15 February 2015

The Romantic is Dead

The day after St Valentine's is as good a moment to turn away from a current writing project for this blog and look at this book review which was linked by someone I follow on Twitter. I would propose this thesis: that the Romantic Movement, as an attempt to transform the Enlightentment, will be seen by future historians as effectively haveing expired during my lifetime. It seems likely that its last gasp involved various gestures made in politics and culture starting in 1956. (The abandonment of Communist parties by many on the Marist left after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the This Is Tomorrow exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts are two examples of inspirational moments for these last romantics. This romanticism is not just a feature of the culural left, as the career of Russell Kirk represents. All of these were transformed during the era of what might be called High Post-Modernism (roughtly the late 1970s unitl the early 1990s) into forms more appropriate for our New Enlightenment era.

Thomas Kohut's review of Rüdiger Safranski's book on Romanticism starts with describing what Romanticism is: The Enlightenment’s vision of a rationally functioning, lawful universe created by a deistic God seemed a “monstrous mill” or a “perpetual motion machine” to the Romantics, and they pushed back against the sterility of such a world. In response to the “disenchantment of the world” through secularization and the triumph of empiricism, the Romantics sought to satisfy the “appetite for mystery and wonder” that religion traditionally had satisfied.Romanticism also reacted against the emergence, in the 19th century, of the modern rationalistic society, with its efficiency, its specialization, its emphasis on economic utility—and its monotony.

The key here is 'specialisation'. In the Anglosphere we now live in a world that is thoroughly compartmentalised. It is the idea which we find at the root of those courses on Business Administration, of The Model as the basis for analysis and understanding. In other words, instead of treating human beings and their institutions as individuals with distinct personalities and problems, the most appropriate model is identified and applied. Arguments are more about which model to apply than questioning the suitability of the approach itself. Subsequently, through practice, adaptations will be made if the case seems especially intractable, but the expectation is that the institution will respond by conforming more closely to the model. We even find Safranski himself embracing this attitude, if the quote by Kohut does not omit any crucial context: If we fail to realize that the reason of politics and the passions of Romanticism are two separate spheres, which we must know how to keep separate...we risk the danger of looking to politics for an adventure that we would better find in the sphere of culture—or, vice versa, of demanding from the sphere of culture the same social utility we expect from politics.

One could argue that Romanticism itself was tainted by the Enlightenment from the very beginning. This would repressent its Achilles' Heel, which is what would be exploited in the conflict between the heirs of the Enlightenment and those of the Romantic Movement in the years after the mid 1950s. Safranski identifies the French Revolution as a point of intersection between the two, which created tensions among the Romantics: Beginning with the French Revolution, Romanticism and politics came together, as “questions of meaning that were formerly the precinct of religion are now aligned with politics. There is a secularizing impulse that transforms the so-called ultimate questions into sociopolitical ones.” Initially inspired by the French Revolution and then opposing it, especially during the period of the wars against Napoleon, Romanticism became politicized in Germany.

One might think one knows where this is going, but Safranski does not include the Nazis among the descendants of the early Romantics. Kohut disagrees. It is a question that makes an interesting academic exercise, but with the passing of time seems less and less relevant to an attempt to understand how the Third Reich could happen in a civilised country. The important thing is that Safranski apparently sees the student rebels of 1968, whom both agree were heirs to the Romantics, as an ephemeral phenomenon. In fact, their attempt to universalise the kind of highly personal, gnostic, movement that Romanticism represents is exactly that Achilles' Heel. Universal values are part of The Model, something the Enlightenment inherited from its Christian roots. Romanticism is about discovering what each person values, allowing each to neglect those values which seem less relevant to their personal situation.

Romanticism could not survive in a battle for intellectual supremacy with the Enlightenment because the religious impulse it sought to supplement or replace had a universalist dimension that it could not mobilise. What happens when my rights or my gnosis conflicts with yours? Christian religion asks us to draw on our charitable feelings at that point, and for both parties to understand each other and come to some compromise. People always fall short of that standard, but that does not invalidate the underlying principle. 'Try, try again', is at the heart of the Christian message. Indeed, on this day after St Valentine's, it seems appropriate for couples, too.

