Niall Ferguson: Iran targeted the Security Council's weakest link: us





[Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University]

Let that be a lesson. Even before Britain's politicians and churchmen had finished saying sorry for slavery last Sunday, 15 Britons found themselves temporarily enslaved by the Iranian government. When will our masters ever learn that, in international relations, nice guys finish last?

This is indeed what comes of being too nice. A month before expressing his "deep sorrow and regret for our nation's role in the slave trade", Mr Blair had announced his intention to reduce British troop levels in Iraq by 1,600 within a matter of months. "The next chapter in Basra's history," he declared, "can be written by Iraqis." Unfortunately, it looks more likely to be written by Iranians. And somehow I don't think they'll be saying sorry afterwards.

Until this crisis, Iran had been on the diplomatic rack. Last weekend, the United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions to punish the regime in Teheran for continuing with its nuclear programme. This reflected growing impatience, even on the part of hitherto indulgent Russia, with the Iranians' persistent defiance. But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, is never to be underestimated. To regain the diplomatic initiative, he targeted the weakest link on the Security Council. This turns out to be us....

We have been here before, of course. But I do not mean in 2004, when the Iranians briefly incarcerated eight Royal Marines who had strayed into their waters. Nor am I thinking back to 1990, when Saddam Hussein detained 500 British civilians; nor even to 1979, when 66 Americans were held hostage in Teheran by militant Iranian students. I am casting my mind back much further, to the days when the idea of captivity in distant lands loomed much larger in our national consciousness.

Englishwomen in bondage play a central role in Linda Colley's recent masterpiece Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850 (Jonathan Cape, 2002). As Colley points out, it was not only Africans who were enslaved in the 17th and 18th centuries. Tens of thousands of Britons shared their fate if they fell into the hands of the so-called "Barbary Corsairs", the Moroccan and Algerian raiders who infested the Western Mediterranean. The Faye Turney of 1756 was Elizabeth Marsh, seized off the Moroccan coast and subjected, by her own account, to the amorous attentions of the future Sultan Sidi Muhammad. (Incidentally, when is the King of Morocco going to apologise for this?)

Thousands of British settlers in North America also ended up as captives of hostile Indian tribes, like Susanna Johnson of New Hampshire, kidnapped by Abenaki warriors while heavily pregnant in 1754. There were almost as many cases in India, too; often the wives of soldiers, like Sarah Shade, who was imprisoned in the early 1780s by Haidar Ali, ruler of Mysore.

In those days there was little hope of rescue. Britain's armed forces were far too thinly stretched over her rapidly expanding empire for Rambo-style missions to liberate scattered slaves and PoWs. The most the Barbary slaves could hope for was to be ransomed, to which end collections were regularly made in British churches.

It is in this light that we need to understand James Thomson's immortal lines: "Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves: Britons never shall be slaves." When first set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740 (after which, as if for emphasis, "never" became "never-never-NEver"), this was a forward-looking injunction to Britain's rulers to go ahead and rule the waves, precisely so that Britons would no longer run the risk of being enslaved.

Only gradually, in the period of British imperialism not covered by Colley's book, did the British acquire that kind of power: not necessarily the power to prevent Britons ever being taken captive, but the power to inflict disproportionate retaliation when they were. (And also, let us not forget, the power to abolish the Atlantic slave trade. Had it not been for the policing efforts of the Royal Navy, the legislation passed 200 years ago would have been ineffectual.)...

An illustration of just how far the Victorians were prepared to go came in 1866, when the Emperor of Abyssinia made the mistake of rounding up the Europeans in his realm and marching them to his mountain fastness at Magdala. In due course, General Sir Robert Napier led an expeditionary force of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers all the way from Bombay to Magdala, where the Abyssinian forces were put to the sword and the captives released.

Nemo me impune lacessit was the ancient motto of the Scottish crown and remains the motto of the Scots Guards: "Wha daur meddle wi me?" in old Scots or, if you prefer modern English: "No one messes with me and gets away with it." In effect, that became the motto of the entire Victorian Empire.

I suppose a remnant of that spirit survived into the 1980s. There was certainly something distinctly Victorian about the Falklands expedition: the scale of the venture, the distance covered and the relatively small number of Britons to be rescued. Yet today, 25 years on, we live in a different world. We could not re-fight the Falklands War if Argentina invaded the islands tomorrow. Nor can we send a raiding party to punish the Iranian government today. If military action is going to be taken against Iran this year, it will not be initiated by Britain, but by the United States. And, to judge by Faye Turney's conspicuous absence from the front pages of the American papers, a British hostage crisis won't be the casus belli.

Which means that we fall back on the tried and tested options of the pre-Victorian Empire. Our captives can either be left to languish, or their freedom can be bought. But what might be the price of saving Seaman Turney? A free pass for the Iranian nuclear programme? Or maybe just an Iranian-controlled Basra?...

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