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17 DECEMBER, 2019: Why Do The British Think They’re So Special?

This has nothing to do with anniversaries and nothing much to do with the First World War.   It’s a rant and, given the way life’s panning out, possibly a farewell rant for Poppycock.  It’s been five and a half years, no one much is listening and I’m definitely past my peak, so now feels a good time to send y’all to sleep with a rambling extension of what you might call my core message.   This is about heritage history, fake news and their side effects.

I’d better start by confirming that at least a significant percentage of the British, and in particular the English, have a view of themselves as a kind of chosen people, better and more morally correct than anyone else on the planet, fit to stand alone as such.

Well, there’s Brexit for a start, proof positive that millions of Brits feel that way.  Not all Brexiteers, you understand, just the ones operating on feelings without information.  I guess we’ve all lost count of the times we’ve heard British people – some politicians and a lot of vox pops – actually saying they’re the best during the last three or four years, frequently accompanied by references to the Second World War or the Empire.  You can hear people claiming the Earth for Britain – we invented everything, we coded everything, we gave the world a moral compass, we defeated tyranny (often), we presided over a saner and better world, so just release us from any kind of community responsibilities and we’ll go ahead and do it again…

Can you believe people believe that stuff?  This is fantasy built on fiction built on myth, padded by centuries of drip-fed propaganda from press, governments, the heritage industry and, of course, commercial interests.  You want an example of how that works?  Take slavery.  Lots and lots of Brits are proud to know that the British were in the vanguard of the 19th-century campaign to halt slavery, and modern Brits take plenty of pride in the oft-stated fact that we were the first to actually abolish it – but in the process our press, politicians and pub philosophers ignore the fact that the British were the great slavers of modern times, and made more profit out of it than anybody else.  It’s as if Big Tobacco got around to banning tobacco – fine, but it would still leave Big Tobacco as the big bad guy.

But believe it people do, adding Wilberforce to the list of British hero-saints in much the same way as, for example, heritage history has handed the credit for female suffrage to Emmeline Pankhurst.  Both examples portray Britain as the world pioneer in the field – not true in either case – and as it happens both pick the wrong poster boy or girl.  For what it’s worth, Wilberforce was by no means the pioneer of abolitionism and Pankhurst was a dedicated self-publicist way less important or heroic than posterity’s version.

Back to the point, and yes, many Brits truly believe their country is special and especially good.  The next point to make is that they are by no means alone.  On one level or another, the same is true of every self-identifying population.  The US, we happen to know, boasts plenty of the stuff the British do, with only a tad more justification (they can still blow anything and anyone in the world to bits, so I guess that counts as special), and I imagine the Chinese have a powerful strain of – not entirely spurious – national exceptionalism running through the collective psyche, but everyone can find something to feel special about.  The French?  Yeah, obviously, and the Germans, the Italians, all our European neighbours including Albania, Belgium and Azerbaijan.  Zimbabwe thinks it’s special, so does Wales, and though I’m not sure some of the other states created by bigger powers (Iraq for instance) can muster one overarching specialty to crow about, individual ethnic groups usually manage one of their own.  I could go on (and on) but I think I’ve nailed that one – everyone thinks they’re special.

So, what sets the British apart, and makes us so much more nationally fantasist than anyone else except (possibly) the USA?  Good question, and one that probably needs answering before we hubris ourselves into real trouble.

The first part of an answer is, oddly enough, a reflection of British excellence, possibly even something we could trumpet as proof of our genius:  we’re really good at state propaganda.  I’ve studied propaganda during three major wars – Napoleon, Kaiser Bill and Hitler – and Britain did the most effective job in all three.  Not always the loudest job, or necessarily the best when it came to worrying its enemies, but far and away the best at implanting a national image of genius sainthood among its home population.  In peacetime as in war, that has been a steady feature of British statecraft since at least Tudor times, and arguably much longer, and the Christian-revivalist, semi-mystical imperialists of the late Victorian period took it to cult levels.

