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New Left Review I/134, July-August 1982


ANTHONY BARNETT

IRON BRITANNIA

i. glare of war

When history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy, the second farce. Despite its Marxist origin, the aphorism is now a received wisdom. Perhaps that alone is good reason to abandon the idea. Certainly we have gone beyond it. The British recapture of the Falkland Islands was obviously a repeat performance, although there is argument over precisely what was taking place again. It reminded some of the original eviction of Argentina by an English fleet in 1833, while Trevor-Roper compared it to the even earlier confrontation with Spain over the islands in 1770. The most apt and widely drawn comparison, however, has been with the Suez crisis of 1956. Indeed, when the British Parliament gathered on 3 April 1982 for a special Saturday debate on Argentina’s invasion, readers of that morning’s Times were told: ‘The emergency sitting of the Commons will be the first on a Saturday since 3 November 1956, over Suez.’ Yet the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Egypt was itself a clownish attempt by the two European powers to recreate their colonial domination over the Suez Canal. Today, therefore, British history has entered a new stage. We are witnesses to the repeat of a repeat, and as befits the late modern world it was played out on television and in the press. If the first time is tragedy and the second farce, the third is spectacle: the media event that was launched when the British fleet set sail for the South Atlantic.

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Anthony Barnett, ‘Iron Britannia (Special Issue)’, NLR I/134: £3
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