The recent decision to bomb targets in Libya has once again provoked debate as to when, if at all, Britain out to intervene militarily in other countries. I shall endeavour to put this into some kind of historical context.
The first and most obvious point to make is that Britain is an island nation, and that, crucially, between the late seventeenth century and the start of the twentieth, the British navy was much the strongest in the world, so that we were seldom seriously threatened with invasion. One result of this was that Britain, unlike France or Prussia, needed only a small land army. This army was, for most of this period, poorly paid and given little respect, being regarded ever since Cromwell, as a potential menace to free constitutional government (see footnotes). Thus, although it would be difficult for any nation to invade Britain, it would be equally difficult for Britain to intervene effectively on continental Europe. As Bismarck once remarked; if the British army attempted to land in Germany, he would send a policeman to arrest them! Napoleon compared war between Britain and France with a battle between an elephant and a whale: always likely to result in a standoff.
An important result of this was that Britain, uniquely, had several foreign policy options, which can generally be classified as "Tory" or "Whig" policies. To deal with the "Tory" options first: Britain could, for a start, simply remain neutral in any European wars. Britain had no ambitions to annex territories on the mainland of continental Europe, so there was no need to get involved in wars there. If we did not antagonise any other country, then probably no ther country would go to the trouble of attacking us. Tories considered it potentially disastrous that a Dutchman, William III, became King in 1689, and a German, George I, in 1714, since these monarchs would always want to use British strength to defend their homelands. Tories were also suspicious of getting involved in alliances that might drag us into a continental conflict. There was always a flavour of national superiority in this attitude: if all those wretched frogs, krauts, dagoes and other assorted nig-nogs (fill in any rude epithet as appropriate!) choose to cut each others' throats, what has it got to do with us? why should we risk British blood and British money joining in their stupid quarrels? Far better to sit tight behind our impregnable navy and leave them to it! Thus when the War of the Polish Succession raged in the 1730s, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (a Whig, but following a very Tory line, and refusing to get involved) boasted "There were 40,000 men killed this year in Europe, and not one of them was an Englishman!" If we take this forward two hundred years, we find Neville Chamberlain saying in 1938 (I paraphrase), "Czechoslovakia is a faraway little country, of which we know nothing". It is essentially the same attitude.
A more interesting Tory policy was that, if we did fight wars, we should concentrate our efforts on where we were strongest; that is, at sea. Instead of committting ourselves to large land battles, we should use our naval strength to drive our enemy's fleets from the sea, blockade his harbours, destroy his trade and seize his overseas colonies and bases. Such a strategy had more chance of success, and might even make a profit! This was known as a "Blue-water" strategy, and was employed in several wars. It brought vast gains for the British Empire, but it was never clear how it was supposed to defeat the French, or later the Germans, on mainland Europe.
When it came to the crunch, Britain almost always followed the "Whig" policy, which was based upon the concept of the "Balance of Power". Although Britain does not desire to acquire territory on mainland Europe, it is not in our interests that any rival power should dominate Europe; especially not those regions dangerously close to our shores: Belgium and Holland. In the 18th century, this meant France; in the first half of the 20th, it meant Germany. So we would form alliances to try to prevent this happening, and if necessary, go to war. This is the essence of most of the great conflicts: the War of the Spanish Succession, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the two World Wars. In every case, there was a chance that Britain could have stayed on the sidelines, but ultimately we did not consider it would be in our interest to do so. For much of the 19th century, Britain followed a policy of "splendid isolation", avoiding alliances which might suck us into continental conflicts, but at the start of the 20th the growing strength of Germany, especially the building of the German High Seas Fleet, led to Britain allying with France, and ultimately to involvement in the First World War.
But how was Britain to intervene effectively on the continent without creating a large army? As it happened, the solution was quickly found: we would pay others to do the fighting for us! Thanks to the creation of the twin institutions of the Bank of England and the National Debt in the 1690s, Britain had the most advanced and sophisticated financial structure in the world, and was always able to find the necessary funds to hire mercenary troops (usually from the small German states) or to subsidise allied powers to put their armies onto the field on our behalf. We began the process of fighting wars with our financial muscle, which actually meant fighting them with borrowed money; and this has continued successfully ever since.
One important consequence of Britain's favourable geographical position was that, from late in the 19th century, there was an increasing demand from the Liberal Left that we should follow a MORAL foreign policy. Unlike countries like France or Germany, which had long and vulnerable land frontiers and were therefore obliged to have a policy of naked and cynical self-interest, it was thought that we should use our international strength to do good in the world: to spread democracy and freedom, to advance human rights and protect persecuted minorities, and not to support unpleasant tyrants merely because they wanted to be on our side. This attitude continues to this day; so when critics say that the invasion of Iraq, or the intervention in Libya is really "all about the oil", the implication is that it is somehow disgraceful and contemptible to be guided primarily by your country's eceneomic interests.
