Getting Churchill wrong. Britain’s obsession with its ‘Greatest Briton’

In 2002, the British public decided by a considerable margin, in a BBC poll, that Sir Winston Spencer Leonard Churchill, Prime Minister from 1940-45 was the greatest Briton of all time.

This, culturally, was a watershed moment in many ways. Firstly, it was the culmination of a war fetishism that had been developing for decades (at least since the 1950s), and which found its deepest expression in the two decades that would follow the BBC poll.

Secondly, it came at a time of immense fragility for the British national psyche. A country that had been fighting wars, both hot and cold for a century, during which time a global empire had been lost had little clear sense of its own role, (other than the one that was being written for it in Washington and Westminster at the start of the War on Terror).

Britain itself had been transformed by austerity, affluence, immigration, mass culture and relative economic decline throughout the 20th Century and the last attempt to revive its fortunes under the stewardship of Margaret Thatcher had been (despite whatever else happened in those eleven years) a resounding failure.

An unequal country, shorn of its manufacturing base, dependent on financial services and inflated property prices had found it hard to settle into a long post imperial afterglow.

For many British people, and perhaps a majority of English people (whose unease and resentment towards Scottish and Welsh and Northern Irish devolution and the growing sense of new inclusive and somehow threatening identities), identity was most easily drawn from the past.

The war that ‘we’ won is consistently the easiest place to find succor and the hyper mythologised figure of Winston Churchill serves as a signifier for all that was once great and in the eyes of some, all that can be reclaimed.

It all depends on which Churchill we’re talking about of course, because there are many. Was in the supposedly liberal Churchill of the Atlantic Charter and the Iron Curtain Speech? The beligerent, defiant Churchill of June 1940? Was it the crafty, sly Churchill who wrote the percentages agreement and showed it to Stalin (and who ultimately was outclassed in sly by his Soviet opposite number)? Was it the romantic, literary Churchill? The artistic renaissance man Churchill? Was it the wartime Churchill or the peacetime Churchill?

No doubt Churchill was an immensely significant figure in 20th Century history, but as with all such figures from Cromwell to Bismarck an industry of biographies and hagiographies surround them.

In Britain, the Second World War (and to a lesser extent the first) has been elevated to the level of a secular religion, with its saints (Churchill) its sacred days (Remembrance Sunday), its rituals (Poppies) and its heresies (saying Churchill was anything other than an English Moses). British popular culture has created a cartoonish Churchill and in his nemesis, a cartoonish Hitler.

It matters a lot how we see the past, it matters a lot how we navigate it. Our sense of ourselves now and the decisions our society collectively makes as a result are directly informed by who we imagine ourselves to have been.

The Churchill industry is, for the most part, a source of mythologisation and confusion and the figure who has ruthlessly exploited the memory of our wartime leader more than any other is the current prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Johnson wrote a book about Churchill that can neither be thought of as biography or history, as there is a precise methodology behind both genres. Johnson, in writing The Churchill Factor, which is easily the worst book to have ever been published about Churchill repeats fabrications, myths and romantic fairy stories, perhaps knowingly, perhaps unintentionally.

The reason, as ever, is that for someone as entitled, bored, careless and disingenuous as our current prime minister, getting basic facts right doesn’t really matter. It hasn’t mattered during a public health crisis, it didn’t matter during his tenure as mayor of London and it doesn’t matter in his written endeavours (which were even ‘supported’ by well respected academics).

You can watch myself and journalist Otto English discuss the cult of Churchill and Johnson’s book here:

Temporary Delay

Hi guys, after ten years my MacBook that I’ve done hundreds if not thousands of recordings on has finally died. I’m writing trying to find an alternate way of recording the podcast (of which there are many, I have no doubt. Please be patient and the podcast will be up and running again in a couple of days. If anyone has a spare MacBook they don’t need with Garage Band, I’d be keen to hear from you…

Nick

Neville Chamberlain’s world view, 1937

British Prime Ministers in the 1920s and 1930s inherited a world created for them by David Lloyd George between 1919 and 1923, and were unable to cope with its challenges, complexities and risks.

