Recent history is now congealing to the point of serious analysis, like a partly cooked egg.
In How Britain Broke the World, his first book, former senior British diplomat Arthur Snell (Magdalen, 1994) serves up gracefully written history of ‘Britain in the world’ that goes from Blair/Kosovo and Blair/Iraq right through to Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, taking account of many chapters in between such as Afghanistan, Libya and other UK geo-political relations including China, India and Russia.
In a remarkable diplomatic career that followed his 1st class history degree at Oxford, Arthur served in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Yemen, learning Arabic. He also served in Afghanistan and was often in dangerous hotspots.
He is an astonishing ‘primary source’ in his own right.
While the deeper scholarly tug of war might only just be beginning on this recently ‘lived’ history, and will no doubt rage for generations to come, what can be said at the start is that Snell has avoided the potholes of being either tendentious or autobiographical.
What we get is fact-based analysis, startling for the simple reason that so many of those facts land so disruptively, and startling for the consistency of the main trajectory, which is how poorly the UK has been served by its leaders in recent decades.
Make no mistake, the book is a withering attack on blundering leadership and seemingly endemic British political ‘chronic short termism.’
The reason for the book’s title and the word ‘broke’, is that there is a terrifying arc, or echo if you prefer, that connects Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022 back to the then Labour government’s decision to take military action in Kosovo, followed by war in Iraq in 2003, neither of which were played out according to the ‘rules.’
Snell showcases a Britain that is ‘at the very least, desperate to please [the US, later China and the Saudis], delusional, self-important, and slapdash.’
Snell pulls no punches. Yet he is at pains to point out that he’s a patriot himself. He thinks we could do better.
His analysis extends to commercial gain and the ‘laundromat’, for example, a reference to the UK’s unique ability to make kleptocrats feel at home, and to help them with their money laundering.
He notes the near refusal in British government to connect the dots between servicing this corrupt money, and what comes of it.
For example, there was huge media coverage and political outcry in the UK around the poisonings in Salisbury by Russian agents. The Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons, ‘There can be no question of business as usual with Russia.’
Snell points out that just days later Russian energy giant Gazprom, ‘effectively the Kremlin’s piggy bank,’ used the City to raise bonds worth nearly $5 billion.
‘In 2022,’ he reminds us, ‘Transparency International, the global anti-corruption campaign group, described Britain as a ‘safe haven for corrupt individuals, their allies and assets.’’
Earlier in the book, Snell is firm about the fact that the military intervention in Kosovo was not a success, even though at the time it was hailed a success and led to lots of Kosovan babies being christened ‘Tonibler’.
By drawing a false conclusion Blair was emboldened to push forwards towards the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, forming an improbably strong bond with US President George Bush that went far beyond normal behaviour, leading to the flawed Weapons of Mass Destruction intelligence that seemed to be more about pleasing the Americans than obtaining the truth.
The undercurrent that Snell pays particular attention to is Blair’s pursuit of unilateral military action, both in Kosovo and Iraq, subverting the international ‘rules-based system’ that had more or less prevailed since 1945, and which the UK was an avowed supporter of.
By undermining the rulebook, the UK didn’t do the world order any favours down the road.
The book appears to have a blip.
By the time we get to Syria, which began as another wave of the Arab spring in 2011 but rapidly descended into a civil war that continues eleven years later, it almost feels as though the author is trying to have his cake and eat it.
Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya are all analysed as more or less disastrous interventions by the UK pursuing deluded objectives with inadequate strategic planning or resource and no stomach to carry anything through to a pre-meditated objective.
But when Syria came along Parliament voted not to intervene, which ‘killed’ Obama’s plan for a Congressional vote and resulted in an unenforced ‘red line’ (Assad using chemical weapons) despite it being ‘crossed, and re-crossed, many times.’
‘It was the first British government defeat in Parliament on a matter of war since 1782 and the America War of Independence,’ Snell notes.
At first sight Snell’s position seems slavishly contrary, as though he thinks that maybe Britain should have lost more lives in Syria fighting in a truly hellish sectarian nightmare with no winners.
Snell’s position, however, is not that another military intervention would have been desirable as such.
His point is that whereas the Weapons of Mass Destruction defence led to the destruction of an entire state, with dire long-term consequences for international security, in Syria there really was a terrible massacre of the innocents but we did nothing.
What troubles Snell is the culture of Westminster, and how we conduct ourselves in these matters.
The Parliamentary vote around Syria was carried out according to the most navel gazing party political advantage, he explains in some detail, with a weird amendment from the then Labour opposition that amounted to little but provoked a second vote that muddied everything in a classic English fudge.
His point as elsewhere is that the reason for UK not intervening in Syria was as shabby and shambolic as its reason for intervening in all the other places.
There was a total absence of values, and behaviour resulting from them. That’s the deeper argument evinced by Snell.
Another reason for these failings is a deliberate aversion to expertise.
In what amounts to a secondary theme, Snell spells out in painful precision the degree to which the Foreign Office has been whittled down to a skeleton of its former self, its entire annual budget no greater than a ‘rounding error’ in national accounting and its diplomatic staff halved since the 1980s.
What happened in Syria a decade ago might be what’s happening in Ukraine today. Throwing in just enough resource to keep the war going for a long time, but never putting any boots on the ground.
In a separate discussion, Snell references the ‘spectre of a frozen conflict’ in Ukraine, a subject that he has interrogated at length in a popular podcast, Doomsday Watch.
Or as the Economist put it recently in a leader, hard power is required to confront autocracies like China and Russia.
The UK wields a puny stick these days. The only possible logic for a better outcome would be collaboration with allies, especially European allies in the face of Russia.
