Tough talk from Putin seems to trigger a misplaced machismo from those who should know better
There is a fascinating tension in the British attitude to war and military matters. When he wrote about England in 1941, George Orwell said his home country was defined by the “gentleness” of its civilisation, and such a “hatred of war and militarism” that flag-waving and patriotic boasting were always the preserve of a small minority. Events over the past 40 or so years have perhaps proved him wrong: from time to time, a widely shared jingoism has been brought to the surface of our national life, focused either on actual conflict – as happened when Britain fought for the Falkland Islands – or some hare-brained proxy for it, such as Brexit. But there is something about Orwell’s portrayal of people with an innate distaste for bellicose posturing that still rings true, across all the countries of the United Kingdom.
Among certain politicians, by contrast, there is far too little of that kind of thinking. Over the past three weeks, the unimaginable awfulness of what has happened in Ukraine and the fact that Vladimir Putin’s invasion is such a matter of moral clarity has encouraged a lot of rhetoric and posturing that has been shrill, banal and full of a misplaced machismo. The war, says one Tory MP, is Boris Johnson’s “Falklands moment”. The vocal Conservative backbencher Tobias Ellwood – a former soldier in the Royal Green Jackets, and now an active reservist – insists that the west’s response shows “we’ve lost our appetite, we’ve lost our confidence to stand up: to stand tall”. And while he and other Tory MPs – including zealous believers in Britain breaking from the EU, suddenly holding forth about the urgent need for international unity – have been making sense-defying demands for Nato to impose a no-fly zone, some of the cabinet have come out with their own very unsettling pronouncements, seemingly thinking that if Putin talks tough, they should talk tougher. When Sajid Javid was asked about the recent Russian attack on a Ukrainian military base only about 10 miles from the country’s border with Poland, we saw the strange spectacle of the health secretary apparently embracing the prospect of nuclear war: “Let’s be very clear … if a single Russian toecap steps into Nato territory, there will be war with Nato.”
John Harris is a Guardian columnist