“Since in the domain of foreign affairs Great Britain spoke for her whole Empire, and since the seas of the world were controlled by the unchallenged strength of the British Navy, the influence of Europe was predominant over the whole globe, while at the same time no world war was possible without British intervention.” (G.M. Gathorpe-Hardy, A Short History of International Affairs, 1920-1939, p.7)
This blunt statement of fact in a book “Issued under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs” (Round Table/Chatham House) is pretty clear: There would have been no World Wars without England and they was Britain’s Great Wars.
It is rather surprising, however, to see it from the horse’s mouth.
Actually this book, a survey of the events leading to Britain’s Second World War on Germany is remarkably candid about the origins of the First Great War:
“The Balance of Power, as it was understood from the days of… Castlereagh and even later, is correctly defined in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as the ‘maintenance of such a just equilibrium between the members of the family of nations as should prevent any one of them from becoming sufficiently strong to enforce its will upon the rest’.” (p.5)
Now it is clear that Britain is an absent subject from this rule. It stands apart from it, above “the family of nations”, “sufficiently strong to enforce its will upon the rest” but immune from any collective action it organised periodically itself, to sanction any offender to the rule. It made the rule, was the sole judge of when it was broken and became chief executioner when collective action was required to enforce the equilibrium. And it then took the property of the executed as reward for its duty in the service of “the family of nations” and a restoration of the equilibrium.
Looking back from 1934, when the Balance of Power was needing applied again to Europe, through a coalition led by England, the book had this to say:
“The Balance of Power says, ‘Thou shalt not grow formidable’… Now the Balance of Power broke down, just as the post-War substitute is at the moment of writing threatened with break down, through isolation and reluctance to join in collective action. Bismarck launched the German Empire on the course leading to disproportionate power by means of three wars, with none of which was there any general interference. It grew so great that, like the sun, it attracted satellites into its system, and the final stage before the Great War was not the application, in any real sense, of the principle of the Balance of Power, but a frantic and hopeless attempt to catch up with a lost opportunity, and to redress a balance for which no sufficiently powerful counterpoise was available. The essence of the situation was the might of Germany… What the Great War really discredits is not the Balance of Power, but short sighted isolationism.’ (p.6)
The lesson for 1934 was that action within the Balance of Power needed to be prompt: Germany needed cutting down to size as she formed herself into a state from 1871. Waiting until 1914 was too late and it resulted in a messy operation:
“Great Britain, indeed, remained blind or indifferent to this threat to European equilibrium, until in 1900, Germany embarked on the creation of a large navy. This woke her at once from her dreams of ‘splendid isolation’ In 1901 came the Anglo-Japanese alliance, and in the following years the beginnings of an approach to France, which gradually developed into the Entente. A stage had been reached when the preservation of peace was seen to be no longer ultimately possible, and the main consideration of the Great Powers was that the inevitable contest should not find them unprepared. Two or three more dangerous crises were successfully negotiated by the old diplomacy – Algeciras, Bosnia, Agadir – and then the end could be no longer postponed.” (pp.6-7)
This is all rather refreshing in its honesty: The equilibrium of the world was conceived in the exclusive interest of England; Germany had to be cut down to size once it had been judged to have disturbed the equilibrium and the Balance of Power principle needed to be put into operation. The organising for war had been done through the Committee of Imperial Defence established around 1902 for the job and a coalition was then assembled of the willing against Germany and her “satellites”. The old diplomacy had to be given its last chance to prove it was inadequate to the equilibrium while further preparations were made. But by that time it was too late, Germany had grown too strong, so… catastrophe!
It was hoped by the writer that lessons were learnt for the Second round with Germany. But apparently not – Appeasement!
Andre Siegfried’s 1931 book England’s Crisis is very relevant to all of this and it contains the following observation:
“One cannot help remarking that England usually looks abroad first for the causes of her difficulties – always they are the fault of someone else… It is magnificent, the way she can preach a sermon to the rest of the world, expose their weaknesses, and point out their duties… Her instinct is to try to restore the conditions which suited her, instead of revising her own standards and adapting them to a world in which they are now out of place.” (pp.47-8)
Restoring the equilibrium was the most fundamental of all British requirements of Europe. So why revise your standards and adapt them to the world when the world can be adapted to you? That was the point that Arthur Balfour, England’s premier statesman, made to the U.S. Ambassador in 1910 when questioned about Britain’s intentions toward Germany:
“Balfour: We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.
