hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Anglo Nostalgia?

“Brexit cannot guarantee a promising return to a post-imperial nation-state partly because the balance of power has shifted (in favour of non-European and non-Western powers), structurally weakening Western democracies in front of authoritarian powers. And yet, a nostalgic view of Britain has been crucial to the Brexit debate, and will not quickly disappear, leaving the United Kingdom more internally divided than in recent history. The dream of a “Global Britain” has a great deal in com­mon with the historical concept of “Greater Britain”—in this sense it is indeed nostalgic and grounded in an idealised past. But it actually rests on the legacy of a “Little England” that is a little too specifically English”.
Anglo Nostalgia – The Politics of Emotion in a Fractured West?

Dante’s Britain?

Alphen, Netherlands. 13 June. Abandon all hope ye who enter here? That was the impression I gained from reading a new, hard-hitting book by Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassu entitled Anglo Nostalgia – The Politics of Emotion in a Fractured West? (London: Hurst). In fact, the book may well have been entitled, Anglo Nostalgia – A Warning to Italians. Still, this is an important book, and an excellent read, because it has the courage to consider the structural implications of Brexit for Europe head on. This is hardly surprising as one of the authors, Marta Dassu, I have known, liked and admired for many years. Still, rather than me eulogise the work, you can make up your own mind and I would encourage you to do that, let me challenge some of the fundamental assumptions at the books core. The picture it paints of my country, Britain and the Brexit mess, as well as that of the US and President Trump’s America First, is one that I only partially recognise.

The most important message of the book for the British, or more specifically ‘we’ English, is that we should recognise that we are little different from, say, Italy, or any other European nation, and invest what fading power ‘we’ have left in a “hybrid Europe”. Britain’s latent strategic ambition is pretence born of a form of myth-based patriotism/nationalism and archaic identity. Worse, it is dangerous nostalgia that prolongs the fantasy that Britain can somehow act as a bridge between America and Europe.

Therefore, it was perhaps fitting that I read the book on various planes bouncing around Europe in the run up to the D-Day 75 commemorations.  The book is certainly eloquent and compelling concerning Brexit, particularly the danger posed by ‘buy one, get one free’ populists offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. The discussion about the role myth plays, and has played in the British national story is powerful. For much of my career as both historian and analyst I have fought a battle between head and heart over what role in the world post-imperial Britain should aspire to, and what hard realities Britain needs to face.  It is precisely because I am both historian and analyst that it is a battle I think I have by and large won, without having to abandon my deep-seated and, I hope, moderate British patriotism.

Patriotism or nostalgia?

My problem with this book is that there is no place for even my idea of patriotism, which the book suggests is part of some “epidemic of nostalgia”. Rather, I must accept that Little Britain abandon all and any pretence to strategic ambition for that is the only hope there is of eventually making the EU work in a globalized world in which ‘one size fits all’ European states count for little and, by extension, the European citizen even less. This smacks not only of a denial of identity, but also a form of defeatism and that the only way for Europeans to counter big, inefficient political blobs like China is to create yet another big, inefficient political blob called ‘Europe’.

Central to the book is a particularly scathing view of hard-line Brexiteers, and what it sees as their nostalgic fantasies about the rebuilding of the British Empire, or something such like. First, it seems to confuse Brexiteers at times with all mainstream Brits. Second, in my many debates with Brexiteers I have yet to come across anyone who harbours such illusions of Empire reborn. Rather, the main impulse for most Brexiteers I engage with is both the scale and scope of mass immigration and/or concerns about who really governs us and the degree to which people are accountable to any electorate. There is a particular concern, given the direction of travel of the European Project about who or what will govern ‘us’ thirty years hence if Britain remains in the EU. Brexit is also as much about Britain as ‘Europe’ with many Brexiteers simply frustrated with a political mainstream that seems unwilling and/or unable to address the very big issues of change with anything approaching competence.

A central and strong argument of the book is that no single state, let alone European state, can alone deal with many of these big issues. This is undoubtedly correct. However, the book would have been strengthened if it had tried harder to understand Brexit and posed the question all Europeans need to consider: to what extent must European states constrain/pool sovereign action in the name of the collective, possibly common good, action, given that any such ‘action’, by definition, weakens influence over policy and the accountability of power to the people.

Much of the Brexit insurgency, for that is what it is, has more to do with the ever-weakening relationship between voting and power in Europe’s fading democracy, than nostalgic concerns for some long-lost glorious past. Where I disagree with the book is when it suggests that what it sees as specifically English nostalgia for a return to what it calls “pure sovereignty”. In fact, much of the Brexit angst is simply a cri de Coeur for democracy to matter, and even a Remainer like me harbours those concerns, which is hardly nostalgia.

