to stop them,  I am reminded of Shelley’s great poem Ozymandias. It remains a sober and timely  reflection on the futility of power in the face of the billions of grains of sand we might also call the scouring force of disaffected ordinary people with hearts full of hate.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

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There has to come a moment when we realise that the steps being taken to increase our security may be counter-productive. And if we are to consign “Fear of the Future” to the 1930s where it belongs,  we need a new approach to disarming the bombers who come and go freely amongst us. We can’t stop them “getting through” because there is no  border between them and us. Iraq, Afghanistan and a dozen other  modern wars showed us that preemptive violence doesn’t stop violence. We have to disarm the bombers in our midst.

Richard House


“I come to Bury Thatcher, Not to Praise her.”

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In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony is only allowed to take the tribune to deliver the funeral oration for the recently-murdered emperor, because it is believed he will attack Caesar’s achievements and besmirch his memory, so justifying the killing. In fact, Mark Anthony’s oratory reverses the situation when he praises the dead emperor, and this inflames the mob into civil rage against Caesar’s killers — thereby hoisting Mark Anthony into a power-sharing agreement in ancient Rome.

It seems much the same has been going on since the death of Margaret Thatcher. While alive, she famously said “there is no such thing as society.” Now dead, society can say “there is no such thing as Margaret Thatcher.” And yet, there plainly is. The quasi-state funeral held 17th April attracted jeers and tears, as well as leaders from around the world.

Both sides of the political aisle continue fighting for a piece of the legacy of this most divisive of all Anglo-Saxon politicians. Like any seminal figure, she has been both lionised and cast as the devil incarnate.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.16.34The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two extremes. Like any Brit born in the mid 50s, her time and mine coincided. When they say Britain was a dump before she came to power, they were absolutely right: I left university in 1976 and the place was in ruins. I’m old enough to remember the tweedy, patrician noodle-headedness of Sir Alec Douglas Home and the Tories who preceded Margaret Thatcher. Ted Heath was a dolt and she was right to slide a dagger into his ribs just as Brutus had done with Julius Caesar (and later on, just as Geoffrey Howe would do with her). I headed out to East Asia three years before she came to power in 1979.

But I was back just after she came to power. I stayed until January 1982, working the London journalism beat, which meant I had a ringside seat at some of the most abrasive struggles of her early years. It was huge fun.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.29.39I watched the Molotov cocktails being lit on the Railton Road at the Brixton Riots; I interviewed the “Women at the Wire” at Greenham Common protesting at the installation of cruise missiles to oppose the Soviets’ SS20s.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.11.56 I covered the Northern Ireland struggle and the Bobby Sands hunger strike, leading to his death.

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I watched her dodge a full-on conflict with Britain’s coal miners (that was to come later, when she had more power). While at the BBC, I saw Britain’s cosy arms sales to the Shah hit the fan when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran.

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I was on the Afghan border at the Khyber Pass when the Mujihadeen began battling the Soviet Empire in Kabul. I was in Washington at the Republican HQ in November 1980, the night Ronald Reagan got elected and the “special relationship” with Maggie came alive.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.10.24But at the beginning of 1982 I bailed out and went to South America, thinking I would be far away from her influence. What a joke. The Falklands war soon caught up with me. In fact, I stayed away from the UK until 1991, so I missed the most abrasive period of the Poll Tax riots, the Miners’ Strike, and, of course, the fights over Europe and the “Cheque Britanique” or EU financial rebate that she won in her handbag-winging battles with Brussels patriarch Jacques Delors.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.19.15The truth is that this period was richer, more vibrant, more creative and more filled with strong emotions than today. Heroine or hate figure, Margaret Thatcher bestrode the world of my early 30s like a Colossus. I was against her. I never met her, although I did come across a couple of her ministers, and bumped into Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, at the urinals one evening where we exchanged a brief but acerbic conversation.

Friends of mine who interviewed her, confessed to an almost sexual thrill in the contact. One reporter was a bit drunk. She turned off the tape recorder when she’d finished and put it into his pocket after his time was done, making certain she would get her precious airtime.

