Books / Political: The other war of independence

CHURCHILL'S GRAND ALLIANCE: The Anglo-American Special Relationship 1940-57 by John Charmley, John Curtis/Hodder pounds 20
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RATHER unexpectedly, Britain has acquired a "revisionist" school of thought, something that was once the preserve of German Marxist revolutionaries, or Irish nationalists puzzling over their identity. The reason for this, presumably, is that Britain is belatedly afflicted by revolutionaries - albeit ultra-conservative rather than Marxist - and a crisis of identity. It is a surprising development because throughout the age of revolutions Britain was famous for the strength of its public consensus, which squeezed such issues out to what was comfortably thought of as the lunatic fringe. But the fringe is finally biting back at the centre. It is that old liberal- democratic consensus which is the target of self-consciously revisionist historians like John Charmley.

The revisionist view is essentially simple - Britain's "decline" is a myth. Both in the economic sphere, and in the international arena, it was exaggerated, if not actually invented, by demoralised consensus politicians (abetted by consensus academics) who gave up the fight to maintain British power in the face of a phantom, the "wind of change". Instead they entered the fatal embrace first of America, then of Europe, thus abandoning not only Britain's Empire but its sovereign independence. It was failure of leadership, not economic weakness, which brought us to what Charmley revealingly calls "our current ignominious position".

The polemical nature of this book is unmistakable. It can be seen not only in the strength of its attacks on the "European idea", but also in the slenderness of its claim to academic originality. The "special relationship" has been extensively studied over the last 20 years by such distinguished historians as Max Beloff, D C Watt, Christopher Thorne, Roger Louis and David Reynolds, in an impressive sequence of works that have laid bare the negative side of the myth. Charmley writes as if these remained unread - though they are more readable than his - and as if it is shocking to find that "America wanted to end British imperialism and push Britain into Europe", or that "America planned to replace British influence in the Middle East".

Charmley's approach does little to enhance our understanding of the complicated mixture of respect and dislike which has shaped Anglo-American relations, but that is evidently not his aim. His purpose seems to be to show that British Americanophiles were (and presumably still are) dupes, the kind of people who "tended to forget who had won the American war of independence", and who could not see that US policy was inimical to Britain's real interests. Charmley's America is either foolishly idealistic or rapaciously ambitious, usually both. How, one will ask, did generations of British statesmen fail to see what is so plain to Dr Charmley? His answer is the baleful impact of Winston Churchill, the guilty Americanophile par excellence, who by mortgaging Britain's independence to his blind faith in American good will and the Anglo-Saxon world order, subverted his own aim of preserving the British Empire.

The hinge of the argument, assiduously publicised of late, is the contention that Britain should have come to terms with Germany in 1941, thus sparing us the ruinous cost of Churchill's pursuit of total victory. That theme was trumpeted in Charmley's biography of Churchill two years ago, though here his aim is to suggest that all was not lost even after the disasters of Churchill's wartime leadership. Britain's world role could still have been preserved. The Empire could still have been managed by the traditional strategies of indirect control and "divide and rule". In this final bid to live on as an old-style great power, Charmley finds an unlikely hero, Anthony Eden.

Eden, on this account, rumbled America's plan to carve up the British Empire, but for seemingly endless years his attempts to stand up for his country were hobbled by the senile but still overbearing Churchill. At last he was free to replace the "sickly sycophancy" with a "firm and manly" assertion of Britain's independence (another revealing evaluation). But of course at Suez this final effort was wrecked. Charmley fences briefly with the imposing mass of evidence impugning Eden's judgement, before attributing his fall to American sabotage and the treachery of Harold Macmillan. Once again, the plausible part of his argument is already familiar. The unfamiliar part is the free play of innuendo (browsers may start by sampling the unpleasant captions to the illustrations).

Since he is all too aware of the strength of the liberal consensus view he is assailing, Charmley's counter-arguments for the post-war viability of the Empire are oddly thin. His assertion that the Empire was effectively controlled before Churchill is unsupported. Britain's economic weakness is simply set aside, in the apparent belief that willpower can overcome such things. The notion that in the Suez crisis "economically, Eden could, perhaps, have toughed it out" is frankly jejune. The liberal belief that America was essentially right about Britain's long-term interests is not evaluated, merely denounced. And like other Europhobes he never addresses the issue of what sovereignty is actually for. His open contempt for "the liberal mind", however, alerts us to the ultra-Tory political vision which hovers behind his writing. His sardonic remark that "democracy is no doubt all well and good, as are plain speaking, plain cooking and, for that matter, plain women" suggests that such things are not for him. Plain women may not mind this, but democrats should.