THE BLOG
10/09/2015 12:25 BST | Updated 10/09/2016 06:12 BST

Time Is Running Out in the Middle East

Very hesitantly, with a weather eye on the immigration figures and the population forecasts, the UK Government reacts to public pressure to confirm that it will take refugees after all. A climb down perhaps, a change in direction certainly, but not so much an admission that the logic of their position was wrong as an acknowledgement that they had underestimated the decency of the British public.

Heartrending as the pictures of the refugees are, they do not answer the Government's concerns that the stream of refugees may prove to be inexhaustible and that the problem needs to be addressed in the countries whose populations are fleeing; they have however driven home to the public the nightmare which is unfolding in the Mediterranean and reinforced a growing consciousness that there are moments when cold policy must be overridden by compassion. It is this which has surprised the government and led to its change of heart.

Of all the decisions which governments have to make, those which involve balancing cold national interest against compassion are amongst the most difficult. For one thing these factors are of a different quality, apples and oranges so to speak, so there is no ready way of weighing the one against the other. For another, any generosity is exercised on behalf of the public so it is public sentiment which should be the guide and not the personal feelings of the politician, be he a father or not. Small wonder then that ministers were slow to open the nation's doors and are content to follow in the slipstream of the public and the press. Still, waiting to follow public opinion can go very badly wrong as it famously did for Gladstone who had to decide in 1884 whether to rescue Chinese Gordon from Khartoum.

It all began with jihad, a holy war waged by a sect called the Dervishes who were keen to set up an Islamic state in the Sudan ruled over by their religious leader, the Mahdi. So far it sounds a little familiar, doesn't it, although from a British perspective there was an important difference from the current Isis campaigns. None of those who fled from the Dervishs' advance were likely to end up at Calais or even at the Mediterranean coast. It was not in our back yard, not under our rule and certainly not something on which Gladstone's government was going to expend treasure and men. Still there were British and European citizens in the Sudan who needed to be evacuated and General Gordon was sent to see to it and then to withdraw, if possible leaving a viable government in place. In fact he did evacuate about 2,500 people but then, rather than withdrawing, he sought to maintain the Egyptian garrison at Khartoum and, ultimately, got trapped there by the Mahdi's forces. On 12 March 1884, he began, with a small force of Egyptians and Sudanese, to defend it with great bravery and skill in the hope that they could hold out until relief arrived.

The trouble was that no relief was on the way. The Government had instructed Gordon to organise the evacuation of the Sudan, not to drag them into a war there - something they suspected him of deliberately trying to do. They therefore decided that the best thing was to do nothing, leaving Gordon and his men to deal with the position as best they could. The policy reasons for that may have been excellent but, like Mr Cameron in his initial reaction to the refugee crisis, they had overlooked something. Here the "something" was the popularity of Gordon himself. A devout Christian, a hero who, in very difficult circumstances, had suppressed the Taiping revolt in China, this was a man who led storming parties carrying only a cane, a man who had led the fight against slavery, a man who spent his spare time in helping the poor and the sick, a man who refused most of the remuneration to which he was entitled, a man of outstanding courage and energy who had once broken up a revolt by walking, alone and unarmed into the rebel camp and upbraiding them for their disloyalty. His many exploits had been well recognised and he was the darling of the public.

When the realisation dawned that Gordon was being left to die, the public reaction was overwhelming. Petitions were got up. There was a vote of censure in the House of Commons which the government only just survived. The press painted pictures of the Christian hero walking his battlements and looking to the north for the relief that would never come. In the end the government changed its mind and a relieving force was dispatched up the Nile. Alas it was too late, arriving to find that Khartoum, after a siege of 317 days, had fallen two days before. Gordon was dead.

When the news got back to England there was a huge outburst of popular grief, mirrored in the colonies and elsewhere. There were special services, a day of mourning, statues and an epitaph written by Lord Tennyson. The government's position was impossible. By sending the relief force they had tacitly admitted that their earlier hesitation was wrong. That hesitation had led to a disastrous results. They had simply waited too long. Shortly afterwards Gladstone's government fell.

It is to be hoped that Mr Cameron's change of mind will be less disastrous but however right it may be it does not alter the need for a lasting solution. That cannot just be walls, fences and warships, with an ever lengthening list of those who die trying to circumvent them. It must involve the provision of safe havens in the countries from which the refugees are fleeing. It is difficult to do that legally. You cannot invade a foreign country unless you are invited in to help or hold a UN mandate. The latter is unlikely to be forthcoming with relations with Russia at their current low. Still whatever fudges or lies are needed to justify it, something needs to be done to stem the crisis and that something is going to require troops on the ground.

They should of course be European troops. After all it is Europe which is threatened by the stream of refugees. The Middle East is in our backyard. We are the nearest neighbours. It is up to us to help. Here though the stream of morality begins to flow with that of calculation and self-interest. If we do nothing there are others who will fill the void. Chaos and suffering have always offered opportunity to the aggressive.

Somewhere, deep in the Kremlin, they must be wondering exactly when they should send troops to assist President Assad. It cannot be long now. No doubt in due course public opinion will force the European powers to do the same. By then the Russians may have moved and much of the Middle East it will have become a Russian fiefdom. As Gladstone found out to his cost, one can delay too long.