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Corbyn, Anti-Semitism and the Radical Critics of Imperialism.   Leave a comment

Imperial theorist J. A. Hobson. Photograph: Elliott & Fry/Getty Images

Introduction – The Clash of World Views:

This May Day morning, another row erupted within the British Labour Party over the proximity of its leader’s ‘world-view’ to those of radical anti-Semites in the party since its beginnings. An article by Danny Finkelstein (pictured above) has drawn attention to the foreword to a recent republication of J A Hobson’s influential 1902 ‘Imperialism’, written by Jeremy Corbyn which, apparently, lauded Hobson’s radical critique of imperialism, while failing to acknowledge the problems it raised and continues to raise in respect of anti-Semitism. Hobson argued in the book that global finance was controlled in Europe by “men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience”, who were “in a unique position to control the policy”. By contrast with Corbyn’s 2011 preface, books written by historians Bernard Porter (1984) and Niall Ferguson on imperialism have drawn attention to these problems in the context in which Hobson himself was writing. I have given some examples below, which I first wrote about in an article on the Cecil Rhodes controversy at Oxford elsewhere on my website.

 

Extracts from Niall Ferguson’s (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World:

So close was Rhodes’s relationship with the Rothschilds that he even entrusted the execution of his will to Lord Rothschild, specifying that his estate should be used to fund an imperialist equivalent of the Jesuit order – the original intention of the Rhodes Scholarships. This would be ‘a society of the elect for the good of the Empire’… Rothschild, in turn, assured;

‘Our first and foremost wish in connection with South African matters is that you should remain at the head of affairs in that Colony and that you should be able to carry out that great Imperial policy which has been the dream of your life’.

Not only was imperialism immoral, argued the critics, but, according to these ‘Radicals’, it was also a rip-off: paid for by British taxpayers, fought for by British soldiers, but benefiting only a tiny elite of fat-cat millionaires, the likes of Rhodes and Rothschild. That was the thrust of J. A. Hobson’s profoundly influential ‘Imperialism: A Study’, published in 1902. ‘Every great political act’ argued Hobson,

‘must receive the sanction and the practical aid of this little group of financial kings… They have the largest definite stake in the business of Imperialism, and the amplest means of forcing their will upon the policy of nations… Finance is the governor of the imperial engine, directing the energy and determining the work.’

H. N. Brailsford, another contemporary radical, took Hobson’s argument further in his ‘The War of Steel and Gold: A Study of the Armed Peace’, (written in 1910, but not published until 1914). ‘In the heroic age,’ Brailsford wrote,

‘Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships. In our golden age the face wears more often the shrewd features of some Hebrew financier. To defend the interests of Lord Rothschild and his fellow bondholders, Egypt was first occupied and then practically annexed by Great Britain… The extremest case of all is, perhaps, our own South African War.’

Was it not obvious that the war had been fought to ensure that the gold mines of the Transvaal remained securely in the hands of their capitalist owners? Was not Rhodes merely, in the words of the Radical MP Henry Labouchere, an…

‘… Empire jerry-builder who had always been a mere vulgar promoter masquerading as a patriot, and the figurehead of a gang of astute Hebrew financiers with whom he divides the profits?’

Like those modern conspiracy theories which explain every war in terms of the control of oil reserves, the Radical critique of imperialism was an over-simplification (Hobson and Brailsford little knew what a liability Rhodes had been during the siege of Kimberley.) And like those other modern theories that attribute sinister power to certain financial institutions, some anti-imperialism conveyed more than a hint of anti-Semitism. (283-4)

The ‘Crux’ of the Issue:

Above: Image from a map of the world in 1900, showing the extent of the British Empire.

In this last comment by Niall Ferguson, we reach the crux of the issue. Certainly, Rhodes was a colonialist and imperialist, as were most leading figures of his day, not just within the British Empire, but within all the European empires. In Africa, as noted here, the French were equally aggressive in their pursuit of land and resources, and the Belgians and subsequently the Italians also used what, even within the terms of this ‘scramble’ were excessive means against the native African populations. That is not to justify the actions that Rhodes was involved in, but just to place them in a broader context. It also needs to be noticed that his while his strategy for developing Rhodesia was a classical colonialist one, through the control of trading companies, his involvement in the Transvaal and later in the relief of Kimberley was concerned with achieving British supremacy over a white race, the Boers and that, if anything, his attitudes towards the original natives were far more liberal than those of the Afrikaners, certainly than those of Kruger. There is also evidence that, as a businessman, he retained a practical antipathy for everyday racial discrimination. On this question, he should not be judged by today’s standards, but as living at a time when theories of racial hierarchy and paternalism were dominant throughout Britain and Europe.

These theories are certainly evident in the architecture of Oxford, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and other cities which grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If every surviving reminder of slavers, colonialists and imperialists were to be torn down, the city-scapes of Britain would look radically different, and greatly impoverished. More importantly, much of modern human history has been about the replacement of one great ‘construct’ with another, whether in economics, politics, or art and architecture. As Niall Ferguson has pointed out in more recent and specific publications on the issue, the liberal imperialism of the late Victorian period was criticised by Radicals who revealed themselves as overtly anti-Semitic. The new empires of fascists and communists which characterised the 1930s and 1940s were far more universally destructive than the old ones, yet we do not seek to remove every trace of them. Finally, far from being an ‘architect of apartheid’, as recently asserted in the Oxford student debates over the potential removal of his statue there, there is a fundamental ‘disconnect’ between the imperialism of Rhodes and his contemporaries in Africa and the post-1948 racist regimes in Southern Africa. They drew their inspiration from a heretical view of sectarian Calvinism which was very far removed from the Victorian ‘Anglican’ paternalism of ‘the white man’s burden’ to which Rhodes subscribed.

In an article in ‘The Guardian’ (1 May 2019) another academic historian has pointed out how deeply Hobson’s hatred of all forms of imperialism ran, and his book is certainly a compelling read, an essential one for all undergraduates studying the dominant themes and events of the first half of the twentieth century. Taylor, a professor in modern history at the University of York, wrote in his article that:

“He understood the terrible consequences of European conquest overseas like no one before. He described how jingoism and support for empire inveigled its way into popular culture at home via the media and populist politicians. It remains a signature text and influenced Lenin, the philosopher Karl Kautsky, the political economist Joseph Schumpeter and other classics of the anticolonial canon. Hobson himself went on to become an éminence grise within the Labour party after the first world war, helping draft its economic policy as it entered government for the first time in 1924. He was later tipped for a peerage.

“However, his antisemitism is inseparable from his attack on imperialism. Only alluded to once in the book to which Jeremy Corbyn added his thoughts, Hobson’s virulent assault on Jews is a recurrent theme of another book that first brought him fame and acclaim, 1900’s The War in South Africa. Sent out to cover the Boer war for this newspaper when it was known as the Manchester Guardian, Hobson let rip his racism. Reporting on his visits to Pretoria and Johannesburg towards the end of 1899, he mocked Judaism, described the control of the gambling and liquor industries by Jews, and their behind-the-scenes influence over the warmongering newspapers. Indeed, “the Jewish factor” received an index entry all of its own in this book. Without The War in South Africa, and its antisemitism, Hobson would not have shocked his way into the public eye and received the commission for his most famous work of all.”

Today the Labour Party seeks to draw a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that few would have understood a hundred years ago. The Radical anti-imperialists like Hobson had a direct influence on the development of the early Labour Party’s foreign policy. By the mid-twenties, there were those within the Labour Party, like the Fabian Beatrice Webb, who began to question the aims of the Zionist movement:

… I admire Jews and dislike Arabs. But the Zionist movement seems to me a gross violation of the right of the native to remain where he was born and his father and grandfather were born – if there is such a right. To talk about the return of the Jew to the land of his inheritance after an absence of two thousand years seems to me sheer… hypocritical nonsense. From whom were descended those Russian and Polish Jews?

The principle which is really being asserted is the principle of selecting races for particular territories according to some ‘peculiar needs or particular fitness’. Or it may be some ideal of communal life to be realised by subsidised migration. But this process of artificially creating new communities of immigrants, brought from many parts of the world, is rather hard on the indigenous natives!

In other statements, Beatrice Webb was also quite open about her antipathy for Zionism. In 1929, the new Labour government in Britain appeared to repudiate the Balfour Declaration. Beatrice’s husband, Sidney Webb, by then Lord Passfield and Colonial Secretary, published a white paper which threatened to restrict Jewish immigration and the sale of Palestinian lands to Jews. This was viewed as a provocative act, and was greeted by a furore of protests from Zionists worldwide, from Conservative imperialists in Britain and from some Labour MPs. This enabled the Zionists to sweep away this hurdle; the British government quailed beneath the storm and gave way. This was a crucial decision because, although afterwards pro-Zionist feeling in Britain was never again as strong, control of migration was taken out of Britain’s hands. The Jewish population of Palestine more than doubled in the five years between 1931 and 1936.

What determined the outcome in Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel on the left bank of the Jordan in 1948, and its subsequent expansion into Arab territory, was the balance of strength on the ground between the two populations, which had changed in favour of the Zionist settlers by 1936. Between the wars, however, Palestine had to remain a British mandated territory. The British were unable to delegate their responsibilities to the Zionist organisation, as many wanted them to do. It remained in the same state as the ‘dependent’ territories within the British empire, a colony ruled directly from London, like Kenya.

Right: Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield)

What emerges from these portraits and documents concerning Zionism, imperialism and Palestine in the period 1916-36 is that there was no imperialist conspiracy to create the state of Israel as it existed after 1948. Certainly, there were good relations between leading Zionists and imperialist politicians in Britain, including those in Attlee’s government, but it was the confusion of competing claims and rights in Palestine itself, together with the inability to control the flow of migrants and refugees under the terms of the British mandate which led to the development of the country through settlement into the self-governing state of Israel following the handover of the mandate to the United Nations in 1948. It is difficult to imagine how the outcome of these events could have been any different, especially given the refugee crisis created by the war. The idea that the state of Israel was an artificial creation, a ‘mistake’ as Ken Livingstone has called it in his more recent interview on Arabic TV, does not match the reality of the emerging patterns of the population on the ground in inter-war Palestine. There was no rational alternative to the decisions that were made and no other alternative humanitarian solution.

The Labour Party needs to accept the burden that history has given it to bear from the past hundred years. Either it continues to support the creation of the state of Israel, as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee finally did in 1949, or call for its dismantling and destruction, by one means or another, which is what the current leadership of the Labour Party, in the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, wants to do. The continuing tropes about global capitalist conspiracies with Israel and Jewish individuals/ organisations (like Georges Soros and ‘Open Society) at the centre of them have been shared among populist leaders from Viktor Orbán’s extreme right-wing government in Hungary to Corbyn’s hard- left supporters. Even if they wanted to, their opportunism and ideologies (respectively) would not allow them to jettison these anti-Semitic tropes.

The Debate Continues in ‘The Jewish News’, 3 May 2019:

While a spokesman said this week Corbyn “completely rejects the antisemitic elements in his analysis”, the veteran MP made no mention of this in his lengthy endorsement. Instead, the Labour leader described Hobson’s book as “a great tome”, and praised the writer’s “brilliant, and very controversial at the time” analysis of the “pressures” behind western, and in particular British, imperialism at the turn of the 20th century.

After the Board of Deputies wrote to him to demand an explanation, Corbyn responded yesterday to say he was “deeply saddened” that the…

…“mischievous representation of my foreward will have caused real stress within the Jewish community” and rounded on the “false accusation that I endorsed the antisemitic content of this 1902 text”.

“While writing the foreword, I reserved praise for some of the broad themes of Hobson’s century-old classic study of imperialism in Africa and Asia. As with many book written in this era, the work contains highly offensive references and observations. I totally deplore the language used in that book to describe Jews and people from colonised countries.

“The accusation is the latest in a series of equally ill-founded accusations of anti-Jewish racism that Labour’s political opponents have made against me. I note that the Hobson story was written by a Conservative Party peer in a newspaper whose editorial policy, and owner, have long been hostile to Labour. At a time when Jewish communities in the UK, and throughout Europe, feel under attack, it is a matter of great regret that the issue of antisemitism is often politicised in this way.”

Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl wrote to Corbyn, telling him that the …

… “community is entitled to an apology for this failure to speak out against prejudice against our community when confronted with racism.

“There is ‘an impression that you either do not care whether your actions, inadvertently or deliberately, signal support for racist attitudes or behaviours” …

“Whilst you, quite correctly, explicitly commended Hobson’s criticism of caricatures of African and Asian people, there is a failure to make even a passing reference to the blatant antisemitism in the book that you enthusiastically endorse.”

“In your letter, you claim only to have ‘reserved praise for some of the broad themes’ of Hobson’s book and that you ‘totally deplore’ the antisemitism that was commonplace in ‘this era.

“However, we note that your lengthy and detailed foreword of over 3500 words, variously describes Hobson’s work as “great”, “remarkable”, “interesting”, “brilliant”, “painstaking”, “very powerful”, “attractive”, “valid”, “correct”, “prescient” and “very prescient”, without any qualification referring to the antisemitism within it.”

The Jewish Labour Movement has submitted an official complaint to the party over this week’s revelation and asked the EHRC to include Corbyn’s endorsement of Hobson’s book in any investigation of the party for institutional antisemitism. “A fish rots from the head”, it said in a strongly-worded statement, adding that any other Labour member would have been suspended and calling on Corbyn to consider his position.

Conclusion – More Tropes & Conspiracy Theories:

Corbyn’s ‘foreword’, written well before he became Labour leader was not a critical appraisal of Hobson’s work, which would have been scholarly and circumspect, but an uncritical and ahistorical whitewashing of a text which not only criticises the ‘Liberal’ imperialism of the time, but also contains anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories which dominated the thinking of many Left-wing theorists within the Labour Party in the early part of the twentieth century. It helped to create a popular intellectual climate which led directly to the persecution of Jews throughout Europe in the years that followed. In this context, Corbyn should explain himself and/or apologise for his slipshod and shoddy writing, which has caused considerable offence to the Jewish Community.

Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Western Armistice of November 1918 and its Aftermath in Britain & its Empire.   Leave a comment

Celebrating the Armistice in Britain:

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Londoners celebrating the Armistice.

Even before the Armistice was signed on the Western Front, there was a clattering down of thrones in Europe, and the world was a little dazed by the sound and dust which this created. But to those thrones that endured – in Britain, Belgium and Italy – the peoples turned, as they had always done, to the symbols of liberty for which they had always fought. On 11th November great crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace, following a common impulse, and the King and Queen appeared on the balcony to receive such an acclamation as had rarely greeted the sovereigns of an unemotional people. The writer H. G. Wells described military trucks riding around London picking up anyone who wanted a ride to anywhere, and ‘vast vacant crowds’ consisting mostly of students, schoolchildren, the middle-aged and the old, and home-front soldiers choking the streets: Everyone felt aimless, with a kind of strained and aching relief. A captured German gun carriage was thrown on to a bonfire of ‘Hun’ trophies in Trafalgar Square.  Vera Brittain, who had left Oxford University to be a Red Cross nurse witnessed the jubilant atmosphere of Armistice Day, drawn out from the hospital where she was working to observe the celebrations with mixed emotions, including a chilly gloom resulting from the realisation that almost all her best friends were dead and that she would be facing the future without them. She later wrote about her memories of it, and those she had lost in the war, in her biography, Testament of Youth (1933). She noticed that…

When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. … the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The War is over.”

From Millbank I heard the maroons crash with terrifying clearness, and, like a sleeper who is determined to go on dreaming after being told to wake up, I went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside my hut. Deeply buried beneath my consciousness there stirred a vague memory of a letter that I had written to Roland in those legendary days when I was still at Oxford …

But on Armistice Day not even a lonely survivor drowning in black waves of memory could be left alone with her thoughts. A moment after the guns had subsided into sudden, palpitating silence, the other VAD from my ward dashed excitedly into the annex.

“Brittain! Brittain! Did you hear the maroons? It’s over – it’s all over! Do lets come out and see what’s happening!” …

Late that evening … a group of elated VADs … prevailed upon me to join them. Outside the Admiralty a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis. … Wherever we went a burst of enthusiastic cheering greeted our Red Cross uniform, and complete strangers adorned with wound stripes rushed up and shook me warmly by the hand. …

I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were my contemporaries.

For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over, a new age was beginning, but the dead were dead and would never return.   

On the late afternoon of Armistice Day, in the wet November dusk, the King and Queen drove in a simple open carriage through the city of London, almost unattended and wholly unheralded. The merrymakers left their own occupations to cheer, and crowds accompanied the carriage through the newly lit streets, running beside it and shouting friendly greetings. It was an incident which interpreted the meaning of a ‘People’s King’. Next morning, 12 November 1918, ‘Victory’ dawned upon a western world too weary even for comprehension. The crescendo of the final weeks had dazed minds as ordinary people could not grasp the magnitude of a war which had dwarfed all other, earlier conflicts, and had depleted the world of life to a far greater extent than centuries of invasions, conflicts and wars put together. There were some eight million dead combatants in addition to twenty-five million non-combatants worldwide. In Britain, the figures were too astronomical to have much meaning – nearly ten million men in arms from the Empire as a whole, of whom over three million were wounded, missing or dead. At least seven hundred thousand British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another hundred and fifty thousand were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some three hundred thousand children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out.

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But the statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last man and the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors from the Western Front. John Buchan, journalist and war correspondent, commented that the ordinary citizen…

… could only realise that he had come, battered and broken, out of a great peril, and that his country had not been the least among the winners of the victory.

The newspaper headlines from around the world were:

 

Great War Ends

Chicago Daily Tribune

Armistice Signed, End of the War!

The New York Times

Germany Gives Up: War Ends at 2 p.m.

New York Journal

Germany Signs Armistice

Sydney Morning Herald

The World War At An End

Yorkshire Telegraph and Star

Allies Drastic Armistice Terms to Huns

How London Hailed the End of War

The Daily Mirror

Peace!

Greatest Day In All History Being Celebrated

The Ogden Standard (Utah)

World Celebrates Return of Peace, End of Autocracy

Oregon Journal

Germany Surrenders

New Zealand Herald

War is Over

The Washington Times

Armistice Is Signed

The Toronto Daily News

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Britain’s fleet had conducted the blockade which sapped the enemy’s strength and had made possible the co-operation of Allies separated by leagues of ocean. Its wealth had borne the main financial burden of the alliance. Its armies, beginning from small numbers, had grown to be the equal of any in the world, in training, discipline and leadership. Moreover, the resolution shown by the British forces and people had been a bulwark to all her confederates in the darkest hours. Such had always been Britain’s record in European wars. At the beginning of the war, Germany had regarded it as a soft, pacifistic power already on the decline. It had come to a decision slowly, entered the war unwillingly, but then waged it with all the strength and determination it could muster and did not slacken until its aims had been achieved.

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The next few days and weeks were pregnant with ceremonial events. On the 12th the King and Queen went solemn procession to St. Paul’s to return thanks to the ‘Giver’ of victory. In the following week, they drove through all the districts of London and paid a brief visit to Scotland. On the 27th, the King visited France. He had been on the battlefield during the final offensive of 8th August and was now able to examine the ground on which victory had been won and to greet his troops as they moved eastward to the German frontier, or westward to return home to Britain. In Paris, at banquets at the Élysée and the Hotel de Ville, he spoke words of gratitude and friendship to the French people. On Tuesday, 19th November, in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, he replied to the addresses of the two Houses of Parliament. In the presence of political leaders, and the great officers of State, and representatives of the overseas dominions, he expounded in simple words the debt of the nation to its fleets and armies for their achievement; the pride of Britain in her Allies; the unspectacular toil of the millions at home who had made victory possible, and the task still before the nation if a better world was to be built out of the wreckage of the old:

In what spirit shall we approach these great problems? How shall we seek to achieve the victories of peace? Can we do better than remember the lessons which the years of war have taught, and retain the spirit which they have instilled? In these years Britain and her traditions have come to mean more to us than they had ever meant before. It became a privilege to serve her in whatever way we could; and we were all drawn by the sacredness of the cause into a comradeship which fired our zeal and nerved our efforts. This is the spirit we must try to preserve. … The sacrifices made, the sufferings endured, the memory of the heroes who have died that Britain may live, ought surely to ennoble our thoughts and attune our hearts to a higher sense of individual and national duty, and to a fuller realisation of what the English-speaking race, dwelling upon the shores of all the oceans, may yet accomplish for mankind. For centuries Britain has led the world along the path of ordered freedom. Leadership may still be hers among the peoples who are seeking to follow that path. … 

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He was entitled to exhort his people in this way because he and his family had played their part in the struggle, performing hard and monotonous duties, sharing gladly in every national burden. John Buchan commented that it was also beginning to dawn on the British people that they had also been well-served, in the end, by the military leader to whom they had entrusted their ‘manhood’:

Haig could never be a popular hero; he was too reserved, too sparing of speech, too fastidious. In the early days his limitations had been obvious, but slowly men had come to perceive in him certain qualities which, above all others, the crisis required. He was a master in the art of training troops, and under his guidance had been produced some of the chief tactical developments of the campaign. He had furnished the ways and means for Foch’s strategic plans. Certain kinds of great soldier he was not, but he was the type of great soldier most needed for this situation, and he succeeded when a man of more showy endowments would have failed. Drawing comfort from deep springs, he bore in the face of difficulties a gentle and unshakable resolution. Gradually his massive patience and fortitude had impressed his efforts for the men who had fought with him won their deep and abiding affection. The many thousands who, ten years later, awaited in the winter midnight the return of the dead soldier to his own land, showed how strong was his hold upon the hearts of his countrymen.

