Everyone knows that over the past century Britain has declined as a great power. But Correlli Barnett is one of the very few historians with a compelling, personal vision of the reasons why. Most of us assume that in a general way the process was inevitable, since the Empire was too big, and the economy too small, to sustain the role of a great power in the 20th century. Barnett, however, believes the decline could have been arrested or even reversed but for the peculiar decadence and irresponsibility of the British governing class.
His latest book, a swingeing attack on the social and economic policies of the Churchill coalition from 1940 to 1945, is best understood as Part Two of the Barnett Report on What’s Wrong with Britain. In Part One, The Collapse of British Power, published in 1972, he traced the imperial, military and diplomatic descent of this country from the Victorian era to the defeat of France in 1940. It was no accident, Barnett argued, that British governments made so many disastrous mistakes, culminating in the ill-starred policy of fair play for Hitler. There was a fundamental cause in the cultural history of the élite: the triumph of Victorian values.
According to Barnett, the rot set in with Evangelical Christianity and the Romantic Revolt. The 18th-century ruling class had been hard-headed realists, competing with a will in the world-wide struggle for trade and colonies. But the moral revolution of the early 19th century gradually divorced the governing class from realpolitik and immersed them in a dream world of philanthropy and humanitarianism. Victorian values, the opium of the bourgeoisie, were instilled by the public schools, whence generations of idealistic young men emerged in a state of permanently arrested development, their minds befuddled by cricket, Christianity and the Classics. Incapable of grasping the base motivation of the rest of the human race – the French, for example – they were no less ignorant of industry, science and technology, the foundations of Britain’s military and economic strength. The governing class were, in short, unfit to govern. Instead of organising the resources of the Empire in the national interest, they ran it as a branch of Toynbee Hall. Instead of adapting the educational system to fit the requirements of a nation competing for markets, they indulged in the fraudulent exercise, much trumpeted by Classics dons, of liberal humanism for the masses.
Part One of the Barnett Report dealt with the illusions of external policy, and ended with Churchill handing over the title-deeds of Empire to Roosevelt under the impression that Americans were allies. In The Audit of War Barnett’s critique of the British Establishment is unchanged, but this time he applies it to the management of the British war economy from 1939 to 1945. He has written a provocative and important book that will shift the terms of historical debate: but I doubt if he proves his case.
The book opens with a startling and paradoxical thesis. The long post-war industrial decline of Britain can be attributed, according to Barnett, to the events of the war years. Although the demands of war production revealed appalling deficiencies in industry, these were concealed behind the façade of victory. The Establishment mind, confronted with a choice between the dictates of realism and the temptations of romance, opted once more for romance. Instead of facing the facts and planning ahead for the Cruel Real World (as a Treasury minute put it in 1944), the élite ran after the Brave New World promised by the Beveridge Report. But this, of course, proved to be illusory: having added one more burden to the sinking ship of industry, the Brave New World was fated to go down with it: a dream, so Barnett writes, ‘turned to the dank reality of a segregated, subliterate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalised proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism’.
The inefficiency of key wartime industries like coal, or aircraft production, has been well documented in the past. But in Barnett’s hands the issue takes on a head of steam it never had before. From the files of the production departments he has compiled a dossier crammed with damning evidence of the British Disease. Here are tanks that boiled their crews like lobsters, forgotten fighters and bombers that posed no threat to the enemy but terrified the RAF, unions whose restrictive practices impeded war production, managers who muddled through in ignorance of modern business methods, and industries starved of skilled and scientific manpower. No wonder British industry suffered from low productivity, and was already dependent upon imports for the most advanced technology in electronics and engineering. Surveying the prospects for post-war exports, the Board of Trade had good reason to fear the revival of competition from Germany and Japan.
On the basis of this evidence, Barnett attempts to pin the responsibility for the postwar decline of British industry on the Coalition Government. Whitehall, he points out, was fully aware of the ‘audit of war’, and ought therefore to have given first priority in post-war planning to the re-equipment and re-organisation of industry. Instead of which the Government succumbed to the campaign for a New Jerusalem, and the national income was mortgaged for decades ahead to pay for the new Leviathan of welfare.
