Goodbye to 'Churchillism': from Munich and Suez to the Iraq war

Gordon Brown’s role in the Iraq war will come under focus today when he gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. We can gain perspective on this by considering the two British foreign policy disasters of the last century, Munich and Suez
Gerry Hassan
5 March 2010

Gordon Brown’s role in the Iraq war will come under focus today when he gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry.

The Iraq war is the point where Tony Blair lost his political touch, and became ‘Bliar’ in the eyes of many voters. Despite four previous inquiries into the war, none of them as comprehensive as this, a sense of anger, frustration and lack of trust now pervades how the public view politicians and the conflict.

Much of this anger is addressed personally at Tony Blair, his role in making the case for war, the ‘sexed-up’ dossiers, the dissembling and spin, and the relationship with George W. Bush. Gordon Brown faces questions about what his views were in the crucial months leading up to war, why he didn’t oppose it, and when it was set to happen, the contentious issue of funding it.

However, the Iraq war did not happen as an isolated event, or just because of the perfidy of Blair and acquiescence of Brown. It happened in the context of where Britain sees itself in the world, how it understands its past, and its strategic interests. In particular, if we examine the two British foreign policy disasters of the last century, Munich and Suez, we can throw wider light on the Iraq war. I am drawing in my understanding of these episodes from John Darwin’s magisterial text, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System 1830-1970 (Cambridge University Press 2009) which addresses the carefully nuanced way the British created an elaborate system of networks, lines and bases which gave succour to the empire at its peak.

Munich in 1938 now stands as a near-mythical example of foreign policy humiliation. Neville Chamberlain, then Prime Minister, along with other weak British and French politicians are now viewed in retrospect as having failed to stop the aggression of Hitler and Mussolini with their ill-fated ‘appeasement’.

Yet there was a powerful logic to Chamberlain’s thinking at the time which was to retain a balance of power on the European continent, and to allow Britain’s imperial reach in the Mediterranean and Far East to be maintained.

British policy was based on a gigantic juggling act of balancing various resources and assessments of threats. Domestic security needed to retain a balance of power in Europe to allow the British Empire to maintain its open, global network, its trade and commerce and naval power.

This policy ended in a British government engaging in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia at Munich and handing over part of its territory to Hitler. This was the infamous ‘peace in our time’, and for a brief period of a few months it was universally popular in Britain, before Hitler continued his aggression.

Less than two decades later came Suez in 1956, where Anthony Eden colluded with the French and Israelis to attack Egypt. The rationale was that the British and French were outraged by Nasser, the Egyptian leader’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

The wider context of British policy was that post-1945 successive governments saw the Middle East as our sphere of influence. British governments did not even recognise at the time the establishment of the state of Israel as a long-term faultline which would mobilise Arab nationalism, and believed that British interests could reconcile these opposing interests.

What drove much of this was to retain British interests and keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East and Mediterranean. This led the British, along with the French to over-play their hand, invite the disapproval of the Americans, and enhance the prestige of Nasser, who became more pro-Soviet as a result.

These two episodes have much in common, namely, that the lessons of them still to this day inhabit British identity and foreign policy. The events of Munich and 1938 and with them the shame of ‘appeasement’ led directly to 1940 and ‘our finest hour’.

From this came a populist, simplistic analysis given voice by Michael Foot’s Guilty Men (Victor Gollancz 1940) which saw Britain as standing up as a plucky, little island against the evil dictators. All that had been wrong with Britain was that the wrong people had been in command, and once they were removed, everything would be fine.

Then Suez saw the same narrative used to misunderstand the Middle East: Nasser was in Eden’s words, ‘a little Hitler’, and ‘appeasement’ the spectre to be avoided.

This is the background that the war with Iraq needs to be understood against. Anthony Barnett's powerful polemic Iron Britannia (Allison and Busby 1982), a leftist counterblast in the style of Guilty Men published in 1982 understood the power of this potent set of myths from 1938 and 1940 through the ages. Firstly, there is the long, evocative story of the mistakes of ‘appeasement’ and the need to stand up to dictators. To many of the ‘war party’ in Labour and Conservatives, Saddam Hussein was seen as a potential Hitler or Mussolini who had to be stopped.

Secondly, when a remorseless logic is used to lead foreign policy into a cul-de-sac it can have disastrous consequences. Just as Munich and Suez were the products of strategic overviews and serious thinking, so Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war was due to the ‘hug them close’ philosophy of the UK-US ‘special relationship’.

Another dimension here is the second stage of the UK-US relationship leading out of Thatcher-Reagan and the Second Cold War. Many had thought this alliance was withering on the vine after the UK joined the European community in 1973, but it found new purpose in the 1980s, and part of its raison d’etre was a newfound zeal for military action.

The British part of this equation saw it emphasise time honoured traditions, of a sense of national ‘exceptionalism’, the skill of our armed forces, the use of naval power, and how we could militarily do things to make the world a better place. In the beginning, Blair seemed with a sense of gushing naivety to see the armed forces as a kind of Peace Corps going around liberating and bringing hope to troubled lands.

All of this was predicated on the American alliance, and Blair took what had been a cornerstone of British foreign policy, and had been restated and renewed in the early 1980s, and took it into uncharted waters.

In some respects, it is still a little too early to assess all the damage and ripples from Iraq, but we can be sure that it will stand in a hall of shame along with Munich and Suez. Something profound and deep has shifted.

The British belief in its own unique role and statecraft as ‘the junior partner’ of America sprang domestically from what Barnett called ‘Churchillism’, the set of national myths which were given voice and emotion to in those crucial, defining days of 1940. These were centred on ‘an island people, the cruel seas, a British defeat, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator’, a lineage running from the fall of France to the Falklands War and the Iraq war. It crossed the political spectrum, from J. B. Priestley and George Orwell in the 1940s to Michael Foot and Tony Benn in the Falklands: it was a popular patriotism and ‘little islanderism’ which could be pro-war or occasionally anti-war.

‘Churchillism’ allowed a passing of the baton in ‘the Anglosphere’ from Britain to America, while celebrating the unique story of ‘the English speaking people’ and democracy: a tale which still finds modern resonance in such historians as Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson (Andrew Roberts, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2006; Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Allen Lane 2003). And yet, post-Iraq for all the obsession of our political classes with Britain’s special role and relationship with the US, in the popular mind and imagination, a tectonic shift has occurred which has not been reflected in our politics.

Post-Iraq is there any sign that our political classes, from Gordon Brown to David Cameron, understand that this humiliating episode requires not only that we have a strategic defence review, but a strategic foreign policy review, which assesses the damage the dogma of Atlanticism does to Britain and the world?

Despite the damage to Britain’s reputation, this does not seem a question Gordon Brown wants to answer. Yet the responsibility for this situation lies not just with one or two people, but with our entire political establishment who see their purpose, power and status as built on the American relationship which to them has become internalised and part of what it means to be British.

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