We just had an emotional remembrance of Armistice Day in London and Paris which marked a hundred years of the end of the Great War. The origins of the War are debated furiously amongst historians – was it inevitable or was it accidental. Given what we have seen in Britain in the last few days, it’s time to remind ourselves of Sir A J P Taylor’s railway time table theory.
War clouds started rolling through the skies of Europe from 1912 onwards, when the Balkan Wars broke out. The Russian Empire was on the side of the Serbians. The Austria-Hungarian Empire had the support of the Germans. The French were on the side of the Serbians. The British, fresh from the entente cordiale with the French, were going to support the French not least because they wanted to check Germany’s ambitions. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in July 1914 triggered a set of interlocking mobilizations and declarations of war between these powers. All the more surprising because the Royal Families in England, Germany and Russia were all related. In August 1914 war formally broke out.
The question that Taylor tried to address was, why did Germany go on the offensive. The answer that he came out with was technological – it was due to railway timetables. At a time when motorized transport and air lifts did not exist, the railways were the acme of technological achievement. But railways were networks with constraints built into them. It was much easier for Russia to mobilize troops towards the German border to the West, and for France to mobilize towards the East. Mobilization did not automatically mean war. It meant calling up reservists, reworking and requisitioning all available railway rolling stock, and scheduling transportation towards the border – a complex logistical exercise. Mobilizations had taken place in 1911 but no war resulted. Instead of simply mobilizing, why did Germany attack.
Germany was faced with a hard choice, says Taylor. In which direction do they mobilize? Russia is to the East, and the British and French to the West. Rather than mobilize in both directions – which was impossible – they decided to first strike at the weaker enemy, France. A transportation problem was resolved by a quick strategic strike through Belgium. Once France was down, Germany could turn to the more ponderous threat from Russia. Of course, this is not how it went down. But once the mobilizations were in play, war was inevitable.
Watching the chaos in Westminster yesterday, I am reminded of the inevitability question posed by Sir Taylor. The events of yesterday were the culmination of a series of events in British politics, and in retrospect, seem almost inevitable in the way things have played out.
Great Britain and Margaret Thatcher were enthusiastic proponents of the European Union and the Common Market. In fact the idea of a Single Market was propelled forward in the European Union by Arthur Cockfield, Britain’s Commissioner to the European Union – he can rightly be called the father of the European Single Market. However, when Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission at that time, started talking about the Single Market becoming a social project rather than an economic one, Thatcher was alarmed.
She first got rid of Arthur Cockfield. Then, with the help of the romantic, pro-European historian Hugh Thomas, she made a speech in Bruges in 1988. In that speech and subsequently in the Conservative Party Conference, Thatcher declared herself as passionately pro-European. But she warned against the Single Market suffering scope creep to become a symbol of European Collectivism that would militate against Britain’s free market and island instincts. She was afraid of European supra-nationalism becoming socialist in nature, and said so forcefully.
The speech caused alarm and it marked the beginnings of the anti-European movement that has consumed the Conservatives today. Thatcher’s fears never came to pass. The Single Market and the Customs Union were a huge success, and there is no doubt it brought prosperity to all Europeans. But the spark was lit in the Conservative Party. With the ousting of Thatcher in 1991 by the Tories, the true Thatcherites held on to that Bruges speech not just as a mark of allegiance, but also as the true faith of all British people, and the efforts to undo Britain’s membership of the European Union can be said to have begun there.
Her successor John Major suffered through six years of friendly fire attacks from his own party members over Europe right until he lost the elections to Labour in 1997. Disasters such as Britain’s membership of the ERM did not help, nor did the ensuing austerity and near recession after the collapse of the Pound. When 1997 came around, voters had had enough of eighteen years of Tory rule. The scandal-ridden, fractious Tories were opposed by a young and fresh-faced Tony Blair leading a rejuvenated New Labour party. Blair, assisted by Brown and Mandelson, was a secret admirer of Thatcher and the New Labour team got the party to rid itself of its infamous Chapter Four (which promoted nationalization). Voters abandoned the Tories and fled to Labour.
Blair was an enthusiastic Europhile and would have taken Britain into the common currency, were it not for his dour Chancellor and rival. The low-inflation, low interest rate regime that Major had to put in hurt him but gave Blair a great growth platform. Cool Britannia embraced the world.
