Fred Goodwin’s knighthood shredded!


5:14 pm - January 31st 2012

by Newswire    


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The Daily Mail got the exclusive today:

Disgraced former RBS boss Fred Goodwin was told this afternoon that his knighthood is being removed by order of the Queen.

The unprecedented step was taken on the recommendation of a secretive Whitehall body which is responsible for ensuring the honours system does not fall into disrepute.

But as others pointed out:

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“Debasement” is the formal term for removal of a knighthood or other honour.”

Couldn’t have put it more perfectly myself…

2. Christopher Heward

We need monetary reform 🙂

http://www.positivemoney.org.uk/

He will probably cry himself to sleep. Not.

One down, 999 to go.

He’ll cry all the way to someone else’s bank. Utterly meaningless.

Personally, I’d like to see Fred Goodwin in battle on horseback.

I have no time for this tosser, but this is gesture politics of the worst kind. The very gesture politics that the right keeps telling us on the left they so dislike.

Cameron has set a precedent that many tory honour system supporters may come to regret. This is political pure and simple. Brown gave this honour for political reasons, and now Cameron has removed it for political reasons. And yet convicted tory arse wipe Lord Archer remains with his ludicrous Peerage.

But I look forward to future govts now stripping tory suck ups from their knighthoods.

Oh and I will wait with much anticipation for the CBI and I of D to put out statements condemning this attack on capitalism………………….Oh wait

Seeing as how Unsir Fred Goodwin was the CEO of RBS, a Scottish bank with its head offices in Edinburgh, I’m absolutely amazed that this hasn’t been denounced as yet another instance of flagrant interference by the Westminister government in Scottish affairs. How can this be?

Bob @ 8:

Heh, good point. Not that Alex Salmond’s public panegyrics on behalf of RBS stop him from laying the blame for this crisis squarely on the shoulders of Westminster.

In other news, I think I actually agree with Sally’s post @ 7 (quick, somebody fetch my smelling salts!) — I personally wouldn’t have given Goodwin a knighthood, but now that he’s got it, it should be his to keep unless he’s found guilty of some sort of illegal and/or severely immoral behaviour. Being incompetent isn’t really enough of a justification, IMHO, and being upopular certainly isn’t.

And don’t get me started about Stephen Hester being made to waive his bonus…

@9 XXX: “Being incompetent isn’t really enough of a justification, IMHO, and being upopular certainly isn’t.”

But Unsir Fred wasn’t merely incompetent. By pushing ahead with that successful hostile takeover of ABN Amro with inadequate due diligence, the ensuing failure of RBS would have wrecked the stability of Britain’s financial system but for that timely bailout of RBS by British taxpayers to the tune of ÂŁ45 billions. Unsir Fred isn’t giving up his pension pot to compensate British taxpayers.

Admittedly, the FSA fell down badly on banking regulation but imagine the hoo-ha there would have been had a London-based regulator intervened to block a takeover by an independent Scottish bank, supposedly controlled by its shareholders, as that would have implied that either the board of RBS or its shareholders didn’t know what they were doing.

Wider issues are at stake here – is it ever the place of a regulator, whether the FSA or the BoE, after the pending financial services act goes through, to prevent an ill-judged takeover bid from going through? The ultimate sanction has to be that a bank has to be allowed to fail and disappear – as happened to Baring Bros in 1995 after Nick Leeson, who was employed by Baring’s, engaged in unauthorised speculation and lost the bank ÂŁ827 million.

There is still an asymmetry about bankers’ bonuses – bankers expect rewards for making profits for their employer but to be cushioned from the consequences of failure: there is no way that Nick Leeson could have found the ÂŁ827 millions to repay Baring’s for the losses he inflicted.

There is also the question of who pays up to provide depositor protection in the case of failed banks.

The ultimate sanction has to be that a bank has to be allowed to fail and disappear…

Banks that are too big to fail are too big.

Bob B @ 10:

“But Unsir Fred wasn’t merely incompetent. By pushing ahead with that successful hostile takeover of ABN Amro with inadequate due diligence, the ensuing failure of RBS would have wrecked the stability of Britain’s financial system but for that timely bailout of RBS by British taxpayers to the tune of ÂŁ45 billions.”

Goodwin was indeed grossly incompetent, but gross incompetence is ultimately still just incompetence. I don’t think there’s been any suggestion that he actually broke any rules or brought the bank down just to spite the British economy or anything like that.

XXX: “Goodwin was indeed grossly incompetent, but gross incompetence is ultimately still just incompetence. I don’t think there’s been any suggestion that he actually broke any rules or brought the bank down just to spite the British economy or anything like that.”

That just doesn’t deal with the several related issues raised in my post @10 and ukliberty @11 has properly reminded us of the so-far, unresolved but important competition policy issues concerning banking in Britain.

By several accounts, the structure of banking in Britain is more concentrated than in peer-group countries, as a result, there is too little competition between banks and RBS at the time of its failure was among the top 10 banks in the world in terms of assets, which was, as I recall, a cause for celebration north of the border.

Unsir Fred ploughed ahead with that takeover of ABN Amro regardless of possible consequences for RBS or anything else, which is reason to remove the knighthood. And he certainly isn’t giving up his pension pot to compensate British taxpayers for the ÂŁ45bn bailout, which is surely another – and that highlights the continuing asymmetry of bankers’ bonuses. There was no way that Leeson could have compensated Baring’s for the losses he inflicted and which cause Baring’s to fail and disappear from the market.

