Opinion

John Lloyd

Britain’s shaken reputation

John Lloyd
Jul 30, 2012 16:52 UTC

It was rude of Mitt Romney to cast doubt on Britain’s ability to successfully host the London Olympics, but it wasn’t stupid. His briefers on the London trip will have had files full of stories from the British papers, whose front pages had little else on them for days but forebodings over security lapses because of a screwup by G4S, the company hired to keep the Games safe. Britain hasn’t, in the past few years, been distinguished for excellence: Why assume the Games would be an exception?

For any foreigner, especially any American, alert to British events over the past year or two, these stories play against a backdrop of the perception of the British capital as “Londonistan,” a place whose tolerance of radical Islamism spills over into fatally dangerous carelessness. A city where, almost exactly a year ago, gangs of young men and women roamed the streets for several days, smashing shops, looting their contents, burning buildings, beating up passersby and isolated policemen. To voice doubts on U.S. television about London’s safety is not stupid, because doubts are in order.

Three institutions central to the world’s opinion of the United Kingdom have been and remain very badly shaken. These are the armed forces, the press and the banking system – three systems that, for two centuries or more, evoked real pride for the British people. The damage done – in two cases self-administered – has projected images of Britain that sharply contradict the sturdy, trusty, intelligently skeptical stereotype that the British like to think is a mirror of themselves.

The military is the outlier: It has not been the author of its own fall from grace, and is still thought of as efficient, well-equipped and well led. The wounds to its pride and efficacy have come from political considerations, of which the most important was to pull out of Iraq with an unconvincing rationale that the job it was doing, around the southern city of Basra, was done. In fact, its exit meant a U.S. brigade had to be deployed to cover the gap in security, despite the U.S. military itself being hard-pressed. In Afghanistan, a British withdrawal – this time in step with a similar U.S. exercise – is scheduled to begin next year. Several senior officers warn that the Afghan forces cannot provide security. Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Helmand, was quoted as saying in May that the local military “are not close to being able to take over from Western forces unaided, and I don’t believe that they would be able to contain the insurgency unaided by 2014, which is the date we are due to leave.”

Back home, the numbers of military personnel and bases and the ability to project force have been slashed so deeply that a slew of senior commanders have resigned, some remaining tactfully silent, others loud in their protest that the British armed forces now lack the capacity to fight even one, let alone multiple, large actions. Britain, with France, had been an at least partial exception to the somewhat dubious decline of Europe’s ability to pull its weight in military engagements (a cause of increasing concern to a vastly indebted U.S.) From having been a partial solution, Britain joins the problem. It will, said a report last autumn from the Royal United Services Institute, “never again be among the global [military] superpowers.”

Europe’s impossible dream

John Lloyd
Jul 23, 2012 20:41 UTC

The economic logic of European integration is now directly confronting nationalistic sentiments in the hearts and souls of Europeans. It’s becoming clear that nationalism resonates more deeply. That is the stuff of our patriotic life, fragments from our history that we use to shore up our present and point to our future. To discard them is to discard part of our mental and moral makeup.

For much of the last 60 years the Union has been Good, scattering tangible and intangible blessings upon its growing group of member states. It brought investment to the poorer countries that joined. It broke down physical and psychological barriers between states, so that their citizens now pass casually into and through countries that once required major preparation. It gave the former Communist states of Central Europe an ideal to which to aspire and templates by which aspirations could become routine. And it made inter-European war so unthinkable that its possibility ceased to be thought about at all.

The dream of the founders was an ever-closer union transforming itself into something like a federal state. They thought it could exist in idealistic form while the practical changes were put – with much labor, compromise and argument – into place. One of these founders, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, called up the ideal in a speech in 1948:

London’s Olympic fog

John Lloyd
Jul 17, 2012 15:56 UTC

The scenes of wild British rejoicing in July 2005, when it was announced London would host the 2012 Olympics, have faded and been replaced by visions of doom. Once the games begin, the sheer beauty of the sports will take over, but for now, most media attention is given over to threats, to chaos, to failure.

The day London celebrated in 2005, four British Islamist terrorists killed 52 people in four different bombs attacks, three on the metro system, one on a bus. Seven years later, the shadow still hangs heavy. The security arrangements include sharpshooters, missiles and, most recently, 3,500 soldiers called in because the security provider, G4S, was found last week to have failed to deliver the necessary number of trained guards.

Britain does grumbling as well as any country: It’s hard to find any Londoner who does not use the word “chaos” to encapsulate what he or she thinks will happen to London’s traffic and public transport from late July through August. Residents have been encouraged in that view by signs everywhere on the metro warning that “this station will be very busy during the Olympics.”

Progressives are progressing toward what, exactly?

John Lloyd
Jul 9, 2012 21:26 UTC

Liberals and leftists all over the democratic world have often called themselves progressives, because it seems, in a word, to put you on the tide of a better future. (Also because in some countries, the United States most of all, to call yourself any kind of socialist was a route to permanent marginalization.) Progress doesn’t just mean going forward: It means going forward to a better place.

But a better place isn’t currently available, not for the right, and not for the left.

In the past two decades, progressives hitched their wagons to several charismatic individuals who were generally successful, both in gaining and retaining power. Luiz da Silva (Lula) in Brazil; Gerhard Schroeder in Germany; Tony Blair in the UK; and Bill Clinton in the U.S. They improved the lot of the poor somewhat, and, social liberals all, worked to bring in women, gays and ethnic minorities from the cold of discrimination and inequality.

To laugh or not to laugh

John Lloyd
Jul 3, 2012 17:43 UTC

For most of the world, the memory of the slaughter of the Jews, pursued with such disciplined ferocity to the bitter end, demands respect. It gets it, not just in the thousands of records of the event, but in art, too. Primo Levi, the Milanese Jew who survived Auschwitz itself, wrote memoirs (If This Is a Man; The Truce) and novels (The Wrench; If Not Now, When?) that have the power of understated horror and serve as a kind of standard for all others. Films – Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) and Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008) – two of the better known of the past decadeare somber, tragic affairs, the subject matter with which they work precluding anything approaching a happy ending.

There are exceptions, and, oddly, they are very funny ones. The earliest is the Ernst Lubitsch comedy To Be or Not to Be, released in 1942 and starring Jack Benny as a Polish actor who, through a series of comic turns, plays an SS Officer, Colonel Erhardt, in an ultimately successful escape bid. At one point, the real Erhardt, speaking of the concentration camps, snaps – “we do the concentrating, the Poles do the camping” – a line that still gives a start, though written and spoken when what the camping meant was still genuinely unknown by most. There are more, of course: Mel Brooks’s The Producers and Roberto Benigni’s 1997 La Vita e Bella, most memorably. Neither was uncontroversial, but what controversy there was has largely died, and they’re mostly seen as classics.

Now the Holocaust has a new creative frontier. In a ceremony that seemed as if it were made for another Mel Brooks movie, Hava Hershkovits won the Miss Holocaust Survivor contest in Haifa, Israel, last Friday. The organizer, Shimon Sabag, director of Yad Ezer l’Haver (Helping Hand), an institution that aids poor Holocaust survivors, said that the contestants “feel good together. They are having a good time and laughing at the rehearsals.” In the published pictures, Hershkovits, at 78, looks radiant and is wearing the victor’s tiara.

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