“White: You are a very high-minded man in private life. How can you possibly contemplate anything so politically immoral as provoking a war against a harmless nation which has as good a right to a navy as you have? If you wish to compete with German trade, work harder.
“Balfour: That would mean lowering our standard of living. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to have a war.
“White: I am shocked that you of all men should enunciate such principles.
“Balfour: Is it a question of right or wrong? Maybe it is just a question of keeping our supremacy.” (Henry White and Allan Nevins, Thirty Years Of American Diplomacy, p.257.)
Andre Siegfried did not know of this conversation and he probably did not want to know. He was a French Alsatian and a great admirer of Britain. He realised from around 1924, at least, that Britain was in decline, regretted this, and he urged its leaders to indulge in economic reform and self-correction. One gets the feeling he was making a plea, understanding that it would be ruled out by instinct. And England did just muddle through and followed her instinct “to try to restore the conditions which suited her.” Result – World War II.
Back to Chatham House. Britain blamed a number of things for the catastrophe of its First Great War: Number One, Nationalism:
“an extension of the democratic ideas of the French and American revolutions, which introduced an entirely novel factor. It cut clean across the hitherto accepted organisation of Europe or the world, and immensely complicated the problem of control.” (G.M. Gathorpe-Hardy, A Short History of International Affairs, 1920-1939, p.7)
It was, as Siegfried noted, always the foreigners who were to blame (and the Americans who wanted to act like foreigners through a state of their own). The national, democratic revolutions were a complicating factor for the operation of the traditional British policy of Balance of Power and its hegemony over the continent and the world. It produced a problem of volatility: something that was much harder to handle than in the past. The object of policy, being now subject to the whim of the ignorant masses, became unpredictable for a ruling class, not to mention the effect it had on its own subject population, which could not be used as simple cannon-fodder, as in the past. Balance of Power wars could be prepared for and the diplomacy organised but then they had to be revealed to the Democracy. Democratic wars were messy.
After the Great War was won things became even more messy because President Wilson – an ultra-democrat beholden to the ideology – attempted to import nationalistic principles, universal democracy and self-determination into the settlement, making it unstable. And then the U.S. withdrew from the mess it saw, wishing not to be entangled in it, and leaving England to pick up the pieces. That was how it was seen at Chatham House, anyway.
There is an inference in the Royal Institute of International Affairs book that President Wilson had insisted on a full democratic form of government for Germany or complete surrender. The latter conclusion to Britain’s Great War would have meant an American military push on Berlin which would have placed the U.S. at the heart of Europe, and the object of the Balance of Power. To prevent U.S. military power at the heart of Europe Britain agreed to a removal of the Kaiser and instead, a turning of the screw on the Germans by the Royal Navy Blockade.
By doing this Britain ruled out a replacement of the Balance of Power by an alternative policy. It blamed the U.S. for failing to follow through on this despite the fact that it was its actions that deterred the Republic.
Britain was already doubtful about the imposition of a full democracy on Germany:
“The effect of this concern for forms of government was that, in a time of unprecedented upheaval, peace could only be secured by revolution, and that large parts of Europe became committed to a political regime, in the working of which they were wholly without experience, and which ran counter to all their historical traditions.” (p.14)
That was a very sensible argument: U.S. exporting of flat pack democracy could only end in tears. But whilst that was sayable in 1934 it was not once the Balance of Power became operable toward Germany just after. It is just an interesting insight that the British State had that it chose to supress.
But with regard to the principle of “self-determination” on which John Redmond recruited the Irish for Britain’s Great War the Chatham House book is even more informative:
“An even more disastrous doctrine (than universal democracy) perhaps, when erected into an almost immutable principle, was that of the right to racial self-determination. Like other principles to which the maxim corruptio optimi pessima applies, it is sound enough when not carried too far. The trouble was that in the President’s mind it was the key to the whole solution, and an infallible, universal panacea… English opinion as a whole had never accepted the principle: under the terser synonym of ‘home rule’, it had long been vigorously repudiated by a large section of the population; the British ideal was to give to a whole diversity of races so just and impartial a government that they should become loyal and contented citizens; it was not her practice to admit the claims of each subordinate fraction to independent sovereignty.” (p.17)
Britain dealt with the emergence of democracy and notions of racial self-determination by using them as instruments to disrupt the regions of its rivals whilst suppressing such notions as utterly impossible/Treason in its own Empire. The result was a Home Rule movement in Ireland rather than one for Irish independence. But even Home Rule was unacceptable before the Great War to the substance of Britain.
