British historian and author Andrew Roberts on the UK’s appalling 12 days regarding Iran.
HH: Joined now by British historian, Andrew Roberts, author of the best selling A History Of The English Speaking Peoples Since 1900, as well as many other fine books. Andrew, welcome back to the program. I haven’t talked to you since you went to the White House at the invitation of President Bush. How as the reception at the White House?
AR: It was magnificent. I was greatly honored to be given so much time alone with the President in the Oval Office, and then afterwards, given lunch with him and Vice President Cheney. It was a fascinating time.
HH: Now I’m not sure how much you can disclose of that, but what did the President find interesting about A History Of The English Speaking Peoples Since 1900?
AR: Well, he effectively interviewed me for about 90 minutes over lunch. And it was clear that he’d not only read the book quite carefully, but also had read a lot of the books around it. He’s a very much more well read man than his detractors will give him credit for.
HH: That I’m certain of, but I called you today because I wanted to talk to you about the Iranian hostage seizure of Great Britain’s sailors and Marines and their release. And I’m reminded not of the Falklands, although that comes up, but of Suez, a moment in time that marks for the British empire a stage of collapse. Am I wrong to be thinking Suez today?
AR: No, you’re not. It has been a humiliating 12 days for my country, and we’re all pleased, of course, that the 14 men and 1 woman have come back. But frankly, it’s been a series of appalling humiliations that have been heaped on us in the last fortnight.
HH: Let’s walk through the series of pratfalls that you see there. In the first instance, ought Her Majesty’s Navy been where they were?
AR: Her Majesty’s Navy had absolutely every right to be where they were. They were well within the Iraqi waters, unlike what the Iranians have claimed. We have both satellite and photographic evidence to prove where we were. And the way in which our sailors were hijacked, effectively, piratically taken and kidnapped, was in grave breach of any international understanding.
HH: Did Tony Blair’s government do a good job in communicating this most important fact, that the mission of the British sailors was legitimate, and that the position at which they were kidnapped was well within Iraqi waters?
AR: No, it didn’t do that job, and it should have done it immediately. And unfortunately, because it attempted to do a bilateral deal, one that has, of course, come off in the last 48 hours, but nonetheless, because they were so keen to do that, they went out of their way not to make the proper point to the world.
HH: Immediately after, or immediately upon the commencement of the kidnapping, how ought the Marines and sailors to react, and their skipper back on the home ship?
AR: Well, they should have reacted in the way that British Marines have reacted throughout the centuries, which is only to give name, rank and serial numbers, absolutely nothing else. Instead, they seem to have gone on television…of course, we don’t know at this stage, they’re only just coming back and being debriefed, so I’d like to just preface my remarks by saying we don’t know what kind of psychological or other pressures they were under. But they certainly don’t seem to have been under the kind of pressures that they should have been able to withstood before they gave anything more than their name, rank and serial number. They certainly shouldn’t have gone on television, and seemed to have backed up Mr. Ahmadinejad’s claims.
HH: Andrew Roberts, how about their ship, though? Ought they to have had different rules of engagement at the time of the kidnapping?
AR: Well, HMS Cornwall, this actually happened under the guns of a British warship, which is virtually unknown in the history of the Royal Navy in any earlier time, speaking as a historian of the 20th Century, but certainly this is true of earlier centuries, too. Any other time that a captain saw the men under his command being kidnapped by an enemy, an opponent, he should have opened fire.
HH: What do you put down that hesitancy to?
AR: Well, he’ll have his own rules of engagement from the admiralty, which will be not to do anything to frustrate or irritate the Iranians. What I think really ought to have been considered, too, is that the Iranians probably had their own orders that they were acting under, which was not to get into a firefight with the Royal Navy, and especially in, as we say, Iraqi waters. And so this doesn’t seem to have been taken into account.
HH: Now Andrew Roberts, moving forward in the crisis, the first day is very confused, the rules of engagement don’t work, and the British Marines and sailors are on television. What did you expect Prime Minister Blair to do at that point?
AR: Well, he had the opportunity to be much more aggressive than he was. But one of the most, for me, depressing aspects of this appalling time has been that only 6% of the British public when polled thought that he should have taken a tougher, more aggressive stance than he did. It seems to me that the fight seems to have gone out of my country. I simply can’t understand that.