It was also an era of untrammeled globalization and financialization. The UK and the EU benefited from the entry of China into the global economy. The EU reaped the benefits of the Schengen and Maastricht agreements, and Britain prospered in its role as the confluence of the European Union and the American world. London as a financial centre boomed. The free-market, lightly regulated City became the powerhouse of European finance. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992 freed the former Warsaw Pact nations to enter the European embrace, and a confident EU gave the new citizens of the EU the same rights to travel and work within the European Union.
In 2004, Tony Blair gave these new EU citizens the right to come to the UK and take up residence and live without any restrictions. Driven by his Euro-centric vision, it was bold and imaginative. Polish citizens had become part of British society, and now they were joined by Romanians, Bulgarians, Latvians et al. Cafes in London and hospitals in the Cotswolds now had Eastern European baristas and nurses. It was a globalist paradise.
Perhaps this was a watershed moment for the conservative forces that were quiescent in the era of New Labour. By 2007, Blair stepped down and Brown took over. Almost immediately, the loose regulation and profligacy of the Anglo-Saxon financial system which had been fueled by cheap savings from China, caused the financial crisis and nearly tipped the world into a recession. Brown acted to save the banks and hence the economy. But that went down very badly with a public hurt by the downturn as the banks collapsed. The public saw a globalized elite helping themselves to public funds to provide bailouts to their rich banker buddies. The fact that no one went to jail in either the US or the UK as a consequence of the banking collapse was not lost on people.
TAs the global economy tanked, the UK suffered as well. The bailouts of the banks and effective nationalization of three major banks punched a big hole in the public finances.
In 2010 the Conservatives allied with the Liberal Democrats to topple Labour from power. A young, fresh leader David Cameron promised a fresh start to end the financial crisis. The path that the new Conservative team took was to cut public services and trim the government in an effort to save money and reduce the deficit. The party, new to power and filled with young Thatcherites who saw the EU as a millstone around the UK, were quick to press forward on the uncompleted task of freeing the country from the EU. The EU was torn by ructions between the member states over fiscal and monetary policy. All of this was not lost on the euro-sceptics who now occupied key positions in the government. Euroscepticism began anew. This time around, the Labour Party had switched from neo-conservatism to leftist socialism, and the natural suspicion of the Labour leadership that the EU was a capitalist plot meant that Labour did nothing to counter the euro-sceptics.
Fast-forward to 2016. The question to ask is: should Theresa May have triggered Article 50 without having first agreed the terms of divorce? Was this the railway timetable moment for the PM? In theory, it was political ineptitude of the first order. Once Article 50 was triggered, there was no way Britain had control over events. And as events must inevitably overtake all politicians, Mrs May found herself battling to deliver on her campaign promise.
I think she had no choice. As observers have pointed out, as a Remain voter however passive, she had to prove to the Euro-sceptics that she was now a convert to the cause. Had she told the Conservatives that having won the Referendum, they need to pause and reflect on the best way to execute the deal before starting the timer, she may have faced a revolt and possibly defenestration. A reasonable person observing the process dispassionately would have immediately seen that a number of lies and misrepresentations were made to the people by the Leave Campaign. Huge sums to the NHS. Immediate FTAs with the rest of the world. That European companies will force the EU to make room for the British.
Anyone with some experience of the real world would have known that these were not deliverable. Added to that, no one seems to have considered the issue of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. An open border between NI and Eire was critical to the Agreement, and this simple fact seems to have slipped the minds of the Leavers. In the end, this issue added more wrinkles to the problem. Brexit as envisioned by the Leavers is now impossible to deliver without endangering the United Kingdom itself.
Mobilization began when Thatcher made that speech. Whatever happens now, the United Kingdom is seriously damaged. If Britain drops out of the European Union without any sort of agreement in place, it is economic disaster. The deal that the Prime Minister agreed with the European Union ignores services (which is 80% of the British economy) and seriously endangers the sovereignty and integrity of the United Kingdom – something that membership of the EU never did. If the Remain voters’ dreams come true and Brexit is cancelled, the cancer of the Referendum and years of Euro-scepticism will poison society for years and years.
War is upon us.