Living History

Bereft of inspiration, instead of spending Sunday afternoon cogitating on the insipid evils of British Foreign Policy, all I could think on was a.) what would dinner be, and b.) just how exciting is 24? So instead I sought inspiration by strolling. I met up with a friend and together we walked from Westminster over the river to the South Bank. And in the People’s Cultural Republic easily the most consistently appealing thing is the bookstalls set out beneath Waterloo Bridge. My friend, an art critic, amused herself by flicking through various Yale catalogues of deadly dull Dutch landscapes, while I, on the other hand, was desperate to find something that could be paraded in front of you – something that would set out some clear, coldly conservative lesson about how states conduct themselves, but insistently, all my gaze fell upon were books about cats that could paint, or Gender and Structure in Contemporary Australian Fiction, or – and my friend was quite interested in this – a history of the art collection of the First National Bank of Chicago. The wind being like a knife, I was all but ready to return home when, at the very final stall, I saw the book to end all books, the book that would save so many important people in the English speaking world such a lot of time if only they would read it: Imperial Policing, General Sir Charles Gwynn’s classic of 1934. Never mind excellent, bang-up-to-date stuff like David Halberston’s War in a Time of Peace – if you ever find yourself in charge of British or American foreign policy, this is the only book you’ll ever need.

Now it’s a beautifully preserved edition, but, just to get some post May Day anti-globalism out of my own system, why can’t books look like this today? My copy of Imperial Policing has an only slightly faded, greeny-gray cover, with simply – and in a beautiful typeface – the title, author and publisher’s names, and a brief prĂ©cis of the book in red lettering. The boards aren’t, after almost seventy years, in any way warped, the spine’s still perfectly gummed, and it falls open just so. Does anyone think that the acid-drenched puply paper of today’s books will survive seven, let alone seventy years?

Anyway, that synopsis is worth quoting pretty much in full:

Officers of the Army are now required to make a systematic study of the principles on which the Army acts when, as so frequently occurs in outlying parts of the Empire, or in regions where the Empire is temporarily exercising control, it is called on to assume, or to share with the civil power, responsibility for law and order […] The purpose of this book is to show the Army exercising its influence, with the minimum employment of force, to restore order when disturbances have passed beyond civil control, or top prevent the outbreak of armed conflict.

In other words, it was aimed at what we, with our much uglier prose, might call ‘practitioners’, the people who did Empire, at the coalface so to speak – not the people comfortably pushing paper about in Whitehall.

Yet one of the saddest things about the decline of the quality of Anglophone imperialism in recent decades, has been the degree to which soldiers have displanted the civil power. In very large part – as the Halberston book shows – the reason why US generals find themselves having to settle matters of imperial policy is because of an absence of desire, or ability, or awareness of duty, or whatever you want to call it, amongst their temporary political masters in DC. Politicians may come and go, but imperial responsibilities, as we’re about to be reminded, go on and on – and hence permanent servants of the state feel obliged to take care of them. That said, there is something very dubious about the fact that in an age of realtime communication between the metropolis and the imperial frontier, it’s the generals on the ground – even if that ground happens to be Fort Bragg – who are still setting the goals, rather than elected, or otherwise legitimate politicians. Still, every hegemon runs its empire as it sees fit.

To go back to how the previous Anglophone hegemon went about it, let’s just consider the twelve chapters of Imperial Policing. The first two are concerned with theory and doctrine, with the remaining ten given over to concrete inter-war (i.e. as contemporary as everything from the mid 1980s onwards is to us) examples of the ‘how to’ of empire policing. Running quickly through the headings, we have: ‘Amritsar, 1919’; ‘Egypt, 1919’; ‘The Moplah Rebellion [India], 1921’; ‘Chanak [Turkey], 1922’; ‘Khartum, 1924’; ‘The Shanghai Defence Force, 1927’; ‘Palestine, 1929’; ‘Peshawar District [present day Pakistan – lawless place, been in the news a bit recently, near Afghanisomething], 1930’; &, ‘The Burmese Rebellion, 1930-32’. Some of these are screamingly apparent as, ‘uh, aren’t we still dealing with that?’ issues, but every single one either prefigures an ongoing issue of empire, or more brutally straightforward, is that very issue seventy odd years earlier.

