This is an obvious war. (Photo by Mohammad Huwais/AFP/Getty)

January 13, 2024   5 mins

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Karl Marx observed. When it comes to British military adventurism in the Middle East, that certainly rings true.

The recent history of British interventions in the region certainly reads like a nightmarish cycle of folly: in Iraq and Syria and Libya and beyond. And yet the cyclical nature of our national life did not start spinning with Tony Blair. It was 1839 when the East India Company first took Aden in today’s Yemen as a British base to protect shipping from the pirates then operating in the Red Sea, disrupting our trade to India. Sometimes you have to wonder whether anything ever changes.

For almost 130 years, Britain kept this toehold on the Arabian peninsula, before being driven out, shamefacedly, by local guerillas in 1967. Within a few months of the so-called Aden Emergency,  Britain would abandon all of its bases east of Suez, the inevitable result of Harold Wilson’s devaluation of sterling the year before. And so went Britain as a global power, and the start of its journey into Europe and our shiny new future as a normal country. Or that was the plan anyway.

And yet, here we are again, out of Europe and using our military power against the tribes of Yemen to protect our commercial interests and those of the rest of the Western alliance. And not only that, but now with bases once again west of Suez, established in Oman and Bahrain during the reign of David Cameron.

Essentially, though, we never left — Britain is still flying sorties over Syria and Iraq from our sovereign base in Cyprus. And in the case of Yemen, as I reported yesterday, this is as obvious a war as you can get. If we can’t fight terrorists attacking our ships disrupting our economy, who can we fight? Unlike the first decade of the 2000s, when we were gripped by grand ideas of liberal interventionism, or the second, when we convinced ourselves humanitarian aid was “soft power” that actually worked, here is a straightforward conflict of interest conflict, in which our prosperity is being undermined by a ragtag band of Yemeni rebels using cheap drones to attack international container ships. If this isn’t what militaries are for, then what is?

This sort of intervention is the kind of thing we do. As one senior official told me, “it is in our DNA”; it is the tradition of our dead generations. Unlike most other European countries, Britain still (just about) has a military capable of taking part in such action and because we have it, we use it. We use it to project power and defend interests. We have the motive and the means to act.

And yet, this does not answer the question about why Britain should commit itself to having such a military force in the first place. What tangible benefit do we get from always being at the tip of the American spear in foreign policy? This was our position in Afghanistan and Iraq and it did us little good. It is the position we have taken up in support of Ukraine and it is now where we are in the fight to control the Houthis. But how do we benefit from being America’s most reliable military partner? Washington was little help during Brexit, bullied us into banning Huawei from any involvement in our critical infrastructure, and won’t even negotiate a trade deal. France and Germany, meanwhile, seem to thrive just as well without taking such risks supporting US hegemony. The Netherlands are now so small they barely have a foreign policy and yet they are far richer than us. What’s more, it’s not as if this intervention is without risk. From 2015 until very recently, a coalition of extraordinarily rich Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia spent $6 billion per month trying to defeat the Houthis — and failed. What makes us think we can do any better?


The great irony is that when Britain abandoned its military bases east of Suez in 1968, those who had been championing this policy believed it would put an end to the special relationship and usher in a new European era for us. Harold Wilson’s deputy George Brown, for example, had long concluded that Britain needed to devalue the pound and abandon any pretensions to global power if we were to modernise our economy as the Labour Party had promised in its election victories in 1964 and 1966. Talking to that great icon of the Labour Left, Barbara Castle, in 1966, Brown declared that Britain would have to reject any American financial incentives to maintain its global presence, cut the cord and join Europe. “We’ve got to turn down their money,” he declared, according to an account of the conversation in Ben Pimlott’s biography of Wilson. “Pull out the troops, all of them
 I want them out east of Suez. This is the decision we have got to make: break the commitment to America.”

At this point, remember, it was the Right, not the Left, leading the charge away from the United States. “Left versus Right had lost its old meaning,” Pimlott writes. “Anti-Americanism was a traditional Left-wing prejudice. Yet the former Leftist Wilson, in his bid to shore up the pound, had become an arch-supporter of the special relationship, against the frequently Right-wing devaluers.” Indeed, it would be Harold Wilson’s replacement as Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who would take this to its logical conclusion, becoming the first — and last — prime minister to conclude that Britain should actively reject the special relationship in order to build a new collective European approach to foreign affairs. At one summit in the US, Heath even declined a privileged briefing from the Americans because he did not want to undermine the collective European front with France and Germany that he was trying to build.

And yet, here we are, half a century on, and we’re back where we have always been, fighting alongside the United States, projecting our power, while the rest of Europe watches on, benefiting. You have to wonder whether this is sustainable, particularly as Britain’s economic challenges continue to mount — just like in 1967. In the end, a nation’s commitments cannot be greater than its capabilities for very long before something snaps.

In some senses, then, the fundamental question facing Britain never changes, much as the fundamental nature of our foreign interventions never seem to change. “Why Britain should want to keep a world role was a difficult question,” Pimlott writes of the British government’s challenge during the Sixties. “There was confusion about whether Britain wanted to continue to be some kind of world power for reasons of national prestige; or to provide a post-imperial sense of national purpose
 or simply to guarantee American financial support when the British economy got into difficulties.”

Today, unlike the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the question is not why we are bombing Yemen, because the answer is easy: because a militia is attacking our interests. The question this time is why we are playing such a disproportionate role when we are no longer disproportionately rich. Tradition is not a good enough answer.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.