Britain descends from tragedy to farce
The descent of the Iranian hostage episode from potential tragedy to farce, and a rather unfunny one at that, is largely complete. Janet Daley excoriates the UK government, the Iranian government, the media, the abducted service personnel, and especially New Labour.
So it comes to this: not a threat of action or even a diplomatic showdown with Iran over its criminal act of seizing hostages, but a PR war.
In their disgust at the decision to permit the Inglorious Fifteen to sell their stories to the press, some senior military people have proclaimed themselves shocked by the "media circus" that the Ministry of Defence appears to be condoning.
What did they expect? Unprecedented, bizarre, shaming - yes, all of that. But scarcely surprising. Once Iran's lunatic of a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was perceived to have pulled off what a procession of commentators decreed to be a "public relations coup", the Blair Government knew that it had to mobilise its most terrifying forces.
Never mind UN resolutions. No more messing about in boats trying to block Iranian arms being shipped into Iraq. There was only one source of power in the world that could rescue us from this humiliation - the tabloid newspapers.
What could possibly cancel out the memory of Mr Ahmadinejad's beaming triumph as the grinning British personnel received their goody bags and their "gift" of freedom? Why, the deeply human stories ("the private torment") of each of those captives, of course - as told to a red-top reporter more accustomed to retailing the agonies of footballers' girlfriends.
Iran may always have been the most important supplier of the insurgency in Iraq that is murdering British troops and Iraqi civilians - we could live with that, apparently. But once it had won the Battle of the Media, it was time to get serious.
The manipulation of public opinion is the one front on which this Government will cede to no one. And that, as the electorate finally seems to have understood, is the sum total - the raison d'être, the fundamental essence - of New Labour.
Certainly Janet seems to have hit on the only plausible reason why the Ministry of Defence might originally have allowed the hostages to sell their stories. If you are losing an information war it is tempting to enlist the help of one of the most fearsome propaganda machines on the planet. However, if this was a plan, rather than an accident, it has backfired very badly indeed.
Not only are the immediate victims of this episode now being represented as villains ("the Inglorious Fifteen"), but President Ahmedinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran is being praised for his gracious act of forgiveness. This man who organises global conferences for holocaust deniers, who has frankly announced his intention to wipe Israel off the map, who supports terrorist groups worldwide, and who is alleged by some to have been personally involved in the 444 day American Embassy hostage crisis in Teheran during the Iranian revolution, now receives praise from an unexpected quarter:
A leading Church of England bishop has claimed the Iranian president showed a better understanding of “moral and spiritual” values at the end of the naval hostage crisis than Britain’s political leaders.
Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, contrasted the words of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad favourably with Britain’s “free-floating” attitudes.
The bishop said that, watching the release of the British sailors and marines last week, “I saw on the one hand what Iran was doing, and what the president [of Iran] said had much to do with the moral and spiritual tradition of their country.
“The president talked about the religious background to the release, with reference to the Prophet’s birthday and the passing over of Christ. What struck me was that if there were any values on the British side they were free-floating and not anchored in a spiritual and moral tradition.
“Unless we reroot ourselves in a spiritual and moral tradition, we won’t know what we stand for and will not be able to confront other people, countries and ideological movements who are very clear where they stand.”
On the face of it, this is the kind of comment that makes one wonder whether it might be wiser to seek moral and spiritual guidance from any drunk in a pub, rather than a bishop of the established Church. Nevertheless, the Bishop of Rochester is no fool, and in a strange way he has a point.
The United Kingdom is at a low ebb indeed. We can muster no effective response to an act of piracy against our people and an act of war against our country. Commentators such as Oliver Kamm and Daniel Finkelstein who claim that Iran lost out in this episode because they released our people without concession from London are missing the point. The release of our hostages was the Iranian victory - the final humiliation which Iran could inflict upon us before we started heaping further humiliations upon ourselves.
Can it really be said that our country, society and way of life are now morally and spiritually inferior to Iran? When our kidnapped military personnel convey the impression that they are taking part in Military Big Brother, when the cult of celebrity and money takes precedence over the dignity and restraint that are expected from our servicemen and women in such circumstances (no wonder the families of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are so angry), when our bishops praise the graciousness of the kidnapping, holocaust-denying, terrorist-supporting maniacal gangster who happens to be president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, how could anybody say such a thing?
Oliver Kamm criticises the Bishop of Rochester's remarks in these terms:
The Bishop, on my reading, is merely lamenting that modern Britain lacks a coherent sense of moral and spiritual purpose. He is, unfortunately, too obtuse to realise that his reference to the spiritual values of Iran's puppet-president illustrates the nonsense of his argument. Of course we're not "anchored in a spiritual and moral tradition". That's because we're a free society, in which we may profess whatever we like about origins, eschatology and the basis of ethics. What binds us is not a set of religious doctrines but common citizenship and democratic rights under the rule of law. If you want to see what the alternative is like, Iran is not a bad place to start.
Regrettably, on this occasion, Oliver Kamm is wrong. A spiritual and moral tradition is not the same thing as a religious tradition in this context. Western Civilisation is built upon core values deriving not just from the Judeo-Christian ethic, but also from the cultural heritage of Greece and Rome. These values are manifest in representative democracy and the rule of law, liberal capitalism and free trade; they are Enlightenment values. These have helped to fashion this nation and others. They are the foundation of freedom itself.
The nobility of spirit which enables a nation to prosper in the world, which drove Britain on through the darkest days of the Second World War, which sustained Margaret Thatcher through the Falklands War, and inspired Tony Blair to attempt the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, now appears to have deserted us completely. A profound reform of our nation is required which goes beyond a mere change in government. Nothing short of a moral and spiritual reformation (not necessarily a religious one) is needed if our nation is to survive; for at present it appears to have lost the will to live.