VERY PRACTICAL POLITICS
Late in the morning of 16 December 1915, a promising young politician named Sir Mark Sykes hurried into Downing Street for a meeting. The prime minister had summoned the thirty-six-year-old baronet to advise him and his war cabinet on how they might resolve a row about the future of the Ottoman Empire that looked as if it could tear Britain’s fragile alliance with France apart. ‘By extraordinary luck,’ Sykes put it afterwards, ‘I was allowed to make a statement to the war council.’ What he said was to shape the modern Middle East.
Sykes’s surprise at being called to Number 10 was genuine, for he had managed to carve himself a role as the government’s chief adviser on Middle Eastern matters in the space of just four years. Elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for the Yorkshire port of Hull in 1911, he staked his claim to be an expert on the Ottoman Empire in his maiden speech. In it he described a recent visit to North Africa, then still in Ottoman hands, and declared that he believed ‘a strong and united Turkish Empire’ was ‘as important to English commerce and strategy now’ as it had been in Disraeli’s time, thirty years before. But when war broke out in 1914, the Ottomans had joined Germany to fight Britain and France, and Sykes had been forced to change his mind.
To the meeting with the war council Sykes brought a map and a three-page précis of what he was about to say. This document survives among the paperwork he left when, three years later, he died from influenza at the age of just thirty-nine. His distinctive, muscular but juvenile handwriting gives it the look of a schoolboy’s last-minute revision notes, but it was by far the most significant thing he ever wrote. For the tour d’horizon it sketched helped him convince the cabinet that they must urgently reach agreement with France on how they should divide the Ottoman Empire between them, and that he was the man to mastermind that deal.
‘He is certainly a very capable fellow, with plenty of ideas, but at the same time painstaking and careful,’ one minister reported afterwards of Sykes. But in truth the genial MP was less expert on his subject than he led the cabinet to believe. Sykes’s reputation as an authority on the Middle East rested on a series of books that he had written on the region, the latest being a two-inch-thick tome that he had published earlier that year. The Caliphs’ Last Heritage was part history of the rise of Islam as a political force, part dyspeptic diary of his pre-war travels through the Ottoman Empire. Spiced with Arabic phrases and comical dialogue, the book implied a deeper understanding than its author truly had. Sykes did not try to puncture that illusion. That day he left the prime minister and his colleagues under the impression that he was fluent in both Arabic and Turkish. In fact he could speak neither.
© James Barr 2013