March 3, 2013 3:20 pm

‘Six Moments of Crisis’

Gill Bennett’s history of critical UK decisions shows they were messier than they look in hindsight

Six Moments of Crisis: Inside British Foreign Policy, by Gill Bennett, Oxford University Press, RRP£20/$34.95

 

History is written in hindsight. The passage of the decades bestows tidiness and inevitability on messy and unpredictable events. Complex options become binary choices and protracted debate effortless decision-making. This helps explain why contemporary commentators forever complain that today’s leaders lack the clear-sighted decisiveness of their predecessors.

In real life, the past was as complicated as the present. Beyond the straight lines imposed by the sweep of historical narrative, there were just as many curves and swerves. Gill Bennett’s aim in this fascinating short book about Britain’s postwar foreign policy is to banish the seductive simplicity of hindsight.

A former chief historian at the Foreign Office, Bennett chooses “six moments of crisis” to illuminate the preoccupations and pressures that shaped Britain’s relationship with the world. In all but one case, her linked essays concentrate on the single cabinet meeting at which the critical decision was taken. Her raw material includes the official Whitehall record, the cabinet secretary’s personal notebooks and myriad ministerial diaries and memoirs.

Each of the events – the dispatch of troops to fight in Korea in 1950; the 1956 Suez debacle; the 1961 application to join the European common market; the 1968 retreat from east of Suez; the expulsion in 1971 of more than 100 Soviet spies; and the 1982 decision to send a task force to the Falkland Islands – can readily be fitted into an overarching postwar narrative.

For the past 60-odd years, politicians and policy makers have been wrestling with Britain’s retreat from influence. Most of the time they have owned up to the shifting balance of power; once in a while, as with Margaret Thatcher’s decision to retake the Falklands, they have stood against the tide. The big picture, however, is visible only through the prism of hindsight. Bennett examines each decision as it presented itself at the time.

There are strengths and weaknesses to her approach. Her scrutiny of minutes and notes of discussions captures the array of competing and colliding influences on ministers. The decision to fight in Korea cannot be detached from fear about the advance of communism in Europe. The application to join the common market should be read alongside Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech the year before, heralding the dissolution of the empire in Africa.

The essays are also a useful reminder that foreign-policy decisions owe as much to domestic political imperatives as to any grand concepts of geopolitics. The foreign secretary worries about influence in the world; the Treasury, about the state of the nation’s finances; spending ministers, about the cost of the military; and the chief whip, about the mood on the government backbenches.

Foreign policy was as often as not driven by economic travails (“Can we afford it?”). Alongside this stood financial as well as military dependence on the US (“Will Washington cut us off?”). These two currents often flowed in opposite directions, as during the debate about the Korean war. Burdened by postwar debt, the government did not have the money to send more troops to Asia. Yet to refuse solidarity with its closest ally might be to invite Washington to turn its back on Britain and Europe.

The weakness of so sharp a focus on precise moments of decision is that they can seem detached from secular trends. As Bennett acknowledges, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s determination to end Britain’s military presence east of Suez crystallised an emerging reality. Likewise, her account of the debate in Macmillan’s cabinet about joining the EU omits the conclusions of an earlier comprehensive Whitehall study of narrowing foreign-policy options. This study, presided over by the cabinet secretary, concluded that the government scarcely had any other options. Cabinet discussions are as often a ratification of choices already made as genuine moments of decision.

Yet anyone who thinks it was easy for Wilson to pull back from east of Suez or Macmillan to choose Europe over the Commonwealth would do well to read this account. Likewise the cabinet discussion after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands is a reminder that the decision to dispatch a task force was “brave” only in hindsight. Had the Argentines sunk a few more ships, history might well have applied a different adjective.

There are plenty of clues to the present here. The big worry in foreign policy is that Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” means the US will detach itself from Europe – a concern articulated by Clement Attlee as far back as 1950. As for Europe, David Cameron confronts the same arguments in the Conservative party as Macmillan more than half a century ago.

The writer is the FT’s chief political commentator

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