Around me there was post-Punk, New Romantics, Bowie, a plethora of creative urges and surges that make today’s self-referential, galerista-driven art productions and auditorium TV show wannabes look like what they are — a crude form of ‘me capitalism’ that would have given Thackeray a nose-bleed.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.13.02Once I had dinner in a private room at Rules, a traditional London restaurant where the Thatcher Cabinet would also have its private political dinners. There was a sideboard upon which stood an array of single malt whisky bottles, each with a label for its presiding (male) cabinet minister. In the middle stood a single decanter, with a Victorian silver label around its neck. Upon it was engraved in italic letters: “Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher MP, Mother of the Nation.” That about said it all. Downstairs, the decor still reflects the Thatcher era.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.15.27And today I recognise she was great. That recitation of the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi on the doorstep of Downing Street on the morning in 1979 that she took office was a masterstroke (even though her eye strayed downward to consulted her notes and she still got it wrong).

Thatcher was played many times on stage and on screen — most lately by Meryl Streep. The portrait of a has-been ravaged by Alzheimers was moving, although this was hardly a definitive political study. Most memorable for me, however, was the speech on character and destiny. Maggie certainly had character, and she used it to shape collective destinies.

What was greatest of all about Margaret Thatcher, however, was her ability to make large sections of the population of Britain suspend their disbelief. She made us feel good, even when there were scant reasons to be in such a state. She raised our spirits with magnificent gestures we have spent over a quarter of a century paying for.

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I did write a blog in 2012 about the way in which Thatcher’s economic guru — the combative refugee Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek who was taken in by Britain when he fled Hitler’s growing political turmoil — would by now have been either forgotten or discredited if Thatcher had not lionised the (then obscure) academic in parliament. She used him as a brush to sweep away lingering ideological homage to John Maynard Keynes, In fact, the battle between these two long-dead economists is far from over and still dominates the economic stage. Had Thatcher not championed Hayek, the world would be a different place.

Let’s not forget that in cold, macro-economic terms, Thatcherism was completely loopy doctrine. Converting Britain’s North Sea petrodollars and privatisation receipts into unemployment benefits as the coal-mines and factories were closed down, might have delivered a political victory. But economically, it was a zero-sum game that saw Britain squander somewhere in excess of £150 billion on — well, on nothing really. In the name of political principle, a substantial part of the nation’s productive capacity was rendered unproductive. Viewed through the contemporary lens of sustainability or resource optimisation, it was bonkers.

But in the end, it was worth it because the exercise worked as a confidence trick, and the capitalist and shopkeeper classes felt unshackled and free get their mojo working again. That these favoured citizens never quite got around paying enough taxes on their new wealth to balance the budget and make the whole transformation worthwhile, was evidenced by the fact that state spending continued to rise under Thatcherism. But, like any good card trick, it garnered the oohs and aahs.

For the truth is that in war (and this was the most exciting war of ideas we had had in a generation) the truth is the first casualty. Thatcher’s regime was in many ways not radical at all: she didn’t shrink the state; she only took on trade unions when she was sure of victory; her privatisation and capital markets deregulation was the grandfather and mother of today’s global crisis of Capitalism. Until hubris got to her, she was cautious and canny.

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.18.44But none of this matters, She was great — and nowhere more than in my own adopted backyard, Latin America. Her brisk ouster of Gen. Galtieri through the Falklands War began the great domino process that has benefitted hundreds of millions of people. Out of this evil, came much, much good. There, I’ve said it.

She helped clear out the noxious military dictatorships. First went Argentina; then Paraguay, Brazil, even Chile (despite her friendship with Pinochet). Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay. With a little poetic licence you could add Somoza, Noriega, and a handful of Central American hoodlums.

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As a boy around in 1970, I was driven along the Iron Curtain in (then) West Germany. I was told, and believed, it would remain an immovable barrier through my lifetime. It all changed, in part because Margaret Thatcher later embraced, turned, and ultimately helped to disempower Mikhail Gorbachev. If Latin Americans owe her a debt of gratitude, so too do Eastern Europeans, freed from the yoke of Communism.

If you like, Margaret Thatcher was the ultimate Machiavellian: the ends that she achieved justified the means she deployed.

So, just like Mark Anthony, I climbed the steps of the tribune to damn Thatcher, yet I find that I can do no more than praise her as a transformative force in the years that I lived through. I must end by praising her as a polemicist, a warrior, an orator, and above all a personality who could communicate with true charisma.

Maggie is dead, and I’m glad to say that I was alive when she was in power. She might not have been right even sometimes, but I believed she hugely enriched our times. To say otherwise would be mean-minded and untruthful. I salute her.Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 22.14.27