And so to the Addison Report on What’s Wrong with Barnett. In vivid chapters tracing the roots of wartime problems as far back as the 18th century, Barnett shows that the flaws in British industry were structural and originated in the Industrial Revolution itself. This was a Heath Robinson affair, with laissez-faire giving rise to a ramshackle form of capitalism swiftly overtaken by other countries. So much for self-help! From this angle, Barnett is no Thatcherite: he does not suppose that a return to laissez-faire in 1945 would have wrought an economic miracle. On the contrary, he believes the Churchill coalition ought to have developed a coherent industrial strategy.
But why single out the wartime coalition as uniquely responsible? The state has been heavily engaged in the regulation of industry ever since 1915, when Lloyd George set up the Ministry of Munitions. The facts about the relative industrial performance of Britain have been repeatedly demonstrated in every decade since then, but no government has managed to find the cure. Why, then, should the blame not fall equally on the Lloyd George coalition of 1918, the National Government of 1931, or the Wilson Government of 1964?
If governments were conscious of the problem but could not remedy it, there must have been some formidable obstacle in the way. In Barnett’s view, the prime obstacle was the enlightened Establishment with its anti-industrial values and romantic complacency. This is not very convincing. Several of the reports and inquiries on which Barnett’s book relies were themselves compiled by the Great and the Good. There is no reason whatever why a Classical education, a liberal conscience or a passion for the Lake poets should prevent intelligent men and women from reaching sensible conclusions about industry. The Liberal Industrial Inquiry of 1928, a body drawn from the progressive élite so despised by Barnett, produced a report that in many ways anticipates his own by more than half a century. Detachment has its advantages, and art graduates have never found it hard to string together an analysis of the problems of British industry, or to think up wheezes for modernising it: witness the leader columns of the Times at any period since the Boer War. If the cultural élite had ever been in a position to decide the issue, British industry would have risen from its sickbed long ago. But until recent years, industry has been the most conservative and intractable force in British society.
Since Edwardian times, the social services have been organised and run by the state. At a pinch, therefore, they can be reformed by the state through its own officials, though the exercise is never straightforward politically. But industry has been a self-governing and self-financing republic, with power shared between two entrenched oligarchies. Even when the state nationalises an industry, management and unions retain considerable autonomy. From 1914to 1979 British governments assumed, therefore, that industrial policy depended upon the co-operation of unions or management, or ideally of both.
The Second World War represented a high-water mark of corporatism, with industrialists and union leaders firmly established at the apex of power. Here, then, were the people best-informed about the audit of war. Here was an unparalleled opportunity for the productive classes to assert the primacy of industry by framing a long-term policy for the regeneration of manufacturing. But no such strategy emerged. As much of Barnett’s data goes to show, the ‘two sides of industry’ were highly resistant to innovation. Steeped in the customs of the trade, their ideal was business as usual. If there was a great opportunity missed, it was they who missed it.
Meanwhile the social reformers, or New Jerusalemers as Barnett prefers to call them, were busy converting the Government to the principles of the Beveridge Report. Barnett argues that the welfare state was a sentimental conception at odds with the hard facts of economic reality. It devoured resources that ought to have gone into the re-tooling of clapped-out assembly lines, or the research and development of new products. And but for the agitation of the ‘enlightened’ élite of half-baked liberals, the whole misguided project need never have occurred. For there was no spontaneous, popular demand until the propagandists got busy disseminating their fantasies among the war-weary people.
One might as well argue that there is never a spontaneous demand for wage increases: it is trade-union leaders who put the idea into people’s heads. One of the home truths of Thatcherism is that there are such things as economic imperatives and few will quarrel with Barnett’s contention that historians ought to read them into the record more often than they do. Much of the history of modern Britain has been written as though our forebears were travellers on a magic carpet, with nothing to do except debate the principles of democracy and social justice. But if an understanding of the past demands a recognition of economic imperatives, social imperatives cannot be left out. And there are times, as the Thatcher Government is belatedly discovering, when they force their way to the top of the political agenda.
