Blogs Coffee House From the archive

When should Britain go to war?

17 August 2014

10:42 AM

17 August 2014

10:42 AM

There’s been a lot written this week about whether or not to fight the Islamic State in Iraq. This time the consensus among Spectator writers is that Britain should. There’s a clear moral case, but is it in our interests to go to war? The first time this question came up was in 1839 when China started confiscating opium from British traders. It may have been a good move to protect British trade, but the magazine was less convinced about the morality of it.

The perfect right of the Chinese authorities…to prohibit opium, will not bear disputing about; while the wisdom of their conduct in this matter—even supposing the object were to derive a revenue from home-grown opium—is at least as clear as that of the British Legislature, which forbids the growth of tobacco in Ireland in order to secure the tax on tobacco imported…If we have no trade with the Chinese but that which is maintained by arms, we shall have none at all. Neither in submission nor in violence is there the least prospect of establishing permanent and satisfactory commercial relations with this singular country.

The article suggests establishing a commercial haven on one of the islands off the coast of China – in fact, Britain took over Hong Kong just over a year later. There was a stronger moral case for sending soldiers to China in 1900 when the Boxer rebels started killing foreigners.

The secret society which calls itself the “Boxers,” and which was first organised in Shantung for the protection of China against the foreigner, has gradually worked its way to within a few miles of Pekin, murdering on its route all scattered foreigners, and especially all congregations of native Christians, not, we imagine, on account of their creed, but of their supposed friendship for white men.

It soon became clear that Britain had to do something.

The strength of the “Boxers,” the character of their weapons, and their relation to the troops are still uncertain, but much is becoming clear. It is clear, for example, that the “Boxers” mean to effect a massacre of Europeans if they can, and that they are effecting a massacre of Chinese converts, killing them all impartially, whether Catholic or Protestant, English, French, or American. The English converts have suffered heavily; the American converts are in such straits that the Government of Washington, though obviously anxious to keep out of the turmoil, has ordered marines from Manila to protect them; and the French converts are so menaced that their Bishop has armed them all, brought them within the mission compound in Pekin, and ordered them to defend themselves and their missionaries with the rifle. No distinction is made in favour of any nationality, nor can any say that their enemies are spared while they themselves are given up to the spoiler. To be white is in “Boxer” eyes to be worthy of disembowelling….Steps, therefore, have been taken of the most decided kind. A combined force of two thousand marines—supposed by Anglo- Chinese, in their contempt for native valour, to be quite considerable—has been ordered to fight its way to Pekin, and on its arrival the Legations, already protected by marines and Maxims, will, it is stated, make in combination some demand in the nature of an ultimatum.


Church leaders were uncomfortable about Britain’s involvement in the first Gulf War. Rowan Williams and Philip Crowe, who was principal of an Anglican theological college, wrote to Anglican bishops, arguing that there would be no international force in the Gulf if Kuwait produced carrots and Saudi Arabia was one vast onion bed. The Spectator took a different view.

This is certainly so. Nor would Saddam Hussein have invaded Kuwait for its vegetables. But if onions and carrots were all there was in the world to eat, and the Gulf was the major producer of these, tanks, ships and planes would still be massing in Saudi Arabia.

The supply of oil is as necessary to the West and the Third World as the supply of food: that is the true analogy. Control of the major oilfields in some recreated fantasy kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar would enable Saddam Hussein, a man cruel enough to use chemical warfare on his own civilian Kurds, to blackmail the world. A Vandal emperor would have taken power. Concern about this is every bit as morally legitimate as concern for the rescue of Kuwait, more so, because it affects more countries. The leaders of the West have been mistaken in emphasising one at the expense of the other, laying themselves open to the charge of humbug. Messrs Crowe and Williams have said that it is hypocrisy to act now in defence of Kuwait, when we did not intervene in the West Bank or Tibet. But that is another argument for intervention, not for a continuing failure to act.

It is common defensive self- interest, not a newly discovered ideal of brotherhood, which has produced such remarkable unanimity in the United Nations, and for which ordinary men and women are, and have been, prepared to kill and die.

The magazine took a similar line on the Second Gulf War.