Notions of self-determination were dangerous if applied to the mass of humanity by ignorant Americans:
“The idea of self-determination… causes unrest by the fatal fascination of its appeal to primitive races, quite unfitted, except in their own estimation, to play the part of sovereign states. But the cardinal inherent vice of the doctrine lies in the fact that to apply it in practice inevitably involves its violation. In the racial and linguistic jig-saw of eastern Europe there are no clear cut lines of demarkation… However impartially the principle might be applied, millions of Europeans would necessarily be left with a rankling grievance, which they could justify by an appeal to that principle itself.” (pp.16-17)
Blaming President Wilson was handy, particularly when he was done and Congress had repudiated his policy. But had not Liberal England dabbled extensively in such things in its “war for small nations” and “self-determination” when it had helped its Great War effort abroad. Had it not encouraged such ideas amongst the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Arabs and the Jews? Was this not part of its Janus head, with the Liberal face winking at the gullible to make cannon fodder of them in the Great moral War?
After looking at the Great War for over a decade and from a variety of angles I have come to the conclusion that the cataclysmic nature of it originates in the hinterland between the Balance of Power war that the British State organised itself for and the English Democracy that came to make its own when confronted with it. That hinterland was largely occupied by the Liberal Party and its ally Redmondite Ireland. That element – which became fused in the Irish Home Rule struggle – threw itself into War when it had initially opposed it and then declared it as something it wasn’t and hadn’t been intended to be, in the course of joining it.
But in altering the character of this Great War it did not alter its substance. That substance was attempted to be retrieved by the substance of the British State at the Wars conclusion. However, perception is very important in such things and the settlement had to be a compromise, and a disastrous one at that.
The substance might have rescued the War with the decimation of Liberal England in the waging of it but then the U.S. had to be procured to win it all and that led to President Wilson. President Wilson merely enhanced the problems that Britain’s Great War created for Europe and the world as England attempted to rebottle the genie it had let loose to achieve a satisfactory conclusion.
Things then became very complicated and difficult in the aftermath, in the world Britain had won through its Great War.
Andre Siegfried’s 1931 book Britain in Crisis describes how England was, despite being the predominant Power in the world, floundering in this post-War world that it had carved out, due to its moral pronouncements and their reinforcement by its Anglo-Saxon ally. Now Britain was caught between Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world it had itself spawned across the globe – Greater Britain plus the U.S. Poised between the two, with its economic power seeping away, it could not decide what it was, what it should be and what it should do: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Andre Siegfried wrote in 1931:
“The old British disdain for the foreigner has increased considerably since the Treaty of Versailles, and in any case no Englishman ever feels that an Italian, a German, or a Frenchman is quite his equal. Politeness forbids his saying so, but he would hardly know how to conceal his humiliation if he were included in that rabble, so he makes up his mind to steer clear of them… When Continental affairs are not going to England’s liking, her natural reaction is to fly in the opposite direction, and seek refuge among the Anglo-Saxon peoples.” (England’s Crisis, p.232)
Siegfried, although an Alsatian French Protestant admirer of the British and their Empire, described England in a way that would be as true today as it was nearly a century ago.
He noted that England’s culture was European in origin but because of her island insularity her customs had remained distinct from the Continental mainland. These peculiar customs that had developed and been reinforced by the English Reformation had been spread across the world to Greater Britain/America. So England lived in two worlds: one which she disdained and periodically interfered with for her own interests and the other that she sought to pull along with her, for her own interests.
Siegfried was clear that England, despite appearances, was fundamentally Nationalist – but Nationalist in a racial rather than territorial sense:
“British nationalism is based more on racial feelings than on attachment to the soil… The racial appeal, therefore, has always exerted a powerful influence on the British.” (p.233)
As Roger Casement noted:
“The idea of ‘Empire’ was preached in place of patriotism and those who dared think first of England and the home necessities of Englishmen, were scornfully termed ‘Little Englanders’.” (Continental Times 18.10.1915)
Imperially Britain was about “kith and kin” fundamentally, summed up in Lord Milner’s remark that “England means nothing to me”, and his description of himself instead as a “British Race Patriot”. It involved the understanding that race meant everything and there was a racial hierarchy in which the English Anglo-Saxons stood top. Territory was just a means to an end, the end being supremacy. If England fell one day, as a result of miscalculation in the Balance of Power, its government could be withdrawn to Canada, for example.
