Unfinest Hour: How Britain Helped to Destroy Bosnia
Brendan Simms
London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 2001.
£18.99, 496 pages, ISBN 0713994258.

Joseph Pearson

Brendan Simms’s stunning book, Unfinest Hour, is an aggressive polemic on why the British failed to save Bosnia from four nightmare years of war. Those who agree with Dr. Simms will love his book. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t: it’s witty, well-argued, immaculately researched. Dissenters, however, are likely to get very angry indeed. One review in The Economist was particularly ad hominem, comparing Dr. Simms to a spoiled schoolchild throwing an ink-pot against a wall. Reactionary criticism is nothing new from The Economist, a bastion of conservative opinion and slow-change in a conservative slow-changing Queendom. But a vicious attack against a fellow conservative merits close attention: for this Cambridge don is an insider, a former Tory and member of the Conservative think tank the Bow Group. And he understands exactly who is responsible for the Bosnian debacle.

Today, most of us are aware of the damage inflicted on the peoples of Bosnia both by Milosevic’s Serbia and the International Community. The misery can be measured in superlatives: Modern Europe’s longest siege (Sarajevo), its worst war crime since Shoah (Srebrenica), Europe’s largest migration of people since World War Two. It is true that spectators are now increasingly hesitant to divvy out an equal share of guilt to each of the Balkan participants: Serbia’s primary role is being understood. But until Unfinest Hour, the British government has largely escaped the level of criticism levied at Milosevic's regime or the United Nations.

Simms is not afraid to name those who were at the heart of this world of moral failure, corruption and lack of political will. Sir Michael Rose, the British chief of UN peacekeeping in Bosnia, appears on the book’s cover merrily intoxicating himself with Radko Mladic, the war criminal responsible for the Srebrenica massacre. Rose’s refusals to support military involvement are peppered with deliciously awful racial slurs against the Bosnian Muslims who apparently (according to Rose) are unable to appreciate the ‘Christian sentiments’ of Mozart. Likewise, critics in the press such as the pseudo-historian Misha Glenny are demolished for their false clairvoyance and factual inaccuracies.

Simms uses the marvellous phrase ‘conservative pessimism’ as an umbrella to describe the Tories’ position against intervention. Exaggerating the military power of the Serbs and the risks of ground war, figures like Douglas Hurd accepted ethnic cleansing as a reality in a conflict where all sides were regarded as equally guilty. But, as Simms shows, this pessimism was not merely a passive sentiment that coloured British policy. It was an active and pernicious policy. As the Polish Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, stated, ‘Any time there was a likelihood of effective action, [Douglas Hurd] intervened to prevent it’. Many elements explain the origins of ‘conservative pessimism’ and Dr. Simms documents their functions immaculately: Serbophilia in the Commons, an obsession with World War Two and anti-Croatian rabble rousing, the twisting of politically-correct language to argue against the ‘imperialism’ of military intervention, financial intrigues with Serbian companies… Imagine what the archives will reveal once documents are declassified!

Most critics who loathe this book fault it for not taking both sides. That is not what Dr. Simms set out to do. His work is a polemic. And within this aim, he provides hugely convincing evidence. Once Britain made a moral commitment to be involved in the Balkans, it did more than fail. It made things worse –so much so that, as Simms explains, the Bosnians ‘frustrated… with British policy and with her vigorous maintenance of the arms embargo against the legitimate government in Sarajevo… threatened to charge Britain before the International Court of Justice as an accomplice to genocide. A letter to that effect was sent to the Security Council in 1993.’ An entire government in the Netherlands recently resigned over a report on the conduct of their soldiers in Srebrenica. Dr. Simms’s book is the equivalent indictment of the much sorrier and corrosive effects of the John Major government. Now if he would only write a book about France!