06 February 2015

Farewell Soho, Welcome 'Lone and Level Sands'

I am not especially fond of the Metropolitan Media Class lamenting the passing of some icon that they probably stabbed in the back only a few years earlier, but I found eulogy in The Guardian to Soho rather touching. I had the good fortune to encounter the dying embers of Swinging London's Soho by virtue of working nearby in the middle 1980s. People I knew were still lurking around the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses, and Kettner's still served a cheap hamburger with its cocktail piano. I was only on the very fringes of this scene, but it meant a lot to a boy whose journey from the white edges of Detroit's had brought him to the heart of the capital of his own cultural world.

However, I knew some time ago the game was up for my London. There was a sort of last sputtering of the fire during Tony Blair's first term, which clouded my judgement somewhat. Memory suggests that I came to the realisation that clinging to central London's Bohemian past was a hopeless effort in about 2005 or 2006, if not a year or two earlier. From that point on, I began thinking about how to make a dignified exit. But enough about me, let me briefly comment on two points raised by the article.

From the 1960s onwards, the legend of Swinging London, which still partly defines the way the city is seen, was traceable to the coming-together of working-class talent and loose-living bohemia – precisely the elements that are now in danger of being chased out of the centre of central London altogether. From the mods, through the punks and on to the New Romantics and creators of what was eventually called Cool Britannia, these people pioneered the subcultures that ensured so many of us were gripped by the London-obsessed mentality Julie Burchill memorably called capitalism.

This is not some romanticised image of the past. What made London a cultural magnet, and Britain from 1945 until 2005 possibly the best place to be in the world was the remaking of the realm into a more socially, economically and culturally mobile country that was denounced by a class of people who believed it to be anything but that. As things changed and got better, people could only grumble about how the class system was constricting British potential. Anyting but! @Thatchersrise is marking the ascent to a political office of a woman whose father kept a shop in a small English town. And she succeeded the son of a humble Broadstairs carpenter, at a time when the son of a factory chemist was prime minister. Meritocracy indeed.

Since November, a group called Save Soho.. want(s) its warren of streets declared a Special Policy Area, an instrument already used to protect the tailoring trade in Savile Row and the art business in St James’s. The group’s co-founder, a musician called Tim Arnold, tells me that he is in conversations with the Greater London Authority; he has raised the latter proposal, only to be told Soho is “too diverse”. His bafflement is obvious. “So they’re telling me that what should be protected amounts to the reason it can’t be protected,” he says.

Yes, Mr Hudson, it is a sad fact that our lives are now dominated by the concept of The Model. This is taught in business schools to MBAs, and their attitudes have seeped into the entirety of society. The Model pares things down to the essentials, The Core of the Project, and discards organic accretions that distract from an entity's Mission Statement. KISS — Keep It Simple, Stupid — prevails. Conglomerates are a thing of the past. Old-timey Soho has no place in this world. There is no room for sentiment in The Model approach. It underlies consumer segmentation, YouTube subcultural channels and everything that is going to separate my world from that of my children's. It is, of course, ruthlessly scientific, characteristic of globalisation and rooted in industrial society.

The thing is, the Metropolitan Media Class find the Law of Unintended Consequences has undone all their good works. It was their relentless assault on the traditional institutional structures and attitudes that allowed this to happen. Their dislike of the Church, of smug suburbia, of out-of-touch judges and the House of Lords, removed the entire institutional framework that stood in the way of the The Model approach. If one removes all the social measures of value — an ephemerally absolute as opposed to a constant relative standard — all one is left with are the monetary ones. The Metropolitan Media Class always wanted Britain to be more like somewhere else, whether it was America's convenience and enterprise or Continental cafés and city-centre living. So, of course, everyplace becomes like everyplace else, and nothing beside remains.

03 February 2015

Maggie's Draws

In one small corner of the Internet, I am notorious for my opinion of 'the dreadful Mrs Thatcher'. Thanks to the magic of retweets, I find there is a Twitter account commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the election of Lady Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative party. Several of the tweets reproduce excerpts from the newspapers of the time. I have copied two of these below.
The first is from the Sunday Times, and the second is by the Sunday Telegraph's Peregrine Worsthorne, a particular favourite of mine.*

What is striking from both these excerpts is how Mrs Thatcher is seen as something different, someone who represents a break with the past. Events would prove both of these comments prescient, but I think Worsthorne does a better job of capturing that difference than the Sunday Times' writer. One wants to fall off one's chair reading that prior to Mrs Thatcher the Tories were not 'a class party'. Throughout their history, the Conservatives have been the very definition of a 'class party' — the class being the people who own the country. But the clue there as to Thatcher's real significance is in that comment 'to rebuild the...position of the middle classes'. The fact is, the mischievous 1970s in Britain had much to do with different sectors of British society demanding to maintain, in TradeUnionSpeak, 'differentials'. The skilled workers believed they deserved more than the unskilled. The accountants and sales directors believed they were entitled to more than the skilled workers. The idea that your 'value' in wages depended on the colour of your collar was at the root of Mrs Thatcher's appeal.

