What’s wrong with “I don’t know”?


syria jets

British politicians have just voted by a margin of 397 votes to 223 to bomb ISIS or Daesh terrorists in Syria. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have to say that I really don’t know.

On the one hand, bombing rarely solves anything. No matter how precise the weapons are, there will inevitably be civilian casualties. This bombing could make the UK more of a target than it is at the moment. It could help to radicalise more people to follow Daesh.

On the other hand, if Daesh was a state it would be guilty of heinous war crimes. Acts of terrorism against civilians. Killing prisoners. Torture, rape, murder. Genocide.

Daesh can’t be reasoned with because they want to turn everyone in the world to their particular brand of Islam. Or to kill all non-believers because they are convinced that the end of the world is coming.

Oh yes, it’s another of those “end of the world” cults who always seem to get their dates wrong.

Daesh would like to present themselves as the Terminators on the world stage, without the dodgy Austrian-English accent:

“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

So while my heart says that the answer ought to be Jeremy Corbyn’s negotiated peace, I do think that we are dealing with such an extreme group that we are well past the negotiation phase. It is hard to think of a negotiated compromise between Western tolerance and Daesh’s “we will convert you or kill you”.

It is a little like trying to negotiate with Hitler while he was invading country after country in his global domination bucket list … Poland? Tick. Yugoslavia? Tick. France? Tick. Are we nearly there yet?

Is bombing Daesh the right thing to do? Will it stop further terrorist atrocities or increase them?

Don’t ask me. I’m no military expert.

And that’s when we run into a major problem. There are lots of things I don’t understand in this world. The theory of relativity. The appeal of cottage cheese. Synchronised swimming. The G spot. How to assemble an IKEA wardrobe. One Direction.

When I come across something I don’t understand, I usually look for someone smarter than me to fix it. If my car is broken I take it to the garage. I ask the doctor about a medical problem, or as my Mum would say “I am under the doctor with my leg”.

If my computer stops working I switch it off and switch it back on again. Then I take it to an IT guy.

There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know”. And then go looking for someone who does.


What we need are honest experts. Someone who can say “your big end has gone” and not be lying to inflate the cost. An IT expert who can say that my i-pad isn’t charging because it needs a new flux capacitor. Or whatever. An honest mechanic in overalls.

greased lightning

It is not so easy when it comes to politics because there is an overwhelming sense that most of them are lying to us. Or at the very least being economical with the truth.

The Government wants to bomb Daesh to stop terrorism. I don’t doubt that for a second. But it’s not the only reason they want to scramble the Tornados and Typhoons. They also want to show the world that the UK is doing something. Standing shoulder to shoulder with France and the US. Doing our part. Justifying our place in the world and the disproportionate amount of influence we have in world affairs for a relatively small country.

There is also a political dimension here. The Conservatives want to bash the Labour Party and this is an area where Labour are divided. It is fun for the Conservatives to play in this playground because it allows the Labour party to rip themselves apart.

Which is no justification for dropping bombs.

The Jeremy Corbyn position doesn’t inspire me either. He is such a pro-peace advocate that he can’t see that there are times when we need to take up arms against an enemy who can’t be reasoned with. This may be one of those times.

And he can’t talk about democracy and then try to impose his view on his party. Or meet with his shadow cabinet and then rush out a letter to all members which he hadn’t discussed with his cabinet. That is naivety, pure and simple. He had the chance to put a strong pro-peace message and he botched it.

Then Hilary Benn stepped up to make a rousing speech and reminded the Labour party what a real leader looked like.

There is something missing from this debate. Actually there are two things missing. The first is for politicians and members of the public to admit that they really don’t know what the answer is. There is nothing wrong with “I don’t know.” Sometimes it’s the most honest thing to say.

The second problem is finding that honest expert. They do exist, but it is hard to tell them apart from the ones who are trying to sell us something.

What I would really like is for some authoritative expert to give it to me straight. Based on what we know now – and ignoring all the politics – does bombing Daesh make us more safe or less safe?

In other words has my big end gone or do I need a new flux capacitor?

In theory this shouldn’t be a problem. We have military blokes and blokesses. People who wear jungle pattern camouflage to business meetings. People with medals on their chests. People who have shot other people. The shooty equivalent of the oily-handed mechanic who has intimate knowledge of the state of my turbo.

It is certainly true that we have people like this. I have seen them on the telly. I have even met a couple of them.

But here’s the rub. I need to believe them. If they say “yeah, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” I need to know that is the military expert talking and not some politician pulling their strings.

The image of the military expert has been tarnished in the UK by the dodgy dossier affair. The Blair Government told us that we had to go to war with Iraq because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. These weapons could be made ready in 45 minutes, we were told.

This 45 minute thing captured the imagination. In truth, it’s meaningless. What matters is whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or not. If they are going to use those weapons, I don’t really care whether it takes them 45 minutes to prepare or 45 days. If it goes bang, fizz or pop, the preparation time doesn’t make a great deal of difference.

dodgy dossier

But it turned out that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. The dodgy dossier wasn’t important new research. It was cobbled together from the internet.

We didn’t get our honest expert. We got a dishonest non-expert instead.

So now when the Government says “let’s drop bombs on Syria”, I have to say that I really don’t know. I would like to be able to trust the expert, but trust is in short supply.

The decision has been taken. The bombs are falling. For better or ill, we’ve started something. In the short term we have to make the best of that decision.

But for the long term, the answer has to be to restore faith in the experts who are advising us. We desperately need the impartial civil service that we used to claim we had.

It’s funny that one of the biggest crimes that a politician can commit is to make a U turn. If you say you are going to do something, it is very hard to change your mind and do something else.

But when we stop and think about it, do we really want our leaders to be so narrow minded? Do we want them to charge ahead regardless, even if they get new evidence which makes them change their mind?

Shouldn’t we all have the courage and humility to admit that sometimes we simply don’t know?



4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with “I don’t know”?

  1. It took WWII to stop Hitler – but Hitler had a military-industrial complex, and the capacity to fuel it.

    These people don’t have to capacity to manufacture a toothbrush. And yet they have the latest weapons of war. The way to stop them is by making it impossible for them to have bullets for their guns. though they’d probably use them as clubs for a long time after.


    • I think the problem is that their weapons are so easy to buy that they don’t need to manufacture them. Compared to the huge logistics of a nation fighting a war, a terrorist finds it much easier to get hold of a relatively small amount of guns and the material to make a bomb. And anyone with a smart phone can film a beheading and post it on the internet.

      I am afraid that the war against terror is fought on very different rules to a conventional war. The terrorist needs far fewer resources and is much harder to find or stop.


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