If you are going on holiday to Minorca for your holidays this summer
August 10, 2015
Please try and spare a thought for poor Admiral John Byng – and also the 18th century French author, Voltaire.
But back to Byng.
He is best known for his loss of Minorca to the French at the start of the Seven Years War in 1756. Or rather he is best known for the consequences of losing Minorca to the French. He was court martialled and shot.
Now this does seem somewhat harsh to our sensibilities. And even more so when we realise that part of the reason for his failing to re-take Minorca was because of the poor state of repair and preparedness of his forces. Which was not the fault of poor Admiral Byng, but rather the cumulative result of a lack of investment (austerity measures anyone?) by the British Admiralty in its forces and seafaring capability.
Now, I have to declare an interest here. A very good friend of mine is a descendant of the unfortunate Admiral. However he has had no editorial input into this blog (and, to be honest, I think that the family have long since ‘got over’ their sense of injustice).
The Admiral was a scapegoat. The loss of Minorca had to be framed as the direct result of his lack of valour or, to re-phrase slightly, his own moral failings. Otherwise the Admiralty and a whole host of other ‘important people’ in the British establishment (extending, potentially, even as far as King George II) could have looked very foolish.
All of this was not lost on commentators at the time; which brings us to Voltaire, One of his most famous books is the satire, Candide. Written over the last 6 months of 1758 it was published , anonymously, in 1759. It was a scathing attack on the the established institutions of power, the Church and the State, in France; and other places. The eponymous hero of the book is wide eyed and naive – which allows him to ask the sort of obvious questions which elegantly puncture the received wisdom of the day.
Candide lands in England and witnesses the execution of Admiral Byng – and is puzzled as to why this would happen. But his traveling companion says that this is because the good Admiral failed to get near enough to his French opponent’s fleet; to which Candid makes the observation that also means that the French admiral must have been just as far away as Byng…
Anyway, his friend continues, in this country (ie England) it is normal to kill and Admiral now and again (it wasn’t in actual fact) “…pour encourager les autres…” – to encourage the others…
I was reminded of this episode when considering the recent ‘deal’ between Greece and the creditor organisations of the EU, ECB and IMF (collectively known as Germany…).
Many commentators believe that the deal has simply delayed the inevitable – a Greek exit.
Many, but not all. Anatole Kaletsky takes a different tack; in fact a radically different one. Yes, he agrees that the German position was intransigent, and characterised by a “…pointless vindictiveness…” towards Greece. And, to be fair to Kaletsky’s analysis he also makes the point that Greece itself is not without some sin.
But he implies that there may have been a logic to this harsh treatment of Greece which Candide’s friend would have instantly recognised. The ‘troika’ needed to adopt an unflinching ‘tough love’ stance because the audience it believed that it was playing to was not sat in Athens or Berlin – it was across all of Europe.
Now that it has re-established its supremacy over Greece (and has been clearly seen to have done so) it can afford to be more ‘flexible’ and ‘lenient’ with Greece over the coming months and years – as long as Greece is seen to fulfill its part of the bargain and ‘reform’ its political economy.
Well, time will tell. Kalestky acknowledges that his view does not represent ‘received economic wisdom’ – but rightly points out that the idea of ‘received economic wisdom’ is a highly tarnished concept given that such wisdom helped get us (Britain, Europe, the West…..and now, somewhat more worryingly, also China…) into the economic mess from which we are only now slowly emerging.
It’s not the dull science anymore, is it?