Pure sovereignty

This apparent English desire for a return to “pure sovereignty” suggests a lack of understanding of English political philosophy and culture.  First, if there is a nostalgic aspect to Brexit it has little to do with Empire of which most Britons today under the age of fifty have only the faintest memory. This is not least because ‘history’, as I know it, is no longer taught in schools. If Brexit has any roots it is in the political philosophy that emerged in the seventeenth century with Hobbes, and evolved through Hume, Burke and Mill. The English civil war was essentially about the nature of the relationship between power and people in a “Commonwealth”. The English have long been suspicious of distant ‘we know best’ Leviathans, be they rigid Stuart kings or suave Eurocrats. England’s civil war in time gave birth to modern liberal democracy because it set limits on monarchy and, as such, its creed was also evident in the ‘no taxation without representation’ nature of the American Revolution over a century later. It is an explanatory historical link the book fails to exploit.

The book also fails to properly understand the impact ‘hybrid Europe’ has had on the hybrid political artifice that is the United Kingdom. The UK was, in effect, born in 1707 of a strategic, imperial narrative that emphasised a certain ‘national’ myth to hold Britain together by creating a story beyond English hegemony. It is the retreat from that narrative/myth that was implicit in Empire, allied to EU membership that has helped to loosen the ties between the peoples of Britain and which now renders the future of NATO open to question. The emergence of Brussels as an alternative pole of power has weakened all of Europe’s composite states.

The UK-US ‘special relationship’ is also painted by the book as one of ‘co-operative nostalgia’, which will fail on the rocks of America First.  For me, this was one of the least convincing analyses in the book because it presents the still important relationship between America and Britain as the strategic equivalent of those two old Muppet characters, Waldorf and Stadler, who sit in the stalls of the theatre criticizing the work of others whilst longing for the good old days. As I see myself on a regular basis, the UK-US relationship remains that of two modern, powerful states, admittedly one far more powerful than the other, which operates to effect both in public and far beyond, and which continues to be the core relationship upon which the defence of Europe and NATO is established.
Little, Ordinary, Britain

It is the central thesis of the book that is most worthy of challenge. To the authors Britain is simply another ‘ordinary’ European state, like Italy, and for its own good, and that of ‘Europe’, must accept its ordinariness. Whilst I am very comfortable, as a European with the European bit, I am less convinced about Britain being simply another, ‘ordinary’ European state. All European states are distinct but Britain, along with France and Germany, are not as ‘ordinary’ as many other European states. Britain remains larger and far more powerful than most other European states, and I can say that without any delusions of post-imperial grandeur. It is plain fact. States remain the essential building blocks of international relations, including European states. States must also compete and to compete successfully they must constantly tell themselves a story, about themselves and to and for themselves. It was ever thus. This is not nostalgia, it is an essential part of identity which is precisely what the EU lacks, and which is the main reason Project Europe has stalled.

The simple reality is that Britain today is an important regional power with the second or third largest economy in Europe (depending on the exchange rate on any given day), with one of Europe’s more capable armed forces. Britain still has weight if not the weight it had 150 years ago, and most Britons of all stripes are entirely comfortable with that. ‘Europe’, hybrid or the full Espresso, will not be built if all Europeans are forced to prostrate themselves before the ‘reality’ of their own weakness by exaggerating that relative weakness. This is simply wrong about the nature of power in the twenty-first century world. For the EU to work it must aggregate the power of its member-states, celebrate them, and encourage them all to be all that they can be, not force them into a single strait-jacket for the sake of the political convenience of Brussels marked ‘historical has-beens’.

It is also a vision built on a false set of assumptions. First, it implies that the likes of China, and much of the rest of Asia, will rise inexorably. This reveals a misunderstanding about China and Asia, and the many internal contradictions therein. Second, it suggests that a relative rebalancing of American power is a mark of American decline. And, that even the vital strategic ambition of the United States, upon which Europe relies for its freedom, is little more than some form of America First nostalgia that exaggerates the American sense of self-importance, and thus America’s role in the world.

Little Britain or Little Europe?

