The United Kingdom was born in war. The War of the Spanish Succession was already raging between England and France, as they fought to exert their influence on an ailing Spain. The Union of 1707 brought Scotland into the conflict too.
The wars have continued pretty much ever since. In the 300 odd years since 1707 the United Kingdom has been involved in wars in 171 different countries. It’s easier to list the years in which the UK was not fighting a war than to list the wars, conflicts, or ‘police actions’ themselves. They were for the most part wars of British colonialism and exploitation, wars of British political chancers and opportunists. Wars that were not in a noble cause.
Instead of the customary approach of historians and naming the wars, perhaps we should name the periods of peace instead. They’re the exception to the rule of war. So here, culled from that fount of human knowledge, Wikipedia, are the periods from its foundation in 1707 when the UK enjoyed peace.
1725-1740, 1754-1756, 1769-1774, 1784-1789, 1861-1863, 1874-1877, 1881-1884, 1888-1896, 1896-1899, 1904-1914, 1923-1936
And that’s it. They total just 62 years out of the 306 years since the Union of 1707. I’m not entirely sure what the UK spends its £42.2 billion annual defence budget on, but if it’s being spent to bring us peace it’s proving to be spectacularly poor value for money.
1936 was the last year in which British armed forces were not involved in some war. 1936, when Edward VIII the Nazi sympathising monarch was briefly on the throne before he was forced to abdicate because he married a divorcee, and not because he was a Nazi sympathiser. It was another age.
By way of comparison, there’s a small northern European country with a population of 5 million. Denmark has had its share of self-inflicted wars, and its attempts at naked colonialist aggression. Over the centuries it’s been involved in any number of spats with its neighbours. In more recent years it has participated in the First Gulf War and in the war in Afghanistan. It’s not like small nations are intrinsically more inclined to pacifism than large ones.
How successful has its defence policy been at preserving peace for the Danish nation over the same period? Here’s the years of peacetime for Denmark, when the country wasn’t involved in any military action.
1720-1788, 1790-1800, 1814-1848, 1850-1864, 1864-1902, 1903-1918, 1920-1939, 1945-1950, 1953-1990, 1999-2002
Denmark has been peaceful for 239 out of the past 306 years, considerably more than the 62 managed by the United Kingdom.
Someone very close to me fought in two of the UK’s less glorious wars as a sniper in the Royal Marines. He never speaks about what he endured and what he witnessed. He saw active service in Suez and Cyprus. He saw his friends die. He killed people. And they gave him medals that live in a drawer, gathering dust.
I asked him once why he never wore a poppy, and he said that while he’ll never forget those who died, he’ll also never forget that they had been sent into places where they had no business being, and had to do things no human should have the right to tell another to do. He can never forget that those who suffer most in wars are not those who fight them. He forgets about his medals, they’re not important.
He stopped wearing a poppy in the early 1980s, in the aftermath of the Falklands War, when he noticed it had become obligatory for politicians and media presenters to wear one. The same politicians whose failures require young men and women to go off and die and get maimed. The same politicians who are eager to get involved in any war that’s going and the press which acts as their cheerleaders.
He said he felt that poppies and remembrance were being used as a sop to justify sending more young generations off to war. He vowed to stop wearing one until the UK was no longer involved in any military action, because you can only truly honour the sacrifice of those who fought in Britain’s many wars in a time of peace. It has been 30 years since he made that decision, he hasn’t worn a poppy since.
The sniper from the Royal Marines is my partner. He’s English, he’s gay, and if you believed certain people who campaign for a No vote, he represents two stereotypes rolled into one who shouldn’t be welcome here. But he is welcome, and he feels welcomed, and he intends to vote Yes next year.
Scotland isn’t a place he’s been sent to where he has no business being, it’s his home. And he’d like to live in a country where the periods of peace outnumber and outweigh the periods of war. Then he can wear a poppy again with a quiet pride.