Today I saw this post.
Bit disingenuous that.
- Why not mention which Government was in power during every one of these events? He only mentions under which administration these things happened in 1967.
- What point is he trying to make, exactly? It looks to me like he was trying to imply that they were all Labour foreign policy decisions when in fact they were 50/50 Labour/Conservative actions (three actions each- the 1947 and 67 points by Labour: the 1957 points by the Conservatives).
- In 1957 the Cons were in power, under Anthony Eden, who also presided over the Suez Crisis, then Harold Macmillan, also Conservative, from January 1957: in 1947 and 1967 it was Labour, the latter under Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson respectively. Why mention Labour Governments but not Conservative ones?
Mark Curtis is a historian. In order to try and make his point (as a fellow historian, I am looking at the only context he gives and that is of the media ‘burying’ foreign policy facts) he has done exactly what he accuses the media of, but worse because he IS a historian, as we historians HAVE to be responsible for the historical information we put out there for people who are not historians and who do not know the context. The fact he does not weigh each of his subheadings’ content equally, and only mentions who was in power in one of them can only be deliberate. As a historian he should and does know better. As a historian the deliberate omission of facts could be seen as even worse. But historians are not ‘tied’ to the establishment like they used to be and like journalists still are. They can write whatever they want, within reason. Their wages do not depend on pleasing an editor.
So let’s dig into this a little. Labour (Attlee) were in in 1947, and I’m not trying to say Labour’s foreign policy was exemplary to modern eyes because it was not. For example British foreign policy 1945-50 has to be seen in the context of a post war decline and was centred on three main ‘pillars’: the Commonwealth, in some degree, Western Europe, and the United States. It is reprehensible what was done in India under Attlee AND Churchill, nobody can deny that. This was time of the collapse of the British ‘Empire’ and the partitioning of India has to be seen in that context, horrible though it was to modern eyes. Reducing it to keeping ‘a bit of India’ is insulting the history of India and the suffering that took place during that time. This is soundbite-populist language. Oversimplification might well get a point across to the ‘general public’ but they have the right to know what it actually meant.
It is perhaps not so hard to credit now but thought at that time was that white protestant Christians were at the top, above white Catholics, while Indians were higher than Africans, but that white man was the pinnacle of Darwinism. (I disagree utterly, just putting the information out there btw). This idea still exists in societal thinking. Instead of trying to establish a better relationship with Europe, they decided instead to try and come at Europe from a position of ‘strength’- with a consolidated Commonwealth and with closer ties with the US. ‘Logically’, this made sense, to collate the power one had and be ‘distrustful’ of any further rise of Germany but under the scrutiny of today’s flashlight, it does not look ‘good’. And yes, we live with this legacy to this day.
Where is the 70th anniversary of Churchill denying the suffering of the indigenous peoples of America (1937) and the 89th anniversary of him using chemical weapons against the Afghans and Kurds? As well as being the 74th anniversary of him (a Conservative) deliberately starving the peoples of Bengal in India? Just for example? This latter example was part of Britain being ‘at war’ and historically ‘we’ are more forgiving of practices that are engaged during war, but afterwards, we have the leisure to try (and fail) to legitimise such practices.
The 1957 section, as has been noted was under a Conservative administration. And this needed to be said. Eden resigned as foreign minister in protest over Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Hitler at the beginning of World War II. But even he later admitted that he wanted a different kind of Conservative party, and so this resignation was also a political manoeuvre. However he barely lasted two years as PM and in January 1957 he also resigned. More on Eden can be found here. Macmillan succeeded. He had successively appointed minister of housing and local government (October 1951) and minister of defence (October 1954) by Churchill and then served as foreign secretary (April–December 1955) and chancellor of the exchequer (1955–57) under Eden. He is responsible for the phrase of Britons “never ha[ving it] it so good”.
Actions in Africa have to be seen in the context of the collapse of French power and Soviet incursions as well as a reversal of British ambitions by 1960 in the area.
But Nigeria is still in a state of flux, with decades of bloody battles mostly ignored on a global stage; most recently by ‘Boko Haram‘. Remember the media and politician furore over ‘the lost girls’ of Nigeria in 2014? Follow up in the media has been sparse but present. mostly because ‘some’ were found so arguably became not ‘newsworthy’, but almost nothing from the prominent politicians who held the headlines back then.
