RLC Foundation Book Club It’s all a matter of perspective – History for a New Audience

RLC Foundation Book Club

It’s all a matter of perspective – History for a New Audience

Pick up any UK national newspaper and you might be forgiven for thinking that Britain is in unprecedented dire straits.  Unprecedented is fast becoming an overused word in our national vocabulary but considering the myriad of challenges that the country faces, one could be convinced that the modern era is different, dangerous and unlikely to be temporal.  A brief synopsis of the state of the UK’s affairs and the immediate challenges adds some weight to the negative reports in our endless news cycles.

Who would have thought that during 2023-25 Germany would plan to commit spending more on its defence than Global Britain?  It seems plausible that over the next three years Germany will double its defence spending to circa €100Bn, overtaking Britain as Europe’s biggest NATO defence spender for the first time since the 1950s (Grylls, The Times, 17 May 2023, p.4).  Whether Germany actually reaches or surpasses its defence spending goal of 2% of GDP (€75Bn), remains to be seen, but for the first time it does have a national security strategy underpinning its new-found defence ambitions (Stelzenmüller, Financial Times, 17/18 June 2023, p.11).  Just to maintain defence spending at 2.5% of GDP, Britain will need to raise taxes by £42Bn, a rise of £11Bn over the next five years (£9Bn of which is earmarked for Trident).  This is a big call for a country challenged economically, with the IMF forecasting that UK GDP will fall by 0.3% in 2023, the lowest figure in the G7 (House of Commons Library, 19 May 2023).  Alarmingly, these are not the only stagnation challenges facing Britain.  Stubbornly high inflation with public confidence in the Bank of England’s ability to control the interest rate reported to be at its lowest level in twenty years (Giles, Financial Times, 17/18 June 2023, p.2) combined with lagging wages, high energy prices and a taut labour market, all exacerbate what is generally referred to as a national cost-of-living crisis.

Let’s face it, when push-comes-to-shove, it’s not about politics, culture, security, religion or issues over equality.  James Carville was right when he said, ‘It’s the economy stupid.’  Every facet of British society seems to be under pressure because of Government fiscal policies geared to an unstable global economy.  It’s argued that this is why underfunding in Britain’s NHS and transport services are being constantly debated.  No growth in national output has been recorded since July 2022 which is now no higher than in October 2019 (Giles and Strauss, Financial Times, 17/18 June 2023, p.9).  In fact, national productivity is at its lowest level in a decade (outside of COVID) and Government investment, even for green initiatives, look insignificant in relation to the future global climate trials we face.  When budgets are overly tight, concerns such as migrant numbers, may warrant extraordinary attention but they also consume valuable governance time and space.  The simplistic cry for ‘Stop the Boats,’ devours valuable national air space, with the current PM stating that net legal migration of 606,000 people is too much, despite the fact that certain UK labour sectors are undersubscribed.  In a period of economic uncertainty, wider security initiatives, especially those abroad, could be viewed as luxuries when considered against closer-to-home challenges.  Take the recent Government defence commitment package to Japan, part of the UK’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific.  This is planned to include what the PM describes as a carrier strike group, tasked to patrol in 2025 to, “help defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific,” (Defence News Online, 18 May 2023).  Even the wording may seem strange to some; to defend peace, rather than sustain it.  It could be argued that such rhetoric acknowledges that peace is under imminent threat – presumably from China, who may see itself threatened regionally by what it believes is a Western-led encirclement in the Indo-Pacific region.  Again, the fragile state of the global economy affects China’s authoritarian view of the world.  Challenged to maintain the magical annual 8% growth in GDP, on its current trajectory China will not close the race with the US if its productivity remains low and is undermined further by a decline of circa 25% of the working age population within the next 25 years.  Given the fragile global economy, economists are predicting that even the Chinese Government’s target of 5% economic growth could be optimistic (Leahy, Hale and Lin, Financial Times, 17/18 June 2023, p.6).  If this is the case, then the Belt and Road Initiative is likely to stall, with potentially negative effects on Chinese development plans.

