Thursday, 15 February 2018

Cruisers and Parity

It is the kind of thing that only children believe, that countries have "Special Relationships" because they speak the same language, or have relatively similar institutions, or even have populations of mostly common ancestry (which in any case Britain and the United States have not had since the nineteenth century, just as, for example, Britain and Australia no longer have). Was that true of German-speaking Europe before any of the Unifications? Well, there you are, then. And, as Peter Hitchens writes:

I am terribly bored by the EU issue, which seems to me to be shadow-boxing while the two sides work out how much strength they really have, and can realistically use, and the negotiations move slowly towards the final weeks in which all will necessarily be resolved in a messy and unexciting compromise. So let us have some history instead.

I am constantly fascinated and appalled by the pseudo-religion which now surrounds the late Sir Winston Churchill, especially in the United States. A US Navy destroyer is named after him (though as USS Winston S. Churchill, not USS Sir Winston Churchill).

An entire Wren Church, St Mary Aldermanbury, destroyed in the London Blitz, has been transported piece by piece to Fulton, Missouri, and re-erected there in his memory. Outside that Church is one of many more or less frightful sculptures of the great man, graven images which dot the Land of the Free.

Not to mention the famous bust which sometimes is, and sometimes is not, kept in the Oval Office in the White House. Though quite why we should be pleased to see it there, I do not myself know, having observed the chilly non-existence of the ‘Special Relationship’ at close quarters in 1990-95. 

Actually, Churchill was not especially sentimental about the USA, a country he knew far better than most British politicians, from many visits over many years, and also because his mother was American. I believe he understood perfectly well, in 1940, that his decision to fight on would make us, thereafter, an American vassal state. I also believe he quite rightly believed this better than the alternative, which would have been, at best, a dingy future as a played-out and disarmed empire on the fringe of a Europe controlled by either Hitler or Stalin, or perhaps both of them.

While researching my forthcoming book The Phoney Victory, I was looking for a quotation I had recently seen but not noted, from Clementine Churchill, in which, as I recall, she warned him against hoping for too much from the Americans. I couldn’t find it. But I did find two other interesting quotations.

One was a 1927 Cabinet memorandum, in which the then Chancellor of the Exchequer was discussing American attempts to build up their Navy’s cruiser fleet to rival Britain’s. Churchill, who had actually been on US soil in 1895 when a very bitter dispute broke out between the two countries over the Venezuelan border with what was then British Guiana, had no illusions about the two countries being naturally friendly.

He wrote, ‘We do not wish to put ourselves in the power of the United States. We cannot tell what they might do if at some future date they were in a position to give us orders about our policy, say, in India, or Egypt, or Canada, or on any other great matter behind which their electioneering forces were marshalled.’ (Quoted in Churchill and America, Martin Gilbert, Free Press (Simon and Schuster) London and NY 2005, p. 104. The source is ‘Cruisers And Parity’, Cabinet Memorandum 20 July 1927, Cabinet Papers.)

Of course, Churchill knew perfectly well that the USA would, once it had the power, use it to ease us out of all these spheres. Which it duly did. The thing that remains in doubt is this. Had Britain been more careful about when and how it entered a European war after Munich, would its power and wealth have survived for longer? Or was our rapid decline into insignificance, which has dominated my own lifetime, inevitable?

Churchill's assumed ‘shoulder to shoulder’ view of the USA was also not wholehearted during the 1940 crisis. His close aide John ‘Jock’ Colville recorded him growling, on 19th May 1940, ‘Here’s a telegram for those bloody Yankees!’ (Gilbert p. 186, Gilbert's note refers to Colville Papers for 19th May 1940).

Churchill’s worshippers may believe in a sentimental Special Relationship. Their hero was far too clever and well-informed to do so.

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