Just to add some more fuel to the fire here on the incompetence issue and how political this may or may not be, I’ve looked into this, and the last Knight of the Realm to be stripped of their Knighthood was Anthony Blunt, former Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and the infamous “Fourth Man” in the Cambridge spy ring, shortly after Thatcher has outed him in the Commons in 1979.

Even though he had been spying for the Soviets for nearly 40 years from inside the Royal Household, he wasn’t debased of his Knighthood when he was caught – in fact, MI-5 had identified him and taken steps to limit his access decades earlier, informed the Queen and taken the decision to leave him where he was, rather than provoke a public scandal.

His Kinghthood was taken away not because of his treasonable conduct whilst in service to the crown but because his exposure was acutely embarrassing to the Queen when the news became public.

Prior to that, the last time it had been done was during World War 1 when the person in question had supposedly (again) committed treason by passing information to the Germans.

Which is part of the point – Knighthoods (in theory) are supposed to be non-political honors that fall within the gift of the Crown – Cameron can reccomend people to the Queen for consideration for a Knighthood, but only the Queen can award them or remove them, no-one other than the monarch gets to have a say in it or question the final decision (of course, she can receive advice from the Prime Minister, but hey…)

So, this is pretty heavy-duty shame. For the Queen to remove a Knighthood, even on advice from her ministers is essentially saying that old Fred has disgraced not only himself, but brought shame on the Crown and the nation, on the same level of severity as committing treason in wartime.

For a self-aggrandising, upper-management narcissist of his caliber, this will really hurt him, probably more than making him pay back the pension money would have. As far as knock backs go, there’s no coming back from this one. This will really hurt the guy, vindictively, and there’s no way he can lawyer his way out of it.

The Queen thinks he’s a cunt and is embarrassed she ever had anything to do with him.

IMO it’s important to draw out the larger policy implications of this whole debacle than dwell on Unsir Fred’s deserved fate. The warnings signs are already there: the unholy public joy of stripping Fred of his knighthood is diverting attention in the public debate over what needs to done to correct for the several causes of market failure in financial services.

Fred is fairly easy to despise and it’s pretty understandable that most of us want to see he suffer or pay for his actions, but I think the point is an important one that this sets a pretty drastic historical precedent – I’m fairly sure this is the first time that a Knighthood has been removed for an offence against the people of Britain and the country as a whole, rather than an insult to the Crown – the last two guys were a Communist spy (implictly therefore working toward the ultimate overthrow of the monarchy) and an Irish Republican (ditto) – whatever else Fred did, he wasn’t plotting to destroy the state.

As far as we know….

As I suggested above, anything to divert attention to the relative minor issue of Unsir Fred’s fate away from the far more important and pressing public issues of what to do about correcting for the causes of market failure in financial services.

Recap: the recession in Britain from 2008Q1 through to 2009 caused Britain’s GDP to fall by 7 pc. The high street banks have been paying out billions in compensation to their depositors for mis-selling payment protection insurance. And the recent reports of more fines imposed for insider trading:

Two more individuals connected to US hedge fund Greenlight Capital have been fined over a multi-million pound insider-dealing case.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/financial-crime/9045264/FSA-fines-two-more-over-Greenlight-insider-trading.html

By comparison, Unsir Fred’s knighthood is trivia but the are predictably many who would rather we debate that rather than the market failures in financial services.

whatever else Fred did, he wasn’t plotting to destroy the state.

As far as we know….

I’d suggest a financial crisis of severe enough scale would pretty much finish off the (capitalist) state.

19. Frances_coppola

Sally, for once I agree with you. And with Bob. This is a gesture aimed at deflecting attention from the real issues. It solves nothing, fixes nothing, but makes people feel better.

XXX, it is still possible that Goodwin could be prosecuted for accounting fraud and failure to keep proper records. It’s being looked into at the moment.

Good news, I suppose – but I agree with those saying here that this is a hollow gesture. They’ve given a new beating to the press-selected Official Scapegoat, and are hoping this will quieten down the public for a while.

As we all know, it isn’t about to change the face of capitalism. Neither are stern lectures about morality in capitalism from David Cameron, by the way.

What matters are things like regulations, structures and incentives – and they have barely changed at all. Neither Tories, Lib Dems or Labour seem terribly keen on changing them.

Cylux, in Fred’s case, that’s the ironic thing – as a low-born upwardly mobile opportunist capitalist buccaneer with his face full in the trough, he would amongst the most jealous and vigourous defenders of the status quo, the establishment and all that it and it’s institutions stand for… It just so happened, he was so monumentally shit at doing it and so stupidly overconfident in his own ability that he failed to realise that Lady Luck had merely seen fit to deal him aces forum every hand for the first twenty years of his career and his personal success was just a succession of sheer flukes.

I’m absolutely convinced that he considers himself to be an unappreciated genius, just as I’m sure he voted New Labour in every election since 1997 (except for the last one, probably…)

As a parlour game, I’m sure we can all think of a knight who deserved debasement a little bit more than Shred. I nominate: Sir David Hunt, British High Commissioner in Lagos during the Biafran War of Independence, for complicity in the deaths of a million people. But I suppose he was only following orders, so maybe it’s okay.

