How We Got to Where We Are

Peter Ghosh

  • Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 by Peter Clarke
    Allen Lane, 454 pp, £25.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 7139 9071 6

In 1987, David Cannadine concluded an essay on what he saw as the dark and doubtful state of British history with a call to ‘fashion a new version of the national past which can regain its place in our general national culture, and become once again an object of international interest’. A job application posted through the unusual medium of a scholarly journal? I doubt it, but it may be that this essay found its way onto a desk at Penguin Books, leading to Cannadine’s appointment, in 1988, as general editor of the new Penguin History of Britain. Eight years on – two years longer than it took to commission and publish the entire series of the old Pelican History of England (1949-55) – we see the first fruits of the appointment.

It goes without saying that Peter Clarke’s volume is all his own, but it stands nonetheless in the shadow of the General Editor. Not only has Cannadine issued a prospectus to go with the new series, re-stating those views which supply the criteria by which it is to be measured, but Clarke’s volume is by far the most central to his call for historians to resume their (apparently) neglected function – to supply the nation with a vision of its past which is both ‘usable and very relevant in contemporary Britain’. In Cannadine’s view, the old Sixties paradigm of history was ‘a welfare-state version of the past’: this inevitably places a burden on the interpreter of the welfare state under the new dispensation.

What then of the new dispensation? Cannadine’s assumption that one can re-create the wider general audience that read G.M. Trevelyan or the old Pelican History simply by trying harder is reminiscent of Norman Tebbit on the unemployed or Mrs Shephard on state education – wishful thinking (and ahistorical). Revealingly, the old Pelican series, which Cannadine himself describes as exemplary, observed what was then a well-established convention whereby ‘history’ stopped before the period central to living memory, i.e. in 1914. The volume on England in the 20th Century (1964) was a distinctly inadequate afterthought, suggesting that the commitment of the original series either to the welfare state or to vibrant contemporaneity was limited. A cultural analogue of the Land Rover, its real rationale was more rough and ready: indeed, it must be one of the few multi-volume publishing ventures to have originated as a golden handshake. When Allen Lane sacked the original editor, Jack (‘Master of None’) Morpurgo, from Penguin Books, he offered him the commission for the History as a sweetener. (Morpurgo’s chief historical qualification was a joyous amateurism.) In sprightly contrast to the portentousness of today, Morpurgo supplied a 14-line Editorial Note, pointing out that ‘each volume has been written by a specialist, and each author has been left to decide what he himself considers significant and interesting ... the business of discovering comparison and conclusion, and of adapting the lessons of history to our own times, is left, for the most part, to the reader.’

If, then, the Pelican History was a success, and much of it was, it owed little to a conscious attempt at coherence imposed from above. Coherence came rather from the common understanding of the English national past (the ‘Whig’ interpretation of history in the strict sense) which was diffused through all levels of the cultural community – writers, teachers, readers. What made the series so successful was, above all, the colossal commercial advantage Penguin enjoyed at the time in its virtual world monopoly of serious paperback publishing.

Still, if Cannadine rejects the ‘Whig’ model, he does offer another agenda. The progressive ‘welfare-state’ version of history (he suggests) has been overtaken by the fact of decline, political, imperial, military and economic, a fact which must be squarely confronted if we are to avoid retreating into that ‘sanitised, Ruritanian version of our past called “the national heritage” ’. Beyond that, he invokes national identity, that panacea which is to the Nineties what ‘structure’ was to the Annalistes or ‘relations of production’ to Marx. By this he means two things: first, the new History must be consciously British, and secondly (borrowing from Winston Churchill), it should focus on Britain’s world position primarily with reference to the ‘three circles’ of Europe, the Empire and the United States. This is no doubt unoriginal, and some of it is confused; but it does supply a beginning from which a contemporary interpretation of British history might spring.

For this reason Peter Clarke’s book comes as something of a shock since, apart from a brief Prologue and Epilogue (to which I shall return), it is written as if neither Cannadine nor any of this general historiographical context existed. What it offers instead is an efficient and intelligent digest of a large body of material, albeit within limits: its core is a narrative description of British political economy in the 20th century as seen from the ‘top’, which is what one might have expected from the author’s previous publications. The book offers many insights and felicities of detail. The exposition of British-American financial relations under Attlee is beautifully clear (too much so), and the pursuit of this theme in subsequent chapters revealing – at least to the old-style Pelican reader willing to make the comparison and draw their own conclusions. Again, to anyone familiar with the hoary old debate regarding the decline of the Liberal Party – to what extent was it inevitable? – the way Clarke clinches his points is rather like watching a bridge player making his tricks with an effortless (one might almost say Asquithian) competence.