For many others, however, his name became synonymous with the way the war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history, as well as being stamped on billions of artificial poppies. For them, his name became a byword for stupid butchery. He himself felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help. After the Armistice, the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages, while the ‘other ranks’ were lucky if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the families of every member of the armed forces who were killed were given what became known as the ‘Death Penny’. This was actually a four-and-a-half-inch circular bronze plaque depicting Britannia, a lion and the name of the deceased. The disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions and some were reduced to the helplessness of the wounded soldier being pushed around Leicester in a pram in the picture below, taken in 1918.

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A Fit Country for Heroes? The Political Aftermath of the Armistice in Britain:

As the new minister for ‘war and air’, Winston Churchill understood the strange mix of emotions the country was feeling. He was responsible for demobilization which, before he took office, had already become a source of great anger and distress for all those who had survived the inferno. They were supposed to be discharged according to industrial and economic priorities, which inevitably meant slowly. Judging this inhuman, Churchill speeded up the rate of discharge and made wounds, age and length of service the priorities instead. But there was an outpouring of meaningless platitudes from politicians. Lloyd George proclaimed the fruits of victory with his usual eloquence in speeches like the following as the General Election approached at the end of the year, the second made in Wolverhampton on 23 November:

“Let us make the victory the motive power to link the old land in such measure that it will be nearer the sunshine than ever before and that at any rate it will lift up those who have been living in dark places to a plateau where they will get the rays of the sun.”

” … the work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who have sacrificed. Let us work together first. What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”

‘Never again’ and ‘homes fit for heroes’ fell easily from the tongues of those who had ‘kept the home fires burning’ while persuading others to do the fighting.

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The purpose of the politicians to maintain the same corporate national effort as had been successful in the war did them credit, but it was shallowly interpreted and led to the blunder of the 1918 Election in Britain. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. A fresh mandate from the people was required for the work of peacemaking and to continue, the war-time coalition of all parties; both worthy aims to tap the patriotism of the country. But for sitting MPs the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons from the previous May on a criticism of the Coalition Government by a distinguished staff officer, a criticism which may have been ill-timed, but was fair. Those who supported the government in that vote had been given ‘coupons’, whereas the malcontents were ‘outlawed’ as far as their candidature in the forthcoming election was concerned. The immediate consequence of this was a descent from the Prime Minister’s high words after the Armistice about a peace based on righteousness, and the need to put away base, sordid, squalid ideas of vengeance and avarice. The coupon candidates swept the board in the election and gave the government a huge working majority with 484 members (see the caption above). Labour returned fifty-nine MPs and the non-Coalition Liberals were reduced to a little more than a score.

But the mischief lay more in the conduct of the campaign than in its result. Responsible statesmen lent themselves to cries about “hanging the Kaiser” and extracting impossible indemnities from Germany. Britain stood before the world as the exponent of the shoddiest form of shallow patriotism, instead of the reasoned generosity which was the true temper of the nation. The result of the election produced one of the least representative parliaments in British political history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, more like a chamber of commerce than a House of Commons. It did not represent the intelligence, experience or wisdom of the British people since it was mainly an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. It also left out certain vital elements of opinion, which as a consequence were driven underground. It mirrored the nation at its worst and did much to perpetuate its vengeful mood. The feverish vulgarities of the election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and engineers, and made infinitely harder the business of economic reconstruction. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been held in abeyance during the War and which could not afford any decline in esteem at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutional politics to more revolutionary ideas, attitudes and methods, as apparent on the continent.

The returned prime minister’s aspirations and promises were not met or fulfilled, and by 1919, the euphoria of victory was replaced by reality as the ex-servicemen found that their old jobs in fields and factories were no longer available. There followed a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst returning servicemen who often found themselves unemployed, as did many women who had worked in the munitions factories and other engineering works during the war. At the same time, the number of trade unionists had risen to its highest level since 1912 and the second highest since figures were kept in 1893. Trade Unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the ‘demobbed’ servicemen. The post-war boom was suddenly replaced by a trade slump, throwing many more out of work. The number of unemployed reached two million in 1921, and ex-servicemen stood on street corners selling matches, playing the barrel organ and singing for pennies. Some remembrance events were disrupted by protesting ex-soldiers as the year turned, and especially on the anniversary of the armistice, which had become ‘Poppy Day’. The picture below was taken outside the British Legion offices on 11 November 1921, showing a protest by the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors’ Federation.

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Dominions, Colonies & Mandates:

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John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872 and died of pneumonia in January 1918. He was a distinguished doctor who wrote an important book on pathology. He went to Europe in 1914 as a soldier, a gunner, but was transferred to the medical service and served as a doctor in the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres. His famous poem, In Flanders Fields, appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital in Boulogne but died before he could take up his appointment. Although written and published in the early years of the war, it is one of a number of poems that in various ways manage to look at the War from a distance. McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died.

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McCrae’s poem also serves to remind us of the contributions of the British Empire’s dominions to the war on the Western Front, and the effects it had upon them. But while the British only have to be reminded of the contributions of the ANZACs and the Canadians to the war in Gallipoli and on the Western front, their ‘gratitude’ to those from what Simon Schama has called the ‘off-white empire’ has been a lot less apparent. Nearly a million Indian troops were in service, both in the ‘barracks of the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front and in the ultimately disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Official estimates of Indian losses in that campaign were put at fifty-four thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded. At least forty thousand black Africans had served as bearers and labourers in the British armies in France, as well as a larger force fighting in the colonial African theatre; their casualty rates were not properly recorded, but they are likely to have been very high.

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The contribution of Indians made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would suffice to stem the nationalist tide, which Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India (pictured right), had described in November 1917 as a seething, boiling political flood raging across the country.  For a while, the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if he had done nothing else, wrote Montagu in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.

In the middle east, a whole gamut of British interests which previously had rested fairly heavily on Turkish neutrality was imperilled, chief among them, of course, the Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. The Arab Revolt which began in 1916 had helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields. But this did not solve Britain’s longer-term problems of how to safeguard its middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem of how to avoid quarrelling with its friends over it. To settle these problems, the British had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned after the war.

Then, in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration had given the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It was the kind of commitment which could only have been made in wartime when political geography was so fluid that such an artificial creation could be considered. To reassure both the Arabs and the growing number of critics at home, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arab leaders in a series of ‘declarations’ from January to November 1918.

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By the end of the war, the middle east was a tangle of promises which Britain had made to the Arabs, to the Jews, to France, and to itself. They were contradictory, although no-one knew quite how contradictory, or how intentional the contradictions had been. Words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation in the middle eastern context as much as they were in the European one. The British believed that Arab ‘independence’ was quite consistent with a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon said at the end of the war that he was quite happy to accept ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the Arab people would ‘determine in our favour’.

In October 1915, the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon had promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to encourage the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire which had begun with British military and financial help in June 1916. But in one of the reservations to Arab independence contained in ‘the MacMahon Letter’ there was ambiguity in the use of one word, which in Arabic could refer either to a district or a province, and on that ambiguity hung the fate of Palestine. The most ambiguous term of all was in the Balfour Declaration, however, because although Balfour himself was subsequently clear that he had intended the promise of a national home in Palestine for the Jews to refer to a Jewish state, on the face of it the term could be taken to mean a number of lesser things. Yet no-one pretended that all the pieces of the diplomatic puzzle could be put together in such a way as to make them fit. Curzon was sure that MacMahon had promised Palestine to the Arabs, but Balfour read the exclusion of Palestine from Arab control into MacMahon’s ‘reservation’. These were contradictions of interpretation which led, after the war, to accusations of ‘betrayal’.  T. E. Lawrence (…of Arabia), who was to accompany the Arab delegation to Paris in January 1919, claimed that it had always been evident to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would be ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he was complicit in deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose. 

The African-Near Eastern empire was much shakier in its loyalty after the war than before. In 1918, partly driven by the accumulating momentum of post-Khalifa Muslim nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals and politicians – the wafd – asked the British authorities to set a timetable for the end of the protectorate that had been in force since 1914. The high commissioner in Egypt did not dismiss them out of hand but was not optimistic. Even this degree of cooperation was laughed at by Curzon in London as being deeply unwise. When the rejection became known, the Egyptian government resigned and there were strikes and riots, precisely the same kind of demonstrations which occurred contemporaneously in India, and with even more tragic results. Some fifteen hundred Egyptians were killed over two months of fighting between the British army and the nationalists. As in Iraq, the anti-wafd monarchy was established on the understanding that Egypt would be ‘protected’, along with the Suez Canal, by British troops. The resentment caused by these events towards the British created the context for future conflicts over Egypt and Suez, and therefore in the middle east more widely.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government after the war simply because she had promised it to them. It might keep its promise and very often it did, but if it could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was modified subsequently, was determined much more by the immediate post-war conditions – the interests, strengths and weaknesses of the different parties at that time – than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the course of the war itself. The conditions which existed at the end of 1918 determined that, in colonial terms at least, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. Britain and its allies had won the war, Germany and Turkey had lost. This meant that there were a number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, and only Britain and France were in a position to ‘snaffle them up’, as Porter (1984) has put it. Japan would be satisfied with expanding its empire in the north Pacific, the USA did not want colonies, and Italy, whose contribution to the Entente victory had been negligible, was considered by the other allies not to deserve any.

The ‘Khaki’ election of December 1918 had returned Lloyd George’s wartime coalition with an unstoppable majority; Balfour, Curzon and Milner were all in it, and they were not the kind of men to exercise self-restraint in colonial matters. Neither was Churchill, the jaw-jutting, table-pounding belligerent defender of empire, as Schama has characterised him. Nor were the leaders of the Dominions. For his part as their Prime Minister, Lloyd George was not bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists accepting whatever fell into their laps. In the final days of the conflict, Leopold Amery had soothed his conscience by emphasising that while the war had been fought over Europe, incidentally …

… if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

This was probably the interpretation of Britain’s position that most people in Britain and the Dominions shared. The first result of the war for Britain was, therefore, a considerable augmentation of its empire. The middle east was divided up almost according to the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf states and Iraq, which may at first have looked like ‘annexations’ but were not called that at the time. In 1919 at Paris, they became ‘Mandates’ under the League of Nations, which meant that they were entrusted to Britain and France to administer in the interests of their inhabitants, and with a view to their eventual independence. Nevertheless, in the short-term these territories, together with Britain’s existing protectorates in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden made up, in Porter’s words, a tidy little middle eastern empire. As a result, the British Empire was larger than it had ever been. But in adding new territories to Britain’s collection of colonies, the war had also weakened her grip on old ones. The fact that the self-governing dominions had co-operated in wartime did not necessarily mean that they wished to be shackled to the empire in peacetime. In all of them, not just in India, the experience of war had stimulated local nationalism just as much as did a common imperialism, whether among Afrikaners or French-speaking Canadians.

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The war had provoked or provided an opportunity for, a more vigorous assertion of forms of nationalism with a harder edge than had existed before it. In India, the war had given the Muslim League over to Congress, and Congress over to the extremists. Before the war there had been violence and terrorism both in India and Ireland, but the mainstream of colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress or Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party: moderate in their aims, generally not in favour of absolute independence, and in their methods, which were constitutional. Sinn Féin in Ireland shared with Gandhi’s campaign of ‘non-cooperation’ a willingness to work unconstitutionally, outside the system. Many had assumed that the shared experience of fighting for a common cause would unite the Irish, but the unexpectedly long duration of the war changed everything. Support for the war by constitutional nationalists, and their willingness to compromise in the preceding negotiations exposed them to criticism from more extreme nationalists when the war dragged on. Dissatisfaction with the Irish Party – who sought Home Rome by constitutional means at Westminster – was galvanised by the events of Easter 1916. Ireland might possibly have accepted old-fashioned ‘Home Rule’, self-government in domestic affairs only, which had satisfied the constitutional nationalist leader, John Redmond, in 1914, had it not been for the fifteen punitive executions carried out after the ‘Easter Rising’, as depicted above. Moderate ‘Home Rulers’ were appalled by the heavy-handed reaction to the rebellion, the executions and the thousands of arrests which followed it.

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This alienation from British rule of any kind, combined by the willingness of the Irish Party to compromise and the looming introduction of conscription in Ireland turned the population away from the Irish Party to the more revolutionary objectives of Sinn Féin. This became increasingly apparent in the increasingly daring nature of the actions of the reorganised Irish Volunteers, but even clearer in the 1918 general election. The Republican party almost swept the board in the 1918 election, winning seventy-three seats compared with just six won by the constitutional nationalists, all of them in the North, though Sinn Féin actually only won forty-eight per cent of the vote, conducted on an all-Ireland basis. It was also clear that in Ulster, the contribution made by Irish regiments in the war had strengthened the determination of Protestants to remain within the United Kingdom. The Republicans refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. The electoral success of Sinn Féin was subsequently used to justify the republican’s violent campaign for independence, but their 1918 manifesto did not suggest the use of physical force but rather had strongly advocated passive resistance and an appeal to the Versailles Peace Conference. When this failed, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) became increasingly violent, leading to the outbreak of the bloody Anglo-Irish War in 1920.

The nationalist struggle in India and Ireland had shifted into a higher gear and this foreshadowed danger for the empire as a whole. By the end of 1918, it seemed secure from attacks from outside but was now more vulnerable than ever before to threats from within. It might be able to contain one of these at a time, two – as with India and Ireland – with difficulty, but if it were challenged on three or four fronts at the same time, it could collapse. With the troops back from the western front, the empire should have been in a position to contain trouble in Ireland or/and India. Its armies were big enough if they could be kept in ‘khaki’, but they could not, not because of the expense alone, but because of the very real threat of mutiny. Many of the soldiers were restless at not being demobilized immediately, and there were strikes and mutinies both in Britain and France. When they had beaten Germany the British soldiery felt they had done their job. They had not joined up to police the empire.

Churchill argued that the government had no choice but to speed up demobilization and in this, as in so many other matters in the immediate aftermath of the war, he was right. Looked at from the twenty-first century, the post-First World War Churchill was proved correct in almost all of his positions and prophecies – on Russia, Ireland, the Middle East and even on the issue of German reparations and the blockade put in place by Balfour to force assent. Often he would swerve from a hard-line to a soft one, so that having banged away like Lloyd George in the election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, he then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, as did Lloyd George, in opposing the blockade. After all was said and done, the Great War was a war which Britain only just won, with the help of its empire but also that of the USA. There had been many defeats along the way, as Lloyd George himself noted: the prestige and authority of the British Empire were still intact, even if dented and damaged.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

Centenary:
Armistice & Aftermath, 1918

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Years of Transition – Britain, Europe & the World: 1989 – 1992.   1 comment

Heroes and Villains at Home and Abroad:

In the middle of all the heroic struggles for freedom in the world in 1989, the Westminster village ‘bubble’ witnessed an event which seemed anything but heroic. Thatcher had been challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer, an elderly ‘backbencher’, pro-European, who was seen as a ‘stalking horse’ for bigger beasts to enter the fray in a challenge to the Prime Minister. He was much mocked on the Conservative benches as ‘the stalking donkey’, In the 1989 leadership election on 5 December, Meyer was defeated by 314 votes to 33, yet the vote was ominous for Thatcher when it was discovered sixty Tory MPs had either voted for ‘the donkey’ or abstained. Meyer himself said that people started to think the unthinkable, while in the shadows, prowling through Conservative associations and the corridors of Westminster was a far more dangerous, wounded creature.

Michael Heseltine, who had walked out of the Tory cabinet four years earlier, was licking his wounds, recovering and ready to pounce. He showed sympathy towards Tory MPs, in trouble in their constituencies over the poll tax, but tried neither to lick his lips nor sharpen his claws too obviously in public. On 31 March 1990, the day before the poll tax was due to take effect in England and Wales, there was a massive demonstration against it which ended with a riot in Trafalgar Square (pictured below). Scaffolding was ripped apart and used to throw at the mounted police, cars were set on fire and shop windows were smashed. More than three hundred people were arrested and four hundred policemen were hurt.

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Thatcher dismissed the riots as mere wickedness, which of course they were. Yet beneath them, it was obvious that there was a growing swell of protest by the lower middle class, normally law-abiding voters who insisted that they simply could not and would not pay it. That was what shook her cabinet and her MPs, worried about their electoral prospects in 1992. One by one, the inner core of true Thatcherites peeled off from their leader. Her Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley, had to resign after being rude about the Germans in a magazine interview. John Major turned out to be worryingly pro-European after all. Ian Gow, one of her closest associates, was murdered by an IRA bomb at his home. As the Conservatives’ ratings slumped in the country, Tory MPs who had opposed the tax, including Michael Heseltine’s key organiser, Michael Mates, began to ask their colleagues whether it was not now time that she was removed from power.

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Abroad, great world events continued to overshadow the last days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. A few weeks after the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, the man whom Margaret Thatcher had once denounced as a terrorist, was released from gaol in South Africa to global acclaim. In April, Douglas Hurd, who had replaced Geoffrey Howe as the British Foreign Secretary, visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. The BBC’s John Simpson (pictured below) was among a group of journalists had assembled outside the Spassky Gate he Kremlin and as the bells sounded their strange falling peel on the hour they were ushered in by a side entrance.

Inside, there was little obvious security; for Simpson, the Kremlin in 1990 was a more relaxed place than the Palace of Westminster or the White House. However, a Kremlin official was watching and listening to them nervously. The doors were opened and they went into a room that was large and echoing, with Gorbachev and Hurd sitting with their translators in one corner of it, at a small table. Later, Hurd said that Gorbachev had been his usual enthusiastic and ebullient self, but to Simpson, he looked a good deal older and more tired than when he had seen him last in Belgrade, describing to the camera the problems he was having with the ‘regional problems’ in the Soviet Union. Only his eyes remained as intense and concentrated as they had then. He leaned across the table, holding Douglas Hurd’s gaze while their public compliments were translated. Simpson commented:

If the problems of coping with a collapsing empire were telling on him, they had not crushed him. The man who asked Margaret Thatcher at length in December 1984 about how Britain had divested herself of her colonies now had personal experience of the process. 

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At the time, Gorbachev had his problems with the demands of the Baltic States to leave the Soviet Union quickly and without face-saving negotiations. As the journalists grouped around the table where he and Douglas Hurd faced each other, Simpson caught the eye of Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet Foreign Minister, who was sitting next to Gorbachev:

I mouthed the word ‘Question’ to him and nodded towards Gorbachev. Shevardnadze shrugged and mouthed back the English word ‘Try’. But directly my colleagues and I began asking about Lithuania, Gorbachev smiled and shook his head. “I answered several hundred questions from the ‘Komosol’ this morning. That’s enough for me,” he said. The strain in his face seemed greater than ever. We were ushered out, and the double doors closed on him.

For John Simpson, the lesson of the winter of change in Central and Eastern Europe was that, no matter how hard the Communist Party tried to reform itself, the voters would punish it for the sins and failures of the past. That was what happened at the polls in Hungary later that spring, Imre Pozsgay had made multi-party democracy a possibility; his newly-formed Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) of ‘reformed’ communists received a tiny percentage of the vote. I observed the spirit of national renewal which seemed to sweep the centre-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to power under the leadership of József Antall, the first freely-elected Prime Minister for forty years. In East Germany, most people agreed that Hans Modrow, the former Communist prime minister, was the best and most respected candidate standing in the election; he and his fellow communists felt that it was a considerable achievement to have won sixteen per cent of the vote. By the first few months of 1990 the mood in the Soviet Union was such that if there had been an election there, Simpson sensed that the Communist Party would have been swept out of office. Realising this, Gorbachev insisted that his election as President of the Soviet Union should be carried out by the deputies of the People’s Congress, not by popular vote. When local elections were held in the spring, Communist candidates usually fared badly.

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Above: August 1990 – The Iraqi Army invades and annexes Kuwait.

On 2 August, however, the whole world was taken by surprise by events in the Middle East. John Simpson was on holiday in the south of France (I was on a delayed honeymoon on Jersey) when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, a small but oil-rich nation to the southern end of the region. Iraq was a Soviet ally, but it had also enjoyed the tacit support of both Britain and the US in its war with Iran and had secretly been provided with arms by them while it continued to torture and oppress both its Shi’ite and Kurdish minorities, as well as many dissidents. Within three hours of hearing the news on the radio, Simpson was on a plane back to London and two weeks later he was part of the first European television team to be allowed into Baghdad since the invasion. Negotiation had failed to dislodge the Iraqi forces and Thatcher had urged President George Bush to go into what became the Gulf War. An international coalition had been assembled. Simpson had decided that he wanted to report the war from the epicentre of the crisis, from Baghdad itself. He had left Iraq four months earlier, assuming that the authorities there would never have him back.