This just came to me and I thought I’d share it; there is a way in which this specific affair (otherwise a sideshow to much more serious and pressing matters) could have really been used to smack everyone involved at the top out of their collective complacency and put the wind up them just enough to encourage some original thinking on some of the issues here…

We’ve seen, in fairly rapid succession, a Labour Prime Minister reccommend to the Queen for the highest personal honour in the land a bullish, half-smart Multinational financial services chief executive, already promoted about 10 rungs higher than his competence level, only to have an incoming Tory Prime Minister reccommend to Her Majesty that she remove said honour from said banker in disgrace when his cack-handed stupidity came close to bankrupting the entire country. Already, this sounds like a bad joke with no punchline.

When you consider that the sanction stripping him of his title has in the last century only *ever* been used against a KGB mole in Buckingham Palace and a distinguished British diplomat who defected to the IRA and tried to boot the King’s army out of Ireland by armed rebellion, it descends into the stuff of farce.

Everyone is making political hay out of this because the technicalities of the process make it perfectly suited to mudslinging with no clear origin of the actual blame.

How great would it have been had the Queen come out and made a televised statement distancing herself from Goodwin and the whole affair, admonishing both main parties for managing to make her, the monarchy and the whole apparatus of government look totally foolish.

We’re used to this current Queen saying very little and remaining stoicly neutral, because that’s all we and our patents’ generation have ever known, but it’s hardly the natural ordering of things. The previous King was much the same, but her Grandfather and Uncle most certainly were *not* and made their views pretty clear, one way or the other. When Charles ascends finally to the throne, he is unlikely to adopt a similar, uninvolved attitude, that’s pretty clear.

If the Queen came out now and essentially said, “Look, this system of Prime Ministerial patronage is dysfunctional and being approached with insufficient care or diligence and I’m going to have to step in and clamp down on policing it personally, because you’re making all of us look ridiculous and I’m not having it anymore”, how much would that put the cat amongst the pidgeons?

Life Peers and lesser honours like MBEs are one thing, it’s not reasonable to expect the head of state to personally look into everyone nominated or recommended for the gig by her ministers, that will always entail a certain measure of delegating down and taking ministers at their word; but a Knighthood, again, is the very highest honour that the Crown can personally confer to any British citizen that exists and there are barely a handful of them given out every year.

The idea that the Queen would single out this one man that you can be next to certain she had never even heard of, let alone met, prior to his name turning up on a list from Number 10, for such a rare and supreme plaudit, supposedly for “Services to the British Ecconomy” or whatever the hell the pretext was… And then for him to so epically violate that faith via his abject and blasĂ© ineptitude, totally stitching up in the process the same government that put his name forward, and then to have the next incoming government petition the Queen once more to have his honour stripped from him in disgrace while the nob-end himself proceeds to blithely jog-on with both pockets stuffed full of our taxpayers cash, freshly lifted from HM Treasury….

The Palace must be fuming. This is way worse than cash-for-honours, that’s the way the game in the Lords has always been played to a greater or lesser extent, but this is a huge personal embarrassment. It reflects incredibly badly on the Queen herself because it suggests that she was either duped or an exceptionally poor judge of character, when in reality the decision made in her name and invoking her Crown powers most likely had next to nothing to do with her.

Were she to go on TV and publicly rebuke the leadership of both parties for misusing the Crown powers she extends to them in the honours system, creating such an appalling foul-up and placing her in such an awkard and humiliating position, not only would any member of either party so much as contemplate answering her back to shift the blame, it would put the wind up them all so much, they might actually think twice before playing politics with the economy in such a completely reckless way for a couple of months, take a step back and try to actually work out some new ideas as to how to stop this sort of thing from ever happening again…

Sorry, but the ‘unprecedented’ lot are talking absolute nonsense here. Fraudsters Jack Lyons, Terry Lewis and Albert Henry were all stripped of their Ks within recent memory – it’s not something reserved solely for the worst traitors.

It’s true, technically, that Fred is the first in recent times to be stripped of his K without *either* a criminal conviction *or* near-certain proof of treachery. But this is only because knighthoods are called damehoods when awarded to women: Jean Else was stripped of her damehood for services to education in 2011, after losing her job and being thrown out of the teaching profession, but crucially without any kind of criminal conviction.

I can’t see any reason why Goodwin’s case should be considered different from Else’s.

TT: nominating Hunt would be ridiculous, because his actions were taken in pursuit of the British national interest and under the instructions of the British government.

Found this fairly amusing, there’s a Wikipedia category entitled
“Annulled Honorary Knights Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath”.

There are precisely three names in that category, who have had that honour awarded and then subsequently removed. They are as follows:-

Nicolae Ceau?escu
Robert Mugabe
Benito Mussolini

Five minutes of orwellian public hate works wonders in diverting attention away from the really important issues about the causes of, and remedies for market failures in financial services.

For those irresistibly drawn to the issue of whether Unsir Fred really and truly deserved to lose his knighthood, it makes better sense to debate how come someone like Unsir Fred come to be CEO of RBS in the first place and how come he was able to push through that dumb deal of mounting a successful hostile takeover bid for ABN Amro with insufficient due diligence and which sank RBS. But those are tricky issues so they don’t get debated.

27. gastro george

It’s interesting that Goodwin’s friends seem to be adopting what might be called the “starling defence” – that it’s unfair on him because he’s only one amongst many culprits. I’m looking forward to this defence being used in the courts by, for example, rioters.

By reports in the news, the weeping and gnashing of teeth by the business classes over Unsir Fred’s loss of his knighthood beggars belief. This is surely being stoked.

