Sunday 23 February 2014


“If any question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied”

So wrote that infamous ultra-leftist Rudyard Kipling, after his son died during the First World War.

It's not just that they're still lying. You'd expect them to still be lying. It's how they're lying that's significant.

When Tory Minister Michael Gove made his absurd grandstanding comments about a “just war”, they led to a brief riposte from me and a debate on 'Newsnight' chaired by presenter Jeremy Paxman. (Not necessarily in that order of importance.) A TV debate of course framing it as something controversial, to be discussed according to the familiar format of aye-sayers and nay-sayers. Most of us just assumed Gove was preaching to the choir of the Tory Right, and next week he'd be back to fulminating about Reds under some different bed.

But it was then succeeded by 'Britain's Great War', a four-part documentary series presented by the self-same Paxman. Who weighed the matter up carefully, before complaining that “it's easy to laugh” at tally-ho Captains looking forward to the big push, while labelling deserters “cowards” and conscientious objectors “cranks”.

So much slaughter, how did he try to justify it all? Well, he didn't really bother, did he? The title says it all. He just took the evils of German imperialism for granted. The build-up to war was ignored, the situation in Germany was entirely reflected through British propaganda images. A mock telegram from the Kaiser was read out, all mispronunciations and expansionist drool. Paxman's dry tone told us that, to us modern and sophisticated types, such stuff seems crude – the residue of simpler times. But, in the absence of any other perspective whatsoever, we were still supposed to take it's jingoism as essentially correct. The Krauts are not like us, but mere brutes. That's why they talk so funny. Everyone knows that, don't they?

Except this rule was suddenly broken for the end of the War, when we were suddenly allowed to see inside the 'enemy' camp. To be precise, we saw civil unrest and a starving crowd setting on a horse. You know, the uncivilised behaviour we'd expect of foreigners. Not the sort of rot we'd want spreading over here, thank you very much.

The problem isn't that Paxman is a blimpish, xenophobic bigot with a continent-sized blind spot – though clearly he is. The problem is that this was presented not as a polemic or an opinion piece, but as a balanced documentary. By BBC tradition it's being framed as objective information. Back in the Sixties, we were being told, some long-haired types might have had some funny notions about the War. But now the high's worn off and we can be more sober minded.

Michael Gove was just the scout. Jeremy Paxman is the enemy advance.

Then we were back to the illusion of balance. Two programmes set up to form a debate, from a pro- and an anti-war perspective. The first, 'The Necessary War', to be presented by right-wing historian Max Hastings. The second, 'The Pity of War', by... um... right-wing historian Niall Ferguson. (Who only recently told the Guardian “the Left love being provoked by me.”) That seems to be the span of debate as far as political discourse goes today. It's a bit like setting up a debate on immigration between the UK Independence Party and the British National Party.

Hastings positioned himself alongside Gove from the outset, announcing on trailers he'd be attacking the ”'Blackadder' take on history.” He claimed without a trace of irony that “Britain must fight to uphold... the rights and freedom of small nations”. India's misfortune was to be such a large nation, then.

Because of course lined up against Germany's “aggressive and expansionist” policies were Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Belgium. Every single one of them a colonial power. Including the biggest of them all (Britain) and, by common agreement, the most repressive (Belgium). As much as Germany's ambitions were “aggressive”, it was part of the need for the recently unified country to catch up and gain their “place in the sun”, before the whole world was entirely carved up between the others. They weren't worse. They were just late.

It's often argued that the initial rush to enlist was due to people forgetting the horrific nature of warfare, after so prolonged a peace. But of course that's nonsense. There'd been peace in Europe, yes. But the same period had seen colonial wars aplenty. It was a long series of magnificent triumphs by machine gunners over spear throwers that had made war seem such a ripping yarn.

And if Hastings is siding with Gove, scratch the surface of Ferguson's argument and you get something fairly close to UKIP. It's the common Right bugbear of Euroscepticism, the crucial question is whether Britons risk being made into slaves. “The neutrality of Belgium,” he asserts, “is not self-evidently a cause worth the lives of... Britons.” Even if the result had been a continent-wide German empire, this would “simply have created something like the European Union”. Why, the underlying message states, should we let ourselves be dragged into their squabbles?

But he also tries on a more progressive hat. He's the only figure so far to ask a fairly obvious question – was the War really some German plot? And, short of some 'inside job' theory that the Kaiser was behind the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand, it manifestly wasn't. It was the tangled system of alliances that let one chance event snowball into full scale war. The cock-up theory of history triumphs over the conspiracy theory yet again.

And he's the only figure so far to look evenly at the question of the German 'threat'. And again, as soon as you do the whole scare story falls apart. As he points out “Germany was in some ways more democratic than Britain... and in every way more democratic than Tsarist Russia.” (Though this doesn't stop him complaining that the War “left the British empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state.” Freedoms only counting at home, it seems. Perhaps something you'd expect from the author of the series 'Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World'.)

Yet that reference to democracy also exposes the limits of his thinking. It's like he imagines it all happened through the Kaiser having a secret kindly side. Against the xenophobic stereotype of order-loving proto-fascist Krauts, it was Germany which had Europe's most sizeable worker's movement. And that movement needed appeasing, through social reforms. (Though initially it was mostly marshalled into support for the War, largely by railing against the autocracy of Tsarist Russia.)