This was because he had become involved in the case of Farzad Bazoft, an Iranian journalist working for the Observer in Iraq. Between 1987 and 1989 the young Iranian had travelled to Iraq five times with nothing more substantial than British travel documents. The last time was in September 1989, and on the day he left London the news leaked out that a huge explosion had taken place at Iraqi government’s weapons manufacturing plant at Al Qa’qa sixty miles south of Baghdad. Committed to investigative journalism, Farzad Bazoft used his ‘considerable charm’ to persuade an attractive British nurse living in Baghdad, Daphne Parish, to drive him down there. He also asked an Iraqi minister and the information ministry for help to visit there and told the Observer over a heavily tapped phone line precisely what he was going to do. Farzad was picked up as he was leaving Baghdad airport at the end of his visit. In his luggage were some samples he had gathered from the roadside at Al Qa’qa; presumably, he wanted to have them analysed back in London to reveal what type of weapon had exploded there the previous month. He was tortured and eventually confessed to everything they wanted: in particular, to spying for the British and the Israelis. Daphne Parish refused to confess since she had not broken the law. When the Iraqi authorities put them together Farzad tried to persuade her to do as he had. It would, he said, mean that she would be released.

It didn’t of course; it just meant that the Iraqis had the grounds they wanted to execute Farzad Bazoft. At their trial, Farzad was sentenced to death and Parish to fifteen years. No one translated the sentence for them or told them what was going to happen. A British diplomat had to break the news to Farzad that he was to be hanged directly their meeting ended. Minutes later he was taken out and executed. Daphne Parish was released after ten difficult months in prison. Hanging Farzad Bazoft was Saddam Hussein’s first open defiance of the West. Mrs Thatcher had asked for his release, and called his action ‘an act of barbarism’. Those of us who had been campaigning on behalf of Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents who had fallen foul of such acts of imprisonment, torture and murder for the previous ten years, only to be told these were part of internecine conflict felt some vindication at last in these tragic circumstances. Had firm action, including effective sanctions, been taken against the Ba’athist régime been taken sooner, not only might Farzad and many others have been saved, but the whole sorry chapters of the wars in Iraq might have been unwritten. If the tabloid press in Britain hadn’t suddenly become hysterical about it, insulting the Iraqis, Farzad might, at least, have been spared the hangman’s noose.

All this had determined John Simpson to go to Baghdad himself to report the reality of Saddam’s reign of terror. Six weeks after Farzad’s death, he arrived there with a small team from the BBC and several other British journalists. There were daily demonstrations outside the British embassy complaining about the efforts which the British government was then belatedly making to stop weapons technology reaching Iraq. Simpson and his team were virtual prisoners in their hotel, and no one in the streets wanted to talk to them, knowing that such contacts with Western journalists were dangerous. The Ministry of Information decided to impound all of their video cassettes. Simpson had said something in a broadcast about the total surveillance under which they were working, which had upset their minders. Eamonn Matthews, the producer, decided to stay on to on for a few days to get them back and was picked up at the airport the following day exactly as Farzad had been. He was threatened, treated roughly, and kept a virtual prisoner overnight. When he walked into the Newsnight office in London his face showed signs of the stress he had been under. Simpson assumed he wouldn’t be let back into Iraq, and at that time, was not too upset about that.

When he changed his mind after the invasion of Kuwait in August, Saddam’s henchmen had already started taking British, European and American hostages. The risk seemed to be extremely high, but he couldn’t back away from it. The BBC didn’t like it, however, but he persuaded his bosses to let him see if he could get permission to return there in the first place. Since Britain had cut its diplomatic relations with Iraq after the execution of Farzad Bazoft, he had to apply for a visa in Paris. After receiving a ‘polite’ refusal from the Iraqi ambassador there, he processed through the Middle East reporting on the growing crisis and trying to find a way to get to Baghdad, with the producer and picture editor, Mike Davis. They started in Cairo, moved on to Jerusalem, and ended up in Amman, all without success in getting the visas. Just as he was about to leave for London, he heard that Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi foreign minister was coming to Amman to give a press conference. He asked a couple of questions during the course of it, then ‘doorstepped’ Aziz as he left:

“Would it be possible for the BBC to visit Baghdad?”

“Why not?” he said, as he climbed into his expensive limousine. This time, though, I had the faint sense that he meant it.

The following day the Iraqi embassy in London called. Our visas had come through. 

When Simpson and his crew finally arrived in Baghdad, the streets were silent and empty. People were terrified of what might happen and mostly stayed indoors with their families. On his first afternoon there, Saddam Hussein visited some of the British hostages from Kuwait, accompanied by Iraqi television cameras, and stroked the hair of a young English boy as he talked to the parents. In an Arab context, there was nothing wrong with that, but back in Britain, the pictures set everyone’s teeth on edge. John Simpson was still meeting officials when the pictures were broadcast, and in between handshakes he tried to make out what was happening on the screen in the corner of the ministerial office. He asked if the hostages were going to be released, but the officials were vague and unwilling to commit themselves. They later discovered what Saddam had said during his meeting with the British family was that women and children taken hostage in Kuwait would be able to leave. They were brought up by coach to Baghdad and flown out from there. Many of the women behaved superbly, as Simpson reported. They smiled and kept calm while the Iraqi cameramen sweated and shoved them around. They talked in terms of quiet endearment about husbands and sons they had been forced to leave behind, and whose fate was completely uncertain. Many had no homes to go to in Britain, and no idea about where their future income would come from, or what it would be. Yet they spoke of returning to Britain’s green and pleasant lands and…

… to nice cups of tea … as if nothing had changed since the Blitz. They fought back the tears for the sake of their children, and busied themselves with their luggage so that the cameras couldn’t pry into their emotions.

Others complained. Their meals were cold, they couldn’t use the swimming pool in the luxurious hotel which the Iraqis had set aside for them in Baghdad, the journey from Kuwait had taken too long. …

Many complained that the Foreign Office or the British embassy had failed to help them enough, and seemed to feel it was all the  Government’s fault, as though Saddam Hussein were an act of God like drought or flooding, and Mrs Thatcher should do something about it.

“I don’t see why we should suffer because of her and President Bush,” said one affronted woman.

Another agreed. “If she’s going to call Saddam a dictator, why didn’t she wait till we were safely out of Kuwait?”

The British tabloid press lapped all this up, of course. They weren’t allowed into Iraq, so they interviewed the women as they came through Amman. Journey Through Hell was the way one headline described the trip by air-conditioned coach from Baghdad; Burning desert, torturing thirst, fiends, evil, sobbing loved ones, anguish: the newspaper hack’s thesaurus was in constant use. When he went back to London for a short break, the first ‘poster’ he saw declared Thatcher Warns Evil Saddam. As John Simpson commented,…

When the newspapers put a compulsory ‘evil’ in front of someone’s name, you know there’s a particular need for coolness and rationality. And to prove the superiority of our civilization over Saddam’s, someone threw a brick through the window of the Iraqi Cultural Centre in Tottenham Court Road.

Simpson returned to Baghdad after a week or so, staying there from September to November 1990. There were some ‘peace tourists’ there too; well-intentioned people who hoped to prevent the war by join the Iraqi protests in Baghdad or try a bit of freelance negotiation. Others had come to plead for the release of their fellow citizens whom Saddam Hussein was holding hostage. As far as the foreign press and media were concerned, a government which had been so paranoid about them a few months earlier now invited them to Baghdad in such large numbers that the pool of English-speaking Iraqi ‘spooks’ was drained by the effort of following them around. By the autumn, there were well over a hundred journalists from the main western countries, and the main international news organisations. The man who had invited them, the chief civil servant in the Information ministry, Najji al-Haddithi, spoke fluent English and had managed to persuade his minister to approach Saddam Hussein with a plan: that Iraq should now regard Western journalists as useful in its own propaganda campaign. As a result, the régime gradually opened its doors to every major British broadsheet newspaper and every major American, Canadian, Japanese and European news organisation, which each had its own representative in Baghdad.

Simpson was allowed to stay the longest because he got on well with Najji al-Hadithi, who liked Britain and the British and had a British sense of humour. In reciprocation, and as he got to know both officials and private citizens, Simpson grew to love Iraq and to sympathise with it too. At a private dinner party in October, he asked al-Hadithi why he allowed so many foreign journalists to come to Baghdad when, only a few months before, the Iraqi government had kept the doors so firmly shut. The chief civil servant answered him,

Because we want you to see that we are human beings like yourselves. So that your readers and viewers will see it. So that if, God forbid, President Bush decides to bomb us, you will know what you are bombing. You are a form of protection for us.

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In the Gulf War, US marines arrive at Khabji, Saudi Arabia, to reinforce the front line.

In all his six months in the country, however, John Simpson had not managed to meet Saddam Hussein himself. In November 1990, just as he was about to arrange the details of their meeting, he found himself suddenly unable to get in touch with the officials, including al-Hadithi. He knew that this was because of Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to let anyone edit his words. Simpson had warned the officials that the BBC would not be able to run ninety minutes of the president uncut, that this was something that would not be allowed to any British politician, even to the Prime Minister herself. The Iraqis resolved this stand-off by offering the interview to Independent Television News instead, who said yes at once. Simpson was furious and decided to go back to London: he was also tired, after ten weeks in Baghdad without a break. More to the point, when the news came through of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation, he decided he wanted to cover the campaign for the succession.

Saint Margaret – Down and Out in Paris and London:

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The final act in Margaret Thatcher’s near-eleven-year premiership had begun on the European continent earlier that autumn, which was also where it was to end at the end of that remarkable season in British politics. There was another summit in Rome and further pressure on the Delors plan. Again, Thatcher felt herself being pushed and dragged towards a federal scheme for Europe. She vented her anger in the Commons, shredding the proposals with the words, ‘No! … No! … No!’ After observing her flaming anti-Brussels tirade, Geoffrey Howe decided, that he had had enough. The former Chancellor and Foreign Secretary had already been demoted by Thatcher to being ‘Leader of the House’. Serving in the two great offices of state, and now Deputy Prime-Minister, a face-saving but significant status, he had endured a decade of her slights and snarls, her impatience and mockery. He would finally leave the government, joining Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson on the ‘back benches’ of the Commons but, like them, he would leave on his own terms.

Howe resigned on 1 November, but it was not until a fortnight later, on 13 November 1990, that he stood up from the back benches to make a famous resignation statement which was designed to answer Number Ten’s narrative that he had gone over nothing much at all. Howe had written a carefully worded letter of resignation in which he criticised the Prime Minister’s overall handling of UK relations with the European Community. After largely successful attempts by Number Ten to claim that there were differences only of style, rather than substance, in Howe’s disagreement with Thatcher on Europe, Howe, therefore, chose to send a powerful message of dissent. To a packed chamber, he revealed that Lawson and he had threatened to resign together the previous year at the summit in Madrid. He attacked Thatcher for running increasingly serious risks for the future of the country and criticised her for undermining the policies on EMU proposed by her own Chancellor and Governor of the Bank of England. He also accused her of sending her ministers to negotiate in Brussels without the means to do so. He used a rather strange cricketing simile about captains and broken bats, which would have meant something to most MPs, but very little to those listening on the other side of the channel concerned with British negotiations on EMU in Europe:

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It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.

Curiously and perhaps ironically, it is this part of his statement which is best remembered and most replayed. However, his dispute with Thatcher was over matters of substance more than ones of style; this was no game, not even one of cricket. He was advocating a move back towards a more centrist position on constitutional and administrative issues, such as taxation and European integration.

Geoffrey Howe (pictured more recently, above right) represented a kind of moderate ‘Whiggery’ in the party, being educated, lawyerly, and diligent; while direct, he was conciliatory and collegiate in style. He calmly ended his speech with an appeal to his remaining cabinet colleagues:

The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.

Television cameras had just been allowed into the Commons so that, across the country as well as across the channel, via satellite channels, people could watch Howe, with Nigel Lawson nodding beside him, Michael Heseltine’s icy-calm demeanour and the white-faced reaction of the Prime Minister herself. The next day Heseltine announced that he would stand against her for the party leadership. She told The Times that he was a socialist at heart, someone whose philosophy at its extreme end had just been defeated in the USSR. She would defeat him. But the balloting system for a leadership contest meant that she would not just have to get a majority of votes among Tory MPs, but that she had to get a clear margin of fifteen per cent in total votes cast. At a summit in Paris, she found that she had failed to clear the second hurdle by just four votes. There would be a second ballot and she announced to a surprised John Sargent of the BBC, waiting at the bottom of the steps outside the summit, that she would fight on. It was a pure pantomime moment, seen live on TV, with viewers shouting “she’s behind you” at their TV sets as she came down the steps behind him. Then she went back up the steps to rejoin the other leaders at the ballet. While she watched the dancing in front of her, Tory MPs were dancing through Westminster either in rage or delight. Her support softened as the night went on, with many key Thatcherites believing she was finished and that Heseltine would beat her in the second ballot, tearing the party in two. It would be better for her to withdraw and let someone else fight him off.

Had she been in London throughout the crisis and able to summon her cabinet together to back her, she might have survived. But by the time she got back, even Maggie couldn’t pull it off. She decided to see her ministers one-by-one in her Commons office. Douglas Hurd and John Major had already given her their reluctant agreement to nominate her for the second round, but the message from most of her ministers was surprisingly uniform. They would give her their personal backing if she was determined to fight on but felt that she would lose to Heseltine. In reality, of course, she had lost them, but none of them wanted to join Heseltine in posterity as a co-assassin. Her MPs were too scared of the electoral vengeance to be wreaked after the poll tax. Only a few on the ultra-right, mostly outside the cabinet, were sincerely urging her to continue the struggle. One of them was Alan Clark, the diarist, who told her to fight on at all costs. She later commented, …

Unfortunately, he went on to argue that… it was better to go down in a blaze of glorious defeat than to go gentle into that good night. Since I had no particular fondness for Wagnerian endings, this lifted my spirits only briefly.

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She returned to Downing Street, where she announced to her cabinet secretary at 7.30 the next morning that she had decided to resign. She held an uncomfortable cabinet meeting with those she believed to have betrayed her, saw the Queen, phoned other world leaders and then finished with one final Commons performance, vigorously defending her record. When she left Downing Street for the last time, in tears, she already knew that she was replaced as Prime Minister by John Major rather than Michael Heseltine. She had rallied support by phone for him among her closest supporters, who had felt that he had not quite been supportive enough. Unlike in the first ballot, a candidate only required a simple majority of Conservative MPs to win, in this case, 186  out of 372 MPs. The ballot was held on the afternoon of 27 November; although Major fell two votes short of the required winning total, he polled far enough ahead of both Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine to secure immediate concessions from both of them. With no remaining challengers, Major was formally named Leader of the Conservative Party that evening and was duly appointed Prime Minister the following day. Although Thatcher herself had her private doubts about him, the public transition was complete, and the most nation-changing premiership of modern British history was at its end. Andrew Marr has conveyed something of the drama of this ‘final act’ in her political career:

She had conducted her premiership with a sense of vivid and immediate self-dramatisation, the heroine of peace and war, figthing pitched battles in coalfields and on the streets, word-punching her way through triumphal conferences, haranguing rival leaders, always with a sense that history was being freshly minted, day by day. This is why so many insults levelled at her tended to twist into unintended compliments – ‘the Iron lady’, ‘She who must be obeyed’, ‘the Blessed Margaret’ and even ‘the Great She-Elephant’… She had no sense of her own limits. The world was made anew. Her fall lived up in every way to her record. When a great leader topples, poetry requires that her personal failings bring her down. The story insists that it must be more than… weariness or age. And this story’s ending lives up to its earlier scenes.  

Major (minor), Return to Baghdad & the Magic Moment in Maastricht:

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John Major’s seven years in office make him the third longest-serving peacetime prime minister of modern times, behind Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, but he often gets overlooked, probably because he came in the middle of what is increasingly referred to as the Thatcher-Blair era in British politics. To Mrs Thatcher and others in the cabinet and Commons, he appeared to be a bland, friendly, loyal Thatcherite. He was elected because of who he was not, not a posh, old-school Tory like Douglas Hurd, nor a rich, charismatic charmer like Michael Heseltine. His father was a music-hall ‘artiste’ with a long stage career, Tom Ball: ‘Major’ was his stage name. When John Major was born, his father was already an old man, pursuing a second career as a maker of garden ornaments. He lost everything in a business deal that went wrong and the family had to move from their comfortable suburban house into a crowded flat in Brixton.

John Major-Ball was sent to grammar school, but was a poor student and left at sixteen. He worked as a clerk, made garden gnomes with his brother, looked after his mother and endured a ‘degrading’ period of unemployment before eventually pursuing a career as a banker and becoming a Conservative councillor. His politics were formed by his experiences of the inner-city and he was on the anti-Powellite, moderate wing of the party. He was selected for the Cambridgeshire seat of Huntingdon and entered Parliament in 1979, in the election which brought Thatcher to power. After the 1987 election, Thatcher promoted him to the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, from where he became Foreign Secretary and then Chancellor. To everyone outside the Tory Party, Major was a blank canvas. At forty-seven, he was the youngest Prime Minister of the century and the least known, certainly in the post-war period. The Conservatives were content with this choice, having grown tired of amateur dramatics. He was seen by many as the bloke from next door who would lead them towards easier times. He talked of building a society of opportunity and compassion, and for privileges once available to ‘the few’ to be spread to ‘the many’. But he had little time to plan his own agenda. There were innumerable crises to be dealt with. He quickly killed off the poll tax and replaced it with a new council tax, which bore a striking resemblance to the ‘banded’ system previously proposed as an alternative.

One of the first things that John Major did as PM was to meet the elder President Bush and promise him full support through the Gulf War. When John Simpson returned to Baghdad in mid-December 1990, the atmosphere had changed as war loomed. Mr Hattem, the BBC’s driver, was much more subservient to their minders, and wouldn’t take the crew anywhere without consulting them. Once they missed an entire story as a result. Saddam Hussein had ordered the release of all the foreign hostages, a decision of considerable importance to the Coalition forces headed by the United States; public opinion at home would have been much more reluctant to support the air war if it had seemed likely that ordinary Americans, Britons and other Europeans would be killed by the bombs and missiles. The man who persuaded Saddam Hussein to give up one of his best cards in an otherwise rather empty hand was Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. According to Simpson, contrary to some Western stereotypes of him, he was always instinctively a man of peace and compromise. Apparently, he told Saddam that if he let the hostages go, this would weaken the moral argument of the US. It turned out to be a tactical mistake, of course, but Arafat had assumed that Saddam had been genuine when, early on in the crisis, he had offered to withdraw from Kuwait if Israel agreed to pull out of the West Bank. He had publicly come out in support of Iraq and had settled in Baghdad for the duration of the crisis. In an interview just before Christmas, he told Simpson that he was certain there would be no war:

YA: “… I can tell you that there will be not be a war. I promise it: you will see. Something will happen: there will be an agreement. You must not think that President Bush is so foolish. You must not think that the Arab brothers are so foolish. War is a terrible thing. Nobody wants it. President Bush will compromise.

At that stage, it looked as if Arafat might well be right about a deal being made. Bush was starting to talk about going the extra mile for peace, and the Iraqi press was announcing a major diplomatic victory for Saddam Hussein. As for the threat of terrorist attacks from Palestinian extremists elsewhere in the Middle East, the PLO had far more control over them in those days, and Arafat had shown that he could be ferocious in curbing it if he chose to do so. By the third week in December, Simpson was getting discreet visits from a very senior figure in the Iraqi régime, whom he nicknamed ‘Bertie’ and who persuaded him that he should go public on Saddam Hussein’s determination not to withdraw from Kuwait before the deadline imposed by the United Nations. Like the US and UK governments, Simpson was inclined to think that Iraq would pull back at the last-minute. ‘Bertie’ was absolutely certain that this wouldn’t happen, and he was right. This was what Simpson told BBC Radio 4 over their line from London about Saddam’s intentions, on 2 January 1991:

‘People who have seen him in the past day or so have told me that he is determined to stand and fight. He told one visiter that if he pulled his forces back now, there would be an uprising against him in the army and he might not be able to cope with it. It feels it’s essential to his own survival in power to face a war: he’ll certainly do it.