HH: What about the fight in your media? This is something that no American can grasp, but how did the BBC and Fleet Street play this?
AR: Well, the BBC must be very much differentiated from Fleet Street, because the Fleet Street, the conservative papers in Fleet Street have been very tough on this, the Times and the Daily Telegraph in particular have been excellent from beginning to end. But the BBC is, well, it’s effectively a state run organization in that it’s financed by a form of taxation, which you can’t not pay, even if you don’t listen to the BBC. And so it’s a very strange way of disseminating information, and yet over 80% of us take our news from the BBC. So they are fantastically powerful, at the same time as being effectively, politically irresponsible.
HH: And were they…they were for pacifism here? They were for appeasement?
AR: Absolutely. They have been very, very opposed to any kind of standing up to the, well, certainly, Islamic fundamentalism, but also this kind of piratical action on behalf of an extremely unpleasant and unstable regime.
HH: We’ll come back to the Conservative Party after the first break, Andrew Roberts, but what happened to John Bull? Every British history I’ve ever read, this sort of provocation would lead to dance hall singing and torch lit marches.
AR: I don’t know what’s happened to my country, I’m afraid. It’s been shocking to me and to many people who…we’ve been shaking our heads here. 6% only wanted to meet this flagrant and unbelievably aggressive act with the kind of response that any government of the past would have replied in a much tougher way.
HH: Do you trust the polls on this? Did they ask the question the right way?
AR: Well, they didn’t, no, and also, there were a further 24% of people who thought that the government ought to contemplate or consider tougher action. So if you add that to the 6% who believe that we should have had tougher action, you do at least get 30%, which is roughly the same number of people as those, proportionate people who support the war against terror.
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HH: We’re talking about a particular moment in history, the last 14 days, the last 12 days in Great Britain. Andrew Roberts, when we went to break, we were talking about 30% of Great Britain either wanted to act forcefully, or were open to it down the road. Had Blair used force, don’t you think that number would have been much higher?
AR: I supposed it would have depended on two things. Firstly, how well the force worked, and secondly, what actually happened to the fifteen British servicemen who had been kidnapped. We all remember, of course, the long, the year and a bit long Iranian hostage seize in 1979 with your diplomats. And it would have sparked very unhappy memories.
HH: The release of the sailors and Marines is reported by the New York Sun today to have been brought about by the United States giving up of an Iranian “diplomat,” that would mean spy or provocateur inside of Iraq. Bad move by the United States, Andrew Roberts?
AR: Well, the United States has been fabulously supportive and helpful to Britain in all of this. I think that it probably, if this is the case, it sends completely the wrong message to Iran, and to various other states in the Middle East, because when you show weakness, you have advantages taken of you. But I think that some deal has definitely been done. There is simply no way that Ahmadinejad has done this simply for, in order to get some kind of moral high ground.
HH: Yesterday, I speculated with a couple of guests that Iran may have blinked, that they may have taken a fig leaf, whether it’s one person or some money or something, because they realized that there was a growing sentiment in the West, expressed on this show, for example, by Newt Gingrich who suggested a timetable leading up to the destruction of their gasoline refinery, that that may have been growing. Do you sense the same thing, that Ahmadinejad wanted to get out while he could still claim a propaganda win?
AR: Well, he’s got domestic pressure on him. Obviously, he’s got elections coming up. But nonetheless, I don’t see how he can be…I mean, he has come out very well from this. And that in itself must be a bad thing, as far as the West is concerned. Here is a man who has called for the destruction of Israel, here is a man who is building a nuclear bomb, and somehow, we’ve managed to…he then kidnapped fifteen people in Iraqi waters, and somehow, he’s managed to get a diplomatic coup out of this. I fail to see how we can be considered to be any kind of sort of better off than before this all started.
HH: What reception is going to be extended to the Marines and the sailors who are wearing their newly tailored Iranian clothes today? I understand they’re captives, they probably had to put those on. But is the public reaction pride? Gratitude? Dismay? What is it?