@27 That’s pretty easy to shoot down straight away ( pun partially intended);

@27 That’s pretty easy to shoot down straight away ( pun partially intended); he may well have been only one of many to blame for the f**k up, but he was just as equally only one of many contributing to the initial massive successes and profitability in the early years of his leadership at RBS that were the justification for singling him out for personal honour and recognition in the first place.

Had the hundreds of thousands of people working under him also been awarded a special medal pinned to them by the Head of State and a pat on the back from the government of the day, we’d be hauling them over the coals and asking for their awards back too.

Plus, it’s his signature on all the unwise deals and bad decissions thar wrecked the company he was running and he was a well known aggressive and proactive micromanager and pushing his ideas forward in the face of any critical scrutiny and always got his own way.

So, no. Don’t give us that.

31. gastro george

In one sense Goodwin could have a real grievance (notwithstanding the fact that he’s an macho arse). Bob Diamond was within an inch of bankrupting Barclays by winning the contest for ABN-AMRO – yet he gets to pretend that everything is cosy in BarclaysWorld and walks off with a small fortune.

Gastro

I don’t know whether Bob Diamond was genuinely – if mistakenly – interested in really acquiring ABN-Amro for Barclays or just driving up the bidding in the (correct) belief that RBS would always bid even more because of Unsir Fred’s apparent obsession about acquiring the Dutch bank for RBS regardless of how much it cost.

It’s not unknown, especially in America, for companies to intervene in hostile takeover battles to drive up the bidding in order to push competitors to the brink.

@ 24 John B,

“TT: nominating Hunt would be ridiculous, because his actions were taken in pursuit of the British national interest and under the instructions of the British government.”

Well, I did say it was a parlour game, but I’d love you to explain why killing a million Biafrans was in the British national interest, as I honestly didn’t realise it. Should I also applaud the church bombings on Christmas Day?

@33 Unfair would be too strong a word to use, but that accusation is more than slightly disingenuous, given government policy at the time. Particularly when it came to recently independent nations within the Commonwealth.

For good or ill, the British Government at that stage recognised the Lagos government as the legitimate authority over the whole state of Nigeria, as it was understood to be at that time, and maintained diplomatic and treaty obligations with them as part of the arrangements made as part of decolonisation.

That inevitably entailed a certain amount of unsavoury mutual back-scratching, or else a significant change in policy that could have had dire implications elsewhere; as you might expect, classic Wilsonian pragmatism favoured supporting the side most likely to win in such circumstances, since whoever wins, you’re locked into treaty obligations with the state, rather than the reigime. And the Biafrans were never going to win.

That doesn’t excuse anything the High Commissioner might have been complicit in with the regime during that time, but nor does it make him a Gestapo drone either; if he’s appointed to act on and support British foreign policy and if HM Government’s policy is to back the recognised regime in Lagos and support their counter-insurgency efforts, it’s his duty as a representative of the Crown to ensure that policy is carried out, however morally questionable that might be, and exercise his Crown powers in whatever manner he judges to be necessary to achieve the policy.

Plenty of Knights of the Realm have done far messier and more unseemly things in the past in the name of Queen and Country and will again in the future, I’m sure, unfortunately.

What Paul said.

Wilson followed his sensible policy of maintaining the UK’s commitment to decolonisation and acceptance of Commonwealth regimes, accepting the UK was no longer an imperial power, and avoiding interference in wars of pointless slaughter for pseudo-humanitarian ideals (this is also why there are Vietnam memorials in Washington and Canberra, but not London).

36. Man on Clapham Omnibus

An entire irrelevance. Sadly Millibean has gone along with burying the real systemic issues.

@24, @35 The worst you could say about that policy was that it represented a moral vacuum – in the Biafran example, it seems pretty well generally accepted that regardless of the scale of the repression before they attempted to make the break with Lagos and the very valid basis of their grievances, intervening on behalf of the Biafrans (as the French did) *massively* increased the scale of suffering in the region by prolonging an unwinnable war by years and provoking a viscous clampdown to put down the insurrection and destabilising the entire region. From a purely pragmatic perspective, if they’re going to loose, it’s best for everyone that they loose quickly, which leaves you the option meanwhile of exercising some diplomatic arm-twisting.

Backing a breakaway seccessionist movements (especially when they lack a democratic popular mandate) is a suicidal road to hell, you just don’t do it; we didn’t recognise the Confederate States of America (although we came close), we didn’t recognise Chechnya or South Ossetia and we’ve certainly never recognised a greater Kurdistan. Taiwan is… complicated and a unique case.

When you peruse any kind of policy supporting successionist movements in countries with which you have signed treaty obligations, you’re practically guaranteeing both countries like Libya and groups like wealthy Boston Irish will intervene themselves to help kill your own soldiers and police on the streets by arming our own rebels and prolong the conflict by decades. Which is exactly what happened.

:@ 34 Paul,

I’m not actually advocating digging up the dead knight and ceremoniously chucking him on the dungheap, because if we were to start that process, there wouldn’t be a cemetery safe in the country. My point was merely that knights have done worse than Fred the Shred, and whatever real-politik justifications can be called upon, the British government’s role in the Biafran war was shameful and, in my view, criminal. The Biafrans had every right to secede from Nigeria, and if the British had played only an even hand, then for all we know, they may have succeeded. French support was too little, too late, and support from other places was prevented for one thing above others, that being the British government policy. To what extent this was due to the Wilson government or the FCO mandarins, I cannot say, as, being a mere tax-paying citizen, I am not privy to the secrets of our vainglorious leaders.