In the case of Stanley Baldwin, who ruled for most of the period as leader of a Conservative or National Government, the strain of dealing with a rapidly worsening international situation led to his resignation in 1937 and his replacement with Neville Chamberlain.

The British public was steadfastly against war and rearmament, the memories of the First World War, which broke out to the shock and horror of many in the late summer of 1914 and most MPs of both parties knew that their reputations and careers rested on not appearing to sabre-rattle.

In 1933 the East Fulham by-election demonstrated to Baldwin the depth of feeling regarding war and rearmament, with a massive swing away from the National Government towards Labour. Baldwin, who had begun to consider a programme of rearmament in response to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in January that year saw it as electoral suicide to do so. Baldwin had been particularly concerned with the development of air power and the fact that the sea was no longer a defence in the age of mass bombing. In 1932 he famously argued in Parliament that ‘the bomber will always get through’, meaning that air defences would never be a complete protection against the Luftwaffe or any other enemy aircraft.

Chamberlain agreed with much of what Baldwin had argued, but was convinced that there was a solution to these problems, and saw them in a series of grand interlocking treaties, not dissimilar to those almost achieved by Lloyd George. By 1937 the three powers, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan who presented an existential threat to the British Empire could, Chamberlain believed, be negotiated with successfully and the mounting tensions that had existed since 1919 could finally be laid to rest. Chamberlain’s embrace of appeasement seems to contemporary audiences both naive and a gross betrayal of the Czechs by 1938.

There is no denying the latter charge, but the first accusation must be judged within the context of the time. Chamberlain had inherited a weakened negotiating position, as by 1935 not only had the League of Nations been shown to be ineffectual, but the British and French had conspired during the

Abyssinia Crisis to undermine the very organisation they notionally led. Appeasement itself by 1937 was not seen as the folly it is regarded as now, and popular and elite attitudes alike had softened towards Germany, regarding the remilitarisation of the Rhineland if not entirely justified, then at least not worth fighting over. Chamberlain himself believed that he could negotiate with Hitler and that the Fuhrer was a rational actor who would not seek to risk war unless there was no other choice. It was on this last point that he was most mistaken, and he failed to understand the centrality of war in Hitler’s thinking and its desireability.

Stalin and HG Wells

Here is another article from the archives, one that I enjoyed writing some years ago on my teaching blog:

Ok, so this might be useful for teachers of modern Britain (1930s) and teachers of Soviet Russia. In the early 1930s the USSR had a complex relationship with western intellectuals, it has been described by historian Michael David Fox as ‘Showcasing the Great Experiment, and there is a wealth of writing (much of it highly critical) on the ‘fellow traveller’ movement of western intellectuals that made an ideological pilgrimage to the USSR under Stalin. The historian David Caute wrote a brilliantly revealing, though stingingly critical account of the European and American fellow travellers. He described them as men and women who were not members of any European communist party, but who had sympathies with communism, particularly Stalinism. Most did not want to see the development of Soviet Communism in their home countries. In the case of Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, they were sure that Britain was too advanced, settled and civilised for the bloodshed the a Bolshevik revolution would entail. That kind of suffering was more appropriate in their eyes for the chaotic and backward Russians (on the democratic socialist left in Britain in the 1930s, all manner of paternalist and ideas about lesser foreign types prevailed). For most of the fellow travellers in Europe and America, Russia offered a blank canvas, a society that had been remade anew by a revolution with a utopian and eschatological creed. This meant that fantasies could be projected on to Russia externally and the new society that was developing could neatly reflect what it was the observer wished to see. For example, the black First World War veteran Harry Haywood who wrote in his memoirs ‘Black Bolshevik’ of the racial discrimination he encountered during and after the war, saw Stalin’s Russia as a post racial society that would accept him. When white American auto workers in the USSR were put on trial for assaulting black American worker Robert Robinsonin Stalingrad, the message seemed pretty unambiguous. Others, such as the Webbs saw the bureaucratism of the USSR as appealing, HG Wells (about whom, more soon), said that the world was divided into As and Bs (anarchists and bureaucrats) and the Webbs definitely preferred Bs. Beatrice Webb was initially appalled by October 1917, but was chiefly upset by the idea that the Bolsheviks might abolish the state. Fortunately for her, Lenin penned State and Revolution in 1917, and argued that a large, bureaucratic and authoritarian state would be essential in the task of building socialism in Russia.

