SILENT PERSUADERS

Most of the British media made a nod to the start of the state sponsored First World War centenary in January. The Guardian was first off the mark on 1st January with an article by Michael Morpurgo. Morpurgo is a much-lauded writer whose book War Horse became a world wide theatrical sensation. ‘Someone’, he writes, ‘once called it "the greatest anthem to peace" ever seen on stage. His article was quickly followed by Michael Gove Education Secretary venting spleen in the Daily Mail on all who thought that the war was anything less that glorious or just. Two days later Tristram Hunt, historian and MP, tore into Gove for maligning ‘left wing’ academics. This tit for tat sets the pattern for the next few years. A tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing as Macbeth might have said. Macbeth’s nemesis was coming over the hill but ours is already here but we cannot seem to see the forest for the wood.

How much should we be concerned about these public spats? Of course truth about major events in the past is important but no more so than facts about the present. These are mostly passing us by all the while creating the conditions for a less attractive future. The British ‘influence industry’ is worth some £2,000,000,000*. It operates under our noses and affects every aspect of our lives from the food we eat to the weapons our money is spent on. Unknown by most this ‘silent’ lobbying drowns out public interest. Even the government employs lobbying companies to promote its unpopular projects. The spats about what kind of war the 1914-1918 was also have their political dimension and meld with stories about the dangers facing Britain crafted to suit political and financial agendas. It’s hard to know what to believe.

Despite all this effort the MoD believes that the public has become ‘risk averse’ and might be unwilling for Britain to go to war. They worry that some of their pet projects – things that make a bigger bang and offer opportunity for some action might be a hard sell. In its discussion paper the MoD looks at ways to minimise the public’s emotional engagement with Britain’s wars. Reducing the profile of repatriation ceremonies for example, or using mercenaries (aka private contractors) instead of regular troops and more unmanned auto-nomous vehicles are all considered. The document also has handy definition of risk by Field Marshal Rommel.

But help is at hand from that military technological complex that is Silicon Valley. While many fulminate at spooks inserting their grubby tentacles into our lives private companies such as Google already have detailed knowledge of the minutia of our intimate affairs. Now it has the biggest artificial inteligence laboratory in the world and is buying up machine-learning and robotics companies as if there is no tomorrow. Its recent acquision of Boston Dynamics whose US army's funded 'Big Dog' offers a terrifying vision of the future.

The military and their friends in high places may have short term worries, in the long term however they have little to worry about the public’s continuing and deeply ingrained support for killing people if the ‘price is right’. That’s putting it a little crudely but that is what it amounts to. Michael Morpurgo’s article in the Guardian was despite name checking reconciliation, pacifism, the white poppy, no glory and inviting us to read all that anti war poetry and ‘to make the world a place where freedom and peace can reign together’ is none the less a gentle version of conventional war acceptance.

‘No more war’ may be easy to say but in this charged and politicised centenary few lips seem able to utter it. Its problem is that unlike ‘no glory’ it is an insistent and clear order to those with the capacity to start war (a handful of men usually and certainly in the case of WW1) it also asks the question: How do we ensure that there are no more wars? No easy answer of course but being armed to the teeth or to the knees in the case of Britain is while living of the fat of arms sales that destabilise conflict prone areas is surely not the way to go.

*A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain. Tamasin Cave, Andy Rowell.