O! What a Fall was There: Reflections on the Decline of Britain

March 1, 1994 Topic: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: MuslimWorld War IYugoslavia

O! What a Fall was There: Reflections on the Decline of Britain

Mini Teaser: Nearly one hundred years ago, Brooks Adams published a short essaycalled "The Decay of England.

by Author(s): Anthony Hartley

Nearly one hundred years ago, Brooks Adams published a short essay
called "The Decay of England." Basing his views on the poor
performance of the British army in the Boer War, the decline of
English agriculture, a lack of entrepreneurial spirit ("the slackness
of London tradesmen"), and the part played by beer in Dickens's
novels, Adams foretold the end of Britain's nineteenth-century
preponderance. He did not welcome this, since he regarded England as
a "fortified outpost of the Anglo-Saxon race," whose future inability
to guarantee the European balance of power would soon require America
"to fight her own battle whether she will or no."

A hundred years later this prophecy has largely been realized.
Subsequently Britain was to help repel two German attempts at
expansion, but the effort was an exhausting one, and, after 1945, the
United States took over the uncomfortable business of maintaining the
European balance of power, as Adams had foreseen. Britain ceased to
be an empire--the most extensive collection of territories ever
accumulated by a European power was disposed of in some twenty-five
years--and is still criticized for backwardness and sloth, most
notably by British journalists. It is also still afflicted by the
bitter taste of a national orgy of self doubt. Thirty years after the
end of empire the shock is dying away, but it still visibly affects
those traditional governing classes who once acted with as supreme a
self-confidence as the Achesons and Lovetts who became their
replacements in the United States after 1945.

The liquidation of empire was, on the whole, well managed. It did not
include any episode as traumatic as France's departure from Algeria.
Nor did Britain suffer enemy occupation in World War II. On the
contrary in 1940, by a supreme effort and a heroic demonstration of
national unity, it enjoyed one of the most brilliant episodes of its
history. For any Englishman it seemed in the nature of things that
Hitler should join the line of European conquerors--Philip II, Louis
XIV, Napoleon--who had unsuccessfully tried conclusions with his
country. What happened accorded with the national myth. This
apotheosis cast a glow over the subsequent relinquishment of power,
which could be attributed to a disinterested moral gesture. As a
student in Paris between 1947 and 1951, I felt proud of this record.
It seemed that Britain was better governed than France, with its
political scandals and its fleeting ministries. Of our moral
superiority there was little question.

Later the glow faded. It was borne in on us that there is no such
thing as a free lunch. We were left in a cold world, in reduced
circumstances, with the fading glow of victory and a sense that
something was wrong with the way we were governed. In 1963 I wrote a
book, A State of England, where I used the phrase "Loss of power
means loss of purpose." Indeed. By then Britain was going through the
so-called "Swinging Sixties," and I was appalled by the triviality of
intellectual fashion and the irrelevance of what was on offer from
the prophets of the media. The "Swinging Sixties"!--Good Lord! In
fact, we were preparing to swing from a rope of our own making as we
sought to enter the competitive world of the European Economic
Community (EEC) while wrecking our schools, and as we burbled about
the wickedness of nuclear weapons while Khrushchev had them
transported to Cuba. Meanwhile, we were distracted and satisfied by
those oh so many brilliant people, those "sound" treasury officials
and "dynamic" company chairmen who, somehow or other, never succeeded
in pushing the country into earning its living or its people into
working harder. It was a horrible time. It is hard to describe the
feeling of deep depression that resulted from all this cheery chatter
of the new Carnaby Street culture, while England got poorer under a
Labour Prime Minister who promised everything that public relations

The Great Retreat

The loss of nerve that afflicted the principalities and powers of
British life at this time is not perhaps surprising. Already before
the First World War a Conservative intellectual, Lord Hugh Cecil, had
seen what might be coming:

"Losses to a nation may be so great that they change the character of
the nation itself. It would be so with us if we lost our dominions
beyond the seas."