One of the deeper factors at work in the making of wartime social policy was class conflict: muffled by patriotism and mediated by social reformers, but a restless presence at all times. Barnett recognises that class conflict was an important issue, but tries to fence it off from the welfare state. In a chapter on the human legacy of the Industrial Revolution, he bases himself on E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, the classic Marxist account of the origins of class conflict. The beating down of the labour force by callous entrepreneurs, the alienation of workers from capitalist enterprise, the physical stunting of the working class by malnutrition and slum housing, are all graphically depicted. The analysis is carried right through to the evacuation of lice-ridden, half-starved children from the slums in 1939. The chapters on wartime industry highlight the grumbling industrial discontent that produced so many lightning unofficial strikes. To assert, in the teeth of all this evidence, that the wartime demand for basic social and economic rights was all got up by a few woolly-minded idealists is to omit a more fundamental cause. War production depended upon the mobilisation of labour, and the Labour movement was determined to exact a price in the shape of a new social order. The demand for social change was every bit as real as the dilapidated state of British industry and, indeed, arose directly from it.
The 1945 model of the welfare state has been falling to pieces over the last few years and, as can be seen in retrospect, there were design faults at the outset. But why should we assume with Barnett that social reform and economic recovery were mutually incompatible enterprises? Many Western nations expanded their social services after 1945 but went on to enjoy faster economic growth than Britain. To adopt, for a moment, Barnett’s own cost-benefit analysis, social reform had its value as an industrial investment. He writes indignantly of the high priority accorded to the housing programme at the end of the war. But nearly half a million homes, mainly in the industrial areas, had been destroyed by bombing. For six years the building of new houses and repairs to the existing stock had come to a stop. In the summer of 1946 the housing shortage was so acute that about forty thousand people moved into disused army camps and settled down as squatters. How were firms to attract labour if there was nowhere to live within reach of the factory gates? How long would the incentive to work have lasted had there been no hope of homes for young couples? If bad housing was a major cause of ill health, would not the production statistics benefit from a fitter labour force?
In writing of social provision, Barnett unconsciously applies a double standard. Increases in public expenditure are singled out for attack. The housing programme and the National Health Service are presented as greedy predators, guzzling up resources. But the alternatives, private expenditure on health and housing, also divert resources away from industrial investment. Much of the cost of health care in the 1930s was met by fees or donations, so it is by no means certain that the establishment of the National Health Service led to an increase in the share of the national income devoted to health. As for housing, capital investment was higher during the private housing boom in the 1930s than it was under the municipal housing programme of the Attlee governments of 1945 to 1951. In the 1980s state investment has almost dried up, but the consumer society diverts larger sums than ever before to the housing market. Why, then, should the austere collectivism of the Forties be regarded as uniquely ruinous in its consequences? And if, as Barnett insists, the effect of the welfare state was to staunch the flow of capital to industry, how come that investment in plant and machinery was 32 per cent higher in 1951 than it had been in 1938?
Barnett’s most scathing judgments on wartime social reform are reserved for the Butler Education Act of 1944. According to his philosophy of history, the proper function of an educational system is to supply industry with skilled and scientific manpower, thereby augmenting the power and efficiency of the nation-state in a ruthlessly competitive world. But the British educational system was captured in the 19th century by liberal academics with a lofty contempt for science and technology. Time after time official reports and inquiries revealed that Britain was lagging behind the Continent and the United States, but still nothing effective was done. The Butler Act, which might have laid the groundwork for curriculum reform and a massive injection of public expenditure in technical and scientific education, proved to be yet another victory for Oxbridge and public school tradition.
