Alphen, Netherlands. 5 December. It has been an interesting week spent careering around southern England in my little blue VW Polo with that vaguely manic look on my face I wear when behind the wheel. I had the honour of addressing the First Sea Lord’s conference and the admirals, commodores and captains of the Royal Navy at HMS Collingwood near Portsmouth as to why NATO is so important to the future defence of the United Kingdom. These were serious people dealing with serious issues and I was struck not only by the openness of British military thinking, but also their self-critique, although having come from the Netherlands which is in defence meltdown it was a little surprising to listen to complaints that the Royal Navy is only getting two new super aircraft-carriers, some fifteen state-of-the-art destroyers and frigates and six new nuclear attack submarines. This sense of open minds and open thinking was reinforced at a small meeting on Monday at Kensington Palace with the British Chief of Defence Staff to discuss the future role and posture of the British armed forces.
In between the two military meetings I attended a small academic conference in Bath on ostensibly the same subject. Now, being academics the title of the meeting had to have the words ‘strategic’, ‘culture’, ‘transformation’, ‘European’, ‘security’ and ‘identity’ all in a row, but in the words of an immortal Lancashire comedian Eric Morecambe, “not necessarily in that order”.
I knew I was in for a tough day when certain words beloved of the academic with nothing much to say started to appear. ‘Ontological’ was liberally sprinkled about, although ‘epistemological’ and ‘reification’ also beloved of the theorist lacking a point, appeared only occasionally. Ever since my long lost student days I have been suspicious of these words as I do not know what they really mean and I am not at all sure those that spout them do either. They seem rather to be part of the ritual of ivory tower semantics into which so many politics departments at British universities have retreated in the past twenty years or so. Much a-speak about nothing.
This was confirmed to me by an exchange I had with a senior academic at the meeting. I say ‘exchange’ as it was more an ambush as clearly the chair and the academic assailant had pre-planned the attack, which was akin to British politician Denis Healey’s observation about being ‘savaged’ by a particularly genteel colleague as being “mauled by a dead sheep”. The subject was Europe. Now, many of you will know that I used to work for the EU and for many years was a passionate believer in ‘Europe’. However, based on many years of hard political, economic, social, foreign and defence policy analysis and given current shocks I am now profoundly concerned about the direction of ‘Europe’ and Britain’s place (if any) within it.
My analysis was duly presented only to be attacked with what can be best described as an analysis-free emotive rant. I wanted to tow Britain out into the Atlantic, I was told. The world’s fifth or sixth largest real economy and third biggest defence spender had no alternative but to accept its fate and sign up to a new EU it does not want in which it will be in a permanent minority. No facts, just assertions. And, as what passed for ‘argument’ petered out (as it did) the assailant feeling himself to be struggling then became just plain rude. I did not understand either British politics or the way the EU works. I resisted a giggle at that moment.
As I was listening I suddenly had an insight into the grinding leftist conformism of British academia. There are certain analyses one is not allowed to make any more because it simply does not fit into the prescribed, politically-correct dogma that so much of British academic output reflects. Rather, one must pass one’s days debating on the head of a pin the increasingly irrelevant shades of grey of mantra and produce undecipherable peer-reviewed literature that can only pass muster if it reflects current academic dogma before it is accepted into the not-so-great pantheon of academic bureaucracy. The gap between the real world the armed forces are dealing with and the pretend world of much of British academia simply cannot be bridged. What a shame.
As I left Bath en route to another more interesting meeting I could not help but be reminded of a famous 1980s exchange between Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister and academic Garret Fitzgerald. Thatcher was hand-bagging on about policy and practice when suddenly Fitzgerald had the temerity to interrupt. “That’s all very well, Prime Minister”, he said, “it may indeed work in practice, but does it work in theory?”
Does anyone know what ontology means?