Saturday, 6 June 2009

Europe: worth a few straight bananas

Awaiting European election results, Lucy and I popped over for a look at the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker, now open to the public. For 20 years up to 1992 it was a regional government centre; a hidey hole from which a commissioner and 600 Civil Servants would have run a great chunk of Britain after the Bomb went off. Authentic Public Information films from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s play as you go round.

Stentorian government announcers explain how to protect and survive with bin liners, 35 milk bottles of water each, a sand tray and a central core or refuge under the kitchen table. They all assume one bomb somewhere with two weeks to recover, and we can only wonder at how we’d have died, the lot of us, if these devices had gone off in any number. They’re also rather coy about what you do when the fallout from your own nukes blows back across the channel and kills you anyway.
Yet for much of my lifetime that was the plan — hold the Russians on Lüneborg Heath for up to a fortnight, then go nuclear.

Some of us well remember the Cuban missile crisis — thinking war could happen, with some childish notion it would be a bit like the blitz. These films make it plain it would be like nothing of the sort.
A small amount of imagination makes it obvious this whole nuclear survival thing was and is a bunch of crap. Even with a backyard the size of Siberia (or Alaska) it's a complete hiding to nowhere.

When I was a nipper in 1962 a teacher told me there would probably be a third world war by 1970, as there had been one every 25 years of that century so far. That’s what she had experienced, anyway. The European Union may not have acheved straight bananas, but it has broken a sequnce of bloody European wars which ran for 300 years like sick clockwork, (1700+/ 1750+/ 1790+/ 1848/ 1870/ 1914/ 1939). NATO has provided a defence umbrella, but positively speaking, the EU has built a continent where a war between its historic nations is now, for the first time in 300 years, unthinkable. Its processees could doubtless be reformed in sensible ways, but the central achievement is that for the first time in 300 years, two generations, mine and my children’s, didn’t have to march off to a major war.

I’m less than impressed by anyone who is prepared to risk dismantling Europe, or reducing it to a mere trading arrangement.

The great failure of the League of Nations in the 1930’s was its inability to construct union at a deep enough level to prevent war between nation states in 1939.
It broke under stress precisely because it could develop no substantial common institutions.

To be a Little Englander you have to be too stupid, ignorant or unimaginative to understand the most basic fact of our contemporary history. In a world of globalised superpowers, Victorian nation states are ultimately roadkill; and if anyone were to let off a nuke the other side of the channel, we’d be killed by the fallout anyway within hours. Why wouldn’t we want to play a positive role in the mechanism for preventing that ever happening?


JP said...

Almost entirely in agreement with you there. The tiny but crucial point on which I disagree is that what you describe is surely largely the work of NATO, not the EU. NATO + EEC-type free trade area would surely be just as effective at peace-making and peace-keeping, wouldn't it?

rosie said...

Great comment. This week has been wierd. All the stuff over in France remembering the absolute horror of the D Day landings and at the same time a lot of right wing retoric about getting out of Europe -specially round here. Clearly most of us don't get the concept of collaborative politics any more than we get collaborative ministry.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for great comments. JP, I suspect the honet answer is no. NATO has done a great job as deterrent, or to use an analogy, seatbelts, brakes and bumpers in the car. But a car needs a motor too. France, which walked out of NATO under deGaulle in early 60's, is integral to promoting peace in and through the European project. It's the way people have built common institutions into which they vote even when there isn't a crisis on, let alone the kind of military emergency NATO was designed for. Without some degree of commonality, we're back where we were in the thirties, and all it would take is a crank govt in Germany or France, and the whole cycle starts all over. Russia also could be very dangerous, if it didn't have some degree of real unity next door.

Rosie, I think you've raised a really interesting point. I have to shake my head sadly and say I think you're exactly right. So much of our current press debate on government, for example, focuses on Gordon Brown in an absolute and rather childish way. We all talk dirty about teams in every sphere of life, because they manifestly deliver more than individuals, yet teams need process as well as structure.

Anonymous said...

I must say that I agree with JP. The EU (and it's predecessors) is misrepresented in the idea of many for 'peace in Europe'.

What has contributed to peace is NATO to prevent external aggression, and the ever greater rising of standards of education in nation states combined with improved technology (TV programmes to show that foreigners aren't nasty) and lower barriers for the ordinary person to travel overseas.

I live in Asia, and I don't see anything special about the EU with respect to peace. Countries in South-East and Eastern Asia are advancing themselves given the things I suggest are responsible for peace.

I am in favour of an EU of nation states cooperating where it's of mutual benefit, and building trading relationships within EU states, and with other states and trading blocs. A political fortress Europe is a bad idea.

If that means that you are less than impressed with my views, so be it. But I am not alone, as I think you will find given the Euro-Parliament election results.

Note: I am a UK voter, even though I live overseas.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

The key to European peace since 1871 has been the relationship between France and Germany, neither of which, incidentally was significantly behind educationally in 1914 or 1939. That has nothing to do with NATO — France isn't even a full part of NATO!

The fact that is obvious from the other side of the channel is that people over there view themselves as being part of a unity, in a way they fundamentally didn't before the EU. Trade is important but, outside this nation of shopkeepers it isn't the only thing.

Fortress Britain is even more questionable than fortress Europe, now UK doesn't have an Empire.