These considerable virtues do not suffice, however. The intended (lay or student) readership will not be familiar with past debates and will not realise that there is an interpretative crux here. One of the curiosities of the great spillage of ink on the Liberal and Labour Parties in the years 1890-1930 was that the longer-term consequences of the supersession of the Liberals were hardly analysed: either there were such consequences, or else the switch from Liberal to Labour was just a switch of party labels – in which case the debate was largely a waste of time. Yet despite Clarke’s pre-eminent qualifications to address the point, there is no such analysis here. The informed reader will come across stray remarks – for example, the description of Gaitskell as ‘a social democrat seeking a relevant role for Labour once it had exhausted its historic mission by mid-century’ – which might supply the germ of a larger interpretation, but neither the historic mission of the Labour Party nor the lower-case, pre-1981 ‘social democrat’ is ever defined.

The treatment of Conservatism is equally inscrutable. Macmillan emerges as one of Clarke’s few personal dislikes, a sneak and something of a reactionary: his vision ‘had been decisively formed in a previous era’. But the focus on personality obscures what is by far the outstanding novelty in the history of 20th-century Conservatism: its switch from being the party of low inflation, of the rentier and salaried professional – as it had been in the years 1920-60 and was to be again after 1975 – to being a party of industrial ‘modernisation’ and relatively high inflation. One might wish to question Macmillan’s personal significance (or even this sketch of 20th-century Conservatism, commonplace as it is), but we can’t, since the broader picture has been lost sight of in the unexplained succession of events. This is a history where the political weather changes, the sun goes in, winds blow, moods change, foci shift and things ‘happened, of course’. That it has been assembled by a professional academic is clear from its erudition, but its focus remains journalistic.

Understandably, then, the gestures made at an overall synthesis are perfunctory, and here we come to the curious tale of the Prologue and the Epilogue. In the Prologue, consistent with the title of the book, the author informs us that to centre the history of Britain on the theme of decline would be ‘understandable but myopic’. To be sure, decline has taken place but a ‘different kind of historical reckoning’ is also possible, a reckoning based on the fact that people in 1990 had longer and perhaps happier lives than those in 1900; that there was less disease, better food, more pay, contraception, enhanced women’s rights, better education, a state safety net and adequate medical treatment for all. This has a familiar ring – it is the ‘welfare state’ version of British history. It is a perfectly legitimate perspective, with much to commend it; a perspective which has lain at the heart of all Peter Clarke’s previous work, on ‘new’ Liberalism before 1914, and Keynes and ‘progressivism’ thereafter. But we may wonder what the General Editor had to say when he read these pages: his response is perhaps to be found in the Epilogue, which is a mismatch of comic proportions. Here the idea that ‘the rise of the welfare state simply compensated for the decline of the British Empire’ is brusquely scouted; on page 402 ‘the issue of decline’ is no longer to be avoided; on page 403 it is established that ‘the most obvious missed opportunity’ of the 20th century was Britain’s failure to enter Europe in the Fifties – and with this the book ends.

This is not so much disturbing in itself as for what it portends: the renunciation of any attempt to argue out a synthetic perspective in the book as a whole. Since this is the whole point of the project, it is worth considering why this might be. A mundane explanation is possible. In the spirit of the old Pelican History, Clarke may have seen it as his primary imperative to get the book out and onto the shelves within a reasonable time-frame; if it does not serve the public function that Cannadine called for, no matter – there have been vastly less competent textbooks than this one. Another possibility is that the Prologue and Epilogue really are what they seem: they betray such a fundamental clash of perspective between the author and General Editor that the sort of synthesis Clarke wished to offer, hingeing on Keynes and the welfare state, was ruled out ab initio. A third suggestion (which might accompany, or lurk behind, the others) is that the Liberal-progressive-Keynesian perspective is only partially adequate if one wants to wrestle with the problem of British ‘decline’.

