Something must be done!

14th August, 2014 8:14 am

It is the cry of our age: something must be done!

As we are better informed than ever we seem to know more than ever what a terrible world we live in. What a horrendous species we are. What horrors we can inflict on each other and on ourselves.


But we retain our basic humanity, our basic decency. Our hope and our faith in goodness, in justice and in the fact that right can and must win.

But there are problems with knowing that something must be done. Because it is not always clear what that something is. Something is hard. Something is complicated. Something has consequences and we know, we know from heart-rending and bitter experiences that sometimes something we do is the wrong thing. Our actions have consequences too.

So do we freeze? Petrified into inaction? Or do we charge ahead? Gung ho, and sure that our something is better than nothing? Losing our ability to do something the next time something must be done?

Maybe what we need is a doctrine. A defining creed that overrides all other considerations. Something that overrides all financial and practical considerations. Or maybe we should go the other way. Bury our moral and sense of obligations and look only at what we are practically able (and unable) to be certain to achieve.

I don’t know the answers. This is not a column with answers. It strikes me now, that every other column I read, by every other writer I admire has answers.

God I envy them. I look at the horrors of war and I want to act. I want to march in front of the guns. I want to stand between the messianic maniacs with machetes and their victims. I want to rip the rockets from the hands of those bombing schools and suburbs.

But I’m not going to. I am a coward. I am too comfortable in my life. I do not have the right stuff. My morality is that of an armchair general, an armchair tactician, God, even an armchair politician. As i have written before, I don’t even have the courage to be the one who has to sit comfortably at home making these life and death decisions.

And knowing this of myself, I can’t come to an easy doctrine that always believes in British intervention. I can’t have that be my first option every time something happens that is hideous and brutish elsewhere.

But I can’t always rule it out either. I can’t rule out sending the younger and braver people of this country who volunteer to protect us and to police our world into danger.

I don’t have a singular rule that says we should always or never take action. In some ways, I think that those who do are possibly more comfortable than me. Their certainty is their comfort blanket. But perhaps that is me passing off my responsibilities again, passing off my own guilts for the results of the positions I do and don’t support.

This is not a column with answers. God I wish I had answers.

I am also aware that that was the third time I made a reference to a deity I am not sure I believe in. As someone who has travelled in her life from faith to agnosticism I understand that faith itself has degrees. Faith in concepts you were trained to question and those you weren’t.

The tradition in politics is to be wedded to answers and bend the questions to fit them. Socialism, Capitalism, Communism, Fascism,  – comfortingly uniform answer to a discomforting world.

This was supposed to be the summer lull. This wasn’t supposed to be a time when we had to face the toughest questions about ourselves and our politics. This should have been a column about sandcastles and windmills. About the fun that politics can be.

So no, I don’t have answers. But maybe, just maybe it’s OK to admit that. To say – as someone privileged enough to have a platform – that I don’t know what to say. To admit that I am winging it.

Because we all are.  Many with better information than me. Many with better understanding than me. But we are human. And as we face the worst of what that means, we need to allow ourselves to be as open and human with each other about how we reach consensus on what must be done.

Because let’s face it: Something must be done.

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  • swatnan

    Emma is right; we’re all doomed; nothing in life is more certain than death … and taxes. And we are like paramecium, going through life through trial and error, and making it up as we go along, because the future can never be predicted and certain. In fact the human race could be wiped out at a moments notice, and the world would be none the wiser. This is a physical biomechanistic view of the universe, and the best explanation of the way things really are.

    • telemachus

      ” In fact the human race could be wiped out at a moments notice”
      I can envision the scenario
      Israel continues to bombard Gaza and the death toll reaches 10,000
      Iran finally admits the nuclear bomb and gives Israel 3 days to stop hostilities.
      With no response Tehran flattens Tel Aviv
      The US latten 6 Iranian cities including Tehran
      Russia flattens Manhatten

      Then we get to understand the meaning of M.A.D.

      • ButcombeMan

        You forget that Israel would hit the Tehran missiles first and Russia does not have a dog in the fight and would be stupid to involve itself.

  • thewash

    Emma, you start and continue this article on the premise that you have no answers, which, I suppose is an honest approach if nothing else – and it is nothing else. Except, at the end you say – “But we are human. And as we face the worst of what that means, we need to allow ourselves to be as open and human with each other about how we reach consensus on what must be done.”