Political correspondent John Simpson, who has been to Nigeria and seen what is going on first hand, opined that Nigeria WANTS political/global intervention on this matter! So when should ‘we’ (Britain) and when shouldn’t ‘we’ intervene?
And Vietnam happened in the context of a British financial crisis and part of the UK’s increasing alliance and ‘special relationship’ with the US, and part of attempts to repaid the damage caused by the Suez Crisis, repugnant ethically as such policy often was and still is.
The 1967 section was indeed under a Labour government as has been said, the only time Curtis notes the Government presiding over the foreign policy he lists. If we look at a speech by Wilson back in 1962, he acknowledges
- the collapse of Empire
- a global loss in the confidence of the power of any British PM
- the fact, ignored by Curtis in his rush to condemn the media, that the PM does not have authoritarian power and that foreign policy, in the 20th century, but especially in the 18th and 19th century, could be initiated without the PM’s express approval. More on this later.
‘Macwonder’ refers to Harold Macmillan. More on Harold Wilson, including this extract, can be found here.
The suspect, again to modern eyes, actions in Africa and Vietnam could be seen in the context of trying to re-establish a different power base.
I could list a far fuller compilation of British foreign policy horrors for pretty much every year since we had a recognisable government as we know it today, and that’s for the Cons, Whigs, Labour, Liberal etc. Here are a couple of examples.
- Look what happened in Ireland, the regressive and even murderous policy under our alleged first Prime Minister Robert Peel, a Conservative. And when he made conciliatory policy in that matter, it saw to his fall from power, at least in part.
- Look at Gladstone, a Liberal Prime Minister. He was ‘traditionally’ known as a ‘peaceful’ man in foreign policy terms, yet more modern critiques show him at the helm when under his ministry was ordered the bombardment of Alexandria, starting the Anglo-Egyptian War, which resulted in the occupation of Egypt. And while this is tempered by the observation that he was leaving such policies to his foreign ministers, the buck stops with him.
- Look at a typical set of questions in A level Political History exams. Here we have centuries of aggressive foreign policy.
But a more complete, contextual post by Curtis? He is no fool and knows that wouldn’t pack a punch, as it would not be aimed at making people foam™ but rather be consideration of the facts. There must be a way to grab people that uses facts, not foam.
And our foreign policy hasn’t changed that much, but many of ‘the people’s’ attitudes to it have. So the basic premise of this- cherry picking, and no context- is suspect. I do wish people who did these ESPECIALLY when they are alleged historians make these kind of comments, which then go viral, without context and with more than a whiff of ‘blaming’ Labour, is irresponsible at best.
However, he is right to hold the media to account for the suppression of even his bullet pointed appraisal on 1947, 57 and 67. It’s just a shame he falls into equivalent traps in his desire to critique them. His point about distractification, something that ALL the MSM are guilty of, and something that does have an impact on political writing, Trump being a prime example, is therefore lost. At the least, he could have suggested alternative headline for the media to use instead of what is leading politically at all the main outlets today, which are:
The Guardian: Trump’s accusation of wire tapping and Hammond and Brexit.
The Times: same old same old
The Indie: carry on…
The Telegraph: *cough*
And for the sake of balance, some of the tabloids:
The Sun leads with a youtube outrage piece about a woman crowdfunding for a trip to Disneyland.
The Mirror is not pictured here as there are too many to screenshot, but politically their range is good, from an NHS story, chancellor Philip Hammond, a critique on the hilariously awful Paul Nuttall, and also the Trump story and Blair as peace envoy. The Mail is leading with a Prince Harry on holiday story and doesn’t actually have a political section (I have just discovered this, I try not to look at the Mail at all to be truthful).
I would like to see an ‘on this day’ section in all publications, but with as full a critique as possible to hook the readers. Journalists are trained to engage and hook their readers, and the gradual reintroduction of historical factual pieces, keeping it brief but with equally weighted paragraphs, may well be something to initiate. Something Curtis could have done, was eminently qualified to do- but failed.
However, it is unlikely they will, as keeping their readers in the dark about history is a massive part of their Divide And Foam™ tactics that also keeps their readership. And their jobs.