Wells and Stalin

The conversation that HG Wells had with Stalin in July 1934 is fascinating for a number of reasons (I’ve added the link but below I’ll talk through a few of the abridged highlights). Firstly, simply the tone and the language of the interview reveals a lot; it adds more doubt to the Trotsky claim that Stalin, for all his monstrous crimes, was slow and a ‘plodder’. Here is how the discussion begins:

Wells : I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Stalin, for agreeing to see me. I was in the United States recently. I had a long conversation with President Roosevelt and tried to ascertain what his leading ideas were. Now I have come to ask you what you are doing to change the world. . .

Stalin : Not so very much.

Wells : I wander around the world as a common man and, as a common man, observe what is going on around me.

Stalin : Important public men like yourself are not “common men”. Of course, history alone can show how important this or that public man has been; at all events, you do not look at the world as a “common man.”

What Stalin is trying to say here is that the material circumstances of Wells’ life (fame, wealth, success and his social class), shape his thought or consciousness. Therefore he will filter and interpret the world in a particular way and any claim to be ‘common’ is absurd. The essence of Soviet Communism is that consciousness is socially and materially constructed. Change the material realities surrounding someone and you will change the man or woman. This in large part explains the belief in the ‘transformative’ quality of the gulag.

The interview also demonstrates the conceit and naivety of Wells, shared by much of the rest of the fellow traveller movement and Stalin argues the position of the Soviet Union convincingly; At this point Wells’ good friends the Webbs had already been to the USSR two years earlier and written their book ‘Soviet Communism: A New Society? which was published in 1934. The couple had corresponded with Wells about their trip which had happened at the height of the Soviet famines. Sidney Webb was confronted with the reality of the famine by the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, but he was able to dismiss it as merely ‘rumour’. Their book praised Stalin, claiming that as he held the position of General Secretary of the Party, he could not be thought of as a dictator. The trials that had taken place by 1934 (Shakhty and Metrovickers) were thought by Beatrice Webb to be legitimate, assuming that the accused must have done something. She later took the same line with the Bukharin trial in 1937.

The intellectual origins of Neoliberalism

This article was originally posted on the Explaining History Patreon in April.

