Should we be rescuing Brits from Libya?

Picture of demonstrators in Libya raising the old national flagYesterday I heard a discussion on the Radio 2 mid-day discussion programme in which Vanessa Feltz (sitting in for Jeremy Vine who is on holiday, along with several other Radio 2 presenters) debated with someone who suggested that the British government should leave the British workers who were trapped in Libya to their fate, because they went out to work for much more substantial wages than they would have got at home, tax-free, while helping a bloodthirsty dictator who supports terrorism; they have made their bed, so his argument goes, so they should lie in it. Feltz responded with the tale of the “Don Pacifico” incident, in which the British government sent the Navy to blockade the port of Athens because a British subject’s house had been damaged in an anti-semitic incident in Athens by a gang which included the sons of a government minister, while the police looked on and did nothing.

The phrase used by Palmerston in Parliament to support that intervention — “civis Romanus sum” (I am a Roman citizen) — was what was used by the Roman empire to intervene on behalf of Roman citizens when they were threatened within the empire. Britain used to be an empire in the 1850s too, and had a navy to match. Now that pretty much every British citizen can travel anywhere, sending the Navy to rescue any British citizen who is in trouble anywhere in the world is going to be somewhat expensive. Gunboat diplomacy is a thing of the past.

Nor do I agree that the people out there “should have known” that there would be trouble because of the nature of Gadaffi’s regime. The fact is that nobody anticipated that this would happen as recently as a month and a half ago. Often political change happens suddenly; one of my politics lecturers at Aberystwth told a lecture theatre full of undergraduates that he had given a lecture very shortly before the Berlin Wall fell on “why the situation in Eastern Europe is secure”. When the rallies in Cairo were pre-announced on Facebook, it was widely assumed that they would not happen, or would be tiny affairs, or would be swiftly repressed, but they persisted for most of the next three weeks and resulted in Mubarak resigning.

What makes me uncomfortable about sending ships and planes to rescue all the British workers every time trouble breaks out in a foreign country is the question of why British people think they should be safe wherever they go, and that this safety should be at the expense of the British taxpayer at a time when services to vulnerable people (such as those with disabilities) are being cut to the bone in the UK, particularly if they have been working abroad and not paying taxes in the UK. Furthermore, why on earth should wealthy foreigners be evacuated while innocent locals (or other foreigners at even greater risk, such as African migrants who might be mistaken for mercenaries) are left behind in a war zone? I remember the scene in Hotel Rwanda when the Canadian officer told the hotel manager that his forces were not ordered to help the Tutsis who were being massacred, but only to evacuate westerners.

The UK has two air bases in Cyprus, not a million miles away from Tripoli, and could deal with this “instability” by knocking out the airports Gaddafi uses to bomb his own people, and a few other strategic sites to help the anti-Gaddafi forces (who allegedly control most of the country already) to finish the job. That would serve to bring an end to this situation more quickly and get rid of Gadaffi and his gang, which would be of huge benefit to everyone inside and outside of Libya, which merely evacuating “our people” wouldn’t do.

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