Opinion

John Bird: World history is the list of things we didn’t mean to happen

All our current woes, including Trump, hail from the laws of unintended consequences

Yalta, 1945. Stalin looks convivial at times. At other times, like a small angry bear. Churchill looks pissed, as usual, although still as lucid as Stalin, who’s also a lifetime drinker and will probably die of it eight years hence. Roosevelt is wasting away with a disease called polio. But they are there, at Yalta, on the south coast of the Crimean Peninsula, to talk about something serious.

They are dividing the world into spheres of influence. Roughly, the east is given to Stalin and he will keep his nose out of the west, whilst Roosevelt, with concessions to Churchill, will keep the west and stay out of the east. The war will end soon and they are shaping a post-war vision of their empires. So instead of bumping into each other, annoying each other – and possibly fighting with each other, they will keep to their own backyards.

Alas, it’s not a very fine time for South America, still used as a playground and banana plantation for the US and where any manner of dirty tricks will be planned and played out. It’s also not very good for the East, with Uncle Joe controlling a vast array of (what he sees as) buffer states between himself and Europe. And Poland, Hungary, East Germany and the Balkans all fall into line as a form of devalued, exported Russian life.

The laws of unintended consequences soon break out. Workers in Germany in 1953 have to be crushed as they plan something more than being a satrap of the Soviets. Hungary starts taking the idea of self-determination and revolution along a not-very-pro-Soviet road, plus there’s the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Later, in Cuba, 90 miles from the US mainland, a group of guerrillas overwhelm (with covert American help) the rotten government of gambling dens and gangsterism of Batista in 1959. But that soon goes belly-up when America
realises that, at best, they have turned a blind eye to a bit of Soviet power near their coastline, but – much worse – the CIA actually helped it into being.

Vietnam kicks off soon after and the US and the Soviet systems fight a kind of proxy war with China acting as broker.

So the peace breaks down, and surrogates war amongst each other.

Come forward 50 years, and you have a bankrupt former Soviet Union being picked over by oligarchs and Wall Street investors. And then, as sure as eggs is eggs, there will either be a complete collapse, or some strong man, getting stronger will remember the 28 million Russians who died to kill off Nazism. And then hand Europe its greatest period of peace and prosperity for many a long year, including the space to build a European Community, with the aid of US finance and the blessing of Britain and her sacrifices.

All our current woes, including Trump, hail from the laws of unintended consequences

London is turned into one of the largest clearing houses for the exported wealth of former-USSR wealth, and the laws of unintended consequences rear their ugly head again. We allow Russian wealth to become a part of our functioning economy as we move into the front line. We are vulnerable because the big man over there has his own agenda and really does not care much for the niceties of old.

All unintended consequences, all results of not wanting something to happen – but, because we allow something ‘else’ to happen – we then end up with a new unintended happening.

Most of world history is the result of things we didn’t intend. I was reminded of this the other day when I met a prominent Conservative (with a capital ‘C’) who I reminded that it was Thatcher who revolutionised the welfare state by breaking much of it from being ‘contributory’ to ‘non-contributory’.

Though he could quote chapter and verse about how she did so much to create social mobility in the UK, and so she did, the unintended laws arose when – by closing so many industries, and by removing subsidies – she allowed hundreds and thousands of people to move into social security; a place where many have been embedded ever since. That social security was not used as social opportunity, as it should have been, but instead its exact opposite. Just enough to eke a living on.

If we wish for a better world, we may have to grow up as thinkers and start placing people in power who know more about what needs mending than what’s in front of them.

All our current woes, including Trump, hail from the laws of unintended consequences. It is impossible to imagine that by voting to bring in the softly spoken, softly acting Barack Obama, the unintended laws produced a complete opposite in the form of Donald J Trump. Obama left many people feeling that the US had gone too soft. And there were enough angry Americans used to almost 100 years of ‘top dog’ who didn’t buy into all that kindly stuff. Make America Great Again was the unifying slogan that was the result of Obama’s sotto voce, withdrawing manner.

We have inherited Putin and Trump. And now we may have to box cleverer to see how we get out of this  unintended straitjacket. I don’t imagine Churchill, or any of the leaders of the past, intended us to be fair game to nerve
gas carriers.

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