And that leads naturally on to Worsthorne's comment. He refers to Sir Keith Joseph, who was the first well-known politician to present the monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman to the British voters. Worsthorne uses those words that should have been fatal to any person running for the leadership of the Conservative party, that the party leader would be a 'liberal' in the old-fashioned sense of that word. The Conservative party was rooted in the idea of being the natural leader of the country as a whole, balancing the interests of the other classes while preserving an institutional structure that dated back at least as far as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and its accompanying ideology of 'English liberty'. For Lady Thatcher, and her éminence grise, the equally dreadful Rupert Murdoch, the old establishment had lost the will to confront the enemies of those who own the country. People needed to be judged by their individual achievements in mobilising the resources of a market economy to become a good earner, not by their location in a social order that sought to control change. If the establishment's institutions got in the way of this battle between the market and its enemies, they must be put down from their seats. The previously humble, at least those who showed the gumption to get on in life under a free-market economy, would be exalted now.

For people like me, who admired that institutional structure that had seen Britain to victory in two world wars and had both started and accommodated a welfare state that indeed had reduced 'differentials', Lady Thatcher's years in government were to be a profound disappointment. But, even for those who hoped the unleashing of enterprise would lead to revitalised British economy and a classless meritocracy, Britain forty years on must seem to have failed the liberalising spirit that Lady Thatcher promised in 1975. I do hope @thatchersrise will continue the story at least up to 1979, so people can compare ambition with results, and join me in seeing in hindsight that Lady Thatcher's legacy of failure was present at her creation.


* I saw him in 1996 with some of his acquaintances at the Renoir cinema near Russell Square in London. For the second time in my life I found myself a few feet from a writer who had given me great pleasure over the years, and declined to go over and offer my compliments. I feel bad about these missed opportunities.

02 February 2015

A Note Prompted By the Passing of Gough Whitlam

[NB — The extended hiatus from last autumn was a result of my wife's cancer returning. It is a long story, and I prefer to keep it short. We finally got a firm diagnosis of the extent of her problem just before Christmas. We are hopeful that she will be with us for a few more years, but it was still disturbing news and only now is my life beginning to return to what could be called 'normal'.]

The death of Gough Whitlam three months ago reminded the world of Australia's 1975 political crisis. The crisis became fodder for those who see the secret hand of the CIA or the United States at work in so many curious incidents around the world. However, it also brought into question the relationship of the Commonwealth Realms to the British royal house. It is fair to say that the the question of the continued presence of the monarchy in Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada is going to become a significant over the coming decade. The Queen may yet reach 100, and defy such a prediction, but the probabilities suggest we will be hailing King Charles III before too long. Whether the 'white dominions' of Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be willing to continue with the link to the House of Windsor is a matter certain to be raised. Each of these will, I suspect, return answers that suit their own particular circumstances at that moment. So in this post I am going to consider two political crises that raise important questions about a change from dominion status to one of a republic.

Australasia is certainly where my knowledge and familiarity of Anglosphere history is weakest. Nonetheless, I am going to risk floating a comment because Whitlam was a very interesting political figure not just in his own country, but within the broader context of Anglospheric political trends. Whitlam in one sense was a 'Blairite avant la letter (or, better, Tony Blair was simply a Whitlam clone, part of Rupert Murdoch's Australianisation of Britain). Eric Hobsbawm famously in 1978 proposed that the historic role of the industrial proletariat as the decisive force in the revolution against the capitalists' power was coming to an end. While neither the British nor Australian labour party was in any way Marxist, it is fair to say that they both were organisations rooted in that industrial proletariat. This constituency had repeatedly failed to deliver parliamentary majorities for twenty-three years, and Whitlam looked to other sources of electoral power for the party. He found them in a variety of socially liberal causes, such as race, unfair pay for women and the urban and suburban constituencies poorly served by the welfare measures of the Australian state. While Labour parties were not "sound" on these issues, tending to put the interests of a largely male skilled and semi-skilled workers above all others.