Simpson continued to press the same line even when James Baker, the US Secretary of State was due to meet the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, in Geneva, and ITN reported that Aziz was bringing with him an offer of conditional withdrawal. In the event, he brought no such thing, and the meeting broke up without any possibility of a diplomatic settlement. On 13 January, ‘Bertie’ told him that Saddam had said that Iraq would only have to face two waves of air-strikes and that Baghdad would be so destroyed and loss of life would be so great that international opinion would force the US, UK and France to stop, resulting in a diplomatic victory for him. Asked by Simpson whether Saddam himself might be killed in the strikes, ‘Bertie’ said that Saddam’s ‘bunker’ was impenetrable and that he will survive, even if tens of thousands die. On 11 January, they discovered exactly where the bunker was. Saddam Hussein was due to appear at an international Islamic conference at the government centre immediately opposite the Al-Rashid Hotel, where Simpson and the BBC crew were staying, along with many other international film crews and newspaper journalists. They had stationed camera crews at every entrance to the conference centre, in the hope of getting something more than the usual official pictures of the Iraqi president. Simpson himself sat in the hotel, watching the live coverage of the event on Iraqi television:

On cue the great man appeared on stage, holding out his arm in the affected way which is his trade-mark, while the audience went wild. I looked forward to the pictures the camera crews must be getting. But when they came back, each of them said that Saddam hadn’t come past him. That convinced me. We had long heard rumours that his command complex was based under our hotel: this indicated that there were underground roads and passages from the complex to enable him to reach the various important government buildings in the area. … So there we were, living and working a hundred feet or so above Saddam Hussein’s head. We were his protection. And if he knew it, the Coalition forces did as well: the European company which had built much of the bunker had handed over all the blueprints to them. The outlook wasn’t good. The American embassy in Baghdad, before it closed down, had warned everyone who stayed that they could expect to be killed in the bombing. President Bush himself had phoned the editors of the big American organisations represented in Baghdad and begged them to pull out. … the big organisations (with the exception of CNN) obliged.

I have written elsewhere about John Simpson’s own motives for staying and his experiences and accounts of the bombing of the city which began less than a week later, on 17 January, before the BBC crew were forced to leave. Suffice it here to quote from his interview some months later (10.5.91) with Sue Lawley, the then presenter of the popular and long-running BBC Radio programme, Desert Island Discs:

SL: But these things – I mean, it’s not really enough to risk your life to write a book, is it?

(Pause)

JS: I suppose it’s just that I’m a bit of a ‘chancer’, that’s all.

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The Gulf War was the first major conflict since the Second World War in which it was essential for the multi-national allied forces not to have large-scale casualties. It ended when President Bush began to get nervous about the pictures of death and destruction which were coming in from the desert. Public opinion in the United States did not want another Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia, with large-scale carpet-bombing of civilian populations, pictures of massacres and of American GIs being flown home in body bags. In Britain too, people wanted a limited war fought to expel the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but they didn’t want a huge body-count. They didn’t get one either, though there were some significant losses among the British forces. The Gulf War achieved its limited objectives, freeing Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and resulting in the immolation the Iraqi army’s Republican Guard. It generated nothing like the controversy of the later Iraq War. It was widely seen as a necessary act of international retribution against a particularly horrible dictator. The bigger problem for the country itself was the quarter of a million deaths which occurred after the war, caused by UN Sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s reaction to them, especially his vengeful acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country.

After the controversies and alarms of the Thatcher years, foreign affairs generated less heat, except for the great issue of European federalism. John Major had to turn straight away to confront Jacques Delors’ agenda, which was threatening to divide the Tory Party. If ever a place was well-chosen for debating the end of a Europe of independent nation-states, it was Maastricht in Holland, nestled so close to the German and Belgian borders it is almost nationless. Here the great showdown of the winter of 1991 took place. A new treaty was to be agreed and it was one which made the federal project even more explicit. There was to be fast progress to a single currency. Much of the foreign policy, defence policy and home affairs were to come under the ultimate authority of the EU. A ‘social chapter’ would oblige Britain to accept the more expensive work guarantees of the continent and surrender some of the trade union reforms brought in under Thatcher. For a country with a weak industrial base whose economy partly depended on undercutting her continental rivals, all this would be grave. For a Conservative Party which had applauded Lady Thatcher’s defiant Bruges speech, it was almost a declaration of war, in which Europe’s ‘federal’ destiny had been made more explicit.

John Major was trying to be practical. He refused to rule out the possibility of a single currency for all time, believing it would probably happen one day since it had obvious business and trading advantages. But now was too soon, partly because it would make life harder for the central European countries being freed from communism to join the EU. In his memoirs, he protests that he was accused of dithering, procrastination, lacking leadership and conviction. Yet at Maastricht, he managed, during genuinely tense negotiations, to keep Britain out of most of what was being demanded of the member states. He and his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, negotiated a special British opt-out from monetary union and managed to have the social chapter excluded from the treaty altogether. Major kept haggling late and on every detail, wearing out his fellow leaders with more politeness but as much determination as Thatcher ever had.  For a man with a weak hand, under fire from his own side at home, it was quite a feat. Major returned to plaudits in the newspapers using the remark of an aide that it was ‘game, set and match’ to Britain.

Briefly, Major was a hero. He described his reception by the Tory Party in the Commons as the modern equivalent of a Roman triumph, quite something for the boy from Brixton. Soon after this, he called the election most observers thought he must lose. The most immediate worries had been economic, as the hangover caused by the Lawson boom began to throb. Inflation rose towards double figures, interest rates were at fourteen per cent and unemployment was heading towards two million again. Moreover, a serious white-collar recession was beginning to hit Britain, particularly the south, where house prices would fall by a quarter. An estimated 1.8 million people found that their homes were worth less than the money they had borrowed to buy them in the eighties when credit had been easy to obtain. Now they were in what became known as ‘negative equity’ and were often unable to sell their properties. During 1991 alone, more than seventy-five thousand families had their homes repossessed. The economy was so badly awry, the pain of the poll tax so fresh, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party now so efficiently organised, that the Tory years seemed sure to be ending. Things turned out differently. Lamont’s pre-election had helped since it proposed to cut the bottom rate of income tax by five pence in the pound, which would help people on lower incomes, badly wrong-footing Labour.

With a party as full of anger and resentment as the Conservative Party behind him, he had little chance of succeeding as prime minister.  He was a throwback to an older kind of conservatism, middle-of-the-road, not too noisy, lacking in any particular conviction except that the Conservative Party was the natural governing party of Britain. The country had indeed been governed by Conservatives like Major for most of the twentieth century, and people were slow to understand how ideological the party had become under Thatcher. John Major shared none of her deepest views. He gambled that even if the backbenchers discovered his lack of right-wing conviction, the voters of Britain who traditionally dislike extremism and ideology would give him their backing. In the eyes of the British press, Major was the council-school boy, the anorak, the ‘swot’, who had ended up in Whitehall. He seemed to fit into a recognisable niche within the dreary, peculiarly English system of snobbery and was looked down on accordingly. In addition, many in the Conservative Party resented the fact that Mrs Thatcher had been overthrown, and would have taken it out on anyone who succeeded her.

Major lacked her convictions, certainly. For the many, this was a relief. These convictions, brandished like sticks, were what made her so unpopular in the country as a whole; and if she had led the party into the 1992 election she would have lost it. No one would have blamed Major if he had led the Tories to defeat in the 1992 election, which he called for April.

(to be continued…)

 

Britain and the World, 1984-89: From local difficulties to global conflicts.   Leave a comment

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The ‘Iron Lady’ at the peak of her powers, with tank and flag, in 1986.

The Brighton Bombing:

During the 1984 Conservative Conference, an IRA bomb partly demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, almost killing the Prime Minister and a number of her cabinet. The action was intended as a response to Mrs Thatcher’s hard-line at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike at the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. The plot had been to assassinate her and the whole of the cabinet in order to plunge the country into political chaos, resulting in withdrawal from Northern Ireland. When the bomb went off at 2.50 a.m., Margaret Thatcher was working on official papers, having just finished her conference speech. The blast scattered broken glass on her bedroom carpet and filled her mouth with dust. She soon learned that the bomb had killed the wife of cabinet minister John Wakeham, he himself narrowly escaping; killed the Tory MP Anthony Berry and had badly injured Norman Tebbit, paralysing his wife. After less than an hour’s fitful sleep, she rewrote her speech and told the stunned conference that they had witnessed an attempt to cripple the government, commenting that…

… the fact that we are gathered here now, shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.

The final death toll from Brighton was five dead and several more seriously injured, but its consequences for British politics, which could have been momentous, turned out to be minimal. If the IRA could not shake her, could anything else?

The Gorbachevs in London:

In November 1984, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived at the VIP terminal at Heathrow airport, together with his wife, Raisa. The British had spotted him first, in the summer of that year, if not earlier. He was a lawyer by training, which he had done at the end of the Stalin period. So, while he accepted there were rules to be obeyed, he also knew that they were only really there to be bent. He and Raisa did a great deal in their few days in London, but they did not perform the obligatory ceremony of laying a wreath on Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery. Instead, they paid impromptu visits to Westminster Abbey and Number Ten Downing Street. The Foreign Office arranged a formal lunch for the Gorbachev at Hampton Court Palace, to which they invited a couple of hundred worthies, including BBC journalist John Simpson. He was seated next to a man from Moscow who was to become Gorbachev’s most senior advisors. Simpson asked him whether Gorbachev would really be able to make a difference to the Soviet Union. The Russian replied:

“He will have to,” he said. I noticed he didn’t trouble to question my assumption that Gorbachev would get the top job.

“Why?”

“Because a great deal has to be done. Much, much, more, I think, than you in the West realize.”

The Thatcher Revolution at Home – “Don’t tell Sid!”:

If Labour had been accused of creating a giant state sector whose employees depended on high public spending and could, therefore, be expected to become loyal Labour voting-fodder, then the Tories were intent on creating a property-owning democracy. The despair of Labour politicians as they watched it working was obvious. By the end of the 1980s, there was a large and immovable private sector in Britain of share-owners and home-owners, probably working in private companies, SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and increasingly un-unionised. The proportion of adults holding shares rose from seven per cent to twenty-five per cent during Thatcher’s years in power. Thanks to the ‘right to buy’ policy for council tenants, more than a million families purchased the hoses they lived in, repainting and refurbishing them and then watching their value shoot up, particularly as they had been sold them at a discount of between a third and a half of market value. The proportion of owner-occupied homes rose from fifty-five per cent in 1979 to sixty-seven per cent in 1989. In real terms, total personal wealth rose by eighty per cent in the eighties.

Looking below the surface, however, the story becomes more complex. Of the huge rise in wealth, relatively little was accounted for by shares. The increase in earnings and the house-price boom were much more important. The boom in shareholdings was fuelled by the British love of a bargain than by any deeper change in the culture. There was always a potential conflict between the government’s need to raise revenue and it hopes of spreading share ownership. In the early eighties, ministers erred on the side of the latter. The breakthrough privatization was that of fifty-two per cent of British Telecom in November 1984, which raised an unprecedented 3.9 billion. It was the first to be accompanied by a ‘ballyhoo’ of television and press advertising and was easily oversubscribed. In the event, two million people, or five per cent of the adult population bought ‘BT’ shares, almost doubling the total number of shareholders in a single day. After this came British Gas, as natural gas fields had been supplying Britain from the North Sea since the late sixties, pumping ashore at Yarmouth and Hull, replacing the coal-produced system. With its national pipe network and showrooms, natural gas had become the country’s favourite source of domestic energy and was, therefore, a straightforward monopoly. The government prepared for the sale with another TV campaign featuring a fictitious neighbour who had to be kept in the ‘dark’ about the bargain sale – “Don’t tell Sid!” This raised 5.4 billion, the biggest single privatization.

With the equally bargain-price shares offered to members of building societies when they de-mutualised and turned into banks, Britain developed a class of one-off shareholders, ‘kitchen capitalists’. They soon sold off their shares at a profit, few of them developing into long-term stock market investors, as had been hoped. Those who kept their shares did not go on to buy more, and rarely traded the ones they had acquired as a result of the privatizations, demutualisations and former employment options. The long-term failure to nurture a deeply rooted shareholding democracy has added to the contemporary criticism that public assets were being sold off too cheaply. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson later admitted that wider share ownership was an important policy objective and we were prepared to pay a price for it. The failure, ultimately, to achieve that objective showed that there were limits to the Thatcher Revolution. The most successful privatizations were the ones where the company was pushed into full competition, as with British Airways, Rolls-Royce and British Aerospace. The utilities – gas, electricity, water – were always different, because they were natural monopolies. Yet without competition, where would the efficiency gains come from? This question was left as a rhetorical one, unanswered until decades later. The water and electricity companies were split up in order to create regional monopolies, with power generation split into two mega-companies, National Power and Powergen. In reality, few people outside the ‘Westminster village’ cared who owned the companies they depended on, so long as the service was acceptable. Britain was becoming a far less ideological country and a more aggressively consumerist one.

Heseltine and the Helicopters:

In the winter of 1984-85, the great Westland Helicopter crisis that broke over the Thatcher government was a battle between ministers about whether a European consortium of aerospace manufacturers or and American defence company, working with an Italian firm should take over a struggling West Country helicopter maker. While this was a government that claimed to refuse to micro-manage industry, yet the fight about the future of the Yeovil manufacturer cost two cabinet ministers’ jobs and pitted Thatcher against the only other member of her cabinet with real charisma, Nigel Heseltine. The small storm of Westland gave early notice of the weaknesses that would eventually destroy the Thatcher government, though not for another five years.

One weakness was the divide throughout the Tory Party over Britain’s place in the world. By the 1980s, helicopters were no longer a marginal defence issue. They would become crucial to Britain’s capabilities, the new army mule for hauling artillery over mountains and across stretches of water. United Technologies, the US company whose Sikorsky subsidiary built the Black Hawk helicopter, wanted to gain control over part of Britain’s defence industry. Alexander Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State who had been so helpful to Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands Campaign was now back at his old company and ‘called in his markers’ for the American bid. Adopting a position of outward neutrality would probably have favoured it anyway as a further strengthening of the Special Relationship between the UK and the US. But on the other side, supporting the European consortium, were those who felt that the EC had to be able to stand alone in defence technology. Michael Heseltine and his business allies thought this was vital to protect jobs in the cutting-edge science-based industries. The US must not be allowed to dictate prices and terms to Europe. So the conflict was concerned with whether Britain stood first with the US or with the EC. It was a question which would continue to grow in importance throughout the eighties until, in the nineties, it tore the Conservatives apart.

The second weakness exposed by the Westland Affair was the Thatcher style of government, which was more presidential and more disdainful of the role of cabinet ministers than any previous government. The Prime Minister was conducting more and more business in small committees or bilaterally, with one minister at a time, ensuring her near absolute predominance. She gathered a small clique of trusted advisors around her. Just before her fall, Nigel Lawson concluded that she was taking her personal economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, more seriously than she was taking him, her next door neighbour in No 11, her Chancellor of the Exchequer. She used her beloved press officer, Bernard Ingham to cut down to size any ministers she had fallen out with, briefing against them and using the anonymous lobby system for Westminster journalists to spread the message.  In his memoirs, Ingham angrily defends himself against accusations of the improper briefing of the press, yet there are too many witnesses who found the Thatcher style more like that of the court of Elizabeth Tudor than that of a traditional cabinet, a place which demanded absolute loyalty and was infested with sycophantic favourites. In the mid-eighties, this was a new way of doing the business of government and to ministers on the receiving end, it was freshly humiliating.

But if there was one minister unlikely to take such treatment for long, it was Michael Heseltine (pictured below at a Conservative Party Conference). He was the only serious rival to Thatcher as the ‘darling of the party’ and media star, handsome, glamorous, rich and an excellent public speaker. He was said by his friend, fellow Tory MP and biographer, Julian Critchley, to have mapped out his future career on the back of an envelope, while still a student at Oxford, decade by decade, running through making his fortune, marrying well, entering Parliament and then, 1990s, Prime Minister. Though Heseltine commented that he could not remember doing this, it was in character. As a young man, he had flung himself into the characteristic sixties businesses of property investment and magazine publishing. A passionate anti-socialist, he had won a reputation for hot-headedness since once picking up the Mace, the symbol of Parliamentary authority, during a Commons debate about steel nationalization, and waving it at the Labour benches in such a violent manner as to earn himself the nickname ‘Tarzan’. His speeches to Tory Party conferences were full of blond hair-tossing, hilarious invective and dramatic gestures. In her memoirs, Thatcher portrayed Heseltine as a vain, ambitious man who flouted cabinet responsibility. The Westland crisis was, in her view, simply about his psychological flaws. However, they agreed about much, but was a more committed anti-racialist than she was and more deeply in favour of the EC, and she always regarded him as a serious and dangerous rival.

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The two bigger beasts of the Tory Party in the eighties went to war on behalf of the two rival bidders for Westland. She was livid that he was using his position as Defence Secretary to warn the company’s shareholders about the dangers of going with the Americans, potentially shutting out European business. She thought he was tipping the scales against Sikorsky, despite Westland’s preference for them. Certainly, Heseltine repeatedly made it clear that the Ministry of Defence would not be buying their Black Hawk helicopter and did much to rally the European consortium. Thatcher, meanwhile, was deploying the public line that she was only interested in what was best for the shareholders while trying to make sure the Americans were kept in the race, ahead of the Europeans. Eventually, she sought advice from the government law officers about whether Heseltine had been behaving properly. A private reply was leaked in order to weaken his case. Furious about this wholly inappropriate act which he suspected was the responsibility of Thatcher and Ingham, Heseltine demanded a full inquiry. During a meeting of the cabinet, she counter-attacked, trying to rein him in by ordering that all future statements on Westland must be cleared first by Number Ten. Hearing this attempt to gag him, Heseltine calmly got up from the cabinet table, announced that he must leave the government, walked into the street and told a solitary reporter that he had just resigned.

The question of exactly who had leaked the Attorney General’s legal advice in a misleadingly selective way to scupper the European bid then became critical. The leaking of private advice broke the rules of Whitehall confidentiality, fairness and collective government. The instrument of the leak was a comparatively junior civil servant to the Trade Secretary, Leon Brittan. But it was unclear as to who had told Colette Brown to do this, though many assumed it was her boss, Bernard Ingham. He denied it, and Mrs Thatcher also denied any knowledge of the leak. After dramatic Commons exchanges during which she was accused of lying to the House, she pulled through, while Leon Brittan was made a scapegoat. Some of Thatcher’s greatest business supporters such as Rupert Murdoch then weighed in on the side of the American bid. Eventually, amid accusations of arm-twisting and dirty tricks, the company went to Sikorsky and the storm subsided. But it had revealed the costs of the Thatcher style of government. Getting the better of foreign dictators and militant trade union leaders was one thing, but behaving the same way with senior members of the cabinet and the Tory Party was quite another. Heseltine wrote later:

I saw many good people broken by the Downing Street machine. I had observed the techniques of character assassination; the drip, drip, drip, of carefully planted, unattributable stories that were fed into the public domain, as colleagues became marked as somehow “semi-detached” or “not one of us”.

‘Shadowing’ the Deutschmark & ‘Diva’ Diplomacy:

There were also debates and rows about economic policy in relation to the EC. The Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, wanted to replace the old, rather wobbly system of controlling the money supply targets, the Medium Term Financial Strategy, with a new stratagem – tying the pound to the German mark in the European Exchange Rate System (ERM). This was an admission of failure; the older system of measuring money was useless and in the world of global fast money. Linking the pound to the Deutschmark was an alternative, with Britain subcontracting her anti-inflation policy to the more successful and harder-faced disciplinarians of the West German Central Bank. Lawson was keen on this alternative ‘shadowing’ method; in effect, he was looking for somewhere firm to plant down policy in the context of the new global financial free-for-all. Thatcher disagreed, arguing that currencies should be allowed to float freely, but at the time little of this debate was known beyond the specialist financial world.

Other ‘Europe’- related debates were conducted more openly in general political life. The mid-eighties were years of Thatcherite drift over Europe. Jacques Delors, later her great enemy as President of the European Commission, had begun his grand plan for the next stages of ‘the union’. Thatcher knew that the ERM was intended one day to lead to a single European currency, part of Delors’ plan for a freshly buttressed European state. Lawson ignored her objections and shadowed the Deutschmark anyway. But when the cost of her Chancellor’s policy became excessive, she ordered him to stop which, under protest, he did. However, the Single European Act, which smashed down thousands of national laws preventing free trade inside the EC, promised free movement of goods, capital, services and people, and presaging the single currency, was passed with her enthusiastic support. She rejected the sceptics’ view that when the continental leadership talked of an economic and political union, they really meant it.

Back in the mid-eighties, personal relationships mattered as much in modern diplomacy as they had in Renaissance courts, and the Thatcher-Gorbachev courtship engaged her imagination and human interest. She was becoming the closest ally of Ronald Reagan, in another international relationship which was of huge emotional and political significance to her. In these years she became an ‘international diva’ of conservative politics, feted by crowds from Russia and China to New York. Her wardrobe, coded depending on where an outfit had been first worn, told its own story: Paris Opera, Washington Pink, Reagan Navy, Toronto Turquoise, Tokyo Blue, Kremlin Silver, Peking Black. Meanwhile, she was negotiating the hard detail of Hong Kong’s transitional status before it was handed over to Communist China in 1997. She got a torrid time at Commonwealth conferences for her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid régime in South Africa. At home, the problem of persistently high unemployment was nagging away, though it started to fall from the summer of 1986 seemed to fall.

