LOST IN THE DESERT?
Asked how long involvement in Libya might last, the Liberal Democrat armed
forces minister Nick Harvey replied: “How long is a piece of string?”
Whether this was a slip of the tongue or a piece of calculated frankness, it
sounds alarmingly spot on.
With Gaddafi’s forces threatening to slaughter the population of eastern Libya,
the rest of the word could hardly stand by and watch. Had this carnage happened,
it would have emboldened other Arab despots to resort to savage repression.
The better way would have been if, following the Arab League’s vote for a no-fly
zone, Arab air forces had enforced it, but the League was longer on words than
Unlike the Iraq war, the Libya action has United Nations backing, and is being
undertaken in response to an emergency rather than an American whim to depose a
regime that was doing nothing it hadn’t been doing for years.
But there is, as Harvey’s remark implied, no obvious longer-term plan and no
guaranteed way in which this will not end up with British or other NATO troops
on the ground.
For a start, at the time of writing, no-one appears to know who or what the
rebels in eastern Libya really are, or even who leads them, or whether they have
the military capability to take and hold the country, let alone what sort of
Libya they wish to create.
We don’t even yet know what will emerge in the more open Egypt and Tunisia, and
they were countries with large organised civil societies, armed forces that
refused to fire on civilians and opposition parties that even the old regimes
permitted to operate to some extent.
In Libya, where none of those conditions apply, there is at least a strong
chance of a long-term British involvement in air, sea and maybe land, unless
Gaddafi is quickly and comprehensively defeated and the country can be handed
over to some other, stable government.
If that doesn’t happen, NATO could end up protecting rebel held areas more or
less indefinitely, or else find itself forced to fight on land on behalf of
people who it hardly knows and whose objectives and capabilities are unclear.
Would the UK public, struggling under the effects of spending cuts, stand the
cost of a long military engagement of limited relevance to itself?
Unlike most military actions in their initial stages, opinion polls already show
a majority against this one, and support is hardly likely to grow if the UK
becomes bogged down in yet another indefinite desert war with hazy objectives.
The immediate action to halt a massacre in Benghazi was worthwhile. But taking
sides in an indefinite civil war in Libya, in addition to Afghanistan, will
undoubtedly before long stoke resentment at western interference in the Middle
East and waste yet more lives and money in an unwinnable conflict.
Entry routes to conflicts are always easy to find. The government needs to know
what its exit route is.
That poll finding shows the long-term effect of public resentment at the Iraq
war. The country no longer wants to be the world’s policeman, however appealing
some politicians may find it to pose in that role.
THE ONLY WAY TO VOTE
The 5 May referendum is the first time since the slow spread of wider suffrage
in the nineteenth century that there has been a real chance to change the voting
system in the UK.
The Alternative Vote may not be strictly proportional, or the system that
Liberal Democrats want in an ideal world, but it offers a parliament whose
composition would better reflect what voters want.
It would also break the grip of safe seats in most places, and open the way to
new alignments in politics.
So this is hardly the time for the proportional representation flat-earthers to
make the best the enemy of the good.
If the referendum is lost, it is frankly inconceivable that first-past-the-post
would deliver some combination of circumstances in which another referendum on
electoral reform of any kind would be held for a generation.
Even if it did, it is unlikely that STV would be on the ballot paper for the
same reasons that it isn’t now – no other party would wear it for Westminster
elections and, unlike AV, it is difficult to explain to the public.
If AV passes, it might open the way to further reforms. If it doesn’t, further
reforms are off the table for the lifetimes of most people now voting. It really
is no contest; we need that ‘yes’ vote.
And to those on the left who think that voting ‘no’ will somehow ‘punish’ Nick
Clegg – grow up.
AV was Labour policy at the last election and is supported by Labour leader Ed
Miliband, who can see (unlike some of his followers) that he is at least as
likely as the Lib Dems to need a different electoral system to remove the threat
of long-term Tory majorities gained on a minority vote under
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