The bald fact of the matter is that ‘decline’ as we perceive it today is not primarily a matter of objective, material decline: it is a cultural construct. In his Prologue, Clarke suggests that in 1900 the three symbols and pillars of British power were the Navy, the Empire and the gold standard. But even in 1900 this would have been an optimistic view. It was just at this point (1895-1902) that British diplomacy was forced to acknowledge its reliance on the Japanese and American Navies – that is, on the arrangement formalised by the Washington agreements in the Twenties. The Empire (meaning really the White Dominions) was never primarily a power base: it was an anglophone cultural community, which, most importantly, could not exclude the United States. The Colonies and Dominions (as well as the US) were free to levy tariffs against Britain while, in return, the British taxpayer didn’t spend a brass farthing on them. This was as true in 1860 as it was in 1930, and the so-called transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth, or, a fortiori, the shedding of the new, black Empire by the 1960s, were thus predictable and relatively minor transitions. Finally, as every undergraduate knows, British economic decline is a phenomenon waiting to come into the open during the debates on tariff reform after 1903. Underlying all of this, however, is the fact that talk of British ‘supremacy’ or the pax Britannica in the 19th century is so much hype, created to offset the idea of ‘decline’. When Germany was unified in 1871, the balance of power in Europe was destroyed and Britain could do nothing about it, as Disraeli recognised. In this fundamental respect, the power-political situation of Europe was the same then as it is today, and talk of material ‘decline’ is exaggerated.

The point can be verified by reflecting on subsequent developments. The perceived inadequacy of our economic performance is a very recent phenomenon. For example, the comparative performance of the inter-war economy was, on the face of it, an obvious target for theories of decline of the sort made familiar by Martin Wiener and Corelli Barnett, but it was only (as Clarke notes) damned in hindsight. At the time, unemployment was endured with a stoicism whose obvious counterpart lay in Victorian England – in the Lancashire cotton famine of the 1860s. It was only c.1960 that the performance of the European economies became a matter of notice here – hence the remarkable shift in Conservative politics that I mentioned earlier (mirrored in Labour politics, too) – and only under Heath that economic ‘failure’ to modernise became factored into a long preceding discourse of decline. Anyway (as we are beginning to realise), the great European boom is now over, and Britain’s economic performance is moving in parallel with Europe’s.

We need a different starting point, and this could indeed be ‘national identity’. The ‘Britishness’ of the new series – the interrelation of England, Scotland and Wales – was much touted. Clarke’s reaction was effectively to ignore the point – which was excellent sense in its way. There was very little significant interrelation before the Scottish devolution movement of the Seventies, since, before that date, almost all Scots were Unionists (not to speak of the Welsh, who did not even have a legislative Union to repeal). What all these arguments tend to obscure, however, is the fact that the hegemonic power and identity in Britain was England’s. It may have been bad taste for the English to assume that ‘England’ and ‘Britain’ were synonymous, but it was substantially true, and the Scots bought into it after 1707 just as emphatically as the Irish after 1800 did not. And if we ask what the core component of this identity was, the answer is equally plain: it is the much maligned ‘Whig’ interpretation of history, the celebration of England as the unique home of liberty, thanks to a unique set of political institutions, and with a unique historical record to back up these claims. It is primarily this England which has declined in the 20th century; and although it and the ancient Parliamentary Constitution which lies at its core are far from extinct, the shift in title from the Pelican History of England to the Penguin History of Britain is one small and late symptom of it.

What are the requirements of such a history? First, a proper sympathy with the discourse of the ‘Constitution’, which remained so central in the first half of this century. In Clarke’s instinctive redescription of Constitutional issues as having to do with mere power-holding, and in that sense no different from any other form of politics, we hear the true voice of the onetime SDP local organiser, rightly disenchanted with a Parliamentary Constitution which is not merely ancient but obsolete and which for the last twenty years has grotesquely failed to represent the wishes or interests of the people of Britain. But to apply the same point of view to England/Britain before 1945 is a fundamental anachronism. A related problem lies in Clarke’s references to Britain and Europe. There is no comparative dimension to this series, but that is surely a second major requirement for a modern British history. What we get instead is a casual assumption that British institutions and culture after 1945 broadly resembled those of other ‘OECD countries’ (a revealing frame of reference), even in cases, such as the structure of universities and law reform, where this is palpably untrue. No doubt this reflects the bien-pensant Europhilia of today (which I share), but it is not history. English/British institutional uniqueness was not a Whig myth, but a fact: our law and institutions are not like those of the Continent.

Third, we need a proper periodisation. The 20th century necessarily falls into two halves, pre- and post-1945: A.J.P. Taylor was right to call the final chapter of his famous English History 1914-45, ‘Ending’. It is for the same reason that so much popular history in this country remains fixated on the Forties to an extent which seems indecent in Europe, where they find it hard to understand that this is a sign of difficulty, not simply of pigheadedness.

