Thursday, June 03, 2004
Edward VII is to blame

Occasionally, the Guardian will print an article that sits at odds with its post-modern take on our world, where all history is invented and all culture is a construct. Hywel Williams, writing in the shadows of D-Day's anniversary, ignores this theoretical scaffolding and plunges into millennia of cultural conditioning - of the type beloved by Anglospherical anthropologists.

His excursion starts with "where did it all go wrong" and concludes, correctly, that 1940 was the year that Britain became a European country:

The collapse of France in the spring of 1940 turned Britain into an European country within a matter of days. Much against its will, Britain was forced into being a truly continental power. Had it remained such a power in the four years that followed, Britain and its empire would have followed the French and theirs.

However, the unique experiences of the war divided Britain from the Continent and set the stage for Britain to cement its role as the junior partner of the United States, a role that the elite grips as a comfort blanket to shield them from the need to act independently.

Williams meanders across a thousand years of European history and argues that the Anglo-American invasion is a revisitation from the Norsemen, whose historical role French identity ignores in its 'turn to the south' and identification as a Latin country. Whilst Anglo-American soldiers may have shown some Viking tendencies (given the revisionist "European" coverage in newspapers that emphasizes French hostility and plays up the 'civilised role' of the Germans), it is doubtful that the liberation can be cast in such terms.

The use of such cultural explanations are always troublesome and panders to cultural conservatives who identify a Herderesque essentialism within the way we live that the rest of us are blinded to by deracination, cosmopolitanism, mongrelism, rationalism or some other mote.

Williams other paragraph of note argues that the Entente Cordiale is a mistake:

Resentment at the French for having got us into this mess in the first place has been a powerful current in postwar British life and politics. Historically, British foreign policy had been based on the existence of a strong and independent France. Britain had always used the European states' fear of French might as a convenient justification for its own juggling system of alliances.

A strong France, standing in an adversarial relationship to the British, had therefore been to Britain's competitive advantage. And that system of strength and security through rivalry had only broken down when the two countries were foolish enough to sign the entente cordiale of 1904.

That disastrous alliance had issued from Edward VII's boulevardier enjoyment of chorus girls and French food. But its more concrete consequence was the accentuation of the German neurotic fear that the two powers were out to get them; 1904 led directly to 1914.

Whilst there is a case to be made for viewing the Entente Cordiale as a disastrous entanglement, the blame must be laid at the destabilising consequences of German unification, and the attempts of an enfeebled France in relative demographic decline to counteract this through alliances with Britain and Russia. Even the European Union is the latest incarnation of the struggle by continental powers to cope with a strong German power at the centre of Europe.

Does Britain require intervention in Europe to prevent the rise of a unified continent, the siren call that led to the disastrous alliances and entanglements of the twentieth century. Or do weapons of mass destruction change the terms of power and allow Britain to coexist peacefully with a unified Europe, secure in the knowledge that we should remain divorced from post-modern polities?

(23.26, 3rd June 2004)


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