The Bombing of Libya and ‘BBC Bias’:

Then there was the highly unpopular use of British airbases for President Reagan’s attack on Libya in 1986. This provoked a controversy, not for the first time, between the BBC and the Thatcher government. The PM’s supporters on the right of the Tory Party had long been urging her to privatize the BBC and she herself appeared to believe that it was biased against her government; by which she meant that it was too independent. She still remembered the irritation she felt at some of the phrases its leading broadcasters had used back in the Falklands War: if we are to believe the British version, etc.  Her view was that as the British Broadcasting Corporation, a public service broadcaster supported by the television license fee, it should give the British government’s view without questioning it. Yet it was perfectly obvious that the reason the BBC was so respected both in Britain and abroad was that it was genuinely independent of the British government. The BBC was legally obliged by its Charter to remain independent of party political control. Lord Reith, its first Director-General, had successfully resisted Churchill’s attempt to take over its radio service for government propaganda during the General Strike of 1926. It was one of the few great organs of state which Margaret Thatcher was not able to dominate in some way, a constitutional reality which made her visibly restless on occasions.

Because the American aircraft which bombed Libya took off from bases in Britain, that made it a British issue. The pretext for the attack was a terrorist attack on a Berlin nightclub used by American servicemen, but far from being the work of Libyan agents, it proved to have been carried out by a group linked to the Syrian government. There was a good deal of public disquiet about it, especially since it was strongly suspected that the Reagan administration was primarily bombing Libya to teach bigger and more formidable countries, chiefly Iran, a lesson. Libya was a feeble, though intermittently nasty little dictatorship which could never organise significant acts of state terrorism. The real battle was a propaganda one. Colonel Gaddafi (pictured below in 1979) claimed that his daughter had been killed in the raid, and showed her body to the journalists in Tripoli at the time. It wasn’t until some time later that it became clear that he had adopted the little girl as she lay dying from her injuries. But whoever’s daughter she was, she was certainly killed by the American bombing.

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The British government was rather rattled by the hostility which sections of the public were starting to show over the bombing; and since, at the times of crisis, people tend to turn to the BBC for their information, some senior ministers felt that this public opposition was the fault of the BBC and wanted it to be taught a lesson. The chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit, announced that he would be investigating the BBC’s coverage of the raid. The BBC allowed itself to seem rattled by the threats he and his party made, which made him feel justified in his approach. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor recalled sitting with a few journalists in the canteen at the Television Centre when the tannoy went:

‘PBX. Calling Mr John Simpson.’

I hurried over to the phone. The deputy editor of television news was on the other end.

“We’ve just had Tebbit’s report,” he said. “It’s serious. The editor would be grateful if you could get up here.”

I finished my fish and went up. A small group of worried-looking people were sitting round in the editor’s office. The editor handed me a copy of the document Tebbit and his researchers at Conservative Central Office had compiled. I looked through it rather nervously, anxious to see what it had to say about my own reporting of the attack. It made a few neutral comments, then one which was rather complimentary; that was all.

“That’s all OK,” I blurted out, voicing my own relief. Nothing much there.” 

The editor turned to me. I could see a faint ray of hope was glimmering for the first time.

“You think so?”

I realised that I had been speaking purely for myself. But it seemed unkind and unreasonable to destroy his only cause for optimism. He must have felt that his career was on the line.

“Oh sure, it’s full of loopholes. Just go through it carefully and you’ll find them all,” I said.

I hadn’t read it carefully enough to know if that were true, but I have never yet read a long document that you couldn’t pick holes in.

Chris Cramer, a tough character who was the news editor at the time… agreed. Cramer and I were both affronted by the idea that in a free society the government should presume to dictate to the broadcasters and try to make them report only what the government wanted. Maybe we were both chancers too.

“John’s right,” he said. “We should go through this with a fine-tooth comb. We’ll find lots of things wrong with it.”

Which is what happened. We divided the Conservative Central Office document up between us, and spent the next couple of days going through it point by point. The document compared the BBC’s coverage of the raid unfavourably with ITN’s, and tried to make the case that the BBC had been deliberately biased. Some of the individual points it made were reasonable enough: the news presenter on the night of the bombing had added various inaccuracies to the sub-editors’ scripts. (Soon afterwards she left the BBC.)

But it was silly to try to pretend that there was some underlying bias. I have never yet found a senior Conservative who really believed that…  

It hadn’t occurred to Norman Tebbit that the BBC would stand its ground since in the past it had fallen over itself with nervousness at the mere suggestion that the government of the day was upset with it. When it issued its response there was a big wave of public support for the BBC, partly because Kate Adie had established herself in the public eye as a brave, serious reporter, staying in Tripoli when the bombs were falling. Previously, women reporters had tended to be given social affairs to report on. Here was a woman who had become a war correspondent; something unprecedented on British television at that time, though there have been many equally brave successors since. But there was also public support for the BBC because, for all its failings, the BBC was considered to be as British an institution as any other in the country, and ninety per cent of the population had some contact with it each week in the pre-internet era. Norman Tebbit had failed to realise the British people did not like party political attacks on ‘Auntie’. An opinion poll taken shortly afterwards indicated that Conservative voters supported ‘the Beeb’ on almost the same scale as voters for other parties. Thatcher, aware that she would have to call a general election within the next year or so, quickly distanced herself from her erstwhile lieutenant’s campaign, leading to the first rift between the two of them. On the night she won the 1987 election, Simpson tried to interview her by the railings of St John’s, Smith Square, next to Conservative Central Office, amid rabid Young Conservatives chanting calls for the privatisation of the BBC:

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister, 18.6.87:

Speakers: Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher, PC MP (non-staff), John Simpson (contract)…

JS: The crowd here seem to want you to privatise the BBC. Are you planning to do that?

MT: Well, I think… Well, you know, I must really go and speak to them.

Of course, she never again considered doing so, even if she had been temporarily persuaded by Tebbit’s arguments. She knew what people would stand for, and what they wouldn’t; it was when this instinct finally deserted her that her decline and fall began.

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The ‘Poll Tax’ and the Peasants:

After the election, a wider dilemma emerged right across domestic policy, from the inner cities to hospitals, schools to police forces. Thatcher believed that government should set the rules, deliver sound money and then stand back and let other people get on with providing services. In practice, she often behaved differently, always more pragmatic and interventionist than her image suggested. At least, however, the principle was clear. But when it came to the public services there was no similar principle. She did not have the same respect for independent ‘movers and shakers’ in the hospitals, schools and town halls as she had for entrepreneurs and risk takers she admired in business. Before the Thatcher revolution, the Conservatives had been seen, on balance, defenders of local democracy. They had been strongly represented on councils across the country and had been on the receiving end of some of the more thuggish threats from Labour governments intent, for instance, on abolishing grammar schools. The town and county hall Conservatives had seen local representatives on hospital boards and local education authorities as bulwarks against socialist Whitehall. Margaret Thatcher herself had begun her political apprenticeship doing voluntary public work for her father, Alderman Roberts, sitting on various unpaid committees.

Yet in power, Thatcher and her ministers could not trust local government, or any elected and therefore independent bodies at all. Between 1979 and 1994, an astonishing 150 Acts of Parliament were passed removing powers from local authorities and switched to unelected quangos. The first two Thatcher governments transferred power and discretion away from people who had stood openly for election, and towards the subservient agents of Whitehall, often paid-up Tory party members. Despite his apparent love for Liverpool before the Militant takeover, Michael Heseltine attacked the whole of local government with new auditing with new auditing arrangements, curbs on how much tax they could raise, and spending caps as well. In the health service, early attempts to decentralize were rapidly reversed and a vast top-down system of targets and measurements was put in place, driven by a new planning organisation. It cost more and the service, undoubtedly, got worse. Similar centralist power-grabs took place in urban regeneration, where unelected Urban Development Corporations, rather than local councils, were given money to pour into rundown cities. The biggest city councils, most notably the Greater London Council, were simply abolished. Its powers were distributed between local borough councils and an unelected central organisation controlled by Whitehall. By 1990 there were some twelve thousand appointed officials running London compared with just 1,900 elected borough councillors. Housing Corporations took ninety per cent of the funds used by housing associations to build new cheap homes. In the Thatcher years, their staff grew sevenfold and their budgets twenty-fold.

Margaret Thatcher would say the poll tax, the name associated with the tax per head which was the catalyst for the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, was actually an attempt to save local government. Like schools, hospitals and housing, local councils had been subjected to a barrage of ministers trying to stop them spending money, or raising it, except as Whitehall wished. Since 1945, local government had been spending more, but the amount of money it raised independently still came from a relatively narrow base of people, some fourteen million property-owners. Thatcher had been prodded by Edward Heath into promising to replace this tax, ‘the rates’, as early as 1974, but nobody had come up with a plausible and popular-sounding alternative. She had always disliked the rates system intensely, regarding them as an attack on self-improvement and other Tory values, and in government, the problem nagged away at her. Once, local elections were not national news; they were about who was best suited to run towns and counties, but in the late sixties and seventies they became national news, a regular referendum on the central government. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives lost swathes of local councils, resulting in more Labour-controlled councils which were even more distrusted by the central government, resulting in more powers away from them. The elections became even less relevant, fuelling more protest voting, and it soon became clear to government ministers that more councils were aping Liverpool by pursuing expensive hard-left policies partly because so few of those who voted for them were actually ratepayers themselves, therefore feeling no personal ‘pinch’.

One way of correcting this anomaly would be to make all those who voted for local councils pay towards their cost. This was the origin of the poll tax or community charge as it was officially called, a single flat tax for everybody. It would mean lower bills for many homeowners and make local councils more responsive to their voters. On the other hand, it would introduce a new, regressive tax for twenty million people, with the poorest paying as much as the richest. This broke a principle which stretched back much further back than the post-war ‘consensus’ to at least the 1920s and the replacement of the Poor Law. But Public Assistance or social security as it was now known, was no longer charged or administered locally so that there was some logic in the change to a flat, universal charge. This proposal was sold to the Prime Minister by Kenneth Baker at a seminar at Chequers in 1985, along with the nationalisation of business rates. Nigel Lawson tried to talk the Prime Minister out of it, telling her it would be completely unworkable and politically catastrophic. The tax was discussed at the same cabinet meeting that Michael Heseltine walked out of over the Westland affair. It might have worked if it had been brought in gradually over a whole decade, as was first mooted, or at least four, as was planned at that meeting.

But at the 1987 Tory Conference, intoxicated by the euphoria of the recent third election victory, party members urged Thatcher to bring it in at once. She agreed since there was some urgency resulting from the dramatic increase in property prices in the eighties. Rates, like the subsequent council tax, were based on the relative value of houses across Britain, changing with fashion and home improvement. This meant that, periodically, there had to be a complete revaluation in order to keep the tax working. Yet each revaluation meant higher rates bills for millions of households and businesses, and governments naturally tried to procrastinate over them. In Scotland, however, a different law made this impossible and a rates revaluation had already happened, causing political mayhem. As a result, Scottish ministers begged Thatcher to be allowed the poll tax first, and she also agreed to this. Exemptions were made for the unemployed and low paid, but an attempt, by nervous Tory MPs, to divide the tax into three bands so that it bore some relation to people’s ability to pay was brushed aside despite a huge parliamentary rebellion. When the tax was duly introduced in Scotland, it was met by widespread protest. In England, the estimates of the likely price of the average poll tax kept rising. Panicking ministers produced expensive schemes to cap it, and to create more generous exemptions, undermining the whole point of the new tax. Capping the tax would remove local accountability; the more exemptions there were, the lesser the pressure would be on the councils from their voters. Yet even the PM grew alarmed as she was told that over eighty per cent of voters would be paying more. Yet she pushed ahead with the introduction of the tax, due to take effect in England and Wales on 1st April 1990.

Bruges Bluntness & Madrid Madness:

The poll tax was one of the causes of her downfall in that following year, the other being Europe. This factor began to be potent in 1988, when turned against Jacques Delors’ plans and went to Bruges in Belgium to make what became her definitive speech against the federalist tide which was now openly advancing towards her. The Foreign Office had tried to soften her message, but she had promptly pulled out her pen and written the barbs and thorns back in again. She informed her audience that she had not…

… successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new level of dominance from Brussels.

There was much else besides. Her bluntness much offended continental politicians as well as her own Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Next, she reappointed her monetarist economic advisor, Sir Alan Walters, who was outspokenly contemptuous of Lawson’s exchange rate policy. So, she was taking on two big cabinet beasts with great Offices of State at the same time, creating a serious split at the top of government. Then, Jacques Delors, the determined French socialist re-entered the story, with a fleshed-out plan for an economic and monetary union, which would end with the single currency, the euro. To get there, all EU members would need to put their national currencies into the ERM, which would draw them increasingly tightly together, which was just what Lawson and Howe wanted and just what Thatcher did not. Howe and Lawson ganged up, telling her that she must announce that Britain would soon join the ERM, even if she left the question of the single currency to one side for the time being. On the eve of a summit in Madrid where Britain was due to announce its view the two of them visited Thatcher together in private, had a blazing row with her and threatened to resign together if she did not give way. She did, and, for the time being, the crisis abated.

Piper Alpha – The Price of Oil and Who Profited?

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In June 1988, 185 men were burned or blown to death in the North Sea when an oil platform, Piper Alpha, blew up, yet there has been little commemoration of the tragic event over the past thirty years, in popular memorials (as contrasted with earlier coal-mining disasters of a similar scale), political memoirs or the general media. In the case of oil, the great adventure was lived out at the margins of British experience, halfway to Scandinavia, with its wild scenes played out in the bars of Aberdeen and Shetland, far removed from the media in Glasgow, never mind London. Exploration, equipment and production were also largely controlled by American companies. The number of British refineries actually fell in the eighties, the peak decade for oil production, from twenty-one to thirteen, and forty per cent of those were also owned by US-based companies. According to Nigel Lawson, the revenues from oil taxes gave ‘a healthy kick-start’ to the process of cutting the government deficit, though he always argued that the overall impact of North Sea oil was exaggerated, especially by the Scottish Nationalists (SNP). Ireland also benefited greatly from new investment from the United States in the search for new sources of oil and gas in Irish waters from the 1970s, and their exploitation in the eighties. In addition, as a poorer member state of the EU, the Republic gained a disproportionately larger share of the EU budget than the UK as a whole, so that by the end of the decade the Irish economy was expanding rapidly and the long-term pattern of Irish emigration was being reversed. Both British and Irish trade with the EU increased, and Ireland’s economy became less dependent on Britain’s.

Birt, the BBC & Beijing:

Following its own battles with Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit following the bombing of Libya, by the end of the eighties the BBC went on to become the biggest newsgathering organisation in the world and its reputation for accurate, impartial reporting continued to grow around the globe. In 1988, John Birt joined the Corporation as head of news and current affairs, reforming and revitalising that area before going on to become director-general. Under his leadership, there was a five-fold expansion. The foreign affairs unit grew to eleven people, and Simpson was made the head of it. The expansion came just in time considering how much the world was to change in the following year, in a series of seismic upheavals which affected almost every country on earth. In May 1989, Simpson and Adie teamed up in Beijing, covering the infamous massacre in Tiananmen Square:

In the BBC’s offices I found the redoubtable Kate Adie. She had been out in the streets all night with her camera team, and was in bad shape. A man had been killed right beside her, and her arm had been badly grazed in the incident. Together we assembled our reports. There was no time to edit words to pictures, nor even of seeing the pictures. All we could do was write our scripts, record them, and send them off to Hong Kong with the cassettes.

I sat at the computer, numbed by everything I had seen and determined not to get too emotional about it. I’d made real friends among the students in Tiananmen Square. The thought that they might now be dead or injured, that one of their best and most decent manifestations of recent times had been snuffed out in front of me was too disturbing and too painful for me to deal with. And so I took refuge in the old BBC concepts of balance and objectivity; there wasn’t an ounce of emotion in my script.

Kate’s report was very different. It was full of emotion. Six months later, when I finally watched the two reports side by side, I thought that while mine was perfectly accurate it had nothing to do with the real feeling of what had taken place. Hers did. I suppose the two were complimentary, and they were certainly used side by side on the news in Britain. 

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Above. The Morning of 20 May in Tiananmen Square.

A Tale of Two Cities – a Hell of a Dickens:

On 14th July 1989, Simpson was in Paris, reporting on the meeting of the ‘G7′, the leaders of the West’s seven leading capitalist powers, hosted by Francois Mitterrand, the French President. With hindsight, the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution was perhaps the single moment which best reflected the triumph of liberal democracy over all rival systems of government. The wealth, the grandeur, the personal liberty, the prestige and power which were on display were greater than the world had seen before. Soon, however, the decline in the power of the United States became more obvious. Margaret Thatcher still seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister, but would be politically vulnerable within a few months. While President Bush handed over the key to the Bastille which Lafayette had taken with him to America shortly after the Revolution, her gift to Mitterand was a first edition copy of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: inexpensive, and not very good as history. It was a grudging, insular gesture, typical of British attitudes towards France in the 1980s, which had chosen to follow an economic policy which was the exact opposite of Thatcherism. She disapproved not just of France, but of the occasion and the whole business of celebrating revolution. Her view was that evolution was greatly preferable to revolution, which was of little use to those, in 1789 or 1989, who lived under an autocracy which refuses to evolve. Although Mrs Thatcher may have helped to persuade Ronald Reagan that Mikhail Gorbachev was ‘a man to do business with’, according to John Simpson…

It wasn’t Mrs Thatcher’s economic principles which caused the changes in the Soviet bloc, but the simple, verifiable fact that Western capitalist society was effective, rich and reasonably free, while the countries of the communist bloc were manifestly not.

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In the same month, four weeks after her climb-down at the Madrid summit, Thatcher hit back at her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. Back in London, she unleashed a major cabinet reshuffle, compared at the time to Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962. Howe was demoted to being Leader of the Commons, though she reluctantly agreed to him having the face-saving title of Deputy Prime Minister, a concession rather diminished when her press officer, Bernard Ingham, instantly told journalists that it was a bit of a non-job. Howe was replaced by the relatively unknown John Major, the former chief secretary. Lawson survived only because the economy was weakening and she thought it too dangerous to lose him just at that point. He was having a bad time on all sides, including from the able shadow chancellor John Smith. When Walters had another pop at his ERM policy, he decided that enough was enough and resigned on 26 October, telling the PM she should treat her ministers better. He was replaced by the still relatively unknown John Major.

Budapest, Berlin & Bucharest: Falling Dominoes of 1989:

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Meanwhile, all around them, the world was changing. On 23rd October I was in Hungary on a third, personal visit, when the country changed its name and constitution. It had dropped the word ‘People’s’ from its title and was henceforth to be known simply as the Republic of Hungary. My first visit, an ‘official’ one, as a member of a British Quaker delegation, had been exactly a year earlier, when the withdrawal of Soviet troops had been announced, along with the decision of the then communist government that the 1956 Revolution, which had begun on the same day, would no longer be referred to by them as a ‘counter-revolution’. A few days later in 1989, East Germany announced the opening of its borders to the West and joyous Berliners began hacking at the Berlin Wall.

Then the communists in Czechoslovakia fell, and at Christmas the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu was dragged from power and shot, along with his wife. According to John Simpson, who also witnessed all these events, including those in Bucharest at close quarters (as pictured above), found among the dictators’ possessions was a Mont Blanc pen given to him by the British Labour Party, presumably during the couple’s visit to London in 1978. This was instigated by the then Foreign Secretary, Dr David Owen who, along with James Callaghan, persuaded the Queen against her will that the Ceaucescus should be invited. The pictures below show them riding in State along the Mall. But I have written about all these events elsewhere.  Suffice it to say, just here, that, since the early seventies, politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlook Ceaucescu’s increasing megalomania and the unpleasantness of the government he controlled because he represented an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact, refusing to send Romanian forces to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968. As early as 1972, a left-wing Labour MP had written:

As a result of unconditional acceptances of the past abuses of the legal system, Ceaucescu has declared that steps must be taken to ensure that such injustices can never occur in the future. The importance of democracy is therefore being increasingly stressed and… there is no question of rigging trials as occurred in the past. … Interference by anyone, no matter how important, is unacceptable in Ceaucescu’s view. 

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The not-so-beautiful relationship which came to an end with the shooting of the ‘Tsar and Tsarina’ who built their own palace (below) in Bucharest after visiting Buckingham Palace.  It was due to be completed just weeks after their overthrow.

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After meeting Ceaucescu on his state visit in 1978, Margaret Thatcher, then the leader of the opposition, commented:

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceaucescu … Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding.  

