Finding a role

Peter Pulzer

  • The Decline of Power: 1915-1964 by Robert Blake
    Granada, 462 pp, £18.00, June 1985, ISBN 0 246 10753 7

May 1915 saw the end of the last purely Liberal government in Britain. October 1964 saw the defeat of the last aristocrat to head a Conservative government by a Labour Party dedicated to regenerating the country through the ‘white heat of technology’. Each event marked, in its way, a decline of power. The first saw the disappearance of a liberal individualist state, governed by a caste of liberal individualist gentlemen. The second ushered in a government that sealed Britain’s withdrawal from Empire with the liquidation of all military commitments East of Suez.

Events such as these dramatise long-term trends. Victorian individualism had been undermined long before the shots of Sarajevo. At the outbreak of the First World War trade unions had over three million members and were threatening a general strike; the size of the Civil Service had more than doubled between 1900 and 1914, mainly to administer Lloyd George’s welfare state. Individualism was just as much under attack from the right as the left, through calls for tariff reform and conscription, and the ‘national efficiency’ propaganda of Lord Milner, Sir Henry Wilson and the National Review. Similarly, in the 1960s, the withdrawal from East of Suez was the last stage of a process of decolonisation and retrenchment that was as much the work of Churchill and Macmillan as of Attlee and Wilson. Yet works of history have to have a beginning and an end. Symbolic dates may lack scholarly soundness, but they help to make a chain of events comprehensible.

The choice of dates, as well as the title, betrays Lord Blake’s theme. In 1915 Britain was still the world’s premier power, challenged and threatened, no longer truly hegemonic, yet superior to any other single rival. As late as 1964, he observes, ‘the rulers of England, Conservative and Labour alike, still thought of it as an important international power, a poor third no doubt to the USA and the USSR, but, thanks partly to the Commonwealth connection, a cut above the rest.’ His book is not primarily about foreign or imperial policy – more is the pity – and he includes international events ‘if only because of their effects on home affairs’. That domestic and foreign policy are interdependent is an old truism; not only are internal events often dictated by external, but one of the constraints on any state’s diplomacy is the domestic political configuration.

Lord Blake does not raise these propositions into a general theory about the decline of power. Indeed the tone is one of bluff common sense rather than the quest for some overarching explanation. But the tone is deceptive: the interdependence is implicit in much of the book and it does not surprise that the most successful sections, such as the four brilliant chapters on the Second World War, are those where it is most evident. But it is not only for these that The Decline of Power should be read. It is a fair-minded book, though the author is a little free with condemnations of ‘nonsense’ and ‘ridiculous’. It is fluently, even racily written, but rarely superficially. The publishers will, if they have any sense, follow the example of Fontana over The Tory Party from Peel to Thatcher and produce a paperback at a rock-bottom price.

How and why did British power decline? Perhaps what is surprising is that it should ever have enjoyed such greatness. It may not have been acquired, in Seeley’s over-quoted and misunderstood phrase, in a fit of absence of mind, but it was acquired with a great deal of luck and retained with a fair amount of bluff. Uniquely among the world’s imperial powers, Britain had neither a great army nor a great bureaucracy. Unlike Rome or Spain or France, it undertook no consciously-formulated civilising mission. The white man’s burden was accepted pragmatically and piecemeal. British world power had only two resources, a navy and finance – the first to defend the sea lanes, the second to dominate world commerce and subsidise potential Continental allies. In the end, British power depended on being accepted by others. As long as the rest of the world tolerated or welcomed the City of London as the source of world monetary stability, as long as it tolerated or welcomed Britain as the orchestrator of the balance of power, that position was secure. Even within the Empire, British rule always rested to some extent on consent. The early emergence of Dominion status is one obvious example of that. The commitment, however vague, to self-rule for India, and the dependence on the good will of the Indian princes, are another. The great miscalculation of German policy before 1914 was the assumption that the world was waiting to be liberated from British oppression. Instead, enough of the world preferred it to the threat of German hegemony.

