“When circumstances alter, the British have the gift of adapting themselves very quickly to new conditions without dwelling upon what is past. Old principles, old ideas, old memories do not influence them. It is, however, very disconcerting to those of their associates who cannot change their attitude with the same facility.” (L’Angleterre d’aujourd’hui, p.19)
So wrote Prof. Andre Siegfried, an Anglophile Frenchman from Alsace, in 1924. Siegfried was Professor at the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris. He specialised in the development of the British Empire and concluded another book in 1931, England’s Crisis, which I will deal with in a separate article. The main thread of both books is economic history but party politics, the British political system and international policy are all commented upon with the perception of an admiring but concerned outsider.
His 1924 book was translated by H.H.Hemmings with the title Post-War Britain. In the Translator’s Introduction it is stated: “The value of the book is enhanced by the fact that it was written with the sole object of explaining to the French nation the tremendous economic and political upheavals taking place in Great Britain during the last ten years.” It is written with France rather than Britain in mind, as Siegfried had no intention of there being a translation. And the translator notes that it could not have been written by an Englishman, who would be too close to the action and could not have taken the position of the “disinterested aloofness” of an “observer”.
Siegfried was certainly correct in noting that Britain seamlessly moves on from its dark deeds. It was the prime rogue state on the seas – the Pirate Empire; it has been the greatest slave state in the world, organising a trade of industrial proportions in humanity; it was the champion extirpator/ genocidal force of mankind wiping more races off the face of the earth in the name of progress than anyone else; it was the most racialist state in the world producing Social Darwinism to justify racial hierarchy it established in its territories; it was the chief persecutor of homosexuality. But it moves on, turning over a new leaf and unabashed redefines the morality in which the rest of the world is judged – even if that involves a shameless 360 degree turn of position. No problem!
The main burden of Britain’s Great War on Germany had been borne by France. The Great War had been trumpeted by Britain as a great moral crusade against an unprecedented evil that had emerged in the world, in the shape of Germany. But in the post-war world, having got evil by the throat at great expense of blood and treasure, England suddenly changed its position to the consternation of her allies in the “war for civilisation”.
Lord Esher, a representative of the old Whig aristocracy which had governed the British State and made it what it was in the world, knew that the propaganda was a lot of guff. He saw it as positively dangerous if taken in earnest, and thought that it was being taken like this by some. He understood the constancy of British policy in the world and saw the danger of the democratic age in potentially disrupting it. He remarked in his diary in 1918 that it might be a bad thing if the US Army, which Britain had required to win the Great War it had declared, pushed the Germans back to Berlin. A comprehensive victory achieved by American arms over Germany would have consequences for British world-domination.
It was better to have an Armistice with the Royal Navy turning the screw on Germany through a starvation Blockade, than a comprehensive defeat of the German State. Germania Delenda Est? Germany was not to be destroyed, after all!
It followed logically from the War propaganda that Britain would seek a dismantling of the German State upon its defeat. France hoped for an insistence by its ally of a separation of the Rhineland and perhaps Bavaria from the source of all evil – Prussia. There were movements for separation in both regions and Germany had been a state, after all, for only just over a generation. It could be easily dismantled and disabled given the will in Britain.
But Britain felt that a Rhineland state would strengthen France and remove the counter-balance of a German State from the Continent. Along with the creation of many small states to the east of Germany this would leave France hegemonic in Europe, something England had fought three great wars prior to its latest in 1914 to prevent.
So, whilst Britain collaborated with France in the humiliation of Germany in 1919 it refused to disable the German State, making it incapable of future war. The humiliation was sure to regenerate a future move to reverse the humiliating provisions of the Treaty imposed on Germany and the fact that the German State remained largely intact gave it the presence of a threat against France.
France, unlike the island of Britain, shared a border with Germany and expected that once she had made such a great sacrifice in defeating the Kaiser, she would be allowed to make provision for her future defence. This was especially since her ally had ended Conscription and scaled back her army to pre-War levels. But Britain reverted to its traditional policy of Balance of Power.
This is the context of Andre Siegfried’s 1924 book. Britain could radically change its position and policy and expect the world to follow. But others found they could not afford to be as politically volatile as the island and its overseas Empire. They could not forget and get on with things as if nothing had happened and get back to business as usual, as Britain could, from its island fastness. As Siegfried noted in 1924:
“It has always been said that England’s traditional policy has been to uphold the second strongest nation of the Continent against the strongest. It appears as if this point of view has half-unconsciously and half-instinctively reasserted itself since the victory. It is with astonishment that Frenchmen who visit Britain run up against a host of ancient prejudices which they thought were entirely extinct. Daily one hears of the ambitions of Louis XIV or Napoleon…” (pp.313)
Arnold Toynbee, the famous historian who indulged in propaganda work for the British State in service of dismantling the Ottoman Empire, upon the conclusion of the Great War immediately wrote a book in praise of Turkey in which he ridiculed the Greeks, who Britain used as a catspaw in its Great War on the Turks. And who after all remembers the Armenians, whom Britain used as an instrument to collapse the State they lived in and who were then let bear the consequences of their collaboration with the enemy without receiving their state for their enormous sacrifice?