When times are tough, Britain has often rallied behind its ability to reap the rewards of rapid research and development (the Covid vaccine being a recent example).  One of the most prominent areas for potential betterment, and gaining a competitive edge, is the optimisation of AI.  HMG however, has a concern that AI’s unadulterated widescale adoption could pose an existential threat to humankind (The Times, 27 May 2023, p.7).  International cooperation over the development and governance of AI seems a logical foil to any threats it may cause but under the spectre of increasing global polarity, a universally agreed assurance regime currently looks overly ambitious.  As it stands, it seems that one of the AI threats is already with us as the BT Group announces 55,000 job cuts by the end of the decade as it transitions to AI applications and other associated automated services (Swinford, The Times, 27 May 2023, p.7).

Despite these reported looming threats, many may take comfort in the perception that the UK still has a stable governance mechanism through which the nation can be gently guided to the safe economic, security assured and culturally rich sunlit uplands.  That may well be the case but a series of concerns over sleaze in Whitehall and a Lords where the speaker believes the upper house, “is too big and…in need of reform,” (Swinford and Spirit, The Times, 27 May 2023, p.8) does not naturally boost confidence in British governance.

Underscore all of these challenges with an illegal war in Europe, where Russia, although unable to deliver a knockout blow, is unfortunately likely to maintain its war effort in Ukraine for years (The Economist, Briefing Russia’s Economy, 29 April 2023, pp.16-18 and Swinford, The Times, 17 June 2023, p.34) and you have a genuine argument for an unprecedented crisis.  Whilst the destabilizing effects of the global economy have manifested themselves in various ways, it is the challenging of the Western-led, rules-based system, that has left international governance prostrate to aggression – just when some internationalists believed that war had been outlawed.

Many may argue that despite this international polarity, Britain, fortunately, has recourse to the special relationship with its most important ally.  Even that ally however is struggling with its national debt (capped at $31.4 trillion but likely to rise) and is witnessing cuts in its social security, national infrastructure and green policies, whilst the US Central Bank plans to continue to raise interest rates. Britain may not be at the back of the line when it comes to certain favours from the US, but neither is there solid evidence for it claiming to be towards the front of the international queue – and our position in that queue may be important if we wish to be considered as an indispensable ally.

Whatever our standing with the US, it seems that economic problems are universal, albeit nuanced in scale and risk between nations.  In the West, we may avoid a sixth extinction from AI, but based on current projections, where the UK is on course to fall short of its 2030 carbon emission reductions by circa 68% (Boyles and Cooke, The Times, 17 June 2023, p.31), we may well be unable to avoid the climate disasters that are already unfolding in Eastern Africa.  Ukraine and the fragile economy are clearly important, but perhaps we need to quickly recognise that the survival of the naked ape is likely to trump them.

All things considered, perhaps many will be thinking that these are indeed unprecedented hard times – well, as the optimist said, ‘I’m fairly confident that things could be far worse’, indeed, don’t despair, history proves that they have been, and two superb books chosen for review in the Foundation Book Club prove it – but you have to take a longer perspective to recognise and measure real disaster.

First up is Taylor Downing’s 1942 Britain at the BrinkDowning wrote the book in lock-down and was careful to choose 1942 as a year in which Britain may well have gone under as a sovereign nation.  Specific themes are examined which help the reader build a picture of what was going on within Churchill’s febrile Government.  The US recognised the desperate global situation and although Roosevelt’s actions could be construed as largely altruistic, there was also a certain pragmatism behind the President’s decision to adopt the Germany first strategy.  Whilst the US industrial base geared itself for total war, Britain and Russia was pummeled on every front.  The devastation of the blitz underpinned Britain’s general lack of preparedness, and as a consequence, despite some national industrial contingency planning, Britain was caught soundly asleep at the security wheel.  To sustain its population, Britain relied on global sea lines of communication, and by default merchant shipping.  In 1942 Germany was winning the attritional Battle of the Atlantic.  Poor coordination between and within the services was painfully exposed with Germany able to move three of its capital ships up the English Channel (The Channel Dash) on 12 February, in daylight without loss.  The fall of Singapore three days later, one of the jewels in the Imperial Crown, not only condemned 55,000 British and Australian troops into Japanese captivity but was correctly reported as the largest surrender of British-led troops in history (about 100,000 men in total).  The defeat opened up India to Japanese Imperialism and with hindsight, undermined the long-term survival of British colonialism.  Downing uses some excellent examples of why Britain’s ability to fight back was generally feeble and frankly embarrassing.

