Not Learning from History

“”Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

—George Santayana

Boris Johnson, having won his “decisive victory” declares this has cleared the air of doubt so he can “get on with the job of delivering for the people”. Laudable stuff—but what is the job?

His acolytes claim he has delivered Brexit, led Britain through a pandemic and led support for Ukraine. But his policies for our future remain unclear. Levelling up inequalities, growing the economy through well paid, skilled jobs, sustaining the Union, forging new trade deals and making Britain “punch above its weight” have all been repeated as matra. But how will these be pursued, let alone achieved?

Boris Johnson paints himself as another Churchillian, a leader whose rhetoric will guide us back to greatness. Not to decry Churchill’s wartime achievements, but he lived in the past. His vision was imperial, rooted in the 19th century. It seems Boris inhabits the same political anachronism.

A hundred years ago, Britain ruled the world—or thought and acted as if they did. Indeed, there was much to sustain this view. She had led the Allies in defeating the Central Powers; her massive Royal Navy ruled the waves; her Empire stretched “wider still and wider” having added Tanganyika, Namibia, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq?

But those parading this global dominance showed scant awareness the world changed. Edwardian affluence had been drained into national debt. American industry already outstripped antiquated British factories and practices. Class war and the 1926 General Strike eroded the deference with which flat caps doffed to top hats. And any harmony at home was shattered by the bloody secession of the Irish Free State.

The edifice of empire continued to stand, propped up by upper-class cadre to which Churchill belonged, who saw no reason for rethinking empire. Tea planters continued to mint money in Kenya and India, rubber planters in Malaya. That global reach was underscored by a great naval base in Singapore, a heavy presence in Egypt to secure to the East via the Suez canal and exploiting Iraq to serve the growing market for oil.

Both governments and business were happy to “carry on and keep cam” when it cme to economic exploitation of the colonies. Raw materials gleaned by colonial labour were imported, processed, then exported back as finished goods at huge profits. As other countries developed and seized such opportunities, Britain became less and less a going concern, with the depression taking much of the remaining wind out of its sails.

Rearmament for WW2 revived the economy, as Hitler’s had Germany. But with few exceptions (notably aircraft and electronics), Britain became Colonel Blimp. An arrogant officer class practiced tactics derived from the playing fields of Eton leading soldiers and sailors into war with inadequate weapons and training. An air of “muddling through” permeated the country.

But shocks in Norway, Dunkirk, Greece and Libya exposed these shortcomings. When two aircraft carriers (Courageous and Glorious) were lost through flawed deployment and the “mighty” Hood was sunk by the Bismarck, even the “Senior Service” was shown wanting

These sharp lessons, all suffered in the first two years of war, did not shift the bankrupt military thinking. When the Japanese struck in December 1941, the nabobs of Empire refused to conceive of any non-white race having the audacity—let alone the competence—to take on an empire “where the sun never set”.

Losing the battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, sunk in a single attack by the Japanese 22nd Air Squadron stripped the British of serious naval presence, but not their confidence in ther provision and deployment of military forces.

Then the Japanese 25th Army ran rings around Percival’s IIIrd Corps, seizing Malaya and storming Singapore from the landward—where no defences had been built. 140,000 troops went into captivity, defeated by half that number. As if that were not enough, the Japanese 15th Army infiltrated Burma, routed the 17th Indian division. Another 200,000, mostly Indian troops died, or were captured on the 750-mile retreat into India

Both disasters derived from hidebound arrogance and neglect of training and equipment for native troops. The innovative Japanese simply infiltrated through “impassable” jungle disorienting and encircling road-bound empire units.

Nonetheless, the story that the plucky Britain went on to “win the war” is the standard text still used. That America become the massive arsenal of democracy; that they overwhelmed Japan; that the Russians absorbed and defeated the worst 80% of what Germany could do; that, without them, we’d all be speaking German are stories seldon told among those of Churchillian bent. The post-war “big three” gave Britain an inflated sense of itself until the 195 humiliation of Suez shattered that iany pretence of being a global power.

The point of all this is not to denigrate those who served or died for the Empire but to ask if those establishment figures like Churchill, who ran an eroding Empire for the first half of the 20th century had their eyes on the future or just leading a nation down memory lane. Which is where many still appear to live.

Churchill and his contemporaries may all be gone, but there is a faction in the present government, led by Boris Johnson and including the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bill Cash, Michael Gove and their brand of Brexiteers who would have us believe that past glory can be re-attained—in global economic clout, if not in pink-painted maps hanging on classroom walls.

This is dangerous delusion. Thinking that cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours and their single market can lead to economic glory echoes the blinkered dismissal of the opposition and blind faith in your own superiority that sent 2,000 men to their fireball deaths in a antiquated battleship or a quarter million into years of slavish captivity in sweltering Japanese P.O.W. work camps.

Nations Ranked Globally by Export Value, May 2022

The answer to Britain’s future does not lie in its past—a nostrum of Dunkirk spirit, Spitfire fly-pasts and warm beer in Walmington-on-Sea. Britain does is world-class in financial services. Together with creative industries, that does power a world economy in London and the Home Counties.

Unfortunately, the country is run largely by and for that one quarter of Britain. Despite noises about “levelling-up”, that affluence has yet to penetrate where the other 48 million British live. And, with a few exceptions, like Rolls-Royce in Derby or Weir Pumps in Glasgow, the rest of Britain offers the world little by way of USP.

The Danes can survive on dairy, Lego and wind turbines; the Swiss on finance and chocolate. But neither are struggling to keep their flgging economy in global fifth place and neither has 65 million mouths to feed. In fact, both the OECD and the World Bank agree in their forecasts that, the next year, Britain will grow least among G20 countries and risks stagflation. From dominating global exportss a century ago, it has fallen to 14th place (see chart), being overtaken by former colony Singapore, an island with 9% of our population who already boast a per capita GDP ($59.7k) that is 50% above Britain’s ($40.5k).

If Britain really wants to regain some of the economic clout it once weilded, it needs more than blusier about unfettered trade; it needs unique products TO trade. America and Russia can exploit massive resources; China and India can exploit docile millions who work hard for sweeties. Trooping the Colour souvenirs will not cut it.

Two years after having “freed” itself from the EU, this Brexit-loving government has yet to demonstrate that this was more than an exercise in re-introducing imperial measures, putting the crown back on pint glasses and relishing telling Johnny Foreigner where to get off.

#1026—1,275 words.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
This entry was posted in Commerce, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Not Learning from History

  1. James Chamberlain says:

    Interesting but no mention of the First World War and the never again feeling that swept
    the UK and delayed rearmament and impoverished France as well as UK.
    COVID stalked Europe for two years, killed millions and again the UK government had
    to prop up the region’s that didn’t have the resources for vaccines or financial strength to
    withstand the storm.
    War has returned to Europe, again UK is playing it’s part protected by being a leading
    member of NATO and with France, a nuclear power.
    What other government has had to cope with so much.

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