I am currently reading Ian Kershaw’s excellent “Making Friends With Hitler” (sub-titled “Lord Londonderry and Britain’s Road To War”). Briefly, it offers an analysis of Britain’s response to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany, considers what options were available to policy-makers, and concentrates on the activities of Lord Londonderry, as a leading aristocrat in the period, who was also for a while Secretary of State for Air and a full cabinet member.

What has this go to do with climate scepticism?

Well, chapter 2 (“Downfall of the Air Minister”), which (as its title suggests, deals with Londonderry’s period in office and his fall from it) dwells at some length on the international Disarmament Conference, which opened in Geneva in 1932. This, as things would turn out, was a triumph of hope over experience, and was a conference in which the British Prime Minister (then Ramsay MacDonald) tried to take the lead and produce a useful and binding international agreement. Needless to say, he failed. And that reminded me of another international conference, this time held in Glasgow, 89 years later.

Although dealing with very different subject matter, there are striking parallels between the two conferences, beyond the fact that in both cases British politicians strutted on the world stage and tried (and failed) to achieve the impossible.

In 2021 the British Government, with Alok Sharma taking the lead, tried to persuade the world’s governments to sign up to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to prevent, as many believe to be likely, runaway and dangerous climate change. In 1932-4 the British Government, led by Ramsay MacDonald, tried to persuade world governments to sign up to specific limitations in armaments, pursuant to a draft convention which, because tabled by MacDonald on 16th March 1933, became known as the MacDonald Plan. The plan was to prevent increases in (and indeed to try to reduce) armaments, with the concomitant reduction rather than increase in the risk of European or even global conflict.

One key difference between then and now is that then Lord Londonderry:

had forcefully reiterated on a number of occasions the Air Ministry’s objections to undercutting the country’s defence capability by a policy of air disarmament certain to find no reciprocation in some countries, and the readiness to accept internationally agreed measures only if safeguards to guarantee their effectiveness were introduced.

Londonderry’s warnings might have seemed strange in retrospect, given the close friendships he cultivated with leading Nazis later in the decade with a view to defusing hostility between Germany and the UK and trying to reach some sort of modus operandi which might prevent war. He came to be regarded as at worst a leading Nazi apologist and, at best, as rather naïve. But in 1933, when his job required it, he saw all too clearly the futility (and indeed folly and danger) of the UK forging ahead unilaterally without binding commitments from all those countries which could pose a threat to the UK (and to the world) in those circumstances.

And he was right to be cautious. By the time MacDonald tabled his plan Japan was running amok in eastern Asia, and Hitler had just come to power in Germany. Mussolini had been running things in Italy for more than a decade.

Some caution in 2021 might have seemed appropriate, too, given that Russia, China and India didn’t even bother sending their leaders to Glasgow, and for those with eyes to see didn’t seem to be all that interested in the agenda set forth by Alok Sharma. In 1933, the MacDonald Plan “withered on the vine”. Germany (under Hitler) withdrew from both the Disarmament Conference and from the League of Nations (on 14th October 1933). As Kershaw puts it, these acts

denoted the effective end of the futile attempts to produce a collective agreement on peace and security in Europe. Though disarmament talks in Geneva dragged on for some months, the last rites could not be long delayed. The patient finally expired gently in June 1934, even if some believers in a Lazarus-style recovery continued to try for long afterwards to breathe life into the corpse. European disarmament was dead.

Compare and contrast with Glasgow in 2021. Nobody actually walked out of the conference, as the Germans did in 1933, but China and India delivered what should have been the coup de grace to the Glasgow Pact. They watered down the key paragraph about coal to the point of meaninglessness. The rest of the Glasgow Climate Pact contains a lot of vacuous and nice-sounding words, but there is no binding commitment on the part of any country to do anything.

