Sunday, 30 August 2009

Relevance And The Passage Of Time

Well, it's been a quiet Bank Holiday weekend, and the fury of the British blogosphere has lessened slightly as people realise that, hey - we're alive and we can enjoy ourselves for a bit!

Those still manning the trenches, however, are still coming up with debate upon which we can read and ruminate. We have Sunny and David Semple's arguments on whether or not the BBC is politically conservative. Tied to that we have James Murdoch arguing for the dissolution of the BBC in favour of independent media organisations, with a possibly inadvertant, but excellent rebuttal by Robert Peston, though I think that Peston's argument is bolstered by the shocking state of the media in the US, where independent media organisations owned by billionaires produce material that argues in favour of policy that supports the interests of, surprisingly enough, billionaires.

What's dragged me back to the keyboard, however, is Septicisle's lovely demolition of The Sun's incoherent ranting about the parlous state of the British adventure in Afghanistan. It sums up beautifully the state in which we find ourselves and lays bare the conceit at the heart of our beloved, fucked-up island.

We came into the previous century as a major power in a world where mail was carried by boat - few these days wonder what the "RMS" in "RMS Titanic" actually stood for - a world where the nexus of international trade was this small island in the North Atlantic and her European neighbours, and much of her wealth was generated by being the conduit through which the goods of her Empire flowed. There was not a Navy in the world to match ours, and while the industrialisation of the United States was well underway, they were content to look inwards. Towards the end of the century before last, another small island nation in the Pacific took note of this and paid handsomely for some of our brightest minds to show them exactly how we had done it, and set about doing the same in their half of the world. The fact that we had done it by brutal military subjugation of foreign lands, followed by exploitation of their resources by our private industrialists was explained away with the statement that our way was the way of progress, civilisation and the future. As long as the dark side of our prosperity was kept at arms' length, it troubled the people of Great Britain not a jot.

Now at this point I ought to say that by 'people of Great Britain', I mean those with social standing and power. There was still a rural and working class here that saw very little of the prosperity that was being enjoyed by the few, and the catastrophe that was the First World War brought all that into stark relief when the sons of the middle classes were machine-gunned into oblivion alongside their social inferiors and conscripts from the Empire. That first truly global disaster of the century permanently changed our national psyche, and as a result, the seeds of the Labour movement that were sown at the same time grew from that perspective.

Because international transportation was still in its infancy at the time that war ended, this country could still carry on much as before, as Woodrow Wilson's interventionist stance fell out of favour in the United States, Russia's fledgling Communist government tried to assert control over her sprawling mass, and what was left of Western Europe tried to rebuild. But at this point in history, the stage had been set for the end of Great Britain as a world power. Our Prime Minister had allowed the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty to stand, and the populations of our territories began to wonder just what right this island had to order so many of their children to die over a land dispute in a country they had never even seen - and the answer, in humanitarian terms at least, was plain.

The inter-war years in the United Kingdom must have been a fascinating time, as the population absorbed just what had happened across the channel - for the first time the working people of Britain and their sympathisers had a putative political voice, alongside the old guard who still had a sense of noblesse oblige. The rise of political extremism tends to colour our knowledge of the era, a factor not helped by the rise of the two most infamous political extremist leaders of modern history in the U.S.S.R and the Third Reich. The formation of the latter and the war that followed - the second global catastrophe - as not only were the Allies fighting the latter, but also the island in the Pacific that our best minds had tutored in global expansion who, coupled with their own knowledge and code of warfare and grim determination had been doing to their neigbours exactly what we had done to our territories in the preceding centuries. It should therefore go without saying that the hypocrisy inherent in our slating the Imperial Japanese armed forces for their behaviour is rancid.

The end result of all of this was a practically destitute Great Britain by the mid 1940s, and if we were a sensible and rational country, all pretence of being a global power should have vanished with the end of Empire and the formation of the Commonwealth. We still had a manufacturing industry of our own, and our contacts in the Commonwealth should have been enough for us to bow out gracefully and still have enough to provide for those who lived here, and for those who came from the Commonwealth and abroad to live here - which should be considered fair restitution bearing in mind how dependent Britain's stature had been on the people, resources and labour of her former territories.

Unfortunately it seems that our misguided collective sense of national pride and nostalgia would not allow this, and the following decades would see us repeatedly refuse to accept the facts staring us in the face. Yet at the same time we created minor marvels - a free-at-the-point-of-care National Health Service, which while imperfect, and like all things British having a stubborn traditionalist streak, continues to be one of the best things about living here.

But we had in the 1950s a decade that began with almost painful austerity, only beginning to see the signs of progress that our cousins over the Atlantic took for granted - although that period has its dark underbelly for them too - at the end of the decade. In the 1960s we had a decade that saw great progress, and the first real high point as a country we'd had since the end of the war. The 1970s effectively saw us at the mercy of the events that affected the superpowers, not helped by a Labour movement that had remained stuck in a 1940s mindset when it came to some things.

The 1980 and 1990s - my formative years, and as a result the only part of this I can talk about from personal experience rather than second-hand accounts and reading, saw the abuse of a rose-tinted, nostalgic view of middle-class Britain in the late 1950s, coupled with our continued refusal as a nation to accept our dimished place in the world, egged on by a press which used a comic-book version of the events of the last war to completely gut everything that could have allowed us to stand as an equal partner in a socially democratic Europe, let alone to stand alone as an island - which is the current mental masturbation material for our current crop of right-wing fantasists.

It's an intoxicating brew - and one which far too many of our compatriots seem to chug down with the gay abandon of the most excessive example of Binge-Drinking-Broken-Britain(tm)'s feral youth having been given two litres of White Lightning. And it sickens me to the core that Labour missed this chance to be honest with us about what we should be expecting of the future. Nevertheless, I fear a resurgent Tory movement chock full of ideologues who either understand nothing of this, or would use that to their advantage - just as the Bush Republicans did to the United States in 2000, far more.

1 comment:

Laban said...

I wouldn't worry about the Tories. What can they possibly do that Labour haven't ?

Interesting take on Brit imperial history but methinks the wrong way round . If you actually look at, say, India and Africa, you see a bunch or merchants and traders after cash first and foremost - the local ruler sees power drifting towards them (or isnt getting his cut) and fighting breaks out - reluctantly HMG despatches a gunboat or troops. The flag followed trade in the beginning, rather than the other way round.

Africa's even more of an odd case, in that most of our imperial posessions in East and West Africa were taken over after the chaos which followed the abolition of the slave trade - abolition wrecked some economies and on the East coast the local rulers wouldn't stop. There wasn't huge amounts of cash to be had.

The one exception, the classic Imperial grab for resources, was the gold and diamonds of South Africa - easily the most exploited African country and also by strange chance the most developed.

(It's also a little unfair to compare us to the Japanese. Did we ever use prisoners for testing weapons (and more) as they did in China ?)