AR: Well, you say they had to put them on, but in fact, to give up one’s uniform is in itself quite an aggressive, to insist on this is quite an aggressive act. You know, a British serviceman has his, wears his uniform with pride. And to swap that for these rather ghastly suits that they’ve…
HH: They’re Ahmadinejad lite, is what they are. They’re terrible suits.
AR: (laughing) Yes, it’s exactly that. I mean, it’s embarrassing enough to see British servicemen not wearing ties anyhow. But wearing the kind of clothes that they were put into, and the lady there, the Seaman Faye wearing effectively a burka, is, was yet another humiliation for the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy has got quite a lot to answer for. That’s what the Daily Telegraph is saying today, and the Times, and I agree with them.
HH: Well, who is responsible for that? I’m not going to blame the captives, because…
AR: No, no, no. One can’t do that, and it seems as though they were, they were heavily outgunned, and they were caught by surprise in a situation where they didn’t actually even see the Iranians coming until it was almost too late, and they were, there was a sort of force majeure here. But this did happen under the guns of a British warship.
HH: Right. I’m talking with Andrew Roberts, historian extraordinaire, author of A History Of The English Speaking Peoples. Very quickly, we’re going to come back to this, Andrew Roberts, are you disappointed in the Conservative Party?
AR: In its reaction over Iran, yes, yes I am.
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HH: Let’s go back to the Conservative Party, the Tories, led by David Cameron. Tony Blair has been prime minister for nearly a decade, he has been at war for a majority of his years in his prime ministership. And the Conservative Party has been struggling throughout all this period of time to figure out what it stands for when it comes to the war against Islamic terrorism. What did they, how did they acquit themselves in these past 12 days?
AR: They stayed pretty silent. They were caught, you see, because there is a huge amount of anti-Americanism in this country, a quite disgraceful level of anti-Americanism, and they appreciate that were they to be tough in the kind of Thatcherite mold, they would lose the support of people who are effectively anti-American. And there are many millions of voters in this mold of thinking. Equally, as conservatives, they do at least have a support for the Royal Navy, support for our troops, support for the servicemen, and so they were silent.
HH: The years before Thatcher, were they not similar for the Conservative Party as what we see right now happening in the Conservative Party?
AR: Absolutely, yes. The years before Thatcher, especially in those of Ted Heath, who was leader from 1965-1975, and who was our most anti-American prime minister of the entire 20th Century, were a particularly terrible time for the Conservative Party. Not only were they, did they lose three elections out of four, but they also had a sense of malaise, to use Jimmy Carter’s expression of exactly the same period, which was crushing for them.
HH: Does that mean that, or does it imply that there might be the possibility for a Thatcheresque figure to arrive among the Conservatives, or rise among the Conservatives, and make the same kind of impact that she did?
AR: No, not really, because David Cameron has got the backing of a significant portion of the party, and certainly of his MP’s, and he hasn’t been given a chance yet to fight a general election, which he’s going to in the next couple of years or so. And he is a very impressive performer. He’s a very good speaker, he’s got the “it” factor, as it’s always said in the media. He’s quite a charismatic figure. The question is whether or not he’s actually got the necessary bottom, as we call it in England, guts, to fight the war against terror successfully, in the way that Tony Blair has started.
HH: Does Gordon Brown?
AR: Well, Gordon Brown…
HH: That’s the leader in waiting for the benefit of my audience, the Labour leader in waiting who is presumed to be the heir apparent.
AR: The leader in waiting, and you are talking, of course, here to an arch Tory.
AR: But nonetheless, Gordon Brown has been a friend to America, and he’s been a supporter of the war against terror, and you can’t really slip a piece of paper between him and Tony Blair when it comes to international relations in the Middle East. And so for Tories like me, we are really hoping for some sign that the Conservative Party’s going to be a bit tougher.
HH: Would Tony Blair have acted different…this is pure hypothetical, Andrew Roberts, who I’m speaking with, author of A History Of The English Speaking Peoples Since 1900, would he have acted any differently if he were not at the end of his political rope? It seems to me that this was not a time for starting war with Iran.