Before 1945, the ‘ancient Constitution’ was already obsolescent in that, with the arrival of universal suffrage, its uniqueness began to be eroded. However, in a world threatened, on the one hand, by Bolshevism, on the other, by Fascism, the British still had a unique claim to be (in Taylor’s famous words) ‘a peaceful and civilised people, tolerant, patient and generous’. It is typical of Clarke’s present-day focus that he doesn’t mention the sixty thousand refugees from Central Europe who came to Britain in the Thirties, and who were for so long the most outspoken witnesses to that claim – a claim which reached its apex in 1940, when Britain ‘stood alone’. Clarke wonders at (and rightly admires) the apparent irrationality of British opinion, seeking to fight on in an apparently hopeless situation. But the perception of ‘decline’ was not then established, except to a degree at the high political level: to have given in would have been to contravene the Whig national idea, on which Baldwin, Churchill, and both National Governments all drew so heavily: 1940 was not simply a question of ‘history in the making’, but of the history which had already been made. If there is a cruelty in 20th-century British history, it is that the old identity found its highest justification just before it became obsolescent: the only way forward thereafter lay in the abandonment of ‘standing alone’. There was no space for a gradual transition of the sort Whig doctrine itself required.

After 1945 ‘decline’ becomes less equivocal. In the erosion of a traditional identity one component – ‘Europe’ – is by now all too familiar, and the account given here of ‘Britain and Europe’ is a tired one. The moral, however and here we come to a fourth requirement for a history of 20th-century Britain – is to go beyond high political narrative. Politics must be set in its wider cultural and discursive context. In this respect British attitudes to Germany are central, since the great question that we had (and have) to solve was how to accommodate post-1871 Germany in Europe on a peaceful rather than coercive footing. Typically, however, Clarke describes Emeric Pressburger’s film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), as ‘a very gentle satire’, firmly setting it in the domestic context supplied by the cartoonist Low: in fact, it is a profound, even exceptional meditation on ‘English’ and German identities and their interrelation. It is wholly of its time in confronting what had then emerged as ‘the German problem’: the problem posed by Hitler’s forcible dissolution of the Europhilia underlying Britain’s willingness peacefully to revise the Treaty of Versailles; the problem which was so important to the Bevanites in the Fifties; and the problem which confronts us anew with the demolition of the Berlin Wall – a problem which cannot be assessed (as here) simply as part of the balance-sheet of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘achievements’. Some might describe the ignorance of this dimension in a history of Britain avowedly written ‘for our day’ as culpable: it certainly shows the unyielding strength of Little Englishness, or Little Britishness, in our historical consciousness.

A second and much more ambiguous force making for the dissolution of the traditional ‘English’ identity was America. On the one hand, we have a country which – especially if we wind the clock back fifty years – was apparently like ours in both its institutions and its popular culture. The extraordinary American penetration of our popular music and cinema after 1918 was not due simply to British inadequacy, but a result of generic likeness – the reverse penetration of the US by British rock music from the Sixties was another spectacular manifestation of this. In addition, it was the Americans (above all) who saved us in 1917 and again in 1941. Such is the basis of the ‘special relationship’, and of the Churchillian way after 1940 – something not to be captured by Mrs Thatcher’s frolics on the White House lawn.

Against the whole-hearted embrace of so much of American life stand various forms of reticence. Clarke occasionally records protests by Orwell and Richard Hoggart against the Americanisation of popular culture, but he does not discuss their significance, even though anti-Americanism was not confined to the cultural pundits. Thus we have the curious fact that, on the face of it, the Americans who came to help save us from Hitler did not enjoy especial popularity; that, to this day, a significant strand in informed British opinion would have it that Soviet Russia ‘won the war’ – an opinion that goes back to 1943, though it is hardly well-founded. In the same way, the Cold War in which Britain enjoyed a role roughly equivalent to that of Turkey, Poland or Romania – was never taken up culturally in Britain, aversion to Communism not with standing. These subjects are absent here.

Suez may have been the most potent manifestation of the coercive embrace of our nearest cultural relative but the founding of Nato – effectively, our first entry into ‘Europe’ – had preceded it. The ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent may have had cultural significance as a late salute to English ‘peculiarity’, but strategically it was always an irrelevance.

The last word might be that to write contemporary ‘history’ is well-nigh impossible, and that to write a history of Britain through to 1990 is an aggravated case, since in so many areas we don’t know where we stand, amid the extraordinary tangle of a Whiggish past and an anglophone and European present. Put that way, who would willingly change places with Professor Clarke? And yet, David Cannadine’s call for ‘wide discussion’, ‘broad generalisations’, ‘structural coherence’ and ‘humanistic perspective’ in the construction of national history is unimpeachable; and if we do not engage in debate – a debate so far sorely lacking the discipline, control and enhanced perspective that the ‘professional historian’ can alone supply – we abdicate our public function.