I must note that phrases like:

“it’s his duty as a representative of the Crown to ensure that policy is carried out, however morally questionable that might be, and exercise his Crown powers in whatever manner he judges to be necessary to achieve the policy.”

sail very close to the infamous Nuremburg defence.

As for backing secessionist movements, the glaring example you overlook is Kosovo. Every situation is different, I acknowledge, but in this case the British government has done the complete opposite, and the rights and wrongs are nothing like as clear cut as they were in Biafra.

@ 35 John B,

” accepting the UK was no longer an imperial power, and avoiding interference in wars of pointless slaughter for pseudo-humanitarian ideals”

On the contrary, the UK policy was based on Nigeria remaining within its colonial sphere of influence, and it most certainly did not avoid interference, and not for pseudo-humanitarian ideals, but rather for the most despicable, machiavellian reasons.

@38

“As for backing secessionist movements, the glaring example you overlook is Kosovo. ”

Yeah, I deliberately steered clear of mentioning that one, but that completely proves my point. That was completely the wrong decision, a fact backed up by the fact that nearly 60% of the UN General Assembly, including all of it’s immediate neighbours (except Albania, to which it is effectively a client state) refuse to recognise the right of Kosovo to secede and consider the 2008 declaration of independence to by illegal and invalid. The West was arming KLA terrorists/freedom fighters all through 1998-99 and ethnic violence on both sides massively escalated and increased in scale right from the point at which the NATO “Humanitarian bombing” campaign commenced and continues up to the present day because of it. The Kosovo War was always about punishing the Serbs for Srebreniza (where we had failed to act) than it was about getting a fair deal for the secessionist ethnic Albanian movement in Kosovo (because that’s *exactly* what the region needed… another ethnically homogeneous sectarian micro-state too small to support itself without outside support.

“sail very close to the infamous Nuremburg defence.”

Not really at all – Ambassadors and Crown diplomats can exercise a high degree of autonomy in terms of what they can actually do and how they go about doing it; they receive “instructions”, not “orders”, which is fundamentally different, as there is a much higher degree of trust placed in the office holder as to how they actually go about achieving the goals set for them. The Nuremberg Defence rests on the premise that “I only did exactly what I was told to do, I didn’t have a choice and it was my duty and therefore not my fault”. The diplomatic defence would be far more like “I was told to get this done and my ultimate responsibility as the British ambassador is to protect British interests”. Which it was.

@ 39 Paul,

regarding Kosovo, I agree with what you’re saying, but Biafra was a very different situation, and certainly would not have been a micro-state unable to support itself. All that would have been necessary would have been to lift the one-sided arms embargo, which prevented Biafra from being able to defend itself, while flooding the Nigerian junta with arms and ammunition.

As for the Nuremburg defence and what you say, I doubt that there is a ‘fundamental difference’ between instructions and orders. The real fundamental difference is that officials of the British state do not get held to account, whereas some of the nazis were.

What constitutes protecting British interests? It is surely a matter of great debate. It may have been perceived by the mandarins in Whitehall that the defeat of Biafra was in British interests, but it aint necessarily so. Besides anything else, the British government was lying through its teeth about what policy they were pursuing, and public opinion was against them for what they were actually doing.

@40

“What constitutes protecting British interests? It is surely a matter of great debate. It may have been perceived by the mandarins in Whitehall that the defeat of Biafra was in British interests, but it aint necessarily so. ”

The reality was, it was far less about ensuring the defeat of Biafra (in the abstract at least, Whitehall took no view on that, it wasn’t a consideration), than it was about preserving the existing relationship with the government in Lagos. And not alienating them. The indirect result of that was human suffering on a massive scale.

We had treaties and treaty obligations with Lagos. And defence contracts. We honoured them, just as the Americans honoured their treaty obligations to Saigon and Seoul (having of course committed to actually *doing* far more under those treaty obligations than we ever had in Africa, hence the far greater direct involvement). That had awful, unintended consequences, as the facts show.

If we hadn’t armed and supported Lagos, they would have just gone to the Soviets for the guns and ammo, which indeed they did anyway, but we would have lost any opportunity to mediate the situation as a friendly, stabilising influence to reign in the excesses. Plus, if we *had* broken treaty obligations to Lagos, (the one who we had formally recognised, had an existing relationship with and the one that probably (and did) remain in place afterwards) the consequences would have been serious, unpredictable and far-reaching. Other countries would refuse to deal or negotiate with us in good faith because we might not keep our word or break our commitments; Lagos could have expelled any and all British or European-looking foreign nationals in the country in retaliation, or had them interned, jailed or perhaps even ethnically cleansed (unlikely, but certainly not impossible, given anti-colonial sentiment). They could even have declared war on Britain – again, an over-reaction, but also not at all impossible if we cut off economic aid by refusing them the resources necessary to allow them to enforce their borders (as they saw it, and we acknowledged them to be); admittedly, were that to happen, they couldn’t really have done anything to attack Britain directly, but it would be a nightmare to have to deal with.

To clarify, I in no way attempting to justify that thinking, just explain it. For Hunt down on the ground, he was no more responsible for the situation than anyone else was, he just had to manage an undesirable relationship day to day and that’s just some of the conflicting aspects of actually doing that. Had he quit in protest or publicly denounced the policy, we would still have had to mend the broken relationship with Lagos when they eventually won, which they did, and we would have gained nothing from it other than some sense of intangible moral superiority.