AR: Well, absolutely not. But nonetheless, he has shown over Kosovo and Afghanistan, and of course over Iraq and other places, too, Sierra Leone is one of them, that he can take very tough decisions if he feels that they’re in the national interest. I wonder whether if this had all cropped up a couple of years ago, it might have been different. I rather doubt it. I think he is a man, actually, who looks, who doesn’t want his legacy tarnished, of course, but…and doesn’t want to have to pass on a problem to his successor, but he is somebody who puts the national interest first.
HH: I mentioned earlier in our interview that after the Suez crisis of ’56, Great Britain simply withdrew from the Canal. And it’s sort of like they withdrew from the protectorate after the ’48 declaration of independence from Israel before, just prior to the mandate. And is this the end of their role in Iraq, and the Gulf?
AR: Who? Britain’s?
AR: Oh, no, absolutely not. No, no, we’ve still got 5,500 troops in Basra Province, we’ve got a very serious and significant place in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. We’re fighting on a daily basis on both places. We are committed to standing beside America in the war against terror for as long as it takes.
HH: I want to probe that, because obviously, the draw down of troops of a couple of months ago from…
AR: Yes, well, there were 1,500 troops from a, effectively a province and a half that had gone much, much quieter than in the previous 18 months. So they weren’t troops that were desperately needed, and they also, at the same time, almost exactly the same number of troops were put into Afghanistan. So it can’t be seen as a drawing down.
HH: And so do you expect that the British Royal Navy will be less aggressive, and withdraw further from those waters that are contiguous to Iran’s, in order to avoid another incident like this?
AR: Well, I do fear that, and it’s impossible not to fear that strategically, this is going to mean a much less tougher Royal Navy. I mean, the Royal Navy has been…one of the things that new Labour is responsible for is cutting back the Royal Navy to an appalling degree. We heard only earlier this year that the Royal Navy was going to be brought down to between 15 and 20 warships, which is effectively just a border patrol, and not the great international ocean-going fleet that we’ve had in our history for the last five hundred years.
HH: That is on my list. I talked to Arthur Herman, who wrote To Rule The Waves earlier on this…
AR: Yes, great book. Great book.
HH: Wonderful book. He’s stunned that the British people are accepting of this. Are you?
AR: No, and nobody in the…at least the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party that I hail from thinks that it’s anything other than monstrous, that we should be effectively be saying that we will look after our own coastline, and do pretty much nothing more than that.
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HH: As we conclude our conversation, Andrew Roberts, about the British Royal Navy, I’m reminded of when Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He summarized negotiations with the opposition as saying they wanted six dreadnoughts, we wanted nine, and we settled on twelve.
HH: Is there anything remotely like that that could happen in this budget, after this collision, and after this embarrassment?
AR: No, there isn’t, because the man who’s going to be the next prime minister, Gordon Brown, who you mentioned earlier, has been Chancellor of the Exchequer for the last ten years. And he spent those ten years cutting back the Royal Navy, and to the degree that I mentioned earlier. It’s basically a coastal defense force. And so any hope that he’s suddenly going to change his spots, especially because of a twelve day crisis over fifteen sailors, unfortunately is too much to hope for.
HH: Is that an issue for the next election?
AR: Defense spending is an issue, but unfortunately, it’s not one that the Conservative Party picks up and tries to do anything about, because it’s terrified of being, of seeming like an old-fashioned, imperialist, drum-banging party. And so instead, it almost attempts to out maneuver the Labour Party from the left, which is a mad thing to do on so many grounds, but also on political grounds, because you simply can’t do it.
HH: Last question with a minute and a half, Andrew Roberts. What happened to Great Britain, to the great in Great Britain?
AR: Well, Margaret Thatcher, back in November, 1990, was overthrown by a cabal of disappointed or left wing or pro-European, or there are any number of reasons why these, this small group of people managed to bring down the greatest prime minister that we’ve had in this country since Winston Churchill. And since then, we’ve been really casting around for a leader. Tony Blair has in many, many ways actually shown tremendous leadership and courage, especially by standing shoulder to shoulder with your country after 9/11. But we seem to have lost our way.
HH: Andrew Roberts, I appreciate very much the time you took staying up late this night, and of course, the alliance between Great Britain and the United States, one of history’s great alliances. And hopefully, it will continue to grow stronger and not less so. Have a wonderful evening and a Happy Easter, Andrew.
End of interview.