The ‘domino’ events of the Autumn and Winter of 1989 in the eastern part of the continent, in which Margaret Thatcher had played a ‘bit part’ alongside Reagan and Gorbachev, would have a ripple effect on her own fall from power the following year. That was not something many of us involved in East-West relations anticipated even at the end of that year.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

 

Posted October 7, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Apartheid and the Cold War, Balkan Crises, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Britons, Brussels, Coalfields, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, Family, France, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Ireland, Labour Party, liberal democracy, Margaret Thatcher, Marxism, Memorial, Migration, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), Navy, Poverty, privatization, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Revolution, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Syria, terror, terrorism, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Warfare

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Britain & Ireland Fifty Years Ago, 1968-73: Troubles, Turmoil & Turning Points: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Decline & Deindustrialisation under Heath:

The long-term decline of the nineteenth-century staple industries such as coal, iron and steel, and shipbuilding, was well underway by the early seventies and manageable only through nationalisation, but that of the manufacturing industries, in particular, became known a ‘deindustrialisation’ and posed a greater threat to Britain’s place in the world. Employment in manufacturing had reached a peak of nine million in 1966 but thereafter fell rapidly. The resulting mass unemployment hurt the old industries of the Northwest of England first, but by the early 1970s, they were proportionately as high in the West Midlands and the South-East, where the newer car-making and manufacturing industries were located, a process which continued into the mid-nineties (see map below). In fact, the decline in the South-East was actually much greater. The lowest was in East Anglia, simply because there was comparatively little manufacturing there to decline.

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A great variety of explanations for the decline in British manufacturing competitiveness has been put forward. None of the economic explanations has proved satisfactory, but one cultural reason may have some credence, that the British came to despise industry by the 1960s and that they were not sufficiently materialistic to work hard for the rewards associated with improved productivity. Added to this, complacency from generations of national success has been blamed, together with the post-war welfare state’s ‘cosseting’ of the workforce. In political terms, the failure of successive governments to address the needs of industry for research and development combined with the ‘exclusive’ cultural and educational background of the Civil Service has also been held responsible for the lack of modernisation of the economy. Obstructionist trade unions were a favourite target for many in the early seventies, but incompetent and outdated management was also a factor. Britain’s failing competitiveness was, by this time, making it increasingly difficult for governments to maintain high employment by intervening in the economy.

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In the summer of 1969, Enoch Powell (pictured above), representing one of the most rapidly declining manufacturing areas of the West Midlands, Wolverhampton, had continued to attack Heath on a broad range of policies, over the need for tax cuts, privatisation and freer markets in economics; over Northern Ireland or ‘Ulster’ as he referred to it,  over proposed British membership of the EEC, which Powell opposed as strongly as Heath supported it. So Powell’s battle-cry for repatriation and an end to immigration was taken by the Tory leadership as part of his campaign to unseat Heath and then replace him. There were plenty in the party and the country who yearned for just that. Apart from the dockers and other marchers, wealthy bankers wanted to fund a campaign for Powell’s leadership. Marcel Everton, a Worcestershire industrialist, raised money for a national federation of Powellite groups and talked of a march on Conservative headquarters to oust Heath. Wilson’s call for an election early in 1970, created an obvious trap which Powell could see very clearly even if his supporters ignored it. His best chance by far would be if Heath lost the election. Then he could attack him openly and perhaps even seize control of the party. Everton openly declared that it would be better for right-wingers to vote Labour so that the Tory party would fall into Enoch’s lap like a ripe cherry. Yet Powell himself recognised that he would be forever branded a traitor by thousands of loyal Conservatives. Either Heath would win and Powell would be finished, or he would lose and Powell would be blamed for splitting the party. Late in the campaign, Powell finally gave his clear and unequivocal support to the official Tory campaign, though not before he had caused Heath a great deal of irritation and embarrassment. Tony Benn called him…

… the real leader of the Conservative Party. He is a far stronger character than Mr Heath. He speaks his mind … Heath dare not attack him publicly even when he says things that disgust decent Conservatives … the flag hoisted at Wolverhampton is beginning to look like the one that fluttered over Dachau and Belsen.

Powell, once he realised the consequences of Heath’s victory, according to his biographer, sat around on his own with his head in his hands, deep in gloom. He had realised that, after Wilson, he had been the greatest loser of the election. The winners, at least in the medium-term, were a group of young Tories who eventually formed themselves into ‘the Selsdon Group’. The ‘Third Way’, a term which was given to the free-enterprise anti-collectivist economics of Tories like Anthony Barber, Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph at the Selsdon Park conference in 1969, prepared the way for Margaret Thatcher’s attempt in the 1980s to ‘roll back’ what was left of the welfare state. It was billed as a return to the Victorian values that had made Britain great, but was not a revival of Gladstonian liberalism, nor even to Palmerstonian ‘gunboat diplomacy’ which at times the Thatcher administrations resembled. Heath abandoned the 1970 manifesto in the face of bitter opposition from the trade unions. This historic U-turn was the catalyst for the formation of the Selsdon Group in 1973.  A handful of young libertarian Conservatives created the new group with Nicholas Ridley MP as president to uphold and promote the free market policies that they believed had won the Conservative Party the 1970 General Election. The group was criticised by many figures within the Conservative Party establishment at the time. Many of its policies, however, influenced later governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In economic terms at least, the Thatcher government elected in 1979 was a return to the hard-faced monetary control of the 1920s in which resistance to brutal rationalization through closure or by wage and job reductions took the form of determined opposition from trades unions.

Deindustrialisation was not simply a regional problem of the older industrial areas of the North of England and Wales. Nonetheless, long-standing regional disadvantages in terms of employment opportunities and incomes were continuing and worsening – the north-south divide was growing. Employment in agriculture was also in decline; only the service sector was expanding, becoming the major employer in all regions by the mid-seventies (see the diagrammatic map below). But this sectoral growth was still in the future in the early seventies, and it is hard to underestimate quite how heavily, how painfully, relative economic decline weighed on the necks of all politicians forty to fifty years ago.

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Edward Heath’s government (1970-74) struggled to follow pro-active, interventionist policies in the face of the world recession associated with the OPEC oil price rise of 1973. But before that, British productivity had remained pitifully low compared to both the United States, Japan and the European Economic Community, a major reason why there was no real opposition in the country to it joining the EEC. The country was spending too much on new consumer goods and not nearly enough on modernised and more efficient factories and businesses. Prices were rising by seven per cent and wages by double that. Britain was still part of the old post-war world of fixed exchange rates which meant that the Heath government, like those of Attlee and Wilson faced a sterling crisis and perhaps another devaluation.

Heath had identified reform of the unions as his first challenge. They had just seen off Wilson and Barbara Castle’s attempts to ‘moderate’ them collectively, so Heath had decided that he would need to take them on individually, facing down at least one major public sector strike, in addition to removing some of the benefits that he thought encouraged strikes. Britain not only had heavy levels of unionization through all the key industries but also, by modern standards, an incredible number of different unions, more than six hundred altogether. Some of these were still organised on a ‘craft’ basis more relevant to a nineteenth-century economy, rather than as modern industrial unions, and others, like the Transport and General Workers’ Union, incorporated masses of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers across a range of occupations. As a result, the leaders of large unions had only a wobbly hold on what happened on the factory floor or at the dockside. It was a time of industrial militancy at shop-floor level, and this mood was made fun of by the 1973 hit from the folk-rock band the Strawbs, whose song, Part of the Union, had the chorus, You don’t get me, I’m part of the union and each verse began with a reason why:

As a union man I’m wise to the lies of the company spies … With a hell of a shout it’s “out, brothers, out!” … I always get my way, if I strike for higher pay … So though I’m a working man, I can ruin the government’s plan …

So he could, and so he did. Almost immediately on coming to power, Heath had faced a dock strike, followed by a big pay settlement for local authority dustmen, then a power workers’ go-slow which led to power cuts. Then the postal workers struck. Douglas Hurd, later regarded as a ‘wet’ in Margaret Thatcher’s government of nine years later, was Heath’s parliamentary personal secretary at the time, and recorded in his diary:

A bad day. It is clear that all the weeks of planning in the civil service have totally failed to cope with what is happening in the electricity dispute; and all the pressures are to surrender.

Hurd confronted Heath in his dressing-gown, warning him that the government machine was moving too slowly, far behind events. Apparently, things were so bad in the car industry that Henry Ford III visited to warn Heath that his company was thinking of pulling out of Dagenham and its other plants in the UK. Yet Heath’s Industrial Relations Bill of 1971 was ‘balanced’ in its approach, even giving new rights to trade unions while at the same time trying to make agreements with employers legally enforceable through a new system of industrial courts. This was following in the conciliatory footsteps of Wilson and Castle, rather than embarking on a more radical journey.

However, the role of the local shop-steward organisation was sometimes be exaggerated by the press at the time and has sometimes been overplayed by more recent commentators. In the Coventry car industry, where a worker was said to work half as hard as his Dagenham counterpart, Stephen Tolliday has pointed to the difference between factories as being the result of the unions consolidating their positions in the late forties and early fifties in Coventry, whereas workers at Ford, Morris, Austin and Vauxhall were poorly organised until the late 1950s. One might, therefore, expect the extension of union organisation to have a marked effect in pushing forward relative earnings. On the contrary, however, average weekly earnings in the period fell back from twenty-four per cent above the national average between 1959 and 1963 to nineteen per cent between 1968 and 1973. Given that motor industry productivity growth was above average and that union density was increasing in motors throughout the sixties, more quickly than in manufacturing as a whole, this could be an indicator that shop floor bargaining did not have as decisive an impact as has been often asserted. As Bill Lancaster and Tony Mason have pointed out, the caricature of the greedy… car worker… prone to go on strike is somewhat misleading… co-operation with management was still the norm. It was the workers in the older industries who were finding it more difficult to maintain a ‘living wage’. So then the miners struck…

The National Miners’ Strike of 1972:

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At the beginning of 1972, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began their first national strike since the dark days of the 1920s. The government, with modest coal stocks, was quickly taken by surprise at the disciplined and aggressive tactics of the NUM. Arthur Scargill (pictured above), a rousing speaker, former Communist Party member and highly ambitious union activist, described the mass picket at Saltley as “the greatest day of my life.” Heath blamed the police for being too soft; for the PM, Scargill’s greatest day was…

… the most vivid, direct and terrifying challenge to the rule of law that I could ever recall emerging from within our own country. … We were facing civil disorder on a massive scale … the prospect of the country becoming ungovernable, or having to use the armed forces to restore order, which public opinion would never have tolerated…

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Following the miners’ victory, Heath and his ministers knew that they would have to go directly to the country with an appeal about who was in charge but before that, they tried a final round of compromise and negotiation. It went under the name of tripartism, a three-way national agreement on prices and wages, investment and benefits, involving the government, the TUC and the CBI. The Industry Act of 1972 gave the Tory government unprecedented powers of industrial intervention. There was much ‘wooing’ of moderate trade union leaders. Money, effort and organisation went into Job Centres as unemployment rose steadily towards a million. The industrialists did as much as they could, sitting on yet more committees when in truth they might have been more usefully employed trying to run their companies. The unions, however, had the bit between their teeth. By first refusing to recognise Heath’s industrial relations court as really legitimately a law of the land, and then refusing to negotiate seriously until he repealed the Act, they made the breakdown of this last attempt at consensual economics almost inevitable.

By now, Heath had leaned so far to the left to try to win over the unions that he was behaving like a Wilsonian socialist. He was reinstating ‘planning’, particularly on a regional basis. He was bailing out failing companies such as Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, something he later regarded as a mistake. By offering the unions a privileged place in the running of the nation he had hoped that the individual roles of trade union leaders, as well as those of company directors and politicians, would take second place behind a general commitment to ‘the common good’. But those leaders had got their jobs by promising their members higher wages and better conditions. They could hardly be blamed for doing everything they could within the law to carry out the role they had been given. Similarly, industrialists were driven by profit margins and returns to investors; they were not auxiliary politicians. Heath’s government was later criticised by ‘Thatcherites’ for doing things which a government ought not to do, while not doing things that it ought to do. It was not the business of good governments to try to run businesses or to do the wage bargaining of companies and trade unions for them. Neither should they attempt to control prices.

The Heath government also introduced tax reforms, meant to increase investment, a deal with business on keeping price rises to five per cent, and even some limited privatisation – the travel agents, Thomas Cook, then in public ownership, was sold off, along with some breweries. But Tory messages were still mixed and Heath’s instincts on state control were quickly tested when the most valuable parts of Rolls-Royce faced bankruptcy over the cost of developing new aircraft engines. Unemployment rose sharply in Coventry as employment in the city’s manufacturing industries continued to decline rapidly. Heath briskly nationalised the company, with the engine plant being taken into government hands as a ‘lame duck’. In all, the measures saved eighty thousand jobs, allowing the company to regroup and survive, to the relief of the defence industry. It did revive and was returned to the private sector, making it a clear example, with hindsight, of how nationalisation could be made to work in everyone’s interest. On the other hand, cuts in some personal taxes encouraged spending and thereby increased inflation. This was further fuelled by the removal of lending limits for high street banks which encouraged home ownership through mortgage borrowing. An unbalanced amount was sunk into bricks and lawns over the next thirty to forty years, and the credit ‘boom’ and ‘bust’, involving long-term unaffordable increases in property prices can be traced back to this decision.

Heath’s ‘corporatism’ has been derided and forgotten in the wake of the monetarist, free-market economics of the thirty-year ‘Thatcher era’. In reality, much of the country in the early seventies was simply more left-wing than it was even just five years later. The unions, having defeated their own political leaders, were more self-confident than ever before or since. Many industrial workers, living in bleak towns far away from the glossy pop world of the ‘swinging’ cities, were underpaid and left behind. Heath himself later argued that the consequences of an alternative policy, the mass unemployment of the 1980s, would have been unacceptable to the country in the previous decade. He was surely right in this assessment.  

What finally finished off the Heath government was the short ‘Yom Kippur war’ between Israel and Egypt in October 1973. Israel’s swift and decisive victory was a humiliation for the Arab world and it struck back, using oil. The international cartel of oil producers retaliated against the West after the USA gave Israel strong support during the war, by cutting the supplies of oil each month, thereby quadrupling the price of oil. In addition to provoking an immediate recession, this also fuelled international inflation, and in Britain it arrived with special force. The miners put in another huge wage claim, which would have added half as much again to their wage packets. Despite an appeal by its leader, the moderate Joe Gormley, the NUM executive rejected a thirteen per cent pay increase and voted to ballot for another national strike.

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The rise in oil prices stimulated the search for new sources in British and Irish waters, but these were still the days just before North Sea oil and gas were being produced commercially. Britain could survive high oil prices for a while and could endure coal shortages for a while, but both coming together represented a ‘perfect storm’, or, as the Chancellor Anthony Barber called it, the greatest economic crisis since the war. It certainly compared to that of 1947. Coal stocks had not been built up in preparation for a stoppage so that a whole series of panic measures were introduced. Plans were made for petrol rationing and coupons printed and distributed. The national speed limit was cut by twenty miles per hour, to fifty, in order to save fuel. Then, in January, came the announcement of a three-day working week.

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By the end of 1973, Britain had entered a period of severe recession. This was set against the background of Britain’s share of world trade falling dramatically, from over twenty per cent in the 1950s to about ten per cent by 1975. Nor could it maintain its hold on the domestic market; in 1965 only one car in twenty was imported but by 1978 about half were. Oil and fuel price rises together with the general recession also had the effect of cutting back expenditure on British motorway construction and motor vehicle use during the 1970s. Plans to triple the 660 miles (1,060 km) of motorway in use by 1970 were also frustrated by environmental protest (see map above).

Common Market, Commonwealth and Immigration:

Above: Front page report from the Guardian, 1st January 1973

Edward Heath is a political leader whose reputation and legacy deserves to be revisited. If his premiership, which lasted less than four years, is associated with a single action, it is British entry into ‘Europe’, but throughout his time in office, it was the economy, not Europe, which was the biggest problem facing him. Certainly, his attempts to rein in trade union power and to conquer inflation failed, as did those of Wilson, both before and after his government. The cause that excited him more than any other, Europe, also inflamed his enemies who accused him of lying to the country about the true, political nature of the coming political union which would eventually, inevitably, replaced the Economic Community. These claims, although largely a work of fiction, have continued to play as a strong narrative right up to the current time of ‘Brexit’. Apart from being the first Tory leader to break through the class barriers of the old party and to promote other ‘outsiders’ to the cabinet, his European vision was the product of his own first-hand experiences. Before the war, on a student visit to Germany, he had literally rubbed shoulders with Hitler and met other Nazi leaders. Later he had returned as a fighting officer to see their final defeat in 1945. As he wrote later:

My generation did not have the option of living in the past; we had to work for the future. We were surrounded by destruction, homelessness, hunger and despair. Only by working together right across our continent had we any hope of creating a society which would uphold the true values of European civilisation. 

He was a genuinely compassionate conservative and an unusually brave politician, whose analysis of what was wrong with Britain in the seventies was far more acute than Wilson’s. But he was no starry-eyed idealist when it came to negotiating Britain’s entry to the EEC. He had risen through the Tory Parliamentary Party as a tough chief whip and then as an equally tough negotiator on Europe in the Macmillan years when he had struggled in the face of President de Gaulle’s repeated ‘Non’. Long before becoming PM, he had identified Georges Pompidou, who replaced de Gaulle, as his likely future interlocutor, the man who would say ‘Oui’. Heath later revealed how Pompidou had told him, in French, at Chequers:

If you ever want to know what my policy is, don’t bother to call me on the telephone. I do not speak English, and your French is awful. Just remember that I am a peasant, and my policy will always be to support the peasants.

Pompidou was giving ‘fair warning’ about the vast expense of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but it did not truly reflect his wider vision of Europe. In fact, he wanted a Europe of large manufacturing countries to take on the cartels of the US and the Far East. By 1970, after a decade during which Britain had grown much more slowly than the six members of the Common Market, Heath was in a weaker position now than he had been under Macmillan. But besides being a trusted negotiator by the French, Britain’s economic weakness served as a strength with Paris at that time, and Pompidou believed that ‘les rosbifs’ were ready to be admitted. Like the rest of the Community, France had struggled for years to understand what Britain really wanted, especially when the British left had appeared so divided on the issue. After eighteen months of further tough negotiations as PM, and in the teeth of opposition from Britain’s fishermen and the Powellites, a deal was thrashed out. It left intact the existing Common Market designed for the convenience of French farmers, and vast amounts of European law had to be swallowed whole. The Commonwealth farmers’ deal was won at the expense of a worse deal on the budget, which would later be reopened by Margaret Thatcher. The British negotiators had decided that it was important for their country’s future to get an entry deal.

When Heath began negotiations, Wilson was a publicly declared supporter of British membership, but as accession loomed, he began sniping at Heath, perhaps looking over his shoulder at his potential successor, Jim Callaghan, who was campaigning openly against membership. The left was in full cry, and two-thirds of Labour’s MPs were on Callaghan’s side. So Wilson changed his position on tactical grounds, claiming that he could not support membership on the Heath terms. After the long and tortuous negotiations, this infuriated the Labour pro-Europeans. Neither did it enthuse the anti-Marketeers, who simply did not believe that Wilson had had a change of heart and assumed that he would sign up if and when he was returned to Number Ten. Nevertheless, when the Heath proposals for membership were put to the Commons, sixty-nine Labour pro-Europeans led by Roy Jenkins defied the party whips and voted with the Conservatives. The left-wing New Statesman delivered a withering verdict on Wilson, whom it labelled as…

… the principal apostle of cynicism, the unwitting evangelist of disillusion … Mr Wilson has now sunk to a position where his very presence in Labour’s leadership pollutes the atmosphere of politics.

After winning the Commons vote, Heath returned to Downing Street to play Bach on the piano, while the opposition MPs, not for the first or last time, conducted screaming matches and ghastly personal confrontations in the voting lobbies. In the aftermath, Tony Benn began to argue that on a decision of such national importance, the people should be able to vote in a referendum. His constituency was in Bristol, represented by the great philosopher Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century. Burke had once sent a letter to his constituents explaining to them that as their MP he owed them his judgement, not his slavish obedience to their opinions. Reversing this argument, Benn expressed the view that a democracy which denied its people the right to choose directly on a matter of such importance would lose all respect. To begin with, Benn had almost no support for his radical view of ‘direct democracy’. Labour traditionalists despised ‘plebiscites’ as the populist devices of fascist demagogues, not in keeping with the principles of representative democracy. Harold Wilson had committed himself publicly and repeatedly against a referendum. Slowly and painfully, however, he came to realise that opposing Heath’s deal while promising to renegotiate, while offering a referendum could be the way out. When Pompidou suddenly announced that France would be holding a referendum on the issue, Wilson snatched at the Benn plan. Although the referendum was still two years away, Wilson’s ‘switch’ had set an important precedent, providing a means for parties to divide on key issues, but remain intact.

Immigration from the ‘old empire’ continued but, following restrictive legislation by Britain, at greatly reduced levels. The 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. When Ted Heath came to power in the General Election of 1970, he showed that he was desperately worried about the anti-immigration mood which had been revealed in this most bitter of elections. Heath’s manifesto had promised a new single system of control over all immigration from overseas. While denouncing Powell, he moved quickly to pass a restrictive piece of legislation which removed the right to immigrate to Britain of anyone who did not have a parent or grandparent born in the country. The 1971 Immigration Act effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting this ‘Grandfather Clause’, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of black and Asian applicants while favouring citizens from the ‘old Commonwealth’ – the descendants of (white) British settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Powell hit back by likening the distinction to a Nazi race purity law; he wanted a new definition of British citizenship instead. The grandparent rule was defeated by the right and the left combining for opposite reasons, though it was restored two years later. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependants, or secondary immigration.