    So, you do have an answer. But that is an answer that merely demands a whole lot of questions about what such a consensus will be, do, look like etc. Not all that helpful, I think.

    I would hope that if people declare themselves to be politicians that there is more to that – or should be – than saying let’s get together to achieve consensus. We can think for ourselves, of course, but, We do rely somewhat on our politicians to provide some direction even if we subseqently disagree with them. In my view it is no good simply saying ‘we have no answers’ we want ideas, suggestions, people thinking on our behalf about ways forward – isn’t that what politicians, polemicists, bloggers and others do?

  • markmyword49

    Yes it is the cry of our age. Something our elected leaders should ignore until they have the facts in front of them and can make a rational decision (unless of course they’re the ones stoking the outrage in the media).
    Knee jerk reactions almost always end up making the matter worse. How many times have we seen the rush to legislation only for the law to be unworkable or result in unintended consequences.

  • RWP

    Better to do something than nothing, even if you can’t predict the consequences. It makes me sick when the world, which has the power to intervene, does nothing in cases like Syria, Iraq and Gaza, not to mention the various under-reported areas of the world like Indonesia, Congo etc. And Emma, please don’t use the collective “we” / “our” – this is a classic example of typical leftie self-loathing; I haven’t done anything horrible to people like what is happening in Gaza, so please don’t pretend that ordinary people like me share some of the blame for the actions of others.

    • PoundInYourPocket

      I expect someone has done a long thesis on this, but I wonder on how many ocassions “doing something” out of the need to act, had a better outcome than taking a more measured response. Given that in all conflicts action is often taken in ignorance out of political need to “do something” and that in any conflict predictions and forecasts are uncertain, the chances of making things worse are always high, as they were in Iraq and Libya (and in numerous other interventions) Conversely inaction has been equally tragic, as in Rawanda. Perhaps the lesson is just that politics isn’t fit for purpose when it comes to conflict resolution.

      • RWP

        All I know is that if a load of people are dying of thirst in the mountains and can be helped with intervention, they won’t be helped by a load of bloggers sitting round debating the ethics of intervention.

        • PoundInYourPocket

          True – the RAF could continue to do aid-drops where that’s feasable and whilst putting together some kind of international force to at least ensure safe-zones. But I wouldn’t want to eject whilst flying over ISIS territory if the engines failed, so it’s asking a lot of the RAF to do this. And as for troops on the ground taking sides and getting bogged down, that has to be off the cards.

  • David Battley

    A thought provoking piece, on many levels.

    The desire that “something must be done” is often strongest when we have no idea what it is we want to do. Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences is also at its strongest at this time too, and history is littered with well-intended disasters.

    Ironically, it was precisely the requirement to do “something” with the remains of the crumbling Ottoman Empire that led to the set up of Palestine as state in the 20s.

    Can we learn from that? Is it better to get involved and save countries from themselves, or by doing so are we simply creating a future problem down the road? Where do our humanitarian desires (or even “obligations”) fit in to our democratic expressions of will, and how do they overlay to a foreign people’s will or desire?

    Sadly, there is no crystal ball to help us here; no “mulligan” to help us; and sometimes inaction, no matter how inhumane that may seem, is actually the right answer…

  • Thanks Emma. Your deep feeling and intelligence comes through. Two things I would say:

    Firstly ‘we need to allow ourselves to be as open and human with each other about how we reach consensus on what must be done.’ is absolutely the answer to the extent that there is one. You might be interested in this essay I wrote a while ago:

    Secondly we must value truth and rationality, even although these are not easy concepts, because they are the best we have. On rationality and morality after Hume, Ken Binmore ( is very enlightening. Hope that helps!

  • telemachus

    “The tradition in politics is to be wedded to answers and bend the questions to fit them. Socialism, Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, – comfortingly uniform answer to a discomforting world.”
    You are right
    We must forget the handles
    Let us all live by the code of caring for our fellow man and being reasonable with our neighbours
    As for the parties we must look who comes closest to those benchmarks
    No they sold their soul for naked power
    Plainly not by definition and practice
    Well what is more reasonable than parkin racist billboards on the fringes of immigrant areas
    So there is only Labour left
    So why oh why are we landed with such a wooden inadequate Leader

    • ButcombeMan

      Re Your Last line tele.

      And a thoroughly tainted Shadow Chancellor, far too closely allied in the public mind, with the economic illiteracy & failure of “The Big Brown Mess”.

      We have abolished “boom and bust”

      Oh how we laughed.