And yet, despite the obvious fact that many of the world’s main powers (just as in 1932-4) are not remotely signed up to the agenda, the UK government continues, pretty much unilaterally, to press ahead with its “net zero” agenda, to the significant disadvantage of the country vis-a-vis the rest of the world. This is probably the key difference between Glasgow and Geneva. In the 1930s it eventually dawned even on a Government stacked full of nonentities and weak thinkers that the game was up and there was no point – indeed that it would be dangerous and reckless – to press on unilaterally with disarmament. In 2021 it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone within a government stacked full of nonentities and weak thinkers that the game is up and that pressing forward pretty much unilaterally with “net zero” is dangerous and reckless. A power crisis in the early winter of 2021/22, showing the jeopardy and futility of over-reliance on electricity, hasn’t registered with them. Worse still, perhaps, none of this has registered with opposition politicians either, whose sole criticism is that the Government isn’t taking the country over the edge of the energy cliff with sufficient speed.

In 1934 the Disarmament Conference ended in failure. It was desperately sad, and as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, humankind was already rushing towards world war. But there was nothing that could have been done to prevent it, certainly not by way of unilateral arms reduction on the part of the western democracies.

In 2021 we endured yet another COP – the 26th – but still greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow relentlessly. Undaunted, the powers that be have already lined up COPs 27 and 28. I don’t know whether Einstein really did say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but whoever said it, somebody at the United Nations, and within the UK government, needs to ponder on the gritty reality of that observation. It’s time for western leaders to wake up to reality.

11 Comments

  1. There’s no better funeral oration on COP26 than this film by Franny (“Splattergate”) Armstrong, starring George Monbiot and Ed Miliband as parodies of themselves.

    George’s opinion that the whole exercise was a pointless waste of time is very close to ours. The film is actually very funny.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark,

    A similar thought had occurred to me. A government that is adamant that unilateral nuclear disarmament makes no sense sees nothing wrong with unilateral economic disarmament. Even more puzzling, no one seems to be calling them out over this inconsistency. The moral argument for showing by example should apply across the board. I can only assume that they genuinely do not see the abandonment of a full range of energy production options as a disadvantage.

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  3. Apologies for going down market at the end of an interesting post but I’ve long been amused by the fact that Londonderry’s nickname in political circles was, due to his continued prominence, his role in the Anglo-German Fellowship and his anti-Semitism, “The Londonderry Herr”.

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  4. the UK government continues, pretty much unilaterally, to press ahead with its “net zero” agenda, to the significant disadvantage of the country vis-a-vis the rest of the world

    So why is this? What politically is driving the UK government on this crazy course. Here in Canada we have a PM who is a master at virtue signalling but fortunately he is pragmatic. When Kinder Morgan decided to cancel the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion Trudeau just bought the whole thing so it would guarantee the expansion going ahead. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the greens of course. Once completed the Federal Government will sell it back to the private sector and all the economic analyses I have seen predicts a profit.

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  5. John, I’m glad that you agreed with my analysis. No modern politician in the UK (other than, perhaps, a few Corbynistas) would contemplate unilaterally ditching nuclear weapons on the grounds that we need to set an example, and that once we’ve done so, others will inevitably follow our shining example, rather than take advantage of our weakness. And yet that’s exactly what they do and so when it comes to “net zero”.

    Which rather leads in to potentilla’s point – why are UK politicians behaving like this, when others around the world don’t? I honestly don’t know. And I worry that our “net zero” government is actually the most moderate in this regard of our main political parties. As I’ve argued here before (e.g. in Net Zero Democracy) this erodes the very basis of Parliamentary democracy in the UK.

    Ryelands – thanks for the “Londonderry Herr” note. I’d read that in Ian Kershaw’s book, and would have liked to use it in my article, but couldn’t work out how to introduce it, so I’m glad that you did.

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  6. I hadn’t seen that Kershaw had written this Mark. (I’ve read both his volumes on Hitler and The End: Germany, 1944-45, which tries to answer why ordinary Germans fought on to the bitter end for Hitler and the Nazis. A real and tragic mystery.)

    Wikipedia has the basics of the situation with Londonderry in 1940:

    After playing a marginal role in the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in 1940, he failed to win any favour from the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (his second cousin), who thought little of his talents.

    He does come up quite a lot in the Andrew Roberts biography of Churchill. Attlee attacked him for his stance against disarmament but the Labour guy was on the right side on the issue of anti-semitism. There’s a moving story where Churchill meets Attlee in a corridor in the Commons in the mid 30s and starts to weep as he tells him about the persecution of the Jews in Germany, a trait in the rebel Tory Attlee greatly admired.

