Friday, February 17, 2006

The worst British Government of the 20th Century?

In those dark and far off days when the Conservative Party seemed determined to destroy itself in ritual self-immolation I devised a response to the dinner-party interrogation about my politics. Rather than unabashedly avow my conservatism, thereby making me defend whatever inanity had been espoused that day I stated that I was closest in outlook to the 1906 Liberal Party - limited levels of state intervention, embracing of free trade and introduction of a limited level of welfare.

This enabled me both to make any point about classic laissez-faire economics without having to defend Widdecombe or Duncan Smith. On further, more mature reflection, however, I have come to the conclusion that the Liberal Government of 1906-1916 was the most destructive Government ever to exercise office. The reason for this is not to be found in the creation of a state pension policy, nor yet the extensions of powers to Trade Unions. Both these policies, though arguable on ideological grounds, were not disastrous, and may even have been beneficial to society at large.

The area in question was foreign policy. Loath as I am to criticise an alumnus of such a marvellous institution as my alma mater (shared, I believe, with the Pedant-General), the Foreign Secretary Lord Grey was a disaster without parallel. Put simply, the Liberal Government advanced its system of alliances to the extent that full military support for France was more or less guaranteed. The extension of this alliance to Russia arguably made the European confrontation with Germany much more likely.

So the British Government, by its policies, made a major European war more likely. Now it can be argued that the First World War was both unavoidable and, to an extent, necessary, to curtail the aggressive expansionism of Wilhelmine Germany. Whan is undeniable, however, is that, at a time when the peacetime German Army measured over 1.5 million men the British Army, while excellently trained, numbered barely a tenth of that number. In addition, the German system of conscription had created a reserve of approximately 5 million, while the British reserves were less than 100,000.

The British Government therefore espoused an aggressive interventionist foreign policy without creating an army suitable to support it. While money was spent on the Navy, policies were enacted that ensured that it would be of limited utility in war with Germany. When war came, the British entanglement proved critical. The action at Mons delayed the German advance sufficiently for the French and British to reverse it at the Marne.

The subsequent military expansion made a swift German victory impossible, putting them on the defensive until the Spring of 1918. It also, however, made a swift conclusion of any kind impossible, making the long drawn out slaughter unavoidable.

If the British had stayed out of the war altogether, France would have been swiftly defeated in 1914. If the British had sent a significant military force in 1914, of a million men say, Germany might have been forced to sue for peace in 1914. By committing a token force that proved enough to delay Germany but not defeat her, the Liberal Government achieved the worst of every world.

This great failing neutralises every success of the Government. Pensions were created - fortunately for the millions of parents whose sons were killed on the Western Front. Labour rights were extended - while the working classes were decimated in Flanders.

It comes as some consolation to think that the Liberal Party never again held office alone after the fall of Asquith.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This I feel overestimates the causal link between government action and the war.

in brief, I think a compelling case can be made that war was inevitable from the unification of Germany - which should properly be called the Prussification of central Europe. this changed the balance of power and provided Prussia with the taste and tools for expansion.

in a world where it became impossible for Britain to maintain the balance of power in Europe and clearly be on the winning side by 'hovering' above the fray, GB had to do her best - and maintain the b of p by joining France and Russia, and by reducing its exposure elsewhere - look at the japan analysis, the changing of fleet dispositions, the abandonment of the 2 power standard etc etc.

the libs continued these essential policy choices - but did not create them

their misfortune was that they got 'called' in 1914, when the only way to maintain the b of p was to fight for it and answer the questions upfront.

you could argue that their ability to drive a progressive agenda despite the increasing ghastliness of the international situation is the sign of a great and forward thinking regime.

6:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

some typos:
jap alliance not analysis

essential policy themes meant, obv it was the libs what had the navy crisis and broadened the entente

for sausage read hostage throughout

Captain, Art thou sleeping there below?

6:07 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

I think a compelling argument can indeed be made that war was an inevitable result of German unification. Indeed this makes the Liberal policies over alliance formation more culpable.

By getting enmeshed in a series of ever-more complex alliances without backing it up with a credible army they did enough to ensure that a European war would be prolonged and bloody. By ducking the issue of conscription even in 1915, when manpower reserves were visibly being drained, they merely added to this culpability

7:31 pm  

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