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.
4 thoughts on “Movements Without Strategists, And The Dissolution Of The British Empire”
What do you think Quigley believed, that you don’t believe, that accounts for the disagreement with his read?
I don’t believe we disagree. I think Quigley would have agreed with my interpretation, at least in private. I certainly agree with his.
Mostly I’m drawing out conclusions that Quigley left unstated for political and interpersonal reasons. He wouldn’t have written anything this direct in public, where it would be read by members and heirs of the Milner Group, many of whom he befriended in the course of his research. At several points in the book, he’s at pains to emphasize how he admires the intentions of the Milner Group even as he disagrees with their approach, and has the greatest respect for their efforts, etc. I’m writing about history rather than current events, so I can be more direct.
There is also some difference in the emphasis of our thought which comes from the different relative priority that we put on understanding vs action. e.g., this is why I focus on the “strategist” nature of the person-with-sufficient-sociological-understanding concept, while Quigley focuses on its “economist” nature.
Influential groups without strategic leadership seem like something that might attract a strategist, or at the very least be folded into the plans of one. Was there a dearth of strategists in the era, were they somehow obstinately blocked from incorporating one, or some other explanation for not finding or being found by one?
The Milner Group traces its origins to Cecil Rhodes, a strategist if ever there was one, but he died before they really got going. By WWII, the Milner Group seems like it’s being used as a pawn by various British statesmen; however, it’s pretty clearly in decline by that point. More interesting is the period when the Milner Group was at its height, from somewhat before WWI to somewhat before WWII.
This is where Quigley’s telling gets especially tricky. I suspect the Milner Group was partially coopted by an outside strategist who could interface with their ideology but did not share it, and that Quigley chose not to specify this clearly for roughly the same reasons that I don’t like to specify contemporary cases of this phenomenon. The book is called “The Anglo-American Establishment”, but there’s almost no mention of Americans at all, just a few vague references to American financiers and the J. P. Morgan company. (Quigley was American himself.) This would be the first place I’d look for a strategist.