Jeremy Thomass is a history teacher and researcher who is also a member of Rochford District Council. He is currently working on a biography of Lord Landsdowne, to be entitled The Last of the Whigs. Here he suggests that the results of "liberal intervention" in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan has been "almost invariably dire".
"…We go very wrong if we allow our judgement of practical steps to be taken to be perpetually deflected by our moral reactions against wrongs we can in no circumstances immediately redress" – Lord Halifax to the Governor of Bengal, March 1938.
Almost half a century has passed since Harold Macmillan declared the British Empire at an end, in his "wind of change" speech in Cape Town in 1960. Yet today we still see British forces strung out across half the world, from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan, and find ourselves increasingly at a loss to know how long Britain should continue to bear the military, diplomatic and economic burden these commitments involve.
For all we know of the way in which Britain once more became embroiled in Africa’s and Asia’s wars, we seem to understand much less why we, more than any other former European imperial power, persist in these continual interventions. How far might the underlying motive for this truly be a wish to maintain international security and stability and how far might it lie deeper in the history of British thought and religion?
Many on the Left in Britain today believe that moral principle and moral purpose, rather than strategy or mere interest alone, should be the inspiration of our foreign policy. Many Victorian liberals believed the same, often, like their modern-day successors, following a dramatic political or religious conversion at the end of a historic age. The collapse of European socialism in the 1990s, as old industries, trades unions and the Cold War gave way to the service economy, the internet and growing ethnic and religious strife, placed the British Left in as great a quandary as the old Whig aristocracy of the 1830s, who witnessed Cobbett’s England of the stagecoach and the village give way to the land of railways and canals depicted by Mrs. Gaskell.
In both cases their traditional political support, whether from pocket boroughs or industrial unions, was weakened and their self-confidence shaken in consequence. Both began to lose faith in their old beliefs, whether in pride of caste or class struggle, both took refuge in quasi-religious or ethical moralism as a result, both sought to rally the newly-assertive liberal middle classes to their side with a moral cry and both then found themselves faced with consequences they could not control, above all in foreign affairs.
British radicals have long sought to order the lives of others, abroad as much as at home. Believing like their nonconformist, dissenting and puritan predecessors in their right both to make and to enforce their own private moral judgements upon established authority and tradition, be it religious or secular, British or foreign, they have long consistently advocated unilateral intervention abroad, whether in keeping with international law or not.
From the Puritan publicist Richard Sibbes declaring that fellow Protestants, "…pray and call upon us, as farre as Prague, as farre as Heidelberg, as farre as France, that we would take notice of their afflictions", to justify possible British intervention in Germany’s ruinous Thirty Years’ War, to Tony Blair urging "liberal intervention" throughout the world, in Chicago in 1999, and adding for effect that, "Bismarck was wrong", this has been their persistent theme. So, alas, have its consequences.
Whether in Afghanistan and China in the 1830s and 1840s, or Afghanistan and Iraq in our own time, unilateral intervention has brought little save conflict and chaos to those countries subjected to it. Justified in the same exalted moral tone, as when one British officer claimed the 1839 Afghan invasion to have had "…a moral effect not confined to that country, but extended to many discontented spirits in… the neighbouring states", and defended with the same selective evidence, as in Palmerston’s notorious "Blue Book" of 1840, eerily foreshadowing the Blair-Campbell "dodgy dossier" of 2003 on Iraq, the remedy has consistently proved worse than the disease. Its results have been almost invariably dire, with settled order in these countries overthrown, warring factions set against one another, human suffering increased, conflict persisting long after the invaders have withdrawn and conservative statesmen left a legacy of chaos by their radical predecessors.
British Conservatives, long reliant on the support of those propertied and trading interests, "…upon whom the consequences of a war would fall most heavily", as the mid-Victorian Tory Premier Lord Derby once observed, have generally proved more wary of war than their radical opponents. It has also long been a Tory conviction that international stability could scarcely be upheld in conditions of war, anarchy or revolution. With this conviction has come a reluctance, in Lord Derby’s words, "…to interfere needlessly and vexatiously in the internal affairs of any foreign country", lest this lead to involvement in conflicts whose outcome cannot be foreseen.
It was in this tradition that Peel, thinking Palmerston’s Afghan War, "…the most absurd and insane project that was ever undertaken in the wantonness of power", achieved a successful retreat from Afghanistan in 1842, and that Peel’s biographer, Lord Hurd, sought to avoid undue British military involvement in the Yugoslav Civil War of the 1990s. Rather than indulge what Gladstone, assailing Palmerston in 1850, termed "…a rash desire, a habitual desire, of interference" abroad, Conservative Governments have more often sought to strengthen British security by making prudent provision for national defence and by attempting to maintain a stable balance of power in the wider world.
Their chief hope has been for Britain "…to keep itself upon terms of goodwill with all surrounding nations, but not to entangle itself with any single monopolising alliance with any one of them", as Lord Derby himself declared. In an unstable world made still more unstable by the consequences of "liberal intervention", Conservatives would do well to bear these tried and tested principles in mind. A Conservative Government that did so would be well on its way to the getting of wisdom in foreign affairs.