An imperial power based on this degree of consent is clearly fragile. It is also one that is dependent on peace. The informality of British imperialism, resting on free trade and devolved government, meant that the Empire was, in the literal, military sense of the word, indefensible. This became evident, not only as the Great War progressed, but through the ideas and propaganda of the pre-war imperialists. The humiliations of the Boer War, the challenge of the German Navy, the deadly industrial competition of ‘made in Germany’, caused an agonising reappraisal of Britain’s role among both Liberals and Conservatives. Joseph Chamberlain’s ‘weary Titan’ speech came only five years after the Diamond Jubilee. Yet the very fact that British politicians and publicists now felt the need for a conscious ideology of imperialism should have been a warning that the end was near. The Empire had risen to greatness by being neither centralised nor militarised: the minute it became either, as the Tariff Reform League and the National Service League respectively advocated, it would acquire burdens it could not sustain. Chamberlainism was the disease for which it was meant to be the cure. It was also – and this no doubt explains why it was an electoral albatross – a threat to the liberal domestic order: the first, though not the last, attempt to organise the British and smarten them up, to make them polish their shoes, get their hair cut and place their thumbs along the seams of their trousers.

That peace was the best, indeed the only sure defence of the Empire was appreciated by British governments. It explains their reluctance to go to war in both 1914 and 1939 and to commit themselves to alliances at other times. Experience confirmed their fears. If the two world wars taught nothing else, it was that to have to defend the Empire was to destroy it. This was graphically illustrated by two aspects of the First World War. The first was the incoherence of British strategy: the dilemma, never satisfactorily resolved, between a ‘Western’ (European) and ‘Eastern’ (imperial) emphasis, options between which even Churchill hesitated. The second, which Lord Blake says little about, was even more important: the end of British financial independence. The war was financed, from an early stage, by American credit. Three years into the war, American money accounted for 40 per cent of British military procurement. On 2 April 1917 – as it happened, four days before America entered the war – Bonar Law, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, confessed to the Cabinet that Britain was down to three weeks’ supply of dollars and negligible reserves of gold. When the money did become available, it was on humiliating conditions: as Kathleen Burk has pointed out, the American Treasury gained a degree of control over British government expenditure that HM Treasury had failed to secure.

The reversal of fortune that the war brought about was permanent, however contrary the appearances. Britain gained territorially at the Peace Conference. Including the League of Nations mandates, more of the map was coloured red than ever before. But the grip on the Empire was more tenuous: consent was dwindling, as Lord Blake emphasises – in Ireland, in India, in Egypt, even in the Dominions that remained ‘loyal’, though increasingly on their own terms. All this was reflected in the rearmament debate of the 1930s.

The financial decline was even more irreversible. When Britain left the gold standard in 1932 with a de facto devaluation against the dollar, it was evident how far the return to gold at the old exchange rate in 1925 had been based on unrealistic assumptions. This, too, was reflected in the rearmament debate.

The 1930s showed how far power had declined, with a public opinion ‘in which the spirits of Scrooge and Good Will on Earth were curiously mingled’, and a government obsessed by the fiscal constraints on defence. Almost every aspect of the debate can be traced to the experience of the war. This was true of the revulsion against war itself, common to politicians and the electorate. It was true in particular of the revulsion against a large-scale war on land, fuelled by memories of the Somme and Passchendaele. It was true above all of the near-consensus at the decision-making level that Britain was over-extended geographically and militarily; that the cost of preparing adequately for war would render the country incapable of waging it effectively. This was spelt out in almost so many words in the report of the Defence Requirements Committee of November 1935. It led the Germans, who had done much the same sums, to make the same mistake as a quarter of a century earlier: to assume that Britain would tolerate German expansion rather than bankrupt herself by resisting it.

The Government eventually decided that the country could afford the unaffordable. It decided – and Churchill recognised this more than any one else – that it was doomed to become the junior partner of the United States in the defence of common interests. Indeed, any attempt to defend the British position in the Far East almost presupposed a major American role. With each stage of the war, the imbalance between British and American resources, and therefore strategic and diplomatic influence, became clearer, while the halting of Lend-Lease once Japan was defeated underlined the economic imbalance. The need to defend the Empire had finished the Empire off: its end, in the years that followed, was fairly graceful, at least compared with the experience of France, Belgium or Portugal.