The third condition is that the goal of the war must be clearly specified. This goal should be severely circumscribed. It is to remove Saddam and to destroy his regime, not to bring about democracy in Iraq, a task greater than that of Sisyphus. The only thing that should be required of the new Iraqi regime is that it should not endanger the peace of the world.

The message sent by America, then, should be clear and unambiguous: dictators are to be removed not because they are dictators, but because they threaten American interests and international peace. Naive domestic little dictators can be safely left to their own devices, and to the wrath of their own people.

When Hutus started killing Tutsis in Rwanda twenty years ago, no other country did anything. George Alagiah was reporting from just over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To report from a place like Goma is to know how impotent you are. I’d tell myself that someone important was watching our report and would be galvanised into action. But the fact is it was already too late. Every day I was there was a new assault on the emotions. It was like having a front seat at a parade of every evil that has ever befallen man — conflict and pestilence, hunger and terror. It is all there — in Old Testament proportions.

Iraq hasn’t had a genocide, but one Yazidi man told the BBC this week that every rock had had the blood of a child spilled on it. The death toll is not clear, but IS’s aim is: obliterate the Yazidis. Alex Massie said this week that it is in Britain’s interest to fight IS – perhaps that’s the kind of argument that might swing it.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Kennybhoy

    “If you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”

    ― Winston Churchill

    • JB_1966

      We are perilously close to the latter option I fear. Port?

      • Kennybhoy

        Just a small one.

  • andy_gill

    We certainly need to stand up to the threat of Islam in all its forms. That includes dropping bombs on ISIS, and supporting their enemies abroad, and rooting out the anti-semitism, homophobia, FGM, grooming, school infiltration, illegal immigration, terrorism, and other manifestations of Islamocreep at home.

    It has become crystal clear that Islam is a harmful influence to the well-being of this country.

    • JB_1966

      Indeed it has; some time ago sadly but at least now people are beginning to take notice.

  • Innit Bruv

    That’s a lot of words to say very little.

  • Baron

    In conditions of current Western ideology of PC, uman rites, other progressive shibboleths, we should avoid going to war at all cost for we can never win, we have the hardware, lack the guts to do what war demands if it’s to be won – the destruction of the enemy either through annihilation or capture. In Iraq, we did neither. If we did what general Sisi is pursuing in Egypt the IS thugs wouldn’t be cutting throats of Christians, raping women, enslaving children. Most of them are former Saddam’s officers we let go. Lunacy.

  • Tony_E

    Seems lots of Brits are quite eager to send other people’s sons to die.

    • Alexsandr

      Maybe we should have in international brigade. all the people wanting to fight in Iraq can go.

    • Augustus

      Yes, they must be so self-loathing as to prefer to support and defend the very people who seek the extermination of their own kith and kin.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    “There’s been a lot written this week about whether or not to fight the Islamic State in Iraq. This time the consensus among Spectator writers is that Britain should”


    Goodness, it certainly sounds like you Speccie kids are resolute. So, when can we expect you stalwarts to report for duty against the islamofascists over there?

    You know, to demonstrate the principled nature of your Speccie “consensus” .

  • Augustus

    Kurdish forces, with American air assistance, are reported to have now taken back ‘parts’ of the Mosul dam, which was of great strategic importance. But how much of it is still in the hands of the terrorists? Could IS still blow it open causing a great tidal wave putting even Baghdad under water?

  • woodenfish

    Should we go to war? Such a scary idea, such a scary choice of words. Well, today’s BBC news has shown us the Bishop of Manchester saying we should “consider the military option.” OK, Bishop, let’s do that. By the way, the military option means bombing IS fighters and equipment from the air, and results in lots of them being blown to pieces. Got that, Bishop? Lots of people being killed by bombs. Are you in favour of that? Yes or no? Speak up, we can’t hear you.

    The Bishop also thinks that we should give Iraqi Christians and Yezidis the option of re-making their lives in the UK. He thinks that there has been a long, deafening silence about the fate of those people “from the top.” He is right. The silence has been especially deafening from the Church leadership. Well, never mind, because now, at last, he has spoken. So perhaps he could tell us how much money the Church of England will be giving to the project from its vast wealth, and how many bishops’ palaces could be converted into homes for the Iraqi Christians he wants to welcome. Or is the general population supposed to absorb all the newcomers, as usual? Which is it? Come on Bishop, speak up. We can’t hear you.