Had this been all, then Heath would be remembered as being yet another panicked politician, slamming the door shut and keeping his party happy. It was not all, since the Kenyan crisis of 1968 was about to be replayed, this time at greater speed, in Uganda. There, the anti-British Prime Minister, Milton Obote, had just been replaced in a coup by the fat, swaggering, Sandhurst-educated Idi Amin who announced that he had been told in a dream that he must expel the country’s Asian population, just as the Kenyans had done. Amin was clearly a monster, whose thugs clubbed his enemies to death with staves, who threatened to kill British journalists, who was rumoured to keep human flesh in his fridge and to feast on it, and who enthused about the way the Nazis had dealt with the Jews. Though Powell argued angrily that Britain had no obligation to the trapped Ugandan Asians, Heath acted decisively to allow them in to settle. Airlifts were arranged, and some 28,000 people arrived within a few weeks in 1971. They eventually settled in the same areas as other East African Asians, even though Leicester, which had become the ‘least white’ city in England, had published notices in Ugandan papers pleading with migrants not to try to settle there. Within a few years, Powell would no longer be a conservative, Heath having confronted him head on and defeated him.

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The employment available to new immigrants was poorly paid and working conditions were little better, causing some black and Asian workers to resort to industrial action. The photograph above shows an Asian immigrant employed in a Bradford textile factory. The decline of this industry in the early seventies led to high long-term unemployment in the Asian communities. To begin with, faced with prejudice in finding private rented accommodation, as well as more subtle discrimination in residency requirements for council housing, immigrants tended to concentrate in poor inner city areas, as can be seen below in the map of Birmingham in 1971. However, as New Commonwealth immigrants began to become established throughout Birmingham and the West Midlands, community infrastructure including places of worship, ethnic grocers, butchers and restaurants began to develop. These contributions to the cultural and social life of the British cities helped to overcome earlier prejudices among the native population, and some middle-class Indians began to move further out into the suburbs.

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Britain’s experience of migration is not just a narrative of those who have come to Britain, but also of those who have left, to South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, well over half a million in the sixties alone. At the same time, there is no doubt that, more than any almost any other single social factor in post-1945 Britain, immigration changed Britain. At no stage was there a measured and frank assessment of the likely scale and long-term social effects of immigration by party leaders, voluntarily, in front of the electorate. The main parties did very little to ensure that mass immigration from the Caribbean, the Indian subcontinent and East Africa was successful. West Indians and Ugandan Asians got very little official help to integrate into British society. The reluctance with which the latter were let into Britain in 1972 showed how narrow-minded and less generous towards its former imperial subjects Britain had become. There was very little attempt to create mixed communities or to avoid mini-ghettoes. The real question is whether this neglect of public opinion and of the consequences of immigration, not least for the immigrant communities, has produced a better country. It is now clear that this is a far bigger story than simply a tidying up after Empire.

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Further afield, Britain had retreated from most of its empire by the 1970s. The major remaining colony was Rhodesia, which had been illegally ruled by a white minority government since 1967 when it had declared independence unilaterally. In 1968 the Labour government decided to pull the considerable British contingents out of the Persian Gulf and Singapore, which was done by 1971. There was also an end to Britain’s role ‘east of Suez’. The fabric of the old empire had gone and now the frame which had taken its weight had gone too. There was nothing left but a few bricks, and some shadows. None of the shadows was substantial enough to make up fully for what had been lost. At first it was thought that the Commonwealth might. In the 1950s the fact that so many ex-colonies had elected to stay within the Commonwealth had led some imperialists to assume a substantive continuity between it and the old empire: with the black and brown nations joining Australia, New Zealand and Canada in an extended family cemented by common bonds of tradition, friendship and mutual interest. They believed that the whole structure could be a force to be reckoned with in the world still. The old imperialists retained a sentimental affection for it and sought to cement its parts more tightly together, through trade preferences for Commonwealth countries, and by preserving the definition of ‘British nationality’ which had been laid down in 1948, allowing all Commonwealth citizens the right to enter Britain freely, without restriction.

‘Common citizenship’ was meant to symbolise the continuing unity, and hence the strength of ‘Empire into Commonwealth’. But by the sixties, it had become abundantly clear that the Commonwealth was turning out to be something less than the sum of its countries. Its members did not have common interests, not even the ‘white’ dominions among them, which were too far apart geographically, if not politically. For the black and brown nations, their membership was not an expression of filial gratitude and loyalty. Rather it provided merely a convenient platform on the world stage from which they could air their grievances against Britain and demand a share of whatever British aid was available. The Commonwealth was never united. Its new members fought each other, broke off diplomatic relations with each other and with the ‘mother country’. In 1971, at a conference in Singapore, they sent Edward Heath into a ‘huff’ by criticising him over the issue of supplying arms to South Africa, which had been forced out of the association in 1961. Clearly, this new organisation was of little use as a means of exerting British power and influence in the world.

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There were some in public life who continued to value the new Commonwealth, but as something rather different from the old empire: as an informal debating club for widely divergent cultures, a possible means of scaling the barriers of racism and chauvinism going up all over the world, an example to the world of how different countries and continents could get along together even if they could not agree together, a corrective to the contemporary  consolidation of the world into continental blocs. Alongside the idealistic old imperialists, there were also anti-imperialist Fabians who were genuinely interested in questions of international co-operation and foreign aid. When a television series about the British Empire in 1972 provoked a flood of letters to the newspapers and a lengthy debate in the House of Lords, most of the letters and many of the speeches betraying an almost personal sense of injury, it was clear that there had been a ‘bottling up’ in some élite quarters of strong emotions on the issue of an Empire which some still felt had been the noblest Empire the world had ever seen. For the most part, however, the mass of the ‘ordinary’ British people cared little about it.

That the empire was almost forgotten in Britain by the seventies did not mean that it had left no marks at all, or that it was quite gone. In a strictly legalistic sense, Britain still had overseas colonies and crown dependencies. Most importantly, she still had Rhodesia, though she had been powerless to do anything there since Smith’s UDI. She also had Hong Kong, with four million inhabitants, but otherwise, the total population of all her other outposts was well under a million. These traces of empire could be irritating, but they were little more. They were not the significant remains of empire. For all parties concerned, however, the British empire left a legacy which was substantial and lasting, though it was not one which was altogether predictable or intended. In 1969 Professor Max Beloff warned that the loss of empire might make Britain parochial and bitter:

We now face … the danger of a sudden and total revulsion against anything that reminds us of past advantages and past glories, a sudden shift into an isolationist little-Englandism with unhealthy overtones of xenophobia and even racialism accompanying it.

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The treatment most frequently prescribed for Britain’s post-imperial trauma was to join the European Economic Community, to give Britain a new European vision to compensate for the loss of its imperial one and a share in something big again. But when Britain eventually joined in January 1973, it was with a sullenness and singular lack of enthusiasm and public support which was attributed by other countries to her unwillingness to shake off her imperial past, and accept that she was now, like France, just an ordinary European nation. This excuse was widely seized on by British observers too. During the 1970s the view that Britain had wasted her first twenty-five post-war years clinging nostalgically to outworn imperial glories became something of an established orthodoxy. Nicholas Henderson, a retiring ambassador, recollected in 1979:

We had… every western European government eating out of our hand in the immediate aftermath of war. For several years our prestige and influence were paramount and we could have stamped Europe as we wished.

But the opportunity was allowed to pass, as the British spurned the Schuman Plan, with the result that Europe eventually formed its own ‘community’ of nations without reference to Britain. That was why when Britain joined that community later, its terms were so unfavourable to her. There were a number of reasons for Britain’s blunder, but the chief ones were her loyalty to her Commonwealth and the illusion that she still had a global role. These were clearly both legacies of empire, and extremely damaging ones. Britain’s subsequent fractious position within the EEC and her 2016 Referendum decision to leave derives from the fact that her old imperial blinkers led her to read the signs of the times too late. These conclusions are currently too controversial to go into in detail here, especially as neither the chronicles nor the narratives are yet complete, but it is interesting to note how ubiquitous it was in the 1970s, especially in the view of the empire as a kind of ghostly dragon Britain’s coat-tails after the vision had died among imperialists. The bright new cause of ‘Europeanism’ gave light to a new generation as the liberal and internationalist antidote to imperialism, but the old empire continued to cast a long shadow over British politics.

It was also widely blamed for Britain’s economic decline, as we have seen. Britain had been falling behind the other industrial powers for many years before 1970. After that year, however, the situation got worse. After twenty years of full employment, minimal inflation and rising standards of living, which buffered the social impact of Britain’s relative decline, it became associated with mass unemployment, high inflation and lower living standards once again. But it was also a common ploy in the 1970s to put the blame on the empire for Britain’s managerial shortcomings. The argument was that the service of the empire had somehow displaced the running of manufacturing industry as an object of ambition for the younger generations of the middle classes. As one public school headmaster put it in 1980, Britain’s imperial experience had left her with too many ‘prefects’ and not enough ‘pirates’ for the post-imperial age. In the past, Sir Keith Joseph once said, Britain’s trouble had been that it had never had a proper capitalist ruling class; in 1979 the government of which he was a member sought consciously to remedy this. Back in the days of the oil crisis of 1973-74, it was obvious that if Britain had still been able to dictate policy in the Persian Gulf, the West could not have been ‘held to ransom’ and neither could the miners have done the same to Heath’s government. Yet asked by some Gallup pollsters whether they thought it was important for Britain to retain her status as a major world power, only thirty per cent replied ‘yes’ in 1975 compared with fifty-five per cent ten years earlier. Significantly, this was also the year in which the British people expressed their ‘will’ in Wilson’s Referendum to remain in the EEC, by a similar majority of two to one. The imperial ‘game’ was over, though it would be remembered with nostalgia by many for decades to come. As Bernard Porter has commented, even cricket became commercialised and vulgarized in the 1970s in the wake of the decline of the old imperialist ‘fuddy-duddies’ in the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club).

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. London: Pan Macmillan.

Joanna Bourke, Sabine Wichert, Roger Middleton, John Swift (contributors) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – The Final Hundred Days, 1918, from Amiens to the Armistice.   1 comment

The Battle of Amiens, 8-12 August:

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British troops watch as German prisoners are escorted away.

The Allied attacks of July 1918 had shown the effectiveness of ‘all arms’ battle tactics: troops and tanks advancing behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery fire as ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. Local counter-attacks were so successful that they quickly developed into a general offensive. Every day the Germans had to withdraw somewhere along the line; every day the Allies completed the preparations for another local push. The tactical situation seems to have loosened up slightly; the attacks were expensive but not prohibitively so and, as the Allies ground steadily forward, week in, week out, the morale of the German army finally began to fray.

At Amiens in August, these new tactics were put into operation to even greater effect. It was the most brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed of any British-led action on the Western Front. If this never quite matched the pace Ludendorff had set in March, it was better sustained and so, in the long run, more effective. The success of the advance was due to the profound secrecy in which the forces of the attack had been assembled. The offensive began with British, Australian, Canadian and French troops attacking to the east of the city. On the first day, the Australians met their objectives by early afternoon, taking eight thousand prisoners. But it was the Canadian troops who advanced the furthest, eight miles, taking five thousand prisoners. The Canadian Corps, supplied with ten million rounds of small-arms ammunition, were regarded by the Germans as ‘storm-troops’ and their attack from the north was cunningly concealed by the absence of a preliminary artillery bombardment. Instead, a swarm of 456 tanks were deployed alongside the troops, under the cover of the early morning ground mist. Haig himself attacked in the Somme area. As the troops left their trenches to advance, the artillery barrage began firing two hundred yards in front of their starting line. The guns then began to ‘lift’, increasing in range at timed intervals in their ‘creeping barrage’. The barrage included forty adjustments of a hundred yards every three minutes in this phase of the attack.

The advance slowed by the 12th, as the Allies over-reached their heavy artillery support and ran up against German troops determined to defend their 1917 trench positions, aided by the tangled wastes of the old Somme battlefield. On paper, the material gains by Allies did not appear extensive, for both in ground won and prisoners taken, Germany had frequently exceeded such gains, though it had failed to consolidate its offensives. By contrast, the Allied advance had not only given an indication of how the war could be won, but it had also achieved its essential purpose of striking a deadly blow at the spirit of an already weakening enemy. Ludendorff later confessed that…

August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war. … It put the decline of our fighting force beyond all doubt.

After 8th August, the Kaiser concluded that…

We are at the end of our resources; the war must be ended.

At a conference held at Spa, the German generals informed him and the Imperial Chancellor that there was no chance of victory and that peace negotiations should be opened as soon as possible. The most that could be hoped for was an orderly retirement to the prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line, a strategic defensive action which would win reasonable terms from the Allies. Ludendorff himself offered his resignation, which was not accepted. He had lost hope of any gains, and his one remaining aim was to avoid an abject surrender. This was a far from the optimistic mood required to enter upon the most difficult operations which were still ahead.

The Hundred Days Offensive:

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When the initial momentum of the assault at Amiens died away, Haig was no longer willing to batter against stiffening opposition. Instead, he set the Third Army in motion farther north. This proved a more economical method of attack and from this point onwards a series of short, closely related offensives kept the Germans retiring until they reached the Hindenburg Line, from which they had started their offensive in the Spring. Foch was determined to hustle Ludendorff out of all his positions before he could entrench himself along the Hindenburg Line, driving the whole vast German army back to the narrow gut which led to Germany. But, at this time, he anticipated a gradual advance which would see the war continuing into 1919. As soon as serious resistance developed, Foch would, therefore, call a halt to the advance in that sector, only to renew it in another one. Tanks permitted him to mount a new offensive rapidly and frequently, so that his strategy became one of conducting a perpetual arpeggio along the whole of the Front, wearing down the enemy’s line and his reserves. Of this great plan,  to which Haig had undoubtedly contributed, the latter was also to be its chief executant. But, being closer to the field of battle, Haig was steadily coming to believe that, this year, it really would be all over before Christmas.

The ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ was a series of Allied engagements, that put continuous pressure on the retreating Germans. It began at Amiens and finished on 11th November. In all, there were a further twenty-two battles. Although the Germans realised they were to be denied victory they fought tenaciously, inflicting heavy casualties. The advance to victory, like the Somme retreat, cannot be painted in broad lines since it was composed of a multitude of interlinked actions. The first stage, completed by the first week in September, was the forcing of the enemy back to the Hindenburg Line, an achievement made certain by the breaking by the Canadians on 2nd September of the famous Drocourt-Quéant switch. Meanwhile, in the south, the Americans under Pershing had found immediate success at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, flattening out the Saint-Mihiel salient, cutting it off, and advancing northwards towards Sedan. The next stage was the breaching of the Hindenburg defences, and while Pershing attacked towards Meziéres, the Belgians and the British attacked in the north towards Ghent, movements which took place towards the end of August. Between these movements, the Hindenburg Line was breached at many points, and the Germans were compelled to make extensive evacuations.

The Allied advance was slower than had been expected, however, and the German army was able to retain its cohesion. Nevertheless, it was sadly pressed, and its fighting spirit was broken. The German soldiers had been led to believe that the Allies were as exhausted and as short of supplies as they themselves were. During their spring offensives, however, they had captured stores of allied clothing, food and metals which had opened their eyes to the deception being practised on them. Their casualties had been enormous, and the Allied reserves seemed unlimited. Their letters from home told of their families’ distress, making further resistance seem both hopeless and pointless.

Yet the news of this turn of the tide at Amiens and in its aftermath did not immediately change the popular mood on the home front in Britain. Everybody was over-tired and underfed, and an influenza epidemic was claiming hundreds of victims each week. My grandfather’s battalion, training at Catterick barracks to go to France, was almost wiped out. He was one of few survivors since he was an underage recruit, his mother presenting his birth certificate at the camp gates.   All over the country, there were strikes among munition-workers, followed by trouble with transport services and in the coal mines. Even the London police joined in. These difficulties were overcome very simply by increasing wages. Those in authority, perhaps more aware than most that the last stage of the ghastly shooting-match was finally coming to an end, and knowing something of the state of the German people, were anxiously questioning themselves as to whether a rot might set in.

At this juncture, it was the turn of the British War Cabinet to have doubts, and, as it would have put the brake on Allenby in Palestine, so it would also have held back Haig. But, as John Buchan wrote in 1935, the British commander had reached the point which great soldiers come to sooner or later when he could trust his instinct. On 9th September he told Lord Milner that the war would not drag on till next July, as was the view at home, but was on the eve of a decision. Buchan continued:

He had the supreme moral courage to take upon himself the full responsibility for a step which, if it failed, would blast his repute and lead to dreadful losses, but which, if it succeeded, would in his belief mean the end of the War, and prevent civilisation from crumbling through sheer fatigue.

Haig was justified in his fortitude. With the order, “Tout le monde à la Bataille,” Foch began the final converging battles of the war. One of the most major battles was that of Meuse-Argonne, which began on 26th September and was the American Expeditionary Force’s largest offensive, featuring over one and a quarter million troops by the time it ended on 11th November. This attack proved to be more difficult than the one at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, as they faced strong German defences in the dense Argonne forest. The weather did not help; it rained on forty of the battle’s forty-seven. On the 26th September, two British and two American divisions faced fifty-seven weak German divisions behind the strongest entrenchment in history. It took the British troops just one day to cross the battlefield at Passchendaele. Brigadier General J. Harington of the 46th (North Midland) Division commented on his troops’ breaching of the Hindenburg Line on 29th September by telling them, You boys have made history. They had been given the difficult task of crossing the heavily defended St Quentin Canal, a feat which they had accomplished using rafts and pulled lines, with troops wearing cork lifebelts taken from cross-Channel steamships. Prisoners were captured at the Bellenglise Tunnel, which had been dug under the canal by the Germans after Allied soldiers fired a German ‘howitzer’ into it.

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By the 29th, the combined British and American troops had crossed the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt Canal, and within a week they were through the whole defence system and in open country. Despite their adherence to outdated tactics that brought about heavy casualties, the Americans prevailed and continued their assault right up to the end of the war. By 8th October the last remnants of the Hindenburg zone had disappeared in a cataclysm. Foch’s conception had not been fully realised, however; Pershing had been set too hard a task and was not far enough forward when the Hindenburg system gave, pinning the enemy into the trap which had been set. Nevertheless, by 10th October Germany had been beaten by the US Army in a battle which Foch described as a classic example of the military art.

The Collapse of Germany’s Allies:

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The day of doom was only postponed, and Ludendorff no longer had any refuge from the storm. Long before his broken divisions could reach the Meuse Germany would be on its knees.  The signs of Germany’s military decline were quickly read by her partners. It was now losing all its allies. They had been the guardians of Germany’s flanks and rear, and if they fell the country would be defenceless. On 15th September, the much-ridiculed Allied armies comprising British, French, Greek, Italian and Serbian troops, attacked the German-led but mainly Bulgar forces in Macedonia, moving forward into Salonica, and within a fortnight Bulgaria’s front had collapsed and its government sought an armistice. This was concluded on 29th September at Thessalonica. British forces were moving across the country towards the Turkish frontier. French columns had reached the Danube and the Serbs had made a good start on the liberation of their homeland.

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The Turks held out for a further month, during which the British conquered Syria, then they too surrendered. On 19th September, General Allenby in Palestine had opened up an action which provided a perfect instance of how, by surprise and mobility, a decisive victory may be won almost without fighting. Algerians, Indian Muslims and Hindus, Arab tribesmen, Africans and Jewish battalions came together to liberate the Holy Land from Ottoman rule. Breaking the Turkish defence in the plain of Sharon, Allenby sent his fifteen thousand cavalry in a wide sweep to cut the enemy’s line of communications and block his retreat, while Prince Faisal and T. E. Lawrence (a young British officer who had attained an amazing ascendancy over the Arab tribes) created a diversion east of the Jordan. This played an important role in Allenby’s victory at Megiddo. In two days, the Turkish armies to the west of Jordan had been destroyed, its right-wing being shattered, while its army on the east bank was being shepherded north by the merciless Arabs to its destruction. By 1st October Damascus was in British hands, and Aleppo surrendered on 26th October. The elimination of Bulgaria exposed both the Danube and Constantinople to attack and the French and British forces diverged on these two objectives. A Franco-British force sailed in triumph past Gallipoli and took possession of Constantinople. With her armies in the east shattered, Turkey made peace on 30th September by the Armistice of Mudros.

