Thursday, 10 March 2011

Foresight saga

The Scots have a great saying, ‘the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley’. It's a quotation from Robert Burns. The last three words are completely incomprehensible and yet the overall meaning is obvious. I’ve often laid meticulously crafted plans that have gone agley (or should that be gong agley?)

A great example of the problem is provided by Philip II of Spain. He married devoutly Catholic Mary I of England and wasn’t a man to take his kingly duties lightly. During his time in England, he worked conscientiously on a number of projects to improve the state of the nation, in particular putting the navy on a new footing. Small but effective in the time of Henry VIII, it had declined worryingly since his death. Philip II reorganised it to make it a redoubtable weapon for the defence of the realm.

But then things went agley. Or perhaps I mean ugly. Or both.

Because in 1588, with Mary dead and England under the rule of her Protestant sister Elizabeth, Philip decided to invade the country and sent a fleet to carry the troops across the Channel. The Armada was catastrophically defeated and though the debacle owed a great deal to the weather – winds blowing the wrong way, that sort of thing – what made the conditions particularly difficult to contend with was persistent harassment by the more powerfully armed English warships. In other words, the Spanish took a battering from the very navy Philip had done so much to overhaul.

The Armada in trouble at the hands of the fleet that Philip built
Shame that Philip didn't enjoy better foresight, in 1554 when he’d been King of England.

Fortunately for his memory, he’s far from alone in having courted disaster in this way. Back in the fifties of the last century, bright minds in London and Washington, acting in the interests of oil companies (and isn’t that a refrain with a great tradition behind it?) decided to do away with the reforming Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. Enjoying the fruitful support of the Shah for the next 25 years, how could they guess that the reaction would lead to relations that have fallen a little short in the loyal cordiality department?

And again, it seemed a great idea to arm the Afghan Taliban when they were fighting the Soviet army in 1980s. Who could have foreseen that they might turn their guns against us later?

Oh, well. These things happen.

Why, they even happen to mice. According to the Scots.

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