David Cameron and a deluge of women on the front benches

An inundation of women helps David Cameron keep at bay any accusations of sexism still sloshing around

They’ve tried Punch and Judy, they’ve tried softly-softly; and on Wednesday the parties settled on a new means for settling the balls-out battle for PMQs. A woman-off! David Cameron had been taunted at last week’s question time over his all-male front bench, and he knew just the way to avoid that happening again. Women, an inundation of them, all over the government benches. They were everywhere – seven on the front bench, and four in the row behind, and three in the row behind that, lined up like neat little sandbags on either side of the PM, to keep at bay any accusations of sexism still sloshing around. If you could see only TV pictures, you could almost imagine that there weren’t unbroken rows of white men behind, and our government is inclusive.

Unfortunately, rule one of a woman-off is: have more women than the other lot. Labour’s frontbench had eight. That meant an early win for the opposition, but at least everyone could agree that it was a great day for feminism and nobody felt remotely demeaned by being instructed where to sit and look female.

That important business dealt with, MPs turned to the floods, in preparation for which Ed Miliband had been working up another cunning strategy for prime minister’s questions: ask proper questions (he asks questions quite often, of course, but it can be hard to resist the “Why are you lot so incompetent BULLINGDON CLUB BULLINGDON CLUB?” formulation).

We are, however, in a time of national emergency, an occasion requiring one of Miliband’s trademarked hushed tones, and a question that was specific and, apparently, not overly loaded. Cameron had promised on Tuesday that money was “no object” in responding to the floods. What, specifically, would that cover?

The PM could do specific: “The military, sandbags, the emergency services, restoring broken flood defences – all of those things.”

Great! said Miliband. Now what, specifically, is going to happen to the 550 flooding experts the Environment Agency is planning to sack? This was possibly the first Cameron had heard of it. But where it would have been perfectly possible to answer a detailed question with a non-committal pledge – that a future review of flooding resilience, say, could also look at EA resources – Cameron instead reached for his flannel. Capital spending pledges to 2020, zero-based budget reviews, flood defence spending in 2015, 2016, 2017 …

The residents of Somerset could have told him a flannel is not much use in a flood. “I am only sorry that the right hon gentleman seeks to divide the house when we should be coming together for the nation!” squeaked the PM. Well quite, this was certainly not the time for political point-scoring.

And in that spirit of consensual togetherness, he turned on the seated Ed Balls “who is back in the gesticulation game” and demanded he say whether he would match the government’s spending promises. “Silence!” bellowed …read more    

A ‘pause’ in centuries of British wars is not enough | Seumas Milne

Britain’s record of continuous conflict has no parallel. Now the elite is panicking that they can’t get away with it any more

The generals are beside themselves, Whitehall’s in a panic. After generations of continuous warfare, the British public has had enough. They’re war-weary, the mandarins fret, and believe the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have been bloody failures.

Worse, multicultural Britain is increasingly hostile to troops marching into countries from which British citizens or their families came, defence ministry officials complain, especially as one war after another has been waged in the Muslim world.

Add to that the unprecedented vote in parliament last year to stop an attack on Syria and the governing elite is convinced its right to decide issues of war and peace without democratic interference is under threat. As the former Tory Middle East minister Alistair Burt insisted: “Politicians need space and time to take unpopular action.”

Most humiliating for London’s securocrats, Barack Obama’s former defence secretary has warned that British military cuts – which by some measures have put the country behind Saudi Arabia as the world’s fourth largest arms spender – threaten the country’s defence “partnership” with the US.

It’s all come to a head as British combat troops prepare to follow the US and Nato camp followers out of Afghanistan, potentially bringing to a halt over a century of continuous war-fighting by the country’s armed forces.

As the Guardian’s tally of relentless warmaking shows, British troops have been in action somewhere in the world every year since 1914. It is an extraordinary and chilling record, unmatched by any other country. Only France, Britain’s historic rival colonial power, and the US, at the head of the first truly global empire, come close.

