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Niall Ferguson: Butch or Bitch?

Niall Ferguson’sThe Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World‘ reviewed by Mark Simpson 


(Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 2001)

How sexy and right wing is the historian Niall Ferguson? It’s no idle question, since sexy right wing historians can gain fame and fortune, that’s to say – money and power – in the modern world.

The first name is a good start, reading as it does like a Celtic battle-cry. And he’s young. In fact, the half-profile picture of him on the inside jacket is rather fetching and flirtatious, in a rugby-playing New Romantic kind of way (dark, round, inviting eyes, but the flattened nose hints at brutality). The title of course is certainly ‘sexus’, while the subtitle, ‘Money and Power in the Modern World’ practically promises pornography. Just in case we miss this, the jacket blurb tells us that money is ‘the sinews of war’ and that the cash nexus ‘is the crucial point where money and power meet.’  (And yes, there are illustrations).

Unfortunately, The Cash Nexus is a terrible tease, and, for the most part, Ferguson turns out to be not nearly sexy and right wing enough for my cash. Alas, you see, he’s too busy being an historian. The ‘crucial point where money and power meet’ turns out to be a sober, painstaking, somewhat frigid history of taxation, national debt and the bond markets. Diligently researched, full of tables and graphs (many of the latter impressively unreadable), balanced and dispassionate, The Cash Nexus is exactly as sexy a book as you would expect to find emerging out of a year spent in the bowels of the Bank of England Library; the vital statistics Fergie’s interested in are unlikely to raise many pulses outside academe and accountancy internet Newsgroups.

This is not to say that Ferguson’s findings, particularly about the crucial role of financial institutions in spreading the huge costs of war (and the crucial role of war in developing financial institutions), aren’t in themselves interesting or important, it’s just that for much of the book they haven’t been martialed into a cohesive argument, or even into particularly muscular prose. This is one of the strengths of the book as a resource, but not as something you might actually want to read. I found myself begging Fergie to say something outrageous, to stick his rhetorical jaw out and lash me with a reactionary soundbite, to wave a whopping great weltanschuang in my face, choke me on the audacity and arrogance of a sweeping generalisation but, except for the occasional mean-spirited kicking of Marxist historians like Eric Hobsbawn and pinko sociologists like Anthony Giddens, it mostly didn’t happen.

Like many British right-wing historians, Ferguson is too busy being besotted with institutions to be really provocative. For Ferguson it is the superiority of British financial, fiscal, and parliamentary institutions – and above all property rights – which guaranteed British hegemony in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, despite the fact that France wielded a much larger population and paper resources than Britain. Britannia, helped by Mr Rothschild, was better able to make efficient use of her resources and revenues and maintain a much higher level of war debt and ultimately grind the Froggies down (producing over three times as many ships). He may well be right, but it’s really too depressing to think that France was defeated not by Hornblower and the jolly jack tar, but by tax collectors and rentiers.

It isn’t until almost at the very end of the book, after a Long (and dusty) March through the Institutions, that Mr Ferguson finally takes off his bifocals, rolls up his shirtsleeves and begins to get seriously sexy and right wing. Taking on the commonly held notion of ‘overstretch’ and the crude economic determinism behind it, in which Empires are thought to fatally weaken themselves and hasten their downfall by excessive military spending to meet their over-extended commitments, he argues – tightly – that in fact understretch is the real problem. Britain, for example, could, he claims, have afforded to spend more on  defending the Empire before 1914 and 1939, and he manfully quashes the slack, pinko consensus that it was inevitably doomed, that we couldn’t have afforded to maintain a land army large enough to deter the Bosch.

By the same token he argues strongly against the idea that the Imperial US is now suffering from overstretch. He shows that Reagan’s military build-up of the 1980s was not as costly for the US as is generally thought and that in fact since the late Eighties the proportionate level of US defence spending has been historically low. On the other hand, the USSR probably did suffer from ‘overstretch’, but mostly because economic stagnation, poor institutional development and a failure to access the bond market meant that the arms race cut into production and investment and thence into production again.