The position of the U.S.A. in the 20th century is similar to that of Britain in earlier times. Since the country is defended primarily by two enormous oceans, it was extremely difficult for any foe to do serious damage to the American heartland before the invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile (attacks on the American overseas empire, as in Hawaii, or on various client-states, being a different matter!). America thus had the same options as Britain once had: maintaining the balance of power on the one hand, as against isolationism, a small army, and demands for a moral policy. All these latter played a part in delaying America's entry into the two World Wars, and America's self-appointed role as a heavily-armed world policeman was not taken up until after 1945. The old debates have resurfaced with recent events, in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya. If there is fighting in a distant country, or between countries, when are we justified in intervening? When, if ever, is it worth spending our money and risking the lives of our soldiers in what appears to be someone else's quarrel?
1. Britain and France. It is always worth remembering that in the 18th century the population of France was approximately five times that of Britain, and her army ten times as big. Britain was thus a small country confronting a very large one, with only a narrow strip of water, patrolled by our superior fleet, preventing us from being crushed. The situation was not dissimilar at the start of the 20th century, when the building of the German High Seas Fleet was a direct challenge to British naval dominance. Churchill famously excused Admiral Jellicoe's extreme caution at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 by pointing out that "Jellicoe was the only man who could have lost the war in an afternoon": if by some dreadful tactical error the British fleet had been sunk, Britain would have been wide open to invasion by the vastly larger German army.
2. The army. The military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell made people deeply suspicious of a professional army (and also, for that matter, of a professional police force); and perhaps with good reason: it is clear even today that in a great many countries the role of the army is not fighting off foreign invaders but crushing dissent at home. Even modest proposals for increasing the army's size were met with cries of "This could lead to anotherCromwell!" The Act of Settlement of 1702 enacted that it was illegal for the Crown to maintain a standing army in peacetime, though this was soon modified by the system of passing an annual Mutiny Act, which said, in effect, that the army was permitted to continue in existence for another 12 months. After the Gordon Riots had devastated London in 1780, Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig opposition, announced that he would rather see England ruled by the mob than ruled by the army! Not even victory in the Napoleonic Wars served to make the army popular. Throughout the 19th century the pay of the rank and file was too low to attract anyone other than farm labourers and unskilled workers, and officers were generally drawn from the stupider younger sons of the landowning classes. The future Duke of Wellington was withdrawn early from Eton and sent to a military academy, following his aunt's estimate that "He is too stupid for anything save gunpowder". Most of the great independent boarding schools had an "Army Class", where boys who were deemed not bright enough for Oxford or Cambridge Universities were directed towards the army. Winston Churchill was in the Army Class at Harrow. (Of course, these early estimates of both Wellington and Churchill proved to be completely wrong!) Rudyard Kipling, the poet of empire, was well aware of the low prestige of the army, and it is reflected in many of his early poems, such as "Tommy". Many people in Britain thought that, rather than run the risk of having a large professional army, the country should be defended by the people themselves, as a citizens' militia. This idea was inherited by the American Founding Fathers, and is the thinking behind the famous Amendment 2 to the American constitution: the right to bear arms is enacted because "a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state". But, as has frequently been shown, not least in Libya recently a lightly-armed citizens' militia stands no chance against professional soldiers.
3. Paying for wars. From the 1690s, Britain always financed wars with borrowed money, through the National Debt. At the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, Britain had a National Debt of some £52 million, which greatly worried contemporaries, since it was approximately ten times the government's revenue from taxation. The debt rose to £130 million after the Seven Years' War in mid-century, and to £844 million after the Napoleonic Wars, but somehow the nation never went bankrupt. As a result of keeping out of Continental wars, the Victorian financiers reduced the debt considerably, but the First World War caused it to soar to the dizzy level of over £7.5 billion! The annual interest payable on this debt was double the total of ALL government expenditure before the war! But somehow the country never ran out of money. This puts today's fiscal problems in context!
4. Hitler's views. He was a keen amateur student of history, not least of the British approach to foreign policy. In "Mein Kampf" he thought Germany before 1914 could have made more effort to win British friendship. In his early years in power, he was careful to stress that he had no deire to threaten Britain or the British Empire. From late 1937 he seemed to accept he would have to fight britain eventually, but he certainly did not expect Britain to declare war in September 1939, when he invaded Poland. It appeared to make no sense at all: it was obvious Britain could do nothing to defend Poland, and had no plans to attack him on the western front, so what was the point?