Bombing was identified as one of the few weapons which could be delivered to the heart of the enemy and consequently was enthusiastically supported by Churchill, his cabinet and the bomber barons.  As a stark reminder of the time it takes to develop a war winning capability however, in 1939 the RAF had no effective airborne navigation system (Astro-navigation was one of the few credible solutions – except that Europe tends to be cloudy) and no suitable aircraft.  An enquiry into the effectiveness of bombing in 1941 concluded that only one in three bombers managed to get their bombs within 5 miles of their intended target and when there was no moonlight, only about one in fifteen aircraft achieved the same result (pp.178-179). Even the Thousand Bomber raids, carried out with improved navigation systems, proved sporadic in effect as bombs continued to miss their targets.  As a result, not until 1944 were Thousand Bomber raids reinstated.

On land against Germany, Britain fared little better with Tobruk falling in June 1942 and 33,000 men going into the bag against a force half its size.  Since May, the 8th Army lost 1700 men KIA and 6,000 wounded but it was the 57,000 men classed as missing which perplexed the chiefs of staff and HMG.  The majority of these men had been taken prisoner, often in whole unit batches.  Downing posits that this demonstrated that there was something seriously wrong with British fighting spirit in the early desert campaign and goes on to explain the catastrophe through the reporting of the British Press, who were scathing in their assessment of the Army’s and Churchill’s performance.  So dire was the situation that the Army Council, in a typical understated fashion, concluded that ‘the capitulation at Singapore, the fall of Tobruk and the large proportion of unwounded prisoners…suggested that the army was in a condition that did not appear to accord with its own traditions’ (p.267).  In the long history of the British Army, such a situation was genuinely unprecedented.  As if operations in North Africa were not depressing enough, another disaster exemplified the unprepared position of British amphibious capability.

Dieppe, as Downing describes it, was “another sorry affair that brought no credit to Allied forces” (p.325) and reinforced the reality that, despite US pressure for a Second Front in 1942, the Allies were in no position to launch a credible cross-Channel assault.  The military community and historians have struggled to categorise Operation JUBILEE; a reconnaissance in force to some, to others, a large-scale raid.  Whatever the adopted nomenclature, and despite Churchill’s explanation that, ‘casualties of this memorable action may seem out of proportion to the results’ (The Second World War, Vol. IV, p.459), the execution was a blueprint for how not to conduct command and control of an amphibious operation.  As for the casualties, the butcher’s bill for the six-hour operation took six days to calculate.  Of the 6,000 men that assaulted the target area, 4,384 were lost, 2,000 of which were made prisoner – the majority Canadian.  Combined Operations and Churchill’s Cabinet were forced to rethink their amphibious doctrine.  Downing emphasizes that with every tactical, operational and strategic setback in 1942, Churchill was put under increasing pressure as a prime minister.  Despite everything that befell the Allies however, we know that Churchill managed to survive the calamity.  With the first British victory in the desert under Montgomery, the tide finally turned and the Allied landings in North-West Africa (Operation TORCH) reinforced Churchill’s position.

Downing’s clever use of Mass Observation brings many of the selected events to life (readers who have not used Mass Observation are missing out) and those brought up on a diet of wartime nostalgia might find the various diary entries revealing in their criticism of the British Government.  Perhaps the biggest take-away from 1942 Britain at the Brink, is how quick recovery can be, albeit patchy in many sectors – perhaps 2023-24 will be the same.   Downing refers to Churchill as, ‘a flawed leader’ who ‘although…star[ing] into the abyss of defeat…had the determination to keep fighting [when] British people nearly lost confidence in him and the country’s ability to fight on’ (p.369) – perhaps there is more of a connection between 1942 and 2023 than might first be imagined.

Some readers may argue that contrasting and comparing the contemporary national and international environment with a selected year from the last total war is marginally unfair.  To reinforce the premise of this review, Philip Stephens’ Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit, offers further evidence that the range and scale of challenges that the UK currently faces are, surprisingly perhaps, not new.  What Stephens explains is that Britain has not only witnessed periods of extreme turmoil at home and abroad, but chaos in UK governance (from across all political parties) is a constant, rather than an unprecedented phenomenon.  Whether this revelation offers comfort or concern is down to the reader. Spanning sixty years of history, the book’s baseline is the Anglo-French debacle at Suez in 1956.  From being one of the recognised WW2 Big Three, Suez, according to Stephens, shattered the ‘dangerous delusion’ that Britain was still a great post-war power.

