Wednesday, 25 February 2015

When cartoons become reality

Two mainstays of newspaper cartoon pages used to be a forlorn bloke stranded on a desert island slightly larger than a postage stamp, and a caveman imaginatively called Ugg.

When he wasn’t busy hilariously inventing the wheel Ugg used to go on the pull by whacking a woman over the head with a large club, then dragging her home by her hair.

Happily it’s been a few decades since we stopped seeing the funny side of violence against women, even in a cartoon Stone Age. But one possibility we surely never considered was that impressionable young women might look at the images and think, “Hmm, that Ugg looks just the guy for me!”

Because, to be honest, I can see little difference between his treatment of women and that awaiting “jihadi brides” in Syria, which is apparently proving such a potent draw for teenagers from Bethnal Green.

Our mistake – and it is one of which I have been guilty myself – is believing in progress. In imagining that we only need to have the one holocaust, because humanity will absorb the lesson and draw a simple line: “Never again.”

How many times?

We only have to look at recent events in Paris and Copenhagen, and the horrors unfolding across the Middle East, to see that this is total rubbish. And there’s no point wringing our hands saying “something must be done” because it was the impulse for outsiders to do something that created much of the mess in the first place.

Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have all managed to make bad situations worse, as cynical observers warned they would.

Similarly in Ukraine, we thought that the urge to conquer territory to place compatriots under our flag had gone out with Hitler, Sudetenland and the Austrian Anschluss.

Hitler enters the Sudetenland, 1938

We won the Cold War, the Berlin Wall came down, the USSR was dismantled and we could all look forward to a new era of peace, prosperity and liberal democracy.

Talk of “the end of history” looks particularly laughable a quarter century on, as we watch President Putin expertly playing the old, old game.

Still, it could be worse. As of 1991 Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, inherited from the Soviet Union. It gave up that armoury in return for guarantees from Russia, the USA and Britain, in the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994, “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

That’s worked well for them, hasn’t it? Hands up all those who think that Russia would still have annexed Crimea and be fomenting rebellion elsewhere in Ukraine if there had been the remotest chance of starting a nuclear war.

Disarmament always looks like an easy way to save money, and in the long run turns out to cost a fortune in blood as well as treasure. Anyone tempted to vote for the Green or SNP anti-Trident agendas might like to ponder on the lessons from Ukraine before marking their ballot paper.

It does not matter whether the threat comes from old-style 20th century dictators or the adherents to some twisted religion bursting out of a nightmare version of the Middle Ages. The key to security must be having robust border controls and the resources to defend ourselves if the would-be attackers of shopping centres and synagogues make it onto our streets.

The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens and, in the current climate, it would surely do well to think of that in terms of beefing up the Army, Navy and Air Force rather than fretting about people’s waistlines and smoking habits.

The words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly, and carry a large stick”, should be engraved on a plaque and screwed to the wall in full view of the Prime Minister’s desk.

Meanwhile, as the General Election campaign descends into bathos, with former Foreign Secretaries falling for a sting that surely even Ugg the caveman would have seen through, it’s hard not feel a yearning for that other cartoon idyll.

That tiny desert island with the solitary palm tree would suit me very nicely, at least until the next round of coalition negotiations is well out of the way.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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