      • telemachus

        “The Big Brown Salvation”
        Remember Gordon saved the World banks from catastrophe after Lehman blew in

        • ButcombeMan

          We are still laughing!

    • gunnerbear

      Well…well…what could be more racist than sending out search parties to flood the UK with immigrants thus smashing the pay and conditions and housing of the white working class……..New Labour – hating the white working class since ’97

  • keithveness

    Constantly invoking some mythical supreme being is NOT a good start. Actually there is right and wrong in the world – sometimes the “rights” are not that nice but the wrongs are nearly always pretty dreadful. LABOUR, despite its many failings, offers the only hope for millions of people. The Tory / Lib Dim coalition is vile, reprehensible and has ruined millions of lives. Pretty clear choice to me!

    • Dez

      ‘ LABOUR, despite its many failings, offers the only hope for millions of people.’

      Have you spoken to any Iraqi’s?

  • RogerMcC

    That pessimistic old Tory Samuel Johnson wrote:

    “How small, of all that human hearts endure,
    That part which laws or kings can cause or cure”.

    Of course if he’d lived in the 20th rather than 18th century he would have had to revise that somewhat.

    But what if some problems – perhaps most of the problems we see nightly on the news – are quite irresolvable?

    Indeed even using the term ‘problem’ with its assumption that there is always somewhere a solution waiting to be found is often a massive and fundamental category error.

    I have for instance next to no doubt that in around ten, twenty and even quite probably fifty years we (or our children or children’s children) will be having exactly the same discussion about Gaza – just as we did in 2008 or 1956.

    So I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that confronted with such catastrophes the only role the left can now have is to not organise but mourn.

  • Mike B

    A valued piece and of course all those who come up with all the answers are usually scoundrels. Best to adopt careful positions while all the time recognising we might be wrong. There are so many examples now and in the past of closed systems of thought. Religion, uncompromising ideology and the rest. Healthy scepticism with the ability to act when all else is not feasible is a help. Inaction can be as bad potentially bad action. I was really pleased to see a reference to David Hume in this thread. His exposition of scepticism has never been answered.

  • Doug Smith

    “Something must be done.”

    Well, let’s start by abandoning EU/Tory-backed austerity.

    Of course there will be embarrassment. Labour, mistakenly thinking the Tories possess economic credibility, has mimicked Tory policy and nailed its colours to the mast of the austerity ship.

    But Labour should be big enough to admit it has got this wrong. There’s no need to go sailing into the 2015 general election with a manifesto packed with failing policies.

    • Jonathan morse

      But then Labour would have to show it had little to do with recent recession, not hard, unless you elect a prize idiot as leader, just the peron the unions might want.

      • Doug Smith

        It was Thatcher who destroyed the industrial base of this country. New Labour simply followed in her footsteps.

        Amazingly, Miliband and his Progress cronies now want to follow in Cameron/Osborne’s footsteps and replicate the failing Tory policies.

        • Tomleslie

          Labour destroyed our economy. Labour presided over
          the slowest growth in 50 years. Labour produced
          the fastest decline in British manufacturing since manufacturing began.

          Labour left us mired in the longest recession since
          the war. Labour gave us the largest deficit in peacetime history,
          and handed over a huge debt (£167billion), racking up debt and pfi.

          But hey, “it was Fatcha wat dun it” -30 plus years ago! Let’s just blame her.

  • Grouchy Oldgit

    If you can’t be sure to do good, then at least do no further harm

  • keithveness

    On “Des’s” points, yes I have. I visited Kurdistan three times and have worked with the main Kurdish organisations here in the U.K. Both major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan are affiliated to the Socialist International and are clearly “left of centre” in their politics. Now is the time to stand up and defend the Kurds – good people with a right to their own state fighting a group who want a return to the 9th century. Pretty clear choice to me!

    • Nick London

      Ouch. Nice one.

  • Daniel Speight

    As a party we are facing a problem partly of our own making. The present problem in Iraq was made by Bush and Blair and all those New Labour MPs who voted for the invasion and regime change. They could have got away with that if only they had something to put in place, either to hold the country together or to break it up along ethnic lines, but they had neither plan. Hand wringing they may well do now, but if they had sat on their hands at the time of the vote, or have never voted a megalomaniac like Blair into the leadership, this hand wringing wouldn’t be needed. So Emma look around you at some of the careerist building into their future roles and wonder if you will repeating this cry in another ten or twenty years.


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