Siegfried made this perceptive comment on the British view of Europe and the origins of English morality:
“In their attitude toward Europe the British people have been impregnated with the spirit of Protestantism, with its official idealism, its way of treating all questions from a moral point of view, its love of laying down the law, its conviction that Protestant Britain is the salt of the earth, and finally its unconcious phariseeism which pervades the British that they are doing their duty when they are really serving their own interests.” (p.227)
Siegfried noted that over a third of the Parliamentary British Labour Party had preached at church or evangelical meetings. The Protestant impulse was present right across the English political spectrum.
Britain always acts in a moral fashion because what Britain does is always moral action. What it has done in the past is not always moral in its present but the past is of no consequence to it when it judges itself. The past is for others to ruminate over at their leisure and it has a liberal intelligentsia to remind them of it. It has even been helpful in assisting those in other countries to examine the consciences of their nations and provided them the use of its academic institutions to further such study. Then it watches as they disseminate their agony back home and presumably is very glad to be of assistance.
England nationalised its Christianity in the 16th Century, making its King its own Pope and itself its own God. In doing so it adopted a superior moral feeling to Catholic Europe. But it was a Protestant Power without Protestant interests. It saw no problem in allying itself to the most reactionary of Catholic Powers to do down fellow Protestant Powers if the Balance of Power required it.
When England began to undermine its own Protestantism in the 19th Century it retained the moral part of it for secular usage. Morality was Britain rather than religion. There was a last flurry of religious enthusiasm to bolster the Great moral War of 1914 from its Liberal Nonconformist doubters in their metamorphosis into warmongers. It was an exercise in moral enhancement to cover all the angles and to bind the country’s elements together as it embarked on a great struggle.
It is no wonder that Andre Siegfried wrote that “the underlying inspiration of British policy remains a closed book.” (p.227)
Siegfried noticed something else about Britain that was unusual for someone who admired it so much. Perhaps it was because he remained a Frenchman in all his admiration or perhaps there was enough of a mixture of nationality within him as an Alsatian that he could be a detached observer with continued powers of perception:
“… despite all the transitions Britain remains unchanged. And even while she preaches with renewed enthusiasm the internationalism of trade, the peace of nations and the pardoning of political sins, is it possible to imagine any people more exclusively and more narrowly nationalistic? In the light of this no one should be astonished at her profound incapacity to sympathise with any point of view that is not her own.” (pp.235-6)
The idea that it was not “possible to imagine any people more exclusively and more narrowly nationalistic” than the British would seem to be odd to those in Ireland who have gravitated toward it to escape the restricting confines of Irish national culture. The English vote for Brexit must have been a great shock to them. Just when they thought they were becoming cosmopolitan by moving beyond the Irish island they found that the place in which they were looking for an expansion of their horizons was pulling up the drawbridge in a thoroughly effective exhibition of nationalism.
Siegfried also noted that Britain conducts its way in the world with reference to itself, barely noticing the presence of others, except when they present any imagined form of challenge to British power and interests:
“The British are usually described as egotistical, but though this is perfectly true, they are honest and unashamed in their egoism. They simply are unable to look at a question from the point of view of anyone else, and that is all there is to it. Remind them that you are there and they will take account of you. Otherwise you do not exist, – for they are really very little concerned over what lies outside their interests. They are, in fact, much more ‘ingenu’ than ‘perfide’… Slow to follow complicated reasonings, the Britisher arrives at his decisions almost entirely by instinct, without analysing the inner workings of his mind or being able to explain his motives. He is not bound by any logic or system of though, and when baffled he does not try to persevere, but simply alters his attitude of mind with astonishing rapidity.” (p.306)
The Germans are a great philosophical nation; the British did not bother their heads with such a thing. The Germans constructed a system of philosophy that was distinctly German even before they became a nation. The English became a state and then expanded it, securing the British island, and the neighbouring Irish island, against any possibility of a playing of a Balance of Power against them. The German sense of political powerlessness felt at not being a state motivated them to construct a system of universal morality through their thought. Britain judged such a thing as positively disabling and concentrated on building the fact of Greater Britain across the globe and controlling the seas with its Navy. The German philosophical morality disabled them when they came up against Britain as an enemy. Britain understood very well that morality is a consequence of power in the world. Power is the context of morality since it enables the defining and appliance of it in specific situations.
At the end of his 1924 book Siegfried, alarmed by Britain’s post-war behaviour, and attempting to explain it to his fellow countrymen, asked a pertinent question about England which he was very able to answer himself:
“It is only a few years since Germany was Britain’s most redoubtable rival. Is there no risk that tomorrow Germany will again become a dangerous competitor? Truly the British ability to forget is extraordinary! The danger of yesterday is already forgotten. No one wishes to think of it anymore. Did they ever fear Germany? They don’t remember it. The business is passed, happily passed, so why waste time over it? The peril may crop up again you say? God forbid. But if such things must be, then old England will once more manage to defend herself and triumph in the end…” (p.311)
The “War to end all wars” was nothing of the sort. Siegfried understood that there would be an interlude between the First and Second World Wars and England would take the next one in her stride – as she does.