We see propaganda as a bad thing, and we tend to blame Goebbels or the USSR for it whenever possible, but the Victorian British beat them both hands down.  No enemies within required and a steady commitment to plausibility, all swathed in a shining, righteous, avowedly (if in no way actually) peaceful vision of a people’s God-given mission to civilise and thus save the world.  It was and still is the propaganda of armed decency, and it was killer Kool Aid, swallowed by the British, hook, line and sinker, passed down to their children and delivered almost intact into Brexit Britain.

But the quality of state propaganda wasn’t the only force that convinced Brits they were special, and (despite what any Question Time viewer might think) the Brits aren’t being any less smart or politically aware than other populations.  Another factor, its impact enhanced by the nuanced cunning of state propaganda, was British success.

Britain is one of the few countries in the world with a genuine claim to have been Top Nation at one time.  The same can be said of, among others, Italy, Spain, the USA and China, though until quite recently China hasn’t been working with the same league table as everyone else, and quite soon it may be top of the charts again.  So anyway, all four of these countries are singing the post-Imperial blues, each in a different style.  For China, it’s about difference: they invented civilisation and we’re all barbarians.  For Italy, it’s the strut of a long-distant Roman miracle, so far in the past it is provokes a wistful sadness to go with the pulsing pride.  For the USA, the process is only beginning, as the dream fades and the crown slips to spark either a defiant, defensive golden ageism or a fierce belief that the crown can be recovered.  Spain’s empire was a smaller thing, less all-embracing for its people and more culturally limited, and its top nation status was always debateable, but it was financially and socially warped by the influx of wealth to its nobility from the Americas, and it sank into moribund, miserable stasis for centuries after the empire’s fall.

That leaves Britain, the only former chart-topper in full-blown aftermath shock.  The British Empire was indisputably in charge of (at least) the nineteenth-century world, and the enormous Royal Navy really did rule the waves, but these days everyone knows it’s definitely, finally over.  With hindsight, most people can see that it’s been over for some time, probably since the First World War, but that took a while to sink in – of which more in a minute – and we’ve had decades of denial in our fairly recent past.  So recent, in fact, that many modern adults will know someone who spent decades thinking Britain still ruled the world, and many older people will have spoken with men and women who remembered when it actually did.

There’s no pretending in the twenty-first century, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it or free from its shadow.  Listen to Brits talking to the world – not all of them but enough to count as a body of opinion – listen as they sound angry about whatever Britain’s not doing to the world or whatever the world is doing to Britain.  Listen as they – or maybe even you – mimic the outrage of a king caught naked, or listen to their incredible tales of what a small, post-industrial, grumpily comfortable island state can and should be achieving in an age when even the achievements they dream about are becoming obsolete.

I mean, we’re in the middle of a communications revolution that is transforming the nature of geopolitical power before our bleary eyes.  Nations are losing their clout, and they’re losing it so fast that already only China and (maybe) the USA have the sheer mass to resist to any effect… oh, and maybe the EU, I guess, but that’s a whole other rant.  Meanwhile, amid this chaotic realignment of centuries’-old precepts, at the very moment a run for the communal bomb shelter feels like the only hope for any smaller nation, a majority of the British think they can sort it all out better on their own, uncluttered by the feeble efforts of inferior types.  Only the dark shadow of imperial aftermath can explain this.  In mourning their loss of mastery, the British have drunk their way to the bottom of the bottle, and now they’re hallucinating into the dregs.

I mentioned earlier that Britain had – like many an imperial power before it, great and small – taken a while to recognise, or at least acknowledge, that the end had come.  Like the Romans, the British were able to pretend that the good times were still happening by accentuating those glories that remained relevant in a changed world and acting as if they were crucial.  So while the real Britain spent the last five decades of the 20th century sinking steadily into the general run of European nations, clearly no more special or successful than its neighbours, fantasy Britain acted as if inventing games, inventing tech and being good at propaganda – oh all right, communications – were what made a people truly great.

Bizarrely, a combination of ongoing Internet revolution and the global triumph of American English might just mean the Brits accidentally got it right about the communications thing, and will accidentally end up on a much higher table than they deserve.  But the fuss we’ve been making for decades about our talents for codification and invention has carefully ignored the obvious fact that winning the games and using the inventions is what makes for great.  Britain used to do that part too, and a lot of Brits simply can’t or won’t cope with the truth that it doesn’t anymore.

