I'm not going to take issue with his bizarre contention that saying sorry for the slave trade is why the Iranians grabbed the boarding party from Cornwall. I am, however, going to take issue with essentially all his practical statements.
This is indeed what comes of being too nice. A month before expressing his "deep sorrow and regret for our nation's role in the slave trade," the prime minister had announced his intention to reduce British troop levels in Iraq by 1,600 within a matter of months. "The next chapter in Basra's history," he declared, "can be written by Iraqis." Unfortunately, it looks more likely to be written by Iranians. And somehow I don't think they'll be saying sorry afterward.Well, why would they? A crushingly large majority of Basraites voted for parties that are either openly Iranian-influenced, or we say they are Iranian-influenced. More importantly, though, how would the 1,600 soldiers - not one of whom has actually been withdrawn - have dissuaded them from doing this? Concretely, practically, they could do precisely nothing to prevent an incident at sea. And how could they retaliate - by invading, all by themselves?
Apparently that is the Ferguson prescription.
In those days there was little hope of rescue. Britain's armed forces were far too thinly stretched over its rapidly expanding empire for Rambo-style missions to liberate scattered slaves and POWs. The most the Barbary slaves could hope for was to be ransomed, to which end collections were regularly made in British churches.And now, thank God, who can say our armed forces are thinly stretched? Let's plug in some facts. Through the imperial glory of the 19th century, we never had a huge army. Historically speaking, it's usually been about the size it is now. What we did have was a big navy, but navies don't work well in the Dasht e-Kavir desert.
It is in this light that we need to understand James Thomson's immortal lines: "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves: Britons never shall be slaves." When first set to music in 1740, this was a forward-looking injunction to Britain's rulers to go ahead and rule the waves, precisely so that Britons would no longer run the risk of being enslaved.
Also, even small European armies of the mid-19th century had serious firepower and tactical advantages. These were already on the way out by the 1860s-70s, as Pathans and Maoris and Boers started to get hold of modern rifles. This no longer exists. To keep his shtick on the road, Fergie has to ignore about 150 years of military history.
However, when required, this can always be done by the third-rate mind without injury to the integrity of past statements.
Yet today we live in a different world.Really? It's not 1840 any more? How do your answers above change?
Britain could not refight the Falklands War if Argentina invaded the islands tomorrow. Nor could a British strike force be sent to punish the Iranian government today. If military action is going to be taken against Iran this year, it will be initiated by the United States, not the United Kingdom. And, to judge by Faye Turney's conspicuous absence from the front pages of U.S. papers, a British hostage crisis won't be the casus belli.Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Britain certainly could refight the Falklands if Argentina invaded tomorrow. We spent a good deal of money building an airbase on them, so that the Army's spearhead battalion group and an RAF strike squadron can get there in a day. There is a company group and a fighter flight, as well as artillery and helicopters, down there right now. We've also built quite a few amphibious warfare ships since last time, 'tho the loss of the FA2 Harriers is a probby. Wrong on facts.
Anyway, and why the UK armed forces are in a state, it's the damn-fool adventure in Iraq that Niall Ferguson was so keen on.
Further, "punish" the Iranian government? The United States wasn't able to "punish" its hostages out of Iran in 1979. Has he not looked at a map? It's a big place full of people! Keeping hostages is easy, which is why hostage-takers do it. You don't need infrastructure to do it. You don't need anything but knives. If he has an infallible knife-denial plan, let's see it.
Niall Ferguson has no intellectual credibility whatsoever, but this does not seem to harm his career in the States. Ah, the States..what is it with some people? Another of my regular butts, Martin Kettle of the Guardian, this weekend announced that
"the building of the 21st century Americas - and above all the building of the modern United States itself, a society that after much struggle was eventually a pioneer of law, democracy, and freedom, has proved to be the single greatest collective human achievement of the past four centuries."Jesus wept. Sewerage, anyone?
If that's true - and if it is not, I would really and truly like to know what collective human achievement is greater - then in some refracted way it is also a distinctively European, and in a significant way, English achievement too.Right. America is so fantastic and...in a significant way...I can be patriotic about it too! I have a little theory about these people. If you're a professional Mucho Pomposo in Britain at the moment, you probably grew up in the peachy postwar, give or take a few years - between the end of rationing and the Pistols' first LP, to bastardise a cliché.
Patriotism was Dad, the Army, and Churchill. New meant American. Europe (or anywhere else) was a row involving Dad and Ted Heath, and a mixture of fox-tormenting knights and Paki-bashing 'ead kickers. Hence the Kettles and Fergusons, one subtype projecting John F. Kennedy on to the US, the other, Churchill in Congress.
As far as I can tell, the generations after this are less fascinated. Repeat after me: they're not the Messiah, there just are a lot of them.
Update: The Sea Harrier was withdrawn after a decision in 2002, as Dan points out, so it's the epic incompetence of Geoff Hoon to blame for that one, rather than Iraq.