Neoliberalism is a term so over used as it is fast approaching redundancy. Marxists like David Harvey see it as a tool for class retrenchment and the erasing of the modest social democratic gains seen during the post war era in much of the wealthy world (Europe, America, South East Asia). Certain models of neoliberalism such as that of Pinochet’s Chile were achieved through the overthrow of democracy and the introduction of a police state based on murder and torture. In Britain and America democratic instiutions endured and were the means by which a new economic orthodoxy that broke with Keynsianism could be introduced. The economic outcomes were similar, huge transfers of wealth upwards from the poorest to the wealthiest. The Gini coefficient that charts inequality places the twin laboratries of democratic neoliberalism, the USA and Britain, at the top of the index.
The late Tony Judt wrote in his brilliant history of Europe after 1945, Postwar,  that:
‘Every politically significant revolution is anticiapted by a transformation of the intellectual landscape. The European upheavals of the 1980s were no exception.’ (1)
The 1970s, a decade where two oil shocks had brought the faltering post war global economic boom to a shuddering halt, had created an intellectual space for new ideas to emerge. 
In reality the concepts that would become the prevailing orthodoxy from the 1970s to 2008 were in fact not new ideas at all, and had been incubating since the 1930s by economists such as Friedrich Von Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises and Joseph Schumpter. 
All three had seen the rise of two types of interwar fascism in Austria, firstly the Catholic fascism of Dolfuss and secondly the Austrian variant of Nazism which ultimately triumphed with the Anschluss in 1938. 
They formulated seperate but complimentary explanations for the overthrow of democracy in Austria and elsewhere during the 1930s and came to the conclusion that the culprit was always the state and states that grew beyond the minimal role of the ‘nightwatchman’ were antithetical to the concept of freedom. 
States which took a greater role in the workings of the economy, which intervened to correct market failings, which provided goods that the market couldn’t (the three Austrian economists, who took their ideas to America when they fled the Nazis did not believe there was much that markets could not provide), would eventually become totalitarian. 
This view of the origins of Nazism (they were focused also on Stalinism), was almost entirely divorced from any meaningful historical analysis, and it after the war it existed on the fringes of academic discourse for decades. 
The massive wartime expansion of the British and American states and the control over vital strategic industries, the curtailment of civil liberties under various war powers acts had been key to defeating fascism and defending liberal democracy. 
There was a widespread belief in and faith in the power of the state in Britain and America to solve the problems of peacetime and war. Hayek was aware that his ideas had very little traction, and saw the struggle for ‘liberty’ as one that would be generational. It was with this in mind that he helped establish the Mont Pelerin Society in Switzerland in 1947.
David Harvey writes:
‘Neoliberalism as a potential antidote to the threats to the capitalist social order and as a solution to capitalism’s ills had long been lurking in the wings of public policy. A small and exclusive group of passionate advocates – mainly academic economists, historians and philosophers – had gathered together around the renowned Austrian political philosopher Friedrich Von Hayek to create the Mont Pelerin Society (named after the Swiss spa where they first met) in 1947…The group’s members depicted themselves as ‘liberals’ (in the traditional European sense) because of their fundamental commitment to the ideals of personal freedom.’ (2)
Neoliberalism, a term applied by the group’s critics, implied that the ideology was the re-invention of classic 19th Century economic liberalism, which advocated small states, limited taxation and as little regulation as possible on the individual and on the private accumulation of wealth. Two world wars and an economic depression had created the kinds of activist states that the 19th Century bourgeoisie could scarcely have imagined and that Hayek and his fellow travellers sought to curtail. One of Hayek’s most potent legaies and one which now undermines the functioning of democracies in ways that it is doubtful that he intended is the development of the think tank. Hayek encouraged the British right wing businessman Anthony Fisher to found the Institute for Economic Affairs in 1955, believing that it would be a vehicle in his long struggle for ideas. It took two decades for the economic and social conditions for Hayekian ideas to acquire an audience, and the IEA for much of that time was engaged in the slow, patient work of revolutionaries the world over. However, unlike the Bolsheviks, who penned endless treatises and polemics in obscurity and penury and exile, the IEA was able to cultivate a generation of journalists, politicians and academics in the 1960s and 1970s over long lunches and wine receptions. The IEA and a number of similar organisations, funded by wealthy donors, created a framework of a new kind of politics and economics based on the following principals:
Freedom in Britain was close to collapse as a result of socialism (though the idea that Wilson and Callaghan’s governments in the 1970s were examples of socialism was fanciful), and that the redistribution of wealth that had seen inequality decline to its lowest level in a century by 1975 was an attack on enterprise and hard work and the rewarding of idleness and failure.
Taxation represented a form of theft from the individual and that the state had no intrinsic right to tax, instead, wealth belonged to individuals to decide how to spend it.
A commitment to full employment must be abandoned and a degree of unemployment must be tolerated as the price to defeat the great economic scourge of the decade, inflation.
The role of the state was to protect private property primarily and that the state could be harnessed to bring about radical economic solutions to the country’s ills. 
Organised labour in the guise of trade unions were sectional interests concerned with acquiring advantages for their members and as such disrupted the sensitive price signals within the economy by artificially inflating the cost of labour.
All of these ideas evolved from Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society, which found an unlikely champion in the guise of Margaret Thatcher, whose tolerance for academics was very low. In 1979 there was very little in the Conservative Manifesto that might be thought of as Thatcherite or neoliberal; the signature economic policies that waged a relentless war against the post war economic compact would manifest themselves throughout the 1980s.
Writer Graham Stewart in Bang! his history of the 1980s writes:
‘The irony was that a prime minister with no instinctive respect for or deference towards tenured academics should nonetheless spend so much of her time engaging with intellectuals. Indeed, as the sociologist Paul Hirst put it: ‘The first Thatcher government was unique in modern British history: a oarty ked by a clique of intellectuals with a strong commitment to a radical ideology. This clique was predominantly in Thatcher’s circule rather than in her Cabinet. The intellectual godfathers were remote presences indeed – Friedrich Von Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom (1944) and The Constitution of Liberty (1960), who had won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974 and Milton Friedman who had won the same prize two years later and had written the popular book and TV series Free to Choose (1980). They were remote in the literal sense that both Hayek, an Austrian-born British citizen, and Friedman, an American, were living abroad and only infrequently visited Britain. Scarcity boosted their value to the Tory leader. When either man did visit Britain, often at the bequest of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Thatcher could be spotted listening with the rapt attention of a schoolgirl with a crush.’ (3)
References 