The actual underlying causes for war, beneath the spark that erupted at Sarajevo, that can wait for another time. For now let's quote Karl Leibnecht who, despite being a Reichstag Deputy in 1914, was prevented from reading out the following speech:

“The present war was not willed by any of the nations participating in it and it is not waged in the interest of the Germans or any other people. It is an imperialist war, a war for capitalist control of the world market, for the political domination of huge territories and to give scope to industrial and banking capital.”

Instead, let's focus on the immediate result of the War. Which might briefly be summarised as “good for the workers, not so good for the bosses”. A significant, perhaps the predominant, reason the war had ended had been a widespread refusal to fight. And the period that followed it saw the biggest uprisings in world history. As Dave Lamb has commented:

“There is no more promising material for revolution than soldiers returning from wars, careless to danger and accustomed to risks and to taking collective action. Peace held no prospect for them… That winter of 1918-1919 was the nearest Britain ever came to social revolution: the authorities lacked the support of the armed forces and the careerists in the TUC were faced with a similar situation in industry.”

But of course none of that penetrates. The workers and soldiers stay off stage for this debate, waiting to see whether General Hastings orders them up the hill or Kaiser Ferguson tells them to stand at ease. Even the ever-unobservant Paxman comments how post-War Britain was manifestly different to pre-war, and more akin to the place we live now. But, much like the German 'threat', he doesn't bother going into why that should be.

In fact, even the “left-wing” satires which so incited Gove mention none of this. The sole exception is the one drama - 'The Monocled Mutineer' (1986), which focused on the Etaples mutiny. And while 'Blackadder' is almost on perpetual rotation, 'Mutineer' has been re-shown precisely once, two years later. (Perhaps a handy slogan for the Tory press: “The BBC, transmitter of left-wing propaganda from 1986 to 1988, with the exception of the year 1987.”)

When Gove criticised anti-war satires such as 'Oh, What A Lovely War' (originally a 1963 stage musical) he was, true to type, railing against the Sixties. But there's something else. Even if the popular unrest that followed the War has been airbrushed from history, knowledge of how terrible a folly that war was leaves an untugged thread leading back to it. A thread that must be snipped. And as ever the way to snip that thread isn't so much to argue, but to shift the apparent centre of debate away from where it lies. A lot of clever and professional people, they sat down and talked about the First World War. And they decided it was just fine after all.

More speculatively... actually much more speculatively...

Many people pointed out that, while Gove labelled criticism of the War as “left wing”, 'Oh, What A Lovely War' was actually based on Alan Clarke's history 'The Donkeys' (1961), to the point that he even won royalties from the film version. And Clarke was not just a Tory MP, but an arch-Thatcherite once blacklisted by his own Central Office for being too right-wing. At the time, this was considered further evidence of Gove's crass stupidity. (And, we shouldn't forget, this is the man who complained that 50% of schools had been found to be below average.)

Nevertheless, maybe that shows another thread there that needs snipping. Thatcher's common origins were of course greatly exaggerated by her followers, and were to no degree shared by the Eton-educated Clarke. Nevertheless, appearances count and Thatcherism often portrayed itself as a challenge to the established order. Opportunities needed to open up for the aspirational, to those who wanted to “get on”. To Clarke, the folly of the well-bred Generals in the War was just an extreme case of careers going to the privileged rather than being open to ability. They were 'donkeys' compared to the 'lions' of the common soldiers in their lack of dynamism and bravery. But they were also 'donkeys' in the sense of being pack animals in a machine age, blimpishly attached to old methods. Notably, he characterises them as having an obsolete obsession with cavalry.

But what of today? Cameron went to election on an oxymoronic platform of 'progressive conservatism'. (Tagged by his deriders as “hug a hoodie”). When voting arithmetic pushed him into a coalition with the Lib Dems, you might have thought that would push him further in the socially liberal/economically conservative direction. In fact it's been the opposite. The widespread backbench revolt against gay marriage seems to have put him off even tokenistic forays.

Instead what we've been treated to is clear-cut ruling class solidarity – a government of the toffs, by the toffs, for the toffs. If anyone is poor today it is of course their own fault, for choosing to live on Benefits Street. But more than that, social mobility has shrunk to the point where it's statistically non-existent. Working class voters sometimes saw in Thatcherism the opportunity to start leading middle class lives. But now the middle class is effectively shrinking. As the cartoonist Martin Rowson put it, “social mobility can go down as well as up”.

Were the aspirational, with their vocational qualifications and spirit of enterprise, the Notts Miners of the voting booth? The willing saps, who would strive for promissory notes, only to see them ripped up later? Now we are in the opposite situation to the end of the First World War, where there's little if any class struggle opposition, was it not inevitable that we would then start to retreat into the society that existed before the First World War? Where one of the most primary rules was – don't question your betters.

(NB. Some of the quotes from Hastings and Ferguson come from the print version of the 'Radio Times', and don't seem to be reproduced on-line.)

Further reading for the obsessive:

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