So a number of people learned a number of lessons. One, the United States learned it wasn’t yet a global military power. Two, a young Canada learned it was able to defend its territory if it absolutely had to. Three, the British learned that while they were able to throttle a nascent United States, there was enough muscle there and potential for them to be a bit more cautious in the meantime. And fences were repaired.
Of course, one of the great peaces that came out of this was not just the United States and Canada, but of course the United States and Great Britain. That was the last war we fought against the Americans. Although we fought many with them since.
I think commemoration is the right word. No one is celebrating enormous victory or punishing defeat. We are looking back on a conflict which is ill defined in some senses in its origin, inconclusive perhaps in its outcome but which led to rather better times in terms of alliances and cooperation that has lasted two centuries. And I think that is worth commemorating.
The Globe: Yes, how often do you imagine conflicts where the bitter memories haven’t in fact calcified and hardened and remembered as grievances? You certainly don’t have that here.
Pocock: Indeed of our closest relationships with the world are probably on this side of the Atlantic. At least historically. I mean we’re now of course part of Europe and have very close relationships there. But the memories of the 20th century as far as the United Kingdom is concerned will be memories of alliance and help from the United States, from Canada and of course the rest of the Commonwealth in two world wars.
The Globe: This government in particular is a big fan of history and wants to bring more traditional remembrances into the national identity but at the same time they have to be careful not to stir up anti-American sentiment, which of course is always a possible side effect of the commemorations.
Pocock: Anti-anybody sentiment would be a pity. I think this is a positive anniversary in many ways. It commemorates decent outcomes, perhaps more by luck initially than by judgment. But nonetheless, 200 years of peace and, bar the last few years, prosperity, is something well worth celebrating.
The Globe: Are Canadians justified in feeling they won the war?
Pocock: Yes. Well, I think from a Canadian point, if you judge the preservation of your territory and your identity and your political future, as a victory – and it would be hard to say it’s not – yes, Canada did well from the conflict. It held its line and its ground and it was then in a position to chart an independent political future, firstly under the aegis of its links to Britain, but then as the 19th century went on, through confederation up to the Conference of Westminster in 1930 which confirmed what was already, effectively, the case: That Canada was already an independent country within the Commonwealth. There are few straight lines in history but you can see the evolution of Canada into the great dominion and then an independent country as flowing at least in parts from events surrounding the 1812 war.
The Globe: How significant was the British role in this war?
Pocock: I think British regular forces, be they military or naval, had they not been there, I think it would have been difficult for Canadian militia to have resisted. Not that the American attacks in 1812 were particularly well co-ordinated. But over time, I think the sheer weight of population ... in fact such was the weight of population that President [Thomas]Jefferson said winning the war would be just a matter of marching – a quote that’s been used against him ever since. But I think that was certainly the American perception, that it would be relatively straightforward given the population difference.