Oh what a lovely war!

It is possible to forgive Gordon Brown a lot. It is possible to argue (and, however incredibly, there remain people within the Labour Party who do) that Brown really does believe in things like justice, liberty and democracy. The problem is, the argument goes, that the perfidious media and electorate won’t let him promote an unashamedly progressive agenda and so he is forced to do the best under the circumstances.

If you squint a little bit, you can just about see where this argument is coming from. Sure, inequality and attacks on civil liberties have increased over the past 12 years, but look at the minimum wage, tax credits and the human rights act. These may have been ineffective, but at least his heart’s in the right place. Right?

To know the true mind of Gordon Brown one must do more than just scratch the surface. But some statements reveal rather more than he would perhaps like to be shown. Not every statement needs to be spun. Such is the case with Gordon Brown’s tribute to Harry Patch, who died over the weekend:

I think it’s right we as a nation have a national memorial service to remember the sacrifice and all the work that was done by those people who served our country during world war one and to remember what we owe to that generation – our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world. Those men and women did a huge amount and it’s right that he have a special commemoration of what they have done.

I can’t really better Martin Kettle’s rebuttal of the claim that we can attribute “our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world” to the successful outcome of World War One but I have a few thoughts of my own.

Firstly, the adventurism of the first World War killed off the first attempt to build a welfare state almost stone dead and it was not revived for another thirty years. By the twenties, many of the post-1908 gains were being subjected to means tests and being curtailed. The means to pay for it – a land value tax on wealth (not incomes – a real threat to the landed classes that they have managed to stop in the decades hence) – was quashed before it could even be properly introduced. The momentum for House of Lords reform was lost. Some might argue that what we got in exchange was women’s suffrage, but you could equally argue that the war merely postponed it.

Of course, it is quite possible that none of these things would have happened even if the war hadn’t happened. Certainly, no-one living in the early 20th century can be under any illusions about how excellent the establishment is at stifling reform. But one thing is unarguable, and that is that the first World War lead directly to the second. The men and women who fought that war really were fighting for our liberty (although that too can be overstated), but they shouldn’t have had to. And the millions who were slaughtered by the Nazis died senselessly. It is hard to see how any of this would have happened if we hadn’t chosen to bankrupt Germany in 1918.

This isn’t to dismiss the bravery of men like Harry Patch and Henry Allingham or to somehow present them as traitors and war criminals in the way that the far left and the greens are determined to present our troops today. But they didn’t fight “for” liberty and democracy. If it can be said that they fight for anything it was the last hurrah of British imperialism, something which we can be grateful is now dead. We need to remember and commemorate them because it must never be allowed to happen again. For Gordon Brown to recast history in this way on the day that the last witness to events has passed away is nothing less than grotesque. It speaks volumes about Labour’s own enthusiasm for military adventurism and demonstrates his unsuitability to the job of Prime Minister.


  1. But surely, the thing that really stalled the development of the welfare state was the fracturing of the Liberal Party into Squiffite and Lloyd George factions, allowing (with the growth of a Labour Party) a splintered opposition to the Tories?

    You could attribute this, of course, to the war, which forced the rift of 1916. Then again, you could say that the Boer War – the archetypal pointless imperial war! – indirectly helped cause the 1906 Liberal landslide led to the introduction of the New Liberal reforms. After the Khaki election, serious questions began to be asked about army organisation and ‘national efficiency’ (a rather creepy idea picked up by Rosebery that imperial greatness could not be maintained with a ‘physically degenerate’ population, therefore increased state intervention was necessary). And, of course, Joseph Chamberlain’s stature as Colonial Minister was strengthened by the war, which allowed him to cause the infighting over Free Trade and Imperial Preference.

    Which doesn’t undermine that fact that it would have been far better for Europe if the First World War hadn’t taken place. There might not have been a Second, for one thing.

  2. I agree that the Liberals’ own internal warfare stimied progress on the welfare state, but that was made much worse by the huge cost of the war. If we hadn’t ended up in such a mess, maybe Labour would have been in a stronger position to replace the Liberals, who would have declined much more quickly. Who knows? Either way, the war didn’t help.

    You make a good point about the Boer War, but I doubt even the most Whiggish of historians would argue that that war was FOR the welfare state. You can argue that at least World War Two was about self-defence but even then I think there is a danger of overstating the argument that people fought to defend our way of life.

  3. There is some force in saying that WW1 was a last hurrah of Empire, although in another way so was WW2. The Empire reached it’s territorial zenith in the mid 30s. Even in 1945, the establishment still largely expected the Empire to continue.

    But on the other hand there is a legitimate claim that WW1 was in part to defend liberty and other political values. Britain and France were the most democratic countries of the time. Germany was largely an absolute monarchy with a heavy military hold on the government. If Germany had won WW1 it would have set democracy in Europe back quite considerably.

    I think because we see WW1 through the prism of WW2, the latter seeming to be a clearer fight between Good and Evil, it is easy to forget that there were /some/ really things at stake.

    The Spanish Civil War is perhaps the best arguable instance of people (like George Orwell) genuinely and selflessly setting out to fight for political values.

    The Liberal Decline all came down to one issue- losing the new voters who were enfranchised in 1918. We probably still are the first or second party among voters who would have been eligible pre-1918.

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