What else declined, besides external power? Deference, certainly. By 1961, Lord Blake observes, ‘it seemed profitable to attack almost anything’ except the Monarchy. Perhaps it was simply the enforced egalitarianism of the war that undermined the distance between the classes, and would have done even if the terms of victory had been more favourable. But it is surely evident, as we look back, that the ownership of Empire is a domestic cement; and once Empire goes, much else goes with it. This was not lost on perceptive contemporaries. Lord Hugh Cecil remarked in his popular book Conservatism of 1912: ‘It may be said that many men are brought to support the Conservative rather than any other political party, because they believe its policy on foreign and colonial matters are wise and patriotic. Nay, those principles have done more than secure widespread support for the Conservative Party. Conservative policy in foreign and imperial affairs has been largely adopted by the leaders of the Liberal Party ... ’ In so far as a party difference remains, ‘it furnishes an effective ground to Conservatism for claiming the support of the electorate.’ Above all, Conservative policy rests on ‘a belief, essentially religious, in the reality of a national vocation’. George Wyndham, an ardent tariff reformer, saw the alternatives even more clearly a few years earlier: ‘Imperialism which demands Unity at Home between classes’ and ‘Insular Socialism and Class Antagonism’.

In other words, an ideology of Empire is not only a vote-winner for the Right: it shifts the whole agenda of political debate in favour of the Right and strengthens the social and economic structure that the Right supports. Hence the Little Englandism of Radicals, who saw Empire as an obstacle to domestic reform. National pride is a conservative sentiment, which tends to perpetuate the institutions under which the nation has grown great.

This claim might seem to contradict the experience that it is the two world wars that have fuelled the demands for democracy and social reform. But we need to distinguish here between the first and the second. The first may in the long term have accelerated the growth of the Labour Party, but in the short term it strengthened Conservatism. The ‘coupon’ election of 1918 was a vote for the politicians who had won the war, not for ‘a fit country for heroes to live in’. The Labour victory of 1945, on the other hand, was a vote for national introversion, for the primacy of domestic politics over the national grandeur symbolised by Churchill. It was not a positive vote for decolonisation – few electors, one assumes, gave that issue much thought – but one of indifference towards the maintenance of Empire.

The fruits of Britain’s diminution were seen in the satire boom of the 1960s with which Lord Blake closes his account. The end of Empire also meant the end of ‘a whole way of life for the middle-class minority which did the governing’. But the loss of this particular role not only undermined the respect in which the traditional professions were held: it changed the way in which their own members saw their position in society. It also threw into doubt – however temporarily – the proposition that the United Kingdom had a self-evident role as unitary nation-state if it was not to be the homeland of an Empire. Scottish and Welsh nationalism had a long history, but as sentiments, not as a political force. They became a political force only after the end of Empire. Similarly Indian nationalism became irresistible only after the White Man had been beaten by the Yellow Man. True, Irish nationalism had always been a political force – but it was an exception.

Is there a recognisable pattern to the politics of post-Imperial Britain? It is no doubt an oversimplification to attribute all change since 1945, or since the early Sixties, to the end of Empire. One cannot prove that Private Eye or Plaid Cymru would have failed to flourish if Britain were still a great power. The erosion of traditional authority and traditional morality is common to the developed world. Only in the Republic of Ireland, the earliest beneficiary of national liberation, can you not get a divorce, have an abortion, commit sodomy or complain about being thrashed by your schoolmaster. But the removal of the cement of Empire surely helped to loosen the bonds of society and, at the very least, encouraged and accelerated the trends we have witnessed.