And why should they face that fact, given the rapid and apparently unstoppable global devaluation of truth?  In the public domain, truth is now a word for true feelings.  If you really believe something, that’s good enough for most observers and puts you far above the ordinary rank of fact-based truth peddlers.

For a frighteningly large number of people – at least in the representative democracies that allow us to see what people think – the factual approach to truth has been well and truly discredited.  Part of the blame has to lie  with the way statistics disguised as facts have been used to prove blatant untruths.  Once you’ve had enough impossible things proved possible by ‘facts’, and enough time to be sure most of those ‘facts’ were nonsense, you’d be a fool to keep believing them and you’d be right to mistrust the cynical liars responsible for them.  Falling for the ‘true believer’ act, as performed by Trump, Johnson et al, involves pinning your hopes on someone you’ve decided is honest in that one respect – and deciding that, when it comes to voting, that’s the only facet of honesty that really counts.

By way of dragging myself back to the point, the same true believer act and the same mass disillusion with factual truth both feed fantasy nationalism – and since we’re talking about the Brits, I think Boris Johnson’s endless overt or sub-textual evocations of a fantasy Churchill will do as an example.

The wonders of fantasy Winston bring me to another facet of national hubris that sets the Britain apart – heritage, generally disguised as history.  Again, every state does it – dresses up its own history in the best possible light, encouraging pride and positive morale for all it’s worth – but Britain has centuries of high-grade state propaganda to draw on, a talent for broadcasting it and a long-ish history jam-packed with stirring stuff.  To be fair to my co-islanders, Britain can boast an extraordinary history.  For all that the British Isles had a lot of luck with geographical position, raw materials and the timing of European technological development, there’s no doubt that the British did a pretty astonishing job of progressing from tiny outpost to world domination in the space of a few hundred years.

It took British academic history a very long time to get to grips with the idea that this wasn’t always a good thing, and to look beneath the shiny coating of all those heroics.  Back in the seventies, decades after any semblance of actual imperial power had bitten the dust, schools and colleges still taught glossy, Anglo-centric versions of Britain’s – primarily England’s – historical glories.  Boudicca, Alfred the Cake, Normans, Tudors, Nelson, Wellington, Churchill, explorers, empire builders, campaigners, poets in the trenches… there were plenty more, and although academe in general has since outgrown fantasy nationalism, it’s also lost any real influence over popular thinking.  Mass media of one sort or another provides most historical input for modern Brits, produced on the whole by print journalists, film makers and political interest groups.  Most of it at best superficial, at worst jingoistic nonsense and on the whole blundering somewhere between the two.

You have to look beyond mass media output to bust the myths about British history that fuel the kind of vox pops we’ve been hearing around Brexit.  Most of the myths being spouted today are relatively modern – Churchill wasn’t a comedy political blunderer most of the time, Britain beat Hitler, the high Empire was a golden age, the rest of the world loves us for it (or at least respects us), stuff like that – but you can hardly blame people for believing them if all they have to go on is what they’re being fed.

So, have I answered the question yet?  Why do the British think they’re so special?  Well, let’s see, every nation, race and grouping, right down to Arsenal fans, thinks it’s special, but the Brits have to cope with a unique, complete set of psychological hotspots likely to promote fantasy nationalism.  They’ve got the best state propaganda.  They’re getting over the most recently deceased empire (as well as one of the biggest and best defined).  And, at a time when the power of truth is at its lowest recorded ebb they’re bought in – lock, stock, barrel and long-term – to a historical glory story like no other.  Yep, reckon that’s at least some of an answer – so why have I bothered?

Because it doesn’t have to be that way for any individual out there.  Like one of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, truth grows more powerful if more people believe in it, and all it takes to give old-fashioned truth a shot at redemption is to go looking for it.  If you can’t find the time or the inclination for deep reading – and I get that a lot of people can’t – you can find balanced, essentially honest information about pretty much everything on a screen or in your ear, and if you’re not sure what or who to trust, you can compare a few views and even check out where the perps are coming from.  Or, given that most people are way too busy surviving to make a full-time hobby out of their worldview, you can just listen to people like me and put our views into a broader mix than you’d otherwise be tasting.  Do any of that and, if you’re British, you’ll have a lot less trouble spotting lies disguised as beliefs.  And how will you know they’re lies?  Because everything you’re learning is already well known to the people telling them.

