"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Thursday, February 07, 2008

What were the worst mistakes in British history?

We'll overlook the fact that he can't tell the difference between British and English history because Chris Dillow's treatment of this question - prompted by this and this in relation to the US - is very thought-provoking. How does one even begin to answer such a question? I'd suggest that it can't be, really. It's not just a question of survivor-bias, or the fact that you're comparing history with a future you can't know: an equally big question as far as I'm concerned is where to take your starting point? I'll pick three from the twentieth century to illustrate these problems.

1) India. I'm reading Andrew Marr's tome at the moment and while it's too early to say whether it's any good, he's already said something I strongly agree with: we British are - because we've been taught this way - far too complacent with this idea that we handled decolonization so much better than everyone else.* The truth is, the speed of British withdrawal indirectly cost something in the region of a million lives. I'm not suggesting that we should have held on to India for much longer because as well as being morally unacceptable, it was simply not feasible for the near bankrupt war-ravaged British nation. Rather, the view of Churchill et al should have been strongly resisted and decolonization should have began in the interwar period and managed more slowly. This, of course, assumes a starting point of Britain having an empire at all, so you could say building one in the first place was the greatest mistake. Then you could go back a bit and locate the problem with having this big fuck-off navy. What did we need it for? But then from a history point of view, we've got a couple of insurmountable problems: we can't know what the world would have looked like otherwise and we're also thrown back into making pious and hopelessly vague generalisations. If you follow this intellectual road to its logical conclusion, you'd be as well giving up the pretence of talking about actual historical problems, putting a John Lennon CD on and imagine all the people living life in peace instead.

2) Britain's participation in WWI. This one's more straightforward. Here I eschew the revisionist school and stick to the traditional line: it wasn't worth it. I have no idea what Europe would have looked like but since the British casualty rate in WWI was so much higher than in WWII, fighting a Germany that no reasonable person could compare to Hitler's, it simply wasn't worth it. This is not to assume that British non-participation would have averted war, and I certainly don't think that a French defeat by the Kaiser would have been desirable - but I'd take the view that Germany would have failed anyway. Couple of possibilities: they would have simply lost, having repeated Napoleon's mistake of trying to take over Russia or a stalemate would have produced a different settlement to the one we got, which brings me to the third point.

3) Failure to enforce the Treaty of Versailles. I don't quite follow the standard school curriculum view here. Some of us think the Germans had a bit of a brassneck with all the complaining, given the terms they imposed on the Russians after the October Revolution. And while I don't think it's anything like as widely-held these days, the notion that Versailles was to blame for the German hyperinflation is flat wrong. Having said that, I'm not sure there's any merit in insisting, as Oliver Kamm does, that "[t]he notion that the Versailles Treaty imposed a punitive peace is a myth." I don't agree this is entirely a myth but the point is it can hardly have been in our interests, or the world's, to involve ourselves in the framing of a treaty that we then didn't have the faith or resolve to enforce. I assume Oliver Kamm would agree with this: having taken Versailles as a given, it was surely a catastrophic mistake to wait until the Wehrmacht marched into Poland? At what point should we have intervened? When Germany defaulted on Reparations? Or when they marched into the Rhineland? Or after the Anschluss? We can't know what the outcome would have been, what allies would have joined us, and we would certainly be foolish to assume that success would have been guaranteed - but today I think most people would assume that any point of intervention during Hitler's tearing of the Versailles Treaty would have been preferable to waiting for the sacrifice of the Czech nation.

I could go on but I'm boring myself. This is meant really only to illustrate the problems this sort of speculation throws up - the comparisons with what was against what might have been and the problem of where you take your starting point. But there's something else as well which connects this to another point I want to make. We have three examples here. People will no doubt disagree with my choices and my interpretation of them but for me they are examples of, respectively, over-speedy disengagement, over-hasty intervention and tardy intervention. All had, in my view, tragic consequences that could have been avoided or limited if a different course had been taken. But given that one can only speculate about this - and when one factors in the fact that we're talking about three rather different courses of action here, where the hell do people get this idea that there is one default position you can take with regards international relations and conflicts that automatically puts one in the right? This is another way of stating a question I've asked before: where do those commenting on the situation in the world today get their confidence from, exactly? From listening to too much John Lennon and not enough reading of history, I reckon.

*For 'everyone else' read 'The French' is most British history.

No comments:

eXTReMe Tracker

Blog Archive