Indeed it seemed reasonable to suppose that a considerable upheaval
in national life would follow a gradual perception of loss of power.
But the perception was very gradual. As late as 1960 few people were
conscious of the full consequences of what was happening, though
their judgments and attitudes were already beginning to reflect the
continuous acceptance of an ethos of retreat and the pessimism it

The process itself was not particularly surprising. Withdrawal from
control of the colonies was perhaps the most easily explicable aspect
of Britain's decline. It was Sir John Seely who described the British
empire as having been acquired "in a fit of absence of mind," but
there was also a logic to its extension. Behind those small colonies,
those bases and coaling-stations strung out along the world's sea
routes, lay a concept of imperial strategy that concerned the road to
India and Australia. Even before the Second World War, however, such
measures as the Statute of Westminster (1931) and the India Act
(1935) had pointed the way towards an evolutionary policy of
independence for the colonies. A more remote approach to empire had
already been sketched by Lugard's strategy of "indirect rule" in
Africa. Indeed, there had always been those who disliked colonies and
regarded them as a waste of money. These voices had never been
totally silenced even by the drums and trumpets of Disraeli's
Imperial Idea, and now Britain's economic difficulties seemed to
recommend the cutting down of overseas commitments. Thus the gradual
dispersal of the empire appeared less novel than it actually was,
when viewed as a cumulative process.

The moment that independence came to the Indian sub-continent, the
old imperial strategy disintegrated. There was no longer an Indian
army east of Suez at Britain's disposal, and, though brilliantly
successful campaigns against Chinese Communist guerrillas in Malaysia
and Sukarno's Indonesia in Borneo provided a suitable last hurrah for
British colonial administration, a continued British presence in the
Indian ocean, during the Sixties was felt to be too much of a
military and financial strain. Economic difficulties, a liberal
zeitgeist (particularly strong in the United States, Britain's
principle ally and successor as leading Western power, during the
struggle with Soviet Communism), the strain on military resources of
new commitments along the Rhine--these were the proximate causes of
the rapidity with which the Empire disappeared. The longer-term cause
was perhaps the very brilliance, and therefore fragility, of the
achievement itself.

The first problem posed by the retreat from empire was, naturally
enough, one of foreign policy. If its priority was no longer the
defense of empire, in what direction should it turn? There were
those who would have wished to adopt policies demonstrating the
superior morality of a power that had divested itself of empire.
Should we shun nuclear weapons along with the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament (cnd), consort with the non-aligned and spout good
intentions at the United Nations? That was always a fringe
alternative, really no alternative at all. Or should we stick to the
familiar role of the closest and most candid friend of the United
States--Greeks to the Rome of America, as Macmillan put it in one of
his ironic asides. Self-preservation and the balance of power
certainly indicated enthusiastic support for the North Atlantic
Alliance as a defense against the ecumenical ambitions of Russian
Communism. That support was given. nato was a satisfactory
arrangement for successive British governments, its creation having
been an objective of the Labour administration after the war.

But if Britain favored the Atlantic Alliance, would it not be logical
for it to join the newly formed EEC which provided an economic base
for the alliance and whose immediate motivation had been the Cold War
and the urgency of German rearmament? When Acheson said that Britain
had not found a "role" he was not so much giving friendly advice as a
hefty shove towards Brussels. To do what the Washington
"Atlanticists" wanted would solve the problem of where Britain was to
stand in a world that increasingly required membership in a trading
bloc. It also had the advantage of giving the Foreign Office
something constructive to do--a lot more to do, indeed--and of
overcoming the depression that had reigned there during the Fifties.
It was no accident that Foreign Office officials became eager
partisans of entry into the European Community. The pursuit of
accession gave them a policy where they had had none, and its
attraction for them was increased by de Gaulle's evident opposition.
Not only was the Foreign Office's importance enhanced by the
operation, but there was an adversarial element in it which added a
special zest.

Essay Types: Essay