So, pay attention to people like me.  I may or not be right, but nothing I’m saying is a lie and after that, even if you’re British, you can make up your own mind.


Hasta la proxima, amigos

13 DECEMBER, 1916: Prestige Fixture

With fighting in Europe all but suspended for the winter, this week in 1916 provided plenty of other news to divert the heritage industry’s Eurocentric gaze from the Somme and Verdun.  The end of Joffre’s military dominance in France marked a watershed in the grim history of the Western Front, changes at or near the top in the governments of France and Britain made for big talking points, and on 12 December an offer by the Central Powers of peace negotiations on the basis of pre-War frontiers hit the headlines, though it was essentially a diplomatic PR exercise for the benefit of neutrals, and received the expected outright rejection by Entente powers in too deep to accept anything short of manifest victory.

One way and another all these things were important, but mass media’s commemorative showreel is unlikely to include the event that left the biggest footprint for the future from that week – the re-launch, on 13 December, of the British Empire’s attacks into what is now Iraq.

The first British attempt to advance from the port city of Basra up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Baghdad (and even beyond) had come to a sticky end in April, when lazy planning, blinkered leadership and consistent underestimation of an intelligently organised enemy had culminated in the surrender of General Townshend’s battered army at Kut, on the Tigris.  After a long pause to completely reorganise command structures and supply systems, a process that involved transfer of responsibility for the campaign from the Indian Army to the regular British Army, recovery of Kut was the renewed invasion’s first objective.

British Mesopotamian Front c-in-c General Maude could call on about 150,000 troops by late 1916, and had been supplied with increased numbers of machine guns, field artillery and armoured cars, along with state-of-the-art trench fighting equipment, vastly improved medical facilities and 24 modern BE-2C fighter aircraft, some equipped for the game-changing task of photo-reconnaissance.  Local Ottoman commander Karabekir Bey had meanwhile strengthened his trench systems but received no substantial reinforcements, and mustered about 50,000 ill-equipped fighters. Bottom line, the British were making sure this time – but why were they bothering?

Karabekir was a sharp operator, and kept his career on the rise by transferring to the Caucasian Front once he'd experienced British firepower at first hand.
Karabekir was a sharp operator, and kept his career on the rise by transferring to the Caucasian Front once he’d experienced British firepower at first hand.

Manpower was the British Empire’s most precious commodity in late 1916. Ground troops were needed on the Western Front, at Salonika, in Egypt and Palestine, in East Africa and as garrisons for colonial stations or bases all over the world.  They were also needed in Mesopotamia, but only to guard Basra.

Britain’s stated objective in Mesopotamia, and the reason troops had arrived there in 1914, was to protect valuable oil supplies from the Persian Gulf, and every advance since had been justified as a form of ‘forward defence’ against potential threats to Basra.  In strategic terms, Mesopotamia did offer a route to conquering the Ottoman Empire by the back door, but nobody thought it an efficient route, and by late 1916 British ‘easterners’ (those strategists committed to pursuing victory away from the Western Front) viewed Palestine, with its valuable Mediterranean trading links, as a far more promising means to that particular end.

Advancing up the Tigris and Euphrates might also open a link with Russian forces in Persia, and might indirectly help Russian efforts on the Caucasian Front, but these were not high strategic priorities in London.  In fact, having watched as the British Indian Army and government blundered into a ghastly dead end for no real reason beyond an instinctive desire to attack an apparently feeble enemy, London’s only real excuse for opting to do it all over again was the restoration of imperial prestige.

