Monday, March 16, 2009

Britain's Strategic Error After 1776

There was a discussion this morning on BBC Radio 5 asking the question: ‘What are the British military forces for?’ Now I shall not comment on the ‘phone-in’ callers’ views – listening to those members of the ‘public’, who air their views on ‘phone-ins’ about the ‘big issues of the day’, often raises unwelcome doubts about the benefits of universal suffrage – but I will comment generally.

Presently, I am preparing an essay for the David Hume Institute (Edinburgh) on the defence interests of Scotland (currently interrupted by my more important paper on the 'Alleged religiosity of Adam Smith' for the annual conference of the History of Economics Society in Denver, Colorado), but, while listening, I thought of something Adam Smith wrote in 1776, which given the history of Britain since its defeat by its former colonists in North America, has poignant meaning for Britain in the 21st century.

Recall that Wealth of Nations was written as a critique of the policies of British governments since the 16th century (Elizabethan times) on domestic policy (saddling the country with what became meddlesome monopolies in the Town Guilds - ‘members of the same trade’, etc.,), restrictive monopolies in the Statute of Apprentices (limiting the spread of human capital), the Settlement Acts (corralling labourers and their families to the Parish they were born or married in), and the Navigation Acts (meant to enable Britain to defend itself as an island from marauding Continental princes, but which became an instrument to monopolise North American trade).

Wealth Of Nations also promoted the policies that Smith called mercantile political economy – jealousy of trade, wars with trading partners, political interference and rivalry in the dynastic successions of Continental sovereigns, trade protection using tariffs and prohibitions and boycotts, a preference for exports over imports, and the hoarding of gold and silver bullion. It also had the effect of participation in the slave trade, and not a little piracy.

That first empire ended fortuitously; if only legislators and those who influenced them had listened carefully to what Adam Smith said in the very last paragraph of the last chapter of Wealth Of Nations and had acted accordingly. Instead, in a crass strategic error of historical magnitude, British governments slid into a second Empire in India, Canada, Caribbean islands, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South-east Asia and, later, Africa. The millions that the North American colonies cost in two 18th-century wars, pale into insignificance beside the millions that the Victorians spent on the Royal Navy and British occupation armies (not a few of the personnel of which came from Scotland), and which British governments in the 20th century continued to spend, on top of what was exported as capital despite these costs, is unimaginable.

But Adam Smith’s proposal for a different path in 1776 was ignored by legislators and those who influenced them, and the rest, as it is said, is history:

The rulers of Great Britain have, for more than a century past, amused the people with the imagination that they possessed a great empire on the west side of the Atlantic. This empire, however, has hitherto existed in imagination only. It has hitherto been, not an empire, but the project of an empire; not a gold mine, but the project of a gold mine; a project which has cost, which continues to cost, and which, if pursued in the same way as it has been hitherto, is likely to cost, immense expence, without being likely to bring any profit; for the effects of the monopoly of the colony trade, it has been shown, are, to the great body of the people, mere loss instead of profit. It is surely now time that our rulers should either realize this golden dream, in which they have been indulging themselves, perhaps, as well as the people, or that they should awake from it themselves, and endeavour to awaken the people. If the project cannot be completed, it ought to be given up. If any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expence of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace, and endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.’ (WN V.iii.92: 946-947; Edwin Canaan, 1937 edition, 899-900)

In the 21st century, Britain still imagines itself militarily as an, albeit, leading military police power (its defence forces are of excellent quality but their political masters are, er, not), politically as a leading player at the United Nations, in the European Community, and the Commonwealth, the G8 and G20, and the WTO. Surely it is time that British governments should distinguish between what exists 'in imagination only' and ‘endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances’?

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