This country has faced the choice of war or peace on some ten or twelve occasions during my lifetime. I was too young to have an opinion on the outbreak of the First World War, then known as the Great War. Thereafter I assumed I should always be against war even when it was conducted in the name of collective security. I opposed going to war over Manchuria in 1932 and campaigned energetically against going to war over Abyssinia in 1935. I even opposed the sending of British troops to Shanghai in 1927. Then, much to my surprise, I turned round. I did not actually advocate war over the Rhineland in 1936, believing – I still think rightly – that it was a lost cause. But I was very hot on the side of war for Czechoslovakia in 1938 and for Poland in 1939. I applauded the Second World War and still do, being rebuked by a former pupil the other day for describing it as ‘a good war’. Afterwards I swung round again: against the war for Korea in 1951 and very much against the Suez aggression in 1956.
And where does this all leave me when the issue of peace or war comes up again? I must start from first principles or lack of them. One thing is quite clear: we cannot simply abandon people of British stock and allegiance. There is no question here of oppression or exploited natives whose territory was stolen from them. Virtually all the Falklanders are as British as you or me. But there is a difficulty. The Falklanders are now hostages in the hands of a brutal dictatorship. To endanger their lives would defeat the whole purpose of the expedition. They are a great deal more important than the alleged oil rights which lie beneath the ocean: if necessary, I would trade the Falklanders for the oil. They must not become the innocent victims of an incompetent government. I should be very glad to see the Argentine Junta humiliated, but not at the cost of British lives. Our mission is no longer to be the general liberator of mankind.
The patriotic indignation over the Falkland Islands stirs alarming analogies with the uproar which preceded the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739. Then, too, the offence against a British subject had been committed in South America. Then, too, patriotic resentment overpowered a pacific government. Walpole, the prime minister who had opposed going to war, said resignedly, ‘They are ringing their bells now. They will be ringing their hands next year’ – a hackneyed quotation but none the less true all the same.
There is nothing more dramatic and more emotive than the departure of a great fleet to distant waters. There was enthusiasm at Kronstadt and St Petersburg in 1904 when the Russian Baltic fleet sailed for the Far East. That fleet ended in disaster at Tsushima. Thucydides has described how the Athenians rushed into an expedition for the conquest of Syracuse – an expedition that brought about the end of Athenian greatness. There is an analogy on the other side. Both world wars of the 20th century began with a victory of the Royal Navy over the Germans at or near the Falkland Islands. Perhaps it will be somewhat the same again. And then what? If the British task force returns victoriously home what is to prevent the Argentinians from invading the islands all over again? Must we turn the Falkland Islands into a new Gibraltar? Like Walpole, I look gloomily into the future. Maybe my gloom is misplaced. I write these entries in my diary over the Easter weekend. By the time they appear in print they may have turned out totally false. Such is the penalty of trying to foretell the future. An historian should have more sense.
I add a couple of footnotes to what I suppose we should call the Falklands Crisis. The first is to do with the Labour Party. In recent years the Labour Party has handled the question of war with great embarrassment and delicacy. Officially it supports Nato. Officially it accepts nuclear weapons. But it does so with reluctance. It would like to see nuclear disarmament and looks longingly at the forbidden fruit of unilateral nuclear disarmament. It passionately opposed the Suez aggression, which was the nearest thing we have had to an ‘imperialist’ war. Suddenly the Labour Party or the greater part of it has become the champion of Empire. The theme of Labour speeches has been that a Labour government would have handled the Falklands crisis with greater skill and to greater effect. Michael Foot speaks in the tones of Churchill in the Second World War and of Lloyd George in the First. It is fair to say that these two statesmen have often been numbered among Michael’s heroes. Still, I never expected to find myself applauding, though with some anxiety, the dispatch of a naval force to the South Atlantic.
This leads me to my second comment on the Falklands affair. How far do the British people share the indignation of the House of Commons? I have watched with regret the decline of popular interest in the British Commonwealth. Few English people are concerned with Canada or Australia unless they have relatives living there. Then suddenly there is a stir of feeling over the Falkland Islands that would have satisfied the Jingoes of a hundred years ago. What has caused it? Is it resentment against the manifest injustice of the Argentine invasion, a monstrous abuse of power against a tiny group? Or is it, as I incline to think, a concealed preference that British people feel for the Commonwealth and Empire, or, even more simply, a far from concealed dislike that they feel for Europe, particularly in the form of Nato? These are riddles without an answer.
Easter weekend is over and already the international situation has changed more than once. My earlier paragraphs now have only historical interest and not much of that. I will write no more on the so-called crisis. Besides, I am off to Venice on Wednesday, another centre of an empire that has vanished. I did not see Venice until I was over forty – I refused to visit Italy while Mussolini ruled. My first visit was in 1949 and there was an episode where I almost achieved fame. The PEN Club was holding its international gathering there. Passing through the Piazza San Marco, I noticed Wystan Auden and Stephen Spender at a table in the Café Florian. I joined them. While we talked, a photographer approached and took some pictures. One of these appears in innumerable books and articles. It shows Auden and Spender deep in conversation. An elbow obtrudes on to the table. The elbow is me – the nearest I ever got to the literary limelight. Now I know better. Leave literary lions alone.
For me, Venice is not San Marco or the Doges’ Palace. It is the back streets and open places, the only city in the world where one can escape motor traffic entirely. I have little interest in the great show churches. I must also confess that I do not much like the paintings of Tintoretto. Or rather I might like them if I could see them. But they have always been dark and are now so dirty as to defy my scrutiny. I prefer Carpaccio. At least I can follow what he is trying to say. After a week or so I grow weary at the absence of grass and long for Parliament Hill Fields. All the same, I have been going to Venice for thirty years. I wonder whether this will be my last visit.
I have become quite interested in the signs of old age. For instance, my grasp is no longer firm. All my life I have used an open or, as it is called, a cut-throat razor. My hand trembles slightly. So far I have managed to steady the razor against my cheek. What am I to do if the degeneration continues? I have no idea how to use a safety razor, let alone how to clean it. I have no faith in an electric razor. Perhaps I should grow a beard. But I am told that growing a beard changes one’s personality and I am quite content with my personality as it is.
Then my pipe has begun to taste bitter. I was told that this was the reaction of age against nicotine. So I gave up smoking my pipe. There has been a disappointing sequel. My breathing has not improved, which is not surprising: it was perfectly good already. But my sense of taste, which one is said to lose with smoking, has not come back. In fact, it is worse than ever. I think I shall go back to cigars, which still do not taste bitter.
There are consolations. I can read more as I walk less. Very, very occasionally I am offered a seat in a crowded tube or bus – more often by a young woman than by a young man. The greatest consolation of all is that I do not merely nod off during the daytime as I have always done. I actually enjoy going to bed for the afternoon. I think I’ll go to bed now.
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