Take ‘Chanak, 1922’ – this was a jolly tricky situation where General Harington – to be wildly anachronistic, the British theatre commander – prevented Britain from being dragged into a war by the incompetence of his superiors in London. Chanak is the name by which we know the situation in which Lloyd George’s lunatic Hellenophile urges nearly forced Britain into conflict with Kemal’s Turkey in order to preserve a post-war territorial settlement disproportionately favourable to Greece. All of this benefited Britain not a jot, while exposing her to considerable diplomatic inconvenience in the Middle East. And as she trembled on the brink of an evidently useless war, she comprehensively pissed off all her closest friends. In other words . . . this is an essay on the Anglophone hegemon managing its upset allies, as it blunders into a war sparked off by the absurd pretensions of an ethnic Balkan statelet it had, earlier, carelessly carved into life.

The Shanghai Defence Force – a multinational effort to defend Western interests, Palestine – how to deal with the mutually intolerant claims of two equally disagreeable sets of people to one piece of land, Egypt, 1919 – how to present a client to the world . . . time after time, you see what you end up dealing with if you speak English and you join your country’s armed forces. Britain’s burden, as one might expect, is today hardly anywhere near as severe as America’s. That, however, that doesn’t mean that we’re any more efficient in deciding which commitments to shoulder, and what liabilities to drop. You can perhaps understand – for reasons of prestige and bureaucratic immobility – why a functioning empire like America can’t drop its acquisitions with any alacrity, but what’s our excuse?

After Cyprus was granted independence, and the sovereign bases were retained, we, and then in subsequent pacts, the Americans, guaranteed this independence against both Turkey and Greece. Neither power did anything after the Turkish invasion, but, to this very day, and without a single break, British troops have been contributed to the UN garrison manning the green line. A small thing? Sure, but being just that, you wonder why we can’t get rid of it as an obligation. Much as, and contrary to every promise made in Parliament when each adventure was embarked upon, all our oh so limited sojourns in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Afghanistan, etc, etc, are still solidly in place.

Empire has its own – dubious as you may find it – rationale for these things, which explains some of America’s actions, but for Britain at the moment, it is hard to find a justification for entering into any of these entanglements, other than our Hessian status in lieu of the US. I mean honestly, with all those gazillions spent on defence, you’d have thought that somewhere on the inventory there would have been a division of US infantry inclined to fight up mountains? Does it have to be British sea soldiers who are fighting the killers of Americans in Afghanistan?

To return, not that we ever appear to have departed from it, to Imperial Policing: something many (especially those in Britain and America, and most especially, on the left) opposed to Anglo-American foreign policy won’t like is that the spirit which informs General Gwynn’s book – from as long ago as 1934 – which is that of humane imperialism. Which is to say, whilst many of you might not like either what English-speaking empire costs costs you directly, or what it costs those to whom the empire applies itself, it really could be so much worse. This, as imperialism goes, is nice imperialism. What every chapter heading should demand of us is not so much consideration of imperialism in the abstract, but of imperialism in the very specific present. That is, the test of empire lies in what it delivers: if it’s still dealing, or rather, failing to deal with the problems it confronted itself with half a century ago, your empire’s not working. If it’s so bloody hopeless that it lets thousands of you be slaughtered as you go about your daily lives, then it’s really time to think again.

P.S. Remember that pro-Palestine rally I stumbled across a few weeks ago? Well, there’s a pro-Israel one today [Monday]. Adverts, weirdly anonymous given how expensive they are, have appeared in the national press urging people to come and show their support. I’ll make an effort to see how many people go to Trafalgar Square this time. For point of reference, and showing how far Britain has to go in shaking off Socialism, it’s a public holiday too, being the first Monday in May. Next week I’ll report back, but a prediction: far fewer people, far more press attention.