At the risk of sounding like the drunk in the bar (‘and another thing…’), here’s another thing which has been bugging me about Professor Ferguson’s argument about GB and the FWW: his view of the damage it did to Britain as a world power and to her empire.
First, there’s a huge amount of hindsight in his view that the FWW marked a step change in Britain’s ability to project global power. From where we sit today, one of the compelling historical problems in the traditional political history of GB in the C20th remains how to explain how Britain lost the superpower status she enjoyed in the C19th. If one looks at the First World War from within that declinist narrative, as Ferguson does, then of course the FWW looms large. In financial terms, he has a point. Three times in the last hundred years the UK’s total debt/GDP ratio has jumped above the 120% threshold often thought unsustainable: after each world war, and during the Great Depression. When one remembers that almost every other major country in Europe explicitly or implicitly defaulted on large parts of their debt, however, Britain looks less weak in comparison. If we think further, beyond economics, and try to see Britain more holistically, then her relative power (which is what matters) was enhanced, not reduced, by the war. Every single one of Britain’s pre-war rivals – and allies – was struggling with political and economic problems which dwarfed those of the UK. The Habsburg and Ottoman empires lay in ruins; Russia was wracked by civil war and turned inwards; Germany had been emasculated; France faced a monumental reconstruction task. Only the United States emerged from the war stronger in both absolute and relative terms, but she chose not to exercise that power overseas.
Otherwise, it is ahistorical to see GB, in both the 1920s and the 1930s, as a busted flush. David Edgerton has argued this already, arguing primarily from British data. He’s probably reached the correct conclusion, but I’m not sure he got there the right way. How Britain spent her money and saw herself is certainly important. But if we want to gauge her global power, then the more important question that needs to be answered is surely how she was seen overseas. More research needs to be done on this (I hope to, one day) but I suspect that if, between the wars, one had asked observers in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Washington or Tokyo who was the dominant world power, every answer would have been the same: Great Britain.
Secondly, he relates this specifically to the collapse of the British empire. Let’s leave on one side his assumption that the empire was a ‘Good Thing’ which deserved to continue: that question’s more prone to generate political heat than historical light. But to see the evolution of the empire in purely geo-political terms assumes that each colony and dominion enjoyed the same relationship with Westminster – clearly false – and also ignores rapid change in a whole raft of cultural and demographic factors both in the UK and overseas. Many of these had at least as much impact as the war, and not all of them weakened the links holding the empire together, anyway.
(That’s enough Ferguson: Ed.)