London can take it

Brits avoid the phrase “war on terror”.

The British media today are full of commemorations of the Londoners who fell a year ago in the war on terror.

Except that they didn’t. Nobody, but nobody, is putting it like that. Here’s Tony Blair, here’s Mayor Ken Livingstone, here’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair. Plenty of time to prepare these statements, so it’s all deliberate.

Googling for “war on terror” on .uk sites, I couldn’t find direct uses of the phrase by politicians of any stripe, from lefty Ken to the right-wing Tory David Davis. The closest Tony Blair got was in a speech in March 2004:

We wage war relentlessly on those who would exploit racial and religious division to bring catastrophe to the world.

Blair’s antennae for public opinion and the impact of words are very sensitive, and if he hasn’t hammered on the “war on terror” trope since, it’s because he knows that it doesn’t work. The British argument over antiterrorism law and police powers is fierce, but where is the claim “we must do this because it’s war”?

“War on terror” is used quite a lot by headline-writers in the press, as here, just as they write about the “war on crime” and refer to a politician’s annoyance as “fury”. This doesn’t mean much. The phrase is also used to describe American policy, across the cultural gulf.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

5 thoughts on “London can take it”

  1. If the "war on terror" metaphor has fallen into disuse in the UK, that's all to your credit. It would mean that British politics is closer to recovering its sanity than ours is.
    The war idea fosters arrest without trial, torture, brutality on the ground in Iraq, NSA eavesdropping, government secrecy, and allegations of treason.
    More time has passed since 9/11 than passed in the period from December 7, 1941 to V-J Day. So if we were in a war with Al Quaida, we're not doing so well.

  2. In the "conflict" with the Provos, the British government always insisted that it was about criminality. It was the Provos who wanted to call it a "war." That's usually how these things work: the irregular terrorists aspire to be considered an army and a proto-state, and the existing government wants to deny them that status.
    It's now clear that the Bush administration has taken the opposite tack to justify authoritarianism domestically.

  3. Pithlord has it exactly right. The same held for the Basque ETA, the French OAS, the Brigate Rossi in Italy, the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany: they all adopted military terminology and identified themselves as warriors. The governments they attacked refused the gambit and insisted they were fighting criminals; in the case of the IRA, for over 30 years. Bush conceded the point to El Qaeda in 24 hours.

  4. Was that 24 hours after the bin Laden fatwa against the US? Or 24 hours after the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombings? Or 24 hours after the USS Cole attack?
    It's important to be clear about this, because there are people out there who are under the impression that the "war on terror" was declared because the previous criminal justice-based approach to chasing down Al Qaeda–"Chinese wall" and all–had been tried for several years, and had failed spectacularly. Many of those people also note the remarkable decline in terrorist attacks on American targets since the "war" was declared, and hypothesize that there may be more than mere coincidence involved.
    Those people would no doubt be less confident in their view if they knew that in fact the "war on terror" had been declared within 24 hours of Al Qaeda's commencement of its terrorist campaign against the US, rather than after several bloody years of trying and failing to address the Al Qaeda problem through law enforcement means. So if you have any evidence to that effect, then it would certainly be worthwhile to present it.

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