One of the favourite tactics used by the pro-intervention brigade, currently trying to get stuck into Syria, is to name-call anti-interventionist opponents ‘Little Englanders’, a label often accompanied by ‘isolationists’, usually alongside some mumbled reference to Hitler and the Nazis. The implication is that if we let bad things happen in faraway countries, they will eventually come to visit us. Ultimately, we will be damned by history as appeasers and cowards.
There’s an internet convention that any mention of the Nazis nullifies a debate, and I think it should apply to society at large. It’s a false analogy here anyway. Britain is only endangered when mainland Europe is controlled by one power, or someone is threatening us with atom bombs. That’s why Britain fought off Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler and Stalinism. But that’s by the by. More interestingly: what’s wrong exactly with being a ‘Little Englander’?
The term ‘Little Englander’ was coined in the late-nineteenth century, an imperialist slur directed at members of the Liberal Party who were opposed to the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The trendy liberals of the day, such as Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, believed that the state should put the interests of Britain (for which ‘England’ still served as a synonym) above those of Empire, as Little Englanders believed it wrong to send out troops to Africa to kill Dutch farmers.
Imperialism, the urge to control others, is prominent throughout human history. But humans can resist urges. Indeed, had our ancestors had the foresight actually to be ‘Little Englanders’, Africa and the Middle East might not be in such a bad state today. It was European imperialism that created the mess in the Third World, and no amount of present-day, feel-good imperialism can rectify that.
The Dutch and the British made a peace of sorts after the Second Boer War, but the Afrikaners didn’t make peace with the indigenous African populations for decades. South Africa was the product of imperialism, just as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, Syria and Kosovo were – and all of them are unstable for it. They are all lands once plundered and ruled by Europeans and Turks, who withdrew or were pushed out, leaving behind them artificial borders containing mutually antagonistic ethnic, tribal and religious groups. No wonder South Africans attach so much importance to keeping Nelson Mandela alive: look what happened to Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980.