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Commentary 345 – April 2011
08 April 2011 (20:05:55)


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 deeds.

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 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 first-past-the-post.

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