Whether the same applies to changes in economic behaviour – and economic policy – is a more complex question. The ‘conversion of the opinion-formers to collectivism and Keynesianism which dominated British politics for a quarter of a century after the end of war and has only recently started to break down’, and to which Lord Blake convincingly attributes the Labour victory of 1945, was a direct product of the war. In all its major components, for that matter, it may be attributed to Churchill. It was he who promoted trade unions to the inner club of decision-makers by the inclusion of Ernest Bevin in the War Cabinet. It was he who agreed, even if unenthusiastically, to the appointment of the Beveridge Committee. He did not like its Report and did not want it published, but that did not stop it from being a characteristic product of the mood of the wartime coalition.

Not only that: one purpose of the so-called post-war consensus was to continue the national unity of the war years and avoid the bitterness of inter-war politics. This was more difficult once the wartime imperatives had been removed. Lord Blake cites middle-class impatience with austerity to make this point; yet it is surprising how much of it survived the 13 Tory years – taxation was high by peacetime standards, ‘stop-go’ made sense only as a commitment to full employment, and the unions were humoured as never before. (One wonders how the myth of beer and sandwiches arose: it was Scotch or nothing, as Lord Stockton’s memoirs make clear.) In Place of Strife was the dog that barked but did not bite; so was Edward Heath’s Selsdon Park programme in the face of the Upper Clyde sit-in of 1972.

As government policy, though not perhaps as public mood, the consensus ended for the same reason as other quiet revolutions in British politics: the threat of an empty till. As Denis Healey told the IMF in the Letter of Intent, ‘an essential element of the Government’s strategy will be a continuing and substantial reduction in the share of resources required for the public sector. It is also essential to reduce the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement in order to create monetary conditions which will encourage investment and secure sustained growth and the control of inflation.’ But the disillusionment had set in before that. At one level, the explanations for that are simple. Governments of either party were not delivering the goods. The scapegoat was pluralist stagnation: a socio-economic Security Council in which every major interest had a veto on any attempt to break out of the vicious circle of uncompetitiveness, slow growth and rising public expenditure. Hence the Tory embracing of monetarism and Labour’s shift to the Left, culminating in the Alternative Economic Strategy.

At another level, the explanations are more complicated and they include the fragmentation of the class structure. There is now a working class in inner cities and the old industrial areas that needs the welfare state – or a welfare state – more than the car workers or dockers of the 1950s ever did: but it is too small to elect its government. There is another, home-owning, package-touring, equipped with modern skills, that has at best a selective and tenuous relationship with the Labour Party as it once was and an even more selective and tenuous one with the Labour Party as it is now.

The once missionary/proconsular middle class has also changed. Some of its members have found a new mission with international organisations or as Eurocrats. Others are happy in old professions that have acquired a new aggressively competitive edge: advertising, banking, publishing. A third category is the product, employee, but also in many ways the owner, of the post-war social service state. It is the beneficiary of educational expansion and the creation of the new ‘caring’ professions. It is meritocratic in its origins though not necessarily in its ideology. It constitutes a stratum that is relatively new to British society, an arriviste intelligentsia, disparagingly and somewhat misleadingly known as the polyocracy. It has probably had more impact on British politics than any of the other new classes. It has supplied quite a lot of the brainpower behind the Thatcher wing of the Conservative Party and quite a lot of the class of ’83 of Tory MPs. But that is small beer compared with its take-over of a great many local Labour Parties and an increasing number of Labour local authorities. It has introduced into British politics a category scarcely known previously, the full-time party activist. My 1973 Concise OED knows ‘militant’ only in its ecclesiastical sense, but the type was presciently described by Moise Ostrogorski seventy years earlier in his Democracy and the Organisation of Political Parties: ‘The zealots of the Caucus do not lose sight of [the Member] for a moment; they scrutinise his votes; they weigh his words. Composed of people whose political faith is more ardent than reflective, the Caucus is always ahead of the Member in the matter of opinions, and it often feels the need of stimulating him, of keeping him up to the mark.’ Thanks to the Caucus, electioneering has ‘been transformed into steady “work”, but performed by a special contingent of “workers” who only sow the seed of the “professional politician” more deeply in the English soil; in society as a whole the political pulse does not beat quicker. On the contrary, in preventing the development of a spontaneous political life by its machinery, the Caucus tends rather to enfeeble the public mind ... By disparaging the qualities which constitute leadership in a healthy political community, that is the personal superiority conferred by knowledge and character ... the Caucus bids fair to set up a government by machine instead of a responsible government by human beings.’

