Over the summer David Cameron and other members of his Conservative government have talked-up the possibility of taking part in the bombing campaign against IS in Syria. UK forces have been operating against the group in Iraq on the invitation of the government there since September 2014, but the less than clear legal situation regarding Syria, combined withthe Commons defeat Cameron suffered in August 2013 over the issue of airstrikes against the Assad regime, has meant they have not yet been active on the other side of the Iraqi border (at least in an official capacity).
Noises from the government suggest that a fresh Commons vote on the authorisation of force against IS in Syria could be taken in September, after the Labour party has elected a new leader (as long as the veteran anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, who acted as a no teller for the vote authorising force in Iraq last year, doesn’t maintain his current momentum and pull off an unexpected victory).
In Iraq British forces have been responsible for around 5% of all attacks, with the vast majority undertaken by the United States. The same is true in Syria, meaning that the material contribution of UK forces there would likely be extremely limited.Why, then, does the Cameron government want to take part in the airstrikes in Syria?
This could be about the UK’s international prestige and desire to demonstrate commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, particularly in the light of concerns in the U.S. about the impact of defence spending cuts.
Or we could look to domestic politics for an explanation, perhaps seeing the driving force coming from the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and his desire to protect his department from further deep cuts in the Autumn Spending Review (as noted by Ewen MacAskill).
I think a more convincing explanation comes from the inter-sections between the domestic and the international, from the points at which the international feeds into the domestic and vice versa. This autumn, around the time that a vote on military action in Syria might take place, the government will be publishing a new Counter-Extremism Strategy, which it hopes will provide a framework to combat the growth of violent ideologies within the UK. The timing may be a coincidence, but the two policies are intimately connected.
When speaking about the principles that will inform the Counter-Extremism Strategy last month, Cameron began by describing the ‘threat we face’ in Islamist extremism as ‘an ideology’ that at its furthest end ‘seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm’. He is clearly here talking about the physical control that IS has gained over areas of Syria and Iraq, and the brutal regime they have enforced there.
But Cameron also focuses on the prevalence of ‘certain intolerant ideas’ within the UK,‘which create a climate in which extremists can flourish’, ideas ‘which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality’. He is concerned about the prevalence of these ideas in British schools, British prisons, British communities, and the steady stream of young Britons being convinced by these ideas and travelling to join IS in Syria.
These ideas and their physical manifestation in Syria and Iraq are therefore seen as part of a continuum of extremism, representing the ‘struggle of our generation’ that is providing an ‘existential threat’ to the West. The response, according to Cameron, must involve using ‘our strongest weapon: our own liberal values’.
In his speech last month Cameron said that ‘We can’t expect [British Muslims] to see the power and liberating force of our values if we don’t stand up for them when they come under attack’. In this context he was talking about young Muslim women and female genital mutilation, but the same is true for the attack on ‘our values’ in Tunisia, in Libya, in Syria and in Iraq.
It is in the light of these statements that the desire to join the fight in Syria makes sense. It is not just a question of showing British strength and ability to project power, or a policy informed by parochial domestic concerns. Rather, it is something made necessary by the constitution of British identity as tied up with ‘liberal values’, with ‘British values’ that are fundamentally opposed to the extremist ideology.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I have been able to discover about ‘British values’ is that they were first defined within a definition of extremism. The 2011 Prevent strategy defined extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, as well as ‘calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas’. This definition-within-a-definition has since been extracted and repeated outside the context of extremism.
And it is still the definition in use by the government. Last month, for instance, Cameron stated:
We are all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith.
We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life. These are British values… underpinned by distinct British institutions. Our freedom comes from our Parliamentary democracy. The rule of law exists because of our independent judiciary. This is the home that we are building together.
Participation in the ‘full spectrum’ of responses against extremism, targeting IS in Syria as well as in Iraq, is essential to maintaining the strength of these ‘British values’. The UK may be only capable of providing a tiny proportion of airpower in Syria, but even the most minimal contribution would provide the necessary supplement to the desire to combat extremism at home through a muscular defence of liberal British values.
But as Jacques Derrida has shown, there are two meanings to the word ‘supplement’. It can be something extra, something additional – in this case, the airstrikes in Syria being in addition to airstrikes in Iraq,in addition to the struggle against extremism at home.
But to supplement can also mean to supplant, to replace. The urge to take part in airstrikes in Syria, the spectacular display of power against a clearly-definable (if difficult to target and defeat) enemy can come to replace the harder, messier and more elusive challenge of combating extremism at home.
But the real lesson to take from Derrida is that the very necessity of a supplement reveals the inherent emptiness of the concept that requires supplementation – in this case the very notion of a definable and defendable ‘British values’. And if the concept of ‘British values’ requires violent action abroad to fulfil its meaning, is it really something worth defending?