Thus, when Whitlam came to power in the 1972 election, he put just as much weight on a policy agenda that appealed to middle-class liberals who wanted to ameliorate the hardships of disadvantaged groups at home and abroad. Whitlam's basic outlook was to promote welfare clientelism — a dole handed out to the unfortunate. Rather than focus on the hard task of attacking the foundations of international capitalists' power, Whitlam preferred the easier task of attacking the 'colonial' remnants in the Australian state, at a time when Britain's Establishment for over a decade had been eagerly shedding as much of these legacy responsibilities as it could without causing offense.

During 1974 and 1975, Whitlam found himself in an economic and political crisis of some severity. Confronted with an apparent political deadlock, the Governor-General appointed by Whitlam, Sir John Kerr, made use of reserve powers completely on his own initiative. These sorts of reserve powers are inherent in all constitutional arrangements where the head of state is intended to be a figurehead somewhat above politics.

Canada has in its history a similar confrontation between a prime minister and the reserve powers held by a head of state who represents a monarch resident overseas. The "King-Byng" affair is, I imagine, largely forgotten outside of Canada, and based on my own experience living there for six years seems largely forgotten within Canada, too. (Canadians are a people who prefer to forget their past, even to discard it altogether.) We see something similar happen here, except with a key difference. After the general election of October 1925, Governor-General the Viscount Byng of Vimy allowed the incumbent prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to have the first attempt at finding support in the House of Commons. Arguably Byng should have given the Conservative party, which had won the most seats, a go before King. However, Byng could be seen as accepting his prime minister's advice, which is how constitutional monarchies should work. After King had clearly lost his support in the Commons in June 1926, Byng declined to follow his prime minister's advice for a dissolution. The question that Byng had to answer was 'who spoke for the electorate?'. King's government was threatened with censure by the same house that had supported him nine months earlier, which saw King's party not even possessing the most seats. The October mandate had been inconclusive, and the largest party had not been given a chance to find a majority in the House of Commons. Whichever course of action Byng chose to adopt, he would have alienated a large number of Canadian voters. In fact, Byng handed the Conservative leader a poisoned chalice. The Conservatives could not secure a majority either, and a dissolution took place in a matter of days. King's party won a slim majority in the 1926 election.

In both cases, replacing the office of a vicegerent governor-general representing a monarch resident overseas would not have changed the dynamic of the crisis. In both cases the essential problem was between the government and the parliament. The head of state was required to arbitrate, and in both cases chose not to follow the advice of the prime minister. However, in both cases there were perfectly sound political reasons to take the course of action that was followed. Kerr needed to find a government that was capable of getting a budget sorted out in the midst of an economic crisis of the incumbent government's creation. I don't see how an elected Kerr could have failed to reach the same decision, nor is there any evidence that the relationship between Australia's monarchy and Britain's came into play here. Likewise, an elected Byng would have faced the same problem that an appointed Byng did.

In neither of these two crises did the 'colonial' position of the dominions come into play. Nor would a 'republican' polity have changed the crises in any way. Both are examples of how people in pursuit of power are prepared to kick at the foundations of their constitutional order, without really thinking about the long-term risk to the political system. In other words, image trumps reality when the stakes are highest.

11 October 2014

The War on Modernity

(This post was begun in August, but then put to one side as my attention turned to other things. I complete it out of an obligation to ride my favourite hobby-horse, as I feel it seems rather dated now.)

Peter Hitchens is not alone in regarding the First World War as a conflict that altered the course of civilisation for the worse. That article of his is as good a summary of the argument against the war — the tremendous human cost did not serve the material purpose of most of those who lost family, or came home mutilated either physically or mentally. Hitchens does see one winner from the war:

Those on the Left should defend it and rejoice over it. It was the fulfillment of their dreams. No single event has done more to advance the power of the state and of state socialism.
At least one historian, Arno Mayer, has argued that the First World War was rooted in an attempt to solve a crisis of domestic politics rather than a crisis of foreign affairs. While an earlier post of mine may seem to agree with this thesis on first sight, in fact it argues that Britain's party-political situation made her intervention in the general European war inevitable. The Liberal government did not go to war to avoid a civil war over Ireland or industrial unrest. It went to war out of fear of losing power to a coalition of pro-war politicians. (The latter may have been acting in line with the Mayer thesis, but I haven't done the research to say.) However, a close reading of Hitchens' article suggests that he, at least, is motivated by a Mayer-like idea, although one operating with the benefit of hindsight.