It’s not as if other major powers have sent their soldiers to fight abroad with remotely such regularity, or at all. But when it comes to Britain, the line of uninterrupted armed action in any case stretches far further back than a century.

As Richard Gott’s book Britain’s Empire recounts, its forces were involved in violent suppression of anti-colonial rebellions every year from at least the 1760s for the next 200 years, quite apart from multiple other full-scale wars. You need to go back before Britain’s foundation as a state and the English civil wars to find a time when government-backed privateers, slavers and settlers weren’t involved in armed conflict somewhere in the world.

There are in fact only a handful of countries British troops haven’t invaded at some point. What is so striking about the tally of the past 100 years is that only in 1940 were British troops actually defending their own country from the threat of invasion.

And there is a telling continuum between Britain’s conflicts in the colonial period and the post-cold war world. The same names keep cropping up, a legacy of imperial divide-and-rule: from Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine to Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Waziristan.

There’s very little in this saga that the British – …read more    

Britain can move on from the empire – and human rights law will help us do it | Margaret Evison

Article 2, and the chief coroner’s duty to investigate deaths of service personnel, will make us more wary about going to war

The British are showing signs of being war-weary, the great British bulldog is lying down. Why?

It may be that we have just had enough. But it is also possible that the essential identity of Britain today is changing –that John Bull is becoming a dove. Were all those senior politicians there at Nelson Mandela’s funeral because they wanted to underline the importance of his message for world change, world peace? Has Mahatma Gandhi finally been heard? The world of war is changing: look at the recent vote by MPs not to go into Syria.

The British have always fought for land, for money and goods, for dominance, to be the richest and the best (essentially the empire), and to impress on others the notion of moral high ground. To fight for one’s country, to respect the “glorious dead”, has been an important and lauded part of this heritage.

Maybe now our multicultural society sees things differently, and has more friends and family elsewhere. Politicians who represent us in parliament should reflect who we are and what we believe, and be aware that that may have changed with immigration.

We like to think the violence in our own communities may be turning us against anger and destruction as a solution. For many the Christian ethic, to turn the other cheek – to forgive – may now be more attractive. Not, perhaps, for the fighting gangs of youths who are happier on the familiar streets of Britain than in far-flung, difficult places. Some young men have always enjoyed the adrenalin of fighting, the assertion of their manhood, their supremacy and autonomy, being warriors. But it is interesting that while gang culture raged in the inner cities, in 2009 the British troops fighting in Helmand were very short of boots on the ground.

Television and head-camera recordings have brought to us all the reality of war, of killing another human because your government has told you to, of learning to hate because you are on one side. Death is never easy, it is the final reckoning, and the human drive is for survival, not silence. Death without a clear need to defend our shores, our coffers or our power, and with little clear impact on our national security, has become less acceptable. People have begun to ask why, and to pay attention to each soldier killed. The Wootton Bassett repatriations have moved us all.

President Dwight D Eisenhower, an old soldier, warned Americans that they must guard against the potential influence of the military-industrial complex in 1961, three days before he left office. And it is possible that now instead of fighting for spices, chocolate and tea, we are fighting because of the trade in metal, guns, ships and aeroplanes. This idea is intuitively unattractive to ordinary people, particularly when the same weapons could be used in the future …read more    

What’s the first war you remember? | Open thread

With Britain likely to be at peace next year for the first time in a century, tell us your earliest memories of hearing about conflict around the world

Next year could be the first in a century in which Britain does not have armed forces engaged anywhere in the world. The many conflicts this country has fought in include the Anglo-Irish war, the Korean war, the Suez war, the Falklands, the first Gulf war and the bombing of Serbia over Kosovo.

News of these conflicts was beamed into homes via radio or television. Newsreels in cinemas also provided audiences with a vivid account of the action.

What’s the first war you remember hearing or reading about? Were you a child of the second world war? Did you sit through Pathé reports of fighting in Malaya? Are your memories more recent? Were you a child of the 80s, raised on stories of the sinking of the Belgrano, or reports of Simon Weston‘s injuries? Perhaps the Gulf war was your introduction to conflict. Tell us your stories in the thread below.

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