How the 'imperial spirit' survives
I don't often put up articles by old-school Tories, but sometimes they can express very clearly the realities of how power operates in the world - because they have seen how it works at close range. Here is Brian Walden - a former politician turned historian - arguing that 'British foreign policy needs a rethink and the UK should stop kidding itself about its role in the world today'. I don't agree with everything he says in the article, but I will put up some select quotes to show how clearly he can see the parallels between what Blair is doing in Iraq and what the British Empire used to do:
'My grandfather was an unrepentant Imperialist. He was immensely proud of the Empire and felt personally responsible for what he thought were its triumphs and disasters.
His son-in-law, my father, didn't share his views. He referred to the immaculately dressed old man as 'the dandy who won the Boer War'. The two men used to debate Imperial issues with a passion and eloquence that impressed me as I listened outside the parlour door.
I was especially fond of their high moral tone. It was years later that I realised their disagreements were superficial. Fundamentally they were in agreement. Both of them thought Britain was the centre of the world. They judged everything by reference to British standards.
I remember the way my father defended Gandhi. He said: 'Gandhi became a lawyer in London. He's had experience of proper British principles in the law.' He would have been appalled if anyone had told him he was being grossly patronising. To say that somebody possessed British principles was the highest praise he could bestow.
That Britain might at any moment be called upon to act in a distant land seemed to him the most natural thing in the world. He would say of some international crisis. "It won't be put right you know, until Britain does something about it."
It's with sadness I accept I no longer believe anything like that. What surprises me is that so many of our politicians and diplomats still seem to believe it...something of the imperial spirit of my father and grandfather still survives in a modern fashion.
Too many people at the top have a misplaced confidence that Britain has, not just a role, but a major role to play in world affairs. That's why we keep being told that we punch above our weight diplomatically. And such bounding self-confidence isn't confined to any one political party or faction. It's as if we are prey to a collective delusion. I include myself, at least as far as past actions are involved.
Let me tell you of something that happened to me 40 years ago. We weren't then in the Common Market and I was talking to two MPs, one of whom was in favour of joining, the other was against. In the hope of being conciliatory I rather jokingly suggested that we might apply for associate membership, which would give us the economic benefits, but no political obligations or control.
The absence of political control shocked my colleagues. Both of them turned on me like tigers. And then one of them said something very significant. He said "Britain's place is and always must be at the top table."
I'd like to say that I stuck to my guns, but I didn't. I could see the force of the top table argument. I believed it myself, at least in one sense. I could see Britain the ally of America giving it wise advice.
Britain, from the pinnacle of its long democratic history, talking to France and West Germany and pushing them in the right direction. And naturally Britain would be exerting a pervasive moral influence over the younger nations.
When I look back on the complacent ignorance of my views I shudder.
Now, I think we need to stop kidding ourselves about our role. In the real world we don't keep giving Washington advice that it takes. We aren't listened to attentively by France and Germany. And there isn't a long queue of countries lining up to receive our moral guidance.'