With 2015’s election creeping over the horizon, you’ve got to expect Cameron to use the 100th anniversary of World War I’s outbreak to try to wrap his party in the flag. To be fair, dogs bark. ducks quack, and any other occupant of No 10 would probably do the same.
Of course, given the sheer scale of 1914-18’s slaughter, no government would so crass as to encourage any hint of celebration – so no public money will go to fund street parties – but I’m sure a lot of us expect an unwelcome “patriotic” tinge to the commemorations. After all, Cameron’s image didn’t benefit from 2012 London Olympics with the economy being so shaky, Boris stealing the stage, and Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony providing a less-than-Tory version of British history. The following year the Queen’s 60th jubilee was drenched by the soggy British weather and came far too early to be of much electoral benefit, as did the Windsors supplying yet another baby for their loyal and less-loyal subjects to fund. But using WW1’s centenary to wave a few Union Jacks wouldn’t hurt electoral prospects in 2015, would it? And anyone who depicts the war as a foolish disaster – from Wilfred Owen to the writers of Blackadder – must be ever so slightly unpatriotic, don’t you think? What a shame such neo-McCarthyite nonsense came from Michael Gove who, as well as being in charge of our schools, does actually possess a less vulgar appreciation of history than he pretends.
So it is welcome to see Niall Ferguson, who I’ve always considered a conservative-leaning historian, taking such a contrary line on Britain’s involvement and labelling it “the biggest error in modern history”:
The Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard University rejected the idea that Britain was forced to act in 1914 to secure its borders and the Channel ports. “This argument, which is very seductive, has one massive flaw in it, which is that Britain tolerated exactly that situation happening when Napoleon overran the European continent, and did not immediately send land forces to Europe. It wasn’t until the peninsular war that Britain actually deployed ground forces against Napoleon. So strategically, if Britain had not gone to war in 1914, it would still have had the option to intervene later, just as it had the option to intervene after the revolutionary wars had been under way for some time.”
He didn’t mention a more recent example, the Franco Prussian War of 1870-71 when Britain stayed free of entanglements with other European powers (a notion which should appeal to Cameron’s right wing “allies”) and watched on during that war’s early stages, then remained in its splendid isolation as the Prussians, who happened to be our traditional allies, proceeded to overwhelm our equally-perennial enemy, France. There are too many similar exceptions to try to justify Britain’s intervention in 1914 as a time-honoured policy of intervening whenever a single power threatened to control the nearby continent, and backdating it as conveniently far back as Elizabeth I is even less convincing when you observe that her England was merely a minor power barely able to protect its own shores. I’m not making a case that Britain should never have intervened in 1914 (for instance I’ve not mentioned the issue of Germany’s growing naval strength), but it does make one wonder how Cameron’s Euro-sceptic friends can wrap themselves up in the flag over what turned out to be a disastrous engagement in European affairs. Better to make a mental note of this being the centenary, and just leave it at that?
Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers seems to place the blame on the alliance system and is the next book I have lined up in my Kindle app on the iPad (I expect it to be good but heavy going like his previous Iron Kingdom) and I’ve a yellowing copy of Volker Berghahn’s “Germany and the Approach of War in 1914” and two or three other books from my university days which I might revisit. I’ll also mark the year with some photos, as there will be a lot of re-enactment events connected to 1914. But I’ve long thought that the best way to commemorate 1914’s centenary would be by melting down a few statues – George V, his generals and politicians. Somehow I can’t see Cameron letting that happen though.