Ironically, Emperor George Bush II has promised to increase military spending but also to finally abandon the US’s post-war role as ‘international policeman’ – the missile shield/security blanket being the symbol of this withdrawal. Ferguson castigates this attitude and argues that the problem with the US is that it isn’t imperial enough. It has churlishly refused to take on the responsibilities that Empire requires, in contrast to stalwart Britain in the Nineteenth Century. The US, for example, should lead an expedition against Saddam Hussein to depose him an install a democratic regime loyal to the West.

It’s an admirably explicit, manfully robust argument which Ferguson manages to present as if it is the product of the same cool accounting and dry, dusty logic that has featured in much of the rest of the book. However, I can’t help but feel that this talk of ‘understretch’ and this apparent appetite for war actually emanates from a more emotional, more passionate place – an almost Roman, visceral horror at the lax and louche enervations of decadence.


Oh Do Stop Nailing Blair to the Cross – He Enjoys It

Tony Blair’s Jesus Christ Sings Edith Piaf performance yesterday at The Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, giving testimony at the Chilcot enquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, disappointed a lot of people who hoped he would get nailed – or at least express a few regrets.

I’m not one of them. Now, I enjoy a good scourging as much as the next man, especially in the wake of a war that has cost so many lives, but it seems to me that the expectations of the media and public played into Blair’s (stigmata) hands.

Tone the Catholic convert barrister excels at crucifixions and turned in a performance Mel Gibson would envy yesterday, hanging from the cross of his ‘belief’ that ‘removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do’. For all the spears in his side, nothing was made to stick. He won’t need to rise on the third day because unlike Our Lord Jesus Christ he didn’t die – instead he thrived.

Besides, the thing that many if not most people in the UK long to pin on him – personal and complete responsibility for our involvement in a disastrous US war – isn’t something that can be really pinned on any one British politician, however annoying his grin. It has to be pinned on history. The history of the UK’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

Blair is more than happy to play the self-aggrandising role he’s been allotted by public opinion and the public is only further infuriated by the evidence of this.  Blair of course interprets his role not as The Man Who Invaded Iraq Illegally And Has Blood on His Hands, but as The International Statesman Burdened by Heavy Responsibilities, Special Knowledge and Big Decisions Reluctantly Made to Guarantee Our and An Ungrateful World’s Safety.

But it’s essentially the same role: A bigger one than he deserves. Blair is a much more pitiful figure than most of his enemies are willing to admit.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be offering Blair a vinegar-soaked sponge, but scapegoating him as all sides of the political spectrum want to do – He lied to us! He was sycophantic to Bush! A poodle! A narcissist! – obscures the larger, much more painful issue: that the UK invaded Iraq not because of weapons of mass destruction. Nor Al Qaeda. Nor Saddam’s tyranny. Nor Zionism. Nor even for oil. And certainly not because Tony Blair is a weak man or a strong man. No, in the final analysis there was only one reason why we invaded Iraq. Because the US wanted us to.

Jump is what military satellites of imperial powers do when their master tells them to, and it’s very difficult to imagine that any other British Prime Minister since 1940, with the possible exception of Harold Wilson (and look what happened to him – you can be sure that Blair did) could have said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Uncle Sam’s kind invitation, especially after it had been attacked on 9-11. The fact that Saddam had nothing to do with that attack is irrelevant – or at least it was for America’s need for vengeance.

The Tories certainly wouldn’t have said ‘no’, and their attempts now to wriggle out of their enthusiastic support for the war – without which Blair would not have won his Commons war vote – by bleating about being ‘misled’ by Blair is just shameless opportunism.

The former premier that Blair most calls to mind is Anthony Eden, who was forced out of office after the disaster of Suez in 1956. Eden bigged up Nasser as a ‘monster’ threatening his own people and The World – and also famously lied to Parliament to justify  invasion, but this isn’t why he ended up shamed and shunned, even more so than Blair. By fatally misjudging America’s wishes, Eden had rubbed the UK’s nose in its post-war subject status. Suez was actually a much more ‘justifiable’ war from the point of view of British interests than Iraq – the canal was British and French owned and the route to (what was left of) the Empire.