The golden thread, weaved skillfully throughout Britain Alone, is Britain’s truncated relationships with the US, sometimes conveniently referred to as special, and that with the afflicted Commonwealth and a resurgent Europe, propelled by Germany and France.  From an advantageous start immediately after WW2, Stephens argues that Britain squandered its opportunities through a series of geopolitical misjudgments.  Britain’s subservient relationship with the US is exposed through a number of carefully selected national and global events.  Suez not only demonstrated how powerful the US was economically but it propagated a level of distrust with France that remained until at least the late 1970s.  Kennedy’s grand gesture of selling Polaris to Britain exposed an open sore which not only questioned whether the UK possessed a truly independent nuclear capability, but also re-emphasized to Western Europe that Britain was more concerned with Atlanticism than being a committed European nation.  The contemporary bookend to Stephens’ story is Brexit, where again Britain’s complicated relationships with the US and Europe are explored.  Out of the European Union, with the Whitehouse insinuating that the UK was, ‘at the back of the line’ and with no US trade deal in sight, Britain seems to have arrived at a new destination where it has no special relationship with either the US or Europe – Britain truly alone.  Perhaps the anxiety of reaffirming and substantiating the largely transactional special relationship can now be eased somewhat and international efforts optimised more evenly.

Stephens is convincing in describing where Britain has come from and how it’s arrived where it has.  Where we go remains uncertain but our relationships with the US and Europe will need to be worked out as a matter of urgency.  As it currently stands, our connection with the European Union looks tenuous, at least economically and politically, while Britain’s broader cultural connections with the US are best described by Owolade (The Times, 10 June 2023, pp.26-27) who uses the Australian phenomenon of ‘cultural cringe,’ to describe US imported narratives, where the UK’s low self-esteem manifests itself in an embarrassing over willingness to please – a trend unlikely to go unnoticed in the capitals of Europe.  Although Owolade’s observations are from a specifically racial perspective, they can be used to illuminate the wider adoption of US culture where ‘They [the US] sets the [cultural] trend; we follow,’ – that is, if we are allowed or willing to do so.  There is a danger that as well as unadulterated cultural imports being adopted as a default, Britain also allows binary political arguments to germinate in national debates, without superimposing the historic peculiarities running through our politics, economics and culture.  What Stephens exposes is that Britain is not America.

What is startling within Britain Alone, is the number of historic parallels with our contemporary environment where, ‘British science and technology were losing their edge.  The nation…living beyond its means.  Competing public spending demands – the armed forces, the [newly created] NHS, public-sector pay – were putting pressure on public finances. Industrial relations were poor, with key industries laid low by strikes.  A yawning trade deficit’ (p.73).  Sound familiar?  Stephens is describing Britain in the late 1950s but it could, with the minutest of tweaks, describe the UK from the late 1990s.  To help take stock, the decision in 1959 was to launch a top-secret audit of the nation under the cabinet secretary Norman Brook – The Future Policy Study.  Published on a limited distribution in January 1960, the BLUF was that ‘Of all the major powers, the UK has the most vulnerable economy …our relative position vis-ὰ-vis both the US and Western Europe will … decline’ (p.78).  Readers will need to remember that Stephens is commentating on the forecasts of 1960s Britain not the 2020s.  Brook’s study listed the forecasted reasons for the decline but despite the accurately prosaic national evidence, Stephens argues that the real reason for decay was that ‘national consciousness lagged the redistribution of power in the world’ (p.80).   Britain had to attempt to punch above its weight to substantiate its seat on the UN Security Council, to retain its membership of the nuclear club and remain a credible head of the Commonwealth.   These facets of power were regarded as valuable rather than sea anchors and resulted in what Stephens describes as ‘the decades-long psychodrama that would see Britain struggle’ (p.79) with ‘The result [being] the fundamental mismatch between national self-image and domestic economic capacity’ (p.154).  In short, Stephens asserts that Britain from the 1950s was a country stranded by history and unable to fund its global ambitions.

