Writing in 1941, George Orwell argued in his essay 'England, Your England' that "the mass of the people are without military knowledge or tradition, and their attitude towards war is invariably defensive". Whilst this is probably still true today - levels of opposition to the war in Iraq and more recent scepticism about British policy in Afghanistan suggest that it is - Orwell also added:
But can we really argue that the same is true in 2010? Indeed, doesn't the reaction to the shameless media stunts by Anjem Choudary’s Islam4UK, culminating in the banning of the organisation that conveniently coincided with its alleged plan to march through the town of Wootton Bassett, suggest that flag-wagging patriotism and an intolerance to those who refuse to participate in it is now very much in the mainstream?
"In England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities. The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious."
Despite its miniscule membership, Islam4UK's particular brand of incendiary provocation was bound to provoke a enraged reaction - it had, after all, already spawned the creation of the English Defence League following its exploits in Luton last March. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine, in a climate that demands unconditional support for 'our boys' in Afghanistan, how anyone would be able to question the way that Wootton Bassett has become sacred ground without a similarly violent reaction.
Those close to the town have tried to deny that the way locals have turned out as British war dead are repatriated to nearby RAF Lyneham is political: explaining why he opposed to the idea of Islam4UK marching in Wootton Bassett, local Conservative MP James Gray said:
When the BBC decided to film an edition of Question Time in the town in December, local mayor Steve Bucknell went as far as expressing concerns about Wootton Bassett becoming increasingly politicised, saying, "I hope they don't concentrate on the war any more than they would if they were anywhere else." But as Deborah Orr in the Guardian has rightly, I think, pointed out:
Our repatriation ceremonies – and I have attended perhaps two thirds of them – are absolutely apolitical. No comment is made about the war, either in favour or against. We simply turn out in all weathers, and often twice a week, to pay our respects to soldiers who have fallen in service of Queen and country.
In this respect, the government can claim it has managed at least one successful military strategy in recent years, despite its failings in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has undoubtedly managed to orchestrate a shift in the public's perception of the military, a process that began with the review conducted by Labour MP Quentin Davies in 2008.
The Wootton Bassett tributes may have pretensions towards political neutrality. But they are inherently conservative, or at least inherently in tune with the needs of the establishment. They suggest that the role of the public is not to question the decisions of government, but merely to honour without complication the sacrifices of those who carry them out. All citizens of Britain have the right to support such humane passivity, or reject it. Choudary's showy rejection was hardly a surprise, despite all the expressions of shock and anger that it inspired.
In doing so it has also managed to skilfully muster the 'independent' media to assist it. The BBC's special Question Time in Wooton Bassett was just one in a series of events that have included the first Armed Forces Day in June 2009, complete with parades and "community events", and the annual Military Awards or "Millies" that are co-organised by the Ministry of Defence and the Sun newspaper and that that were broadcast just before Christmas on ITV.
Whilst these events purported to show nothing more than respect for individual service personnel and their families, both were in fact intensely political, designed to suggest national endorsement for the wars British soldiers are fighting in and how they are defending 'British values'. For example, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth described the Armed Forces Day thus:
whilst Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, said of the Military Awards:
Every day the men and women of our Armed Forces are risking their lives for the defence of our country. They are the guardians of our security and our values.
Quite where this puts the 64% of Britons in November 2009 who believe the war is "unwinnable", up from 58% in July, or the 63% who favour withdrawal from Afghanistan as quickly as possible, is uncertain - presumably this majority is against 'our' own security and values and not really part of the 'nation'.
The Sun Military Awards enable the nation to say thank you to our brave men and women and to their families for their dedication, courage and sacrifice. It means a huge amount to them to know that the nation is behind them.
If it was right to condemn the space cadets from Islam4UK deciding to march for their own agenda, it is also right to do the same for the flipside, the wingnuts behind the MoD campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion.
So I have a serious suggestion: the anti-war movement should organise a march through Wootton Bassett this year, reclaiming popular protest from the lunatic fringe and reaffirming that real respect means demanding that all military personnel are repatriated alive and well, not in coffins and with mourners. Oh, and making it clear that the majority of the nation are squarely behind this demand.
Unfortunately, I am almost 100% certain that this will never happen - I can't imagine the Stop the War Coalition daring to call such a protest. Can you imagine the shit-storm from the press?
That's how far "all the boasting and flag-wagging" has succeeded over the last two years.