Ideas of Decline

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 by Martin Wiener
    Cambridge, 217 pp, £9.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 521 23418 2
  • Peaceful Conquest: The Industrialisation of Europe, 1760-1970 by Sidney Pollard
    Oxford, 451 pp, £7.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 19 877093 6

With a titular allusion to Max Weber’s famous essay on the rise of capitalism, Martin Wiener discusses the bewildering question of Britain’s current economic stagnation, retardation, ‘de-industrialisation’ or decline – the word chosen depends upon how the magnitude and finitude of the situation are assessed. Wiener prefers ‘decline’, since he traces the present worrying business posture of Britain back to the later 19th century. Demonstrating a nice eye for the right quotation and example, he has put together lengthy excerpts and a long list of statements from an exceptionally varied range of sources to argue that cultural even more than economic factors account for Britain’s secular slide. Wiener is too careful a scholar to believe that historical causes can be neatly compartmentalised. As he says, culture and economics cannot be separated: but heuristically he has selected culture as the operative variable. He briefly defines culture as the outlook and mentality of the élites who influence the values of the rest of society.

What precisely was that culture or belief system which, about one hundred years after the take-off into industrialism, diverted the world’s first factory economy from its logical historical course? Wiener’s general answer is one that has already found its way into innumerable articles and books, plays and novels. Britain provides an example of incomplete industrial combustion. The switchover to a wholly industrial culture of energy and profit was never achieved because of the success registered by landed society in creating an irresistible way of life. The English aristocracy had sweetness it not light. They set an example of high consumption and gracious living and spent lavishly in a fully public manner. They were adaptable, even amphibious (to use Sir Lewis Namier’s phrase), moving easily between town and country, centre and periphery. Potential rivals were de-fanged, seduced, by a policy of relative social acceptance. New fortunes were allowed a share of political power. Newcomers were admitted into the ancient universities and the public schools and thereby invited to join in the task of governing. All the ravishing institutions of Europe’s most successful aristocracy were made available for emulation: the club, the country house, the boarding-school, the career in government, banking or finance. Conspicuous consumption rather than deferred gratification, leisure rather than work, good form rather than the undisguised pursuit of self-interest were the boundaries of a tried and tested value system. Why toil in the counting-house? ‘Lat Austyn have his swynk to hym reserved!’ The aristocratic ideal was particularly attractive because, if necessary, it could be acquired on the cheap: Sheffield plate for sterling, a semi-detached house in the suburbs for a cottage or vicarage in the country (and stockbroker Tudor or Lutyens for the real thing), Lancing and Oundle for Eton or Rugby. A gig could be rented if not owned, and the household staff could be trimmed to fit the size of the purse. Even the Nobodies like Mr Pooter could aspire to villadom. The ideal was the gentleman in one definition, someone without visible means of support. Imitation and room at the top eventually produced that trade-off which Harold Perkin memorably called the ‘viable class society’, class without ruinous conflict. The Victorian compromise, Wiener asserts, lasted right up to the present. And so the work ethic was washed down in a bumper of roses and wine.

In outline this is of course a deeply familiar story. Wiener – to his credit, it must be said – is an unusually scrupulous historian. In an age of data overload, where shopworn arguments are circulated as if they were fresh stock and references given almost as if they had never before been used, he meticulously and generously provides credits and attributions. His intentions are absolutely clear. His purpose is not to offer an essentially new kind of explanation for England’s economic shortcomings, but to collect widely scattered observations on the gentrification of the English middle classes and bring them together in a single, concentrated argument illuminating the success of an anti-entrepreneurial ethic. This he has certainly done, in a handsomely packaged presentation. His book is a fine general introduction to the subject, an entirely pleasurable summary. Chapter Five on ‘The “English Way of Life”?’ is especially in interesting and entertaining, and Chapter Seven on industrialism has highly valuable detail. For a short book, much ground is covered. The common reader will enjoy its clarity and comprehension. Nevertheless, loading the dice in one particular way, even with appropriate warning, does make the argument vulnerable and open to a number of qualifications and objections.

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[*] The Decline of British Economic Power since 1870 by M.W. Kirby. Allen and Unwin, 216 pp., £10, April, 0 04 942169 7.