What would Britain be like if it was at peace?

Since 1945, Britain has almost never been at peace. These conflicts have preoccupied the military and legitimised spending and facilities that would cause major problems if we stayed away from war.

It may be a little peculiar to speculate on this on a balmy British summer day. The Proms are in full swing, the Edinburgh Fringe is getting under way and there has been no summer riot so far - if one ignores the Northern Ireland marching season. About the most bellicose anyone is getting at present is over the Ashes, and for once the Australians have done the right thing and allowed themselves to be licked.

So why this quixotic preoccupation? I wonder just how often most readers give a thought to the British troops who are still serving and dying in Afghanistan? There are some 9,500 members of the armed forces in the country, to be reduced to 5,200 next year and to be fully withdrawn by 2015. That is the current intention.

Even if the Afghan war (which has been going on for the past twelve years – far longer than either World War) sometimes makes the headlines, what is seldom recalled is just how regularly Britain has been at war since 1945. In fact, the country has almost never been in some conflict or other, declared or undeclared.

At the bottom of this blog is a table kindly supplied by the Ministry of Defence, with the warning that it should not be considered ‘official’ since there was in the past no central record of every military action, and that until recently the Army, Navy and Air Force each held their own records. What it does indicate is that Britain has been involved in fighting of one kind or other almost every year.

The National Memorial Arboretum records the names of some 16,000 servicemen and women who have died for their country since 1945. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence says there has been only one year since that time when they did not lose someone in ‘combat operations’ – and that was 1968.

Even this almost certainly does not record the total number of conflicts in which Britain was involved. Some, like the SAS operation in Oman and Dhofar between 1969 and 1976, is not officially recorded. There may well be others.

All of which brings me back to the question I first raised: what would Britain be like if it was really at peace? George Orwell declared in “England Your England” that: “The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic.”

He argued – rightly, it seems to me  - that “all the boasting and flag-wagging, the ‘Rule Britannia’ stuff, is done by small minorities.” Even Godfrey Bloom and his ‘Bongo-Bongoland’ outburst is no more than quaint and mildly embarrassing, rather than threatening in any way.

Yet Britain at peace could be a very different beast. What exactly would the country do with its armed forces? Some, no doubt, would continue to be stationed on the 9 bases Britain maintains around the world (not forgetting that Diego Garcia is British, even if it is leased to the United States and its ownership is disputed by Mauritius.)

But the rest would have to come home and then what would be done with them then? They might gradually moulder away, exercising in the Brecon Beacons or in Borneo from time to time. They might be even more rapidly run down. How would the public cope with so many troops regularly going about their daily business, on the streets and in shopping centres?

Peace – real peace – would pose as many questions as most conflicts for the military. A member of the Royal Navy once pointed out to me that getting rid of Gaddafi in 2011 provided a golden opportunity to fire off all the obsolete ammunition that had been accumulating since the Falklands, with the Treasury picking up the bill. Without a conflict the military would have to find money from its budget for this kind of thing. Officers would lose combat experience, squaddies could become soft.

But all this may be premature. Syria could easily suck in British forces (who knows if some are not there already?) and the world is by no means at peace. Memories of Afghan casualties will fade, just as the First, Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars of 1839 – 1919 gradually left the public mind. Some incident or hostage situation will, no doubt, escape the grasp of the Foreign Office and spiral out of control. Who, after all, would have thought that London would nearly come to blows with Paris over the village of Fashoda in 1898? Who can even point to it on a map?

It seems to me that after the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 Britain will take a short breather and then get back to its natural condition: it will find another war to become involved in; preferably a small one. 

British military action since 1945

Greek Civil War 1944-49 (direct UK involvement was more in the earlier years)

India, prior to independence and partition 1945-8 (both traditional colonial policing and incidents such as the Indian navy mutiny)

Palestine / 1st Arab-Israeli War 1945-48

Corfu Incident 1946

Malaya 1948-60

Yangtze Incident 1949 (not pictured)

Korea 1950-1953

Canal Zone 1950-54

Mau-Mau in Kenya 1952-1960ish

Cyprus 1950s until Treaty of Establishment in 1960

Suez 1956

Borneo 1960s

Aden 1964-67

Radfan (Yemen) 1960s (not pictured)

Northern Ireland 1969- present day (last military fatality was L/Bdr Restorick in 1997)

Dhofar late 60s to mid 70s (not pictured)

Iranian Embassy 1980 (no military fatalities)

Falklands 1982

Gulf campaign 1990-91 (bear in mind that although “combat ops” did not start until Jan 1991 we lost several aircrew in training accidents in theatre during the build-up of forces in the autumn/winter of 1990)

No Fly Zones Iraq 1991-2003 (no fatalities, but emphasis on 1999-2003, when Iraqi air defences attacked Coalition aircraft routinely and fire was returned)

Bosnia 1992-5 (and continued operational deployment with IFOR/SFOR for years after the cessation of hostilities)

Desert Fox Iraq 16-19 December 1998 (no fatalities but “combat” op) - not pictured

Kosovo 1999 (then continuing operational deployment with KFOR afterwards)

Sierra Leone 2000

Afghanistan 2001 to present

Iraq 2003-9

Libya 2011 (no fatalities)

All photographs: Getty Images.

British troops in Afghanistan - a conflict which has far outrun both world wars. Photograph: Getty Images.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage