A Propagandist Rides to War

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.

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Nigel Farage Is The King of the Castle

There is no more painful an unrequited love than that for history. Nevertheless, someone should tell Nigel Farage that the days of the Motte-and-Bailey are long over. He is not our hero; and the barracks he purports to champion, that refuge of well-civilised romantics standing stoic against a hoard of European barbarians, is no more realistic a concept than toddlers throwing balls in a playpen.

The surge in support for UKIP is then, we might then say, alarming not so much for the troubles it might present to the Commons but for the delusions it legitimises as a constitutional party. It would almost certainly lose every seat it were to contest at a general election; but if the Tory party is to defend itself then it too will need to slur out some drunken nonsense. The task of the political party should be to justify the direction in which to take the nation, not to embody its most irrational and populist psychologies.

“National sovereignty” has become as much an oxymoron as the “global world” a tautology. Once political authority had passed from the Crown to Parliament it was always presumed that the people had gained some control over their lives; and with the coming of nationalisation, and of the welfare state, it seemed guaranteed. But however cliched it might be to say, these days are over. In order for Britain to maintain its influence over both its foreign policy and indeed internal affairs it has to align itself with other powers. Free trade, for a start, is in itself incompatible with isolationism; and in contrast there is nothing to stop a government upholding trade links both with South America and with Europe. Now it is true to say, of course that London’s dependence on the financial services would give it a merry position from which it could grow outside of the EU. The government could cut corporate taxes and make the City favourable to foreign investors.

But so fluid a river as that of global capital would leave Britain not a barge but a raft resting nervously on its surface. The investors it attracts would not, after all, be from within Britain – a slap in the face to the cultural isolationism of the UKIP voter. In this context, though, the implications should also concern the socialist for whom there can be no defence against tyranny of capital through only domestic machinery. From the perspectives of both socialists and capitalists, then, it is fundamental to (virtually) all British people that we remain a part of the European Union.

None of this is to demean what are very powerful criticisms of the EU, of course. For a start, any convicted neoliberal should be seriously concerned with the Common Agricultural Policy. At the price of a third of the EU’s budget, the CAP is in effect a method of subsidising French and German farmers at the expense of those in underdeveloped nations. And herein lies a frightening moral conflict that we’d rather ignore: the British middle-class contenting itself with buying Fair Trade no more alleviates the poverty in rural Africa than clapping loudly to make contact with aliens. Perry Anderson’s The New Old World concurs; radical ideas gave momentum to the EU’s shape but ultimately it has an exploitative history, the trading relationship between France and West Germany mutating into a bourgeois authority over the less equipped.

And here I return to the question of sovereignty. Can an essentially undemocratic bureaucracy offer any autonomy to a nation, either in its economy or its political process, if such a nation is shaped by a group of unelected figures in Brussels? Clearly not; and fortunately that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. The EU has a tiny bureaucracy; it has only a few thousand employees. It has no methods of collecting taxation, and its control even over its own currency is not a lot more persuasive. In no fewer words, I might therefore suggest, the we are looking at a transitory state. A right-wing project, Anderson describes it, with radical potential.

It’s times like this that we must return to those principled ambitions when the hope of European unity was nascent and urgent. Orwell, 1947:

When I think of these and other difficulties, when I think of the enormous mental readjustment that would have to be made, the appearance of a Socialist United States of Europe seems to me a very unlikely event. I don’t mean that the bulk of the people are not prepared for it, in a passive way. I mean that I see no person or group of persons with the slightest chance of attaining power and at the same time with the imaginative grasp to see what is needed and to demand the necessary sacrifices from their followers. But I also can’t at present see any other hopeful objective.

If Europe is growing then it needs the participation of Britain. It’s perfectly possible for us to get a political – and economic – Union favourable to the principles to which UKIP claims, however falsely, to uphold. But the weight to mature rests not only with the Right: what cannot be allowed to happen in defenses of the European Union is for left-wingers to abandon their commitment to the democratic process. An obvious point, we might say, but in recent days that old favourite of mine Glenn Greenwald decided, one again, to equate liberal democracy with Islamic jihad.

And then the image of Nigel Farage in his grand armor of chivalry returns to me. If he had his way, we’d be repairing the wooden stockades while France and Germany build citadels. He needs to drop the drawbridge and enter the fucking world.