Hitchens' article laments a world lost.

Many of [the war's] worst consequences came during official periods of peace and are unknown or forgotten, or remain unconnected with it in the public mind. The loss cannot be measured in cash because it was paid in the more elusive coin of faith, morals, trust, hope, and civility. The war is the reason why Europe is no longer a Christian continent, because too many churches supported it. Pointing to the poverty and scientific backwardness of the pre-1914 world is a false comparison. Who is to say that we could not have grown just as rich as we are now, and made just as many technological and medical advances, had we not slain the flower of Europe’s young men before they could win Nobel Prizes, or even beget and raise children?
It appears that, at least in Germany, there was a view that the war would slow or halt the pace of some changes:
Some politicians and writers viewed war as a cure-all for what they perceived to be the evils of an age of bourgeois materialism...
(quoted from Decisions for War, 1914-1917, p. 74)

Hitchens cites a quote from Aldous Huxley to the effect that the war removed conservatives and replaced them with nationalistic radicals. We certainly seem to conceal from ourselves the fact that Nazis and Fascists were, in their own time, seen as 'modernisers', a mood captured in the song 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me' from the musical Cabaret. Nationalist radicals, whether right or left, celebrated youth. They were essentially Modern. For the Mayer thesis, the war represents an attempt to manage the rushing flow of Modernity, re-channelling it so that it will support the traditional power structure. While Mayer sees the war in the context of a Marxist opposition between a capitalist bourgeoisie and the revolutionary proletariat, there is evidence that suggests that in Germany a war was seen as an attack on what might be called Anglo-Saxon attitudes, the bourgeois materialism essential to the capitalist system:

some politicians and writers viewed war as a cure-all for what they perceived to be the evils of an age of bourgeois materialism—lethargy, emasculation and moral rot.
[p 74, Hamilton and Herwig, Decisions for War] The great A.J.P. Taylor similarly saw cultural and political trends such as Futurism and Syndicalism presaging a mood of violence, but it might be better to think of them in terms of a cultural accommodation of the unsettling effects of technology and its byproduct Modernity. (See the quote by Taylor cited on page 40 of David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer.

Ironically, the war had the real impact of overthrowing the most traditional of European regimes, in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. For Britons, it did have the effect of expanding the role of the state far beyond what had previously been thought acceptable. The problem with the idea of a 'War on Modernity', though, is that it does not seem to operate in all the European countries, at least not noticeably. Decisions for War makes it clear that while it might be a factor in Germany, in the other major countries different assumptions were at work in guiding national leaders from the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand to the war. That Germany declared war on Modernity is an arguable proposition. For everyone else, the issue is best seen in terms of supporting or resisting German power. Subsequent conceptions of a 'war on modernity' simply turn history into a plaything of the political debate. Like 'The Sixties', the First World War becomes symptomatic of whatever ills one wishes to castigate in the politics of the day. History deserves better than that.

17 September 2014

Scots Should Vote 'No' and Remain Independent!

Tomorrow's referendum in Scotland on whether to vote to end... well, what exactly? This is a problem that has been nagging me these past few weeks — what is it that the Scots are being asked to vote for? Because as soon as one thinks about the process by which the United Kingdom came to be, it raises a qualm about voting 'Yes' to the question 'Should Scotland be an independent country?'. A 'Yes' undermines the foundation of a Scottish state's constitutional order. A Yes' potentially creates something that has never existed before.

Scotland in 1602 was an independent kingdom. The Scottish people, via the Church of Scotland, had imposed restrictions on what their monarch could do. The future James VI had been baptised in the Catholic faith, but when the Protestant nobility in Scotland forced his mother (Mary, the queen of Scots who was executed by England's Queen Elizabeth in 1587) to abdicate, James was raised in the Church of Scotland, and came under the influence of his preceptor, George Buchanan, who certainly believed in trammelling the power of the Scottish monarch.