What we have instead is the toxic aftermath of BREXIT, says Snell, where ‘global Britain’ is a cypher for refusing to talk about our immediate neighbours, but where the current Prime Minister (at the time of writing) repeatedly travels to Ukraine to live up to his own version of playing a wartime leader, ignoring the fact that he refused to give Ukraine any weapons as Foreign Minister, alongside then Prime Minister Theresa May, despite Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
The laundromat lurks this UK-Russia narrative, alongside the immense scandal of little island tax havens, all of which could be reformed, but none of which have been reformed.
Just £1 billion a year is intercepted of an estimated £100 billion of dirty money pouring through London, Snell notes. The reason for this is not obscure. It is not a government priority.
Snell is very good at deftly exposing media stories that came floating out of occupied territories, that somehow stuck but which were profoundly if not completely wrong.
One such story was that the British experience of Empire made them better equipped to win the mind of ‘the Arab’ like latter-day Lawrences of Arabia, and that our softly-softly approach occupying Basra in Iraq was superior to crass American power.
Actually, Snell shows, the British completely ‘lost’ Basra to various Iraqi militia. We ended up doing a deal with a violent terrorist, Ahmad Al-Fartusi, and while criminal gangs roamed the city the American General David Petraeus noted that ‘the Brits have lost Basra, if indeed they ever had it.’
Desperate to do some ‘real soldiering’, and to rescue their position, it was the acute embarrassment of Basra that bounced UK defence chiefs into the next big adventure in Afghanistan, where despite the doleful and enormous lessons of history and the loss of most of an army as early as 1842 (the First Anglo-Afghan War), not a single soul paused to consider the risks or realities.
According to Snell, 46 million rounds were fired by British guns in Helmand province, to no effect except making a complex situation worse.
The vastly simplified narrative that we were supporting a legitimate Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan against the Taliban was largely a fiction built on almost wilful ignorance, he shows.
Once the fighting started, the naïve idea that we would help rebuilt the nation was thrown in the bin and ‘the centres of Sangin, Musa Qala and Now Zad were reduced to rubble.’
Numerous civilians were killed.
Later, says Snell, the UK claimed – and it was widely reported – that we had installed a magnificent renewable energy turbine in northern Helmand, that would illuminate classrooms. But it was never installed ‘and remains there to this day, slowly gathering dust in the harsh climate of southern Afghanistan.’
The most astonishing irony is that the Taliban were not even popular in Helmand, but predictably gathered followers as the British dug in, and were later succeeded by an aggressive US force, from 2014.
Again, Snell argues, at almost no point did any regional or historical expertise come to bear on British policy making.
He even knows an Afghanistan scholar who went to the British Library to study the official accounts of British 19th century engagements in Afghanistan.
He expected the accounts to have been well thumbed in recent years, by analysts on behalf of government, but the archivist confirmed that the sources had not been disturbed for decades.
‘Britain’s Foreign Office has a strange indifference to expertise,’ says Snell.
In a broader discussion, he addresses the incoming new Prime Minister and whether the mooted idea of spending 3% rather than 2% of GDP on defence would amount to much.
‘It would have to come at the expense of something else,’ he says. ‘It would realistically only replenish stocks of arms that are being fed to Ukraine, which are not being replenished, update some IT systems and perhaps begin to address inadequate housing stock for existing personnel. It isn’t going to get us some shiny new capability.’
He’s very critical of Liz Truss for her aggression towards the Northern Ireland Protocol, but concedes that ‘she is a prisoner of a certain faction in her party.’
He thinks that Britain might well want to rejoin the single market a generation from now, once we have had a very long time to watch the current status quo not working and our own self-interests being squandered.
He says that were the UK a person he would advise him/her to enter rehab and have a deep think about who they actually are, including the hard power versus the soft.
None of this excuses the rise of a ‘small number of powerful countries that are behaving in an untrammelled fashion.’
We have returned to a very troubling version of real politik, Snell acknowledges.
But the deeper nightmare is that Britain is now itself a bad actor.
We have immense blood on our hands, by proxy, he says, for so cravenly supporting Saudi Arabia’s estimated 20,000 sorties into Yemen, so many of which have been inexpertly conducted in British supplied and maintained aircraft, resulting in vast numbers of civilian deaths.
We kow-towed to China at the same moment that it plunged into autocracy, a truly bizarre outcome of which was over dependence on telecom company Huawei at the expense of the Five Eyes intelligence agreement.
The conscious, deliberate subverting of the Northern Ireland Protocol breaks international law, he notes in some detail.
Snell is no dewy-eyed idealist, raised only on seminars and lattes.
He was at one stage Deputy Head of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, very much the pointy end of British action abroad.
He says that being a bad actor can reap immediate fruits. But he offers that it leads to broader rot and is in no way a strategy.
One case in point is the slightly hysterical British ‘special relationship’ with the US, and the assumption by Brexiteers that we would quickly acquire a beneficial free trade treaty with the US.
Neither Obama, Trump or Biden have made any effort, three very different Presidents and only the first who could be attacked by Boris Johnson for being Kenyan and maybe therefore anti-British.
The discussion with Trump degenerated immediately into chlorinated chicken.
The chances of such free trade treaties happening now, when contracting parties can see that the UK doesn’t uphold international law, are duller by the minute.
It’s not that we can’t behave badly but rather, what are our true best interests and how are they best served?
It’s a terrifying book that may re-shape your mental horizons and lead to sleepness nights and fits of rage.
It’s also deliciously written and easy to digest, as far away as could be from dull academic prose.