Learning from history

Learning from history

It is hard – and often painful – to see ourselves as others see us. Countries don’t face annual 360° appraisals. It is perhaps a back-handed compliment that Britain has been important enough to be subject to the scrutiny of others.  Famously, in 1962 Dean Acheson commented that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” Twitter was not around then but the speech, with its acute eye for Britain’s confusion about its role in world affairs, nonetheless struck a sensitive nerve.

All the more so given Macmillan’s rather vaingloriously patronizing claim that Britain was Greece to America’s Rome. Acheson’s brutal dismissal must have hurt all the more given that it was the withdrawal of US financial support at the time of Suez, when Macmillan was Chancellor, which brought Britain’s Suez adventure – and Eden’s career – to an ignominious end, helping propel Macmillan to the premiership.

How humiliating then must it have been a year after this speech to receive the first of De Gaulle’s vetoes of Britain’s membership of the Common Market. 20 years after giving the isolated general refuge following his country’s humbling defeat, that same general was able loftily to dismiss Britain as not fit for membership of a grouping its wartime sacrifices had done so much to make possible.

The rather brutal – if accurate – dismissals of Britain by its two closest allies in the early 1960’s were matched by Nico Henderson’s valedictory Foreign Office despatch in March 1979 about a “poor and unproud” country which had made a series of wrong decisions, misunderstood its own history and misjudged changes in the world. His analysis of how Britain’s single market helped kickstart the Industrial Revolution ought to be required reading for those breezily dismissive of the difficulties of trading on WTO tariff terms.

(So brutal was its analysis that it was decided that ambassadors must never again be allowed to express their views when they no longer had a career to worry about.) It echoed many of the criticisms made by Acheson and anticipated some of the analysis contained in the lectures given by Sir Ivan Rogers since his forced departure two years ago. Scorned civil servants are, it seems, quite as dangerous and willing to put the stiletto in as scorned women.

The Suez debacle highlighted Britain’s inability to shape a region it had once dominated. It damaged Britain’s reputation and self-confidence and reinforced, certainly in the Arab world, Britain’s reputation for perfidiousness, arrogance and a blindness to the consequences of its actions. Nearly 50 years later another Middle Eastern adventure – the invasion of Iraq – had much the same effect. What on earth did Britain think it was doing joining in?

Both had surprising similarities:

  • Learning the wrong lessons from history. We shouldn’t have appeased that ranting leader. Here is another ranting leader. Let’s overthrow him.
  • No long-term plan or strategy. What would Britain have done with the canal?  What would happen to Iraq after the war? If the example of the post-war efforts put in to rebuild the European continent was ignored, couldn’t they have at least learnt something from the work done to rebuild Bosnia?
  • The personal may have intruded more than was wise. Eden’s wish to prove himself a war leader, in the manner of his mentor, to relive his honourable actions against appeasement in the 1930’s played a part.  Blair’s desire to forge a close, special relationship with a US President to create a new world order, much as Roosevelt & Churchill, Reagan & Thatcher had done, perhaps blinded him to the US’s unprepared, ill thought out and short-termist approach to the Iraq invasion, to a war seen as a photo opportunity for politicians.
  • Lashings of dishonesty and secrecy– poisoning trust in the British political class long after the events had passed into history.
  • Failing to realise that it is not enough to know what one is against. Easy to view ranting or cruel dictators with disdain.  Easy to criticise lumbering or insensitive institutions.  But creating a viable alternative is very much harder and takes lots of thought and preparation and involvement of expertise and advice.  And time. Lots of it.  The Atlantic Charter which began to lay the foundations for many of the post-war institutions was agreed in 1941, before the US had even entered the war.  Britain’s welfare state was not dreamt up in a Labour party election manifesto in 1945 but by the work of Beveridge, also started in 1941.

Might there be some contemporary parallels? Well we are not at war nor planning one, though we may – if very unlucky – be forced to hire little ships to collect our food. And we are not facing ranting dictatorial leaders willing to inflict murderous cruelty on their own citizens.

But if there is a plan or strategy for Brexit, let alone what comes after, it is well hidden. No-one knows what Brexit will mean or how it will happen or if it will happen or even whether it will happen on its planned date. No-one seems to know what happens after formal departure. Or rather there seem as many views on this as there are voters and MPs still interested in the topic.

May, determined to have some achievement to her name other than simple survival, makes a Sphinx seem garrulous, even while she hawks herself and her deal round Europe asking for help implementing a decision others find baffling, sad and harmful. And she – and Britain – are once again being seen as duplicitous and unreliable. 

Above all, while a majority of voters were against staying in the EU in 2016 and may now be in favour of remaining and a majority of MPs are now, allegedly, against a No Deal exit, no-one really seems to know what they are for.  Or, if they do, they are unable to persuade anyone else to agree with them.

The Henderson despatch was 40 years ago.  Much has changed in Britain since then, mostly for the better. Still, there is enough in it which applies today and which ought to make any reader wince – “For long we underestimated the economic prospects of our European neighbours and for even longer we overestimated our own strength and influence in relation to them.” He concluded: “We can recover if the facts are known and faced.” 

Let’s leave the last word to Acheson: “The attempt to play a separate power role, that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the US, a role based on being the head of a ‘Commonwealth’ – this role is about to be played out.” 

So here we go again.  What are the chances of getting it right this time?


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