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February 07, 2008

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JimJay

I think these 'what if' questions are impossible to answer and Voltaire had it about right that even evil acts might have good results in the long term (and vice versa). I think the idea of Hitler being killed at birth is the classic example, although I think that exagerates Hitler's role.

You're right that the arrival of the black death did help a more egalitarian society emerge - but - those pressures and forces would have existed anyway and it's hard for us to say whether that movement would have taken place anyway, but without the psychological scarring of a society where so many had died in such a breif period.

Paulie

This may be a folklore break here, but I recall reading somewhere (can't remember where) that the Black Death sifted the population a bit and resulted in a genetic legacy that made white Europeans less susceptible to HIV/AIDS - and that the reason that people of an african origin were less resistant can be traced to them having avoided the black death.

Joe Blow

Taking sides in the Franco German border wars ranks rather highly.

The UK had no business in the entente cordiale. The results of which were ghastly. It bankrupted us, gave birth to the centralised micromanaged state and destroyed the finest out of two generations.

We could have quite happily sat on the sidelines and bled both sides treasuries dry, supplying the means to kick 7 bells out of each other.

Phil

The other thing about the Black Death is that it stopped the settlement of Wales in its tracks. Something quite nastily colonial was starting to happen when the plague hit; by the time the population started to revive the moment was gone. (Or so says Gwyn Alf Williams.) No Black Death, no Welsh language after about 1500; probably no Tudor monarchy either.

David Duff

Sorry, Joe, can't agree with you there. WWI has long (too long, in my opinion) been perceived as a needless waste of blood and treasure. Personally, I blame those bloody poets! However, it is arguable that the activities of the British army under its ludicrous commander, Sir John French, as they stumble-bummed there way hither and thither, eventually marching completely unawares into the gap between the German VI and V armies, was a critical element in throwing the German command into a panic that caused them to draw back. Without that , er, mistake on the part of the British it is possible/probable that the Germans would have succeeded in their Mk. II Schlieffen plan and over-run France. With Atlantic sea ports under their command, Joe and others, might have realised what Grey, Churchill and Fisher feared, the death by trade strangulation of Britain.

Paulie

Sorry Phil,

Are you saying that the English would have colonised Wales more effectively if the Black Death hadn't stopped them? And that - if the Black Death hadn't happened, the Welsh language would have been largely wiped out?

(just checking I understand you here)

Richard Thomas

I would go for Edward the Confessor's leaving the English throne to William the Bastard as about the greatest mistake. This I think would be followed by Mary Tudor's persecution of protestants leaving over 300 martyrs in 5 years and probably the defeat of the levellers which apart from the effect on property set back representation of the people by at least 3 centuries

tolkein

I know a little bit about Anglo-Saxon history and I wonder where you got your knowledge?

Blaming the English Civil Wars of Charles 1st's time on the conversion of Aethelbert seems stretching an anti-clerical point a tad, don't you think? Is it possible that there were secular factors at play as well? As well blame the Fronde on the conversion of Clovis!

The English did have a tradition of a navy. Under Edgar (959-975) a fleet sailed around the island every year to keep the peace. Anglo Saxon taxation made provision for taxes to pay for the fleet. The real problem for Harold in 1066 was the wind that blew William across the Channel and kept the English fleet at home.

Perhaps our tradition of freedom and toleration arose from the combination of native Anglo-Saxon tradition and Christianity rather than solely in reaction to state imposed religion. After all, the monasteries and cathedrals were centres of learning and culture long before secularists came along. Oxford and Cambridge were clerical foundations.

Christian teaching taught a division between Church and State, and also argued for contracts between King and people. One need only think of the coronation oath of Henry 1st and ultimately Magna Carta - brokered by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton.

Christian teaching was the basis on which freedom and toleration was argued.

We won't bother looking at Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor where, in the high Middle Ages, the Church opposed hereditary rule saying that rulers needed to be 'suitable'

I don't know if all your readers are very familiar with the literature on the First World War, but the modern consensus is that British neutrality would have lead to a rapid German victory over France and then the Germans would have turned against the English - except we would have no French ally, and no way of throwing Germany out of France.

tolkein

I know a little bit about Anglo-Saxon history and I wonder where you got your knowledge?