For all of the above this is still an important book, and I heartily recommend it to you. Power, narrative and identity DO co-exist and CAN all too easily tip over into nostalgia. That Britain is particularly vulnerable to such nostalgia is a fair point for the book to make. As is the argument that elements of nostalgia are clearly present in the Brexit (and the America First) debate. That Britain and the British (the differentiation in the book between the English and the other four nations that make up the UK – Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and…London, is far too simplistic) might at times come across as arrogant, nostalgic and mired in the past is a legitimate observation for the book to make because that is how many fellow Europeans see us. Europeans who also now see a Britain humbled before its own Brexit hubris, even if I rarely detect much schadenfreude about that.
However, what the book calls ‘nostalgia’ is too often confused with a latent and legitimate sense of British strategic ambition that is, with respect, lost to many Italians with their very different set of national myths. It is strategic ambition that is, by and large, shared with France and which will be essential if ‘Europe’ is ever to be a global actor rather than a defensive European bunch of pathetic patries lost pathetically in the pathos and myths of their respective vainglorious pasts. Critically, it is strategic ambition that mercantilist Germany does not share, which perhaps explains more about Little Europe’s little place in a big world than power fantasist Little Britons.

However, the book should be careful for what it wishes. Had it not been for ‘Anglo Saxon’ strategic conceits it would have been unlikely that Italy, or the rest of Western Europe, would have been freed from the Fascism of Mussolini, or the Nazism of Hitler, and protected from the Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It is unlikely if left to Continental Europeans, that the Cold War would have been fought with such authority with an America and supportive Britain at the core of the dozen or so democracies that fought it. Those thousands of Britons who died liberating Italy, or were mown down storming the Normandy beaches, or cut down struggling through the entanglements of its bocage, seventy-five years ago, were no doubt armed in part by what the book calls Anglo Nostalgia. It is just as well they were!

Julian Lindley-French         

Thursday, 6 June 2019

D-Day: The Forging of an Alliance

“Once more a supreme test has to be faced. This time the challenge is not to fight to survive, but to fight to win the final victory for the good cause. Once again what is demanded of us all is something more than courage, more than endurance. We need the revival of spirit, the new unconquerable resolve”.
His Majesty King George VI, 6 June 1944


6 June. D plus 75 years. At 20 minutes past midnight on 6 June 1944 Lieutenant Herbert Denham (Den) Brotheridge, Commander, 25 Platoon, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry became the first Allied soldier to give his life on D-Day as he stormed a German machine-gun nest at Pegasus Bridge.

As I write this, 75 years ago British, American and Canadian forces were storming ashore along a 50 mile/80 kilometre front on the five landing beaches of Normandy – Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah. ‘D-Day’ was a true effort of alliance with men taking part from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland and, of course, France.  Others were also present. Much has been made this year about the 70th anniversary of NATO. Much of the alliance that was to become the Alliance was forged on those five historic Norman beaches.

D-Day was also the high-water mark of British strategic influence and military strike power. Contrary to much of the theatre that has ensued ever since D-Day, Operation Overlord was primarily a British-led operation and success. Whilst US General Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, all of his operational commanders were British. The Deputy Supreme Allied Commander was Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Royal Air Force. Commander-in-Chief Air was Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, Commander-in-Chief Sea was Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, whilst Commander-in-Chief Land (21st Army Group) was Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. The operational plan was British as was the air campaign to isolate Normandy from German reinforcements (Operation Transportation), as well as the massive deception campaign (Operation Bodyguard) that convinced the Nazis that the real objective for any invasion force would be the Pas de Calais.

Of the 156,000 troops that were landed on D-Day 73,000 were American, whilst 83,115 were under British command, of which 61,715 were British and some 21,000 were Canadian.   Of the 1213 principal warships supporting the landings 892 were Royal Navy ships, whilst the British supplied 3261 of the 4126 landing craft deployed, with only 200 US craft present, mainly due to pressures in the Pacific theatre.  In the air, 70% of the almost 12000 aircraft that took part were either Royal Air Force or Royal Canadian Air Force.  

D-day was also a triumph of British innovation.  Without the two giant floating Mulberry Harbours the campaign to free north-west Europe simply would not have been possible. The British also successfully deployed-in-strength specially-adapted tanks, known as Hobart’s Funnies, which helped clear a path for the invading British and Canadian troops. American commanders had, for a range of reasons, eschewed the use of such innovation. British Airborne Forces and Special Forces were particularly effective, with the famous and vital midnight glider assault on Pegasus Bridge by Den Brotheridge and his colleagues merely the most celebrated.

These facts in no way underplay the US contribution to D-Day. The two US beaches Omaha and Utah were tough nuts to crack and, together with their Airborne colleagues, US forces demonstrated American valour and courage that Day of the highest order. It is what happens after D-Day that truly shines a light on the American future and begins a story of American power and leadership that has secured freedom in Europe ever since.  From D+1 the Americans pour men and materiel into the fight for Normandy on a scale that was unimaginable for their war-tired British ally. By June 1944, the British are beginning to reach the limits of their manpower and industrial capacity, whilst the Americans are only just beginning to exploit their own such capacity, in spite of fighting two major wars simultaneously in the Pacific and Europe.
Churchill had once said of Montgomery’s 1942 victory over Rommel at El Alamein that, whilst it was most certainly not the beginning of the end, it was, perhaps, the end of the beginning. With Soviet forces sweeping in from the east D-Day was clearly the beginning of the end for Hitler. 

