Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.
One of the comments on my last piece for ConservativeHome suggested that I was playing the ‘reds under the bed’ card with reference to the Ukraine crisis. The implication was that subversion, let alone treason, or even a milder version of ‘culture wars’ during the Cold War, were imaginary; indeed, a creation of paranoid sensibilities.
Would that that was true, but the historian scarcely has to point out that the Cold War saw from the outset a significant engagement with espionage and subversion.
Both were part of the playbook for the major powers, and certainly an aspect of the Communist commitment to total war. To neglect them would be to fail to understand the history of these years.
That failure indeed was an aspect both of the standard journalism during the Cold War and of the equivalent historical work. Each was inclined to underrate, or simply ignore, the role of espionage or subversion. And yet both were very important and their significance was underlined by any treatment of the period that puts an emphasis on the politics of the moment and the contingency, whether in terms of the Miners’ Strike or the Provisional IRA.
Linked to this, but separate, came the commitment to the Soviet camp of those who were not involved in subversion or worse. This was an aspect of the ‘soft power’ dimension of the Cold War, but one that was significant both politically and militarily.
Thus, those who opposed the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Britain and West Germany directly contributed to Soviet military intentions. So also more generally did those who sapped confidence in Western institutions and intentions, not least by sowing anti-Americanism in Western Europe.
Thus, the Left was to be more vocal in Britain and West Germany in 1983 against the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles than on behalf of the Poles oppressed in 1981 when martial law was declared and Solidarity suppressed with scores killed. This martial law remained in place until 1983, but the British Left preferred to focus on Greenham Common.
In some respects, the crisis prefigured the present one with Ronald Reagan introducing sanctions, providing covert aid to Solidarity, and pressing West Germany against the Yamal oil-gas pipeline from Siberia.
That was the past, but there are direct links to the present. This is a matter of individuals, the Jeremy Corbyns of the world, but also of broader climates of opinion and the relevant institutions. Indeed, ‘culture wars’ take on meaning precisely in these terms namely as part of a deliberate assault on the context and continuity of British civilisation.
That much of this assault comes from those who have gained influencer in, if not control over, so many British institutions makes the situation not only more troubling but also harder to resist successfully. The use of a critique of the British empire in order to compromise any positive presentation of national values is well-entrenched in much of the modish world of opinion.
Books and syllabi continue to appear accordingly, as with Caroline Elkins’ Legacy of Violence. A History of the British Empire published this month by Penguin Random House and damning Britain past and present. As a sample, Brexit is presented as racism: “The British government’s configuration of white power clearly jettisons prospects for a federation of Western states.”
Such nonsense will receive undeserved praise and the accompanying panoply of awards and fellowships with which the academic elite award each other. That those who do so increasingly decry liberalism and deplore what they term privilege is part of the bleak comedy of the modern university.
The Cold War saw the same tendency, and doubtless there will be similar attempts to ‘contextualise’ Russian aggression and brutality by attacking the past and present of the West.