Naval Intelligence lacked the imagination, too, to see that the battleship was not the ne plus ultra of maritime fighting power – it was superseded by aircraft over the high seas, and submarines beneath them. The decision, in 1918, to split the air force into the RAF and the Royal Naval Air Force meant that, when the RAF were bombing Germany, they had no time to repair a 300 mile vacuum where no aerial cover could be given to the convoys.
Barnett’s book is a thundering good read, of course – but the fascination is in the unannounced significance of the pivotal decisions. They almost never looked important – we signed away alliances with the two powers which could have preserved the strategic gameplan. The RAF bombed Germany to show Uncle Joe Stalin that we were doing what we could to help. The County-class cruisers sat high in the water, silhouetted against a skyline in battle, because the Labour government, when the rules were laid down in 1929, thought that no able-seaman should have to stoop on deck.
We have no more idea than they did as to which ones are sound and fury, and which ones simply sound.
The decisions today are as impossible to assess as they were then – and, of course, we have no more idea than they did as to which ones are sound and fury, and which ones simply sound. Is China imploding a big worry? Or is it not imploding a greater worry? Can England survive a break-up with Scotland, or is it a good thing? What about the EU?
Wisdom looks under the stones, and at the precedents. It wonders about the amalgam, in Edward Wilson’s words, of “stone-age emotions, medieval institutions and God- like technology.”
The knowledgeable are boned up on the set speeches of the central bankers, the presidential addresses, the PMI figures (if you don’t know what they are, you might, in the twilight, be mistaken for wise). My money is on the dipsomaniac barrister F E Smith, whose arguments to Lord Justice Darling failed to impress. “Mr Smith, having listened to your views, I am none the wiser.” “No, my Lord, but better informed.”