As a beneficiary of the Butler Act, which gave me the chance of a grammar school education, it pains me to admit that there is much truth in Barnett’s expert demolition job. The 70 per cent of children who attended a secondary modern after the war got little or nothing out of it in skills or qualifications. The failure of governments to think constructively about the needs of the secondary modern pupils, or to devise for them any form of continuing education after the age of 15, was a scandal. For the great majority of working-class children, the Butler Act might just as well never have happened. ‘Secondary education for all’ was the cry, but the educationalists who raised it were masters of abstract windbaggery – a vague secular religion of moral and spiritual uplift. What it came down to in the end was another year at school, with boys learning to bake a cake and girls to mend a fuse: all very well-meaning, but hardly the stuff of a great educational advance.
Barnett is wickedly funny about the pretensions of the clergy in the making of the Education Act. There are shades of Sixties satire as he machine-guns bishops and headmasters much in the style of the hero in Lindsay Anderson’s film If. Barnett is a joyful debunker of patriotic myth, but not, of course, from a left-wing standpoint. He is probably the only modern British historian whose creed is Bismarckian nationalism. His admiration for the German nation-state, through every stage of its development from 1870 to the present day, is the most prominent theme in the book.
There are glowing passages, which make one pause, on the productivity of German industry under the Nazis. No trade-union agitators there, no socialists or liberal softies putting a spanner in the works! The occasional admiring references to the United States do little to modify the teutonic feel of the book. Barnett is, in fact, the heir of Sir John Seeley, the Late Victorian prophet of a federal British Empire, whose admiration for Prussia led him to the conviction that Britain must develop along the same lines or perish as a great power.
The failure of Britain to adopt the German model of a military-industrial-educational complex is the mainspring of Barnett’s critique of British institutions, and arises, perhaps, from his early career as a military historian. But the antithesis between hard Germanic realism and soppy English romanticism often breaks down. Wilhelmine Germany was much more advanced than Victorian Britain in technical education, but German culture was riddled with the romantic delusions of extreme nationalism. Nazi Germany produced the same mix of technocrats who were brilliant inside the laboratory and barking mad outside it. Hence the fact that Germany twice launched wars that ended in catastrophe, while Britain, whose idealists were comparatively shrewd and sane, won the Darwinian struggle of competing social systems. Our values triumphed and thriving social democracies were established throughout Western Europe.
In view of Barnett’s philosophy, there is one curious blind spot in his interpretation of the welfare state. As he is doubtless aware, it was pioneered by Bismarck and first introduced into Britain from Germany. The capacity of the state to nourish its citizens or heal the wounded soldier was one measure of its capacity to wage a total war. The National Health Service grew out of the Emergency Medical Service created to treat victims of the Blitz, and the Beveridge Report was a true reflection of a society where the welfare of every citizen was a precious national asset.
The same was true of Britain during the Great War, as may be discovered from Jay Winter’s superb scholarly analysis. The subject-matter is more specialised than his title suggests. This is a socio-economic historian’s investigation of the impact of war on population trends and civilian health, with an epilogue, which reads a bit like the start of a different book, on popular memories of the conflict. Patient readers will discover that statistical methods can yield the most humanly fascinating results.
Winter explores what he calls the paradox of war: the fact that the Great War was a bloodbath and a landmark in the improvement of civilian health. Nearly three-quarters of a million British servicemen were killed, a disproportionate number of them from the upper classes: but meanwhile the life expectancy of civilians rose and infant mortality dropped sharply. After the war, the two phenomena merged to produce a new pattern: in spite of a lost generation of males, women made up the difference by marrying younger men, and marrying in larger numbers. With the aid of improved health services, healthier wives and mothers replaced the missing males, and a new generation of boys grew up to fight the next war and vote for the welfare state in 1945.
In the 1980s the picture has changed and the welfare state is no longer of much value to the warfare state. The next great war will not require the democratic participation of millions of civilians. We shall be incinerated within a week or two, before there is even time for an opinion poll to discover whether we are for, against, or don’t know.