As we approach the centenary of a war that butchered hundreds of thousands in the name of God, King and Country, the Education Secretary insists that it was entirely “just”:
In an article for the Daily Mail, Mr Gove says he has little time for the view of the Department for Culture and the Foreign Office that the commemorations should not lay fault at Germany’s door.
The Education Secretary says the conflict was a ‘just war’ to combat aggression by a German elite bent on domination.
‘The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war,’ he says. ‘The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’
Mr Gove writes: ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship, but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’
The Education Secretary says it is time to listen to historians such as Margaret Macmillan who has ‘demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order’.
Let the propaganda die, Michael. But don’t take it from me; the Thatcherite Niall Ferguson has explained very well why the First World War was a mesh of blunders and lies.
Firstly, not only did Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary – refuse to commit Britain to neutrality in the event that Germany respected Belgium’s sovereignty, which would have side-lined the 1839 treaty with which his government declared war, but in the weeks before the war the Committee for Imperial Defence even considered invading Belgium if the German generals chose to attack through France. There was no casus belli in “defending the Western liberal order”.
Britain’s Liberal government, though, was another matter. With a slender majority in the Commons, there was a serious threat that the government would have to call a general election if Britain reneged on its pledge to Belgian neutrality; it would have led to the resignation of Grey at the very least. It was judged to be more more convenient to fight, instead of the Tories, the greatest war that humanity had ever waged, and to do so people who couldn’t even vote.
For all the propaganda, indeed, there was little need for liberal ideas in the early months of the war. Posters of soldiers standing in English meadows had no bearing on the thousands of the dispossessed urban class moving en masse to enroll in the effort; declaration of war led to financial collapse and the rocketing of unemployment, to which – and never let it be said that war has no ironies – the only salvation was found in uniform in Europe’s trenches. It was grab a gun (if there were enough) or go hungry.
The war was sustained not only in poverty, but in vengeance killing. A bloodied terror came to haunt No Man’s Land as men saw their friends butchered in front of their eyes. Desertion remarkably rare, blood feuds drove soldiers to fight with ferocity they had never known before; often to be gunned down in exactly the same way. This is not something, I imagine, that we should be rushing to defend. Were it valid, there’s not a single war in history that wouldn’t be justified by the horror of soldiers dying in vain – by the fatuous and arrogant verdict that the death of one man justifies those of many more.
The Great War was a waste. Millions died for no reason that could ever have pretensions to be justification. A stupid decision, made at a late hour in Whitehall, impoverished men and made them the oxen driving a war to its exhaustion; and they deluded themselves, as all people are capable of doing, into the belief that letting the blood of every remaining Hun might vindicate the sacrifices their friends made to causes that were never theirs. Forget liberal freedoms; to call the defence of Belgium simply “tragic” is dishonest and disgraceful.
For all the failures of the British government’s propaganda drives – which made compulsory enlistment so necessary – it’s a belated irony that the Education Secretary should fall for them so easily. Some advice for him: if he is serious about returning children to literature and history, he should probably start with Wilfred Owen.
Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer – critics of “Islamization”, as they call it, as well as founders of various anti-Islam foundations – were recently banned from entering the United Kingdom. It is the conviction of the Home Office that they are much worse than those who would overthrow the very constitution of this country.
In its letter to the duo, they invoked the “Unacceptable Behaviour Policy” as justification for barring them from British territory – that is, actions of speech that might foster inter-communal division; despite the long-established tradition in which stability is almost always hostile to liberty. Consensus is democracy’s most vicious opponent – and it’s patronising and degrading for parliamentarians to be making the arguments of decent Muslims for them.
“Freedom of speech” can’t ever be absolute, legally, because many existing laws can be broken through verbal and written communication: contempt of court, plagiarism, incitement to murder and breach of confidentiality to name a few. “Hate”, though, can only ever be a thought crime – the definition and origin of all totalitarianism governance.
That Geller and Spencer are irritants incapable of separating “moderate” Muslims from their fascistic counterparts should have no bearing on whether or not they are allowed entrance into the UK.
The British government will not, it is revealed, oppose a law pardoning Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing:
The Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing is set to be posthumously pardoned, after the Government said it would not stand in the way of legislation in parliament that would quash his conviction for being a homosexual.
Ministers had previously argued that they would not be able to go any further than the apology given by Gordon Brown in 2009, because “gross indecency”, which Turing was found guilty of in 1952, was at the time a criminal offence.
But yesterday Government Whip Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon said the coalition would not stand in the way of a Bill brought by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Sharkey, which offers Turing a full posthumous parliamentary pardon.
John Sharkey cheers from the Lords:
“It is not too late for the Government to pardon Alan Turing. It is not too late for the Government to grant a disregard for all those gay men convicted under the dreadful (legislation). I hope the Government is thinking very hard about doing both of those things.
“But while they are thinking, Parliament can act.”
Those are two very different matters to be proposed. Ignoring, firstly, the inconsistencies of pardoning the victims of only one law – when Blair himself offered only a puzzled apology on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade – we reach even deeper and inevitably darker territory of pardoning one named victim.
Down there be monsters. Firstly, the pardon – if unintentionally – implies that human rights are to be earned; that had Turing not shortened the war, his sentence would have been definitively deserved. Second, compare with the 1995 South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Perpetrators of apartheid were offered redemption if they accepted fully the principles upon which the new state was founded. But in the case of Turing, a moral quandary jumps from the past only to be ruled upon with a halfhearted sigh. To observers, it is lazy; to victims, and to their descendants, it is selfishly shallow.
Don’t discriminate between the crimes for which you apologise. Better either to accept you aren’t to blame – or, to repair as many of those damages that history will allow.
To the most blatant evils in this world, there is invariably an edge of absurdity:
“To be frank, Britain has played a famously unconstructive role in our region on different issues for decades, some say for centuries … The problem with this government is that their shallow and immature rhetoric only highlights this tradition of bullying and hegemony.
“How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarise the problem? How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supply to the terrorists?”
Meanwhile, while we consider whether we ought to be helping the secularists amongst Assad’s opponents, let’s remember how His Benevolence has transformed his countrymen for the better. Dina Shahrokhi writes:
The Syria I knew was one of the most beautiful places in the world. The heart-warming people, the beautiful landscapes, the scrumptious food, the ancient treasures – there was nothing not to love about Sham.
When I lived in Damascus less than five years ago, foreigners would come with cameras, not with guns. During my summer nights we also complained about the ruckus outside, but rather than bombs and bullets we would scathe at streams of honking cars celebrating a wedding.
My Syria smelled not of blood and war, but of jasmine that covered the country in the summertime.