All this changed in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, on the death of Queen Elizabeth. James traced his ancestry back to Henry VII of England, who was Elizabeth's grandfather. This is known as the Union of the Crowns. Scotland theoretically remained an independent monarchy, with a parliament and justice system distinct from the English one. However, what it did not have was an independent foreign policy. Ambassadors addressed the same person, whether they went to London or to Edinburgh. A 'British' foreign policy emerged straightaway, with the ending of the Anglo-Spanish War that had been going on for some twenty years, and which previously the Scots had stood apart from. He also secured the end of the Nine Years' War in Ireland which, however, had petered out without his direct involvement. He simply swept up the pieces. Given the nature of seventeenth-century monarchies (and even earlier ones) it could not be any other way. (Although, interestingly, colonisation in the Americas remained two distinct projects.) The monarch pursued the best advantage for all the realms under his or her rule. And this is at the root of the basic problem with a 'union of crowns'. Those Crowns can eventually fall onto separate heads, as would happen when Queen Victoria ascended the British throne, but that of Hanover was occupied by a man. The Hanoverians followed Salic Law, which did not permit a woman to be monarch.

And it was this that lay at the root of the next development. James had been quite keen to see the merger of England and Scotland, but some English and many Scots preferred otherwise. The two parliaments, the two churches and the two legal systems continued to go along their separate ways, which contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, itself preceded by the Bishops' Wars, in which the King of Scotland, James VI's son Charles I, used his English realm to try and enforce his opinions on Scotland. However, with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a salient moment in English constitutional history, the Union of Crowns problem emerged. In theory, James VII could have remained king of Scotland and king of Ireland*. He didn't because he lost wars fought there on his behalf. In 1692, the daughter of James VI and I, Sophia of Hanover, was made the heir of Anne, the Protestant daughter of James VII and II as queen of England and Ireland. Scotland would have to make its own decision.

And, it did. In 1704 the Act of Security proposed a separate, Scottish monarchy that would remain Protestant, but could not be identical with that of the English line of succession, now vested in Sophia. This dispute in turn led to the Acts of Union of 1707, which united the Scottish and English parliaments and the two kingdoms. The Kingdom of Great Britain would now be governed by means of a parliament at Westminster. Scotland retained a separate church and a separate legal system. Foreign policy would go on as before, but economic policy would now be combined. Scotland remained an independent country, in one sense, in that it continued to exercise that independence through the Kingdom of Great Britain.

At its root, it is this which the referendum question is about. 'Should we undo the Act of Union of 1707?'. But I'm afraid it goes farther than that, based on what we have heard. Salmond has asserted that the Queen will remain head of state of an independent Scotland. But, in that case, she has to decide which realm will be her home, and which will require the appointment of a governor-general. Why? Because, fundamentally, the monarch no longer conducts a united foreign policy for all realms. In order to remain above politics, the monarch has to receive advice (which is basically a courtesy memo) from governments. In the case of, say, participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Queen of Canada, in the person of the governor-general, received different advice from the Queen of the United Kingdom. For Scotland, if the monarch should choose to reside in England, this would be something completely new. Scotland would have the same status as one of the Commonwealth Realms. So? Well, all those were formerly colonies of Scotland, through the Kingdom of Great Britain. In other words, Scotland would be in danger of demoting itself to ex-colonial status, in danger of asserting that in its previous existence it was not an independent country. This is constitutional nonsense. If Scotland is not an independent country now, than neither is England.

It seems to me that if Scotland wants to undo the 1707 Acts of Union, a 'No' vote is in order, to recognise that Scotland is already an independent country, through the United Kingdom. However, this must be followed by a demand from the Scottish Assembly to repeal or annul the acts. This, of course, could be the same process as after a 'Yes' vote, except that the 'Yes' vote as it stands inherently proposes that Scotland is a subjugated country, something that never happened. Subsequently, a new Act of Security could be passed, and Scotland could go its separate way without having undermined its previous status. It would, of course, remain a part of the Anglosphere.

Whatever the case, I'm clearly too historical to be an effective politician!


* I'm not going into Ireland's relationship to all this, which is an interesting story in itself.

05 August 2014

Peter Hitchens' War on 1914

Unlike most of my associates, I imagine, I do not regard Peter Hitchens' views as wholly disreputable. He seems to think about things, which is a good quality, even if one may decide he reaches the wrong conclusions. He is part of a group of British media personalities who have been banging on about the idea that Britain should have stood aside in August 1914, and let a general European war run its course. As a result, he has kindly created not one but two blogging opportunities for me!

Today, I want to deal with the argument that Britain had no obligation to intervene in a general European war. In a post published today, he builds a case out of quotations from Douglas Newton's The Darkest Days. Hitchens reports that the book has been subject to some criticism, although a quick google didn't offer any reviews.