Politics is about surviving until the end of next week. Diplomacy is about surviving for the next century. The Lagos government was never going to go anywhere. And Lagos controlled the entire costal region. And North Sea oil wasn’t to come on-line until 1976.

The Biafrans had no oil and we were going to need it. That’s how British interests were served during that time.

I agree with what Paul says about strategy, but would go beyond it. Nigeria was a legitimately declared state and UN member. The whole decolonisation of Africa was messy and horrible, and the terrible decisions of hundreds of years of prior British governments was a major contribution to this.

But if you start accepting the point that anyone who says “we don’t like these colonial borders” is suddenly a legitimate candidate for independence and that their fight should be backed by the former imperial power, then Africa descends into perpetual mad civil war. Indeed, the mad civil wars that occurred were the ones where the new imperial powers (ie US/USSR) did precisely this, backing one side or the other in mostly ethnic conflicts.

And obviously UK public opinion was in favour of imperial intervention, because the public hadn’t yet quite realised that the UK was no longer an imperial power. Thankfully, Wilson had the balls to ignore the public.

Overall, not sure what your personal axe in this particular one is, but it’s *weird*. In an Africa riven with genocidal conflicts driven by western states’ powerplaying, you choose to dwell on a chap who didn’t bring us into a rebellion against an ally?

@41 Paul,

“The indirect result of that was human suffering on a massive scale.”

I’d say that was more the direct result, and hardly unforeseen.

“we would have lost any opportunity to mediate the situation as a friendly, stabilising influence to reign in the excesses. ”

But ‘we’ weren’t mediating, ‘we’ were, as you state, pursuing the perceived British interests, i.e., backing one side to the hilt, while masquerading as a force for moderation, in order to keep other nations out of ‘our’ African ‘backyard’ and rebuild the mercantilistic advantages ‘we’ once had with the region.

All Wilson’s government wanted was a speedy resolution, so the issue wouldn’t continue to be an embarrassment. Thus it urged the junta to step up its prosecution of the war, to get it over with, not to rein in excesses but to rein in adverse press coverage back home.

There was no obligation on the British government to take the role it took, and we cannot know the consequences if it hadn’t done so, but given the history of Africa over the last few decades, the tragedy of the war itself, and the state of Nigeria today, I think you’d be hard-pressed to claim the British government position has been vindicated.

@ John B,

that’s completely arse about face. Wilson DID get involved and DID play the imperialist, on the side of the Nigerian junta. If he had kept out of it, then he could have claimed “nothing to do with us”, But he didn’t do that. He chose sides and backed them to the hilt. That’s the point you seem to miss. I didn’t say they should have backed Biafra.

You wonder why it bothers me that a million people were murdered with the active support of the British government. If you don’t understand why, I can’t explain it.

@39, @41

Wilson was practically allergic to foreign affairs and avoided them wherever possible, not least because at the height of decolonisation, there were no votes in it and no way to win, anything you do will be unpopular at home with some large section of the electorate. That gets all the more worse if you declare yourself in the business of nation-building, making enemies, pissing off allies and far, far worse when you show a clear ideological disinclination to back up those convictions with any show of military strength.

He was quite happy to send able, independently minded diplomats out to navigate the post-colonial minefield of foreign affairs as they saw fit to within their own discretion, delivering the policy whilst himself remaining (with the rest of the government) a safe distance away from it and not getting Britain draw in to more direct involvement in any of these conflicts.

In many areas, this worked, and worked very well. In cases like Nigeria and Biafra, it clearly didn’t, but in fairness, the whole situation was already in deep turmoil and almost unsalvagable in many ways before his own government ever came to office. You can argue to a certain extent what else could have been done to salvage the situation at that point, short of re-occupying the entire place militarily and flooding the whole country with British troops to separate the warring factions and keep the peace; all you could really do short of that is to honour treaty obligations, hope the whole thing fizzles out fairly swiftly and maintain diplomatic pressure to resolve the situation. Withdrawing diplomatic missions to Lagos is a Bushite solution and conventional foreign policy rules of conduct hold that you should ALWAYS maintain diplomatic relations with everyone, friend, foe, or other, and recalling you ambassadors is generally the final, ultimate sanction carried out against a nation before you declare war on them. Which was never going to happen here.

If you were going to cite a post-colonial British foreign policy balls-up, Wilson era or otherwise, Rhodesia is probably the better example; everyone from the FO clerks up to Wilson himself dropped the ball on that one and then mishandled and ingnored it for years, hoping it would go away… The worst you could say of Hunt in Nigeria was that he did the best he could in thankless and almost impossible circumstances with almost no resources. But then that’s probably why (like Chris Patten, much later) he was personally picked to do such a difficult job.

@45

“All Wilson’s government wanted was a speedy resolution, so the issue wouldn’t continue to be an embarrassment. Thus it urged the junta to step up its prosecution of the war, to get it over with, not to rein in excesses but to rein in adverse press coverage back home.”

A swift, decisive war is almost always less destructive and takes a lower toll than a bitter, protracted and entrenched one, particularly to the civilian population caught in the middle, so that’s hardly bad advice. If there has to be a war, a short, intense conflict is less undesirable with far fewer deaths, reprisals and damage to vital civilaian infrastructure bringing in food and medical aid, which was one the main causes of the death and suffering in Biafra, as opposed to enemy action; had the war been over in a few weeks rather than several years, the food and medical supplies could have got in, as it was there was mass starvation with impassible roads.

How many African civil wars can you think of that have been going on for decades now, getting increasingly brutal and more horrific, increasing the human degradation and misery with every passing year?

