Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Was entering WW1 the biggest mistake in British history?

Last week The Times invited readers to nominate the biggest mistakes in history. Henry VIII's decision to break with Rome, Margaret Thatcher's signing of the Single European Act, and entering WW1 all figured quite prominently.

But was WW1 quite the mistake it often seems? Here's what I wrote in response to a similar point on the ever-thought-provoking Kate's Home Blog.

Let's just look at what would have happened had the conflict still taken place but with Britain standing on the sidelines. The war would effectively then have been between Imperial Germany/Austria-Hungary on the one side and Russia/France on the other.

In all likelihood, Imperial Germany would have won, which would have meant it controlled virtually the whole of continental Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Arals. With Russia defeated, there would probably still have been a Russian revolution, but the resulting Russian republic would have been very much a client state of the dominant European superpower, Germany.

The really intriguing counterfactual point about a German victory in WW1 is that the Hohenzollern dynasty would have continued, and Adolf Hitler would in all likelihood have remained an impoverished painter.

So by entering the war, winning it, and giving the Germans a thirst for revenge, we ended up with Hitler. By not entering, we would have ended up with a German superpower controlling the whole of Europe. Take your pick...

I think what this demonstrates is that quantifying whether something is a "mistake" or not is very hard. History tends to have a Yin and Yang about it, and sometimes apparently "bad" things have unexpectedly "good" consequences.

A Christian would say that God ultimately redeems everything, or in the words of an old worship song "he turns our weaknesses into his opportunities."

It's not in fact very Christian, but I would probably have to say that the biggest mistake in recent history was the Clinton administration's failure to take out Osama bin Laden when they had the chance in the mid-90s. Sadly, they were distracted by Kenneth Starr and the Lewinsky scandal.

Closer to home, here are half a dozen things which I wish recent British governments had done differently, the consequences of which have been pretty baleful for all concerned, and which continue to be felt today.

1. Introduced the Barnett Formula (Labour, 1978)

2. Paved the way for Robert Mugabe to take over Zimbabwe (Tories, 1980)

3. Allowed Rupert Murdoch to buy The Times and the Sunday Times (Tories, 1981)

4. Privatised the railways (Tories, 1996)

5. Chosen Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury ahead of Michael Nazir-Ali (Labour, 2002)*

6. Joined the invasion of Iraq (Labour, 2003)

* For the benefit of those who have asked me for my take on the Archbish.

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Rev Paul Martin said...

I agree on 1, 3, 4 and 6. Totally agree with you re Rowan Williams and frankly totaly disagree with you concerning World War 1.

However, my question is how could Mugabe have been avoided. If my memory is right he was not the preferred choice of the British Government but won an election. Of course, subsequent events make that a tragic outcome. But how could the British Government have avoided it?

David Boothroyd said...

I can't agree on your first two. The Barnett Formula was intended as a quick fix for one financial year before devolution started. The error was not the formula itself which was OK for one or two years, but sticking to it when devolution was put off, which was done by the Conservative government.

By the mid-1970s it was already certain that the African population in Rhodesia would vote for the Popular Front to take over, and that was largely down to the intransigence of the Rhodesian Front. The Conservatives can hardly be blamed for the choice of the Zimbabwean people; if anyone is to blame it is Ian Smith for not cutting a deal earlier which would have cushioned the blow. When he eventually did in 1978, no-one believed him.

One mistake no-one's mentioned so far is the failure of the Wilson government to devalue immediately on taking office. This decision almost single-handedly ensured that that government went on for only two terms and not more.

Anonymous said...

Much the same point can be made about World War II. Hitler had no quarrel with us and saw a Greater Reich on mainland Europe co-existing quite harmoniously with the British Empire. The case has been argued most notably by David Irving, who accuses Churchill of selling out the British Empire. Irving's views are unpalatable but in terms of pure national self-interest, he has a point. But the fact that Churchill put the moral imperative of defeating Nazism above our long-term future as a world power is exactly what makes it "our finest hour".

Tim J said...

The mistake over World War 1 was not so much whether Britain should have got involved as whether, after pursuing a foreign policy that made British involvement all but inevitable, the Liberal Government ought not to have reformed the British army into a continental army of maybe 2 million men, rather than the colonial police force that it essentially was in 1914. A serious BEF in 1914 might have made all the difference - as it was British involvement ensured that neither side could defeat the other except by a long drawn out slogging match - the worst of all possible worlds.

Paul Linford said...


The Zimbabwe question is an interesting one. My view is that we helped make Mugabe's victory inevitable by allowing the argument to become polarised between the racist Smith regime on the one hand and ZANU-PF on the other. What we should have done was to promote a third way, isolating both Smith and Mugabe in favour of more moderate figures such as Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole and Bishop Abel Muzorewa. In fact we ended up moreorless washing our hands of the whole business.

MorrisOx said...

It's going a bit far to suggest we washed our hands of Zimbabwe, esepcially as concerted behind=-the-scenes efforts were made to deliver a result that left Muzorewa on top. Problem, was the Bish wasn't up to the job, while Mugabe wouldn't work with Nkomo because whe was too much of a rival.

Mugabe was a clever politician who turned into a monster.

Anonymous said...

Paul, Zimbabwe was Cold War politics. You may recollect Joshua nkomo as a "moderate" but at the time he was seen as a Communist stooge - the Tories wanted Mugabe because he was anti-Communist.

Anonymous said...

The idea that Britain could have sat out WW1 (by implication, France and Russia would not) is greatly misleading. The reason Britain joined with France and Russia was because of the threat posed by Germany's navy. In the two decades leading up to WW1, Britain had to spent enormous sums of money to keep in front of the Germans in the Dreadnought arms race. Much of this money was raised by popular subscription. Britain would no more have tolerated a powerful German High Seas Fleet than the French were to gracefully concede Alsace & Lorraine lost to Germany during the Franco-Prussin war.

The fact that WW1 was an unbelievable catastrophe for all involved goes without saying. But I don't think that it is realistic to suggest that Britain had the option not to go to war in WW1, in the way that we did have a choice not to go to war in Suez, or Iraq. The events leading up to WW1 had seen increasing antagonism between Britain and Germany - going to war with Germany was at home, a very popular decision in 1914.