Jeremy Thomass is a history teacher and researcher who is also a member of Rochford District Council. He is currently working on a biography of Lord Landsdowne, to be entitled The Last of the Whigs. Here he suggests that the results of "liberal intervention" in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan has been "almost invariably dire".
"...We go very wrong if we allow our judgement of practical steps to be taken to be perpetually deflected by our moral reactions against wrongs we can in no circumstances immediately redress" – Lord Halifax to the Governor of Bengal, March 1938.
Almost half a century has passed since Harold Macmillan declared the British Empire at an end, in his "wind of change" speech in Cape Town in 1960. Yet today we still see British forces strung out across half the world, from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan, and find ourselves increasingly at a loss to know how long Britain should continue to bear the military, diplomatic and economic burden these commitments involve.
For all we know of the way in which Britain once more became embroiled in Africa’s and Asia’s wars, we seem to understand much less why we, more than any other former European imperial power, persist in these continual interventions. How far might the underlying motive for this truly be a wish to maintain international security and stability and how far might it lie deeper in the history of British thought and religion?
Many on the Left in Britain today believe that moral principle and moral purpose, rather than strategy or mere interest alone, should be the inspiration of our foreign policy. Many Victorian liberals believed the same, often, like their modern-day successors, following a dramatic political or religious conversion at the end of a historic age. The collapse of European socialism in the 1990s, as old industries, trades unions and the Cold War gave way to the service economy, the internet and growing ethnic and religious strife, placed the British Left in as great a quandary as the old Whig aristocracy of the 1830s, who witnessed Cobbett’s England of the stagecoach and the village give way to the land of railways and canals depicted by Mrs. Gaskell.
In both cases their traditional political support, whether from pocket boroughs or industrial unions, was weakened and their self-confidence shaken in consequence. Both began to lose faith in their old beliefs, whether in pride of caste or class struggle, both took refuge in quasi-religious or ethical moralism as a result, both sought to rally the newly-assertive liberal middle classes to their side with a moral cry and both then found themselves faced with consequences they could not control, above all in foreign affairs.