Warfare and Welfare

Paul Addison

  • The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation by Correlli Barnett
    Macmillan, 359 pp, £14.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 333 35376 5
  • The Great War and the British People by J.M. Winter
    Macmillan, 360 pp, £25.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 333 26582 3

Everyone knows that over the past century Britain has declined as a great power. But Correlli Barnett is one of the very few historians with a compelling, personal vision of the reasons why. Most of us assume that in a general way the process was inevitable, since the Empire was too big, and the economy too small, to sustain the role of a great power in the 20th century. Barnett, however, believes the decline could have been arrested or even reversed but for the peculiar decadence and irresponsibility of the British governing class.

His latest book, a swingeing attack on the social and economic policies of the Churchill coalition from 1940 to 1945, is best understood as Part Two of the Barnett Report on What’s Wrong with Britain. In Part One, The Collapse of British Power, published in 1972, he traced the imperial, military and diplomatic descent of this country from the Victorian era to the defeat of France in 1940. It was no accident, Barnett argued, that British governments made so many disastrous mistakes, culminating in the ill-starred policy of fair play for Hitler. There was a fundamental cause in the cultural history of the élite: the triumph of Victorian values.

According to Barnett, the rot set in with Evangelical Christianity and the Romantic Revolt. The 18th-century ruling class had been hard-headed realists, competing with a will in the world-wide struggle for trade and colonies. But the moral revolution of the early 19th century gradually divorced the governing class from realpolitik and immersed them in a dream world of philanthropy and humanitarianism. Victorian values, the opium of the bourgeoisie, were instilled by the public schools, whence generations of idealistic young men emerged in a state of permanently arrested development, their minds befuddled by cricket, Christianity and the Classics. Incapable of grasping the base motivation of the rest of the human race – the French, for example – they were no less ignorant of industry, science and technology, the foundations of Britain’s military and economic strength. The governing class were, in short, unfit to govern. Instead of organising the resources of the Empire in the national interest, they ran it as a branch of Toynbee Hall. Instead of adapting the educational system to fit the requirements of a nation competing for markets, they indulged in the fraudulent exercise, much trumpeted by Classics dons, of liberal humanism for the masses.

Part One of the Barnett Report dealt with the illusions of external policy, and ended with Churchill handing over the title-deeds of Empire to Roosevelt under the impression that Americans were allies. In The Audit of War Barnett’s critique of the British Establishment is unchanged, but this time he applies it to the management of the British war economy from 1939 to 1945. He has written a provocative and important book that will shift the terms of historical debate: but I doubt if he proves his case.

The book opens with a startling and paradoxical thesis. The long post-war industrial decline of Britain can be attributed, according to Barnett, to the events of the war years. Although the demands of war production revealed appalling deficiencies in industry, these were concealed behind the façade of victory. The Establishment mind, confronted with a choice between the dictates of realism and the temptations of romance, opted once more for romance. Instead of facing the facts and planning ahead for the Cruel Real World (as a Treasury minute put it in 1944), the élite ran after the Brave New World promised by the Beveridge Report. But this, of course, proved to be illusory: having added one more burden to the sinking ship of industry, the Brave New World was fated to go down with it: a dream, so Barnett writes, ‘turned to the dank reality of a segregated, subliterate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalised proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism’.

The inefficiency of key wartime industries like coal, or aircraft production, has been well documented in the past. But in Barnett’s hands the issue takes on a head of steam it never had before. From the files of the production departments he has compiled a dossier crammed with damning evidence of the British Disease. Here are tanks that boiled their crews like lobsters, forgotten fighters and bombers that posed no threat to the enemy but terrified the RAF, unions whose restrictive practices impeded war production, managers who muddled through in ignorance of modern business methods, and industries starved of skilled and scientific manpower. No wonder British industry suffered from low productivity, and was already dependent upon imports for the most advanced technology in electronics and engineering. Surveying the prospects for post-war exports, the Board of Trade had good reason to fear the revival of competition from Germany and Japan.

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