Blaming the English Civil Wars of Charles 1st's time on the conversion of Aethelbert seems stretching an anti-clerical point a tad, don't you think? Is it possible that there were secular factors at play as well? As well blame the Fronde on the conversion of Clovis!

The English did have a tradition of a navy. Under Edgar (959-975) a fleet sailed around the island every year to keep the peace. Anglo Saxon taxation made provision for taxes to pay for the fleet. The real problem for Harold in 1066 was the wind that blew William across the Channel and kept the English fleet at home.

Perhaps our tradition of freedom and toleration arose from the combination of native Anglo-Saxon tradition and Christianity rather than solely in reaction to state imposed religion. After all, the monasteries and cathedrals were centres of learning and culture long before secularists came along. Oxford and Cambridge were clerical foundations.

Christian teaching taught a division between Church and State, and also argued for contracts between King and people. One need only think of the coronation oath of Henry 1st and ultimately Magna Carta - brokered by Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton.

Christian teaching was the basis on which freedom and toleration was argued.

We won't bother looking at Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor where, in the high Middle Ages, the Church opposed hereditary rule saying that rulers needed to be 'suitable'

I don't know if all your readers are very familiar with the literature on the First World War, but the modern consensus is that British neutrality would have lead to a rapid German victory over France and then the Germans would have turned against the English - except we would have no French ally, and no way of throwing Germany out of France.

Alex

Beckham's sending off against Argentina?

ajay

The decision of Henry VIII to set up the Church of England? Led to the three-way religious conflicts (Anglican v. Catholic v. Dissenter/Presbyterian) of the 16th-18th centuries. At least without him they would only have been two-way.

The Restoration. Brought the Stuarts back in for another entertaining 38 years of corruption and Francophily before they were finally got rid of (at great cost). If they'd just burned that blasted oak tree down after Worcester, the whole problem might have been avoided, and Britain would now be one of the oldest republics in the world.

ad

Re WW1: I have always wanted someone to explain to me why it was a good idea to fight when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but not when it invaded Belgium in 1914. Looking at a map, I would have thought German control of Belgium much more threatening to the UK than control of Poland.

Bad ideas:
1) Betting on the French Army just before that country was conquered by Germany?

2) Inviting Saxon mercenaries into the country.

Recusant

Richard Thomas,

"Mary Tudor's persecution of protestants leaving over 300 martyrs in 5 years ".

Well, whatever suits your prejudices. Although it might help if you added a little balance, such as that Elizabeth I managed the same death toll of Catholics in a year.

Whatever you might think I don't believe that "Foxe's Book of Martyrs' is accepted as the settled historical view.

ortega

Mind if a foreigner (and a papist) gives you an opinion?
What about the independence from Rome by Henry VIII ? Had it not happened, you would not have Rowan Williams proposing the sharia. You can count that this is something that a Pope would never do.

David Duff

'Ad', the answer to your query lies in the No Man's Land that separates grand strategy from politics. It was very much more sensible to declare war on Germany when it invaded Poland in 1939 (some might, and still do, argue that it should have happened the year before), not because we could do a damn thing to help the Poles (not that we cared that much what happened to them) but because it gave us time to bring our troops over to France and build up a concerted plan of action with the French. The fact that this plan complied with the 2nd Rule of War (the 1st is never to invade Russia!) which states that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy is evident in hindsight but was not thought likely at the time - after all the French actually outnumbered the Germans in tanks! In addition it gave us precious time to switch our economy into war mode.

In 1914, the Liberal government was constrained by its own, er, 'don't start the war coalition'. It was only the fate of "plucky little Belgium" that finally, almost literally, at the last minute of the last hour, produced a sufficient swing into the pro-war faction.

'Tolkein', above, is entirely correct in his final paragraph. The First World War was as necessary a war as the previous one against Bonaparte and the later one against Hitler.

