I often like to pose as a historian with a deep-time perspective on current events.
Actually, my only qualifications are an unexpected Grade A in History at A-level, 49 years ago; three years spent editing history books in a publishing company, and a vivid imagination.
Many of you, my 29 Followers are doubtless dying to ask me to comment on the current, very grave global situation, believing me to be an authority on everything. I have done it before, and was proved not entirely wrong. So I will again.
Are you sitting comfortably?
It strikes me that what is happening all over the globe is an attempt in many quarters to roll-back the imperialist, colonial history of the past 400 years. The hideous ISIL movement and Putin are two obvious cases in point, but the Scottish independence referendum also falls within the same ambit.
We cannot, of course, conflate a few incidents of politicians being ‘egged’ in Dundee with the beheadings, mass rapes, expulsions, genocide and forced conversions of the self-styled Islamic State. I expect a marginal ‘No’ vote in Scotland in two weeks’ time*, although if Scots in the diaspora had been allowed to have a vote I believe we would be waving goodbye across the Great Glen come March 2016.
And that would put the clock back to 1707, the Act of Union.
So can we perhaps say that the rise of the West and the post-Reformation Christian colonial period were a historical anomaly, a ‘bubble’ in time? Putin’s believed plan to restore the Soviet Union is well wide of the mark. What Putin wants is to restore the Russia of Catherine the Great.
And what Abubakar al-Baghdadi is hoping to achieve through the calculated brutalities of ISIL is nothing less than the restoration of the C14th Islamic caliphate, stretching from Portugal to China, that existed before it was fragmented by the Mongols and ultimately fell in the late C19th within the ambit of the Western colonial powers – or international Jewry, in the case of Israel in 1948.
Listening to politicians and pundits confronted by these audacious projects, one gets a sense that we have no response. We hope somehow that the Arabic nations will see it as in their best interest to side with us. Well, why should they? Only their own corrupt power structures and Western financial and military aid are holding them with us in a weak alliance. As the power of ISIL grows, why would Saudi Arabia and the less wealth-corrupted Gulf states like Yemen not eventually side with them?**
Iran is a different case. It is not an Arabic state, and was the first to shake off Islam under the Buddhist Mongol leader, Hulagu. But, although elements are opposed to the mainly Sunni ISIL and willing to help the West, up to a point, the fundamentalist Islamic leadership in Tehran is not going to suddenly rediscover its Zoroastrian roots. In common adversity, the Sunni-Shi’a schism can show a remarkable ability to repair itself.
It’s possible that Putin’s Greater Russia strategy will serve two purposes, to reclaim the Islamic republics to his south, and to create a bulwark against ISIL.*** One senses that supporting the insurrection in Ukraine as part of the consolidation of his western borders with the EU and NATO states has already become an irrelevance, as he is now threatening Khazakhstan.
To stop ISIL, the West is going to have to fundamentally rethink 400 years of colonial policy, alliances and borders, and very, very quickly. We are going to have to do distasteful deals with a lot of people we thought were our enemies. The irony is, that while we are raising punitive economic sanctions against Putin over Ukraine, we need his support to intercede with his protege Assad to enlist Syrian help against ISIL. And it would be in Russia’s interest to give it.
We need to understand that the world that existed before the United States of America, before the United Kingdom, before the German and Italian Republics were unified, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the African ‘nations’ came into existence, was a very different, more fluid-dynamic and far more brutal place even than we can imagine. Decades of sex. shopping and TV reality gameshows – the ‘liberal-democratic consensus’ – have amputated our sense of history as an evolutionary force to which any of us may be subject.
We need to understand that the past is very likely where we are headed now, unless we make a determined stand on behalf of the future. And that is something we don’t seem to remember how to do, one hundred years to the month after the Battle of Mons.
* STOP PRESS It’s a No to Independence, by 55%-45%…. then the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) goes on to win an overwhelming majority of Scottish seats in Westminster at the subsequent May general election, annihilating Scottish Labour, as Scottish voters realise they have been conned by promises of greater autonomy.
**One year on, Saudi Arabia is prosecuting a proxy war against Iranian-backed rebel Houthi militias that have seized power in large parts of Yemen. Hundreds of civilians have died in bombing raids by Western-supplied Saudi jets.
***One year on, Western intel is reporting a Russian military build-up in Syria, in support of the gridlocked Assad forces. A huge outflow of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees from the region is pouring into the EU countries, seeking sanctuary. The numbers could grow to a million or more. Casualties have been on an appalling scale, families are trapped in the open with winter approaching. Governments, many of whose economies are in recession, are hopelessly divided over how to respond. The entire crisis has been propelled by a collective failure of Western political leadership. For the first time, polls show Britain narrowly in favour of Brexit – leaving the EU.
I am not optimistic, to be honest.