Book Review: John Bull’s Small Ideas

Review of Absent Minds by Stefan Collini
Oxford University Press, £25

This ambitious work is about British attitudes to intellectuals. Specifically, it is about why the British have been so reluctant to admit that they have intellectuals. Collini calls it the “denial” or “absence” or “exceptionalist” thesis. The claim to immunity from intellectual influences is part of Britain’s definition of itself. Today hardly anyone bothers to deny that we have intellectuals, because the species is almost extinct. Perhaps a trace of the denial survives in the anti-Europeanism of many commentators.

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Essay: A Chinese Homecoming

I had been plotting my return to China for about a year, and now an invitation from Lanxin Xiang, author of a book on the Boxer rebellion, to lecture in Shanghai in September 2005 made it possible. I say “return,” because the last time I had been on the mainland was in 1948, when I was nine years old. I was born in Harbin in Manchuria in 1939, came to England when I was three, and then went back to China with my parents in 1947, living for a little over a year in Tientsin (now Tianjin). We escaped to Hong Kong just before the communists took the city.

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The Just War Tradition

In recent years there has been a revival of war as a policy of choice. Since the collapse of communism, the US and its allies have attacked Iraq (twice), Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. With “hot war” released from its cold war constraints, it is important to consider the conditions under which resort to war is justifiable, and what methods of fighting wars are right. This is the domain of “just war” theory.

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Essay: A Patient Politician, on Gordon Brown

What did Gordon Brown think of the Iraq war? “We stand full-square with the American government and people in fighting terrorism and will continue to do so,” he declared in 2001. But his support for the prime minister’s Iraq policy was scanty. According to Anthony Seldon, Brown had “serious misgivings.” Had he made his disagreement public, Blair would have fallen. But Brown would not necessarily have inherited the throne, which may explain why he kept quiet.

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Essay: The American Contract

The system of international relations we have known since the second world war has broken down. The reasons given for the Anglo-American attack on Iraq were largely fraudulent. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be weapons of mass distraction. It is straining at a gnat to argue that UN security council resolution 678, passed in 1990, made legal an invasion undertaken in 2003. However, it is also true that the Iraqis will be far better off without Saddam Hussein; and there is a chance that the middle east will be reshaped for the better. The main problem in international relations is to define the scope of lawful and acceptable military interventions in today’s world.

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Debate: Is Regime Change in Iraq Necessary? Bobbitt vs. Skidelsky

Dear Robert

8th January 2003

In 1991, in order to enforce UN security council resolution 678, which called for the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait, coalition forces invaded Iraq. After an initial bombardment and battle, no effective opposition lay between them and Baghdad. But for reasons that seemed persuasive at the time, the advance was halted and a ceasefire agreed. This armistice was incorporated in UNSCR 687, requiring Iraq to “unconditionally accept” the removal, destruction and rendering harmless of all weapons of mass destruction and any launchers with a range greater than 150 km, and not to seek to develop or acquire such weapons in the future. Other UN resolutions ordered Iraq to return all prisoners of war and Kuwaiti property, to pay damages resulting from the war, and to comply with two no-fly zones negotiated as part of the ceasefire agreement.

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Essay: Five Years Labour

Everyone expected Labour to win in 1997, though not by such a large margin. An identically big victory in 2001, pointing to three or even four consecutive terms of office, suggests that a watershed has occurred in British politics, with Labour poised to take command of the 21st century as the Conservatives did of the 20th. But after five years in power, New Labour remains an elusive political force.

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