    Dropping bombs on IS fighters and killing as many of them as possible seems an excellent idea to me. But our real fight with Islamic loonies is not in Iraq, but here in Britain. I’m in favour of deporting the troublemakers (where to? The Caliphate, of course) and not letting any more in. Do you agree, Bishop of Manchester? Or not? Bishop? Bishop…?

    • Wessex Man

      You ignorant piece of work with your stupid socialist attack on our Church, we have been campaigning for sometime to settle Syrian and Iraqi Christians as the French and Germans have already pledged to! Never in my wildest drams did I think that IS would also attack the Yazidis as cruelly has they have.

      Our last Just War was the Falklands War this would be such a war!

      • woodenfish

        You seem to misunderstand me, and perhaps that’s my fault. To be more clear: I am in favour of war against IS. That means killing people. If the Bishop of Manchester also favours killing people (a surprising position for a churchman), I would like him to say so clearly. Saying we should “consider the military option” is simply bleating, like the ever-half-hearted David Cameron.

        Regarding the resettlement of more Iraqis in the UK: like many people who post here, I think the UK already has too many immigrants. If anyone wants to bring in any more, let them say where they should be settled and who is to pay for them. That is not unreasonable, nor “socialist”. But whether I am an “ignorant piece of work” is of course for others to decide.

        • Wessex Man

          I am a member of Ukip, I am normally against the tide of immigration that is changing our nation beyond recognition. However these people are Christians and the last time I checked we are still nominally a Christian State. The Christians in the middle east are and have been persecuted for many years for being Christian yet still they refuse to give up their Christianity. They more than any other people deserve to be taken into this country, just as we took in the Asians from Ugana in the 1970s.

          I said you were ignorant for the way you attacked the Bishop of Manchester and I still do.

  • Peter Stroud

    Cameron wrote in the Telegraph that our government were considering assisting the Kurds. He mentioned body armour. For God’s sake they need tanks and artillery, otherwise they will be overrun and massacred. And we need to support the US in air attacks. ISIS is a danger to us, as well as to the Kurds, Christians and Shias in Iraq. There are hundreds of, so called, British Moslems in the ranks of this gang of murderers. They must not live to return to these shores. But at the same time, our leaders must tackle the Islamic extremists in cities in the UK.

    • Wessex Man

      Well it took long enough but someone has expressed the very things I have been thinking.

      We the UK and the USA helped bring about today’s threat to world peace with the invasion of 2003 and we do owe it to the Christians, Yazidis and Kurds to smash IS, if we don’t they will swarm all over the middle east and cause other more wars!

  • cartimandua

    Not until our “leaders” have laid down the line to fundamentalist Muslim customs here in the UK.

  • HookesLaw

    Britain would ‘go to war’ under a treaty obligation. NATO treaty and then there are authorised UN operations. Iraq War 1 was a UN authorised operation. Saddam broke the ceasefire terms by killing his own people and Iraq War 2 was quite legally a continuance of that – Iraq War 1 never formally ended.
    Afghanistan was a UN mandated operation.
    Libya was a UN authorised operation.
    We can always go to the aid of a civilian power if requested – that is not ‘war’.

    If we look to failures of world security they are failures of the UN.

    • Roger Hudson

      So by your logic the NATO bombing of Serbia was illegal, i agree.

    • WatTylersGhost

      Last time I checked Turkey was part of NATO. Now your idiot friend Cameron intends to arm the Kurds who hate Istanbul – how do you think this is going to end? About as well as his intention to arm ISIS 12 months ago.

  • swatnan

    Basically, when Britain is under attack, on its own soil. Or when the country happens to be split straight down the middle and democracy is threatened by autocracy and the divine right to rule, as happened in the Civil Wars in the C17. Then it is justifiable.

    • Holly

      The trouble is, the politicians do not think Britain is ‘under attack’, they think we are being ‘mean’, and not doing enough to placate those who intend us harm.
      How long ago was it when a Conservative at the top table resigned for exactly that reason?
      Warning the British government, there would be ‘consequences’ if it didn’t do even more.