  1. Judt, T., 2010. Postwar. Random House, p535
  2. Harvey, D., 2007. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, pp 19-20
  3. Stewart, G., 2013. Bang!. Atlantic Books, p67

Great British Disasters

I originally posted this article on an older blog, but as Britain rarely learns from its crises, it’s pretty much evergreen:

In a way, Britain has had but once crisis since the end of the Second World War, it has emerged in different guises at different times, but it has essentially been the same problem. Britain, as Dean Acheson said, has lost an empire but not yet found a role. In 1945 Britain did not accept that her empire was gone and more significantly, that the centre of world finance had shifted from London to New York. In 1945 Britain sought a post war loan to prop up the value of stirling and as a result the USA demanded full convertibility of the pound, triggering a sterling crisis in 1947 that led to the extension of rationing into the mid 1950s. However, the relative economic weakness of Britain in the post war era, combined with Britain’s inability to accept new realities led to a far greater calamity in 1956.

Suez

When Anthony Eden took over from the ailing Winston Churchill in 1955, he was a popular and inspiring figure with a good war record as Churchill’s capable foreign secretary. He quickly became ensnared in a battle of wills with Colonel Nasser, the new nationalist leader of Egypt in 1956 who had been threatening since 1954 to nationalise the Suez Canal, the world’s most strategic waterway, partly owned by Britain since the bankruptcy of the Khedive in 1875. British soldiers who occupied the canal zone until they were removed in 1954 were generally loathed by the Egyptians and had a bad reputation as very poor guests, consistently inflaming nationalist passions. When Nasser seized control of the canal (albeit offering British share holders very reasonable compensation) not only was a strategic asset threatened, but more importantly Britain’s sense of itself in the world came under attack. Eden, determined not to be outwitted by a figure he compared to both Hitler and Mussolini (though both these comparisons are unrealistic) took up a Franco-Israeli offer of involvement against Egypt. The military operation was successful, paratroops were dropped into the canal zone following an Israeli invasion, on the pretext of being part of an Anglo French peacekeeping mission. It was the USA’s intervention that called time on the operation. President Eisenhower threatened an oil embargo on Great Britain and the mass dumping of Sterling on the world currency markets and Eden suspended operations almost immediately.

  • What does Suez tell us about Britain’s position in 1956?

Britain was clearly able to wage war (albeit against a far weaker opponent, in collusion with powerful allies), but Britain’s debts and her dependence on oil imports meant that she was powerless against the USA. America was keen to ensure that she was not dragged into a middle eastern war against the USSR, Nasser’s new backers. In the 19th Century, Britain had been free to deliver punishments to wayward states from Egypt to China to the Transvaal, but those days were gone. They had gone because Britain’s relative economic strength had declined and because Britain had begun the transition to a peacetime, consumerist welfare society.