Phil

Paulie - er, yes, that's my faint recollection of something Gwyn Alf said in _When was Wales?_. I've got no particular investment in it, other than thinking it sounded plausible and interesting.

dearieme

"And this would have meant that English government would have retained its more decentralized and democratic Anglo-Saxon traditions." Yup, and Anglo-Saxon slave-owning too, perhaps?

David Duff

Sorry, in my evangelical fervour to correct misapprehensions concerning WWI I forgot to add my proposal for a whopping great mistake in British history. Some of the above were undoubtedly serious but they are somewhat far removed. I would point the finger closer to now by suggesting that it was an error on a colossal scale when the British people voted in a Labour government in 1945 and thus inflicted on themselves the wickedness of the welfare state whose results can now be seen all around us.

eddie reader

Biggest mistake - restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Demonstrates a lack of confidence and has meant 300 years (and counting) of being servile.
Up side for Americans, some English learned a lesson from that and hence the USA. Every cloud has a silver lining.

David

The nationalisation of key industries after WWII and the general adoption of socialism. Britain bankrupted itself with the misappropriation of capital for the next 40 years.

reason

Yep,
second guessing history is a mugs game.

ad

People criticising the Restoration: If you had been General Monck, what would you have done?

Anyone who says "install democracy" will be sent via time machine to e.g. St Petersberg 1917, to see if they can do the job.

David, it seems to me that you have said why Britain should have declared war in 1914, not why it should NOT have done so. In fact, you seem to be saying that Britain should have threatened war sooner. I am not disagreeing, but since many people do, I was hoping that one of them would tell me why.

David Duff

'Ad', I cannot speak for those who consider WWI to have been a mistake but I *suspect* that it has much to do with the colossal price that was paid in both blood and treasure. The price was indeed huge, it broke us forever as a global power and every tiny village in Britain has it's mournful reminder of the slaughter that ensued. However, I repeat the essence of what I stated above, that the risk to this nation of Germany occupying Atlantic ports with their massive navy re-inforced by the captured French fleet was quite simply a risk that no *responsible* politican could take. No one could know at the time but the German army was within a whisker of pulverising the French. The whole ethos of the German High Command from the Kaiser down was to gain Germany "a place in the sun" and that would only come about by the destruction of Britain and its navy. After that they could have starved us in exactly the same manner that we began starving them, except that being a small island, we would have succumbed that much quicker.

It was, like almost everything else in politics, a judgement call, but in my opinion Grey, Churchill and Fisher were absolutely right. We might have ended up impoverished and weakened but we were still free and independent.

Gearoid

French tanks outnumbering their German counterparts doesn't count for much when a Panzer goes up against a Renault.

Michael Moore

England (Pitt) abandoning industry and agriculture in favour of empire and outsourcing in 1815.

Charles

How about the White Ship Disaster of 1120, which killed William the Aetheling, Henry I's son and heir?

His death resulted in the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda. William was half saxon (his mum, Edith/Matilda, was the daughter of the sister of Edward Aetheling, the 'uncrowned' Saxon king of England.).

William Aetheling would have unified the Saxon and Norman households.

a very public sociologist

For my money, the biggest mistake in most recent times was Callaghan not going for an early election in 1978. It would be interesting to see how different things would have turned out if Thatcher didn't get in. Neoliberalism would probably still have been with us, but faced by a stonger labour movement.

Archie Lukas

The English peoples biggest mistake?

not crushing the upstart Americans skirmish for self rule

That way we might have saved the language and stopped the yanks from trying to conquer the world in our wake; thus stirring up every fundamentalist group as they hash up yet another self induced war zone; getting their collective butts kicked in the process.

Andre

Britain's worst mistake in the last century was participating in the Munich Agreement of 1938. Had Prime Minister Chamberlain said "no" to the Germans, it is likely that the Czechs, with the strongest fortifications in Europe at the time, would have resisted the Germans.

German generals, who understoond that their Armed Forces could not overwhelm 35 Czech fortress divisions (no bypass option as in France 1940) and fight the Anglo-French forces in their rear. In fact, according to William Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the generals were planning a coup against Hitler if the order to invade Czechoslovakia was issued.

Imagine how many lives could have been saved if Chamberlain had been replaced by Churchill in 1937-8!

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