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

An attempt to give Britain a new direction, which would excite the
interest of its people after the lassitude following on loss of
empire, and which had been viewed by Prime Ministers like Macmillan
and Heath as a cure for the "British disease," ended in an
institutional impasse, with squabbling over minute constitutional
changes and a major political quarrel over the Maastricht treaty,
already out of date when it was signed. Europe has so far provided
for Britain no vocation with anything like the attractiveness of the
old imperial one. It may be that the country had entered the European
Community too late to catch its moment of idealism. Take the vision
away, and what remained was bureaucratic chaffering and political
log-rolling, useful, no doubt, but hardly inspiring.

A Class Adrift

One of the effects of the imperial adventure had been to build up a
governing class, educated in the schools modeled on Arnold's Rugby
and with values formed by the experience of ruling territories
overseas. For the English middle-classes, and the intelligent boys
from Scottish and Welsh grammar schools, the existence of empire
meant a career open to their talents. What they acquired in the
course of a life spent in the service of the Crown were qualities
such as a confident energy, independence of judgment, responsibility,
loyalty, and a sense of justice. That, at any rate was the ideal.
Knowledge of empire brought them a wider world than they would
otherwise have known and an ennobling, if burdensome, sense of
service. This was the spirit expressed by Virginia Woolf's uncle,
Fitzjames Stephen, when he wrote in the 1860s: "I for one, feel no
shame when I think of the great competitive examination which has
lasted for just 100 years and whose first paper was set on the field
of Plassy and the last (for the present) beneath the walls of Delhi
and Lucknow." It was a civil servant's metaphor, but it conveys
something of the pride and effort that informed the administrators of
the British empire. Moreover, since this caste contained some of the
most energetic and active parts of the population, a whiff of this
ethos was passed on as an ideal to the country at large. Britain owes
to its imperial experience rigorous standards of public behavior and
the high prestige of the British state at home as well as abroad.
Success is indivisible, and the empire seemed a guarantee of the
superiority of the country's political system. It helped to build up
around the state a protective nimbus of moral capital which was to
carry Britain through two world wars.

The disappearance of this tonic element in British life left the
class that had been informed by it adrift. Those who had concerned
themselves with the administration of global power over huge
territories and vast distances could not easily transfer their
activity to the accumulation of wealth or the creativity of the
entrepreneur, though many of them were to become merchant bankers
(the City of London was, in some ways, the continuation of the empire
by other means--an empire touched by the finger of Midas). But their
real occupation was gone; there is no doubt that the changed
situation seriously demoralized the so-called "establishment" in
Britain. In the years after loss of empire they were singularly
unable to cope with the new problems set before them.

An Anti-Industrial Culture?

Confusion was understandable, but why should Britain have been so
incapable of resolving its commercial and industrial problems? Here
the past possession of empire added certain negative factors. Even in
the nineteenth century, the priority assigned by British statesmen to
imperial questions had been partly responsible for a neglect of the
decline in trade, as competition from Germany and America began to
tell. Disraeli did not give half the attention to this that he gave,
for instance, to the Eastern Question. Before the First World War
only Joseph Chamberlain seriously addressed the matter, and his
"imperial preference" could hardly have been the answer. Apart from
anything else, Chamberlain thought of imperial preference primarily
as a unifying factor for the empire rather than as a remedy for the
British balance of payments. As Chamberlain's biographer, J.L.
Garvin, put it, "the question of empire...could no longer be
separated from the question of employment." Later on came the
controversy over free trade and cost of living. In Chamberlain's mind
empire and trade were in symbiosis, with empire (i.e. its power in
the world) being paramount.