If Wilson felt able to bring a swift conclusion to the war, as clearly he did, trying to do so was the right thing to do. He probably would have argued (legitimately, if incorrectly) that he was morally obligated to do so.

And in as much as regards tacking and active, imperialist intervention on behalf of the junta goes, privately urging the Lagos government to get the insurgency under control quickly and get the conflict over and done with as quickly as possible is quite different to having Soviet “consultants” leading federalist forces into battle on the front lines to massacre Biafran rebels (as they were), arming the rebels under the guise of supplying aid (as the French were, probably prolonging the war by years and making a vast contribution to pushing the death toll up to the million mark) or hiring out his own MIGs and their pilots to carpet bomb Biafran civilians (as the Egyptians did).

I don’t remember any instances during 400 years of British Colonial history when officers from a rival foreign power were commanding government troops while one of our allied nations was supplying arms to the rebels in a British colony… If that had been how you’d run your empire, it would mean that you were fairly shit doing at it. That’s hardly an imperialistic approach.

The way you tell it, it’s almost as if the Federalists only wanted to win because Wilson told them to.

@ Paul,

“How many African civil wars can you think of that have been going on for decades now, getting increasingly brutal and more horrific…”

Quite a few, and how many of them have their roots in the division of Africa, which took no account of the nations and tribes who lived there? How much of the prolongation is due to governments such as ours backing brutal military governments in the interest of ‘stability’?

“in fairness, the whole situation was already in deep turmoil and almost unsalvagable in many ways before his own government ever came to office.”

Indeed, due to the nature of the Nigerian state, which contained different tribes with little in common. The Biafran declaration of independence was provoked by the Nigerian government proving itself incapable or unwilling to protect the lives of the Biafrans.

Your trouble is you seem to see this only from Wilson’s point of view, that if only the Biafrans had been good chaps and passively allowed themselves to be massacred, rather than making a fight of it, everything would have been fine, and the British colonial propaganda myth could have serenely sailed on. What doesn’t seem to enter your thought process is whether the Biafrans had a right to self-determination, let alone mere self-defence.

What no doubt bothers you is the notion that a British government official would be held to account for what he had done, whether or not it was ‘ordered’ or ‘instructed’. As long as this doesn’t happen, our country will embroil itself in foreign wars, as those who direct such matters are safe in the knowledge that they will never be held accountable.

@47

“What doesn’t seem to enter your thought process is whether the Biafrans had a right to self-determination, let alone mere self-defence.”

First of all, you’ve got those priorities backwards, the right to self-defence comes before the right to self-determination and the case for the latter is by no means clear or neccessarily easy to establish in this instance. It absolutely does enter my head, but that’s not a British High Commissioner’s job to make that determination. In fact, it’s actually a serious conflict of interest for a diplomat on the scene to act on or publiclly voice personal sympathies for a secessionist movement within the country he has been sent to as an envoy; it totally compromises his ability to do the job and the host government simply wouldn’t trust him or choose to do business with him. The only way you can be effective as a diplomat is to take a totally neutral stance, which is obviously pretty hard to do. But again, it’s not up to you to decide.

That decision principally rests with a popular mandate from the people concerned, consent and recognition by it’s neighbours and a simple majority vote in the general assembly of the United Nations. All three criteria were lacking in this instance.

That being the case, your only real options are to ignore the situation and work around it or try your best to work with what you actually have.

In this case, Nigeria, like most African nations was defined by the stroke of a pen by White men in Europe drawing lines on a map years before, with no reference at all to the people enclosed within it. It’s unfortunately left up to them in the postcolonial era to figure out how to live in it and how to govern it. That’s not always easy, to say the least, but when Britain pulled out, we retained a responsibility to support the state we left behind and help them get established as an independent nation.

You can’t symltaneously bemoan the post-colonial “intervention” in artificial states that we had a major part in creating and defining (an intervention that, as here, in manh cases constitutes not actually doing anything very much) and complain that we acted immorally by supporting the regime we handed over power to less than a decade earlier; you can have one or the other, not both. We were already morally compromised the moment we began administering what became eventually Nigeria; it’s not an intervention if you’re already involved, indeed if you’re actually the main originating root cause of the problem.

Once you’ve made the decision to decolonise, the moral responsibility rests then with you to minimise the harm caused by your pulling out; and what if Biafra had successfully claimed independence and self-determination? Experience has shown that partition is hardly a panacea, in fact quite the reverse. India and Pakistan went to war with one another five times in the fifty years since Indian Independence, all as an indirect result of a messy, rushed but desperately necessary decolonisation, but throughout all that time, we managed to maintain good, friendly relations with both opposing nations and have acted in the role of mediator more than once in disputes between the two. That’s as it should be.

That could have been the case too with Nigeria and Biafra. It wasn’t. But you can’t blame the people concerned at the time for acting as if they hoped it could be.

@47

“As long as this doesn’t happen, our country will embroil itself in foreign wars, as those who direct such matters are safe in the knowledge that they will never be held accountable.”

That argument in the Biafra case is both redundant and naive in the extreme – we didn’t “embroil” ourselves in the Nigerian Civil War, we were already in it up to our necks from the moment Nigeria progressed to independence; we’d been supporting the government that we passed on power to since we left, up to, including and after Colonel Ojukwu declared war on his own government, leading directly to the death of hundreds of thousands of his own people by violence and starvation. We were already involved, make no mistake. No embroiling necessary.