As Siegfried noted Britain drew away from Europe after its Great War had made it a “mad house”. It looked outward to its Greater Britain and to the U.S. – a kind of semi-lost territory of Greater Britain on which hope had not been entirely lost of regain in some form or other.
Britain had begun to attempt to bind Greater Britain/Empire/Commonwealth closer to it, even imagining the development of an Imperial Federation based on Race, with the First Class White Anglo-Saxons races governing on an equal basis and the lesser breeds of the Empire perhaps being brought up to the level of civilisation necessary to take up such responsibility, over the centuries. The lighter the skin the more quickly, in all likelihood, that would be achieved given the relationship between whiteness and civilisation. The blacks, at the lowest end of humanity, would probably never reach such a stage and would need ruling for the foreseeable future.
But the White Colonies disappointed Britain. The War propaganda infused them with a nationalism of their own, the conduct of the War gave them second thoughts about being ordered into battle at England’s whim and they began to stop taking England’s excess/surplus population because it was mostly composed of unemployed proletarians when hardy rurals were required for development. The Great War began to fade the dream of Imperial Federation and the Chamberlain proposal of 1903 became the lost opportunity.
But as Siegfried noted in his 1924 book Post-War Britain the relationship between the Empire (including Irish Free State) and Mother England was still one of Imperial obligation:
“The Dominions run the risk of finding themselves suddenly confronted with the alternative either of being dragged into a policy or even a war of which they disapprove, or of letting Great Britain get out of it alone as best she can. The result… is that… the situation practically remains that of a mother country ruling her colonies.” (p.221)
Siegfried advised the British Colonies to “simply demand that Britain should limit her role to that of managing director of an Imperial concern.” (p.222)
Siegfried’s Britain in Crisis has large sections devoted to England’s decline, from 1880, which bolster the case for a Great War in 1914. But Siegfried, in describing England’s instinct “to try to restore the conditions which suited her, instead of revising her own standards and adapting them to a world in which they are now out of place” never puts two and two together. Although perceptively understanding Britain’s character and the situation it obviously wants to reverse, he cannot draw the conclusion that its statesmen were forming a view of there being a simple way out of the position of difficulty: Rather than losing ground on the existing playing field why not send a plough through it.
Siegfried notes that Britain’s decline began to be noticed around 1880 when economic rivals appeared to England’s industry and trade – something that was natural but which Britain was unwilling to accept, or do anything about through a reform of itself:
“She enjoyed a complete monopoly not only in distant countries, but even in Europe, where industrialism was still backward and, without realising it, she was accustomed to all that this monopoly entailed. She honestly believed that she was competing internationally under normal conditions without guile and according to the rules of free trade. In reality, however, her commercial victories were less important than she thought, because she had not encountered a dangerous rival until she met the Germany of William II. Insular temperamentally as well as geographically, she is apt to consider all foreigners – even Europeans – as second-raters, living on a plane inferior to her own. The legendary Englishman who remarked that ‘The negroes begin at Calais, was only joking no doubt but in his heart of hearts he meant what he said.” (p.21)
It was Winston Churchill, I believe, who remarked “The wogs begin at Calais.” But it was a very popular phrase in England well before the Labour MP for Woodford attributed it to him in a 1949 Parliamentary debate.
Siegfried attributes England’s great economic advantage to its coal and the development of the steam-engine. England’s mines enjoyed a quasi-monopoly in the world until late into the 19th Century and coal was the only fuel used by industry. So Britain’s industries enjoyed low manufacturing costs because of coal, despite higher labour costs in the actual making of things. But the industrial revolution in Britain began to create a proletarian society like no other in the world and this working class had to be sated by higher wages, cheap food and Democracy/Imperialism to be kept in order.
The situation of British economic predominance/monopoly could not continue. An example had been set of progress in the world and the rules of the game were established by Britain. It could not remain that other countries would be content with an international division of labour that directed all wealth to a small island off the coast of Europe. As other countries began to mine coal and combined this with the lower wage costs of peasant, non-proletarian societies England’s competitive edge began to erode. And England could only sate its proletarian mass by cheapening its food, to sustain its standard of living, engaging it in its Imperial mission, finding territories for its excess to be redistributed to and democratising its political structures. It could not do the necessary, as Siegfried saw it, from a French peasant point of view, by tightening the belt and lowering the standard of living in order to compete.