The Winter of Discontent 1979

From the mid 1960s, one issue came to dominate all other economic, social and political considerations; inflation. The rapid increase in prices over wages had  crept up during the last years of Harold Wilson’s 1966-70 government and it was exacerbated by the oil crisis of 1973 and the poor macro economic decisions of Ted Heath’s government. British workers, desperate to enjoy the prosperity of the 1960s demanded through their unions shop stewards ever increasing pay claims to keep up with the rising prices. Two strikes by Britain’s miners brought the Heath government to its knees, the second of which, in the winter of 1973-74, caused his government to collapse in the spring. The new Labour government that was voted in negotiated a new policy with the unions called the ‘social contract’. The social contract was created as a voluntary code to prevent the need for a formal incomes policy, but it rested on the assumption that union bosses could persuade their members to accept pay restraint. Not only were union bosses becoming less influential compared to union shop stewards, but it was difficult for them to ask their members to stick to single 6 per cent pay rises during a period with 27 per cent inflation. In 1975 the TUC agreed to pay limits of £6 per week to workers earning less than £8,500. They accepted further limits in 1976 and rejected a motion at the 1976 TUC conference to end the social contract and return to free pay bargaining. When Wilson resigned in ill health in April 1976, he was succeeded by Callaghan and in 1978 the prospects for Labour in the next general election seemed good; unions had complied with Callaghan’s call for pay restraint and, had he called an election in mid-1978, he would probably have won. James Callaghan and his Chancellor Denis Healey made tackling inflation a much more important economic priority than former Labour leaders. By 1977, Denis Healey believed that inflation was being brought back under control and that the social contract had run its course. He believed that free bargaining could return but warned against ‘greedy’ unions demanding too much. The following year he was forced to backtrack as inflation soared once again and he enforced a strict five per cent pay increase for low paid workers. This resulted in a winter of strike action in 1978–9, known as ‘The Winter of Discontent’ that the government was powerless to prevent. Ford, the car manufacturing giant, attempted to enforce the government’s pay policy; in response 15,000 auto workers went on strike on 22 September. The strike was unofficial when it began but by 5 October the TGWU had endorsed it, causing other Ford workers to strike, with the total number of workers refusing to work rising to 57,000. Ford offered a rise of 17 per cent which meant they incurred government penalties, but it also showed that the social contract was unenforceable. The left of the Labour Party also sabotaged the social contract, voting through a motion at the Party conference in October that the government stop intervening in pay negotiations between the workers and management. The government now had no way of enforcing pay restraint and the unions seized the opportunity to gain pay increases. In December 1978 lorry drivers began an overtime ban, demanding a 40 per cent pay rise. Callaghan was reluctant to declare a state of emergency as Heath had done, even though it would have enabled the army to drive lorries and oil tankers. The TGWU picketed oil refineries, meaning that petrol could not reach petrol stations and heating oil could not reach schools, hospitals and homes. The situation was exacerbated by the longest, coldest winter since 1947. The next group to go on strike was Britain’s public sector workers. On 22 January 1979 millions of low paid public employees went on strike as public sector unions, such as the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), tried to ensure that their members got the same pay rises as employees in the private sector. More than a third of public sector employees took home £40 a week and public sector unions demanded it rise to £60. The nurses union, The Royal College of Nursing, demanded a 25 per cent wage rise for nurses. Public sector unions began to lose control over their members, who declared strike action in vital services such as ambulances and 999 emergency telephone lines. The British press reported that cancer patients had to use the London underground to get to hospital appointments. In January Liverpool’s grave diggers went on strike, and whilst the numbers of striking men were small (just eighty), the newspapers printed full page stories of mortuaries filling with unburied bodies and the possibility of having to bury people at sea. Another visual example of the chaos strikes had brought to Britain was the mountains of rubbish in city centres caused by refuse collectors going on strike. The government offered public sector strikers an 11 per cent pay rise. They attempted to negotiate directly with the unions, but gradually realised that the unions themselves had lost control over their members. Union bosses were unable to end strikes directly, instead they gradually decreased as strikers either got the pay increases they wanted or decided to return to work anyway. The main consequence of the Winter of Discontent was a dramatic shift in public attitudes against the trade union movement. Whereas a decade earlier in 1969, 60 per cent of people said they had positive views of the unions, in 1979 only 20 per cent did. There was dissatisfaction about the power of unions coming from within the union movement itself. When Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, promising to curtail union power, one in three trade unionists voted for her.

  • What does The Winter of Discontent tell us about Britain’s position in 1979?

Britain appeared to be ungovernable due to trade union action and the unions lost much of the support of the general public as a result. However, the real culprit was not the unions as much as it was inflation. Inflation was caused by two principal factors, the rising price of oil as a commodity and Britain’s decline in productivity in the post war years. The thread that connects these two crises is that the economic autonomy that Britain once enjoyed had gone as a result of two world wars and the economic burden they imposed. Just as with Suez, the ability of Britain to function and act in an independent way was negated by external and internal economic pressures, pressures that had not existed a century earlier.

