Sunday, 5 January 2014

Let England Shake

To mark the upcoming centenary of the Great War, Michael Gove has decided to attack the history dons who ridiculed his inept curriculum proposals last year by conflating Richard Evans with Richard Curtis: "The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths". Confusingly, the headline of his Daily Mail article talks of the approaching anniversary, which routinely happens every year, but then neither Gove nor Daily Mail sub-editors are noted for their care and attention.

Gove's attraction to history is that it allows him to freely insult the dead, who cannot after all sue (the last surviving British soldier, Harry Patch, who called the war "legalised mass murder", died in 2009). This shows the extent to which his political approach is influenced by his background in journalism (you can take the boy out of the gutter press ... etc). Where Boris Johnson acts like a particularly unhinged and solipsistic columnist, Gove clearly sees himself as a leader writer, thundering about iniquities while insisting on formal politeness at all times. In 2013 his assaults upon the dead included his snide equivalence of Jade Goody and Antonio Gramsci and his insistence that the Daily Mail's hatchet-job on Ralph Miliband was "the price we pay for liberty" (eternal vigilance now being the monopoly of GCHQ).

As ever, having wrapped himself in the flag, Gove pleases his regular employers at the Daily Hate by insisting on press freedom, which he thinly disguises as a universal right rather than the privilege of rich nutters: "But whatever each of us takes from these acts of remembrance and hours of debate it is always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty". The Mail's respect for drawing one's own conclusions was coincidentally highlighted last week by their review of Polly Harvey's guest-editorship of Radio 4's Today programme as "drivel" and "left-wing rants". Harvey's filtering of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through the imagery of the Great War, in Let England Shake, did not find favour.

One of the targeted dons, Richard Evans (who wittily summarised Gove's ideal curriculum in 2011 as "the wonderfulness of us"), was notably scathing about the Education Secretary's previous forays into Great War history last year: "Only from a narrowly British perspective, and in ignorance of modern scholarship on the period, is it possible to view the end of the war in 1918 as a victory for Britain. The men who enlisted may have thought they were fighting for civilisation, a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom: they were wrong". As Evans noted in reply to Gove's latest article, the simplistic attempt to paint Willhelmine Germany as bad and Britain as good simply doesn't square with the facts: "How can you possibly claim that Britain was fighting for democracy and liberal values when the main ally was Tsarist Russia? That was a despotism that put Germany in the shade and sponsored pogroms in 1903-6."

Many other critics have noted that in 1914 Germany had universal male suffrage, while Britain didn't, which gives you an insight into the latter's "special tradition of liberty" (and all this without mentioning Ireland or the colonies). Evans's point is not that Britain was guilty of hypocrisy in 1914, any more than it was in allying with Stalin's USSR in part deux, but that declared war aims, whether contemporary or retrospective, should be treated with scepticism. If history is a trial (i.e. an attempt to establish truth), then the role of the historian is more akin to a prosecuting or defending counsel than a judge, and the acceptance of this multiplicity - that there may be two or more sides to an argument - is central to the method. Perhaps the finest film ever made about history (as opposed to a film merely set in the past) was Rashomon, precisely because it presented multiple, conflicting perspectives.

The broader consensus about the Great War, from left to right, and a key reason for the subsequent revulsion, is that it was a case of unintended consequences, not a noble matter of principle. It was first and foremost a political blunder, by a complacent elite (all wars are initiated by elites), before it was a military one. Though economic and geopolitical pressures made European conflict likely (the underlying causes of war are often described with the acronym MAIN: militarism, alliances, imperialism and nationalism), many politicians and military strategists believed it could either be contained by diplomacy (the system of alliances was meant to spread risk, not amplify it - a strategic error similar to the dilution of financial risk in the years before 2008) or, in the worst case, would produce quick military resolutions (famously the Schlieffen Plan). The continuing sensitivity over Great War historiography, and its modern relevance, is entirely down to the evidence it provides for the self-delusion of the powerful.

Britain's involvement in the war was a consequence of the traditional pragmatic policy of seeking a balance of power in Europe overlaid with the newer ideology of "liberal intervention" that had been used to justify the expansion of empire during the nineteenth century. The spirit of jingo was inspired by the perceived threat to Britain's global interests in the Victorian era, and initially directed more at Russia and France than at Germany. While this evolved into a perceived existential threat, embodied in the popularity of invasion novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Riddle of the Sands, the underlying motivation was essentially the defence of property - i.e. holding on to Britain's privileged "place in the sun".

Nationalism was the chief means used to mobilise support for the war (i.e. to get the property-less to defend the rights of property-owners), but this was soon augmented by atrocity stories and crude appeals based on the threat to women and children (always popular with the press). Since the evaporation of visible empire, the British right's appeal to nationalism has morphed into the defence of sectional interests, notably the rights of small capitalists to pay crap wages and of finance capital to pay itself whatever it can get away with. Thus the current media focus on benefit cheats, itinerant Romanians (possibly vampire gypsies) and Boris Johnson's cornflakes.

Gove's intervention in matters historical, as much as his class-oriented education policy, is a means of bolstering his support on the right of the Tory party, at a time when Cameron is being accused of a policy of "let's not be beastly to the Germans". Professors of history like Richard Evans are wasting their breath if they think that Gove is either open to persuasion or even that he fully believes the nonsense that he spouts. With the prospect of Cameron failing to secure an outright majority in 2015 still very much on the cards, Gove's cultivation of the Daily Mail constituency is a necessary preparation for the "big push" to come.

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