Once that happens, what are your options? You have only three, all unpalatable. 1) Do nothing – not an option, since you’ve given the post-independence regime certain guarantees and have an existing relationship with them. 2) Support the rebels – REALLY not an option, since you really would be embroiling yourself at that point, plus giving the signal that you will intervene to support breakaway tribal movements all over Africa. So, most undesirable option of all, plus the rebels will almost certainly loose anyway and you’re only going to prolong, deepen and complicate the conflict by sticking your oar in. 3) Support the government whilst advocating restraint. Of course, the restraint principle is never going to be effective when there are so many other factors outside of your control (in this case the Soviets and the French) prolonging the war, but the whole essence of the diplomatic predicament is that this is an internal affair within an independent state state where you’re trying not to involve yourself. It’s a Catch-22

And of course they get held to account. You and I are talking about it 40 years later, aren’t we?

@ Paul,

the phrase, I think, you are grasping for is ‘white man’s burden’. This sums up your argument, which amounts to the assertion that the British government was somehow duty bound to massively increase arms sales to the military junta which had seized power in an ex-colony, in order to help them exterminate one million plus people who no longer wanted to remain within the artificial country that previous British governments had created, whilst lying to the British public and world opinion about it and masquerading as some kind of mediator, because, if the damned uppity Biafrans managed to assert their independence, well it would make Britain lose face for some reason. But never mind, because although nobody in the British establishment will ever be held to account for what they did, decades from now, two people will argue about it, and that’s the same thing as justice.

I remain unconvinced by your position, as no doubt you remain unconvinced by my position, and John B remains mystified as to why anyone even cares.

@50 Again, most of the deaths, the vast majority of them were caused by starvation, not because of the fighting or government troops. The food didn’t get in because there was a war going on. And the war wasn’t started by Lagos. The war was started by Ojukwu declaring war on his own government and proclaiming the underlying tensions to be wholly sectarian and tribal in nature and defining his own tribal group as being inherently opposed to the notionally secular regime in Lagos.

Had he not done that, or had he made any concessions, compromises or overtones towards negotiation or a brokered settlement, there wouldn’t have been a war, there wouldn’t have been a blockade and those people (most of them) wouldn’t have been dead. And establishing the principle of tribal, ethnically homogenous states (other than Israel, which we’re stuck with as a bad example) sends the signal that ethnicity equals nationality, different cultures are inherently incapable of mutual coexistence in any form of workable government and ultimately leads to the kind of ethnic cleansing seen in Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa for decades afterwards.

The Federalists may have been bloodthirsty and kill-happy and broken all the laws of warfare by carpet bombing civilians and blocking food and other aid from coming in, but they’re not the ones who declared open warfare and they’re not the ones who (initally at least) defined the social injustice and unrest as a tribal, racial struggle for dominance.

How that’s the British Government’s fault or a personal disgrace to the man on the ground in the embassy or in Number 10, or somehow an example of imperialism, I have no idea.

Ojukwu declared war and Ojukwu got to retire quietly on an army pension decades later, completely unrepentant and unapologetic for the chaos and carnage he brought down on his people and then abandoned, knowing full well that he could have called a halt to it at any time by accepting to a brokered solution, rather than prolonging a hopeless and unwinable war. How’s that for never being held to account?

@51

“The war was started by Ojukwu declaring war on his own government and proclaiming the underlying tensions to be wholly sectarian and tribal in nature and defining his own tribal group as being inherently opposed to the notionally secular regime in Lagos.”

That is not what happened, you’ve got it all back to front. You want to portray it as all down to Ojukwu, but the fact is he was supported by the people, which is shown in how long they held out against the odds. Ojukwu didn’t make it a tribal thing – it was a tribal thing, shown in the massacres of Igbos and other easterners in the north. Thousands of them killed because of the tribe they came from, and this happened before Biafra declared independence. And you try to blame this on Ojukwu and the Biafrans? I suppose they were asking for it, right?

You are also ignoring all the talks and proposed solutions prior to the declaration, such as to keep Nigeria together but make it a looser confederation, which was vetoed by Gowan, and that the declaration was made after the vote in the joint session of the Councils of Chiefs and Elders, not by Ojukwu alone.

In other words, you’re just spewing out the British propaganda line carried by people like Sir David Hunt, that it was all dreamt up in Ojukwu’s head, and that the Biafrans only suffered so much because of their ‘obstinacy’ in fighting on.

53. domestic extremist

Since crises, and the booms that precede them, are systemic, inherent in the capitalist system, it follows that however recklessly individuals behaved as economic actors, in a sense it is beside the point to blame them for following the inexorable logic of the system of competitive accumulation they served. Or as Marx put it:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.”

The problem (or from the point of view of the ruling class, the advantage) with singling out individuals as the guilty parties is that it suggests that once appropriate penalties have been imposed – a lost knighthood here, a forgone bonus there – the matter will appear to have been resolved, and we can all move on. Except of course that under capitalism we can only expect to move on into the next crisis of the system.

@ Domestic Extremist,

“Since crises, and the booms that precede them, are systemic, inherent in the capitalist system”

The business cycle is explained by Mises. It is not inherent in the capitalist system but caused by inflationary policies by governments and central banks. This causes an artificial stimulus, and the illusion of prosperity – the boom. Eventually reality intrudes, the drugs wear off, and we are left with a load of malinvestment and bad debts – the bust.

It is not inherent to a market economy, but caused by state intervention in the monetary system and the crackpot economic fallacies they use as justification.


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