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The Allied armies in the Balkans still had a fair way to travel before they could bring Austria-Hungary under attack, but it was a journey they never had to make.: the Habsburg Empire was falling to pieces of its own accord. October saw Czech nationalists take over in Prague and proclaim it the capital of an independent Czechoslovak state, while the Poles of Galicia announced their intention of taking the province into the new Polish state – a programme disputed by the Ruthenians of Eastern Galicia, who looked towards the Ukrainian Republic for support and integration. At the same time representatives of the various south-Slav peoples of the empire – Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, repudiated Austro-Hungarian rule and expressed, with surprising unanimity, their desire to fuse with Serbia and Montenegro to form a single Yugoslav state. All that was left was for revolutions in Vienna and Budapest to declare in favour of separate Austrian and Hungarian republics and the Habsburg Empire had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on the anniversary of Caporetto, Italy had made her last advance and the Austrian forces, which had suffered desperately for four years and were now at the end of their endurance, melted away. So did the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 3rd-4th November an Armistice was signed at Villa Giusti with Austria-Hungary, and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments. The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Thus, even as it resisted Allied pressure on the Western Front, Germany saw all its chief allies fall away, collapse and disintegrate.

The Internal Collapse of Germany:

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These blows broke the nerve of the German High Command. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max of Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in the negotiations. Ludendorff stuck to his idea of a strategic defence to compel better terms, till his physical health failed and with it his nerve; but the civilian statesmen believed that the army was beyond hope and that there must be no delay in making peace. From the meeting at Spa on 29th September till the early days of November there was a frenzied effort by the German statesmen to win something by negotiation which their armies were incapable of enforcing. While Foch continued to play his deadly arpeggio in the West, Germany strove by diplomacy to arrest the inevitable. They knew what the soldiers had not realised, that the splendid fortitude of the German people was breaking, disturbed by Allied propaganda and weakened with suffering. The condition of their country was too desperate to wait for an honourable truce at the front since the home front was dissolving more quickly than the battlefront. The virus of revolution, which Germany had fostered in Russia, was also stealing into her own veins. Popular feeling was on the side of Scheidemann’s view, …

“Better a terrible end than terror without end.”

On 3rd October, the new German Chancellor made a request to Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, to take in hand the restoration of peace on the basis of his Fourteen Points, published in January as a way of justifying the USA’s involvement in the war and ensuring future peace. In particular, they were interested in securing a general disarmament, open diplomacy (no secret treaties) and the right of Germany to self-determination. Wilson replied that the armistice now sought by Germany was a matter for the Allied leaders in the field. In the exchange of notes which followed, it became clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Wilson’s points were, however, used as the basis for the negotiation of the peace treaty at Versailles the following year. Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, remained sceptical about them:

“God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gave us fourteen.”

Faced with the certainty of being faced with a demand for an unconditional surrender from the Allies, Ludendorff now wished to fight on, but neither the new government nor the people supported him. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 in Berlin on one day, 15th October, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised victory but brought defeat.  Ludendorff resigned on the 26th, and the High Command was superseded by the proselytes of democracy. Everywhere in Germany kings and courts were tumbling down, and various brands of socialists were assuming power. Steps were taken to transfer the real power to the Reichstag. President Wilson had refused to enter negotiations with military and “monarchical autocrats” and therefore required “not negotiation but surrender.” But the height of the storm is not the moment to recast a constitution, and for the old Germany, the only way was not reform but downfall.

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With political unrest in Germany, it was thought the removal of the Kaiser would placate the popular mood. Civil War was threatened since the Kaiser, despite relentless pressure, was unwilling to abdicate. On 29th October, he left Berlin for Spa, the army headquarters, where Hindenburg had to tell him that the army would not support him against the people. Some army officers proposed that he go to the front and die an honourable death in battle. It was now early November. On the 3rd, the sailors of the German fleet mutinied rather than sail out into a death-or-glory mission against the British. By 4th November, the mutiny was general, and Kiel was in the hands of the mutineers.

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The same day, the army fell into confusion in Flanders, and the Austrian armistice exposed the Bavarian front to hostile attack. The temper of many army divisions was reported to be equally uncertain as the navy. An armistice had now become a matter of life or death, and on 6th November the German delegates left Berlin to sue for one. President Wilson had indicated that an armistice was on offer to the civilian leaders of Germany, but not to the military or the monarchy. Any hopes that this armistice would take the form of a truce between equals were quickly dispelled by an examination of its terms. Haig and Milner were in favour of moderation in its demands, but Foch was implacable, arguing that it must be such as to leave the enemy no power of resistance, and be a pledge both for reparations and security.

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A few days later the mutineers had occupied the principal cities of North-west, and an insurrection had broken out in Munich. On 9th November revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. A Republic was proclaimed from the steps of the Reichstag and, at last bowing to the inevitable, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his life in the Netherlands. Already, on 7th November, the German delegates had passed through the Allied lines to receive the terms drawn up by the Allied Commanders. They had no choice but to accept Foch’s terms for what was an unconditional surrender, but it also became clear that the Armistice could not have been refused by the Allies, both on grounds of common humanity and in view of the exhaustion of their own troops, yet it was negotiated before the hands of fighting Germans were formally held up in the field, leading to the accusation that the politicians who signed it had stabbed the German army in the back. In Buchan’s view, …

… It provided the victors with all that they desired and all the conquered could give. Its terms meant precisely what they said, so much and no more. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not a part of them; the Armistice had no connection with any later peace treaties. It may be argued with justice that the negotiations by the various Governments between October 5th and November 5th involved a declaration of principle by the Allies which they were morally bound to observe in the ultimate settlement. But such a declaration bore no relation to the Armistice. That was an affair between soldiers, a thing sought by Germany under the pressure of dire necessity to avoid the utter destruction of her armed manhood. It would have come about though Mr. Wilson had never indited a single note.  

There was only one mitigating circumstance. President Wilson had declared that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. Self-determination was to be the guiding principle in this process; plebiscites would take place and make clear the people’s will. On this basis, Germany would not do too badly. This was why the Germans had chosen to negotiate with Woodrow Wilson and not his European allies. True, the President had indicated that there would be exceptions to this general rule: Alsace-Lorraine would have to go back to France and the new Polish state, whose existence all parties had agreed upon, must be given access to the sea. But, if Wilson stuck to his Fourteen Points, Germany should emerge from the war clipped rather than shorn.

The Armistice and its Terms:

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With no other option available to them, the German representatives met their Allied counterparts in railway carriage 2419D in a forest near Compiegne on 8th November. In 1940, Hitler symbolically used the same railway carriage to accept the French surrender. The location was chosen to ensure secrecy and no one in the German delegation was a senior military figure. The German Army High Command were keen to remain distant from the proceedings to preserve their reputations. There was little in the way of negotiation, and the Allies presented the Germans with the terms and if they did not sign, the war would continue. The Germans had three days to decide. Early in the morning of 11th November, at 5.20 a.m. to be precise, they concluded that they had no alternative but to agree to the stringent Allied terms and they signed the Armistice document. It detailed what Germany was required to do to secure the peace. Thirty-four sections laid out reparations and territory that had to be given up. Material to be surrendered included:

1,700 aircraft

2,500 field guns

2,500 heavy guns

3,000 Minenwerfer (German trench mortars, nicknamed ‘Moaning Minnies’ by British soldiers)

5,000 locomotives

5,000 motor lorries

25,000 machine guns

150,000 wagons

All submarines

The most important section of the document as far as most of the troops were concerned was the very first:

Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the Armistice (Naval hostilities were also to cease).

It was agreed that at 11 o’ clock on that morning the Great War would come to an end. At two minutes to eleven, a machine-gun opened up at about two hundred metres from the leading British Commonwealth troops at Grandrieu. John Buchan described that last morning’s action:

In the fog and chill of Monday morning, November 11th, the minutes passed slowly along the front. An occasional shot, an occasional burst of firing, told that peace was not yet. Officers had their watches in their hands, and the troops waited with the same grave composure with which they had fought. At two minutes to eleven, opposite the South African brigade, which represented the eastern-most point reached by the British armies, a German machine-gunner, after firing off a belt without pause, was seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and then walk slowly to the rear. Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a second of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.

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In fact, some US Army artillery guns continued to fire until 4 p.m., believing the sound of nearby engineering work to be enemy gunfire. But it was soon confirmed that this was indeed the last day of a First World War that had lasted 1,568 days. In the field since 15th July, Germany had lost to the British armies 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; to the French 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns; to the Americans 44,000 and 1,421 guns; to the Belgians 14,500 prisoners and 474 guns. In the field, because she could not do otherwise, she made a full and absolute surrender. The number of Commonwealth personnel who died on 11th November was 863, and almost eleven thousand were killed, wounded or recorded as missing on 11th November. The following are the records of the last of the combatants’ countrymen to die in battle in the Great War:

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The last Australians to be killed in action on the Western Front were Sappers Charles Barrett and Arthur Johnson and Second Corporal Albert Davey, who had been killed at Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November. Private Henry Gunther’s death, recorded above, is described in the US Army’s 79th Divisional history:

Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.

Private Gunther’s death was the last of 53,402 losses sustained by the US Army during its sixth-month participation in the war. In the same period, there were 360,000 casualties out of the 1.2 million men in the British Army.  Sixty years later, in eight years of fighting in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans were killed. While the loss of so many young men in Vietnam had a significant impact on American society and culture in the late twentieth century, the losses of World War One had, arguably, an even more profound effect on the USA from 1918 to 1943, when the country finally got over these costs of getting involved in European conflicts and agreed to send its soldiers back to the continent. Another important social effect, though a secondary one, was that resulting from the participation of two hundred thousand African-American troops who served in France. Having been integrated into the fighting forces in western Europe, many of them returned to continuing poverty and segregation in their home states and counties.

Poetry & Pity:

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In Shrewsbury, as the bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice on the 11th November, the parents of Wilfred Owen received a telegram informing them of their son’s death. Although like his friend and fellow soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen had come very close to becoming a pacifist during his convalescence at Craiglockart War Hospital in Scotland, where he had met Sassoon in August 1917, he had insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He had felt that he had to return to France in order remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men in the front line, through sharing their experiences and their suffering. on 4th October, after most of his company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners; for this feat, he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a week before the Armistice, on 4th November 1918, he was trying to construct a make-shift bridge so as to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire, when he himself was killed. Just before he left England for the last time on 31st August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a preface for it, which began:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Owen’s best and most typical poetry, written earlier in the war, is in harmony with this Preface. As Andrew Motion has written more recently (2003), Owen believed that it was still possible to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. He stressed the tragic waste of war, and so his characteristic attitude is of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonising and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, British and German, could have achieved if only they had lived. Two types of tension give a cutting edge to Owen’s best poetry. He cannot quite make up his mind about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to the problem of war. So he carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning: the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Two of his later poems reject Christianity more openly: Futility arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

A less well-known poem, The End, expresses the most serious doubts that Owen ever put into poetry. He asks what will happen on the Last Day:

Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?

His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:

It is death.

Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,

Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts quiver in the balance. But in his letters Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed, but do not kill… pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Arguments such as this are made explicitly in his letters but are only hinted at below the surface of his poems. Sassoon was more negative in tone, better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at raising pity for dead soldiers. But in some of his poems he managed to do both:

He’s young, he hated war! How should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through!

Such tragedies impelled Sassoon to his desperate protest, O Jesus, make it stop! Owen and Sassoon impelled other poets, both civilians (like Edith Wharton, below) and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, so often unfairly dismissed for his earlier jingoism, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, 1914-18, and Edward Thomas’ As The Team’s Head-Brass tells of a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move a fallen tree because his mate has been killed in France. This simple example typifies all that the men might have accomplished whose lives were wasted in war. If Owen had lived, it is generally agreed among literary critics that he would have gone on to be at least as great as his inspiration, John Keats. Perhaps more importantly, his maxim has held firm through the years, even in wars which have generally been considered to be ‘just’. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients, especially when the realities of war are blurred by euphemism, propaganda and ‘fake news’.

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Sources:

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany.  Chichester: Summersdale Publishers.

E. L. Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Irene Richards, J.B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map  History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Posted August 10, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Africa, American History & Politics, Arabs, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Coalfields, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, democracy, Egypt, Empire, English Language, Europe, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Germany, Great War, guerilla warfare, History, Hungary, Integration, Italy, Jerusalem, Jews, Literature, Marxism, Memorial, Middle East, Monarchy, nationalism, Palestine, Remembrance, Revolution, Rudyard Kipling, Serbia, South Africa, Syria, terror, Turkey, Uncategorized, USA, Warfare, World War One

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A Hundred Years Ago: The British Empire in 1917.   Leave a comment

Jan Smuts 1947.jpg

Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950), pictured above, was a South African statesman and member of the British Imperial War Cabinet from 1917 to 1919. In June 1917, as a colonial prime minister, he joined the ‘new imperialists’ – Curzon, Milner and Balfour – in the cabinet, giving his view of the development of the British Empire and Commonwealth as he saw it:

The British Empire is much more than a State. I think the very expression ‘Empire’ is misleading, because it makes people think as if we are one single entity, one unity, to which the term ‘Empire’ can be applied. We are not an Empire. Germany is an Empire, so was Rome, and so is India, but we are a system of nations far greater than any empire which has ever existed; and by using this ancient expression we really obscure the real fact that we are larger and that our whole position is different, and that we are not one nation, or state, or empire, but we are a whole world by ourselves, consisting of many nations and states, and all sorts of communities under one flag…

I think that this is the fundamental fact which we have to bear in mind – that the British Empire, or this British Commonwealth of Nations, does not stand for unity, standardisation, or assimilation, or denationalisation; but it stands for a fuller, a richer, and more various a life among all the nations that compose it. And even nations who have fought against you, like my own, must feel that they and their interests are as safe and as secure under the British flag as those of the children of your household and your own blood. It is only in proportion as that is realised that you will fulfil the true mission that you have undertaken. Therefore, it seems, speaking my own individual opinion, that there is only one solution, that is the solution supplied by our past traditions of freedom, self-government and the fullest development. We are not going to force common Governments, federal or otherwise, but we are going to extend liberty, freedom and nationhood more and more in every part of the Empire.

T E Lawrence was one of those who took Smuts’ vision of Empire at face value. He became closely identified with this new strategy of ‘extending liberty’ by inciting an Arab Revolt against Turkish rule, under the leadership of the Sharif of Mecca, Husain Ibn Ali. Lawrence was an Oxford historian turned undercover agent, an archaeologist, a linguist, a skilled cartographer and an intuitive guerrilla fighter, as well as a masochist who yearned for fame, only to spurn it when it came. He was the illegitimate son of an Irish baronet and his nanny; a flamboyant Orientalist who delighted in wearing Arab dress. His affinity with the Arabs was to prove invaluable. His aim was to break the Ottoman Empire from within, by stirring up Arab nationalism into a new and potent force that he believed could trump the German-sponsored jihad against the British Empire. Turkish rule over the deserts of Arabia had been resented for centuries and sporadically challenged by the nomadic tribes of the region. By adopting their language and dress, Lawrence set out to turn their discontent to British advantage. As liaison officer to Husain’s son Faisal from July 1916, he argued strongly against deploying British troops in the Hejaz. The Arabs had to feel they were fighting for their own freedom, Lawrence argued, not for the privilege of being ruled by the British instead of the Turks. His ambition, he wrote, was…

…that the Arabs should be our first brown dominion, and not our last brown colony. Arabs react against you if you try to drive them, and they are as tenacious as Jews, but you can lead them without force anywhere, if nominally arm-in-arm. The future of Mesopotamia is so immense that if it is cordially ours we can swing the whole Middle East with it.

It worked. With Lawrence’s support, the Arabs waged a highly effective guerrilla war against Turkish communications along the Hejaz railway from Medina to Aqaba. By the autumn of 1917 they were probing Turkish defences in Syria as General Edmond Allenby’s army marched from Sinai towards Jerusalem. The Arab revolt helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields for the duration of the war. But this did not solve Britain’s long-term problem of how to safeguard her middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem connected with it, of how to avoid quarrelling with her friends over it. To settle these problems she had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. When it was revealed to the world after April 1917, following the entry of the USA into the war, Sykes-Picot was on the face of it a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperialistic plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it to the Arabs, who got to know of it from the Russian Bolsheviks later that year. T E Lawrence claimed that it was evident to him that Britain’s promises would amount to nothing, and confessed that he himself had been party to deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that the Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.

Writing in 1954, Lord Vansittart claimed that Lawrence’s Arab army was overrated, and that it had raced rather than fought its way to Damascus. He had believed that the Arabs occupied the city first, but later found out that it was the Australians who bore the brunt of the siege.  Of Lawrence himself, he wrote that…

He felt too big for the pumps in which he entered my office, boasting of having torn off his British decorations… Lawrence was one of the people I was glad to have known and not to have known better. He was an acquaintance, not a friend, a relative so distant that we never mentioned the subject… He wanted to go far with him, seeming to think that I could ‘do something about’ the kingdom terrestrial yet not of this world, on which he had set his public heart.

In June 1917, there were six ‘young imperialists’ in the wartime cabinet, including Leopold Amery and Mark Sykes, who were there to advise on eastern and middle eastern affairs. Harold Nicolson was seconded to work with Sykes. John Buchan was deputy director of a new Information Ministry created to brief ministers. It was a remarkable resurrection of a school of imperialism which had been thought to be dead and buried for years, spurned by successive electorates since 1906. In ordinary times it would have remained mouldering under the ground, but the extraordinary circumstances of war had acted like an earthquake, throwing up the coffin and breaking it open. As Bernard Porter has put it, Joseph Chamberlain walked the earth again. Leopold Amery’s first and foremost war aim was the immediate security and, still more, freedom for the development and expansion of the British Commonwealth in the world outside Europe. A Cabinet Committee on Territorial Desiderata chaired by Curzon in 1917 recommended that this expansion be concentrated in east Africa and the lands between Egypt and India. It was clear what these new imperialists had in mind, if they were still in control of government when the war was over.

The Great War was a total war, and, for its duration, it stretched the Empire’s resources to the limit. When peace eventually came, she would be much less able to hold the empire by force: even now she could ill afford to keep tied up in the colonies troops which were badly needed in Europe, or to count on reinforcing them in an emergency. In India, for example, the number of British troops numbered only 15,000, which was 23,000 fewer than on the eve of the mutiny, sixty years earlier. The perils of the situation were clear, and could only be met by compromising with any insurgency or emergency which might arise. Given the somewhat feigned antipathy of the USA for being harnessed to imperialists after April 1917, concession was a means by which the British could retain control of their empire, but it was also a way in which that control was diluted as well. The war forced it into all kinds of actions which were unwise in the long-term, but the sort of war it was made these almost inevitable. In wartime there could be no long-term coherent policy for the empire. Everything was overshadowed by the war on the Western Front. Consequently colonial policy decisions could not be other than pragmatic, unplanned, short-term, often inconsistent. Quite often they came to be regretted afterwards, especially those made to curry favour from various quarters, to nationalists in India and the middle east.

In India the promises came very slowly, because until 1917 it looked as if they might be done without. India was relatively tranquil when war broke out, and Indians refrained from exploiting the difficulties of their British ‘masters’. It seemed that Britain would not need more than 15,000 troops to control them. Nevertheless, some of the members of the government, including Edwin Montagu, were keen to announce reforms from the beginning. India’s representation at Imperial Conferences of the ‘white’ self-governing dominions, were met with considerable opposition from those dominions who protested that India was neither ‘white’ nor ‘self-governing’. Despite this, India was admitted at the beginning of 1917, and promises of political reforms followed in August. Both concessions were late enough to suggest that they were born out of fear rather than persuasion, for in the year before the nationalists had healed both of the main breaches: between Congress and the Muslim League by the Lucknow Pact of December 1916, and between moderates and extremists when Tilak, released from gaol in 1914, was readmitted to Congress in the same month, capturing it soon afterwards. In 1916 the nationalists had gone on the offensive under him and, ironically, the Englishwoman Annie Besant. Montagu wrote later that it was her activity which really stirred the country up. By June 1917, they were threatening enough to persuade the Indian government to intern Mrs Besant, which provoked further agitation. In July the viceroy wrote home that the situation was urgent, and any further prevarication over the reforms would be fatal. It was at this moment that Montagu, who had returned to the India Office as Secretary of State in July, was allowed to make a declaration of intent for India to provide…

…the increasing association of Indians in every branch of the administration, and the gradual development of self-governing institutions with a view to the progressive realisation of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire.

Montagu was able to use the words ‘responsible government’ in 1917, even though it provoked a storm in the House of Lords and a flurry of resignations in India, because the situation was then more desperate: nationalist opposition more widespread, the need to arrest the further defection of moderate opinion, according to Chelmsford, more urgent, the country, according to Montagu, rolling to certain destruction. This was the result of the war, but the war had also made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would be enough to stem the nationalist tide.Indian nationalism was fired enormously by the war: its grievances compounded, its following augmented, its organisation greatly improved, its expectations increased; a seething, boiling, political flood, as Montagu described it in November 1917, raging across the country. Yet the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if nothing else, as Montagu wrote in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.  Whether they were big enough to keep pace with them was yet to be seen when the war finally ended.

                 

Sources:

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism. London: Longman.

Niall Ferguson (2005), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century. London: Hutchinson.

            

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