      • Kitty MLB

        The entire west is under attack but every country has
        been far too ignorant to see it. And we haven’t a Thatcher, or Churchill.Only last year many were rattling away about a ‘Arab Spring’ more like
        mini dictators and terrorists planning a Arab eternal
        We have not helped by our wreckless interference
        and now they believe they’re on a cruisade and Labour
        have blood on their hands from the first Iraq war and
        whatever happens next originates from their choices.
        Cameron can just work with the hand he’s been dealt

        • global city

          Islamists are relatively few in number, but rocket fuel is added by people from our own ‘culture’. The main enemy is within.

      • swatnan

        Sayeeda Warsi, actually resigned on principle 2 weeks ago.

        • Holly

          That the politicians were not doing enough to secure the votes of ‘minorities’.

    • Colonel Mustard

      So we can go to war against the Labour party then? With their aspirations for a single party state and the desire to legislate conscience they threaten democracy and think they have a divine right to rule.

      • Smithersjones2013

        Well if not the Labour Party (and I could easily be persuaded) then certainly the EU!

        • the viceroy’s gin






      • swatnan

        You’re obviously thinking of the Tory Party with their divine right to rule philosophy and that plebs are not worthy of the vote.
        The Labour Party OTOH is a democratic socialist Party.

        • Kitty MLB

          You ignorant socialist.Labour took us into
          an illigal war and then filled this country with
          potential voters from the middle east and named
          it multiculturalism.Just to stop the Tories.
          The same people who would murder us in an
          instance..who is the party that assumes its born
          to rule?
          Blood stained hands forever.Regardless of political differences the Labour Party of old
          must have had some honour and integrity
          but this lot are nothing more then traitors.

        • Holly

          …And as long as everyone agrees with the great Labour leader, and his useless side-kicks, you are guaranteed not to be shouted down as racist/bigoted, or little Englander.
          The Labour party are to blame for where we are now, not the Tory party, or the working class, god! Not even the under-class Labour created had a say on anything.
          You my dear are ignorant to what is coming down the road, and ‘being nice’ to them will have no bearing on what happens next.

        • Andy

          The Fascist Labour Party.

        • Ordinaryman

          Put in power, when people forget how bad they are, by a warped share of the votes and the unions.

      • Kitty MLB

        Very well said Colonel.A single party state is what Labour as always wished for, helped by their thankful
        voters from the middle east.
        Utterly betraying their loyal working class voters with
        every moment they were in government.

    • Andy

      We are under attack: remember 7/7.

  • saffrin

    Britain doesn’t need to go all the way to the Middle East to fight any Islamic state when it has enough mini-Islamic states in Leeds, Bradford, Luton, Nottingham, Birmingham and many other UK cities.
    One thing the Labour party did for the UK taxpayer was to shorten the travelling distance between the Brit and the Muslim.

    • will91

      Indeed, there are currently more British Muslims fighting in Syria and Iraq (roughly 700) than their are serving in the British armed forces (around 500).

      That’s not the statistic that keeps me up at night, what i’m worried about is that for every wannabe jihadist who makes the effort to travel to the Middle East, their exists dozens of others who either openly support or sympathise with ISIS in their efforts.

      • Alexsandr

        and send them money . Zakat

        • Alexsandr

          As an aside, we need to make sure zakat money, much of it having tax benefits of charity status, is not being syphoned off to terrorists in Hamas and ISIS etc

          • cartimandua

            which of course it is.

      • Kitty MLB

        I’d like to make a small point.Due to the original Iraq
        war and the fact we are a breeding ground for young
        men and women who think their waging a crusade against the west, are we safe?

        The Prime Minister says we’ll not be safe unless something is done and that they’ll all come here but
        they’re already here. If our military are in the middle east who will protect us here if things flair up within
        the muslim community…our pathetic police force?
        Yet at the same time the savagery in the middle east
        needs dealing with.Christians and Jews are being slaughtered.I am more concerned about them then
        a bunch of terrorists murdering each other.If we
        help, it must be the entire west taking action and not
        just a few countries.

      • Roger Hudson

        The number of muslims in the army means that if the gloves ever have to come off the fight would’t last long.

    • John Gerard

      It certainly makes it more convenient for the armed forces should it ever come to that. The fact muslims live in ghettoes is a benefit for the same reason. They can easily be sealed off, letting nobody or anything in or out. No gas, water, electricity, food, medicine – anyything. A good, old fashioned military siege.