But the Americans were not amused: they were competing with the USSR at the time for anti-colonial cred and told us to bog off back home. And we did, pronto. Eden was so reviled at home not for lying as many claimed, or even for losing, but because he succeeded in making it embarrassingly clear to everyone, most especially the French, that the UK no longer had a sovereign foreign policy. He shamed us in the world’s eyes. In our own eyes.

Likewise with Blair. Those loud complaints about Blair’s ‘sycophancy’ to George Bush over Iraq – well, really it’s mostly about how we don’t like to be reminded of our national sycophancy towards US interests, unavoidable as it may very well be. Sometimes its that very unavoidability that makes it so painful.

Blair, ever the actor, decided to make a virtue of what he saw as a political necessity. And in doing so found that like Thatcher before him the US gave him a global stage to preen upon. But this is what the US has done to the UK since the Second World War.

As a military satellite of the US – or giant American aircraft carrier, as the great American anti-imperialist Gore Vidal puts it – we’ve been bigged up by US power as a way of further projecting that power around the world. Like, say, Austria-Hungary was by Germany in the early Twentieth Century, but with slightly less interesting headgear. As a result we have remained far too big for our post-Imperial, post-industrial, post-everything breeches. Though we of course prefer to term it: ‘punching above our weight’. As if punching above your weight was something clever. Even when you’re not teetering as we now are on the verge of bankruptcy.

In hindsight, to save our sensibilities Blair should have made it look like the UK wasn’t so easy. He should have made Bush wine and dine us more – and put up more of a virtuous struggle before giving Bush everything he wanted and was going to get anyway. Instead Tone seems to have gone the whole way on the first date. We feel cheap instead of ‘special’.

True, the way Blair and his minions set about terrorising us and his own party with fairy stories of WMDs was very naughty indeed, but as he now cheerfully admits, if it hadn’t been WMDs it would have been something else. After all, we elect politicians to lie to us. And did anyone, apart from David Aaronovitch, really believe any of it? Something else that shouldn’t be forgotten: Blair would probably still be in power and only hated by a small ‘bitter’ minority of the British public if the US occupation of Iraq hadn’t gone so spectacularly awry – he was remember, like his master Bush, feted by the press and much of the public in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. They only fell out of favour when they seemed like losers rather than winners.

Nailing Blair to the cross of Iraq now won’t change what happened, or even stop something like it happening again. In fact, by obscuring the real nature of our ‘special relationship’ with the US and instead blaming one man’s weakness and mendacity, it may make it easier for it to happen again.

And it is already happening again. In a war that threatens to make Iraq look like a picnic. Despite all the discussion and debate in the UK media about why we’re still in Afghanistan after eight years, what we hope to achieve, and what tactics should be employed, everyone in the media knows – but doesn’t say – there is only one reason why we’re in Afghanistan. Because the Americans are. Everything else is hot air. Or, in the case of Brown’s claims that the war in Afghanistan has to be fought to stop terrorist attacks in London: another 45 Minute WMD lie that no one believes.

Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the Iraq Invasion and now Prime Minister in large part because of Blair’s unpopularity over Iraq, is very fortunate to have US imperial interests represented these days by someone much more appealing and persuasive than George W Bush. Someone who gets handed plaudits and Nobel Peace Prizes just for being elected. But however nice his smile is, the Emperor is the Emperor and our troops must still die for him.  Why are we sending even more soldiers to Afghanistan? To liberate women, build power plants, and stop people being blown up on London buses? No. They’re going because Barack ‘I-didn’t-vote-for-that-war!’ Obama says so.

Blair should be held to account for his actions of course, but we shouldn’t fall for his self-aggrandising view of himself and history. Even if it takes our mind off the rather vulgar details of the ‘special relationship’ and how embarrassingly, vanishingly small our influence is over our transatlantic boss.