    Anyhow, very interesting analogy to consider for climate appeasement (to the likes of XR) and unilateral disarmament. Thank you for raising it.

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  7. Mark: why are UK politicians behaving like this, when others around the world don’t? I honestly don’t know.

    How about a bit of speculation then. I’ll kick it off with a few ideas:

    1. It’s the Global Britain obsession. Having cut yourself adrift from your largest trading partner, the UK is floundering around for some (any!) sort of leadership role in the world. So how about going all-in with Net Zero that other countries are appearing to also support. Meanwhile the other countries look on with amusement quietly muttering ” Well we didn’t really mean it, and certainly not so quickly.” If you want to get to Net Zero, gradual transition is key.

    2. Manufacturing is on the decline in the UK particularly in the north. Why not solve all the problems with Building Back Green. Just declare Net Zero in an unrealistic timeframe and then the jobs will magically appear. Except the history of green jobs tells us they usually don’t. It’s a chimera. Forever a delusion on the horizon and you never quite get there.

    3. Boris likes simple ideas that appear to be policy especially if he can dress up and ham in front of the cameras. Unfortunately we didn’t see him locking himself to the pavement during COP26 but I’m sure he thought about it. Rapid Net Zero is a simple idea however impractical. Just like the bridge to Northern Ireland:

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/26/johnson-plan-irish-sea-bridge-tunnel-rejected-official-study-expensive

    Liked by 1 person

  8. potentilla:

    It’s the Global Britain obsession. Having cut yourself adrift from your largest trading partner, the UK is floundering around for some (any!) sort of leadership role in the world.

    I think this is a good explanation – though not a sufficient one – for what the UK *elite* is up to. However, with my Dominic Cummings hat on, the general public just isn’t hankering after a leadership role for the UK. (This is what all the polls Cummings and the Vote Leave team did said. People are not hankering after empire or something to replace it. We did want to ‘take back control’ and that was it. But the elite always had other ideas.)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Potentilla,

    The bridge to Northern Ireland is impractical, as is a rush to “net zero”. The difference is that the Government has worked out that the bridge to Northern Ireland is impractical and expensive, and has consequently abandoned it. As for the rush to “net zero”, we’re still waiting for that penny to drop:

    “Alok Sharma: UK must push forward on climate action like other countries”

    https://www.newsandstar.co.uk/news/national/19768456.alok-sharma-uk-must-push-forward-climate-action-like-countries/

    “The UK needs to push forward on delivering its climate goals just as it is asking other countries to do, Cop26 President Alok Sharma has said.

    The UN climate summit in Glasgow agreed a pact asking countries to accelerate action and come forward with more ambitious plans for emissions-cutting efforts up to 2030 to limit dangerous warming.

    In the wake of the summit, the independent advisory Climate Change Committee (CCC) urged the Government to focus on delivering on its delivering on its promises for emissions cuts in the next decade, for which it does not have all the policies in place, rather than increasing ambition.

    Speaking to MPs at a parliamentary hearing hosted by the Environmental Audit Committee, Mr Sharma said the CCC had recognised the UK’s 2030 plans – known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC) – were aligned to global goals to prevent the worst impacts of rising temperature.

    And they had recognised the Government’s net zero strategy, for cutting emissions to zero overall by 2050, set out before Cop26, was positive and an “international benchmark”, he said….”

    It doesn’t look as if the penny is going to drop any time soon.

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  10. potentilla:

    “1. It’s the Global Britain obsession. Having cut yourself adrift from your largest trading partner, the UK is floundering around for some (any!) sort of leadership role in the world. So how about going all-in with Net Zero that other countries are appearing to also support. ”

    Great Britain saw itself as a force for good in the world for a very long time before Brexit. However, Britain has been a much more open society than other countries which means that it is more susceptible to subversion than others.

    On top of that, we have a political class that is not technologically savvy. This has led to opportunities missed and less than optimum outcomes for many projects.

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  11. It just came up that at a party the BBC’s Lord Reith
    that the BBC would fly the swastika if a German minister was send over to be interviewed.
    I’m not reading too much into that.
    It was in a Telegraph article.

    Like

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