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.

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