Stephens’ gift is packaging historic events and presenting them succinctly to a new audience, utilising carefully selected case studies.  Who would have thought that Margaret Thatcher attempted to derail German unification (pp.231-232) or that one of the economic effects of Black Wednesday in 1992 was the Bank of England literally running out of money (p.271).  The governance that led to the war in Iraq in 2003, exposed in the Chilcot Enquiry as ‘sofa style…decision-making in Downing Street’ (p.285), with parallels to Suez and the inconvenient truth that remains today, that, ‘economics often collides with values in the shaping of diplomacy’ (p.290) are laid bare.  While Labour’s first full defence review (the 1998 SDR) under Tony Blair, developed a global intent, ‘to be a force for good in the world,’ it evolved in 2005 into a more ambitious ‘responsibility to protect.’  As Stephens explains, ‘the doctrine called for a shift in the balance of international affairs in order to limit the capacity of individual states to challenge global rules and norms.’ (p.306).  Even with international partners, these broad visions required serious levels of funding to create a robust contingency for credible liberal interventionalism – a phenomenon only whispered today at the UN.  Stephens brings the curtain down on summarizing Britain’s current situation with an exploration of the forces behind the Brexit leave campaign and the fracture lines in Parliament.  The strange timing of the decision to trigger Article 50 and surrender negotiating leverage to the EU before Britain had devised a clear negotiating strategy is analysed (p.386) and the agreed policy by Brussels to make leaving the EU club a ‘demonstration effect’ as a warning to others of the high cost of departure (p.390) makes for an obvious, yet sober read.  Stephens questions whether Britain now lacks an organising vision (p.393) and outlines the stark irony in pursuing an ambitious global strategy whilst excluding 45% of its historic trade with the EU and having no US reference point.  The dichotomies that run through international affairs and how quickly things can change will no doubt come as a surprise to many – both pessimists and optimists.

For those introverts (and extroverts who recognise their historic knowledge is meagre) embarking on any level of staff training, or contemplating applying for late entry commissioning, both 1942 Britain at the Brink and Britain Alone, provide evidential case studies and ample food-for-thought for future syndicate debates.  Discussions on the Integrated Review, developing international relations, how strategy is formulated and whether Britain’s economy can pay for Westminster’s visions, can be enhanced with the knowledge that, as bad as things seem, they can, and have been worse.  So, as traumatizing as it is to read reports of British citizens unable to pay utility bills in 2023 or failings in the NHS, Downing’s portrait of 1942 explains that the real unprecedented period was when ‘Britain was dreadfully over-extended in 1942, finding itself fighting a world war on two fronts thousands of miles apart.’ (p.138).  Alternatively, the sixty years since Suez have cumulatively witnessed an endless procession of economic, political and cultural challenges for Britain.  With the hindsight provided by these two quality publications, the contemporary state of affairs could be regarded as just another natural, albeit uncomfortable, evolutionary period for a Britain in managed decline.   Instead of attempting to cash cheques to fund an opaque global role, a more realistic option might be to comfortably nestle in a more natural second tier nation position and act as a trusted ally and competitive regional influencer with partners.  Of course, both options require the UK to work within a US dominated rules-based system.  Alternatively, we could always keep going with our post-2016 strapline – alone.

Books Reviewed:

  • Downing, T. 1942 Britain at the Brink, London, Abacus, 2023.
  • Stephens, P. Britain Alone – The Path from Suez to Brexit, London, Faber and Faber, 2022.


  • Churchill, W. The Second World War. Vol IV The Hinge of Fate, London, Cassell & Co Ltd, 1951.
  • Grylls, G. German Defence Spending set to Surpass UK’s with €100bn Boost, The Times, Saturday 17 May 2023, News, p.4.
  • House of Commons Library, GDP International Comparisons Online, 19 May 2023. [Accessed 23 May 2023].
  • Leahy, J., Hale, T., and Lin, A. China’s recovery hangs in balance as property is shunned and exports flag, International, Financial Times Weekend, 17/18 June 2023, p.6.
  • Owolade, T., When it comes to race, we’ve got to stop talking like America, The Times, Saturday 10 June 2023, Comment, Weekend Essay, pp.26-27.
  • Stelzenmüller, C. Germany finds that on defence, growing up is hard to do, Financial Times, Weekend Opinion, 17/18 June 2023, p.11.
  • Swinford, S., Sunak holds AI talks with Google Boss, The Times, Saturday 27 May 2023, News, p.7.
  • Swinford, S. and Spirit, L., Lords ‘needs more experts and fewer silent voices’, The Times, News, Saturday 27 May 2023, p.8.
  • Swinford, S. Ukraine isn’t a movie – there’s no guarantee of a quick result, The Times, News Saturday Interview with James Cleverly, 17 June 2023, p.34.
  • The Economist, Briefing: Russia’s Economy – Military-Industrial Complexity, 29 April 2023, pp.16-18.