- 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.
Vol. 18 No. 6 · 21 March 1996
From Correlli Barnett
In his review of my book The Lost Victory (LRB, 7 March), David Edgerton writes that I don’t ‘like’ full employment ‘because of its inflationary effect, and the strength it gives to the trade unions’. Yet my chapter on full employment cites as a key text an analysis by Hugh Gaitskell as Chancellor of the Exchequer in December 1950 in which he specifically makes these two points. It is therefore absurd and irrelevant for Edgerton to accuse me of not ‘liking’ full employment.
This is only one example of David Edgerton’s wholesale misrepresentation – misunderstanding perhaps – of my book. He acknowledges that it is based ‘almost entirely on research in the files of the Labour Cabinet and cabinet committees’ and yet fails to acknowledge that my judgments are tightly anchored to the content of these files. For instance, if, as he contends, the new welfare state (including the National Health Service) did not constitute a grievous burden on the Exchequer, why do we find a Labour Chancellor striving to cap expenditure on it?
He cites Jose Harris’s comment that in 1950 other European countries (specifically, though Edgerton does not say so, Germany, Austria and Belgium) were spending a higher proportion of GNP on welfare than Britain. But Dr Harris took no note of the fact that Britain was also spending some 7 per cent of GNP on defence (rising to more than 12 per cent after the outbreak of the Korean War), and therefore carrying a double burden, whereas neither Germany nor Austria were spending a penny on defence. Moreover, Germany’s major postwar reform of welfare schemes inherited from Bismarck and the Weimar Republic dates from 1957, when her ‘economic miracle’ was complete. Which other country chose, like Britain, to award itself a new welfare state at a time of national bankruptcy and when living off foreign tick?
Dr Edgerton reckons that I should have emphasised that, in comparison with the prewar era, British expenditure on defence rose far more than on welfare in 1945-50. But this is doubly irrelevant. In the first place, I argue that postwar defence expenditure up to June 1950 would have been limited to about 3.5 per cent of GNP (more or less the figure for the mid-Thirties) if Britain had restricted itself to the essential defence of Western Europe against the threat of direct Soviet attack. As it was, something like half the defence budget in 1945-50 related to Britain’s nostalgic attempt to go on playing the world and Commonwealth power, with expensive armed forces spread all the way through the Middle East and Far East. Second, it does not matter whether or not expenditure on defence rose more than on welfare in relation to before the war. What matters is that the combined demands of the ‘world-power’ role and ‘New Jerusalem’ squeezed back much-needed investment in modernising Britain’s industries and infrastructure, and indeed determined British use (or waste) of Marshall Aid. If this is not the case, why do the files of the Cabinet Economic Policy, Production and Investment Programmes committees record a continuing agonised debate about competing pressures on national resources, and, year by year, a consequent strict rationing of investment in industry (especially nationalised industry) and infrastructure?
In the light of the evidence in the Whitehall files, I find completely incredible, and indeed perverse, Edgerton’s contention that ‘the instruments of industrial policy [were] much more powerful’ than before the war, and that ‘the results were impressive’. What the records cited in my book reveal is that in 1946-50 the Labour Government’s attempts to improve productive efficiency were feeble both in concept and effect; and that meanwhile Britain was for the most part shovelling out ill-designed, ill-made, unsuitable, often old-fashioned and certainly over-priced goods to markets that had never been properly researched, with the result that just as soon as our European rivals began to pick themselves up again (i.e. as soon as Britain lost her monopoly position), the foreign buyer began to switch his custom.
When Edgerton chides me for failing to provide equally detailed data about German or French investment as about British, I would remind him that a book is like a battle: it must be delivered at a required date with the material then available. Since 1983 I have researched, written and published three major books, all largely based on primary sources, and all generally well-received. By contrast, Edgerton has written a single book, Britain and the Aeroplane, apparently NOT based on the Whitehall records, plus a few articles in the academic trade press. I therefore do not regard him as qualified to indict me for failing to write a comparative history of European industrial, defence and foreign policies in the immediate postwar era.
Am I mistaken in detecting a hint of professional resentment in Edgerton’s comment that ‘the fact that [I] was wrong about so much’ in The Audit of War ‘has not stopped the Economic and Social Research Council from commissioning a sequel’, as also in his further comment that I have never shown ‘any interest in what [my] academic critics say’? As he must know, the ESRC only awards a research contract after the most rigorous ‘peer-group’ scrutiny of the tender.