Between the wars, Britain's economy did not do badly. While some of
the older industries like textiles and coal mining declined in the
Twenties, the recovery from the slump was better than that in other
countries, with new industries coming on and national inventiveness
showing what it could do in the years immediately before the Second
World War. Automobiles and later airplanes, artificial fibers,
plastics, and electrical goods provided new employment, mainly,
however, in the South of England. The development of penicillin and
the jet engine in the Thirties provided a notable advantage when war

After 1945, however, Britain found itself with aging factories and
infrastructure, with its currency reserves and overseas investment
dissipated and a government which, after wartime promises and
expectations, felt itself committed to expensive schemes of social
improvement. Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government, no doubt,
had to fulfill wartime promises by the creation of the welfare state.
But it squandered Marshall Aid by failing to use it for investment,
and its nationalization program bureaucratized and finally destroyed
large sectors of industry. Also, rather than increasing national
income, it stressed redistribution of a cake that was to become
smaller and smaller. Since then there has been no end of the
difficulties attending the management of the economy. They speeded
the end of empire and contributed to the deterioration of Britain's
position in the world, until, in 1979, the British ambassador in
Paris in a despairing retirement dispatch could complain how hard it
was to conduct the foreign policy of a country whose affairs were so

Britain's post-war economic failure has been variously explained.
Theories range from the historical view taken by Martin Wiener, who
believes that Britain had had an "anti-industrial" culture, to
specific criticism of the financial and economic policies followed by
successive post-war British governments, lack of investment, failure
to develop technology, and undue deference to the City of London. In
his account of Britain's post-war industrial decline Sidney Pollard
points to the Treasury's "contempt for production" as being to blame.
He also described British trade unions as "among the most
irresponsible and destructive unions in Europe,"3 a judgment borne
out by the improvement in industrial productivity following the
change in trade union legislation under Mrs. Thatcher. In 1977 ten
million working days were lost in strikes; between September 1992 and
September 1993: 622,000.

The imperial experience also made its unfortunate contribution, one
in addition to the distraction effect already referred to. The belief
that governments can take successful economic initiatives within the
framework of a type of state socialism was encouraged by the
frequency of resort to such solutions in colonies, where only a
primitive market economy existed. Whatever the conclusions reached,
however, there was little doubt about the increasing pressure of
industrial competition as the European Community constructed a new
trading bloc on Britain's doorstep and tariff-lowering negotiations
began under the auspices of GATT. At the beginning of the Sixties,
and after losing the initial advantages it had enjoyed in exporting
after the end of the war, British industry was under attack even in
its home market--something that neither its management nor its trade
union leaders appeared to realize.

It is not easy to apportion the blame for Britain's industrial
failure, but if preoccupation with empire was one part of the
explanation, educational theories that systematically underestimated
the importance of hard work and presented vocational education as an
inferior option were another. No doubt, the use by government of
Keynesian techniques to put off the evil day of fundamental change
must also be held responsible. It is a mistake to spend more than one
possesses, and Britain has lived at a higher rate than it could
afford for some time, given its fascination with the "noble" theme of
foreign affairs.

All that having been said, it may be that in the future historians
will look at this complex problem a little differently. Now that
similar chickens are coming home to roost in other Western European
countries--notably France and Germany--it is possible to think that
Britain may have reached a particular stage on a path common to
European countries in the second half of the twentieth century, but
rather earlier than others. Now it looks as though it has been
Germany over the last few years which might be described as "wasteful
and profuse." In fact, so many aspects of Britain's economic and
social difficulties over the last thirty years recall present-day
phenomena in Western Europe or the United States that it no longer
seems possible to speak of a merely "British disease" and necessary
to speak of a Western one. The decline of the open-ended welfare
state, the rise of an "underclass," distinguished by an illiteracy
which deprives them of the ability to work at tasks requiring
accuracy and sobriety for their fulfillment, the crises arising from
overseas immigration into cities already beset by problems of poverty
and the break-up of families--all these symptoms are common to
industrial societies in Western Europe and America. To them economic
depression has, over the last five years, added greater employment
and the resulting political instability. For many years Britain's
economic failure stood out as a peculiar exception in a particularly
favorable conjuncture, like a man who is unable to pick up a coin in
the street. Now others have joined the club.

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