Idle optimism and easy choices

Power comes from knowing what you want to do with it

In a famous speech Enoch Powell reminded us that those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first drive mad; he lived long enough to see that the modern way is to drive us into boredom and cynicism. Raise the question of Europe and boredom descends on your interlocutor; raise that of defence and cynicism is evoked. Although Mr. Blair is not solely to blame for these things, he carries a heavy burden, not least on defence.

The ethical foreign policy, or Gladstone-lite foreign policy of his first period in office created the illusion that it was possible to use our defence forces to right the wrongs of the world. The third marquis of Salisbury, who had to put up with the original Gladstone, as well as a good deal of advice from well-meaning people like George Curzon, responded that the problem with such Quixotry was twofold: it would require Britain’s armed forces to be thrice their current size; and it would involve Britain in a dozen wars simultaneously. Blair and Robin Cook thought that in New Labour’s New Britain such wisdom could be discarded; nemesis always lies in wait for such naïveté, though it is usually others who pay the price. After the relatively cheap and easy victories in the Balkans and Sierra Leone, Blair followed the American lead into Afghanistan and Iraq; knowing no history, indeed despising it, he fell into elephant traps which history would have advised him to avoid.

Twice in the nineteenth century, in the early 1840s and the late 1870s, the British intervened militarily in Afghanistan, on neither occasion to any great success. In 1879 Lord Roberts showed how these things were to be done properly: a swift punitive mission and then an equally speedy withdrawal. The attempt by the Lloyd George Government (with Churchill taking the lead) to establish a British client state in Iraq after the Great War also showed the folly of trying such a thing; establish diplomatic and economic influence by all means, but don’t stay. There is nothing less conservative than the ideal of nation building.

It was no accident that so many of the Bushite neo-cons used to be Marxists; in changing side they did not abandon their addiction to high-sounding nonsense. During its imperial phase the British had enjoyed the collaboration of native elites in maintaining a military presence in India and Africa. The notion that one could simply go into someone elses country and make them be good is the antithesis of conservatism and common sense. There was nothing in the history of Afghanistan to suggest that any long-term intervention there would do the slightest good; indeed the opposite was the case. One cannot, of course, expect the over-optimistic Americans to have seen such things, but if, as Macmillan used to claim, we are the Greeks in the new Roman empire, we should have been whispering this into Mr. Bush’s ear; instead Blair acted the part of the callow apprentice. Nearly a decade later our armed forces are still paying the price; the notion that Britain is in any sense safer from domestic terrorism as a result of this activity is one that can only be held by a willed blindness to reality.

From America’s first real intervention in international politics in 1942 when Allied forces invaded French North Africa, her leaders have cherished the illusion that they would be welcomed as liberators; they weren’t then and have not been since. Blair’s only real excuse for insisting on joining them is that the nature of the Atlantic alliance made it a political necessity. Again, the lessons of history are not learned. Long ago, in his memoirs, Eden, when contemplating de Gaulle’s refusal to kow-tow to the Americans wondered whether such an attitude might not have served Britain better than Churchillian subservience; we can’t know as it was never tried. Perhaps during the Cold War there was an excuse for such an attitude, but its utility now needs to be questioned more than it is. One of the ways in which Great Powers decline is that they do not ask such questions. Churchill himself wondered whether future historians would judge him harshly when it came to the relative danger posed by Germany and Russia. Comparing himself to Cromwell in the seventeenth century who had been so obsessed with the old enemy Spain that he had missed the rise of French power, he wondered whether he might be convinced of being so preoccupied with Germany that he had helped pave the way for the rise of Soviet power?

Britain’s leaders have a divided policy agenda which only they can think is sensible. On the one hand they are convinced that the European Union is economically vital for our future; on the other they are distrustful of any moves towards greater union, despite the glaringly obvious fact that that is what the thing is for. It is not accidental that it was Heath, the least Americanophile of modern British Prime Ministers, who took Britain into the Common Market; and he did not do so just for economic reasons. Distrustful of all the talk about the special relationship with the USA, he wanted another foundation for British international activity. Like it or loathe it, there was at least a logic here which might have led to a reassessment of how Britain projected her power in the modern world. What has been pursued instead is a policy which is ultimately self-defeating. On the one hand a refusal to engage with the real aims and objectives of superstate Europe, on the other, a reliance on the USA, which, as recent events in the Falklands show, has other priorities. For all the British blood and treasure thrown away on Bush’s neo-con fantasy, there is no reward for the UK.

Those who wish to remain great must not avoid making hard decisions; since that appears to be the fundamental principle of modern British politics, optimism is not easy.