The militant in domestic politics is also the militant in foreign policy, and the test of virtue at the caucus inquisition is often one’s stand on foreign or defence policy. Here the impact of the end of Empire is much more directly visible, as is the unresolved dilemma that is its legacy. When, in the aftermath of Suez, Dean Acheson remarked that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role he caused much offence. But he was, and is, not far off the mark.

One possible role was to substitute Commonwealth for Empire. That soon faded. Another was the European option which, with the passage of time, was narrowed down to membership of the Common Market. It is not a commitment that British history points to: it is one based on reappraisal, not the logic of continuity. It appeals to the committed, not to the man on the Clapham omnibus. The question of membership has nevertheless had a profound effect on domestic politics. More than any other it has contributed to realignment within and between parties. It was the EEC referendum, and the cross-party platforms it generated, that first demonstrated to many politicians that their closest fellow-spirits were not necessarily in their own party.

However, the two foreign policy sentiments that have caught the popular imagination most strongly are both, in their different ways, cries of frustration at our changed power status. One was CND, which curiously gets no mention from Lord Blake. In its first phase, from the late Fifties to the mid-Sixties, it was explicitly role-seeking. Britain was to show the way to the world, persuading others, by example, to lay down their nuclear weapons – the continuation of world leadership by other means. There are few echoes of this in the current CND revival, but it shares one emotion with its predecessor – anti-Americanism. Since 1945, Britain has been dependent on the United States for her defence; since 1948, with nuclear weapons over whose use we have no formal control. Those are facts from which one may draw a number of conclusions, one of them being that this has been a disaster-free arrangement and is likely to go on being so for the reasons that have applied so far. But the subordination of Britain, and her lack of military sovereignty, are undeniable and the physical evidence of it does not become more welcome as American skill at alliance management appears to diminish. Support for CND has many components, but resentment at America’s dominant military role plays a crucial part.

The other sentiment is rearguard imperialism. This is epidemic rather than endemic: for most of the time most people are resigned to the fact that the Empire has gone. Its first important manifestation was at Suez, and the failure of Suez was the first proof for many otherwise observant citizens that Britain was no longer a great power. The most recent was during the Falklands War. Each rested on the feeling that the lion’s tail had been tweaked too often and on relief that the lion was still capable of hitting back. But an essential ingredient of both was suppression of America’s contribution to the eventual outcome. In 1957 it was the American Government’s threat to sell sterling that convinced the Cabinet that withdrawal was the only option. In 1983 the military skill of the expeditionary force would have been of little avail without American intelligence, American supplies and American diplomatic support.

One would have to be a monomaniac to press every current British problem into the post-imperial mould. But the ghost of Empire, if not omnipresent, is around. As good an illustration of that as any is the political agenda that Mrs Thatcher has presented. She is the first prime minister to have grown up in peacetime. (She was 19 in 1945; Wilson was 29, Heath 27.) In domestic policy she caught a dominant public mood with the questions she asked: in particular, when she asked whether we could still afford many of the habits and institutions we had acquired in more spacious times. What one thinks of her answers is another matter. In foreign policy the search for a role has made no progress under her. She has gained nothing from her flattery of President Reagan or from banging the table at Brussels. The Falklands recipe cannot be applied anywhere else, whether Hong Kong or Gibraltar. One looks in vain for a part of the globe where we are taken more seriously or trusted more than in 1979. To say that the decline of power has not yet ended would be misleading. It implies that there is no direction in which British influence could ever be increased. What is true is that the process of adjustment, at home and abroad, is not yet complete. At home, it is likely to be more successful through coaxing than through bullying: does one really lead Britain towards the year 2000 by offending the schools and the universities and the Civil Service and bringing the BBC out on strike? Abroad, it asks for honest acknowledgement of our limitations and obligations: who is impressed by a bombastic opponent or a capricious friend?