The problem is that Hitchens puts more weight on the idea of an obligation than the handful of men who took Britain into the war would have. The 1839 treaty that Hitchens links to was a pretext for war. That Britain was likely to take part in a general European war in 1914 was the inevitable consequence of a series of individual decisions taken by groups of men over the first decade or so of the twentieth century. It was because Britain had no formal alliance demanding she participate on the side of France and Russia in a war with Germany, that the British government had to identify such a pretext. But I'm sure Hitchens realises that. He is addressing what we are taught. Britain went to war because plucky little Belgium, which subsequently would be the scene of German atrocities, refused to allow German armies passage across its territories to France. Britain went to war against German militarism, which had been disturbing the peace of Europe since 1870. And, by the way, Germany was the foe of liberty. This is, one might say, the Lloyd George school of interpretation. George, an adept politician as the war would prove, was seeking to justify his own betrayal of the non-interventionist position, where one might have expected him to end up.

Hitchens doesn't quote a much earlier statement (February 1906) by Sir Edward Grey, quoted in Decisions for War, 1914-1917, a distillation of a much longer academic work. Grey cites the increasing closeness between France and Britain, and its implications in the case of a war between France and Germany, then notes

If this expectation is disappointed, the French will never forgive us...
What created this closeness was a series of steps starting in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War. Japan was Britain's ally, while Russia was allied to the French. So the first step towards Britain's entry into war in 1914 was the desire for peace with France, in the context of a war between Russia and Japan. Other steps followed, but in each case a specific action was taken in response to a specific problem. And the accumulation of steps made by small groups of men responding to particular problems closed down alternative avenues, because men were dealing with men. 'France', in this context, was the ministers and officials with whom men like Grey had to deal with. Grey and other men in the British government, I would argue, could not escape their human condition, and disregard entirely the promises made to other men in public life, any more than they would have been able to in private life, without a pretext that good faith had already been broken. In the same way the British government needed a pretext to go to war, so they needed a pretext not to.

Without doubt, the evidence shows that a good portion of the Cabinet in those last days of peace wanted a pretext not to intervene. Three things derailed such a pretext. The first was the difficult situation in Ireland, where the army appeared to be out of step with government policy of a devolved Irish parliament, and which seemed to be an existential crisis for the British state. The second was the remarkable slowness with which Grey responded to the start of the crisis at the end of June. The Cabinet first discussed the crisis on 24 July, as a new issue, almost a month after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It was only in a series of meetings over 29 July-2 August that the Cabinet really came to grips with the matter. It was literally a 'rush to war'. The third was Grey's threat to resign, which would have created a political crisis at a time of a grave diplomatic crisis and a grave political crisis, something the opposition Conservative and Unionist party could easily have exploited.

The Liberal cabinet was trapped by a political situation that itself was the product of several steps that had created the current unstable political situation. The Liberal party had already split over the issues of the Boer War and then Home Rule some years earlier. Four years earlier it had led the country into a major political crisis over the powers of the House of Lords, which resulted in a major constitutional reform. On 2 August the Conservative and Unionist party's leader privately expressed support for Grey's position, a neat manoeuvre that encouraged the Liberals to adopt the Conservatives' more aggressive attitudes towards the Germans in order to avoid the previously mentioned political crisis. (The then-Liberal Winston Churchill himself explored the possibility of a coalition between pro-war Liberals and the Conservative and Unionists.) Grey had approached both Russia and Germany with a proposal for a conference over the crisis, the traditional European solution to diplomatic problems. It was the German unwillingness to entertain this that denied those Cabinet members opposed to intervention a pretext. Had a conference been held, and had France and Russia still opted for war, it seems plausible that enough of the Liberal ministers might have risked the political crisis that would have resulted from non-intervention.

There were all too human calculations involved in Britain's entry into the European war, and nothing to do with legalistic interpretations of 1839 treaties. For the Liberal government to follow the path of non-intervention would most likely have caused the collapse of the government, and the formation of a new, pro-intervention (and anti-Irish Home Rule) Cabinet. From the point of view of August 1914, remaining in office ensured that those opposed to intervention would retain some authority over both the conduct of the war and the post-war settlement, as well as maintaining other Liberal policies. In the event, the later collapse of the government invalidated that assumption, but no-one knew that a hundred years ago. The Belgian pretext held the government together, and to put too much weight on it is to hamper our understanding of why events happen.