Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The popular pastime of foot-shooting

If we conjure up a mental image of a target, I suppose most of us think of some kind of disk with rings of alternating colour around a bull’s eye at the centre. Perhaps a more appropriate image would be a human foot, since shooting yourself in the foot is the traditional metaphor for a self-inflicted wound. And it’s extraordinary how often we inflict them on ourselves, with decisions taken without properly considering all the facts, leading to months or years of regret as we struggle to correct them.

Picture a bridge across a river on which the calm of a late afternoon in September is beginning to settle.

On the bridge, there’s anything but calm. In the middle, carpenters have built a square enclosure, with doors facing either bank. Two men with ten companions each are due to meet here to try to overcome their mutual antagonism and unite against a third. The negotiations should have started at 3:00 and it’s a measure of their mutual distrust that they’re already two hours late.

In the event, the meeting takes minutes. One leader makes a gesture which someone who wants to pick a fight could interpret as threatening. There’s a shout and a man moves in and strikes a fatal blow with an axe. Contrary to the agreement, his side has left its door unlocked so more men pour through and the fighting becomes general.

The year was 1419 and the murdered leader was John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. The man he had come to meet was his cousin the Dauphin or Crown Prince of France, later Charles VII. The third figure was one of England’s more successful soldier kings, Henry V, whose forces were at the gates of Paris.

The Dauphin had stood by while the assassination took place, and he had plenty of time to regret his inaction. The war ended with a French victory, but it took another 34 years. Why so long? He had forfeited the support of Burgundy which instead sided with England against him. Killing John might have seemed an expedient move to rid himself of a dangerous rival, but it cost him decades of struggle against an implacable enemy.

A century after the murder, King Francis I visited Burgundy where a monk showed him the skull of John the Fearless and pointed to the wound made by the axe. ‘Sire,’ he said, ‘this is the hole through which the English entered France.’

Roll forward some centuries. The Saville enquiry recently reported on the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings of 13 civilians by British paratroopers in Northern Ireland. The objective was to arrest troublemakers, which is a police job. Paratroopers are highly trained and fully equipped for one job only, killing people, which they do extremely well. Use paratroops instead of police and you really have no excuse for being surprised that the result is dead bodies.

The outcome of these events is summarised perfectly by the Saville report:

‘What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the Army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.’

Someone thought that teaching these people a sharp lesson was a good idea at the time. Looking back at the quarter century of violence that followed, we can see that perhaps it wasn’t that bright.

In Britain today, we’re living under a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Now it has to be understood that the Conservative or Tory Party is the natural party of government here. They provided Prime Ministers for nearly two-thirds of the twentieth century, Labour and the Liberals having to share the rest. So the Tories define British politics: you vote for them or you vote against, which generally means either Labour or Liberal Democrat.

But by joining the Conservatives in government, the Liberal Democrats have closed off one of the options for an anti-Tory vote. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that their standing in the polls has collapsed and previous Liberal Democrat voters are flocking to Labour.

Joining the government may have seemed a great scheme to get close to power for the first time in ninety years. But right now it’s looking like a suicidal move from which it may take a generation for the party to recover.

It isn’t just the great and the good, or at any rate the historical and incompetent, who engage in this kind of foot-shooting.

Some years ago, while we were still living in Strasbourg, I persuaded my sales colleagues to hold a meeting there. Everyone had a great time. However, we were in a hotel some twenty minutes drive outside town. On one occasion, we drove there in a convoy of three cars that I was leading. It was pouring with rain and pitch black, and I was chatting away to my passengers so I missed my turning.

Now the obvious solution was to do a U-turn and get back onto the right road. What was the worst that could happen? I’d have had to admit that I’d made a mistake. Clearly the sensible option. For reasons that remain obscure to me, I didn’t take it and kept on driving, sure that I’d find another way that would avoid my blushes.

I didn’t. We spent the next two hours driving round Alsace, the region to which Strasbourg belongs. To be strictly honest, we weren’t even in Alsace all the time: at one point I realised that we had driven right into Lorraine, the region next door. By the end, my passengers were gasping to relieve themselves, but I wasn’t prepared to stop for fear of being lynched by the people in the cars behind.

My decision to press on had seemed a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t. I’d hoped to avoid embarrassment, but in fact I only made it worse. Like the Dauphin, like the men who sent in the paras on Bloody Sunday, like the Liberal Democrats propping up the Tories, what looked like a shortcut to success proved absolutely the opposite.

See what I mean? Bang – wow, that’s a couple of toes gone. Just let me take aim again: next time I might be able to take out the whole of the instep.


Awoogamuffin said...

Interesting your point about Northern Ireland - today I was talking to my students about ETA and a lot of them revealed their blood-thirsty sides. A lot of "lock em up and throw away the key", or worse!

People don't like the idea that maybe its best not to encourage the militants by making them martyrs. Thankfully, the people in power here in Spain seem to know that, and are trying to use a softer touch.

David Beeson said...

There've been occasions when sheer repression has successfully seen off an insurgency - I suppose the most obvious recent case being Sri Lanka, if we allow some latitude in defining 'success'. But in most cases ultimately you have to negotiate with the other side, as the Brits have frequently found to their cost, in Malaya, in Kenya, in India, to name just a few ex-colonies, and of course in Northern Ireland. You can denounce them as terrorists for as long as you like but in the long run you may well be obliged to talk to them...