…And now? Here are some questions to consider (your learners might decide that these two issues and the referendum have nothing to do with one another; it’s not about the answer, it’s about the consideration of the question….)

  • Are there any recurring themes within the Suez, Winter of Discontent and current referendum crises?
  • Why has Britain found it hard to accept changes to her world role in the post war era?
  • What role has economics played in Britain’s post war problems?

A full downloadable PDF version of this article and questions is available here: Great British Disasters

American Liberalism’s Rightward Shift

From 1932 to 1952 the Republican Party was unable to win a presidential election in the United States of America. The economic model that they had championed for much of the 1920s and which had only been partially abandoned by Herbert Hoover in 1931-32 was ditched far too late and was replaced firstly by Roosevelt’s New Deal policies and then the enormous state intervention required by the Second World War. The economist Yanis Varoufakis succinctly summed up the outcome of the conflict when he said that fascism was crushed by a combination of Stalin and the New Deal. The close cooperative relationship between the USA and the USSR during the Second World War was part of the strategy that Republicans, bereft of an alternative economic offer, used to unpick Democrat hegemony by the early 1950s. The idea that the world events of the Cold War and America’s safety and survival (which became a more acute question after the first evidence emerged on Labor Day 1949 of the detonation of a Soviet atomic bomb), were explained by traitors in the White House and State Department gained widespread currency across America and was a powerful device for attacking the incumbent party. This podcast shows how the right set the tone in post war America and the liberal centre left enthusiastically tried to immitate it. Notionally liberal figures such as Daniel Bell, who would undertake an ideological journey to the right during the 1960s saw the Cold War as a conflict that needed to be fought with brutality and illiberal methods overseas and domestically. Previous liberal ideas about freedoms of expression and association were abandoned as illiberalism became the favoured means of protecting a notionally liberal democracy.

The bombing of Rotterdam

After the swift capitulation of Denmark and Norway, it was assumed by the Wehrmacht that the low countries would be easy to defeat. Whilst Belgium and the Netherlands stood no chance of victory in the long run, the Dutch Army showed surprising resiliance against the German invaders and fought tenaciously. It was this resistance that partly explains the decision to bomb the civilians of Rotterdam. The Dutch Government had already decided to surrender, realising that there was little prospect of anything other than mass civilian casualties if the fighting persisted and this has raised questions about the decision to bomb the city for decades. In the memoirs of several German officers following the end of the war, it seems clear that miscommunication between the ground and air forces was partly responsible for the failure to call off the bombing, once it was known that the Dutch authorities were prepared to surrender the city. Two wings of bombers flew over Rotterdam, one turned back when seeing red flares lit by the Wehrmacht, the other carried on with the attack, missing the signal in the columns of rising smoke. The attack killed over 900 civilians and echoed on a far more limited scale the bombing of Warsaw and later the bombing of British, Greek, Yugoslav and Russian cities. Paris would be spared the destruction that Hitler had planned, perhaps to ease the creation of a collaborationist Vichy ally.

Lebensraum, Genocide and Nazi Racial Colonial Utopianism

Hitler, a cautious dictator for the first couple of years of his rule, had become reckless by 1941, and had gambled everything on a swift victory in the USSR. If Stalin’s regime could be crushed and thirty million Russians starved to death as a result, then there would be enough living space for Aryan German settlers and the resources to defeat any enemy in the west. The defeat of the USSR would have to be swift and decisive, an outcome that was only possible in the racial imaginings of Hitler and his inner circle. The first three to four months of the campaign looked propitious, and there was every reason to imagine in August 1941 that the USSR would soon collapse, but by December a decisive counter attack that nearly overwhelmed the German Army at the gates of Moscow saw these dreams crumble. As a result the imagined racial utopias began to seem faint and distant, but a more achieveable racial goal, the murder of all of Europe’s Jews became the number one objective. Hitler had always intended some major action against Europe’s Jews and between 1939 and 1941 a general policy of mass killing was carried out in territories occupied by the Nazi regime, but it was the collapse of colonial dreams in Russia that made the final solution a necessity, as Hitler’s lieutentants sought to please him and work towards the vision he had articulated.

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