An ethical dimension/ unethical dementia


(Robin Cook via The Guardian)

I’m old enough to remember Robin Cook’s ‘mission statement’, more than twenty years ago now. Of course, we know how things worked out there but still, but still. ‘Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.’ And, towards the close: ‘Today’s Mission Statement sets out new directions in foreign policy. It makes the business of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office delivery of a long-term strategy, not just managing crisis intervention. It supplies an ethical content to foreign policy and recognises that the national interest cannot be defined only by narrow realpolitik. It aims to make Britain a leading partner in a world community of nations, and reverses the Tory trend towards not so splendid isolation.’

Goodbye to all that, then. In Yemen, where war has been raging for several years, the latest atrocity is the dozens of deaths and injuries in a Saudi-led coalition attack on a bus full of children. An official Saudi press agency statement termed this ‘a legitimate military action’.

Of an earlier offensive, the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell observed that, ‘The problem for Britain is that we are complicit in this attack. It is part of the coalition that supports Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.’

You could say that. You could, indeed, say more than that. Several months ago, David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, remarked that the British government ‘has been one of the strongest backers of the Saudis and their Gulf-led coalition. It has provided largely uncritical support for Saudi’s role in the war, as well as selling the Saudis £4.6 billion of military equipment over this period, seemingly ignoring its own rules about not selling arms when they are likely to be used unlawfully.’ As for British ministers, they ‘insist that staying close to the Saudis and offering advice privately is the most effective way to influence Saudi actions, alongside military advice and practical support through arms sales.’

Well, well. Try this. ‘For many civilians, the realisation that one’s nation might be immoral or duplicitous was profoundly disturbing’, Trudi Tate writes, discussing Rudyard Kipling’s story, ‘Mary Postgate’, having commented a little earlier that, ‘Widespread literacy made it easier to spread lies.’ Yup. And she cited an essay by Sigmund Freud, ‘The Disillusionment of the War’, dating from 1915.[1]

Freud begins by writing that, ‘In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped, we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form.’

Take away ‘of wartime’ from his opening sentence and the essay could have been written this week.


Sigmund Freud
(‘when they were yung and easily freudened’—James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
Sometimes a psychoanalyst is just a psychoanalyst)

I see I marked another, later passage, about how, when a village grows into a town or a child into an adult, the earlier forms become lost in the later; but that it’s ‘otherwise with the development of the mind’. Succession, Freud writes, also involves co-existence and every earlier stage of development persists alongside the later stages. It may well happen, he suggests, that ‘a later and higher stage of development, once abandoned, cannot be reached again. But the primitive stages can always be re-established; the primitive mind is, in the fullest meaning of the word, imperishable.’[2]

So this is where we’ve got to. Our current, carefully selective and discriminating arms trade policy appears to boil down to this: ‘If they have the money, we’ll sell to anyone that asks.’ Appendix 1, no doubt, reads: ‘when, as is bound to happen, you use the weapons we’ve supplied to slaughter civilians, with a particular appetite for children, we agree to say nothing whatever about it. So long as your cheque is in the post.’


[1] Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 39, 5.

[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’, Civilization, Society and Religion, Penguin Freud Library Volume 12, edited by Albert Dickson (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 61, 73.


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