Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Britain's greatest mistake

Catching up, a little belatedly, on the question first posed to Chris Dillow, and later picked up on by Danny Finkelstein, as to what the greatest mistake that Britain has ever made was. Some of the answers have been quite amusing, others are trying to be serious, but quite a lot look at events that happened and use them as illustrations of mistakes. Roy Hattersley, for instance, believes that Briain's failure to have a revolution in 1848 was its greatest mistake - but is that really a 'mistake'? In order, I think, for an event (or in that case a lack of an event) to be described as a mistake, there needs to be an alternative, and an identifiable policy path that led to it.
A lot of people, including Paul Linford, have pointed to World War One as being potentially Britain's greatest ever mistake. Paul points out, very reasonably, that in 1914 Britain's entry into the war was probably the best option available. The consequence of Britain not having entered the war would probably have been the swift eclipse if France and the domination of continental Europe by Wilhelmine Germany - the treaty of Brest Litovsk rather goes against suggestions that there would have been no serious territorial concessions demanded. Britain's involvement in the war was enough to fight Germany to her knees, eventually, and prevent German dominance - though it also, of course, led to Hitlerite resurgence and a subsequent world war.
But if Britain's entry into the war was not a great mistake, the circumstances building up to that entry were, unarguably in my opinion, the biggest foreign policy blunder ever perpetrated by Britain 9and that does include the war on IRaq - this is of a different order of magnitude). The Liberal Government, hailed by many as one of the great reforming governments of British history, were culpably negligent in their preparation for World War One. At a time when the increasing naval tension with Germany, coupled with Germanic envy of the British Empire had led to the most popular German military toast being to Der Tag - the day of reckoning with Britain - the Liberal Government followed a policy of a closer relationship with France, and a network of continental alliances. Nothing particularly wrong with that per se, but it meant that Britain became entangled in a series of continental military commitments.
This was, of course, contrary to established British foreign policy. As the possessor of the world's largest and best-equipped navy, and an army that was fit only for colonial policing, though that at a high standard, Britain had two choices available to it: it could have maintained its naval policy and disentangled itself from continental commitments, or it could have altered its overall strategy and built-up a much larger army, whether solely through volunteers or by conscription so that it was capable of matching the 2-3 million men that France and Germany could mobilise in 1914.
Instead, of course, it did neither. It maintained the patchwork of alliances that made British involvement in a land war all but inevitable, without reforming and rebuilding a strong enough army. This meant that all British involvement could do in the short term would be to delay the German army and prevent it from defeating the French. This it duly did, at Mons and the long retreat therefrom, condemning the Western Front to 4 long years of stalemate and slaughter.
Had Britain followed the logic of its foreign policy position Britain might have been in a position to send a force of 1-2 million men with the BEF, rather than the tens of thousands that were sent. That might have seen the end of the war in the first few months, as Germany would have been unable to advance so far into France. By commiting the BEF as it stood, Britain ensured that neither side could defeat the other and that victory would only come after a long slogging match - surely the worst of all possible outcomes.

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