With its economic predominance/monopoly England developed the principle of Free Trade (sacrificing the Irish surplus to it in the 1840s) and the Liberal economic dogma flourished:
“Under these conditions the doctrine of Free Trade was particularly apt; it seems to have been conceived especially for England by a Providence at once attentive and partial. Liberal doctrines and self-interest coincided so exactly that selfishness and disinterested humanitarianism became indistinguishable.” (p.13)
This was English Liberalism, united by the doctrine of Free Trade, from its Nonconformist Conscience to its Liberal Imperialists, the generator of the Great Irish Famine and the Great War of 1914.
Sir Robert Peel’s famous speech justifying the Repeal of the Corn Laws and the removal of Tory opposition to Free Trade in January 1846 explained that the pre-eminence of coal and iron, along with England’s maritime supremacy, made it possible to sate the masses with cheap food to prevent instability. Twenty years later Stanley Jevons noted:
“Unfettered commerce, vindicated by our political economists, and founded on the material basis of our coal resources, has made the several quarters of the globe our willing tributaries. The plains of North America and Russia are our corn-fields; Chicago and Odessa our granaries; Canada and the Baltic are our timber-forests; Australasia contains our sheep-farms, and in South America are our herds of oxen; Peru sends her silver, and the gold of California and Australia flows to London; the Chinese grow tea for us, and our coffee, sugar, and spice plantations are in all the Indies. Spain and France are our vineyards, and the Mediterranean our fruit-garden; and our cotton-grounds, which formerly occupied the Southern United States, are now everywhere in the warm regions of the earth.” (p.15)
The Free Trade policy with its low cost imports resulted in a foreseen decline in British agricultural production and a dangerous dependence on imported food. It also meant that industrialism had to be pursued to its utmost limits so that the purchases from the world could be paid for by exports. Britain was proletarianised and could not be economically independent in the division of labour it was creating. It became dependant upon it.
Britain required supplies for her expanding proletarian population and its industry. If these were not forthcoming her population, no longer capable of living in a functional relationship with nature, would starve and her industry would go into paralysis. Providence had not provided the small island that dominated the world with such supplies. Free Trade provided a system by which these supplies could be taken at their cheapest price without the need of any unnecessary expenditure in blood and treasure. But if they were not forthcoming there was always the Royal Navy to encourage supply.
As Siegfried noted the problem was that this global economic creation of Britain, in which there was a great world-wide specialisation of labour, to facilitate England’s prosperity and pre-eminence, depended upon “hypotheses which are not necessarily permanent. England’s success was due to the coincidence of a variety of exceptional circumstances.” (p.17)
This situation, on which Britain depended for its prosperity, meant that it over-industrialised and over-proletarianised itself, concentrating the world’s productive forces on a few square miles of the British island with an accumulating and dense population:
“which in the last resort must depend for its existence less on the products of the soil than on the margin of profit realised by the exporting industries . There was no guarantee that the new countries would not one day wish to manufacture their own raw materials, nor that England’s costs of production would always be lower than that of her competitors. This last consideration is really key to the whole problem.” (p.18)
This situation was bound to be temporary.
It depended upon the Liberal Free Traders being able to maintain labour as a mere form of merchandise and for the Free Market to be able to lower its value, and its wages, if required by economic conditions, as competition emerged. Siegfried saw that if the Free Market could not accomplish this after other countries began to mine coal and develop industrially: “This would bring the menace of unemployment to an England over-equipped and over-populated. The only course of action open to her would be mass emigration or a permanent lowering of the standard of living.”(p.20)
Mass emigration was encouraged to the waste-spaces of Greater Britain depopulated by the extirpation of the lesser, useless races. This was a condition of supremacy, either in sending an elite to govern native colonies or by installing entire populations to dominate them. But it was not enough. And “a permanent lowering of the standard of living” was inconceivable within the developing popular Imperialism/Democracy.
It had to wait until 1900 when the writing appeared on the wall with regard to Germany for a simple solution to emerge to an intractable problem. As the Prime Minister who founded the Committee of Imperial Defence suggested to the U.S. Ambassador in 1910 reform was unthinkable but there was another course possible:
“Balfour: That would mean lowering our standard of living. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to have a war.”