D-Day: the forging of an alliance

Something else takes place on D-Day: the building of foundations for a multinational alliance of democracies. Take the Dutch. The number of Dutch personnel at D-Day itself was relatively modest, with many of those who had escaped to Britain in 1940 on the fall of The Netherlands (the so-called ‘Engelandvaarders’) embedded in British forces.  However, on August 6 1944, the 2000-strong Royal Netherlands Motorised Infantry Brigade (Prinses Irene Brigade) landed at Graye-sur-Mer in Normandy. First under Canadian command, and then under the command of General Dempsey’s 2nd British Army, the Dutch fought their way from Normandy back to their homeland, joined in the liberation of Tilburg in October 1944 alongside their British allies, before entering The Hague in triumph at the very end of the war, on 9 May 1945.

The essential success of D-Day was precisely because it was a team effort, forged from an alliance that, in time, forged THE Alliance of today. Very different and differing cultures and personalities (Montgomery and Patton!!!!) learned to work together for the common good under by and large enlightened American leadership. it was that team effort, and the shared culture it created, that lay the foundation for the creation of NATO in April 1949.  What made it a success was not just American power, or the immense investment of brains, men and material by the British and Canadians, but the shared sense of mission, as burdens and risks were shared on that Day in pursuit of a cause that was the very antithesis of nationalism. Above all, D-Day saw a force of, and for, democracy and liberty land on those beaches. A force, that by its very democratic nature also enabled in time former enemies – Italy first, and then the Federal Republic of Germany – to join the Alliance once they had been freed from Fascism and Nazism.

Action this Day!

Today, the lessons afforded us by the great citizen armies of Tommies, GIs, Canucks et al that  battled so bravely to gain those first, fledgling footholds on the sweeping, machine-gunned, machine-mortared sands of Normandy 75 years ago are no less poignant. If we do not wish to put our young men, and increasingly women, through the horrors of some twenty-first century D-Day (a digital D-Day or DD-Day?) somewhere, sometime, then our leaders must stop appeasing the dangerous reality of today and face down together latter day destroyers of democracy and would-be slayers of freedom.

To mark D-Day, British Prime Minister Theresa May led the leaders of Allied and Partner nations in the signing of a D-Day Proclamation. It called on the Free World to again find common cause in the face of new challenges to democracy and stability. Words are not enough. Action this day is needed.

This week I was on a US-German military base in deepest Bavaria attending a meeting of the Loisach Group, co-organised by the Munich Security Conference and the George C. Marshall Center. The Group’s mission is to consider the forging of a renewed, deep, twenty-first century strategic freedom partnership between the US and Germany.  The eloquence of this week’s history was loud and clear at the meeting and rang in my ears. It led me, a proud and patriotic Briton, to tell senior Americans and Germans to get their act together and build a Special Relationship between Americans and Germans. It is precisely because of D-Day we need Americans and Germans to help lead our great community of freedom together if peace is to be preserved. No more pretence, no more petty shortsightedness. Britain? In spite of my country’s many current challenges Britain will be there…as always.

The irony of the Loisach Group mission was thus made stark by memories of D-Day. Much of the effort to preserve freedom in this century will depend not only (and again) on American leadership. It will demand of all Europeans the collective strategic vision and fortitude that has been so lacking these thirty years past. Such European leadership will only come if, as King George VI suggested, we can find ‘endurance that is more than courage’. It is leadership that also calls upon modern, legitimate, democratic Germany to be at the beating heart of freedom and its defence. Free Germany must now show its commitment to freedom’s cause by sharpening its swords, as well as its many ploughs.  It is time.  

In honour of a very special Band of Brothers

This blog is dedicated to Lieutenant Den Brotheridge and the brave men of many nations who on D-Day began the long march to a free Europe which continues to this day. In particular, I honour and salute the 6603 Americans, 2700 Britons and 946 Canadians and others who watched the sun rise on D-Day, but not its setting. Not only did they forge a path to freedom, they forged on the anvil of unity an enduring Alliance that must be preserved, both in their name and our own.

Therefore, let those of us to whom our Fallen gave this precious gift of freedom not squander it through inadequacy and indifference. A freedom that I am exercising right here, right now in my freely-expressed thought. A freedom which could so easily be lost if we dishonour the sacrifice and memory of brave men through ignorance and wilful weakness.
D-Day: the forging of THE Alliance.

Julian Lindley-French