Dr Edgerton knows that what the ESRC usually gets from historians for its money is a ‘report’, or shelf-fodder, of 5000 words, and possibly an article or two in The Historiographers’ Intelligencer and Foot-Noters’ Gazette or similar trade journals. If a book does emerge, it will be from a publisher’s ‘academic’ list, which means a print order of probably less than a thousand copies, some of which will probably be later remaindered. By contrast, my own tender for an ESRC contract to carry out research for The Lost Victory made clear my intention that the book should be widely read in Whitehall, Westminster and industry, and therefore have an impact in the real world. This undertaking has been successfully fulfilled in the event.
Churchill College, Cambridge
Vol. 18 No. 7 · 4 April 1996
From David Edgerton
Correlli Barnett and I disagree on the ‘British Decline’ (Letters, 21 March), as was evident from my review of The Lost Victory in the previous issue. Barnett seems to think that disagreement with him amounts to ‘wholesale misrepresentation’, or at best to a ‘misunderstanding’. It is clear that one cannot argue with him, and I don’t propose to. Most of his points were met in my review. The remaining self-contradictions and misleading implications arise from the core problem I identified: for all his supposed anchorage in the archives, Barnett implicitly denies that into the Fifties and beyond, Britain was richer than Germany and other major Continental nations, innovated more, spent less on welfare, and exported more manufactures. Only in one sense does his letter add something to my review. It gives, in a way no commentary adequately could, the measure of the historian and his methods, personal abuse included.
Vol. 18 No. 8 · 18 April 1996
From Philip Smout
Correlli Barnett is eager to reassure David Edgerton that The Lost Victory is ‘tightly anchored’ to the records of cabinet committees (Letters, 21 March). Nonetheless, Barnett’s prescriptive approach is disturbing. As Edgerton noted, Barnett’s express purpose in writing the book was ‘to illuminate Britain’s present and future’; Barnett himself makes clear his ambition ‘to have an impact on the real world’. While it would, of course, be naive to assume that historical writing could ever be free from present concerns, I fail to see how an explicitly presentist (and judgmental) attitude could produce an explanation of events fully sensitive to the aspirations of, and constraints operating on, historical actors (for example, those responsible for establishing the welfare state after the Second World War). Why doesn’t Barnett write a book telling us directly what future policies in Britain should be? He could then be even more appreciatively read ‘in Whitehall, Westminster and industry’.
Vol. 18 No. 9 · 9 May 1996
From Correlli Barnett
The key to David Edgerton’s method of critical attack lies in his use of the weasel word ‘implicitly’ (Letters, 4 April). For, as he well knows, The Lost Victory neither specifically nor generally contends that in the late Forties Britain was poorer than Germany and other major Continental nations, innovated less, spent more on welfare, or exported fewer manufactures. And since the narrative of The Lost Victory ends in June 1950, it certainly makes no such contentions in regard to ‘the Fifties and beyond’. Hence his cunning employment of ‘implicitly’ in order to accuse me of believing absurdities which I do not believe. What The Lost Victory does argue is that in 1945-50 Britain muffed a unique opportunity to modernise herself as an industrial economy (thanks to American dollars) while her trade rivals were still on their backs or convalescent; and muffed it for reasons evident from the contemporary Whitehall records.
Churchill College, Cambridge
Vol. 18 No. 10 · 23 May 1996
From David Edgerton
I am delighted to find Correlli Barnett stating in print (Letters, 9 May) that it is an ‘absurdity’ to believe that in ‘the late Forties Britain was poorer than Germany and other major Continental nations, innovated less, spent more on welfare, or exported fewer manufactures.’ Nor does he deny that such a claim would be equally absurd for the Fifties. He suggests that it was merely my ‘cunning’ use of the ‘weasel word “implicitly” ’ which would make anyone think he believed in any such thing. There was nothing weasely about my argument. These absurdities (and others) are implicit – in the strong and obvious sense – in his book; without them it collapses. Since Barnett does not think so, perhaps he would be so kind as to add the relevant comparative data, or even make his position clear, in future printings of The Lost Victory. It would then be, if not the first, then one of the most spectacular self-deconstructing books in history.