Movements Without Strategists, And The Dissolution Of The British Empire

In The Anglo-American Establishment, Carroll Quigley presents a case study on the Milner Group, an association of British politicians and intellectuals that was more than a club and less than a political party. This case study illustrates a common phenomenon that limits the impact of competent, ambitious groups.

Quigley argues that the Milner Group played a decisive role in guiding the trajectory of the British Empire through the early and middle 20th century, especially the establishment of South Africa and the Empire’s later dissolution into the Commonwealth of Nations. However, his description presents an apparent contradiction. On the one hand, he paints the Milner Group as a driving force which shaped the path of British history for nearly a century, and enumerates many key events in which they played a major role. On the other hand, most of the individuals he describes seem unexceptional, and the events he chronicles (the consolidation of South Africa and the independence of South Africa and India) seem very similar to other events that were happening without the Milner Group’s influence (the consolidation of Australia and independence of Australia, Canada, and Ireland).

The Milner Group’s members are mostly people of solid but not remarkable competence. Most are politically adept, good at running projects, or both. They can do reasonably good work, but often need a lucky break or source of connections to attract the notice of an influential patron who dispenses appointments. They are held together by a combination of personal connections and ideological agreement, and ideological agreement is common enough that many people can be recruited this way. The visionary leaders, Alfred Milner and Lionel Curtis, advance a rather tepid vision that mixes federation and egalitarianism as the path to a flourishing civilization.

The group has some competent planners but no strategists worth the name. Quigley laments that their long-term plans suffered for lack of an economist; by this he seems to mean a person with a comprehensive theoretical understanding of how societies function and change. Without such a person, it’s impossible to take a strategic approach to the sort of global statesmanship and memetic engineering that the Milner Group engaged in.

From this and the apparent counterfactual inevitability of the Group’s accomplishments, I believe that the Milner Group was a moderately competent group whose objectives were downstream of broader memetic trends and power dynamics. They were reasonably good at accomplishing the goals they set, but had they not done so, someone else would have tried to accomplish similar goals at a similar time, and probably succeeded (although likely not so well or so quickly). This explains why they had such an easy time finding ideologically sympathetic recruits, why the rather unremarkable visions of Milner and Curtis were sufficient to inspire them, and why they had little trouble with defection despite the lack of formal oversight.

Thus, while it’s true that the Milner Group was involved in historically significant events, their counterfactual impact was modest. They likely determined the particular clauses in the Constitutions they wrote and the precise place that various borders were drawn, but it’s unlikely that they affected major trends.

Comparisons to contemporary groups are left as an exercise for the reader.