Iraqis and Serbs make poor enemies and, more importantly, they distract us from our essential interest - which is beating Germany and FranceJasper Gerard
February 21 2000
With a dearth of decent wars, Britain is having to exercise its loathing of abroad in an ever-less satisfactory manner. Earlier this month we pulled off a victory over Germany; at the weekend our shell-suited army marched victorious up the Champs-Elysées; and this week there will be some Argy bargy with our friends from the South Atlantic. Such pseudo wars might be too bloodless to satisfy John Bull, but a third triumph would do more for the national renaissance than all our ill-judged adventuring in the Balkans. In the new era of virtual war, our first victory was in the boardroom; our second was on the rugby field and our third would be on the footy pitch.
The Vodaphone takeover of Mannesmann, creating the world's fourth largest company, was our greatest triumph over the Hun since 1966. It was shaded in importance only by the events of 1945 and 1918. And it did much to ease the trauma of Euro '96, not to mention almost every World Cup other than 1966, as well as the takeovers of Rolls Royce and Rover ("the Mini is German!" gloated the Prussian press), and above all 1960, when German GDP overtook Britain's, and the national heart almost ceased to beat.
Walloping the French, who as our nearest are our least dearest, always boosts morale. A well stuffed cockerel wipes out about as much pain as Britain felt each time it had to give up some coral island in the South Seas, or each time our growth rate was overtaken by that of Lebanon.
Victory over Argentina at Wembley would not only revenge Maradona's "hand of god" goal, it would keep up the national pecker - and thus might even boost productivity. Barring extreme terrace violence, not a bullet would have to be fired. Whereas Dennis Wise would once have been a Tommy lunging at a German with a bayonet, his violence is now (mainly) deployed on the pitch.
In such gentle fashion do we go to war. National rivalry is as intense as ever; it is just that we have no legitimate enemies. The nations we hate most are now our partners. So we have to fight them at Strasbourg rather than the Somme. The Berlaymant Building or the Stade de France are no substitute for hatred. They simply provide new forums in which it can flourish.
The wimpish nature of this warfare leaves us with an excess of martial spirit, which might explain our willingness to rush to the Gulf or Balkans to biff Johnny Foreigner. But though we might feel we have some excuse for clobbering Iraqis and Serbs, the truth is they are hardly worth the ammo, in part because they make poor enemies and more importantly because they distract us from our essential interest - which is beating Germany and France.
Britain still tries to be a world policeman (well, a bobby on a rickety bicycle). Germany, by contrast, cunningly sat out every conflict between the Second World War and the Gulf in the sick bay - while all the time its economy has grown with, er, Teutonic strength. Which is why calls for Britain to pour more into defence are so off-beam. It is true that we spend less in real terms than a decade ago (just 2.4 per cent of GDP), yet we still pay £22 billion a year to fly the flag in far-flung spots. Continuing to make tanks now is akin to those Victorians who loved erecting castles centuries after they had lost any strategic function.
Perhaps Tony Blair recognises this but, being a peculiarly timid politician, he is reluctant to slash defence spending for fear of giving the Right something to bang on about. Luckily our businessmen - and occasionally our sportsman - recognise that if Britain's standing is to improve, then we need to find other ways to beat those foreign Johnnies.
This is not just crucial for pride: besting the French and Germans in the marketplace is a prerequisite to trouncing them in the council chamber. For it is only when Britain's economic standing improves that they will take us seriously politically. First the boardroom, then the pitch . . .