Declinism

David Edgerton

  • The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities, 1945-50 by Correlli Barnett
    Macmillan, 514 pp, £20.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 333 48045 7

The historiography of modern Britain is dominated by one issue – ‘decline’. The usual starting-point for discussion is the fact that Britain’s share of the world’s manufactured exports has fallen from about 25 per cent before the Great War to around 8 per cent today, although much of this has nothing at all to do with Britain. At their most extreme ‘declinists’ argue that Britain has been a second or third-rate nation since the 1870s. They maintain that this could have been prevented and indeed that it is not too late now to effect a change in Britain’s position. ‘Declinism’ is in many ways the last refuge of Great Power delusions.

In fact, declinism has been an element in political discussion since the late 19th century, but it moved centre-stage in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures and Arthur Koestler’s collection of essays, Suicide of a Nation?, inaugurated a spate of books. (Snow’s essay has remained in print, and the Koestler collection has recently been reissued.) In the Eighties there were several studies of decline, of which the most notable was Martin Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, which traced Britain’s economic malaise back to the 19th century. The authors of these books found in the national past not the origins of success, but the sources of failure. Where an older, Whiggish historiography celebrated the rise of the welfare state, the moderation shown by trade unions and the mysterious but efficient workings of the Constitution, declinist historiography highlights only the bad side of these supposed assets: public schools, once the glory of Britain, are now its undoing; the celebrated practical skills of British engineers are seen as a dangerous aversion to theoretical knowledge; the fair-mindedness of the British state becomes the featherbedding of archaic institutions, empire the symbol of a pathetic nostalgia; the love of gardens and the countryside becomes a condemnation of industrial values. Whiggish theses have been inverted into declinist antitheses – two sides of a much debased coin.

The most influential exponent of the new declinism is Correlli Barnett. The Audit of War (1986), a sequel to The Collapse of British Power (1972), argued that British industry during the Second World War was scandalously inefficient, a situation Barnett blamed on an establishment more concerned with welfare than with industry, technology or the capacity of the nation to fight a war. The book had an extraordinary impact. Alan Clark records approvingly that Mrs Thatcher herself read it, and many of her ministers made public reference to it – which is surprising since Barnett is not a Thatcherite historian, but an economic nationalist. He believes that Britain’s problem was that the élite did not understand that it was in deadly competition with other nation-states. This competition was essentially industrial and technological, but also military. To be truly competitive Britain needed not only strong industry and technology but also a commitment to fight where it mattered – on land, against European powers. Instead, Barnett argues, it deluded itself into relying on the Navy and Air Force while continuing, wastefully, to support a far-flung empire.

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