Restricted to a limited offensive and instructed to minimalise casualties (I know, but it was another way of warning against over-ambition), Maude deployed his 50,000 front line troops on either side of the Tigris, and opened the operation with a preliminary bombardment during the night of 13–14 December, in time to get some fighting done before the region’s winter rains set in.  At dawn next morning, the British right began the first infantry attack, drawing Karabekir Bey’s reserves to defend positions around the settlement of Sannaiyat, less than 20 miles by river from Kut, before cavalry led the main British advance up the left bank, meeting only light resistance and making rapid progress.  By 15 December, Maude’s left was in position to cross the river and encircle the Sannaiyat defences, having suffered less than 300 casualties, but he opted for caution and instead consolidated the new position, making only one, half-hearted attempt to cross the river on 20 December.

The RFC's BE-2C fighters transformed the picture available to British commanders in Mesopotamia.
The RFC’s BE-2C fighters transformed the picture available to British commanders in Mesopotamia.

While Maude was demonstrating exactly the restraint his masters had in mind, his success was changing their minds, and he was ordered to push further upriver as soon as feasible.  January would see the beginning of a steady British campaign to retake Kut, using the same tactics of bombardment, advance and consolidation, and the prize that had drawn Townshend’s army to disaster, Baghdad, would soon be back on the British agenda.  This was an altogether more professional and considered invasion, led by a pragmatic commander and spared the gruesome horrors that had blighted the disgracefully ill-prepared Anglo-Indian attempt, but the British still hadn’t curbed a tendency to seek territorial acquisition for its own sake.

That brings us back to prestige, and as I’ve mentioned before prestige really mattered in the Arab world.  It is arguable that recovery of imperial prestige in Mesopotamia, however partial, helped the British orchestrate the Arab Revolt, smoothed their path through Palestine and facilitated their political dominance of the post-War Middle East – but any difference it made was marginal and the cost, in terms of casualties, resources and diversion of resources from other theatres, was ridiculous.

In that sense, Mesopotamia fulfilled a similar role to (and was even more disease-ridden than) Salonika, which was consuming even more Allied resources for even less return in an indirect attempt to revive French imperial prestige.  Then again, if we’re talking outcomes, nothing going on in Macedonia was destined to match the global ill winds stirred by Britain’s adventure in Mesopotamia and the artificial creation of Iraq that followed.  The real story of modern Iraq began here, and that seems worth remembering.

1 JULY, 1916: Sniping

Not so much sniping, more a case of opening up with the machine gun and spraying everything in sight – because the Battle of the Somme began a hundred years ago today.

I don’t plan to talk about the battle itself, at least not at this stage, because there’s no need. This is one the UK’s great wartime heritage moments, a dramatic day of apparently senseless (and fabulously well-documented) national sacrifice so attractive to mass media – and so symbolic of its chosen narrative – that you’ll be getting all the Somme you can handle during the next few months. As far as I can tell at this stage, media interest in the failed Anglo-French offensive on the Somme even stretches beyond the ‘doomed lions, damned donkeys’ horizon to include some big-picture history, not all of it military – and that’s a good thing, so why have I come over all trigger happy?

Because, in much the way popular focus on the Second World War blots out the First (most of the time), our national obsession with the Somme tends to obscure anything else going during the second half of 1916.  For that matter, our national preference for sentiment over deep thought, as expressed in the standard heritage obsession with personal suffering around the Somme, goes quite some way towards rendering the wider history of the age irrelevant to modern thought.

A century ago, the old order was melting down or self-immolating all over the world.  It was an accelerating process, affecting the modern shape of every continent, and by the second half of 1916 the pillars were crumbling fast.  European empires were disintegrating, the US was changing forever, Asia was discovering nationalism for good and ill, fundamental changes were sweeping through South Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy… I haven’t got time today to make the list comprehensive, but you get the drift. Media focus on the Somme as a sepia soap about Tommy tragedies isn’t history; it’s a tiny, partial glimpse of the past that helps keep us ignorant and vulnerable to myth.

That’s all. I got into writing Poppycock because that particular link between heritage pulp and fantasy history makes me mad, and on 1 July it makes me madder than usual – so I’m pumping lead into everything about heritage history, the televised stuff, the poncy middle-class poetry fetish, the flag-waving press, all of it.  You stink, and these days you’re dangerous.