UK has interesting love-hate thing about rest of Europe. That brings a significant and valuable critical perspective to European politics, but we'd be wise not to inhale. The Iraq Fiasco was one result of getting this wrong...

Chip said...

Twice in your comments on this post you have incorrectly stated "France . . . walked out of NATO under deGaulle in early 60's," and "France isn't even a full part of NATO!"

To the contrary, France was one of the orignial signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty and has remained a full member of the organization.

De Gaulle withdrew French forces from the integrated NATO military command in the early sixties but France remained a very active member of NATO and still does.

And French forces acted in concert with integrated NATO forces.

How does this affect your argument?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Whilst a member of the alliance, the French contribution in the sixties was at best semi-detached, years before Freedom Fries and Iraq.

I can't remember fine details, but at school in France in the late sixties, during the Referendum campaign of 1969, the story we learnt was that France had withdrawn its Mediterranean fleet from NATO command back during the Algerian war, late fifties, American Nuclear forces were banned from French soil and the Fourth Republic exploded its own independent nuclear deterrent in defiance of NATO around 1960. In addition, French newspapers at the time made much of teh fact that, US forces were forced to apply annually for permission to overfly France, and their forces were removed from the Nato command structure in the mid sixties. Gaullists made much of integrated independent national defence for the best part of twenty years.

DeGaulle supported the US in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but made it plain he did so as an independent player.

That's not the whole story of France and NATO, of course, but it makes mincemeat of the notion that France and Germany were somehow brought together by NATO in a way they weren't by the EEC and then EU which is what I think was rather extraordinarily being suggested.

Erika Baker said...

A usually intelligent person told me seriously that there are no plans for Britain to return to a Victorian nation state, but that once our of Europe, it would become the 51st state of the USA.

adriancopping said...

Thanks for super perspective on all this - as someone who acquired a place in a special branch file simply because I signed up as an extra for the re-make of the 'War Game' film I have always had a strange fascination with these bunkers - there used to be one in the grouns of a pychiatric hospital I worked at - fascinatingly everyone seemed to know what it was!
Your blog has obviously stimulated a good debate but I am saddened by the attempt by several respondents to side-line the idea that commonality is a better basis for peace than military structures like NATO. You ask the question 'why wouldn't we want to play a positive role...'in the part the European alliance plays in maintaining peace and my response is 'quite so'. Sadly some people seemed too hooked on the idea of 'distinctiveness' to see the wood for the trees. Saturday's Daily Telegraph (which I rarely buy but they'd run out of my usual Saturday read) Travel Section had a light hearted but telling feature in which a reporter had been despatched for a significant time to France to 'discover' the place. Admitting his own childhood based but still lingering prejudice that in his mind the country was 'a nation of terrible plumbing and truculent waiters; a stiff unwelcoming land whose inhabitants were rude, bombastic and all talked as if they just bitten on a glue trap', the reporter returns from what he found to be a place of 'civic pride', 'sober understated formality', a place full of 'expressions of cultural identity', and admitting to having become 'a Francophile' rather than a Francophobe.
Such a conversion to the joys of discovered common delight is welcome, but the sad fact is that, as the BNP and UKIP results show, such conversions are too few for comfort.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Adrian, for the wonderful vision of a command bunker with its own personal old style mental hospital — or vice versa?! Just think — the only person left to carry on the species is Nurse Ratchet?

I think many of us have gone through the same kind of conversion as the Telegraph reporter... It's called growing up, and if we can get that bit of our lives sorted before we're 15, it's a boon. What is not comical is to see people trading on fear and xenophobia, or suggesting it is somehow the distinguishing feature of being British. I think it is an area of life where Fleet Street does have a certain amount to answer for...

Steve Hayes said...

I wonder if they showed Dr Strangelove and Fail safe, two of the great Cold War movies.

Your post title reminds me of the old joke:

How are politicians like a bunch of bananas?

They're all yellow, they hang together, and there's not a straight one among them.

Free to think, free to believe said...

Well, I know this is a bit late but...

Your sick clockwork of wars swings from 58 to 22yrs apart... In a nutshell you could argue that this peace is due to the general success of the Marshall Plan in heading off the conditions that generated the second world war from repeating... or the other main plank of your argument was the clear disastrousness of a nuclear war... of course another one was that everybody's economies were so ground down they could not think of another war and so they decided to trade [as before] with each other...

The EU was next to useless when it came to Bosnia and if it wasn't for the US would NATO have done anything?

The military reality for the cold war was that the Russians could wear out all of NATO's conventional arms and then still be able to 'conquer'europe so why didn't that happen? Was it because Europe was being so friendly? I think it was a mix of the horror that was produced by the terrible repetition of loss that 1939 - 1945 achieved, the exhausted economies and the fear of the nuke.

Europe may be close to home but does that mean we should leave that partnership called the Commonwealth behind - which is what it will to be 'truly committed' to the EU project would mean - is that a better internationalism than a club which lets in folk given a set of institutions rather than geography? Could Turkey join the Commonwealth - it would seem to be having problems with the EU? Would that make 'the world a safer place'?

Of course one thing that is missed from your argument is that some wars are started when one tries too hard to join them together and then one objects at the last moment... that can start wars just as much as anything else...

I look forward to seeing your response to this ramble.

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